It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back.
The knocking grew more insistent as I strode towards the double wooden doors of my private room. I heaved them open. Kaka, my guide and friend, tumbled into the room with a gasp.
“Well?” I demanded.
“It’s true,” he panted. “The boy’s father has requested you to go help his son. He’ll be waiting, all night if he has to.” He removed his hat and shook the water droplets from his salt and pepper hair. “Excellent,” I said. “Let’s go, then.”
“Wait — but — now?” he spluttered. “Let’s wait a bit — we need a plan — and I just got back — it’s terrible weather out there — and bandits too –”
“Don’t tell me that a little rain and a few thugs are going to stop the great Kaka Shishir,” I teased. I slipped into my riding coat, taking care to hide my sword under it. “No, Princess,” Kaka replied. “This is madness — we’d be such easy prey, and for wha –”
“Nonsense. That boy needs my help. I’m going, Kaka, with or without you.” I picked up my sack of medicinal vials and slipped my favourite dagger into my belt. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kaka shake his head. He knew that it was pointless to reason with me.
“Horses are waiting outside the palace gates,” he said in a resigned voice. “I had them prepared.”
“Excellent,” I said brightly. “You know me well.”
I strode out the door, Kaka trudging along in my wake.
Kaka had not been exaggerating about the weather, I thought ruefully as we splashed through the rain and mud. To discourage attacks, he had insisted on two guards riding in front of us and behind. Kaka muttered under his breath about my father’s infamous temper and my gregariousness. Except a small lantern carried by a lead guard, we were in complete darkness.
I was thoroughly drenched by the time the timid flickering lights of the village came into view. The rain had clouded my vision. The wind, earlier making its presence felt in occasional strong gusts, had now transformed into a gale. It roared in my ears, drowning out most other noises.
It was this, perhaps, that masked their arrival. Five figures emerged from the trees, out of nowhere, cloaked in black. One cloaked figure strode forward. The rest shadowed him.
My guards instinctively arranged their shields into formation, protecting me from the threat. Kaka strung his bow, instantly alert.
I pulled hard on the reins. My horse jerked to a halt, splashing mud everywhere.
“No further, Princess,” the lead figure rasped.
I knew that voice. That voice had been on the receiving end of many of my father’s anger-fuelled tirades against the clans that inhabited the forest and obstructed our access — under the guise of conservation — to the plentiful plants and animals found there. And he had come to block my path. Again.
“Get out of my way, Natdak,” I said, drawing my sword. I squinted through the rain. I wondered briefly how I was supposed to fight, if it came to that, if I could not see well.
Natdak made no move. “This is as far as you go, Princess.”
“I only want to help the boy,” I tried to reassure him. “I am not taking anything that belongs to you.”
“Even we are not sure what is help and what is harm. Even we do not know whether it would be right to rid someone of that Leel — especially a child! Even adults cannot at times comprehend the problem deeply enough to make a decision. Just because we can kill it, does it mean we should?” Natdak said. He turned ever so slightly to face Kaka. “Surely you told her all this?”
I didn’t take time to marvel over how well-informed of my plans Natdak seemed to be. His people were notorious for putting ears where they were least welcome.
The rainwater poured into my eyes. I drew myself up to my full height. “Your Princess commands you to leave, Natdak. Any action other than retreat will be considered treason.”
In the light of the lead guard’s lantern, I thought I could just decipher Natdak’s smirk. “This is not a risk I’m prepared to take, Princess. Give me your vials, and you may proceed,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “Hardly anyone in my kingdom besides myself has studied the properties of the elixirs they contain, Natdak. And as a ruler, the responsibility of the welfare of my subjects lies with me. I promise you no harm will come to the boy. I only want to help him rid himself of the nuisance of that Leel.”
“Those vials might cause more harm than good, Princess. Leels are incredibly rare. You cannot use your vials, especially for a child who cannot consent!”
The thunder was deafening. I levelled my sword in front of me. “This is your last warning.”
Kaka raised his bow. Natdak’s guards shifted into defensive positions.
I just had time to register the whizz of Kaka’s arrow as it flew by my ear. A yell told me that it must have struck one of Natdak’s guards. Natdak thrust his sword at me, breaking the formation of the guards in front. I instinctively parried the blow and slid off my horse, using the animal as an impromptu shield. Knowing Natdak and his clan’s obsession with conservation, I was sure that he would never consider harming any animal — he’d have no qualms about slicing through me, however.
My horse was neighing and rearing up on his legs. My shield was not going to protect me for long. Natdak tried attacking again, but succeeded only in scaring the animal. It bolted, leaving me alone to face the enemy. The others were fighting their own battles. A flash of lightening momentarily blinded me. I attacked anyway. Natdak easily dodged the blade and thrust his sword to my shoulder, aiming at the strap of the bag containing the vials. The blade tore through my cloak and tunic, exposing the body armor I had worn underneath. The strap was severed.
I felt a flame of rage lick me from the inside. I feinted towards his face, then cut to the right. I attacked again, this time to the left, succeeding in cutting his sword arm. Blood dripped onto the earth. Taking careful aim, I took my dagger and threw it towards the fingers gripping the sword. I couldn’t see well in the downpour and the dark. It missed its mark, but the blade lodged in the wrist. His hand opened reflexively, dropping the sword. I couldn’t resist a smirk of my own. Natdak may have been taller and stronger, but my speed and agility had won.
“Let’s go, Princess!” Kaka yelled. I jumped up onto his horse, ensuring my bag was secure, and we galloped away.
The village lights beckoned us through the pouring rain. A lanky man with a shock of black hair was waiting to greet us when we arrived. Kaka nodded to him. The man put his hands together in a respectful namaste and bowed to me. “Welcome, Princess,” he said.
“How is the boy?” I asked as the man led the way. “Kaka tells me the rumour is true.”
“‘Tis, Princess,” he said. “See fer yerself.”
We walked through the village to the man’s house. The wind had picked up — my eyes stung, and it was still difficult to see. “Righ’ through there,” he said, gesturing to a backyard.I stopped short. In the centre of the backyard was a banyan tree, under which was a crude easel. At the easel was a little boy, painting. Intent and focused in his art, the boy was oblivious to my arrival and to the rain.
I stepped closer, and that’s when I saw it — the Leel’s thick black muscular body was wrapped like a coil around the boy’s forearm. Its fangs had pierced deep into the crook of his elbow. It sucked happily on the blood. Its tail, which I knew contained a barb, pierced the wrist. The boy was painting with the same hand.
“We tried everything. Nothin’ worked,” the man, who I assumed to be the boy’s father, told us. “It just doesn’t stay away. I know they’re rare, but he’s so sad all the time … he doesn’t even sleep or eat well …”
I got down on my knees. I got as close as I could, needing to be closer to see through the rain, and put my bag to the side. The boy was still intent in his painting. “Hello,” I said cautiously.
The boy looked at me. “Hm.”
“You okay?” I asked.
He nodded and went back to his painting.
“Let me see that,” I said, gently taking the arm with the Leel on it. The boy tried to twist away from me, but I held on. I motioned to Kaka to bring the vials.
“Nice painting,” I complimented him. It was not an empty compliment — the picture truly was magnificent. He had painted a horse and a rider. The horse was drawn in exquisite detail, every muscle defined, with a majestic mane and thick tail. The rider was fluid stillness, his eyes focused and intent, sword encrusted with diamonds that scattered the light in the most beautiful way. The wind ruffled every blade of grass on what I could describe only as a prairie.
The boy did not reply. The Leel was happily sucking on his arm.
The wind lessened its roar. Kaka handed me the bag of vials and his dagger. I frowned. “Try it. Please.”
I rolled my eyes and extended the boy’s arm. I drew the dagger across where the Leel’s neck should be. The dagger could not even pierce the skin. The Leel hissed angrily and only buried its fangs and tail deeper. “I told you,” I muttered. Then I uncorked a vial with shiny blue liquid and poured it over the Leel’s muscular body. It stiffened. I poured a deep purple concoction where the fangs connected with skin, and the tail barb connected with the wrist. Then, ever so slowly, I pried the fangs loose. I loosened its body, then removed the tail barb. The Leel’s eyes glazed over.
I strode back to where Kaka was waiting. “We’re done here, Kaka. Let’s go home.”
Kaka was quiet on the way back. “I’m still not sure what we did tonight was right, Princess.”
I rolled my eyes. Kaka could be so incredibly annoying.
“We’ll go see how he is doing in two weeks’ time, Kaka. Hopefully that will convince you,” I promised.
“We’ll see, Princess,” he replied.
Two weeks later, Kaka and I were once again standing in the yard where we had gotten rid of the Leel. We had come in disguise, just in case. The same little boy was running around the giant banyan tree in the yard, this time with some friends. He was smiling and laughing.
“See? It worked!” I enthused, triumphant.
I had scarcely uttered these words when the boy’s father came out of the house and saw right through my disguise. Maybe it was the sword I had at my waist. After all, how many warrior princesses were there in the land?
“What didja do to my boy!” he yelled. “Look at this!”
He held up two pictures in his hands. In his left hand was the same picture the boy had painted the night I had gotten rid of the Leel — the majestic stallion and his rider. In the right hand was another picture. This, too, was clearly a horse and rider, but the difference was striking. The horse resembled a potato with twigs for legs. The rider was a stick figure.
“This –” the man jerked his face toward the right — “Was after you helped him — I trusted that you’d actually help, not take away who he was!” he spat.
I took an involuntary step back. “But I don’t — I don’t understand — I did everything right –”
He swore. “‘M not lettin’ this go! ‘M takin’ this to yer court!” he yelled, and slammed the door.
I looked uncertainly at Kaka. “Kaka — why — I only wanted to help –”
“I tried to tell you,” said a familiar raspy voice.
Natdak emerged from the tree — he must have been hiding in the branches. “I tried to tell you it might not be a good idea. I tried to stop you. They’re so incredibly rare,” Natdak continued, frustrated.
“But he was so miserable — and now he’s so happy –” I stammered.
“Yes, and now he has also lost something that defined him. I’ve been watching him for the past few days now. Nice job, Princess,” said Natdak, his voice dripping vitriol. He shook his head and stormed off.
I turned to Kaka. “But Kaka — I really don’t understand –”
“I think … what Natdak was trying to say was that what made the boy unhappy also made him great. That Leel was both the fuel and the price of greatness.” Kaka said.
He hunched his shoulders. “Killing the Leel took that away from him forever, and your vials did that. There’s nothing you can do.”
“But — can’t we –”
“It’s best to go home, Princess.”
Kaka trudged off.
I stood there, mortified, the shouts of the happy children echoing around me.