Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Vale of Premchand

This is something I wrote for some people who are very dear to me. If you don't get it, that's only natural. I only hope the story's enough to keep you interested. 

In the land of Sophia, there exist many kingdoms. Each kingdom is beautiful and terrible in its own way and no one has travelled to them all. However, in the thick books in the dusty libraries, you will find mention of one kingdom in particular.
In that kingdom, there lived many mighty kings and queens, princes and princesses aplenty, courtiers, pages and many more people besides. That kingdom had a very interesting distinction, for in that kingdom, everyone was either a scholar or a warrior. Many were both. None were neither.
It so happened that one winter’s night, the moon loomed over this kingdom of scholars and warriors larger than it had ever appeared in centuries. The Warlock King gazed up at the sky; the reflection of the moon danced in his lantern-like eyes as he smiled a sharp-toothed smile.
The time had come to venture forth in search of the Vale of Premchand.
And so all the warriors and scholars filled their bags with food and drink, saddled their horses and other vehicles, hugged their loved ones and set off into the deep dark dusty desert that surrounded the kingdom.
The winds blew, the sand dunes shifted, every morning saw a new world form before their very eyes. And yet doggedly the group marched on.
Here the records include a list of those who sallied forth on that sacred pilgrimage which, for the purposes of the reader’s edification, has been reproduced here.
These then are the names that have reached us over the generations, living on in the time-pressed leaves of a sleeping chronicle:

At the head of the company strode forth the Warlock King with his steadfast gaze and fearsome grin. Master of arts both sacred and profane, his foes trembled when they stood before him. Yet only his fellow travelers knew that his fierce exterior hid a tender heart. ‘Twas he who had led the scholars and warriors into the deserts to fend off the dread snakes and scorpions and biting winds, ‘twas he who insisted on facing the same dangers as anyone else and ‘twas he who had trained the younger ones to stand their ground and slash and parry and delve deep in the words of those who went before them. He turned back often, always with an encouraging word or a bawdy joke to rouse the spirits of the company. And though none saw her, all knew of the Invisible Queen who rode by his side on his swift, coal-black tiger with flaming red eyes and blood red stripes.
With him came the High Priest, consort to the High Priestess. A learned man, his looks belied his experience. A firm jaw that aroused awe in the hearts of even the most cynical and eyes that sparkled and laughed graced the High Priest’s face. None dared to laugh at him for he was well-respected for his wisdom and for the massive time-worn sabre that he wore at his side as he rode upon his mighty elephant mount. Like the Warlock King, he was as fierce a warrior as he was learned as a scholar. When the company made camp, all came to him with their ailments. He healed wounds, cooled feverish brows and checked vomiting with an ease born of practice and for this, the High Priest was loved by all.
But the High Priest was incomplete without the High Priestess, she of the bright eyes and calming smile. She too had devoted her life to the study of magic tomes and had emerged an enchantress of note. But if her wits were sharp, so too was the poniard she wore by her side, ready to strike at all who stood in her way. She rode upon a massive swan blessed with the knowledge to distinguish between milk and water. Everyone in the kingdom would bow as she passed and mutter her name with reverence. It was said that what the High Priest could not heal, the High Priestess could and what she knew little about, the Priest knew much. Thus, the two travelled together, a perfect whole in two vessels.
A roar shatters the still air: the Knight approaches astride his sandy lion. His shaggy brows knit themselves together and a haughty smile plays across his lips. The hair on his face (that seems to have been hewn from a block of soft wood) bristles like the mane of the fierce jungle cat on which he rides. Yet the Knight was not feared but loved for he drew his sword not to maim but to aid. His face was known in all the kingdom and all those who had suffered injustice, all who had been crushed by the cruel wheel of fate cried out to him for solace. And for every cry he heard, the Knight applied his energy threefold: to right the wrong, to comfort the oppressed and to make them smile again. Children would mill around him because they thought of him as one of their own: the greatest compliment a child can give. But it was as a scholar of repute that the Knight was most well-known. For a strong hand may inspire some but a strong mind inspires all.
Then came the Druid upon his giraffe. A curious man with a manic gleam in his eyes, he had puzzled many a mind in his time. Dressed in a flowing robe and bearing a stubbly beard, the Druid seemed to see the world in colours unknown to mere mortals like you and me. Well-versed in the arts of war, he carried explosives and strange chemicals that blinded his foes or rendered them unconscious. The staff that he carried was not just for show; when swung hard enough, it caused immense damage. Yet off the battlefield, the Druid was a pleasant man with a quiet dignity about him. He had taken many an apprentice under his wing and was always quick with a joke. There were those who laughed at his giraffe, but only the truly wise knew that he was the only man in the world to have tamed and ridden that wondrous beast. How? No one knew save the Druid and when asked, he preferred to chortle into his beard than answer.
Hark! There comes the Traveller Queen! While none have dared to sail across all the seas or ford all the rivers or climb all the mountains or plumb the depths of every cave in the land of Sophia, if there was one who had come close it was her. Her brow bore the mark of all the wondrous sights she had seen and many crowded round to hear tell of her journeys in distant lands. A Queen of good cheer, she carried always in her heart a song which moved men to tears and yet reminded them of their childhoods, of the times when they had had not a care in the world. Her song reminded them of an older world, a world cherished then lost. But what tears sprung to the listener’s eyes would be hastily brushed away by the Traveller Queen’s boisterous laugh that brought a smile to every face and another laugh to every tongue. Those tongues also longed to savour the many treats and delicacies she had collected on her travels and which she carried in the saddlebags on the noble reindeer on which she rode. She carried strange sweets and fragrant breads, colourful fruits and vegetables and plenty more besides, not for herself but for those who had not been as fortunate as her, for those who had not seen what she had seen, heard what she had heard, eaten what she had eaten. But not a shred of meat would ever be found in her saddlebags.
And then there was... but what is this! The page crumbles away beneath my fingers! This book is too old and has been opened far too often. I see only fragments of this page. After much searching I managed to find mention of another Queen who rode to Premchand, the Mystery Queen. She is said to have been of a strong disposition, willing to stand by friends in battle even when all others had abandoned them. Her tongue was sharp and so was the tip of her spear. Because of her calm exterior there were those who misunderstood her but never did they underestimate her — at least, not for very long! As for her mount, I found mention of a warm but massive bear, but the text in which this was mentioned may have been wrong.
These then were the kings and queens who made their way to the Vale of Premchand, all those years ago. They were followed by the princes and princesses of the kingdom, who, through a strange twist of fate, were forever placed apart from the kings and queens. While the kings and queens were immortal, for some reason, this longevity had been denied to the princes and princesses through no fault of their own. Thus, while the high monarchy would endure forever, the princes and princesses would one day have to move on. In this respect, they resembled those who tramped on foot behind them, the courtiers and the pages.

The texts now talk of the princes and princesses, all of whom rode on splendid steeds:
Let us begin with the Amazon and the Sylph, sister princesses on this long and arduous quest. The Amazon was a warrior princess, shielded by impenetrable armour. Taller than most men and blessed with terrifying strength, challengers quaked before her might and savage beauty. She carried a scimitar still stained with the blood of the countless foes she had slain along the way. Her hair she kept tied up with the gleaming ivory bone of a murdered man. When left loose, however, her ebony locks softened her ferocity somewhat and made fools of men. Upon her breastplate, she bore the insignia of the moon.
The Sylph, her sister, was the greatest scholar amongst all the princes and princesses. She saw what others missed, heard what others didn’t and said what others found astounding. A kind and compassionate soul, she knew of every injury perpetrated in the kingdom and felt the pain of every wounded soul. She was the voice of the voiceless – a clarion-call that cut through the babble of a cruel and uncaring world. Her mind was matched only by her beauty and her grace. Her eyes were large and liquid. Those who stared into them for too long felt themselves lost and when she smiled, they felt as if some distant ray of sunshine had penetrated the deepest recesses of their hearts, where even they feared to go. High above her head, the Sylph’s pennant fluttered in the wind: a beating heart pierced through by a quill dripping violet ink.
Close behind her came the Mystic Prince. Dressed in flowing exotic robes, his eyes seemed to peer into the inner workings of a distant universe. A mysterious man who had shut himself up in a cave from his childhood, cut off from civilization from the time of his birth, the Mystic Prince saw the world as few others did, aided perhaps by his many herbs and powders which he carried from weird and far flung kingdoms. No man knew his true name; all anyone knew was that he carried with him a yellow scroll on which was inked the figure of a penguin. Look! He passes his hands through his hair and grits his teeth — a sure sign that he is about to attack! There flashes his dagger, hidden in the folds of his clothing, flashing out faster than the speed of sound, ripping through fabric, flesh and bone as if they were butter. The Mystic Prince leaves in his wake a battlefield soaked in blood. But he walks away with a beatific smile that comforts some and horrifies others.
The Marble Princess too graces the company. Her hair falls to her shoulders, her eyes pierce people’s souls. Forever impassive, forever composed, she is like a statue carved by the most skilled of sculptors. Hence her name: the Marble Princess. Her flute-like voice soothes the ear and lulls one into a state of false security. Ware the cutlass she hides behind her back! It cuts deep and it fells many. The heralds fashioned a crest for this princess: a scarlet rose with iron thorns.
These are not all the ranks of princes and princesses that dwelt in the kingdom of which we speak, but these are the only ones who made their way towards the Vale of Premchand, the rest being left behind to protect the citadel in the others’ absence.
There was one more who rode with the other royalty but who was, in name if not in nature, merely a courtier. Yet his experience and learning had earned him the right to ride a steed with the likes of the ones of whom we have spoken. A stranger from a different kingdom who had made his home in this one, enchanted by this magical land, already the bards sang of his exploits. A goddess waits and pines for him, some said. A war was won by him, said others. He is Time, he is everywhere, the sun and the moon are mere parts of him, said the childish. He shows great promise, said the wise. The Great Ruler rode along, not bearing any crest but calling out a battle-cry: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika!”

We could here describe all the courtiers and pages who went with the royalty to the Vale of Premchand, but to do so would be a tedious task. Yet, unimportant they were not, for it was their sweat and blood and tears that tarred the roads that led to Premchand, in part, at least, if not in whole. Yet even amongst them if we were to look, we would find new faces, shining with promise and vigour, just waiting to emerge. The Minstrel King, the Gladiator-Scholar, the Haughty Queen, the Mistress of Shadows, the Ambassador, the Faery Queen, the Ancient King, the Rough-Edged Rogue, the Far-Sighted King, the Storm Rider, all these were there in the crowd just waiting to be named by their deeds that were yet to be done. Perhaps more texts speak of their deeds, perhaps one day their story too shall be told. 

But we can talk of one of the courtiers in detail, not because of any great merit in him but because the chronicler of the worm-eaten tome I consult seems to have had an affinity with him for he is given much space in these aged pages. He was the court jester.
A peculiar, gangly sort of person, more child than man. He had whiskers like a catfish and seemed fragile beyond words. Sometimes light and dancing, sometimes oafish and clumsy, he travelled with the company with one objective: to make people laugh. Never mind that humour was in no way a rare commodity in these parts; the jester would not rest until everyone was clutching their sides. Was it for this purpose that he was dressed in strange motley: like an onion with each layer a different colour? Who knew why he did anything he did? Perhaps he just felt cold. In fact, that would seem to be the case, for this jester was also a Fool: sometimes he would make people laugh with his behavior but he would not understand why. He didn’t always try to tickle, but everyone always laughed. This left him very bewildered which was not a new state of existence for him. He had been born simple and his despairing parents had abandoned him on the streets to raise himself where he had been found by the kings and queens and princes and princesses who found him good sport and gave him a place in their retinue: a place the Fool was only too glad to fill.
The Fool didn’t always amuse with his jokes; sometimes they only enraged those who heard them. But his buffoonery never ceased to draw a laugh from even the surliest face. Nowhere was this more abundantly clear than in the way in which he behaved around the queens and princesses.

While growing up, the Fool had had no interaction with girls of his own age; in fact, truth be told, he had been slightly afraid of them. Now however, surrounded as he was by beautiful, powerful, intelligent women of whom he had no prior experience, he found himself strangely drawn towards them. Consequently, he would run from one to another begging for a kind word or a scrap of affection like a dog without an owner. He fell in and out of love often and easily because it was new and strange to him. But while he was in it, he may as well have been trapped in the dread coils of the python.
Amongst the royalty, he was most enchanted by the sister princesses, the Amazon and the Sylph. He was almost mad enough to feel the same way of the High Priestess but checked himself because he held her and the High Priest in such high esteem. He loved them, feared them and, most crucially, respected them.
First he tried to approach the Sylph. But the horse upon which she sat was so big and frightening that the second it snorted he turned around and took to his heels. As he ran, he tripped over his own heels and was sent rolling in the dust. A hearty laugh reached his ears. He looked up to see the Amazon looking down at him with some amusement. Her hair was let down and gathered like a dark cloud about her shoulders. Enamoured by her beauty, the Fool tumbled in the dust once more. Once again, a snort of laughter was forced from the Amazon’s breast. Delighted, the Fool proceeded to debase himself in the dust until, bored by this repetitive display, the Amazon rode away. The Fool tried in vain to chase after her but found that he could not keep up. Looking down at his legs, he noticed for the first time that they were short and stubby and suddenly he felt ashamed. He flopped down in the dust and buried his face in his hands. When he opened his eyes, he saw the Sylph looking down at him curiously. He struggled to get to his feet, but fell back. Pity moved the Sylph to reach out a hand to help him up. The minute he touched her hand, the Fool forgot all about the Amazon and stared deep into the lake-like eyes of the Sylph and was lost. He tumbled in the dust, but the Sylph frowned, so he stopped. He stood there for a while with the Sylph comforting him and then she too started moving away. He followed mutely behind her until she noticed him. This drew from her a laugh. Transfixed by the way this laugh transformed her face, the Fool stared at her again until she laughed all the harder. The Fool was silent and confused, but he forced a smile to his face and walked away. One eye, however, he kept fixed upon the pennant of the Sylph.
Poor Fool! To him, these sisters were as exotic and magical as a dragon and a phoenix. To choose between them was impossible for, either way, one was to gain something unique and holy and one was also to lose the same. So he always chased after the one that seemed the more attainable. Alas! How was he to know that dragons and phoenixes can be caught only in fairy tales?

After a long and tortuous journey, the party finally reached the Vale of Premchand, an enchanted oasis in the middle of the desert filled with cooling trees and gentle birds, still lakes and fragrant blossoms. They were guided to their destination by the Old Ones: spirits of kings and queens of ages past who pointed towards the Vale of Premchand and led the travelers by the hand. Tired after their journey and at their destination at last, the kings and queens and princes and princesses and courtiers and pages all abandoned all rank and title to gambol together in the tall green grass. Exhausted by their revels, they fell down where they stood and slept their first uninterrupted sleep, not plagued by nightmares but blessed with dreams no less magical than the elven haunt in which they found themselves.
They stayed in the Vale of Premchand for four days. On the last night, desirous of entertainment, they built a roaring fire from the fallen twigs and branches that they found in the forest and invited the Fool to partake in their games. They plied him with drink, but the Fool, who could sometimes be cunning, poured the liquor down his sleeve and merely pretended that it addled his brains. To be fair, his brains were always at least a little addled.
Then, convinced that he was not his usual self, they begged him to entertain them. The Fool complied. First, he bowed to the Sylph, which drew a roar of laughter from all those assembled. Then, he launched into the tale of his birth and childhood, a tale which absolutely failed to hold the interest of his audience. Sensing this, the Fool changed tack and told a different story, a prophecy, in fact, for remember that, although he was a Fool, he was a scholar and a warrior just like the rest of them.

After the Fool has finished his story, his prophecy, call it what you will, the sun will rise over the Vale of Premchand for the last time. The travelers will rouse themselves and rub the sleep from their eyes, saddle their mounts and leave with many a backwards glance at the shady glen they leave behind. The minute they reach the edges of the desert, the Warlock King will look back at the princes and princesses following him and realize that they have become kings and queens in their own right. He will look to his left and right at his fellow kings and queens and they will all nod and turn their mounts in the opposite direction, away from the citadel. They will venture out into the unknown, seeking that which the Old Ones have found because now, it is their turn to be the Old Ones.
The friends they leave behind will weep for a day and then, comforting and consoling each other and themselves, will select new roles. There will be a new general, a new King (or perhaps she will be a Queen) to lead them all back to the kingdom that they left. And once they return, they will reign for years and years and years and for a while there will be peace. But once again, the time will come when the massive moon shall rise and the new Queen (or King) shall gaze up at the sky and decide that it is time again to make towards the Vale of Premchand.
And once again the journey will be made and once again the celebrations will gladden their hearts and once again it will be time to leave. Except this time, when the new kings and queens make their way in pursuit of their predecessors, those who are now the courtiers and pages shall turn around and what will they see?
They will see a sea of people, larger than ever before. But no faces will be seen in this crowd. Everyone will seem to be the same, no more scholars, no more warriors. The courtiers and pages will try to get to know them but they will be doomed to fail. They will bemoan the state of affairs but they will be the only ones, for all across Sophia the cry will be heard that democracy has come to the kingdom at last. And perhaps that will be true, but it will not change the fact that all the old ways will fade away and there will never again be kings and queens and princes and princesses like the Warlock King, the High Priest, the High Priestess, the Knight, the Druid, the Traveller Queen, the Mystery Queen, the Amazon, the Sylph, the Mystic Prince, the Marble Princess or the Great Ruler. But they will remember their exploits and pilgrimages and talk about them for as long as they live and, much as it will sadden them, it will also comfort them. They will feel proud to know that they were the last to have lived in such glorious times.
But the Vale of Premchand will be lost forever.

These are the words of the Fool. 

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