First to Fall

Following the laws of speed and sky the arrow traced an arc from the archer’s bow to its target. A slight turn of the shoulders or a step to the side of a few inches would have saved Kinnar’s life, if a loose knot on his armor had not distracted him. The arrow buried itself in the flesh exposed by the gap between his cowhide shoulder guard and breastplate. The iron barb so painstakingly sharpened cut through skin and muscle, severed arteries, and came to rest in a lung, which deflated like a punctured wineskin.

Kinnar collapsed panting in pain and stared at the feathered shaft stuck in his chest. Having seen others fall in combat, he fought the urge to yank it out. Instead he sat back in the dust as the war elephants trumpeted and his countrymen raised a mighty war cry. Chariots, elephants, horsemen, and infantry advanced on the enemy leaving the wounded behind.

His chest gurgled and he couldn’t seem to get enough air. After a fit of coughing he wiped bright, red blood from his mouth and knew that even with a doctor he wouldn’t make it. To his left and right lay dozens of dead and wounded in their armor. One man had an arrow buried in his eye socket. At least Kinnar wasn’t the only one felled by an archer.

The greasy worm of nausea crawled over his skin. Kinnar felt weak and dizzy. He fingered the leather cords wrapping the hilt of his sword. If only he’d stepped aside, he’d be harvesting enemy heads like cabbages. Now he would never toast victory with mead or chew roast oxen at the night’s feast. The world turned on its side and his face collided with the dirt.

What a fool he’d been! How many times had Old Inderjeet struck him for not paying attention? Kinnar would never have a chance to apologize for being such a poor student. He thought back to the school he’d entered as a scrawny boy and emerged from as a proud warrior – the courtyard surrounded by mud brick walls, the strain of muscles against another body, sweat, the exhilaration of effort, the crack of wooden swords as he parried a strike, the healthy exhaustion that comes at the end of the day with a simple meal of lentils and rice, and the camaraderie of those born into the warrior caste. These were the happiest days of his life, not that he’d trade his marriage with Nandita for anything.

“Ah,” cried one of the wounded. “Give me water.”

As if struggling against a heavier wrestler Kinnar tried to raise himself on his elbow to see, but the pain of his wound defeated him.

“Hey!” Kinnar bellowed. “Stop whimpering and die like a man!”

The wounded man fell silent, leaving Kinnar with his thoughts of Nandita with her kohl-rimmed eyes and shining, dark hair. He pictured her on their wedding night – the smooth skin of her back, breasts with dark nipples, wide hips, and the treasure between her legs. With Kinnar gone how would she care for his son Ramesh, until it was time for him to attend the warriors’ training school?

In spite of the fit of coughing that wracked his body Kinnar could not clear the blood that clogged his lungs. Each spasm drove the barb deeper into his chest. He trembled as he clenched his fists to keep from crying out.

How he’d wished to live long enough to see his son as a proud warrior in battle dress! What of Ramesh’s future? Would he die a slow death like his father on some forsaken battlefield, maybe in an agony of spilled intestines from a gut wound? No, his son would make others die! Even as he thought these words, Kinnar knew that no one was that skilled or lucky. He would have done anything to save his son from his awful fate, but there was no escaping duty. Ramesh had been born into the warrior caste, after all. The best Kinnar could hope for was that his son would act with valor and integrity. Then the law of karma would lead him to a better birth at least if what the Brahmins said was true, that is. Suppose it was not? What then? Kinnar would find out soon enough.

He pushed against the sticky, blood-soaked soil to turn on his side and draw his knees to his chest. The effort left his face bathed in sweat, but he could breathe easier and the wound didn’t hurt so much. Despite the merciless sun he shivered. His skin itched as if ten thousand ants were biting off little pieces of him with their pincers. Couldn’t they wait? His left arm felt numb. Why must it take so long to die?

Kinnar closed his eyes and might have slept. When he looked again, a huge vulture perched on a rock near his head. Greasy, brown feathers covered its body, and the bird’s bald neck and head stank of carrion.

“Go away,” Kinnar said. “Can’t you wait until I’m dead?”

“I am nothing by patience,” the vulture replied.

“How can you stand it, eating rotting corpses?”

The vulture turned its head to better regard Kinnar with its left eye. “I was a murderer in my previous life and repented on my deathbed. In their mercy the gods caused me to be reborn in this form, so I’d never have to kill again.”

“Go away!” Kinnar closed his eyes. This had to be a dream. If only he could wake up, he’d be safe at home with his wife.

He sat up in his soft bed. The cinnamon light of the setting sun filtered through the open window and painted the walls of his bedroom.

“You must have been tired. You slept for over three hours,” Nandita said. “Are you ready for dinner?”

The way her hair fanned over her naked shoulders made Kinnar want to reach for her, but she turned and walked into the hall. He followed her into the kitchen, where a cleaver protruded from a chopping block. A butchered man’s severed leg lay nearby.

“Here is some stew for you.” Nandita filled a wooden bowl from the bubbling, black cauldron and placed it on a plate with some naan.

Kinnar turned and ran.

“Wait!” Nandita called. “Don’t you want your dinner?”

Kinnar found himself on a bed surrounded by wooden bars. Try as he might he could not stand. When he called out, only a burbling came from his mouth.

“There you are,” a woman cooed.

Kinnar looked through the wooden slats at the goddess Kali. Her form seemed more an absence than a presence. She was naked except for a necklace of human skulls. Two of her four arms held a sword and a severed head, his head. Kinnar longed for her body—wide hips, her dark skin that seemed to drink the light, and the drop of amrita on the nipple of her left breast. He reached out with his stubby arms.

Death is not destruction. It is stasis. When Kinnar tasted the nectar of immortality, he thought he’d return to his previous life. Instead he became fixed like a mastadon frozen in a glacier—an eternal matrix of petrified images and memories. He will never have a thought he did not experience in his life. For a time his ghost haunted the battlefield where he died. Soon weapons and tactics changed, and watching skirmishes fought over this strategic piece of ground confused him. At the military academy that stands on the site of the old warriors’ school, a cadet may sometimes hear a whisper in an ancient tongue. If only he understood this language, he’d hear the words duty, honor, and steadfastness.