She continued on her arduous journey, pain nipping at her like winter's cold, its intensity growing till she felt like her body was engulfed in it. Yet she persevered, her person marking out a lone figure in the darkness of the night and the shadows of the trees.
Time wore on her as she continued, her pace slowing gradually until she was trudging ahead. A far distance she had travelled, but this journey took one full sunrise, even on a bullock cart, drawn by the hardiest of animals. The Vepanur forest was large and ambling, its mysteries contained within its reaches. That was a sure fact, but it was a fact that she ignored as she stumbled on, the staff in her hands now reduced to a walking aid. She had walked now for hours, but the exhaustion would not relinquish its hold on her.
Food was not a problem for her. She had an almost sixth-sense when it came to finding edible wild plants, having resorted to them when times were more difficult. But she needed rest, and so she gave in to the exhaustion. She was comforted by the fact that Vrissan would alert her if there was any matter of concern.
She continued her journey in much better spirits after the brief respite from the exhaustion the sleep had provided her. It was dawn by the time she reached the edge of the forest, the horizon marked by a sight for sore eyes: the gates of Amaravathi. She was finally at the big city. Seeing her destination certainly put Kuri in a good mood, one suited to through the last of the thinning trees, she asked Vrissan, "Why do you have all these runes carved into your body? They are in a language I have never seen before."
"They are from an older language, spoken by peoples belonging to a time when magic ran rampant."
"Bah, magic doesn't exist. Nonsense words spoken by soothsayers to shake the spirits out of a 'possessed' person, tufts of hair and bone from a witch doctor buried in your field to ward off progress? You can give me all the riches in the world as a bribe and I would still tell you it was all utter crap."
She waited for a reply but none came. Suddenly, the staff started shrinking, until it became a wooden rod the size of her palm. "How did you do that!" She exclaimed, staring at the small block of wood in her hand, small enough to put in her pocket.
"The runes on my body let me do that. One of my past companions has called them..." Vrissan sounded like he was suppressing disdain. "Upgrades."
"Maybe you could teach me some of them. Might be useful…" She paused as she thought of the possibilities. It would be so easy to get rid of pests that plagued the crops back home...
"And here I thought you didn't believe in magic?"
"I am talking to a piece of wood so maybe I am right in suspending my disbelief." She gave a shrug.
"Watch it, youngblood. This piece of wood helped you escape the fate of a prison cell. And even if you wanted, you couldn't use any runes. They will not work for you anymore."
"There's simply no more magic in today's day and age. None, none at all, to give them the power to work."
"Didn't you just say that you used magic? To shrink?"
"I do have some magic leftover from long ago. I use it sparingly."
Kuri still felt unconvinced, and more than a little confused."I really shouldn't have asked anything, should I?"
Vrissan gave a noncommittal sound.
Kuri had now fully exited the forest, and was walking on the one of the well traveled paths towards the city. She could see the city gates ahead. In just a minute, she would be at the gates. She felt hesitant at the thought.
"Do you…" Kuri began. "Do you think they'll still be out there looking for me? But I'm not worth so much that they'll come here looking for me, right? I only hit one of them after all…"
Vrissan sighed. "It's easier to get caught when you look like you're doing something wrong, youngblood. Look confident, like you are supposed to be here, and everyone will be none the wiser."
"You're right. I did do nothing wrong, after all. I simply protected myself."
"That is the way to think! Go on now, youngblood."
Controlling her breathing, Kuri walked toward the open gates with purpose in her steps. A long line of people were already streaming in through the gates, at which Kuri was not surprised. Amaravathy was the largest city in this part of the country, and people would have travelled from the surrounding towns and villages to see the Harvest Festivities. The princess from Caliyira would have drawn greater crowds than previous years, too. Kuri joined the lines, full of voices speaking one over another.
The woman behind her began a conversation with another person in line. "Do you know why it's taking so long to let us in today?"
"They are looking for some murderer, I heard. Some village girl snapped and killed one of the landlord's men. I suppose they don't want anything unpleasant to happen. Not when they have the Harvest Festival and royal visitors over. So they're being real uptight about security." The man replied. "Good riddance, I say. Those henchmen for hire are no-good hooligans."
Her interest stoked, Kuri turned to the lady behind her and asked, "Do you where that happened?"
"I heard it happened not far from here, actually. In one of the villages on the other side of the Vepanur forest."
Kuri was not one to make a habit of cursing, but at that moment she really wanted to let loose a stream of them.
"Are you okay dear? You look a bit sick," The lady continued. "Is it the heat that is bothering you?"
"I'm alright," Kuri barely managed to choke out, although the lady still did not look convinced. "Thanks for asking."
"Was it that, that man who died? That man who raided my house? But I only kicked him, and not hard enough to, uh, to kill him! It could not have done that! I'm not a murderer! I-"
Suddenly, Kuri realised that Vrissan was silent, even in the middle of her tirade. Realisation dawned upon her, and fury replaced some of her fear. "This was you, wasn't it! You knocked him on his skull, and that ended him! But now everyone has me tagged as a killer! Don't you have anything to say! You, you piece of, of-"
"No, no, it cannot be! Not unless…"
"What are you saying?"
"My lady, I am deeply sorry. The queen who first wielded me… She had spells cast on me to ensure that I would never be lost, separated from her descendants. One of those mantras curses anyone that tries to take me away from the rightful wielder."
"So you used it on him? Why would you-"
Vrissan replied, frustration evident in his voice. "I didn't use it on him. It's… Involuntary, you could say. Like jerking away when you accidentally touch something hot."
"It still works? I thought magic didn't work anymore? You were the one who said it!"
"It should not have. I do not understand this at all. Not unless-"
"I don't know where you are going with this. And I don't care," Kuri said, anger coursing through her blood. "And you're wrong. That's not the curse."
"Causing harm to anyone who tries to take you away is not a curse. The only real curse here is your existence!" She exploded, the frustration being released as if from a dam.
"I know you are not happy with me, but my existence is a curse. You are just reiterating that fact."
"If not for my mother's request to protect you, I would have thrown you away."
"You can, if you would like. There's another rune etched on me that always returns me to the rightful wielder. And if magic works now, that would work too."
Kuri groaned. "Why is it so important that I have to keep you? What did I do so wrong in my past life? To deserve all this!" She wanted to hit her forehead in frustration.
"I am bound by vow to follow the descendants of the queen until one of them releases me. That is why it is important that you do not dispose of me."
Kuri almost physically reeled from the shock, but she kept herself reined in."I'm one of them? That's why I have to go through all this trouble?"
"I suppose so, yes."
"Not like that is my worst nightmare."
"My following you around until you die?"
"First of all, I won't keep you that long. I'll release you before that-
"Generations have tried. And you think you'll be the one to accomplish that feat?"
Ignoring his jibe, Kuri continued. "And no, my worst nightmare is that I am somehow descended from royalty."
"Why does that displease you so?"
Before she could respond, one of the guards called her over and Kuri stepped forward. "Where do you come from?" The guard asked. Kuri kept her expression as innocent as possible as she lied, "Why, I hail from the town of Chelu, slightly up north! Have you heard of it?"
The guard gave her a withering look. "Just go in." She said as she gestured towards the open gates. Kuri started for the entrance, when the guard stopped her again. "Wait. If you have come down all the way from Chelu as you said, where are your bags? And why have you come alone?"
"Uh… I actually came ahead of my family to let my relatives know that we were arriving soon." Kuri said. She had actually done that many times before, so it wasn't hard to think of.
"And your bags?"
"My bags, actually- "Stolen" yes, my bags were stolen on the way here. Unfortunate, aren't I?" She looked pitifully at the guard, her face twisting into a pout. "And now I don't have food or money. Please let me go see my aunt?"
Heaving a sigh and looking disinterested, the guard waved her past. Kuri grinned, thoroughly relieved. One victory was better than none.
She walked into the big city at last.
She headed toward the marketplace, her aunt's house being situated right next to it. She almost wanted to stretch out her journey; for she had no idea where to go after. She could not stay there forever. They would catch up to her if she stayed too long.
Perhaps if she hid from their eyes long enough, they would forget about her.
She wanted to scream to the heavens, in the middle of that busy street, let the tears flow from her eyes until all the fiery pain in her soul was extinguished. Until every flame of anguish that licked at her so insidiously was stamped out, banished into the void of her subconscious where it belonged.
She could feel the sob rising in her throat. She pushed past the throng of people in the street, bounding into a quiet alleyway and let the emotions take over her everything. Once she had been a normal farm girl, whose only purpose in life was looking after her family. Now she was tagged as a murderer and forced to be on the run. She had blood on her hands, even though she had had no part in it.
It was a long time before she quieted, wiping the last of the wetness from her face.
"I am not sure that my speaking is a good thing, but I apologise for causing you so much grief. I assure you, it was not of my own will. If that gives you any comfort at all."
"I give you my word now, my lady. I will not cause you hurt any longer. My companionship will be your asset, starting from this moment."
"Thank you." Kuri sighed. "Vrissan, I must fix this somehow."
"So you can finally go back to your family. I understand."
"That is not the crux of my problem."
"Then what is?"
"It's the fact that people think of me as a killer now. As someone who would swing a weapon and hurt, no, take a life, without second thoughts. As someone who has no mercy in their heart and no control in their fists. Never in my life did I think I would be branded as such. I may not have taken that man's life, but I have his blood on my hands."
"My lady, I-"
"I have faith that one day I'll be reunited with my family. But will I ever clear my name? Will I ever regain my honour? That man was not a saint, but he would have had family too." Kuri put her head in her hands. "I am ruined."
"These are difficult questions to answer.."
Kuri sighed. It was no use to dwell on her grief. She had to live in the present, even if her heart told her not to."I'm sorry, Vrissan."
"Why the sudden apology?"
"I should not have told you that your existence was a curse, no matter how angry I was. I don't want to hurt you."
"And yet again I must tell you, you are stating a fact, youngblood."
"It's not a fact. Your existence is not a curse. Not to all the people whom you've loved. Or the people who've loved you in return."
Vrissan said nothing in return, but he did not need to. Looking ahead at the mildewed wall in front of her, she got up and dusted herself off. She had to survive this. She owed it to her family to see this through.
She walked back into the street, and now that she had achieved a modicum of calm, she was able to fully appreciate her surroundings. As she walked further and further into the city, she could not help but take in all the sights and sounds of the city. She had come here many times before, but Amaravathi never failed to leave an impression on her every time.
The central bazaar, snaking its way from the heart of the city into almost every street, the owners of the shops contained within it claiming every bit of space, every crevice, every nook they could to set down their wares. Miles high of fine muslin cloth piled high upon each other, baskets of spices that scented the air with their dizzying array of fragrances. One row of shops were all selling goods made of wicker: cots and chairs and baskets of a delightful range of sizes. Kuri gazed especially longingly at the food stalls. She loved uekari, the stringy flatbread that was baked with generous amounts of ghee slathered into its many folds. A glass of spiced tea, hot and steaming, would go perfectly with it. She sighed as her belly growled. Of course she was ravenously hungry, having had nothing but wild roots since she ran away. She had last eaten the night before, and the sun seemed to be halfway to reaching the peak of its ascent.
"Don't suppose you have some magical rune that allows you to make food, does it?" She asked Vrissan.
"That would go against the laws of magic. Even if it has somehow come back. Your wish would be better taken care of by some deity, if you meditated on their name for a thousand years." Vrissan replied.
"Of course you don't have anything helpful." Kuri snarked, leaning against the wall of a house on the street, still staring at the cooks artfully sliding each piece of dough onto the wood-fired grill.
"Well, youngblood, it seems that nothing short of tapping you on the shoulder and tackling you to the floor will get you to notice any solutions right in front of you."
"Please speak something that I can actually understand, Vrissan." Kuri could feel the high handed exasperation that Vrissan always seem to radiate when he talked to her, and she huffed in her annoyance. She preferred not to snap at people, but it was hard to control her urge to do so when she was so endlessly tired and hungry.
"Go ask them if they need any help and if they do, they can pay you in food. They seem to have plenty, too. Gods above, it has been years since I sat down for a meal-
Kuri did not hear the rest of what he said as she asked the hawker manning the front, a harried little lady who looked annoyed to be bothered by someone with no coin, if they needed any help. Before the lady could say anything, a loud clatter of metal sounded behind them, a scrawny young boy having knocked over a stack of brass tumblers with the giant piece of firewood that he had been rolling. The lady began yelling at him, catching ahold of his ear and twisting it. Sighing, Kuri picked up the the firewood, moving it into the fire before stepping out. Clearly they were too busy to notice her. She was about to step back onto the street when she felt a hand grab her by the arm. She looked back at the shop-owner who had grabbed her.
"You seem to be stronger than you look, girl. I have some wood that needs splitting out back. Needs to be done before evening. Think you can handle it? I'll feed you in return. Nothing more, nothing less."
Kuri nodded vigorously. Another small victory on her belt.
She spent the rest of the morning clearing the pile of wood, and making a even larger pile of neatly stacked wood, ready to be used. She also helped clean the large metal cylinders used for storage. As promised, the shop owner fed her in return for her work: a stack of the flatbreads with generous ladlefuls of gravy. Kuri sighed in contentment, polishing off the meal in seconds. The shop owner nodded in approval of her clear appreciation of the food, and sent her on her way.
Belly full, and heart contented, Kuri walked at a leisurely pace. She could hear Vrissan in the back of her head humming an old tune, a forgotten little ditty. She smiled and listened quietly as she walked towards the central marketplace, since she could only remember how to go to the slums from there. Now that she felt slightly more at peace, she ambled, watching the people on the streets as they went about their lives.
Suddenly, a large mass of people, their combined voices cacophonous, pushed past her, opposite to the direction she was walking in. Almost as if they were all in a hurry to get away from whatever was before her.
Kuri pushed past them, trying to continue walking in the same direction as she was. "You are not immediately supposed to run towards whatever these people are running from!" Vrissan said disbelievingly. "Whatever it is, I want to know what is going on!" She replied. The stream of people were getting thinner and she was able to pick up the pace. "I can't imagine the trouble Mira and Prem went through to raise you! Not when you run towards trouble!" Kuri almost stopped when she heard the names of her parents, but carried herself forward. She decided to ignore Vrissan until she found out what the people were running from. And it seemed like she was getting close, as she heard loud chanting coming from the intersection at the end of the street she was on, and crowds of people marching past. She climbed the stairs of a nearby house, running onto the rooftop balcony to get a better visual of what was going on below.
Raised fists in the air, men and women with work-worn clothes, and angry chanting. "We won't stop walking!" A man chanted from the front of the crowd."We won't stop walking!" The crowd echoed. "Until they get talking!" "Until they get talking!" A protest. And if Kuri were to guess, they were most likely the workers of the mines of Amaravathi.
"We won't rest!"
"We won't rest!"
"Until there's no more deaths!"
"Until there's no more deaths!"
"Come out, come out, you rat!"
"Unless you've gotten too fat!"
"We're not fools!"
"And we'll break your rule!"
Kuri knew that the conditions of the mines, the treasure of Amaravathi, the reason why it flourished as it did, were not the best. She had heard that the mines were full of floating dust that made it hard to breathe, and although the nobles that owned the lands that were being mined filled their coffers to bursting, the workers were paid next to nothing, and most made their homes in the city's slums. Her uncle, who had died when she was very young, had been a mine worker. The only thing she remembered about him was that he would almost always be coughing. The coughing fits had been especially violent one year that they visited his family. The next year, they received news of his death. He had coughed up blood, sooty black dust mixed with the red, before he died.
He had left behind his wife and a son, who had been born on the same day as her. Her auntie, and her cousin Kharoj. Kuri shook her head, clearing the memories out of her head, fuzzy as they were. She needed to find her aunt. It was the last thing her mother had told her before she ran, and she had to follow them. She took one last, long look at the faces in the crowd. And promptly froze where she was standing.
Because one of the faces in the crowd belonged to Kharoj. Her cousin.
Kuri wanted to run through the crowd and tackle her cousin to the ground, the way they always greeted each other when they came to visit. She was so full of relief and happiness at the sight of him, but she held herself back. He was a part of the protesters, and she could not just shoulder her way into the crowd. She decided she would keep an eye on him, and follow him back home to her aunt.
She looked away from him back to the crowd, which she noticed had stopped in front of a large mansion, the people moving to surround the mansion like hyenas around a piece of rotting carcass. The crowd resumed its chants, clamoring for the occupants of the mansion to come outside and face them. The volume reached almost a fever pitch, the voices united in a singular rhythm, yet the multitude of voices was still recognisable. She was reminded of Panthaki, the festival which came in the middle of the monsoon season, celebrating the end of the demon Varasu at the hand of the goddess of war. The songs praising the goddess sung together by the crowd on the final night of the festival, their voices carrying into the night…
The voices died, one by one, replaced by shrill screams torn from the throats of the workers below, as soldiers, the royal insignia emblazoned on their tunics glinting menacingly, came down upon the crowd, sending them scattering in all directions.
Kuri ran down into the crowd, deeply worried not just for Kharoj, but also for the people who were being roughly pushed and dragged by the soldiers. She helped an older looking man, the cracks of age visible on his forehead, leading him towards the side streets. Once he was safely away from the commotion, she looked back again at the crowd, desperately scanning for the familiar unruly curls that belonged to her cousin. As she did, she spotted another lady who had fallen down, and immediately ran to her side, helping her up. As she led her away, Kuri noticed that the crowd had thinned considerably; many of them fled to the smaller streets that branched out from the main street.
And then she spotted him again as she moved further away from the soldiers. A clear limp, his hand clasping the side of his bloodied head, walking with the help of one of his fellow workers.
She pushed through the remnants of the crowd, running over to his side, and helped support his other side wordlessly. Kharoj turned, his eyes widening at the sight of her.
"Kuri! What are you doing here!" His words were almost lost in the din, but she could make out what he had asked from watching his mouth form the words. She didn't reply until they had made it as far as they could from the soldiers. Until they were at least temporarily away from further danger.
They finally reached the slums, walking a short distance before Kharoj sat down heavily on the porch of one of the houses. Kharoj's friend bounded inside, coming back outside in a short while with a harried looking young woman. She made quick work of fixing up Kharoj, cleaning up his wound and placing a poultice on it, her hands moving deftly to tuck in the ends of the cloth bandage.
"Come see me if the pain or the swelling doesn't go down after a few days." She said, briskly gathering her things as she left.
Kuri noted that a steady stream of people were pouring in and out of the house, which looked too tiny to be able to hold in as many people as it did. Many of them seemed to have outward injuries, and seeing as they were in the slums, she could adequately presume that most of them were workers in the mines.
She turned to Kharoj and his friend. "Seems like a lot of people need the medicine woman today."
They set off at a steady pace towards home, her cousin explaining to her the events of the past few days. A week ago, an unstable part of the mine had collapsed and four workers had died in the collapse. The overseer had been warned that that particular part of the mine was unstable, and yet had ignored the warning and made the workers excavate the copper deposits there. The city officials paid no heed to the deaths or the pleadings of the grieving families, insisting that they did no wrong and that work had to go on as usual.
Kuri knew there had been a long simmering anger among the workers for a long time. The long, arduous hours of backbreaking work that would kill you sooner than later; by disease or by accident. The cruelty of the immediate overseers and the lords that owned the mines. And the paltry sum that most of the workers were paid, utterly inadequate compensation for their labour. It was no surprise that the deaths, and in particular, the callous responses of the very people that were supposed to care for the livelihood of the people, had pushed them to take action.
And of course, the king had sent his men to violently disperse the crowds. He had forsaken his duty and his people, Kuri thought, and told Kharoj as much.
They reached the small house, still in the midst of their discussion. Hearing their voices near the entrance, her aunt, Kharoj's mother, pattered out. Giving a slight gasp upon seeing Kuri, her aunt immediately grasped her hands with her own, her round face which usually bore a jovial expression now bearing a mixture of joy and surprise.
"Kurinji, my dear child! We did not expect you until next month!" She exclaimed. "How is the family? Is my sister doing okay? Oh… You should have told us earlier of your arrival! I would have cooked your favourite dishes!"
"Auntie, I really apologise for coming here without telling you earlier. I just… I am going further up north, and I just wanted to see you before I went."
"Ma… Can we go inside please?" Kharoj spoke up. "I would really like to rest, and I'm sure Kuri would like to do so as well."
"Oh of course!" Her aunt turned to him, her face clouding with anxiety as soon as she saw his bandaged head. "What did those soldiers do to you, child!" She started fussing over him. Kharoj had a subtly pained expression on his face as he tried to disentangle himself. Kuri grinned at his predicament.
They soon settled in at home, the three of them eating their evening meal together. The soon finished their meal, and Kuri sat outside on the porch as she always did in the evenings after eating. There were still people out on the street, and Kuri watched them for a while, only turning when she felt Kharoj settling down next to her. She inched to the side to make more room for him to sit.
"The streets are usually more crowded. And with the Spring Festival approaching, it should actually more busy than usual. What happened today… It won't have been good for the morales of the people." Kharoj said.
Kuri sighed. "I wish I could do something."
"You can. There's a gathering tomorrow. They're discussing what more could be done. So we can stop being treated like-" Kharoj suddenly grinned.
"Treated like what?" Kuri asked.
"Like rats in a sewer." He replied, wearing an amused expression.
"I don't know why that's funny, but go on. What exactly can I do to help?"
"You'll understand tomorrow, when we do go there. If," He paused. "If you decide to come, of course. We are trying to think of our next course of action."
"Of course. I'm not going to say no to that!" Kuri said.
"Okay, that's great. Now tell me, why did you appear so suddenly?" He looked concerned. " I do like having you over, but why so suddenly? Did something happen back there?"
Kuri looked away, choosing to stare into the inky darkness of the sky, punctuated by the bright dots of faraway stars. Sometimes even the gods did not have all the answers. Her mother had told her that on a night that was just like this one. And looking into the endless cosmic void that stretched all around her, with the endless burning in her heart, she could almost believe it.
"I had to run away." She told him about the bandits and the landlord's men, omitting the parts about Vrissan, only telling him about the mysterious way the bandits had disappeared. She could still feel the weight of the wooden rod in her pocket, the weight of the truth wanting to escape unbidden from her throat.
Kharoj remained silent for some time after she had finished, and Kuri let her mind wander. Even though the pain of having to run away, the pain she felt for the citizens of this city whose lives were dominated by injustice still simmered under her skin, talking to her cousin, knowing that they would not stop in the face of adversity, knowing that they would do it together; she felt a faint glimmer of hope.