With a fresh kill in tow, the hunter made his way back to camp through the snow-covered forest. The weight of the stag labored his every step. A cold snap hit. Sharp, biting winds whipped icy... [+]
Drupti Govitrikar belonged to the edges of this former realm. With none of the imperials present to guard her home, it was now up to Azaigha village to tend to its own. She was elected their leader for her ability to reason and bring people together.
What an odd fate Drupti Govitrikar was dealt. Few women in the former Vlastanian Empire, barring those in the peripheral tribes, ever expected to be elected leaders. Short of Drupti, few of the upper castes lingered in the village of Aziagha. Thus, Drupti reluctantly shouldered the burden of responsibility.
Then the dacoits - the ruffians - came. A battle only barely less brutal than the final days of the wars against Divatis, scions of Vamana, and humans opposed to the Vlastanians, Drupti’s people emerged victorious. It was but one of many challenges to come and prove that Azaigha was worthy of both self-governance and right to being.
Such a victory was bittersweet at best, and with a price.
“Beti! Beta!” Drupti screamed for her children, the entire block caught aflame. Villagers combated their new foe with water pots, only doing so much to contain the fires. With this strife, hardly any present noticed the scattered carcasses of human and animal surrounding them.
Drupti froze. Her two young of five winters begged for their lives in their burning two-tiered home. Dirt, wood, mud, and incensed cow dung polluted the air. She exhausted herself with her own trips for water, searched for a safe way in, and sought help from others. All the more helpless, she reached out, anguished. “Beti! Beta!”
Both her young had come into this world together.
Drupti was horrified knowing she may live to see them die.
She choked on the billowing dark ash, just several steps a distance from the terror. Hearing the twins was both hope and reason for further desperation. Drupti knew time was waning.
“Mattaji!” her daughter pleaded, looking out of the building. Face covered with soot, framed by onyx curls, her tear-filled eyes begged for relief.
“Neena! Babur! Stay strong!” Drupti urged her daughter and son. She sucked in what breath she could and strode forth.
Hands held her back. Drupti cursed those hands! Old gods be forsaken!
“Council leader! No!” The ragged villager with the firmest hold implored. “Don’t risk yourself on a lost cause.”
“Those are my children!” Drupti yelled and shoved hands away, choking on the brackishness entering her lungs. “You don’t know that!”
Then a woman’s voice called out. “If they will not help, I will.”
Drupti looked toward the voice, off guard. There she saw a veiled, svelte woman push through the crowd. Drupti frowned on the offered help. Yet, her children’s lives were at stake. She had only to gain from the leap of faith.
“Who is this?! Another thug!? I will be divided by horses before I let live a dacoit,” one villager protested. Others shouted over each other in agreement.
Neena’s scream pierced through the noise as a frame fell on the awning nearby! Babur cried. “Mattaji!”
Hearing her children’s distress only fueled Drupti’s determination to shove past the villagers and stand next to the foreigner. “Devi in our forgotten ways is Mother. If I cannot act as she, what am I to my children and my people before me? Help me!” The village leader then looked to the other woman, with no small reluctance. “If you are a friend, you will help us.”
Drupti considered her options.
“Things to stand on,” the foreigner suggested. “Can they find some?”
Drupti’s eyes brightened ever momentarily at seeing direction where there was none before. She was not used to barking orders like she did this night. “Find and bring anything to stand on!”
And so the village obeyed. Each moment passed meant more and more of the building lost. Drupti dreaded the less chance for her younglings’ survival.
Three large pots and broken cart parts were all they found. Drupti’s expression darkened at this. Who would stand on them? She saw no other among her who looked steady enough to stand on them, but the foreigner.
“Help them.” Drupti pleaded, but she dared not admit her fear before anyone – let alone a stranger.
The other woman said nothing. Men reluctantly piled their findings together. Drupti felt more smoke invading her lungs. She reached for her sari pallu and placed it over her mouth. More coughing followed from all near the building as more smoke surrounded.
Neena had ceased her cries.
Only Babur’s sobbing voice remained.
The village leader looked up, her daughter limp against the window. She stirred only barely. Drupti screeched, “Neena!”
What tears she could not show reflected in her voice. A mother’s plea did naught.
All hope was lost until the foreigner lifted herself high enough to grab onto Neena and quickly lower her into waiting arms of the other villagers.
Drupti rushed to take her daughter away from smoke and flame. The village leader hacked more. She knew she could only do this for so long. Her daughter safe, Drupti looked to a scene even more uncertain.
The foreigner stumbled, almost losing her balance on the pots. Drupti’s heart slammed against her chest, that single moment having been all that determined whether the strange woman successfully reached Babur. Coughing, all now stepped away from the engulfed building, Babur having almost met the same fate.
And he did not, thanks to the foreigner’s aid.
Everyone gathered around the unconscious Neena, prodding her. None of the godly men – the sadhus, priests, and sages – had visited Aziagha since the Vlastanian’s imperial soldiers had driven them away. There we no healers left to tend to the young girl. Drupti immediately found and grabbed a pot holding water and splashed it on Neena. It was all she had.
And it was all she needed.
Neena sputtered. With three slow blinks, Drupti’s daughter slowly rose in bewilderment. The village leader expelled a breath in relief.
All was going to be alright!
Then abruptly, one of the guards approached the veiled woman and yanked at her shawl.
Drupti instantly watched the tension. Spilling out of the foreigner’s shawl was reddish dark brown hair. Truly, it was plausible to assume the woman was from another village if not for one thing: the foreigner’s delicately pointed ears.
“Divati!” a soot-faced villager spoke as if he cursed. “Worse than dacoit! We warred with her kind and the others, the old ways be damned! We must kill her!”
Drupti hesitated, her children trembling. Once more, she found herself stuck this night on what to do. The imperials’ ways had yet to be cleansed from the mind of the villagers. This woman, one Drupti had only known as ‘those unlike us,’ was one of the people deemed enemy nights ago.
Hesitantly, Drupti looked at the foreigner. A scruffed man double the weight and size of Drupti reached for the Divati woman. The elected leader immediately stepped in front of him, her stance firm and her palm out.
Much she risked to act on the truth, less she was to not.
“None will harm her,” Drupti declared. “I am in debt to her. She saved my young. We thrive on land once hers, once shared the same gods. May we remember again Lord Ramaiah’s path. Family before self, community before family. Nation before community. The world and its beings before nation. Let us rebuild, not further destroy.”