Chapter 1: Ahalya: A Novel Excerpt from Untouchable - Uncharted

Chapter 1: Ahalya: A Novel Excerpt from Untouchable

By Jordan Legg

Ahalya ran her fingers through the folds of the veil before taking it from her handmaid’s arm. Its deep red fabric was fine and thin between her fingers, and she whirled it around her body in a fluttering scarlet typhoon before draping it over her head. The slender, dark-haired princess looked over her shoulder at the handmaid and raised an eyebrow, waiting for her appraisal. 

The handmaid gave a deferent nod. Ahalya flashed her a smile, then hurried toward the door at the far end of the room, her gown swishing around her legs with every step. She opened the latch and poked her head into the hallway. 

“Mitra?” she asked, smiling. 

Her bodyguard turned at the sound of his name. 

“Come inside,” she said. 

Mitra followed her in behind the door. She could have summoned him with the gong, but if she had done that, her other guards, Kusha and Arjun, would have joined them as well. No. She liked it best when it was just the two of them. 

Ahalya spun and curtsied as she’d been trained to. “How do I look?” she asked. It was a bold question, especially to put to a brave young kshatriya warrior, but Ahalya wasn’t in the mood for caution tonight. 

Mitra’s eyes widened as he took a breath, then swallowed nervously. His grip tightened around his spear. “Like…” he stammered. “Like an apsara in the house of Indra.” He gave a slight bow, acknowledging her rank, as the warrior’s code demanded. 

Ahalya gave her lip a gentle bite, flattered by his expression. She could always tell when he was trying, for decorum’s sake, not to react too strongly. She blushed at the compliment. 

“I’m being tested tonight, Mitra,” the princess whispered excitedly, removing the veil and draping it back over her handmaid’s arm. “At the banquet. I’m to dance before the brahmins, in Gautama’s honour.” 

She turned and walked out onto the balcony, glancing over the palace courtyards ablaze in the afternoon sun. An army of shudras was busy at work on the lawn, hanging lanterns and laying out rugs to prepare for tonight’s feast. Just past the outer wall, Ahalya could see the sprawl of the city of Sankasya stretching down to the river Kausika, which ran south from the mountains to water all of the valley below.

“Gautama? The maharishi?” Mitra asked. 

Ahalya turned back to him, nodding eagerly. 

For over a month the palace had been alive with activity in preparation for Gautama’s coming. It was nearly a week ago that he had finally arrived, parading through the city in her father’s most distinguished chariot, preceded by criers, flanked by Sankasya soldiers, and followed by five royal elephants. Ahalya had watched the procession enter the palace from her balcony, and once it arrived in the entrance hall, she and her six brothers assembled to meet him. She stood there, bedecked in golden jewellery, painted makeup, and an elegant purple sari. 

Her cheeks flushed and palms sweat as the twice-born maharishi walked into the room. He was the sort of man who drew your eye—every eye—the moment he entered. His expression and manner had in them the strength of maturity without age, of controlled power and measured grace. With every slow and deliberate step he took toward them, Ahalya found her stare more impossible to break. Even her breath seemed to catch in her throat; now that she’d seen him, it was as if she needed his permission to exhale.  She heard the rattle of metal anklets below her, and in her mind, Ahalya screamed at her ankles to stop trembling, for fear that the echo of her jewellery would betray her fear to the whole entrance hall. 

The maharishi stepped gradually toward her, and she seized the time to drink in more of his appearance. He was lean and well-built, better equipped for the rigors of war than the study of spirituality. A vibrant orange robe hung from his shoulder and wrapped around his waist. The Third Eye of Wisdom was painted in a red streak down his high forehead. His thick hair was pulled back in a topknot, then cascaded down shoulders like a waterfall. And all the time he stepped closer, his mouth closed, his bare feet silent, in total command of the room. 

A thought squeezed its way through her rapture like the juice of an orange through a broken rind. 

Of course.

Of course, this must be what he was like, she thought. She thought back to the stories her tutor Atri had told her about Rishis in childhood, the great clash between Vishvamitra and Vasishtha, and Trishanku’s near ascent to divinity. Rishis had power- power over the spirits and even over the gods if they worked hard enough. The rigours of meditation won them karma, a power so great they could summon rivers from Devaloka and bend even the gods to their will. Of course, Gautama would hold such power, she realized. Ahalya had spent long hours in learning the arts of movement, of synchronicity, and the poise and grace that best proved the glory of a young woman at court. But to prove himself, the maharishi needed only karma

Her heart skipped in her chest as she bowed before the orange-robed ascetic to touch his feet. Then she stood, and their eyes met.

His lingered.

It was a mere glance; brief, silent, but Ahalya felt it slip through the notice of her brothers (thank Indra that her twin brother Aparajit hadn’t brought it up later) and ripple through her like concentric waves from a drop in the palace pool at moonlight. The ripples grew, and stretched that single moment into an eternity. 

Part of her wanted to stop it. Stop feeling the hope that dared see her own destiny in those dark eyes. In hope of that kind, maya, or illusion, took deep roots, and constricted around the simple like a serpent’s hold. Atri’s stern warnings against the snares of maya bobbed through her memory, then drowned in the silent ripples from the touch of her fingers on his feet. 

Let them drown, she thought. Tonight, the maharishi sleeps under Sankasya’s roof.

She had not seen him again that whole week. It hardly mattered. Her father had commissioned the best of his palace shudras to wait on him, and gossip ran through their ranks like blood in the palace’s veins. It was not long before her handmaids brought her rumours of her father’s distinguished guest, of the gifts Gautama had received from him, and the blessings he had recited for the kingdom in return. 

Her old tutor, Atri, was almost equally thrilled. “He is a sure sign of the gods’ favour,” the aging brahmin had told her, before launching into an excited monologue summarizing the discussions he’d had with Gautama thus far. Ahalya smiled as Atri droned into an explanation she knew would be impossible to follow and tasted the words again in her mind: the gods’ favour.

“He has spent much time in talk with your father,” her mother said to her one night over a private meal. “And with Atri too; when two brahmins talk of eternity, the rest of us are forced to endure it.” Her mother had meant it as a snide remark, but Ahalya felt sure any eternity with Gautama was a conversation she would gladly risk. 

“All the same,” her mother continued, as she raised a wry eyebrow at the princess, “nearly every time I’ve seen him, he gets this look in his eyes. It is as if there’s something else he wants and hasn’t got yet. Something he’s waiting for and just out of reach. He looks up the moment anyone enters a room, and dies a little every time he sees who it is.” She paused. “Or who it is not.” 

Her meaning was hardly subtle. For much of the rest of the day, they had discussed the coming banquet, and Ahalya struggled to endure her mother’s fussing over wardrobe choices and dance practice. Let her fuss, Ahalya finally decided. It was me Gautama lingered on. The son of Rahugana, the chief of the Angirasas, the purest of maharishis, conqueror of desire—and he lingered on me

She emerged from her reverie, then, and snapped her focus back to the bodyguard in front of her. He had been the last to speak, she realized, and Mitra, duty-bound, was waiting for the next words of the woman he was sworn to. 

“Isn’t it exciting?” she asked at last. “The brahmins tell stories about him, but we have him here, as an honoured guest in Sankasya’s royal house.” 

“Indeed, Your Highness,” the bodyguard agreed. “The gods favour you.” 

Atri’s words. She liked their sound on Mitra’s tongue. 

She stepped back inside the bedchamber, then sat on the couch beneath the balcony’s archway. Her handmaid followed, bearing a basket of jewelry, which Ahalya took with thanks and opened in front of her. Her mother had already settled on her costume for the evening, but as far as Ahalya was concerned, the queen’s decisions were hardly final. Her mother would be offended, certainly, but if Gautama was pleased with her, the queen didn’t dare dishonour him—or reject the good karma of a maharishi’s favour. Another handmaiden stood beside the couch, holding a tall mirror. 

“There’s more,” Ahalya added, searching the jewelry box for the right accessory. “My mother says that tonight…” Ahalya trailed off, overcome with excitement at the thought. “That tonight I am to propose him marriage.” She looked up from the jewellery box, gushing. “If all goes well, Mitra, I’m going to be his wife.” 

“His wife.” Mitra swallowed. 

If he finds me worthy,” she qualified, remembering that lingering look between them. She turned back to the basket, held a golden ring to her nose, and checked herself in the mirror. Her eyes narrowed, and she replaced it with another. “But yes. By the pleasure of Indra, I will marry the maharishi.” 

“And you think he will? Find you worthy, I mean?” 

“Is that arrogant of me?” she asked. She turned away from the mirror and dropped the nose ring back in the jewelry box. “I hope not. I don’t mean it to be. Atri always says that the gods will not honour the offerings of the arrogant.” Two days before she and her father had watched the palace brahmin prepare the bull for sacrifice. If Indra accepted the sacrifice, Atri said, there was good hope for the proposal’s success. 

If Indra accepted the sacrifice. 

“Do you think he’ll find me worthy, Mitra?” 

“I would,” the kshatriya said. The words were firm. Resolute. Unwavering. With Mitra, they always were. 

She smiled at him. “I’m grateful,” she said, and she meant it. “It’s strange, Mitra. Since he came, I’ve thought—well, hoped—that here, now, some great purpose, some great destiny is about to be fulfilled. As if everything, all of my past lives have been building toward this moment.” She tilted her head to her left. “That’s what karma means, doesn’t it?” 

Mitra’s eyes fell, and he nodded again in submission. “Karma,” he whispered. 

Ahalya realized suddenly what she had said and got up from the couch to approach the bodyguard. The princess knew Mitra well enough to detect the forced approval on the young man’s face, just as she knew what Mitra thought of karma. He had been born and then initiated into a low-level kshatriya caste, a warrior, and two years ago, upon proving himself worthy in service and battle, her father had appointed him her chief bodyguard. Morning and evening he and his men were to wait upon her. It was meant as an honour—to be commissioned to her service, her protection, was the highest expression of trust a king could grant to his soldiers, who were bound by oath and by birth to serve his command. The code of the kshatriyas was clear: it was Mitra’s duty, his dharma to accept the assignment. To disregard such a duty would be to render himself casteless—a chandala, an untouchable. It would mean exile from dharma and a dishonour worse than death. That the honour required Mitra to become a eunuch had not been a matter of concern to the king. 

Mitra had never spoken to her of his gelding. By the warrior’s code, he dared not do so, either to her or anyone else. But in the years she had known Mitra, she had watched the truth of it weigh heavy on his shoulders. She could guess the questions that must plague him in the dead of night—questions of karma, of what he had done in his past lives to warrant the burden of his celibacy. Especially when it was so tied to the honour of his station. Punishments, as well as rewards, fell under the purview of a karmic mandate. 

 Now, here in her chambers, she clasped his hands, and for a moment felt them shudder in hers. Then she looked up at his sombre expression. “Perhaps karma is more than just retribution,” she whispered to him, offering a weak but compassionate smile. “There may be a greater purpose in its ebbs and flows.” 

“Perhaps,” he whispered. He straightened his back and wrapped his arm around his spear. “I wish you the very best this evening, Princess Ahalya.” He beamed at her with the sincerest goodwill. “And every happiness in the future to come.” 

Princess Ahalya. She loved it when he called her that. 

“You’re dismissed, Mitra,” she said with a smile. 

He bowed low again and left the room. 

Chapter 2: The Swayamvara

When the time came, Ahalya summoned her bodyguards and handmaids and led them from her chambers to the palace entrance. It opened onto the courtyard, and the bright red feasting pavilion that had been set up that afternoon stretched from one end of the lawn to the other.  The doorway into the courtyard was open so that the first step out of the palace walls would bring her directly underneath its roof. Even before they arrived, they could hear the music and chatter outside, growing louder and louder at their approach. She could see lights within, golden and scarlet lights, the telltale signs of kandeel lanterns strung the length of the pavilion, painting the entire spread with a magnificent blend of colour. 

The princess stood frozen at the back of the entrance, transfixed by the blaze peeking through the palace doorway where she had first seen Gautama only a week before. Her fingers curled around the flowered mala hanging from her neck in anticipation of her cue. She took a step forward, edging around the shadows of the entrance hall so no one inside the pavilion would see her. Then she crept with her back to the wall beside the doorway and craned her neck to see inside.

The tent was adorned with the proudest decorations she had ever seen. Her father had spared no expense in preparation—four long feasting rugs stretched the entire length of the pavilion, each sprawling with a rich array of strong-smelling dishes and spices, ripe for selection by any of the hungry guests. Servants darted up and down the rugs, ready at an instant to renew an emptied plate or fill a cup to the brim with wine. King Sudhanwa’s courtiers, generals, counsellors, and sages, along with their families, were seated along the rugs in eight long rows, dazzling in all their finery. A long aisle ran between the rugs, leading from the curtained doorway to the royal throne. 

A group of musicians was set up just past the rows and along the walls, skilfully plucking the veena strings and beating the damru drums in time. A wide set of semicircular steps led up to a dais at the far side of the courtyard, flanked with two stone-winged lions, their mouths wide in frozen growls. The wall above the dais was carved with a high-relief statue overlooking the banquet—the god Indra, Prince of Devaloka, beloved of the gods. 

The sculpture depicted the thunder god during his yearly ride to Mount Meru, stately and austere astride his elephant Airavata, and outfitted for battle with the thunder-mace Vajra. The palace as a whole was spiced with dozens of shrines to the various gods: to Agni, the fire god; to Varuna, who churned the ocean of being at the dawn of all things; and even to lesser spirits like the yakshas and apsaras. But it was Indra’s image, and his shrines, that the court of Sankasya—and Ahalya especially—always favoured most. 

Ahalya’s father, King Sudhanwa, sat enthroned beneath the statue in the centre of the dais, accompanied by a semicircle of others: each of his three wives, adorned in the jewelry and silks that suited women of their rank; his six sons, including her brother Aparajit, their ceremonial swords at their sides; and the palace brahmins, steeped in an animated discussion over some finer point of philosophy. Just beside King Sudhanwa, though, in the most prominent place in the dais, sat the maharishi Gautama, twice-born, Angirasa’s heir. 

Once again, the maharishi wore a bright orange robe, now offset by a number of beaded necklaces dangling from his neck to just above his navel. Once again, she admired the wisdom of his brow and the strength of his arm and remembered all the stories proving that Gautama also had in his soul the power of karma. The princess looked at the maharishi, then up at the statue of Indra again, and a well of excitement rushed up within her. It was him that Gautama most reminded her of. Indeed, though he sat at the far end of the room, Ahalya felt certain that the ascetic’s meditations had wrought for him a beauty that only Indra could match. 

She was not the only one to recognize the greatness of the sage. Once again, every eye on the dais seemed fixed on him; every word or hand motion was directed toward him, and every quip or comment was spoken for his ear. The king seemed especially pleased at the honour his guest bestowed upon his household, probably because of the coming proposal, though Ahalya knew he was also excited that Gautama had chosen to feast in Sankasya, and not in the court of King Kirtivaja in the larger eastern kingdom of Vaijanta, or King Janaka, in the western kingdom of Mithila (who had themselves been invited to the feast, and were seated with their queens next to General Ishan along one of the feasting rugs, off to the side of the dais). 

The truth was that this feast was meant to be more than a mere marriage proposal. While the king would never admit it, Sankasya was a small kingdom, a goat caught between two rival elephants. The harvests of the past few years had been sparse, and Ahalya had heard from Aparajit that three times in the last month the southeast border had suffered from foreign raids. 

But Gautama was maharishi. A great sage and twice-born of great sages, his father and guru had been Rahugana of the house of Angirasa, renowned in every kingdom of the Ganga. More than that, Gautama was River-Bringer. Favoured among the gods. Friendship with him meant the favour of the rains—and family ties with him meant power over them. The karma of a maharishi, won on behalf of the kingdom. Her parents had said none of this to her directly, of course, but when her mother had coached her through tonight’s dressing and dancing and said, “When you dance for the maharishi, know that you dance for all Sankasya,” her meaning was inescapable. 

Now, on the edge of her debut, she struggled to thrust her mother’s daunting comment away. In her mind, she ran through the music to come, linking the notes and beats together with the steps she had been practicing these last several months. Ever since she was a little girl, Ahalya had been trained in the art of movement by the finest instructors in Sankasya. While Aparajit had spent years sharpening himself into a weapon of war, Ahalya had tuned her body like a musical instrument, constantly absorbed in the study of the dance. Like an apsara in the house of Indra, Mitra had said earlier that afternoon. She had earned that title. 

Atri had encouraged this throughout her upbringing. It was the reason he had taught her something of the Vedas, though as a girl, she was forbidden to undergo the upayana ritual of second-birth, by which men entered into caste. Dance, Atri had said, was a point of sacred connection between gods and men. Ahalya now held onto that idea—that the steps of her feet and the twists of her hands could move the hearts of even the gods in her favour, in a way not so different from the sacrifices of holy brahmins. In dance, hers was the power of karma. And tonight, Gautama’s visit gave her the chance to prove it. If she could move a god’s heart, perhaps she could move his. 

King Sudhanwa clapped twice, calling for silence in the banqueting hall. The moment he did so, Gautama’s head turned, and his deep eyes locked with hers. She ducked behind the curtain and turned to her entourage, paralyzed with fear as all the confidence she had built up in herself shattered like a vase fallen to the ground. She thought back to the look he had given her a week ago, the lingering glance she had tossed and turned over long into the night, hoping that it was more than her imagination, praying that she could hold it again. It was one thing to dance before the gods, watching at a distance from Devaloka. But Gautama waited on the other side of the room—real, living, with real eyes and real ears, and, at least in Ahalya’s mind, very nearly a god himself. 

“What if it doesn’t work?” she rasped at Mitra, who stood directly behind her. 

“What do you mean?” 

“A rishi’s powers are drawn from years of austerities,” she reminded him. “Intense rituals and yogic training intended to purify him of unholy desire. What if he deserves better than me? How can I prove myself worthy of such a man with only a single dance?” Her bones felt like water inside her. “What if he rejects the proposal?” 

It was a serious danger. A scene played out in her imagination. The dance, performed to perfection, her mala around his neck, her hands on his feet. A polite smile and an offer to return the mala. It’s a flattering offer, but I must decline. The gesture would sting more than even the harshest words. And here—before her parents, her brothers, Atri and General Ishan, and even Janaka and Kirtivaja—the shame would be unbearable. 

Mitra gave her that look again, the one he always used to hide a tumult of emotion beneath his youthful face. His eyes glittered in the light of a nearby lamp, and after a pause, he whispered his soft and earnest answer. 

“Love does not ask you to be worthy,” he said. “It only asks you to be seen.” 

No sooner had he said those words than Ahalya heard her father’s voice sound her name from the dais. She heard the musicians strike up and looked around in shock as her feet carried her, seemingly unbidden, through the curtain and into the room beyond. 

The first thing she noticed as she stepped into the light of the chamber was the tightening of her stomach. For a moment, everything seemed still, in a stillness that felt like a thousand years. Every eye turned to her, transfixed. Her foot touched the ground. She felt her throat dry. 

Then everything came into focus. The music, a breakneck rhythm of drumbeats and strings, guided her down the aisle, threading through rows of onlookers in steps and spins. Any trace of apprehension disappeared behind her smile—this was a dance for the maharishi, after all, and there was no room for fear before his eyes. She flashed a flirtatious grin at the guests as she passed, rolling her hips and shoulders to the tune of the musicians ahead. She wound her hands through her flower necklace and pulled it rhythmically across her body, first to the left, then to the right, then spun, her arms curling up and sliding through the air as she sashayed toward the dais. As the music swelled, the anxiety she had felt upon entering the room seemed to fade, and with every step of the dance, every swoop of her hips or motion of her hands seemed to pull her forward into the song. She reached the foot of the dais and surged on. This must be like what kshatriya men felt in the final moments of a battle nearly won, she thought. And she danced.

The final step. She stole a glance at her father. Beneath his kingly black beard, Sudhanwa beamed with subtle pride. Ahalya saw the light of approval in his eyes. Her mother, despite her incessant fussing over the past week, wore a similar expression. Ahalya felt her chest warm.

Thus encouraged, the princess fixed her attention on Gautama. She felt no need to hide from him now. Closer and closer, she danced until she was only a few steps away from him, her eyes again locked with his. There could be no mistaking it this time—now, she held all of his attention. Gone was the stealth of a single glance, the momentary eternity she had treasured in the entrance hall; Gautama’s eye was on her, and all her father’s guests—all of Sankasya and even the kingdoms beyond—now saw it. She felt a thrill of excitement and hope run through her body. The maharishi was hers. 

With a final, thundering burst, the music stopped. Ahalya extended her hands to drape her mala around the sage’s shoulders—a swayamvara, a symbol of all of her proposals for marriage. She bowed low, her face to the ground in the sincerest deference. The proprieties of dharma must be upheld, she remembered. She pressed her palms to the maharishi’s bare feet once more, the ultimate expression of obeisance, as the entire hall fell silent. Ahalya backed away, then knelt and bowed her head in prostration. 

“Ahalya,” the maharishi commented. “Without blemish. A worthy name.” 

She breathed relief, and a private smile crept over her still-bowed face. 

“You are a beautiful dancer,” he continued. “I daresay Urvashi herself would be jealous. No apsara in Indra’s court could dare match you.” Ahalya blushed again to hear him say it. A bodyguard’s praise was one thing; the maharishi’s was quite another. 

Gautama raised an eyebrow and then stood. He bent down, took her hands in his, and raised her delicately to her feet. His hands were rough and callous, but dexterous. Holy. Her palms warmed at his touch. He bowed and pressed his forehead against her knuckles, then stood and turned to King Sudhanwa. 

“I will marry your daughter Ahalya,” said the maharishi. “With your permission, Sudhanwa, King of Sankasya, twice-born, we will circle the holy fire in ten days’ time.” 

The king stood in excitement, clapping once more and grinning ear to ear. “So be it!” he cried. The courtiers and guests below stood with him, and all Ahalya could see (except Kirtivaja and Janaka, much to her father’s satisfaction) erupted with applause. Ahalya looked up, first at her father, then at Gautama, fit to burst with joy. She turned to the rest of the court and gave a flourishing curtsy, then caught sight of Mitra standing beside the doorway at the back of the room. He wore a tight-lipped expression on his face, one that Ahalya decided she didn’t like, and she chose instead to look up at her new groom—his handsome face a mixture of gratitude, honour, and sobriety. 


Mitra closed his eyes and bowed his head as his ears filled with the applause of the feasting hall. He tightened his grip on the shield at his side, then looked up again at the beaming princess at the far end of the room. Her dark eyes, heavy lashes, and rich smile cast across the chamber like a lotus on the water. There was a moment, brief, where she locked eyes with him and then turned away immediately as if frightened. It was then that Mitra realized that he alone was not clapping. 

“What’s wrong?” Kusha asked him. 

“Nothing,” Mitra said flatly. “Come. The princess waits for our congratulations.” He blinked and followed her handmaidens to the front of the room. 

It was long past midnight before the feast broke up. Mitra and the entourage escorted Ahalya back to her chambers in relative silence. The princess glided upstairs in contentment, and as he watched her Mitra promised himself he would not disturb her happiness. When they had reached the doors of her bedchamber, he whispered a quiet “Congratulations,” and Ahalya closed her door to him, with a tired but thankful expression on her face.

About the Author

Jordan Legg is originally from Oshawa, Ontario, and holds a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He has been published in, On The Premises, and Metaphorosis, as well as anthologies like From the Corner of Your Eye, Antares Vol. 1, Heart of a Man, and Strange Religion. In 2016, he received Honourable Mention from L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future contest. Currently, he teaches high school and middle school at a private school in South Asia, where he has lived for several years. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheJordanLegg.

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