Anand paced up and down the length of the cave, dimly lit by a sputtering lamp that was threatening to extinguish itself. His impatient footsteps echoed against the cave’s damp, rough-hewn walls. He was vexed, and who could blame him? He’d been waiting here in this freezing hole high on a cliff-side for four days now—the last twenty-four hours without food or water. And there was still no sight or sound of the hermit he’d come all this way to meet! If he hadn’t seen the man himself on a couple of occasions in the past year, clambering up the side of a distant crag like a skinny goat, his gray hair blown helter-skelter and his robe billowing in the wind, he would have doubted his very existence in spite of all that Abhaydatta the master healer had told him.
Though Anand generally held Abhaydatta, whose apprentice he was, in the greatest esteem, right now he was angry with him as well. If it weren’t for Abhaydatta, Anand wouldn’t be here, starving half to death, and probably coming down with a terrible cold, too. This last he could tell because his head felt like it was stuffed with wool, and sounds reached his ears distorted and indistinct, as though they were reaching him from very far away. Of course, Anand was partially to blame for the situation in which he found himself, but when this unpleasant thought pricked at his conscience, he pushed it away, focusing instead on what to do next.
I’ll wait until the lamp burns out, he said to himself. Then I’ll go back down to the Silver Valley, where I’ll have to tell Abhaydatta that I failed.
He sat down on the clammy, uncomfortably sharp rocks just inside the entrance to the cave, crouching a little, for he’d grown a great deal in the last year since he turned fifteen and wasn’t yet used to his height. From this vantage point he scanned the hillside for the hermit, though his hopes were not high. He drew his yellow wool tunic—the one that all apprentices in the Brotherhood wore—closer and pushed his long hair away from his eyes. The despondence that tormented him today was unusual for him. Generally he was a cheerful and responsible young man, much liked by the Healers. His fellow apprentices liked him, too, though they sometimes complained that he took the world too seriously. But mostly they held him in awe because he held a special position in the Brotherhood. He was Keeper of the magical conch from which the Healers drew their power, and the only one with whom the conch communicated. Anand, however, was rather modest and didn’t consider himself special. If anything, he had many doubts about his abilities—and all of them seemed to have surfaced today.
After four days of harsh winds and sleet, it was finally bright outside, the sun shining on piles of snow. It was still cold—but then, up this high in the Himalayas, it was always cold, except in the Silver Valley, where right now Anand’s schoolmates would be sitting down to a hot, savory lunch. Gloom descended on him as he imagined their meal. On Tuesdays—today was Tuesday, wasn’t it?—the cooks generally served a hearty rice and lentil stew filled with fresh vegetables grown in the Valley, with fried potatoes on the side. His stomach growled as he imagined biting into a succulent, spicy potato. But then his appetite ebbed. How would Abhaydatta react to his failure—and to his disobedience, for he had given Anand strict instructions to the Valley yesterday? Abhaydatta wasn’t given to ranting. He’d probably stride away, lips clamped together in disappointment. But some of the other apprentices were sure to make fun of Anand, reminding him of how proud he’d been when given this special assignment, how certain he’d been of his success.
Anand didn’t know that none of the things he dreaded was going to happen, that something far worse was waiting for him in the Valley.
Five days ago. That was when it had all started.
Anand had been in the middle of a lesson with Master Mihirdatta, the Healer who specialized in Transformation, a magical skill that allowed someone to examine the very essence of objects and change the whirling particles of energy that was at their core.
“If you can focus your intellect enough to get down to the level of this energy in something, if you can feel its particular vibration, then you can transform it when necessary to something else,” Mihirdatta explained. “But it is an advanced skill even for those of you who are senior apprentices, and not to be undertaken lightly, for to change the essence of even the smallest object is dangerous and may have far-reaching consequences.” He gave the students a simple exercise—to change the palm leaf on which they were writing their notes into parchment—but even that was difficult. Anand concentrated the way the Healer had explained, closing his eyes, drifting into a state that could best be described as alert sleep, and trying to feel deep into the fabric of the leaf. Just when he felt a strange sensation as though the leaf was dissolving into a pool of rapidly moving pinpricks of light, he was distracted by the arrival of a messenger. It was Raj-bhanu, a friend of Anand’s. They had been on an adventure together some time back when Raj-bhanu was a senior apprentice. He had recently graduated and had been given a Junior Healer’s robes. He bowed to Mihirdatta in apology for interrupting his lesson. However, he said, he had an urgent message from Abhaydatta. Anand was to meet him in the Hall of Seeing as soon as he finished this class.
This was highly unusual. The apprentices’ days followed a strict and (in Anand’s opinion) overly predictable routine. The other boys whispered among themselves, wondering what could have occurred and throwing Anand curious glances. Anand sat up very straight, his heart beating fast as he wondered why his teacher had summoned him. He knew it was important. Otherwise Abhaydatta would have used a carrier pigeon instead of sending a Healer. He hoped it was something exciting.
Anand loved being part of the Brotherhood of Healers and learning the secret arts with which they aided the world. He knew how lucky he was to be here, in this beautiful, sheltered valley with its winding paths lined by silver-barked parijat trees, its airy dormitories, and its magnificent crystal hall where the magic conch from which the healers drew their strength was housed. He felt especially fortunate to be Keeper of the conch because he loved the tiny but immensely powerful shell more than he had ever thought he could love anything—or anyone. Still, it had been two years since his last adventure when, along with his best friend Nisha, he’d traveled back in time to the court of Nawab Najib to save his subjects from being destroyed by an evil jinn. He’d been happy to return to the Brotherhood after having completed his task successfully, and in the last couple of years he’d learned many valuable skills. But now he was ready for a new quest.
He was so distracted by all these thoughts that he bungled the Transformation he was attempting, turning his palm-leaf, quite inexplicably, into a large and extremely blue turban. His classmates snickered, and even Master Mihirdatta stared in disbelief. “How on earth did you manage that? In all my years of teaching, I’ve never seen any student come up with that particular result. Ah well! It’s obvious that you’ll be of no use until you’ve found out what Master Abhaydatta wants. You might as well go to him right now.”
Anand bowed gratefully, handed the turban to the apprentice next to him, and hurried to the door, almost tripping over a stool in the process. Mihirdatta shook his head, but Anand noticed a small smile playing on his lips as though he hadn’t forgotten what it was to be young and hungry for heroic exploits.
Anand ran all the way to the Hall of Seeing, a small, elegant building formed entirely out of intertwining trees with shining green-gray leaves. Pausing at the threshold to catch his breath, he could hear the murmur of voices inside. He had arrived too early—Abhaydatta was still in conversation with someone else. He was about to retreat to the other side of the path when he heard his name mentioned.
“Are you sure Anand is ready for such a challenge?” a man’s voice said. “He hasn’t completed his fourth year of studies yet. He doesn’t even know all the self-defense chants, or the—”
With a start Anand recognized the voice as belonging to the Chief Healer Somdatta. Whatever task Abhaydatta had planned for Anand was obviously important enough for the Chief Healer to take an interest in it! He knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but he couldn’t resist waiting for Abhaydatta’s answer. He hoped the old Healer, whom he idolized, would proclaim that he had complete faith in his apprentice’s abilities. But Abhaydatta said something quite different.
“I’m not certain that he is ready, either,” he replied in a somber voice. “But something I can’t explain is urging me to send him forth. I fear that if I don’t do it now, it may be too late.”
“I trust your instincts, Master Abhaydatta,” Somdatta replied, though he didn’t sound too happy. “You have my consent.”
Hearing their footsteps, Anand retreated hastily. By the time the two men emerged from the building, he was hurrying up the path that bordered the lake of silver lotuses as though he’d just got there. Both healers nodded graciously to acknowledge his greeting, but Abhaydatta shot him a sharp glance from under his bushy eyebrows.
Once inside the building, the Master Healer didn’t waste any time. “A long time ago I told you about the hermit who lives high up in the mountains, and about how one day you might study with him,” he said. “Well, that time has arrived. I want you to meet him—or rather, try to do so, because ultimately only the hermit decides whom he will meet.”
Anand remembered that distant conversation as though it had happened yesterday. Abhaydatta had said that the hermit was the only one who knew how to develop Anand’s special gift, something no one else in the Brotherhood had: his ability to communicate with objects of power. It was this special ability that had allowed Anand to develop a unique friendship with the conch. It had also enabled him to find the Mirror of Fire and Dreaming among the ruins of an ancient palace and use it to travel to Nawab Najib’s court. With the help of the hermit, who knew how many other objects of power he might discover and befriend! His heart leaped at the thought.
Abhaydatta smiled wryly. “Don’t get too excited! It’s quite uncomfortable on the mountain, and the hermit can be capricious. You may not see him at all. But I’ll do what I can to help you. I’ll give you directions to a cave that he uses from time to time, and I’ll equip you with gifts that I think he’ll like. I’ll give you enough food and drink for three days. If he doesn’t come to you by then, you must return to the Brotherhood. This is important! As you no doubt heard when you were eavesdropping,” (here he turned a stern gaze on Anand, making him squirm) “the mountain is dangerous. I’ll weave a protection around you, but it will only last three days. After that, you’ll become easy prey for the forces that dwell on the mountain.”
Anand wanted to ask what these forces were, but Abhaydatta continued, “Most of all, you must tell no one about your coming journey. Even with the best of intentions, boys aren’t necessarily as discreet as they might be, and the news might reach the wrong ears.”
“Can’t I tell Nisha?” Anand asked, dismayed at the thought of keeping such an important secret from his best friend and confidante.
Abhaydatta closed his eyes and thought for a moment, his eyes darting side to side beneath their lids as though he was reading something. “You may mention it to her,” he said finally, though he didn’t explain why.
With quick strokes, using only a fingertip that left a sparkly trail on the floor of the hall, Abhaydatta drew a map of the trail that would lead Anand to the cave. He made Anand pronounce carefully the password he’d have to use to get back into the Valley, for its boundaries were always kept magically sealed against intruders. Then he went on to explain the complicated protocols of visiting a hermit: how to bow to him, how to address him, how to offer him gifts, and what questions not to ask him under any circumstances. Anand left his queries unspoken. Perhaps, he thought, it was better not to know what dangers lurked on the mountain!
At dinner that night Anand made sure to sit next to Nisha, his best friend and confidante. She’d shared all his adventures since the time he’d been a twelve-year old living in the slums of Kolkata and she an orphaned sweeper girl who grew up on the city’s harsh streets. Together, they’d saved the conch from the sorcerer Surabhanu and later, battled the jinn in the ancient court of Nawab Najib. Now, as he told her about his upcoming task, she gave a sigh of envy.
“How I’d love to go up there with you! But Mother Amita would have a fit if I even suggested it.”
Nisha had a flair for dramatic exaggeration. But in this case, Anand thought, she was probably right. Mother Amita, the herbmistress to whom Nisha was apprenticed, and with whom she lived in a cottage at the far edge of the Valley, had become increasingly strict as Nisha grew older. All this last year—perhaps because Nisha was the only girl in the Brotherhood—Amita kept a close eye on her, only allowing her to join the other apprentices at lessons and meals. Recently, she’d insisted that instead of the tunic and pants that all the apprentices wore, Nisha should dress in a long, shapeless skirt and a shawl that covered her curly hair. Anand knew that such restrictions were difficult for his free-spirited friend, but she put up with them with good grace because she loved being part of the Brotherhood, which was the only family she’d ever known. “Oh well,” Nisha said, brightening. “Maybe Mother Amita will make a trip down into the Gorge of Herbs soon—we’ve almost run out of brahmi plants —and I can go with her. I really enjoyed the journey the last time. The trees there are so strange, and they’re full of birds that aren’t scared of people at all. Some of them actually flew down and took bits of fruit from my hand.” A sudden idea struck her, making her eyes sparkle. “Maybe this time I can persuade her to let me go by myself! Wouldn’t that be exciting?”
Anand nodded, though inwardly he doubted that the cautious Herbmistress would ever allow Nisha to go anywhere by herself.
Nisha’s eyes narrowed as though she guessed exactly what he was thinking. That didn’t surprise him. The two of them knew each other so well that they often seemed to read each other’s minds. “Ah, but I have a secret weapon. Remember that special course we took in the skill of Persuasion a month ago from Master Somdatta? Well, I’ve been practicing it—every single day!”
“But you aren’t supposed to use Persuasion on our teachers!” Anand said, shocked. He remembered Somdatta emphasizing that the complex skill, which required using one’s voice in a particular way while focusing one’s attention on the subject’s heart-region, was to be employed only when one was in danger.
“Well,” Nisha said, reading his mind again, “I’m in danger of losing my mind from boredom. Does that count?” She smiled at his expression and patted his hand. “Don’t worry! I’ll only try it once, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll be satisfied with trailing behind Mother Amita.”
Anand smiled, remembering how impatient Nisha been when he first met her, how insistent on getting her own way. And what an inflammable temper she’d had! She still had traces of those qualities, but overall she’d grown a great deal in the years since she’d joined the Brotherhood. He hoped he’d grown as much, but inwardly, he was skeptical. Perhaps he still lacked confidence—the way he had when he was a dishwasher at a roadside tea-stall in Kolkata, taunted and slapped around by his employer. Otherwise, why did a tendril of misgiving tighten around his heart as he thought of his journey, as he remembered the Chief Healer’s reluctant agreement? Why did he fear that somehow he would make a dreadful mistake?
After dinner Anand went to bid goodbye to the conch in the crystal hall. Starlight shone through the transparent dome of the hall, lighting his way as he entered. As he walked to the center of the hall, where the conch—the most powerful magical object in the Valley—was housed inside an exquisite lotus-shaped shrine, he felt calmer than he had all day.
He’d hoped the hall would be empty, but as always there were several people there, meditating in the conch’s aura. Fortunately (though it wasn’t as satisfying) Anand could speak to the conch silently and hear its answers inside his head. Standing close to the shrine, he told it about his upcoming journey, though he didn’t bother to explain the details. He knew from experience that the conch had its own ways of finding out whatever it wished to know. He did, however—somewhat hesitantly, for the conch could be quite caustic on occasion—confide his doubts to it.
The conch was unusually somber in its reply.
It’s quite natural that you’re anxious. Even apprentices far senior to you would have quailed at the thought of spending three days alone on the mountain, which is a place of ancient enchantments. Abhaydatta has set you a challenging task—but he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t trust you. You, too, must trust yourself, for that—and not the spells the Brotherhood teaches you—is the strongest weapon you have.
What if I fail? Anand asked. What if the hermit doesn’t like me or decides I’m not worth talking to?
There’s nothing you can do about that if it does happen, is there? But that’s not what failure is.
No. Listen carefully, because sooner or later you’ll have to put this lesson into practice. If you grow dejected or hopeless about what comes to you, that’s failure. If you accept it serenely and do the next needed thing, that’s success. Now you’d better go to bed—but before you do, you may hold me, if you like. We’ll be apart for quite a while, after all.
Anand was surprised. The conch was rarely demonstrative of its affection for him. But he wasn’t going to turn down this rare opportunity! Though his job as Keeper required him to clean the hall and the shrine each day, he was only supposed to handle the conch once a year, when it received its ritual bath. At that time the Chief Healer would unlock the shrine with the requisite chants in front of a hall full of people. It was a stately affair, but by no means an intimate experience.
Glancing around to make sure no one was looking, he extended his hand toward the shrine. When his fingers touched the crystal wall, it melted to allow his hand through. He picked up the conch carefully and brought it to his chest, feeling it pulse against his heart. How light it was, how seemingly fragile! Looking at it, so like a common shell one might find on any beach, who could guess at its power? A crack ran along one of its sides. As Anand ran his finger along it, he was overwhelmed with love and gratitude—and sorrow—for it was in a battle to save Anand from the jinn that the conch had sustained this injury.
Now, now, said the conch. Don’t go all maudlin on me.
Anand smiled as he replaced the conch. But at the door of the hall he paused, struck by something it had said. What did you mean by we’ll be apart for quite a while? he asked. I’m only going away for three nights.
Was it his imagination, or was there the slightest of pauses before the conch’s answer came to him?
You mean three nights away from me doesn’t seem like a long while to you? I’m insulted!
Sitting at the cold, uncomfortable cave entrance, Anand thought, the conch had been right. Three nights—no—four—on this desolate mountainside away from it was a very long while. Too long. It was time he went home.
How excited he’d been the first day when he reached the cave! Even though the climb had been a tiring one, he could hardly sit still. He kept stepping outside the cave and walking around, swinging his arms in exaggerated arcs, hoping that the movements would catch the hermit’s attention, wherever he might be. All that night, he barely slept. What if the hermit chose to drop in on him in the silent hours before dawn? Anand didn’t want him to think that he was a slacker. But it had all been for nothing.
By the third day, Anand’s spirits had sunk low. Keeping Abhaydatta’s warning in mind, he’d gathered up his things, resigned to returning to the Valley. But when he stepped outside the cave, he discovered a fresh human footprint a little distance from the entrance. Had the hermit approached the cave? Was it a sign that he was about to change his mind and grant Anand a meeting? Anand was torn in two. He hated to disobey Abhaydatta. And yet it seemed that he was so close to his goal! He couldn’t bear to give up on it now. He decided to stay on one more night, even as Abhaydatta’s earnest words echoed in his ears. Surely the healer wouldn’t want him to quit, he said to himself, when success appeared within his grasp. And what could happen to him—especially if he stayed inside the cave—for just a few more hours?
But that, too, had been a waste of time. And now, no doubt, he would be punished for having disobeyed his Master.
He rose to his feet and picked up the twin staffs that he’d need to maneuver his way down the steep, icy slope. He considered taking back with him the bag Abhaydatta had packed with dried fruit and nuts and two warm woolen robes for the hermit. It would serve the man right for not showing up, he thought grumpily, and for tantalizing him with that footstep. But at the last moment he dropped it in a corner of the cave and blew out the still burning lamp.
Coming up to the cave had been difficult, but going down, Anand discovered, was even harder. The trail Abhaydatta had drawn for him was narrow at best. At other times, it disappeared completely and he had to make his way the best he could, stepping between rocks. Luckily on the way up, following the Master Healer’s instructions, he’d hammered colored stakes into the ground at regular intervals. He followed these now. (But surely he’d used more stakes than these few! Where had the others disappeared to, leaving him with large gaps on the path that made him wonder if he was going the right way?) Several times his feet slid on the treacherous moraine that lined the mountainside, and he had to dig his staffs in hard to avoid slipping over the edge. Who knew how far he’d tumble if he lost his footing! This high up, there were no bushes to break his fall. Once, looking down, he’d seen all the way into a dark, hungry gorge that must have been a thousand feet below. It seemed to call to him. With a shudder, he’d turned his eyes from it quickly.
Halfway down the path, the trail wound around to the other side of the peak. Anand heaved a sigh of relief. From what he remembered, now the trail would widen. He’d also be able to see the Silver Valley, and though it was still several hours away, he knew that even a glimpse of his beloved home would give him strength. He hurried to the other side for a look, eager to see how many of the buildings he could recognize from this distance.
To his shock, there was nothing below except a barren stretch of rock and snow.
Anand blinked, then rubbed his eyes. He was tired. That must be it! But when he looked again, there was still nothing. His heart began to pound. Was the mountain playing a trick on him, as the conch had warned? Had he lost his way? Maybe he needed to go around further to the other side. But no. In that direction his path was blocked by a tall, black rock. Besides, he could see the trail quite clearly, wending its way below, its edges marked, from time to time, by the red dots of his stakes.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. Of course! He’d forgotten that the Valley had a spell laid over it to keep it from the eyes of strangers. That must be why he couldn’t see any of its buildings or pastures, or the woods that lined its edges. How foolish he’d been to panic for no reason. How Nisha would laugh at him if she knew! Still, a sense of unease wouldn’t leave him, like the ache that pounded his temples. He hurried down the path, going too fast now, tripping over stones. By the time he came to the two upright, gate-like rocks where he’d started his journey, his robe was torn in several places and his arms were lacerated. But he paid no attention to the pain. He stood before the rocks on the spot he’d marked with the first of his stakes, and, his voice shaking a bit, spoke the password that would make the rocks slide aside, granting him entry.
And yet something was different. When he’d left the Valley, Anand had heard Abhaydatta speak the words to close the doorway. He’d seen the rocks come together until not even a hairline gap was left between them. But now—even before he’d spoken the password—there had been enough space between them for a boy to squeeze through without much difficulty.
Anand moved forward tentatively, his hand held out in front of him. Sometimes gateways were protected by magical energy instead of physical barriers. But he felt no tingling, no elasticity in the air pressing back against his palm. The door was unguarded!
His heart pounding in dismay, Anand pushed his way through the gap. The sight that met his eyes on the other side evaporated his last hope. Where earlier there had been a flower-lined pathway that led past the dormitories and mango orchards, now there was only rock and ice. There weren’t even any ruins to show what had once stood here.
Standing there, Anand couldn’t stop shivering—and it had nothing to do with the freezing temperature around him, here where it had been always been temperate. What had happened in the four days since he’d been gone? Where had everyone disappeared to? And what had become of his beloved conch? Or—and this was the worst of the thoughts that swirled in his brain—had there never been anything here? Had he, out of some desperate desire, dreamed it all?
That was when he heard the sound of crying in the distance.
He ran toward the source of the noise, thanking the Powers that there was some other life in this desolate place. To his surprised relief, he found Nisha slumped next to a rock, her back to him. She hid her face in her hands, and her body was racked by sobs. Next to her was a spilled basket of herbs. When he touched her shoulder, she jumped up, holding up the small knife she used for herb-cutting. But when she recognized him through her tears, the knife fell from her hands and she clutched at him gratefully.
“Thank God you’re here, Anand! I thought I’d gone mad! How can everything disappear just like that, without even the slightest trace remaining?”
“I can’t tell you how relieved I am to find you, too!” Anand said, holding her hands tightly. “I was having the same doubts about my sanity. But how is it that you escaped whatever happened to everyone else here?”
“I must have used Persuasion really well—or maybe I just wore her out with my pestering—for yesterday Mother Amita had Master Abhaydatta weave a one-day spell of protection for me and sent me down to the gorge to fetch the herbs we’d run out of. I got back about an hour ago. How I wish I hadn’t insisted on going! Wherever the rest of the Brotherhood are, that’s where I want to be, too!” And she burst into tears again. “Don’t say that!” Anand cried, his heart twisting at the sight of his brave friend, who never cried, weeping like this. “Otherwise I’d be all alone now. We’ll try to figure out what happened—and two heads will surely be better than one at that— but first we must take care of ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Do you have any food or water?”
Nisha shook her head, shivering. “Mother Amita only gave me enough to eat on the way down to the gorge, because it has a spring and an orchard. But the gorge is too far away—we’ll never reach it before dark. And it’s getting so cold and windy!”
“In that case,” Anand said, trying to sound more confident than he felt, “the only solution is to go back to the hermit’s cave. The path is steep, but we’ll help each other. Abhaydatta had given me food and woolen robes for the hermit. I left them there. We can use those tonight, and the cave will shelter us. Tomorrow we’ll try to come up with a plan.”
Cold, hungry, disheartened, and acutely aware that they were no longer protected from the dangers of the mountain, the two of them took each other’s hands and started the long, hard climb.