The Rains Would Not Come
Neha could tell from the soft cries of the women that the hunt had not been successful, and once again no food or water had been brought back to present to the Elders.
She bowed her head. How long would the Great Wyrm continue to ignore them?
The villagers knelt in a circle around the hunters, who lay their weapons and empty water skins at the Elders’ door.
“The Great Wyrm has not seen fit to bless us,” Faru, the first hunter, cried out.
Neha grew hot with anger. “The forest has dried up, and the animals have left. We should leave, too,” she said.
Her words were met with fearful whispers.
“How can you be so ungrateful?” Faru said. “The Great Wyrm has sheltered us since the waters and the sky were split. We must prove our faith by waiting, and when the forest floods again we will know that we have passed the test.”
The curtain across the door to the Elders’ hut was pulled back roughly, and Anu, the youngest and most vigorous of the Elders, stood on the threshold.
“Who speaks against the Great Wyrm?” Anu said, glaring at the gathered crowd. His gaze fell on Neha, the only one still standing. “If you leave, you will no longer be under its protection and you will know the power of the sun sucking the moisture from your bones; you will wander the arid lands without rescue.”
The other Elders stumbled out of the hut, holding small bundles of bones and fur, all that they had left to offer in sacrifice.
Neha felt tears prick the back of her eyes, but her body was too parched to let any precious liquid fall. The Great Wyrm had not answered their prayers when they had meat and blood to offer it; there had to be another way to make it listen.
Neha found the Tree of Life in the centre of the forest. She knew she had found the right tree because it was so much bigger than the others. Enormous buttress roots lifted the wrinkled trunk straight into the sky. Its thick branches tickled the belly of the heavens. It was the only tree still in leaf, and they were silver, with succulent golden fruits hanging from every bud.
A dark hole between the tree roots led down into the earth. Neha crawled into the tunnel, leaving behind the heat and the light of the forest as she descended into the pungent, dank soil.
The tunnel birthed her into a wide cave, its domed ceiling covered in glow worms.
Neha tried to brush the earth from her body, but it clung slick and damp, like a second skin.
The cavern was cool, yet the soft earth was warm under her bare feet. In the centre of the cave squatted an enormous creature, its body cloaked in feathers of every colour and size. Silver tipped talons peeped from beneath its bulk, and its large head rested on its chest.
“Great Wyrm,” she said, prostrating herself before the sleeping creature. “Please bring the rains to flood the forest. Save my village.”
The Great Wyrm didn’t even twitch in response.
Neha sat up.
“Wake up,” she shouted.
No breath stirred the Great Wyrm’s feathered breast. Neha shuffled closer to the creature. What she had taken for a beast was in fact nothing more than a feather cloak hung on a frame of sticks. The great beak was the curved visor of an old ceremonial headdress. The silver talons mere carved sticks.
Neha launched herself at the beastly illusion. It shattered under her touch. Headdress and beak, body and feet all crumbled away in a flurry of dust, leaving the feathers gleaming like jewels upon the cavern floor.
Dry, painful sobs crawled out of Neha’s throat into the damp ground.
“The Elders lied,” she said. “We are alone.”
Neha stood up. The feathers tickled where they mixed with the mud and stuck to her body. She had to return to the village and tell them about what she had found. They would all die if they waited for the Great Wyrm to bring the rains.
She felt along the cavern walls for the tunnel to the surface but could not find it.
She was trapped.
She leaned against the wall and her cheek brushed the tree roots that pulsed like veins through the hard packed earth. She gripped the roots and tested them with her weight. They were anchored fast.
She climbed the roots to the cavern ceiling. What appeared to be a dome closing above her head was in fact a wide shaft, and the lights she had assumed to be glow worms were pin pricks of sunlight shining down from above.
Using the roots like a ladder, Neha climbed up.
Neha emerged at the top of the Tree of Life, the moist spongy belly of the sky pressing against her head.
She looked for handholds in the wrinkled trunk that would let her descend, but there were none.
Neha was not ready to give up.
The branches below were wide and sturdy and close enough that she could survive the fall. She lowered herself towards the nearest branch and let go. She sailed past, the branch just out of reach of her grasp. She fell without touching a single twig, the Tree of Life recoiling from her as she passed.
The ground seemed to rise up to embrace her. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact.
The wind caught her and held her. She opened her eyes and saw her arms had transformed into enormous wings. Bejewelled feathers cloaked her body, glinting like precious stones in the sunlight.
Neha rose upwards, flexing her new body. Every wing beat conjured dark clouds over the forest. The thunder of her voice shook the trees. Lightening flashed where her wings brushed the storm clouds.
Neha danced with the sky. The heavens opened, and the rains came.