18. The Golden Butterflies
Despite the brilliant sunlight and the magnificent views that assailed him on every side, Morgan was fast asleep before the car had descended into the lowlands. Even the innumerable hairpin bends failed to keep him awake – but he was suddenly snapped back into consciousness when the brakes were slammed on and he was pitched forward against his seat-belt.
For a moment of utter confusion, he thought that he must still be dreaming. The breeze blowing gently through the half-open windows was so warm and humid that it might have escaped from a Turkish bath; yet the car had apparently come to a halt in the midst of a blinding snow-storm.
Morgan blinked, screwed up his eyes, and opened them to reality. This was the first time he had ever seen golden snow…
A dense swarm of butterflies was crossing the road, headed due east in a steady, purposeful migration. Some had been sucked into the car, and fluttered around frantically until Morgan waved them out; many more had plastered themselves on the windscreen. With what were doubtless a few choice Taprobani expletives, the driver emerged and wiped the glass clear; by the time he had finished, the swarm had thinned out to a handful of isolated stragglers.
“Did they tell you about the legend?” he asked, glancing back at his passenger.
“No,” said Morgan curtly. He was not at all interested, being anxious to resume his interrupted nap.
“The Golden Butterflies – they're the souls of Kalidasa's warriors – the army he lost at Yakkagala.”
Morgan gave an unenthusiastic grunt, hoping that the driver would get the message; but he continued remorselessly.
“Every year, around this time, they head for the Mountain, and they all die on its lower slopes. Sometimes you'll meet them halfway up the cable ride, but that's the highest they get. Which is lucky for the Vihara.”
“The Vihara?” asked Morgan sleepily.
“The Temple. If they ever reach it, Kalidasa will have conquered, and the bhikkus – the monks – will have to leave. That's the prophecy – it's carved on a stone slab in the Ranapura Museum. I can show it to you.”
“Some other time,” said Morgan hastily, as he settled back into the padded seat. But it was many kilometres before he could doze off again, for there was something haunting about the image that the driver had conjured up.
He would remember it often in the months ahead – when waking, and in moments of stress or crisis. Once again he would be immersed in that golden snowstorm, as the doomed millions spent their energies in a vain assault upon the mountain and all that it symbolised.
Even now, at the very beginning of his campaign, the image was too close for comfort.