The Water Buffalo, the Wanderer, and the Prince
Once upon a time, in a faraway land where people had skins as blue as the sea and hair as white as moonlight, where animals could speak in human words but few humans any longer listened, there lived a girl called Ambha.
Ambha was a human who did listen. She was an orphan, a kitchen maid in the house of a rich lord. The scullery was her home.
One day, the cook gave her a small bag of saffron to take to a merchant in the nearby town in exchange for several boxes of sugar cane animals. Ambha set off eagerly. She always loved this journey, as it took her on a wandering way through a forest. She would pretend she was a free and fearless traveler, following the path wherever it led.
But she never dared to really wander. She knew she’d be caught and flogged, like the stable boy. The servants had been forced to watch his punishment. His screams still haunted her.
She stopped and listened. No. These cries were not human.
From a footpath through the forest, came a man dragging the source of the cries — a water buffalo, too weak to resist, with a sagging hide and bony back covered with raw wounds. . He groaned as the man lashed him.
She rushed forward and held out her hands to shield him from the lash. “Don’t hit the poor creature!”
The man pushed her away. “Mind your own business.” His eyes raked over her ragged clothes. “Slave.”
“Save me!” cried the water buffalo. “He’s selling me to the butcher.”
Ambha’s blood froze. “How can you condemn him to such a horrible death! Hasn’t he served you well all his life?”
The man sneered. “What good is he if he can’t work? I might as well make some money out of him to feed my family. ” He noticed the costly linen bag Ambha was carrying. “What have you got there?”.
His eyes glinted when she told him. He flashed a smile. “Listen, girl, if you give me the bag, I’ll give you the animal.”
“But the saffron belongs to my master.” Ambha cried.
The man shrugged. “Well then…” He lashed the water-buffalo. “Off to the butcher, lazybones.”
The water-buffalo gave Ambha a last look. Tears trickled down his wrinkled face.
“No.” The word tore out of her. She thrust the bag of saffron at the man.
The man dropped the rope, snatched the bag, and hurried back into the forest.
“Thank you!” cried the water-buffalo. “I will serve you faithfully.”
Ambha stroked his head, but as she turned back towards home, her heart raced with fear and her feet dragged. She could almost feel the bite of the whip. By the time they reached the kitchen garden, she was shivering like a sapling in an angry gale.
The water-buffalo asked her what was wrong. But she just shook her head, gave him water and hay, stroked him, and dragged herself into the kitchen.
“Where are the sweets?” barked the cook.
Ambha tried to explain. But the words came in bits and pieces, and made no sense even to her.
Finally, the cook understood enough. His blow sent her sprawling. “Thief!” he shouted, and rushed to get the steward.
Ambha curled up in a corner and wept.
The cook soon returned with the steward, who pointed at the cowering Ambha. “At dawn tomorrow, you will take the animal to town and sell it to the butcher. If you get a good price, you will be spared. Else, you will be flogged, to teach you a lesson in obedience you will never forget.”
“Please let the animal live, sir,” Ambha pleaded, touching the steward’s feet. “He will work hard…”
“Silence!” roared the steward, pushing her back with his foot. “Be grateful for this merciful chance to redeem yourself.”
The cook cuffed her. “Get to the pots!”
Late that night, her work finally over, Ambha curled up on the scullery floor and wept. But underneath the grief and fear was an unfamiliar feeling, a protective, rebellious anger which she could never have felt for herself but felt now for the water buffalo.
At dawn, the cook kicked her awake and sent her on her way.
Ambha set off, but when they were far from the lord’s house, she stopped, untied the halter and stroked the water buffalo’s head. “You’re free. Get as far from humans as you can.” She tried not to think of the pain awaiting her, but tears streamed down her face.
The water-buffalo rubbed his forehead on her shoulder, “Why are you crying, little one?”
When Ambha told him, he snorted. “Why return to be flogged? Come away with me.”
Ambha wished so much to run off through the forest. .But she shook her head. “They’ll catch me.”
“Not if we start now and run fast!”
Ambha laughed, something she wasn’t used to doing. “You’re right!”
They ran deep into the forest. The trees crowded together, the underbrush grew thick and sharp, but still they ran.
Eventually, Ambha could run no more. Her body ached and her feet were bloody. “I need a rest,” she gasped through panting breaths.
The water-buffalo’s eyes were red. Sweat coated his heaving body. “We should be beyond the reach of your master now.”
They walked slowly until they came to a cool stream. After drinking, the water buffalo showed Ambha bunches of pink, cone-shaped fruits amongst the bushes. She took a taste, then gobbled them up, loving their tart sweetness.
Afterward, they curled up on the grassy bank. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“I don’t have one. But if you want to name me, you can. You gave me back my life, so in a way I’m yours.”
“Without you I’d never have run away. You gave me freedom. So in a way I’m yours.”
The water-buffalo chuckled. “We belong to each other! Now what name do you want to give me?”
Ambha thought. “Meaya?”
“That has a pleasant sound.” And Meaya smiled.
So began a life of wandering. They avoided towns and large villages, but ventured into small hamlets, trading fieldwork or load carrying for food and clothing.
Their true home though, was the forest, where they felt safe and free.
One day, during the height of summer, they came across a small village and asked for work. Ambha was offered a loaf of flatbread and a pot of pickled mushrooms for fetching twenty pails of water from a distant well, the only one not yet dried up.
She made a pikolan with a pole and vine, fixed pails on either end and balanced the whole on Meaya’s neck. As she walked by his side, Ambha smiled at the change in him. His bones were visible no longer, his skin stretched smooth over his body, and his gait was steady and sure.
They were on their fourth trip when they heard a commotion, human shouts and a hissing cry for help.
Without thinking, Ambha ran toward the voices.
A king cobra was caught in a snare. Village boys were attacking him with shovels, poles, and hoes. He hissed at them and made desperate attempts to free himself.
“Stop!” she yelled.
The boys looked at her, astonished.
“It’s the water-carrier,” jeered one.
“We’re going to kill it and sell its poison,” cried a second as he lifted his hoe.
Ambha pushed the hoe away. A boy swung a pole at her. She ducked, then jumped to evade a shovel. The next blow from a pike might have felled her had Meaya not entered the fray, red eyes glaring, nostrils flaring, bellowing and snorting. The boys fled.
Cautiously, Ambha approached the cobra.
“Fear me not, young one,” the cobra said. “I never harm those who don’t harm me.”
Ambha began unraveling the snare.
“Why would they want your venom?” Meaya asked.
“We king-cobras are renowned for our healing powers, But our powers lie in our knowledge not our bodies. Humans, though, have forgotten that. We can’t remind them because they no longer hear us.”
Ambha unraveled the final knot.
The king-cobra bowed his hooded head. “My friends, if ever you need my healing powers, call and I will come.”
He slithered away into the undergrowth.
Hearing the approach of angry villagers, Ambha and Meaya fled into the forest.
Days passed, months, and years. Ambha outgrew her clothes again and again. Meaya became slower in his walk, more easily tired. They knew they’d have to give up their wandering life and settle down in some safe place, eventually.
One morning, after a night of wrathful winds and unceasing rain, they were picking their way through a boulder-strewn valley when a massive shadow streaked across the land.
Meaya looked up and trembled. “Roc!” he bellowed.
They fled toward a grove of stunted trees. But the huge roc, red and gold feathers swirling, landed on a towering boulder before them. She opened her curved beak, baring a cavernous mouth lined with serrated teeth. Her sharp voice filled the air and echoed off the valley walls. “Young woman, do not fear me. I come as a supplicant. A mudslide from last night’s storm buried my nest. I need human hands to unearth my egg.”
Ambha’s terror evaporated. “We’ll help you.”
“If you promise not to harm us,” added Meaya.
The roc bowed her head. “Of course.”
Ambha got on her broad, softly feathered back. The roc gently cupped Meaya in one claw and flew, low and slow, to the buried nest.
Ambha set carefully to work, removing mud. Meaya moved large stones. Eventually, they unearthed the egg unharmed.
“Thank you both,” said the roc. “If ever you are in need, call, and I will not fail to aid you.”
One afternoon, many months later, they reached a valley surrounded by green hills, with high, shady trees, flowering bushes and a shining lake. After a bath and a meal, they settled on the grassy bank to rest.
Birdsong woke Ambha from a restful sleep. Twilight filled the valley with a golden glow. On a branch overhead were two spotted nightjars.
“I’m going to miss him so much,” lamented one.
“He isn’t dead yet…” said the other. “With all the care, he might recover.”
“But no one knows what’s wrong. He’ll die. He’ll die. ” The bird burst into a mournful song.
The sweetly sad sound tore at Ambha’s heart. “Please don’t weep,” she told the bird softly. “Perhaps we can help.”
The birds looked down, startled.
“Another human who can speak with birds,” cried the male nightjar. “And we thought there was only one such.”
“Who’s that?” asked Meaya.
“Our friend Prince Azka,” answered the female. “We visit him in the royal woods. He loves to hear our tales about faraway lands, and he recites his poetry for us. Now he is sick. His younger sister told us his parents have promised a white elephant’s weight in gold to anyone who cures him. Many have tried and failed…” She hid her face in her plumage.
“Perhaps the cobra can cure the prince.” Meaya murmured.
Ambha lowered her head.
“What’s the matter?” Meaya asked. “You’re always eager to help any creature in trouble.”
She shook her head. “I’m scared of rich and powerful people.”
“My former master had no money or power,” Meaya said, “yet he worked me to the bone and then planned to sell me to the butcher.”
“Prince Azka is a good, kind person,” cried the female nightjar. “He would never harm you.”
“What king or queen wonuld believe a kitchen maid could cure their son!”
“You are no longer a kitchen maid!” grunted Meaya. “Just say you are a wandering physician.”
Ambha sighed and gave in. She called out to the king-cobra.
When he arrived they greeted him warmly, apologized for the inconvenience, and explained their need.
“I too avoid humans,” he said. “They rarely do well even by each other. Still, my word to you is sacred. If you can carry me into the palace unseen, I will do what I can.”
“We’ll need a large bag or a basket,” Meaya said.
“That is not a problem,” cried the nightjars. “We will ask the weaverbirds to make one.”
The next day, a flock of weaverbirds brought a fine sturdy basket.
The cobra settled inside. Meaya knelt down and Ambha placed the basket on his back, and they followed the nightjars to the palace.
At the palace gates Ambha told the guards she was a physician come to treat the prince. They were skeptical of this tall, thin, barefooted young woman. The darkness of her blue skin spoke of a life in the company of sun, rain, and wind. Her ragged trousers and blouse proclaimed her poverty. But their orders were to admit all healers. Leaving Meaya in the palace garden, the guards escorted her in, with two of them carrying the heavy basket.
The gold and silver walls, the jeweled ornaments, the pearl-encased hangings and silken carpets shriveled Ambha’s spirit. The angry eyes of the magnificent king and the disdainful eyes of the gorgeously attired queen made her stutter.
The king ordered the guards to throw the presumptuous vagabond out. The queen sought refuge in her scented handkerchief.
A wave of indignation washed over Ambha, drowning her awe and fear. “I came to heal your son. If you don’t want him saved, I’ll go.” She turned her back to them without so much as a bow.
Their majesties exchanged astonished glances. With such an air of confidence, perhaps this bedraggled creature really was a skilled physician.
“Stop,” cried the king. “You may examine the prince.”
“See that she washes her hands before she touches my son,” ordered the queen.
The head chamberlain took Ambha to the prince’s chamber. Two attendants carried the basket.
The prince was sunk in a feverish sleep, a thin still form on a golden bed. Beside him sat a young woman, holding his hand and watching him anxiously. Attendants hovered, ready to fulfill his demands, but he made none.
Ambha had the basket set down gently beside the bed. She asked to be left alone with her patient.
The young woman bowed. “Physician, I am Azka’s younger sister. Please let me stay and help in any way I can.”
The young princess seemed as different from her parents as possible. But trust her, Ambha would not. “I’m sorry, Princess,” she said, “but the initial examination must be done alone. I will call you back soon.”
The princess left reluctantly. Ambha locked the door and lifted the basket lid. The king cobra slithered out, scales softly rasping.
He reared up and examined the prince. “There is a poisonous growth in his stomach. The sages name it Kshyaa. It means thinning sickness. I can draw out the poison but whether he can recover is uncertain. He is weak and needs care. Certain herbs in soups and potions must be made daily. It will take time.”
Ambha’s eyes moved around the opulent chamber, lined with gold filigree. She felt like a caged bird. Then her gaze fell back on the pitiful figure on the bed.
“I’ll do it,” she said slowly.
The cobra drew out the poison with his fangs. “Now we wait,” he said. “If he wakes and asks for water, it is a good sign.”
Sunlight and shadows moved across the room. As twilight approached the prince just barely opened his eyes. “Water,” he whispered weakly.
Ambha held a small cup of water to his lips. He sipped slowly, and slipped into a deep, restful sleep.
The cobra instructed Ambha in the treatments she would need to carry out, and returned to the basket. She called for the head chamberlain and asked that she and the basket be taken to the royal woods. There she dismissed the attendants and opened the basket. The cobra slipped out, adjured her to take care, and vanished into the undergrowth.
Making sure Meaya was safe for the night, she made a cup of thin gruel from mongoose-tail leaves and returned to the prince’s chamber.
When he woke, she gave him the gruel and told him to drink slowly.
He tried to smile. “Who are you?” His voice was so low she had to read the question on his pale, cracked lips.
“I’m your new physician.”
He closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
So began the long convalescence. Ambha and Meaya were given a forester’s cottage in the royal woods. While she was with the prince, Meaya had a restful time, eating, sleeping, and wallowing in a nearby lake.
The prince gratefully drank the gruel and the potions she gave him, but said little. Sleep consumed him. Eagerly and carefully Khumi helped Ambha prepare herbs and care for her brother.
On the fifth morning he asked “What is your name, physician?” This time she could hear his voice.
“I’m Azka,” he said as he fell back asleep.
From then on, his appetite slowly returned, and with it, his strength. He started to speak with her. The dullness in his eyes receded and he began filling in. Whenever she was not at her studies, Khumi joined them.
The king and the queen bestowed their thanks on Ambha, through the head-chamberlain.
One morning, Prince Azka said, “Perhaps it was a fever dream, but I thought there was a cobra with you that first day, and the two of you conversed.”
Ambha hesitated, then said, “You’re right.”
His eyes shone with excitement. “So you can speak with animals, like me?”
Over the next several days, she told him the story of her wanderings. The prince was enthralled and asked to be introduced to Meaya.
When he was well enough, Ambha brought him outside to meet Meaya. They took an immediate liking to each other.
“You are fortunate to have such a loyal friend,” Azka told her.
“He is a nice young man,” pronounced Meaya.
Meaya, Ambha, and Azka began to spend time together, immersed in lively conversations and companionable silences.
The days passed, and Azka was happier than he had ever been. In the company of this strange young woman, he felt as free as the birds he loved to talk with. She had lived through many hardships and emerged strong, kind, and wise. He began composing poems about her, writing them in a silver-covered notebook. At first, the verses expressed gratitude, admiration, friendship. Then one night, he wrote, Without you, no sun will shine for me, no moon, no stars. He understood then that he loved Ambha.
That same night, Meaya said, “Now that our task is done, shouldn’t we be on our way?”
“Go?” cried Ambha.
“You want to stay?”
“Not stay in the palace. But…”
“But you don’t want to leave Azka,” Meaya said gently.
“I’ve seen that you two were falling in love,” Meaya said. “But my dearest child, he is a prince. He is the heir to this kingdom and to his uncle’s empire. Poor wanderers and princes don’t go together. The sooner we leave, the better.”
Ambha buried her face in Meaya’s neck and wept.
He licked her hand, his heart filled with pain and worry.
The next morning, Azka arrived, full of joy, but Ambha said “Now that you are recovered, Meaya and I will be on our way.”
Azka’s jaw fell. Horror crowded his heart. Then he saw the grief-stricken look in Ambha’s black eyes and the pity in Meaya’s amber gaze. He realized they were leaving because they thought they should.
He fetched out his book, turned to the previous night’s poem and read out his words of love and longing.
Ambha’s heart swelled. “I love you too,” she said softly. “But…”
Azka caught her hand. “If you love me, then marry me.”
Ambha returned the clasp of his hand, even as she shook her head. “A future emperor can’t marry a penniless vagabond.”
“My parents might not like it at first. But they love me. They will consent.”
Ambha shivered. Her one encounter with the king and the queen had convinced her they only valued riches and power.
“We must not rush things,” Maeya said. “Don’t tell your parents yet. Give me time to think of the best way to go about this.”
Azka had every intention of following Meaya’s advice. But those intentions vanished like dew drops that very evening.
“Your recovery is complete,” the king told his son over dinner. “It’s time to give that girl her reward.”
“We have decided to present her with a more suitable reward,” the queen added.
“You have?” cried Azka in delight.
The king beamed. “What can a girl do with a white mammoth’s weight in gold? How can she even carry it?”
“So we have decided to give her a small bag of silver!” the queen added, smiling sweetly. “That would be more useful and convenient. It can be her dowry when she marries some day.”
The king sighed. “It’s a loss to the treasury. But we will be generous.”
The prince stared at his parents, his eyes snapping with anger. “It will not be a loss at all! You see, I’m going to marry her.”
Then he got up and went out.
The shock! Their son, destined to wear an imperial crown, to marry a low-born healer who possessed nothing but an old water-buffalo?!
But they were too clever to throw tantrums or impose bans.
The next morning, they called the prince to them.
“Because we love you, we will give you our blessings,” the king said, smiling benignly. “But first, you must visit your uncle and tell him this news personally. You are his heir and you owe him this courtesy. It would be most unseemly if he hears this news secondhand,”
“But, we have certain arrangements to make,” the queen said. “So wait until we send you the message that all is ready, then you may tell him the news.”.
Azka went with Khumi to tell Ambha and Meaya.
Ambha was overjoyed. Meaya and Khumi though, exchanged troubled glances. They didn’t want to intrude on this joy, but silently determined to keep a close watch over Ambha.
After the prince set off for the imperial capital, the queen instructed the cook to make whatever dish was Ambha’s favorite, giving her a ‘special flavoring’ to add that was really a a powerful sleeping potion.
The king had the gate between the lake and the royal wood closed, locking Meaya away from the cottage. He told two soldiers a dangerous sorceress was sleeping in the forester’s cottage, and they must put her in a sack and throw her into the river. He thought he’d now dealt with the ‘problem’ of Ambha, but Khumi had been keeping watch and overheard the plans.
As soon as she could steal out, Khumi ran to the lake gate, and released Meaya, who was frantically battering at the gate. He ran to Ambha’s cottage and found it already empty. He bellowed fearfully and followed the soldiers’ scent through the royal woods to the bank of a deep river. They were about to heave the sack into the river. Meaya charged, roaring in fury.
The darkness gave him a monstrous shape. The soldiers dropped Ambha and ran off shrieking.
Meaya gripped the sack with his teeth and dragged it away from the raging waters. He tore open the sack with his teeth. Ambha lay inside, caught in a death-like sleep. He nudged her, called her name, and licked her face. But she slept on.
Fear clogged his heart. The soldiers would return, with reinforcements. He’d fight, but he knew eventually the soldiers would win and kill them both. Unless…
The memory of the roc’s promise came to him. He called out to her. Then he lay next to Ambha and waited, wondering how to leave a message for Azka.
As dawn light streaked the eastern sky, Meaya heard the growing thunder of hooves. Soon the first riders broke through the tree line. He rose to his feet, gathering his strength.
As the riders drew close, the roc came streaking across the sky like a flaming arrow. She thundered down towards them with the force of a whirlwind.
The horses reared, neighing in terror.
The roc scooped up Ambha with one foot, lifted off, and reached down for Meaya with the other, her fiery feathers glinting in the morning light.
And then Meaya knew how to leave a message for Azka.
“Wait!!” he cried. “Pluck one of your feathers, please!”
“What?!!” thundered the roc.
The soldiers had their horses under control again and were notching their arrows.
“I’ll explain later,” cried Meaya. “Leave one feather here. Please.”
The roc grumbled but did as asked, then picked up Meaya and soared away just ahead of a hail of arrows.
She carried them far away to a green valley sheltered by towering mountains. As they rested, Meaya thanked the roc and told her everything that happened.
The roc shook her head. “Humans. And they call themselves superior. So you think the soldiers will take my feather to the king, and Azka will understand what happened?”
“Azka once told us roc feathers are more precious than gold and his parents were desperate to own one.”
“And you think this young man will give up his crown and go looking for Ambha?” ask the roc.
“If he loves her…”
“Time will tell,” the roc said softly. “For now, you are safe. If you need me, just call.” And with a thunder of wings and a rush of air, she rose into the sky.
Ambha woke next morning and Meaya told her what had happened.
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “You saved my life,” she whispered.
“You saved mine,” Meaya reminded her. He said nothing about leaving the feather for Azka.
They explored the valley. It was lush, green, sparkling with streams and lakes, filled with wild fruits, vegetables, grains, starberries, white pumpkins, pepper grass, green mallow, sweet potatoes, black cherry, giant clover, sunflowers, purple cabbages, mushrooms…
Ambha looked at Meaya. “Perhaps we should stay here.”
“I am a little tired of travelling… What about Azka?”
Ambha stared at the setting sun. “He is destined to be an emperor. Let him live the life he was born into.”
So they settled down. With Meaya’s help, Ambha built a hut, cleared space for gardens, and planted. They didn’t speak about Azka, but thought about him often. Whenever Ambha was staring at nothing, when tears mixed with her sweat, when she tossed and turned at night like a boat adrift in rough waters, Meaya’s heart ached for her.
The roc was their only visitor. She brought gifts — cloth, furniture, once a picnic basket full of food.
The weeks passed into months. One morning, Ambha was working in the garden and Meaya was sunning himself when the roc arrived.
She placed a bundle on the ground, chortling. “A very special gift.”
The bundle of clothing uncurled and sat up.
“Azka,” cried Ambha and Meaya.
Amidst embraces and cries of happiness, Azka told them he had received his parents’ message saying Ambha had left, so there was no engagement to tell his uncle about. He had rushed home.
The king had shaken his head sadly and shrugged. “We did our best to keep her, but… Ambha left, taking our very generous reward with her.”
“I gave her one of my rings as a special token of our affection,” the queen had murmured, wiping a dry eye with a scented handkerchief.
Azka had been astonished, suspicious, filled with despair, but Khumi nudged him, directed his gaze, and whispered, “I think the truth lies this way”. To one side, in a glass case almost as tall as the golden ceiling, was a feather, gleaming like fire and silk.
“A roc feather?!” he cried.
“Yes,” the king had said, swelling with pride. “A forester found it on the plain beyond the royal wood. The creature must have left it as a gift. A token of respect.”
“As soon as I saw the feather,” Azka said. “I realized what must really have happened. Before dawn next day I set out to find the roc.”
Ambha hugged Meaya’s head. Azka praised his wisdom.
Meaya never told them, but leaving the feather had also been a test — if Azka searched for Ambha, his love was true, and he was worthy of her.
“What will happen to the kingdom?” Ambha asked.
“My parents and uncle will pass the throne to Khumi. They know that, more than I, she has the skills to rule the empire.” Azka embraced Ambha and Meaya. “Now that we’re together again, let’s never be parted.”
There are two versions of what happened in after times. In one, Azka became a celebrated poet, Ambha gained renown as a physician and Meaya became famous as their advisor. In the other, their skills brought them no fame. Both versions though, agree that their counsel was sometimes sought by Empress Khumi, and all three of them, the water-buffalo, the wanderer, and the prince, lived in happiness, experiencing much joy in each other’s company, their whole lives.
“The Water Buffalo, the Wanderer, and the Prince”, © Sam Muller, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, on Jan. 30, 2021
Sam Muller loves dogs and books, and spends much of her time trying to save one from the other. Her work has appeared or is pending in Apparition Lit, the Truancy Magazine and Twice Upon a Time anthology, among others.
Lead illustration by Fran Eisemann, with stock from Pixabay and supplied by Omnia.
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