Once upon a time in a modest village high in the mountains, there lived a man. He was neither rich nor poor, but quite comfortable and well-liked in his village. This man possessed two wives, as was the custom, and to each of his wives was born a son, pleasing the man greatly. One wife was sweet and good, and her son much like her. The other wife was bitter and jealous, and her son much like her. But the man kept a firm hand upon his family, and together they were quite happy.
But then disease struck the village, killing many, including the man and his good, sweet wife. Left alone with the bitter wife and her jealous son, the good son spent his days doing all the hard labor around the home and tending to the cattle while his stepmother and half-brother spent their days in idle pleasures.
Now it so happened that one day while he was out tending the herds, watching them graze in a field from the village, that he was chanced upon by a handsome stranger. Intrigued, for no strangers ever visited his faraway village, the good son greeted the stranger and offered to share his lunch.
Pleased by his generosity, the stranger shared his own food and together they spent a pleasant afternoon. During their time together, the good son learned the stranger was journeying to gain new wisdom, to see what he might see, learn what he might learn.
As the afternoon turned to evening, the two men realized they were reluctant to part ways. They agreed to meet again the next day, and for many days after they met together in the fields where cattle grazed. It was not long before the two men realized there was a bond between them, and the fast friendship they had forged turned to something deeper.
Eventually, however, the lover confessed he could no longer put off going home. There were matters there that he must address, and so he must go. But he vowed before leaving that he would return, and take his lover home with him. As a show of his promise, he gave to the good son a golden ring in the image of a snake, a ruby clutched in its jaws. Kissing the good son farewell, the lover departed.
Lonely without his lover, the good son fell into daydreaming and neglected the many chores his stepmother and brother heaped upon him, until they grew impatient and beat him, and he was forced to tell them all about his lover.
His stepmother recognized the ring as being of royal origins, and determined to see that her son was made the prince’s lover rather than the stepson she despised. So one night after her stepson fell asleep, she went to see a magician, whom she paid handsomely to curse her stepson.
The magician did as she requested, and cast a curse that caused the good son to be forgotten by the prince he loved. But, the magician cautioned the stepmother, no curse is unbreakable. If the prince should see the ring he bestowed, he would remember everything.
Returning to her home, the stepmother crept to the bedside of her stepson and stealthily removed the ring from his finger while he slept. Taking it outside, she threw the ring into the river. Satisfied with her night’s work, she went to bed.
Days passed, and the Nine Day Festival arrived, and the villagers prepared excitedly for they had received word that the crown prince himself would be arriving to celebrate with them on the final day. The good son was very excited, for the entire village was invited to the royal celebration—but at the last, his stepmother forbid him to go, and told him that instead he must watch over the house and the animals, lest they cause trouble while the house was empty.
Bitterly disappointed, the good son waited until he was alone, then crept from the house and snuck off to the celebration anyway. There, he was astonished and jubilant to see that the crown prince was none other than the stranger he had fallen in love with.
Going up to the prince, the good son greeted him warmly—and was taken aback when the prince greeted him as though they were strangers. Confused, the good son recounted all that had passed between them, but the prince claimed no recollection and bid him go and take his strange lies with him.
Heartbroken, the good son fled to the fields where he and the prince had first met, weeping bitterly beneath the tree where the prince had given him the ring, wishing he had not been so careless as to lose it.
Down in the village, the festivities continued, and the stepmother pushed her son to flirt with the handsome prince, ply him with fine food and drink. Obedient to his mother, and greedy to be the lover of such a fine and handsome prince, the evil son obeyed. He presented himself to the prince and offered the finest of wines, and a fish he had caught and prepared himself with the most fragrant of herbs.
Pleased by the offerings, the prince invited the evil son to sit with him and share the repast, enjoy the dancing and music by his side. He drank some of the wine, then cut into the excellent fish—and was astonished when he struck something too hard to be a natural part of the fish. Using his knife, the prince pulled something gold from the fish’s gut. Cleaning it, he looked in astonishment at his royal ring.
At the sight of it, the curse broke, and all his warm memories of the good son returned. The prince immediately rose, ignoring the cries of everyone, pushing away the evil son and stepmother as they tried to distract him. Taking a horse, he left the village, and rode quickly to the field where he hoped he would find his lover…
Harshal did not think anything could hurt as badly as losing his father and mother; life had not been the same since they had died. He had dreamed a thousand times of leaving the village, but had promised his father not to leave his poor stepmother alone.
And he had never intended to, no matter how miserable she made him—but a promise to his lover was stronger, and when Akash returned for him, Harshal had planned to ensure his stepmother was comfortable and then take his leave.
He could not believe, after all that had transpired before them, that Akash did not remember him. Had everything they said to each other meant so little? If only he had not lost his ring! He did not remember losing it, he had gone to bed with the weight of it on his finger…
Sometimes, he wondered…
But, if she had taken it, surely she would have goaded him without actually admitting it. She had said nothing, though, and so he was forced to conclude he had lost it.
Harshal wiped drying tears from his face and decided that promise or no promise, he would not stay another day. If no one would keep the promises they made him, he was under no obligation to keep his own. He would not meet betrayal with loyalty. If his family did not want him, and his lover had forgotten him, he would find someone who truly wanted him
It made his chest ache to think that Akash was not that man. He did not care if his love was prince or pauper—he just wanted Akash to hold him and love him. But Akash had forgotten him, and there was no point in wishing for things that would never happen.
Standing up, he lightly touched the tree where he had spent so many pleasurable hours with his lover. Then he finally made himself turn away. He would go home, and pack his few belongings, and leave the mountains forever.
He stopped short as a horse raced into the clearing, and a familiar figure leapt down from its back and rushed over to him. “Harshal!” Akash exclaimed, and gave him no chance to reply, but swept Harshal up and kissed him deeply.
Harshal pushed him away, and stared at him wide-eyed, torn between his lingering anger and hurt, and fearful hope that perhaps he had not been forgotten after all. “You forgot me.”
“I do not think I had a choice,” Akash said quietly, and pulled something from his robe.
With a start, Harshal realized it was the lost ring. “Where did you get that?”
“It was in the fish I was offered by a man who, I realize now, looked a lot like you,” Akash replied quietly. “I am sorry, my love. When I saw the ring, all my memories of you came rushing back. I think perhaps one of us was cursed. I would never forget you otherwise, please, you must believe me.”
Harshal slowly reached out and plucked the ring from Akash’s fingers, and slid it onto his own. “Me, I suspect. My stepmother must have done it.”
“She will be punished,” Akash said promptly. “I love you; I will not tolerate someone causing me to forget that.”
“Forget them,” Harshal said. “Remember me, and forget all about them. You truly remember me?” he asked, still remembering those awful moments when no matter what he said, Akash treated him as a stranger.
Akash reached out and cupped his face as he had so many times before, the touch so fond Harshal’s eyes stung, for he had thought never to be touched by Akash again. “I remember you,” Akash said, “From your first friendly smile to the first time you kissed me, to the first time I undressed you beneath this tree and touched every part of you. I arranged to visit here on this last day of the festivities so that I could at last take you home with me. Tell me all is forgiven, and that you will return with me, and stay with me forever.”
“In this life, and all others,” Harshal vowed, and drew Akash into another kiss.