Author’s Note: This story was a weekly email for friends 25 years ago. For the few of you who read it back then, I’ve made some changes. I’ve introduced a new character and made the writing far more active. Fantasy stories are often written with the “Omniscient Narrator”, but I’m taking my experience in romance, which has active writing, and using it here in this fantasy story. I want the readers to feel what the characters feel. It’s a lot more satisfying reading (and writing.)
Chapter Eleven: Master Warrior of Banarah
Kulastri took a deep breath and leaned against the sun-warmed boulder at her back. It was good to be back in the mountains away from the desert heat. She’d missed the cool shadows of the trees from her home in Banarah. The more temperate climate meant she didn’t sweat as much. She grimaced at her body stench. She’d have to bathe again that evening and wash her clothes.
“Of course, if you’d just have told me where to look for the heir to the throne, I could’ve gotten this done in a few weeks. A couple of months, tops.”
The image of a man with light brown hair, brown eyes, nose broken from a boyhood fight, and casual clothing of breeches and vest over a loose shirt crouched at the base of the nearest tree. He shot her a wide boyish grin.
“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, it was the only way I’d get to see the other kingdoms without all the fanfare.”
Kulastri snorted. “Let me get this straight, your majesty. You didn’t tell me where the heir to your throne was because you wanted to go on a trek across country? Is that it?”
“Mercy, I was dying. It wasn’t like I was going to visit on my own.” Prince Zorrick scratched his jaw below his trimmed beard. “Plus, I didn’t know who’d be my successor until I died, so there’s that.”
“Yeah, no one was pleased when you left no indication of who it would be.” She nodded as she glanced to the south. The foothills marched away from her toward the desert she’d just escaped from two days earlier. “Narrowing down the direction would’ve been helpful.”
Zorrick shrugged. “I told you the two directions in which not to go; north and east.”
“That left fifty percent of the compass rose, Zorrick. Not exactly what you’d call ‘pared down.’ And there was a lot of land to cover.”
“But think of the adventures we had. So much more interesting than going directly to that little village at the edge of the mountains.” The prince shrugged. “You already knew he wasn’t of royal blood in any of the neighboring countries or kingdoms. I couldn’t make it completely easy for you.”
Kulastri raised an eyebrow. “Easy? You’re dead. Easy would’ve been a note with his name before you left this world.”
She expected him to laugh and wave it off, but Zorrick grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes, that’s true, and I honestly would’ve chosen to do that if I’d known. But the gods saw fit to keep the information from me until I’d shed my body. This is the best I can do.”
She sighed. “Will you cross over into the Forests of Forever once your successor is found and trained?”
He spread his hands. “Yes? No? I don’t know. I didn’t even know this was supposed to happen. I figured I’d die and that would be it. But apparently not.”
Kulastri scowled and turned her head to hide it. She’d wondered when she first arrived if her job had been to take the ailing prince across the veil, allowing him to find his way into the soul fields as an Angel of Death. But it became clear her job had been to find Vishnu-that-was from the previous world. She’d never lost a recruit before, but she’d also never come across a fixed doorway between worlds, and getting Vishnu back became the priority.
“I’m sorry, Kulastri. Truly.” Zorrick appeared in front of her, chagrin wrapping his features. “I didn’t mean to lead you all over hell and gone. I just had to follow the directions I got from the gods, and they weren’t being very succinct.”
She schooled her expression into a smile. “I know, your majesty.” More than you think I do. “The gods are rarely forthcoming about what they want.”
“Kinda like your prince, eh, Master Warrior?” Rue filled his voice.
“Oh, you weren’t that bad.” She smirked. “At least, when it came to leading your kingdom. And you had the good sense to call all your court seers and advisors to warn them that the next king wouldn’t be found inside our borders.”
“I also said he’d be a great warrior, he’d be young but knowledgeable, and he’d have a king’s demeanor.” Zorrick lifted his chin.
“Yes, that was so helpful. It narrowed it down to any younger man outside our borders with the bearing of a king. Only a few million to take a look at.” She rolled her eyes and waved at the foothills. “At least we finally found the young man, with the curiosity and demeanor of a king in a desert village to the south. Score one for the home team. It only took us two years.”
“At least I sent you an image of who you’re looking for.” Zorrick pouted as he turned his gaze back to the vista in front of them.
He had, and the vision of Vishnu clinched it for her. At least, she was pretty sure it was him. She’d come to this world to find her recruit and get him back on track. And apparently, he had to become the King of Banarah along the way. She’d expected Zorrick to fade after he’d imparted his wisdom a few days after he passed, but he’d stuck with her, and she suspected there was something the prince needed to learn before he could pass on to the next world.
“Yes, you did. Thank the gods for that much information. Speaking of which, when your heir gets here, will he be able to see or hear you?” She wondered if the prince was only visible to her because of her affiliation with Death, or if there was some other reason.
“Hmm, good question. I don’t actually know, but for the time being, if he doesn’t see or hear me, let’s not tell him I’m around. I don’t want to frighten him more than what we’ll already require from him.”
Kulastri snorted. “If he scares that easily, he’s not meant to be your heir. Your court wasn’t exactly a safe place.”
Two years earlier, Zorrick had taken ill with a mysterious wasting disease. Neither her nor the prince’s doctors could figure out what was killing him. Zorrick had called together his inner circle and began to make plans for his eventual death. But when asked who would be his successor, he had no answer.
That hadn’t gone over well, and the seers and advisors tried to pressure Zorrick into revealing who it would be. But he simply made provisions for the likelihood of the heir to his throne and died without saying anything more.
Until he showed up in Kulastri’s chambers, looking much the way he had before he’d taken sick.
Zorrick scowled. “I know. It’s why I made those provisions for an heir and left you in charge.”
She shook her head. “Yeah, that didn’t work out like you’d hoped. You were there when Seer Torl basically told me I was too stupid to understand the truth of the message you gave them because I was just a soldier.”
“I know, but I’m not really surprised. Most of them had gotten very comfortable in their roles and they weren’t terribly knowledgeable about very much anymore.” Zorrick grimaced. “Plus, I don’t think I died of a wasting disease so much as from a slow poisoning.”
She jerked her gaze to his face. “What? Why do you think that?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Just something that’s been bothering me for a while ever since I found myself in your quarters. I remember being just fine until I got that odd cough the winter before. Seer Ibrium recommended that new healer from his province and it went downhill from there.”
“You think Seer Ibrium arranged your murder?”
He shrugged again. “I can’t exactly prove it, and I don’t have any way to pinpoint when my health started to go, but the worse I felt, the healer would increase the dose of his special tea and I drank it faithfully every night before bed.”
“Son of a leprous donkey!” She rose and threw a rock as far down between the trees as she could. “I knew there was something off about Seer Ibrium and his healer buddy. They spent a lot of time posing for the crowds and aping their sorrow, but it felt more like gloating to me. Of course, Seer Ibrium became the Regent soon after I left. Now he runs the kingdom until the heir is discovered.” She narrowed her eyes. “Will he accept the heir when we return with him?”
“That’s the big question, isn’t it?”
Kulastri narrowed her eyes. “That’s not very helpful.”
Zorrick spread his hands. “Hey, this ghostly existence doesn’t come with all the answers all the time.”
“Then what good is it?” She turned her gaze back to the approach to their mountain camp, hoping to glimpse a figure coming their way.
“It gives me the chance to be an advisor to my oldest and dearest friend, a friend who was far wiser than I gave her credit for while I was alive.” Zorrick’s voice softened with regret and self-deprecation.
“How wise could I be if I didn’t suspect someone had poisoned you to death? I was supposed to be the most suspicious, most guarded of all those around you.” She grimaced. “Apparently, not guarded enough.”
“Just think of this new adventure as your second chance to get it right.” Zorrick looked away and mumbled something under his breath that sounded like, “Or mine.”
Before she could ask him to repeat himself, he drew himself up and gave her a bright smile. “So, are you ready to take on the training of the Heir to Banarah?”
She tilted her head. “Training? What kind of training are we talking about here?”
“Well, you saw him. He’s a goatherder in a desert village at the edge of the world.” Zorrick spread his hands. “He’ll probably need to know how to use a sword and crossbow at the very least.”
“Ah, and I’m supposed to train him?”
“That is why you came on this quest, isn’t it?”
Kulastri met Zorrick’s gaze and froze. Now that he was dead, did the prince know who she truly was? Had he just asked her if her true quest was to find and train Vishnu-that-was how to be a Guardian?
“Excellent. Because it’s going to be terribly entertaining watching you teach. It’s an experience I didn’t get in life.” Zorrick grinned and some of Kulastri’s tension fled.
“Oh, yes, that should be so fun.” She rolled her eyes. “The southern and western countries are so poor, they only have small villages and hamlets dotting the landscape like pigweed. Most of the people are highly superstitious. Few are literate, and even those think the northern countries are infested with demons who would bring famine and death upon them. I can’t wait to try out his paces.”
Hopefully the person they were looking for was Vishnu-that-was from the last world they’d visited and he’d recognize her. But if it was someone else entirely, she’d have to find a way to find Vishnu-that-was. It had already been too long since they were separated.
Disappointment and dread had filled her being, but she had tried to keep it from her face. How would she find him if the heir wasn’t him? Even the gods hadn’t given her his name in this world, and she’d be stuck training a would-be king when she needed to find her charge.
No, it’s him. I know it’s him.
She wasn’t here to do the impossible, just the difficult. And being in two places at once was impossible.
“Oh, you’re going to be brilliant at this.” Zorrick grinned. “And if not, it’ll be really fun to watch.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
He sobered immediately. “I have all the confidence in the world in you, Kulastri. Our kingdom has some growing pains to go through, struggle, growth, and patience. None of which are easy, but the rewards will be long-lasting. You’ll see.”
“I hope you’re right because the rumors I’ve heard and the scant news I’ve received about Banarah isn’t great.”
Zorrick grimaced. “I know. And I remember all their arguments against you doing this.”
“I believe the phrase was, “Master Warrior is leaving on some wild goose chase into the uncivilized lands and leaving the kingdom undefended? What nonsense!” It was a good thing our kingdom wasn’t at war at the time.”
It had still taken her two days to convince Seer Ibrium and the other advisors that she needed to go. None of them had seen Zorrick’s ghost and seemed convinced that all they had to do was wait a bit for the heir to magically appear. He hadn’t and she’d slipped away one spring afternoon, Zorrick along for the ride after stopping for a quick errand in town before she left.
“They’re still not at war, right?” Zorrick raised his eyebrows.
“Not externally at least. Not sure I can say the same for the kingdom’s in-fighting.”
He snorted. “Eh, it’s always been that way. I don’t think there will ever not be in-fighting.” He waved the thought away. “But I knew you’d find the heir to this throne and you have.”
“Yeah, after two years of searching and stumbling around blindly, and luckily camping in those old ruins we found.”
She shook her head and stared out at the vista, willing the heir to finally appear after ten days of waiting.
Well, ten if you count the five I actually stood around on those ruins.
They’d discovered the village the morning after they arrived, but she hadn’t wanted to just stride into it. She’d stand out like the proverbial black sheep.
Or goat, as the case may be.
When Zorrick had asked her what made her hesitate, she told him she wanted to watch a big, but he was welcome to wander the streets looking for the heir to his heart’s content. He’d looked down his broken, but aristocratic nose and said he’d do it. But he hadn’t found the heir in the village and had returned puzzled and despondent.
That was when she noticed the goatherder. He’d seen her and watched her warily before hustling his charges back to the village and hadn’t left his house for the rest of the day.
Could’ve been the mourning outfit I’m wearing.
The black silk was surprisingly lightweight and airy but kept her warm in the winter temperatures of the desert. It was a typical ensemble to wear while mourning in her country, but from the crowds of people who’d gathered and dispersed while she waited there, she surmised it was a bit daunting.
The sword at my hip might add to that image.
She’d left it in its scabbard to protect it from the scouring southern sands that rode the winds, but it remained well-oiled should she need to use it.
They’d moved their camp to just behind the old palace ruins so they could have a fire without view from the village and discussed how to pinpoint the heir from the rough villagers. Kulastri was reasonably sure it had been the goatherder, but she’d been content to wait on the ruins and just observe.
Which made the villagers all the more twitchy and suspicious. A few of the kids had approached the base of the hill, but even their taunting hadn’t motivated any of them to get closer to her. After several days, she couldn’t bring herself to go down into the village – she’d generated enough interest without saying a word. But she didn’t believe any of them would come up to investigate while she was there.
So at Zorrick’s urging, she’d written as clearly as she could on a red piece of cloth and left it for whoever would follow, hoping the goatherder would be the one to find it. Zorrick said not to worry. He’d left a path only the heir could follow, but he hadn’t specified what it was.
“Do you still think the note was a good idea?” She shot a look at the prince where he leaned beside her.
He grinned and waved at the vista ahead of them.
“See for yourself.”
Below them, a figure hiked toward their vantage point, dressed for the cool early spring temperatures. While she couldn’t see his face at this distance, she recognized both the goatherder she’d seen near the village, and the man who’d been Vishnu in the previous world.
Thank the gods, and it’s about damn time.