(A prologue of a new novella/novel thing that I’ve been planning up, and this is the prologue, or a small part of it at least)
The little boat pushed on forward as the boatman navigated the channels of the pitch-dark vicinity of the Kapparakanda Nadi with the greatest of care and ease. It was moonless, and you could easily lose your way as you paddled your craft in such a quiet, despairing place. Of course, the Kapparakanda was the river that everyone in Rohana knew about and also the boatmen here were pretty efficient, but still, darkness brought out merely a sense of primal terror that men would prefer to forget.
The passengers in the boat felt this distinct shadow growing out of the already gloomy forests on either side of the river. It was hard to ignore it, like the memory of the ancient myths that surrounded the south, were coming back to haunt and seize them. The boat only had one little, dim lantern, but it attracted moths from every direction. The moths jostled for a position next to the light, aggressively beating their wings as the boat pulled into wilder territory.
The call of a nightjar pierced the darkness.
Now, the boatman began to sing.
The voice was dismal, and he sang of the terrors of white water rapids, ghostly and divine river spirits, family life and his children. He sang of days long past, and some of the passengers seemed to move closer to him to listen in, but he sang to keep that primal fear away.
“Father, how long do we have?” The small voice of a child broke through the darkness, as the youngest member of the cruise, a small boy of about thirteen, quite light-haired and fair, thus suggesting a child who didn’t always play out in the sun, huddled down inside his cloak, sneezing a bit as the chill bit him. He was dressed in a long kilt and had beautiful, shiny gold chains around his neck, and even rings and bracelets. The cloak itself looked like patterned silk, maybe a bigger version of a woman’s shawl, a kasisalu, but it still had the same softness. The boy’s father put his arm around his son.
The man’s huge beard kept him warm to at least a certain degree, but even he needed to wrap a cloak around his big, rather fattish body.
“How long? I don’t know, my son, I don’t know. All I know is, your uncle lives some way away from Kajaragama. I don’t know why he wants to live out here, in this old jungle filled with snakes as far as the eye can see, but remember, he’s a military trainer, and a bit of a loner too. I wonder what he wants us for. My big brother! Never the talker!”
“My lord,” the boatman began, now curious about this particular passenger of his, “tell me, is Kajaragama a good place to visit nowadays?”
“Quite, my friend, quite! Well, actually, many of the people are living well here, it seems, despite all the trouble that Rajarata is going through. All that warring, and those Cholas up there in the north, it’s really tough to visit anybody these days. After all, Kajaragama is a holy city. People need their religions these days. That’s how we all know that there’s hope, don’t you?”
He looked again at his son, and patted him on the head.
Then the boy started to whisper something softly in to his father’s ear, at which the father frowned first, then smiled, and then the little boy went to sleep. For a few minutes, the father uttered a soft lullaby as he ran his fingers through his son’s long, soft hair, but afterwards turned to gaze outside. The boat had finally pulled away from the river, and while the surrounding countryside was wild and forested, it was clearer, not as dense, but still intimidating.
The boatman smiled.
In fact, the passenger was finally discovering the simple boatman’s love of company, and the age-old practice of befriending their passengers.
“Well, that’s all the news I can give of the rest of the world as it is these days, my good friend,” the nobleman continued.
The boat then made a U-turn at a rocky outcrop on which a lonely young woman stood, a small, feeble torch of dried leaves of the coconut palm being the only thing she had to light her way across the slippery surface. The boatman sighed again as he looked at her, casting lamps and lotuses into the water as she prayed to some deity. Clearly not a Buddhist, but no less religious. The song continued as the boatman dropped his pitch, and the notes came out deeper and more flowing.
“Sapumal, don’t worry now,” the nobleman continued, patting his son on the head. They were all passing a large murder of crocodiles, happily spending time by the bank. One of the giant reptiles slid forward with surprising agility as its jaws clamped shut on a small night heron, whose calls of pain seemed to send a chill down the spines of the people in the little boat. The boatman wisely steered away from the group. He knew that this river was known for being a haven for crocodiles, and big ones especially were not afraid to attack people. Sapumal was now peeking out at them, their soulless eyes reflecting brightly in the lamplight. This boat wouldn’t stand up to a whole gang of ravenous, armored monsters that easily, especially when there were no weapons in store, and the crocs could see much better at night than they could. One or two were daring enough, though, to get close enough to nudge the boat with their snouts.
However, the laws of nature prevailed, and they finally departed.
While Sapumal was trying his best to get to sleep, someone else was a little less concerned about the hellish Kapparakanda.
A small figure huddled at the very back edge of the boat, almost indistinguishable from the little heap of wrapped crates of cargo around him. A massive, mud-brown cloak covered him as he kept it close to his body.
His eyes were highlighted slightly by the faint lantern’s ghostly orange-yellow glow, and his skin seemed to have a light, sandy hue. For an instant, he threw back the hood part of his cloak.
Long black hair fell upon his shoulders, hair that he kept on tossing back and running his fingers through. It was a mere boy, it seemed, but this in some ways, didn’t seem like a most ordinary boy.
Whenever there was any light surrounding them, his coal-black eyes seemed to light up instantly, even going so far as to develop a shine running right through them. Then his hair picked up the highlight, but this was just on the surface. Whenever he looked at the nobleman and Sapumal, he wore a raptorial look in his eyes, like they were piercing into their souls as he kept himself covered again, shielded from view thanks to his thick cloak.
Small veins on the surface of his strangely colored skin seemed to tense with each glance, like he hated the two, and wanted them dead.
And he’d been closing in, edging towards father and son, until finally, the lord seemed to turn back in disgust and stare at the boy. He’d felt repulsed at first, but the longer he looked into them, the terror rose, and he felt like he was drowning in blood, that hell was closing in upon him. It hadn’t been helping Sapumal either. The little boy shivered as he huddled against his father, and now a strange voice kept on telling the man to face the strange passenger once more.
How could he obey such a demon?
The air felt cold. Cold as in, the strange young boy seemed to influence the very temperature with every breath and heartbeat as the boat kept pulling through. The boatman, for one, noted the lord, seemed to be in a daze. The man was pulling into even wilder country until finally; they were nearing an overgrown area of tall grass, backed by sala trees in full bloom. Beside the boat, however, was a small lotus flower floating on its leaf atop the dark, slimy water. A few others peeked out, illuminated nicely by the light from the lanterns.
“Sapumal, Sapumal, would you like a flower or two?”
The boy himself now peered at the flower, which seemed to cast a soft little glow into the tiny world surrounding it. Small moths flitted delicately about as they fought one another, jostling for a place on the biggest, prettiest flowers. The boatman smiled kindly at Sapumal and steered his vessel carefully forwards. It made very little noise at it slipped towards the lotus, and the nobleman stretched his arm out.
“A little further my good man,” he puffed as he grabbed the flower and pulled it off gently.
“See?” He showed it to his son, who tentatively reached out towards the flower. He pressed it to his heart, and smelled it slowly. Sapumal smiled.
“Ah, there’s something! You do remember that girl in your uncle’s neighborhood? Well, that’ll be someone”-he saw the boy’s face flush with pink as he mentioned it-“nice right? But wait, you wouldn’t look as good without more, you know. Boatman, please, would you look after my boy for a while? Just”-the nobleman hiked up his long kilt as he waded further in and trudged through the weedy riverine undergrowth.
He pushed past the long freshwater plants and finally, after reaching some firm ground, got back onto dry land.
He continued on his trek.
There could be more waterways connected to this one, after all. The Kapparakanda did have a number of little reservoirs and a network of little canals connected to it. The villagers in the surroundings used these irrigation systems to water their fields, and these canals, the noble knew, were home to plenty of lovely flowers.
And Sapumal loved flowers.
Sapumal, meanwhile kept pressing the flower to his chest, and then laid it on his lap. The boatman was beginning to nod off, but he suddenly grabbed his stomach. He seemed to have eaten something unwholesome, for he looked at the boy once with a look of pity, then walked away, somewhat towards a small, overhanging grove of trees. A sigh of relief rose from him as he finally squatted down in the water.
The other boy, who’d gone unnoticed all that time, moved slowly towards Sapumal.
He touched the younger boy gently on the shoulder. This made the latter jump, but he couldn’t yell. The other boy had grabbed him, wrapping his arm round Sapumal’s waist, and covering his mouth. The two fell down into the boat, but the boatman seemed to ignore it. He was too busy, and the strange boy could work with Sapumal now.
“Who…what…who are you?”
Sapumal trembled in his attacker’s grasp. He could feel that, while this other boy was quite young too, his torso and arms were hard and strong, with lean muscle. He could get the better of Sapumal in a fight, and his grip felt like that of someone who didn’t hesitate to kill. But there was no quick spilling of blood as the attacker’s hands ran up and down Sapumal’s stomach, gently feeling the skin and pushing into his kilt, gently feeling the younger boy’s thighs, suddenly sending a rush of heat through the victim.
The attacker spoke. “Are you afraid of the dark? Believe in demons and spirits?”
The younger boy didn’t dare to flinch. Instead, he just stayed still, trying to tighten his legs together as he sweated profusely. His legs felt slippery, and he shivered under his attacker’s arousing touches and caresses. He felt the world spinning out of focus as he felt his attacker’s lips nuzzling against the nape of his neck. Sapumal felt like giving away to the other boy, whose voice buzzed again in his ear. Whispers of love flowed into the younger boy’s mind and heart, continually making tilting his organs out of his control.
It lasted for a depressingly long two minutes. Suddenly writhing and turning, Sapumal finally faced his attacker.
This boy was sandy-skinned, and he looked like the darkness of night itself, with hair that flowed into the surrounding blackness perfectly. A vicious, seductive smile and a piercing pair of eyes looked into Sapumal’s. That glance terrified him, but the excitement over-weighed the fear. This stranger’s arms were on the thin side, but the hardness of his shoulders and the light veins across his forearms were clear. Sapumal ran his fingers over the perfectly defined and flat abdominal muscles and let his own soft torso loose control upon the stranger’s.
He was unable to control himself while being enveloped in the boy’s aura.
The darker boy’s legs bore great power, as he grabbed Sapumal’s hindquarters with his legs, kissing his neck lovingly.
“I knew what you were from the first time I saw you,” he told his victim, who was enjoying the experience, “and now we can be together. Tell me, why do you fear the dark?”
“I…I…”-the fire of desire washed over Sapumal as he once again marveled at the stranger’s torso, running his hands across him-“my father’s astrologer friend…he…he…stories of dark terrors, of hell, of sinners and punishments that stalk the darkness…I feared them…and”-Sapumal’s mouth was crushed hard by his attacker-“and I…have feared them since.”
A cunning smile crossed the attacker’s mouth, while his eyes still maintained their predatory glance.
“Well, am I a demon of the night? Tell me.”
His voice was whisperier as he looked into Sapumal’s eyes again. “I know that you want to meet a boy, wherever you go. I can see a soul when I look into the eyes of a human. I knew what you wanted. Call it intuition; call it a wild guess, whatever you like. But I knew you when I saw you, and now, you will know me better.” The younger boy’s heart skipped a few beats as he let out a soft squeal, but almost suddenly, was silenced as the stranger forced him down, kissing his torso, and wrapping Sapumal’s legs around his waist.
“I can also see why your father so desperately wanted to get you those flowers,” he continued, “telling you they were for some girl. I can be your lover forever, my child. I swear it upon my life.”
Sapumal had by this time, half- fainted, sweating again, his body wet, his mind spinning with the searing heat of want overwhelming him.
Sapumal had barely enough time to react. The flame had consumed him to his heart, and he could hardly see the flash of shining metal as the thinnest of blades sliced at his neck. He felt barely anything at first, but suddenly he sensed that something was wrong. An attack of dizziness crept over him as more cuts were made to his neck as his strange lover kept cutting his way easily through the blood vessels. More and more cuts, and finally, Sapumal had no more words to describe the pain.
The killer stood up.
“Demon I am, but all too human. Too bad I can’t drink your blood, boy. But at least that’s another one down. Too bad it had to be you, I had only wanted your father, after all. Still,” he wiped his blade clean, and stepped into the river, but not before wrapping his cloak around him, “I need to carry on. I have a mission.” Quickly, the boy rushed away, leaving Sapumal as the boatman’s fee.
The strange boy ran into the tree cover, but he tripped once in the darkness. He silently cursed as he tried to locate the nobleman.
A few times, he paused to locate any tell-tale signs of tracks. A big man like the noble wouldn’t move without displacing and damaging some vegetation. It was like hunting a wild boar, but this prey was far more intelligent than any old pig. Then again, the boy tried to reconsider; there couldn’t be too many signs of his passing either. The ground was not that damp for there to be so many clear footprints and other signs of trampling. No, these tracks were faint, faint but fresh.
“That man’s sandals were smooth underneath. He might have tripped a few times,” he mused.
On the other hand, he thought, finding the depression left by a large human being would not be easy. This wasn’t clay, this was natural dirt.
Quickly, the boy wrapped his cloak tighter around himself, covering his face and head. He held himself close to a large tree, and cleared his throat. Suddenly, a terrifying cry rose from his open mouth. It sounded like a high-pitched, murderous shriek, like that of a woman being violently strangled and then kicked in the stomach and face by an abusive, drunk husband. Then the scream got louder as he put his hands to his mouth and tried to form a sort of resonator.
He ran through the forest, screaming his lungs out.
It was the scream that any villager would recognize. It would send superstitious people rushing back home. However, this hunter had only one prey, and this prey was blissfully unaware of what had happened at the boat. The nobleman had been trekking around the forest, and was now beside a small network of canals, meaning that they were possibly in the area of an isolated rural community. There were no people around except him, though. Normally, the villagers watched their fields at night, from small platforms in the trees, frightening away any deer or wild boar, while at the same time fearing for their lives. However, except for the regional officers, not many would watch over the canals.
This might even be an old, unused one, judging by the overgrowth of algae and lotus plants.
The noble hummed to himself as he grabbed another lotus.
“Ah Mahinda you are a good father! Sapumal my dear child, how I wish you were like other boys! I understand you, but the others won’t. I hope your uncle’s friend’s daughter is around. Samudradevi is a beautiful girl now, she has attained her age,” he said sadly to himself, “so just give her these flowers son, and I”-he swatted a mosquito on his forearm, but that was when a cold chill ran up his spine.-“I…I…what was that…?” Pricking up his ears again, he listened. The scream came again and again, as he tried his best not to lose his grip on reality.
However, the shrieking call started feeling less and less earthly as Mahinda the nobleman steadied himself. “Who is there?” His own yells of confusion and rage sounded like the helpless whimpers of a kitten, however. Clenching his teeth, he tried desperately to scan the area, but nothing hit him as being out of place. Suddenly, the call came once more. It seemed to be everywhere now, and the man had no other choice.
With a shout of fear, he turned and ran.
Following the course of the canal, Mahinda ploughed away, still clutching the flowers as he made it into another area of vegetative growth. Here, the trees formed a canopy over everything, and let only the slimmest of moonbeams to filter through. Perfect, some light of some kind. However, Mahinda knew that it could work both ways. Now he was beginning to let his mind spin out of focus as his imagination replayed that call once again. Suddenly it hit him that there indeed was a demonic force stalking him. The thought gripped him again as he spun around, trying to see, listen and feel anything out of the ordinary. But those demons! Or strange people or whatever those callers were. He looked at the white, sacred thread around his wrist. He’d got it from a Buddhist monk at an almsgiving at a temple in his area.
But now, he wondered, could the blessings rendered unto this humble piece of cloth thread help him to ward off the supernatural?