Kaya rushes to see her best friend Taraksh to show him the enigmatic birthday gift she got from her grandma. His eccentric elder brother, Rian, sent her to the riverbank, where Taraksh usually spent his time. However, an unwelcome guest brought Kaya face to face with an ugly secret about her closest friend.
Kaya nodded blankly.
Rian decided to speak first, ‘Thousands of years ago, the Greenwoods and the SapphireWaves used to coexist peacefully.’
Kaya looked at him with the same blank expression. Rian added, ‘I mean the woods and the river. Occasionally, an argument would start between the two, and the Ancient Peacekeeper would have to sort it out.
‘The Ancient Peacekeeper?’ asked Kaya.
‘Yeah, your grandmother,’ replied Rian.
‘What?’ Kaya got up abruptly, but stopped midway in her attempt to leave the bed.
‘She’s gotten quite old. The politics of the two courts irk her a lot. I mean, it would annoy anyone who has seen and been through so much.’
‘Rian, did you hit your head on something? My grandma is normal. I am normal, but I wish I could say the same about you.’
‘The locket you’re wearing is proof that she has chosen her heir,’ Rian continued as if he had not been interrupted. ‘Your grandma, Deleena, is a witch who has lived in the Ancient Mountains for a long, long time. The locket is forged from the core strengths of the two kingdoms. King Aranyak of the Greenwoods offered a leaf from his crown, while Queen Neera of the SapphireWaves offered a drop of water from hers as a mark of respect for the Ancient Peacekeeper. However, now that she has grown old, they wish to appoint a person from their respective courts as the Peacekeeper to have a greater influence on the other kingdom in case of an argument.’
He sighed before continuing, ‘Deleena had sensed the unrest in the kingdoms long ago and prophesied…
A creature of neither the forest nor river,
Will guard the realms from their doom
When the new Peacekeeper is found,
It will be revealed on the full moon.
The locket is the key,
To reduce the enmity effortlessly.
‘And?’ probed, Kaya. ‘It seems to end abruptly.’
‘The last line is known only to the King, Queen, and the Ancient Peacekeeper herself. Others would know it only when the new Peacekeeper presents themselves before everyone. Deleena did this to let the two kingdoms know that she was acting for their good,’ Rian added. ‘Still, they made her take an oath that she wouldn’t let her heir know of the prophecy until the right moment. That is why she has yet to tell you all this.’
Kaya immediately regretted what she said next, ‘And why did she tell you?’
‘It was hard for her to trust me for a while, but slowly and steadily, I gained her trust.’
‘Why me?’ blurted Kaya.
Taraksh replied, ‘Because you belong to neither realm. Because you’re a normal human being without any special powers. Exactly what the courts would have wanted to avoid in the first place. Soon mercenaries began to be hired to kill the human, that is you.’
‘Well, I’m pretty much alive,’ said Kaya, albeit with a feigned confidence.
‘You see, you were protected by a spell as well as by Taraksh. Deleena’s powers were fading when she took you under her wing. Well, she was barely able to cast a spell to protect you until you turned sixteen. She found you as an orphan in the human civilization. Only the Peacekeeper could endow an ordinary human with the gift of understanding the dwellers of both the kingdoms.’
‘Another birthday gift,’ added Taraksh with a smirk.
Kaya recalled the scene when the creature and Rian had looked at her. ‘So is that why the creature ran off?’
‘Yes, it went to alert the King and the Queen that you were ready to inherit the position as you could now understand it.’
Rian noted that Kaya had not given him a hard time debating over the Peacekeeper issue. At least, he would not have to convince her of his plan now. She would listen to him. Or so he thought.
‘So, you’re telling me that the… thing that attacked Taraksh today, it wanted to kill me?’
Rian nodded grimly. Kaya could sense that Rian was not telling her the complete truth. However, she chose not to press for any further details. Instead, she finally shot up from the bed and marched to the window, peering out at the forest and the river. All of a sudden, she bombarded him with questions, ‘What does that make you and Taraksh then? Whose side are you on? And how come Taraksh is a werewolf?’
Rian’s voice cracked, but he managed to say, ‘I have always been on your side.’
Kaya was glad that she was not facing the brothers, for she could feel the heat rushing to her cheeks.
He added, ‘Taraksh is one of the magical creatures similar to the demon. He was gifted to me as a cub when I was young. That said, he is more like a little brother to me.’ Standing beside Rian, the wolf looked at Kaya with its solemn eyes.
Kaya jumped, ‘Stop doing that, Taraksh.’ She then turned to Rian, ‘Who would gift you with a magical creature?’
‘That’s a story for another time.’ Rian spoke again, ‘Alright then, so I have this plan. Taraksh would take you into the Ancient Mountains. From there, human civilization could be reached on foot. You are to leave immediately and never return.’
Kaya’s mouth fell open. She was not exactly a brave girl, but was not the one to run away from problems, either. If she could solve it, she would go ahead, no matter what. That was a quality her grandmother had always admired about her. ‘That is why she chose you,’ said a tiny voice in Kaya’s head.
She clutched the locket and said, ‘No, I would like an audience with Neera and Aranyak.’
Rian was horrified out of his wits. He could not believe that Kaya wanted to meet the very people who had been plotting to get rid of her since the prophecy. He grumbled, but nothing he said seemed to deter her.
‘Alright. As you please. The full moon is tonight. Every full moon, the courts of the Greenwoods and the SapphireWaves hold a joint celebration, where they dance and discuss strategies to strengthen their respective powers. Accords are signed, and new laws enforced. We can sneak into the frolic.’
Taraksh jumped in, ‘But promise me, you wouldn’t leave my or Rian’s side. I will accompany you as a human. The dance usually involves masks, so I guess nobody would notice us.’
Kaya readily agreed. The thought of actually seeing either Neera or Aranyak in person was terrifying. Still, she was glad she was not marching to doom alone. That is when she remembered, ‘But… how do I inform grandma of all this? She must be worried sick of me. I had told her I would be back in an hour.’
Taraksh replied, ‘Your grandmother, or your Peacekeeper is a witch. She’ll know everything. She has been preparing for this day since she chose you. All you need right now is a gown… and a mask.’
Taraksh let Kaya on his back. He then left for his home so she could change into the gown she had initially thought of wearing for her small birthday party. She had hoped to meet Deleena and learn more about the prophecy, but the old witch was nowhere to be found. However, Kaya was happy that nobody would be able to lay hands on her grandma if they could not find her.
Kaya was so stuck with the recent events that she had not bothered to ask about Rian’s past life and family. Now was not the time, either. She put on her peach-colored gown and checked herself out in the mirror. The dress brought out the color of her golden locks vividly. She was not sure how to tie her hair, so she let them loose around her shoulders. She tucked her blade beneath the folds of her gown, which stuck to her waist thanks to her belt.
‘You look stunning,’ said Taraksh.
Kaya smiled. ‘You look good, too. Though I must say, you look absolutely majestic as a wolf. I need to get used to you changing forms.’
She emerged minutes later, and it took them hardly twenty minutes to reach Rian’s.
Taraksh scrambled to his room to get ready while Kaya waited outside. Rian showed up a moment later, complaining how his coat looked like a bouquet of wildflowers.
Rian was walking toward the hall, but chose to wait behind a pillar and look at Kaya. He drank in her features: her pearly smile, her hair that seemed to flow down her back like velvet gold, and her gown that looked just as good. He had always loved her hair, and he achingly wished to run his fingers through her hair and breathe in her sweet fragrance. Her smiling lips looked soft… Rian was pulled out of his reverie when Taraksh asked him to hurry.
The trio marched through the woods until they stood at the entrance of a cave. Rian asked them to hide their faces with the masks before they went inside.
The cave was massive inside, though it looked like a tiny crevice from outside. It encompassed parts of both land and river. Everyone was busy dancing and celebrating. Kaya could see people dressed in beautiful clothes, dresses made of tiny leaves, and gowns resembling cascading waterfalls and blooming flowers. She looked at herself and sighed. She thought if someone commented on or criticized her dress, she could easily stab them with her razor-sharp blade. Rian seemed to understand what was going through her mind as he immediately walked right beside her.
‘Care to dance?’
Kaya smiled hesitantly and placed her hand on the palm of Rian’s outstretched arm. They blended in with the crowd instantly. Taraksh watched them from a safe distance, enjoying the drinks. He had never been fond of sword fighting or dancing.
Kaya was grateful for the mask hiding her face as she felt that it was helping her conceal her emotions. She had never been this close to Rian. He had always avoided her, and now he seemed to be enjoying her company; there was literally a glimmer of excitement in his eyes.
‘I didn’t know you could dance.’
‘You don’t know a lot of things about me.’
‘Yes. That’s because you love secrets.’
‘They’re called secrets for a reason,’ he softly whispered in her ear. He was so close that she could feel his breath on her neck. She shivered as his fingers lay lightly on her back, gently guiding her through the dance steps.
A loud voice interrupted their conversation that seemed to echo through the cave and bounce off the walls.
‘Well, well. Who do we have here?’ The King of Greenwoods, Aranyak, sat on his throne made of tree trunks, smirking at Rian.
Kaya accidentally dropped her mask and her long veil, revealing the locket tied around her neck.
‘Having a good time, are we? I thought you didn’t enjoy the revels anymore.’
Rian bowed his head and greeted the King, who looked at him with disdain. ‘Your Majesty, I believe in safeguarding the interest of the realm than in splurging on frivolous parties.’
‘I see. And let me congratulate you on making it here alive, even though I would have wished otherwise.’
Taraksh looked around helplessly. He might have been a shape-shifter, but he was no match for the King of the enchanted forest. The guards awaited Aranyak’s instructions to chain Rian for disrespecting the King, but Aranyak did not even look at them.
Queen Neera, who was seated beside Aranyak in her shimmering sapphire gown, squirmed in her seat. She did not meet Rian’s eyes. Kaya was clueless as to what was going on, but she could gather that Aranyak hated Rian for some reason. She cleared her throat, and Aranyak’s eyes met hers. ‘I’m here because I told Rian that I wanted to see both of you,’ she paused before adding rather hastily, ‘Your Majesty.’
The entire cave erupted into laughter at her words. Kaya felt guilty about not having thought of what she would say to the King and Queen when she met them; she had only been focused on getting there. She cursed herself for her naivety. When the laughter began to die down, she continued, ‘I’ve heard of my grandmother’s prophecy of a new Peacekeeper. I believe this is what you wanted me for,’ she said, pointing at her locket.
Queen Neera stood up from her throne. ‘Now we can release my son. He has fulfilled his oath of delivering the mortal and the locket to us.’
Rian looked up at Kaya and desperately wished he was not so helpless at the moment. Kaya now turned to him, questions dancing in her eyes.
Aranyak turned his gaze to Rian and hissed, ‘Go on. Tell her how you’ve used her, you drohi.’ For a moment, Kaya could recall the sea creature referring to him by the same name, but she was not sure if she had heard it right.
Rian did not say a word and looked away. Neera spoke at last, ‘Son. You didn’t kill her on your first chance. But you had promised that you would stay in exile until you lured her into your love and get her here. And you made good on your promise! You need not worry about this trivial human. Now come and take your place beside me.’
Kaya’s head swam. Rian was sent to kill her? Kaya remembered the way Rian had told that mercenaries were sent to kill her, but she had never imagined that he would be one of them. She remembered the way he had protected her against the water demon. She had even thought that he had liked her. However, now she knew that it was only a bait to lure her – she, who was a petty human, a trivial mortal. How could she have been so gullible to think of herself as their Peacekeeper?
Tears welled up in her eyes. Anger and fear threatened to consume her as she struggled to stand upright.
‘Yes, I am a mortal. A stupid human being who trusts easily and doesn’t realize that everyone is her enemy. I had thought of Taraksh and Rian as my friends,’ she looked at both of them and added, ‘well, they’re still my friends.’
Taraksh stepped out of the crowd and stood beside her. Aranyak looked daggers at Taraksh and said, ‘I should have killed you as a cub instead of gifting you to that traitor.’
Rian looked at Kaya and said, ‘I’m not worthy of the honor.’
Aranyak was smiling wickedly. ‘Perhaps, your beloved grandmother can tell the prophecy out loud for everyone to hear. And I request everyone to pay attention to the last line.’
Kaya’s grandmother, Deleena, stepped forward. She was held in chains by two guards. Kaya attempted to run toward her, but was stopped by the guards. Deleena spoke in a low voice, tears dripping from her eyes.
A creature of neither the forest nor river
Will guard the realms from their doom
When the Peacekeeper is found
It will be revealed on the full moon
The locket is the key
To reduce enmity effortlessly
A traitor would be trusted again
And will stab the heart wisely
‘To put it short, Rian should kill the mortal to fulfill the prophecy,’ said Neera dryly.
Rian turned pale. Kaya had drawn out her blade to attack anyone who approached her. However, she was not sure if she had the nerve to hurt Rian.
Taraksh shouted, ‘It just says that the heart should be stabbed, not whose. It could be mine. Take me instead.’
‘No,’ Kaya screamed.
Deleena came forward, ‘I’m already old and have chosen Kaya as my heir. I have lived long enough. You could kill me.’
Kaya whirled around, ‘I wouldn’t let any of you die because of me.’
Rian’s mind was working like a computer, and he felt that he would suffocate with the sheer pace of his thoughts. He was filled with a hopeless longing that threatened to consume him and shred him to fragments. And suddenly, he had an idea. ‘Would it work?’ he thought. He was not very sure about that.
His body moved of its own accord. Rian did not even realize when he had moved toward Kaya and was surprised to find himself standing in front of her. Her face was streaked with tears, and her hands were trembling. He raised her chin with his hands so that she would meet her gaze.
‘You are not my friend. You are much more than that.’ And with it, he covered her lips with his. Kaya gasped as Rian kissed her. Through that gesture, Rian tried to convey a thousand things that he had never quite been able to. It was a slow and deep kiss that flowed through their lips and reverberated through their bodies. The gasp was mirrored on the face of everyone present, including the folks of the kingdoms, the King, and the Queen.
Kaya kissed him back and embraced him tightly. Rian smiled and took the locket and Kaya’s sword from her hand. Before anyone could understand what he was up to, he threw the locket on the ground and pierced it through the center with the sword.
The locket exploded with a light that nearly blinded everyone. From the locket, the leaf whirled up and shot past the courtiers straight to Aranyak’s throne. The leaf seemed to revitalize the forest with new blooms appearing everywhere. The sickness of the trees began to fade. The encased drop of water also flowed into a rivulet, and joined Queen Neera’s crown. The water shimmered like thousands of tiny mirrors that reflected the sky.
Deleena was beaming. ‘I was bound by my oath to not reveal anything, but Prince Rian has fulfilled the prophecy correctly. There need not be any more enmity between the courts.’
Rian further added, ‘Greenwoods and SapphireWaves have lived peacefully for thousands of years. They could start again. Kaya chose to trust me when she could have labelled me a drohi, a traitor of her trust. I ask you King Aranyak and Queen Neera, and everyone present here to trust her too.’
He then looked at Aranyak and said, ‘After all, everyone deserves a second chance.’
Aranyak said, ‘I always believed that trust was for the weak, that one needs to be punished for stepping out of line.’ He then pointed at Kaya and said, ‘I don’t trust her yet as her species has caused great harm to our world. But I’m willing to hazard an attempt at it.’
Neera stepped down from her throne and embraced Rian. She said, ‘You’ll be a good ruler one day, my son.’
The crowd shouted and cheered. Musicians played again with renewed vigor as the magic from the locket filled everyone with hope and positivity.
Rian pulled Kaya back into the crowd, and she whispered in his ear, ‘This is the best birthday gift ever!’. They danced to their heart’s content without their masks on. They looked into each other’s eyes, almost as a testimony to how love could blossom in the most unexpected ways, at the most unimaginable places.
To be continued…
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