The sky poured in upon Mithila.
She cried out. The world swallowed up her voice.
Her eyes squeezed shut. Wind pounded her skin. The wing-beat of the garudas drummed in her ears. Her body swung like a leaf in the wind, high above the ground.
Across the Wall, the garudas could carry her no more. Two more jerks. Her stomach contracted. The rope around her waist tightened, making her gasp.
She opened her eyes a crack. The world rushed in through the curtain of her eyelids. They were plummeting towards a vast, green carpet. Her head spun.
The wind whipped her hair into her face. A dull roaring filled her ears. Mithila braced.
The world turned dark. Something cracked across her body, slapped her face, making her shield her eyes with her hands, then a brief respite, before –
She hit the ground with a thump that knocked the breath from her. Her right elbow and side took the first impact. Still shielding her face, Mithila hit the ground again and rolled twice, before coming to a halt.
She lay there, dazed and aching. Her face was buried in soft, muddy ground. Leaves were tangled in her hair. Dirt was in her mouth, splattered upon her skin and clothes. She gulped for air. The scent of soil rushed into her, the smell of the woodlands of Sumer, but richer, sharper, deeper.
She heard a garuda screech. The birds were pecking at the ropes. Mithila struggled to her feet, spitting out dirt. The garudas looked at her. One of them screeched again.
Mithila limped over. She undid the rope around the first, and then the second. She watched their wings spread, watched them leap again – this time without her – and fly.
She held out a hand as they disappeared through the canopy forever, leaving her wingless in the world, and alone.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Mithila looked around. Trees surrounded her. They formed corridors and passages, twining paths and doorways, clusters and darkling groves. A cool breeze rustled the leaves and played upon her skin. Dappled, cloudy light filtered through the canopy. Beneath her feet, the ground was soft and uneven.
She spread out her arms, lifted her face, and let the world wash over her. The weight that had always been lodged in the cavity of her chest was gone, leaving a strange lightness behind.
The end of smara.
When she opened her eyes, something was pricking at the corners of her vision. Mithila blinked, her throat tight. The world was blurry. She dabbed at her eyelids with her sleeve, but only got more dirt on her face. She pressed her eyes shut again, and felt a trickle of tears trail down her cheeks, soft as a breath.
She sank to her knees. Her fingernails dug into the ground. She breathed, letting the cool air fill her lungs, soften the tightness in her throat, beat back her tears.
Mithila stood and shook her head. Hazy colours began to come back into focus.
She was the first in all the world.
There was a moment, when Mithila had drawn level with the Wall-top, that Alvar had felt Minakshi’s hand tighten around his. He had turned to her, their fingers interlacing for an instant. Then his gaze was torn back to the sky, to see Mithila cross. In that moment, their hands had parted.
He turned back to her now.
“And so it ends,” he said.
She looked back at him. He thought he saw a light in her eyes. ‘And so it begins, doesn’t it?’ Minakshi said.
Suddenly Sumer felt smaller than ever. There were pins and needles in his blood. He wanted to jump, to jump higher than he ever had, to run, to keep running, to sing until the Wall crumbled and fell, until the last Wallset of circular Time.
He searched for words instead.
“Yes,” he said. “It begins. A new world.”
“The world Mithila made.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Alvar saw two figures hurrying across the fields. He reached for her hand. “You’ve come back.”
This time she snatched it away. “Back where, Alvar?”
“To – us?” Confusion washed over him. He spoke quickly. “Mithila wanted to give up but I—I knew you weren’t gone forever. And we’ve killed the Circles!”
She gave him the ghost of a smile. “So, now? What now, that you’ve done it?”
Alvar laughed, feeling his chest unclench. “We’ll make it up as we go along!”
“I see.” She looked away.
“We can start the world over, Minakshi,” he whispered.
It was Mankala and Lamon, running. Minakshi reached across and touched his sleeve. “I’ll see you again soon, Alvar,” she said. And then she was gone, walking swiftly by the Wall, towards South Sumer.
They ran at him.
Alvar spread out his arms. They reached him together, shouting, and almost took him off his feet.
“We saw it,” Lamon whispered, as they locked him in the tightest of hugs. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I couldn’t...Mithila...someone found out...had to change...” he gasped, the breath squeezed out of him.
They swayed together. Then Lamon leapt over to the Wall, and with a whoop, began to beat his fists against it.
“Fuck the Builders!”
Mankala grinned. Looking at her, Alvar felt something swell in his stomach, something that rushed up to swirl in his throat, and finally escaped him in a torrent, a laughter that wouldn’t stop. And he heard it echo – or was that Lamon and Mankala laughing with him – as he dropped, gasping, to his knees, a crick in his side.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Mankala said after a while. “Let’s get serious, we have to – ”
“Uff!” Lamon grunted, and swooped on Mankala. He swung her around. “Let it out for once – we just changed the world! The Young Tarafians? We lived up to our name!”
“Put me down, Lamon, you big lump!” Mankala protested, but she was laughing too – and then she stopped suddenly, as her face turned towards the City, and her eyes widened.
“Wait!” she pointed.
Lamon put her down. They followed her arm. Walking towards them, all in black, his face a mask of stone, was Tefnakth of the Coterie. Alvar took a shuddering breath. “Can’t you fucking Shoortans give us a moment?”
Mankala fell in beside him. Lamon came up from behind. They stood together, side by side, facing Tefnakth.
He stopped before them. His eyes shifted to the Wall, and back to them again.
“What have you done?” His voice was a whisper, uneven like frayed cloth.
“What we said we would,” said Mankala.
Tefnakth’s mouth opened and shut.
“Why, Tefnakth,” said Alvar, light-headed, “don’t you like the new world?”
“It is not yet time!” Tefnakth cried out. His voice seemed to hit the Wall and bounce back.
“What do you mean, not yet time?” Alvar laughed. “When would it ever have been time for the Shoortans, you and your Malan and your raika?”
“That’s not – ”
“And didn’t you tell us the world is ending in a month?” Mankala added.
“Yes – yes, but – ”
“Time to get out of here before that happens, no?”
“Not like this!” The words escaped him in a squeal. He raised an arm, palm out, almost as if he was trying to ward off a blow. “You – ” he rasped, “you don’t know what you’ve done.”
Excerpted with permission from The Horizon, Being the second book of the Chronicles Of Sumer, Gautam Bhatia, HarperCollins India.
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