The gates to the town splintered as they were rammed inwards, the iron hinges twisting, struggling hold the wood in place. The steel tip of the battering ram, fire-tempered and graceless in its brutish appearance, forced itself deeper into the wooden gates. Bars of wood had been laid across the gates, bending as they fought back the force of the ram. The soldiers pulled back the ram, its wheels rolling away from the gates, creaking ominously. Those terrible few seconds of absolute calm before another catastrophic blow. Already the gates were sagging, little pieces of wood lying like carcasses around the wall.
The soldiers’ hands tightened around the ram.
“Forward!” came a voice from behind them.
Shoulders stiffened, veins bulged as the ram began rolling forward again, slowly at first, but gaining momentum with every second. An archer appeared at the top of the town walls, drawing an arrow from his quiver, but just as he took aim, a longbow on the ground twanged, and the archer was thrown backwards, screaming as he fell.
The wheels of the ram groaned and creaked as they rolled faster and faster, the soldiers pushing forward, running and screaming. From over the wall, a shower of arrows flew into the air like a bristling flock of birds, curving back to the earth in a slow, graceful curve. They landed in a series of thuds, the soild erupting around he battering ram. Two soldiers shrieked as they were cut down by the arrows. The other men leapt over them, letting them bleed out into the mud, not for one moment letting the ram slow.
Their cries grew louder as they ran faster, throwing all their weight against it, drawing closer at a deadly speed. Behind the gates men frantically ran about, placing planks of wood across the gates, leaning tall poles against them so even if the gates tried to open, they’d be pushed back. Several of them stood with their backs against the gate, desperately trying to hold them closed for the impending collision.
In the last second, the soldiers broke away from the ram, the ones closest to the gates leaping away to avoid what was coming.
The ram smashed through the weakened gates, ripping apart the planks and poles placed against them in a thousand shards and splinters. The sound of exploding wood was deafening, and the screams of those who were crushed or impaled by the ram were lost in the chaos. Riders and footsoldiers poured in like a river through a broken dam, laying waste to all everything it was protecting. The soldiers on the other side, outnumbered and shocked witless, were cut down as they tried to fight or fled.
Riders took off down the five lanes that started from the entryway, stopping at every door, dragging the residents out onto the streets and searching every corner of homes and business houses. Fine dust rose above the hard-earth roads, and the town was shrouded in a brownish haze as shouts and frightened screams came down from a distance, hidden from view.
Four men and a woman rode into the town on their warhorses, the animals walking leisurely in through the destroyed gates. Some of the splintered wood and the bodies had been cleared for their passage, and they led their mounts slowly down the path. They looked on at the scene in distaste, wincing at every loud scream they heard from afar.
“You did tell your men not to hurt them, didn’t you?” Ranganayaki, queen of the Pashupatha kingdom, said, squinting as she turned to Neelkantha. “We don’t want blood on our hands.”
The Chedi king smirked. “As if that’s ever mattered to you. Or to anyone. Blood,” he scoffed, shaking his head. “And to answer your question, yes, I did. It was my express order. You needn’t fear, women scream when they’re manhandled a little. They’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“Oh please,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal, “men scream as loud as any woman. You just don’t hear it over the screams of the women you’re raping.”
Neelkantha turned to give Ranganayaki a sharp look. “You’re awfully cheeky, aren’t you? You better watch what you say, not everyone’s as forgiving as I am.”
“Is that a warning or a threat? I can’t tell.”
“The men are fine. The women are fine. No one’s laying a hand on them. What more do you want?”
Nayaki’s horse whinnied nervously as they passed a corpse lying in a pool of dark red, the stench of blood hanging in the air like fog. The animal juddered, bucking its head in alarm, but she grabbed its neck firmly, whispering gentle words to its ear, caressing it slowly until the horse calmed a little.
“A warhorse that can’t stand the sight of blood,” she said, shaking her head. She looked at the Chedi king. “Your stableman couldn’t train horses to save his life, Neelkantha.”
Neelkantha glanced shamefully at the horse, then turned away with an apologetic nod.
“I’ll see make sure that’s what he does,” he said.
They set their horses off at a steady canter, heading down the biggest road from the entry to the city. Neelkantha’s eyes were drawn to the doors to the buildings and houses, now standing wide open, giving him brief glimpses into what lay within.
What if she were in one of these houses? What if she were just hiding there, only just out of sight, somehwhere my men just won’t think to look? I could ride right past this town, never having known she was only a finger’s length away from me, but if only I’d looked in the one right place…
His thoughts were interrupted by Nayaki’s voice. “What’s the purpose behind all this?” she asked. “Bhagiratha could well start a war to stop you scourging his kingdom. Besides, you don’t truly expect you’ll find the girl hunting for her in these obscure little towns, do you?”
“No, but what a damn fine thing that would be, wouldn’t it?” Neelkantha said. “As for the war, I welcome it. He’s the reason my son is dead, Ranganayaki. I’ll see it to it that Bhagiratha never forgets the day he crossed the Chedis.” The king turned away from her, and she could tell he was fighting a war of his own in the maddening confines of his mind.
“It was just supposed to be a swayamvara, damn it,” she heard him whisper. Nayaki turned to him, watching him warily as his eyes wandered from one building to the next as they passed them. His hands gripped his reins tightly. “The two of us, riding into Amaravati, my boy going into the arena for that swayamvara he was so sure he’d win. He did, and you should have seen him after that. You should have seen the look on his face.”
Neelkantha swallowed heavily, taking in a deep breath. It was plain to see he was struggling to stay composed, and his face had grown unnaturally rigid. But she saw then that his hands had gone slack.
“There was nothing he’d wanted more. And he’d earned it, on top of everything. He’d fought hard and earned his respect. All he could talk about how his mother would react when she saw him bring her home, how the commonfolk would celebrate and throw flowers and garlands on him as he rode into the city. Now when I return home they’ll shower his corpse with those same flowers. And my wife…” Neelkantha declined his head, shaking it as in disbelief.
Nayaki had fallen silent. She’d never seen the Chedi king this vulnerable before. Sitting atop his massive stallion, Neelkantha looked nothing like the proud and imposing monarch of the Chedi kingdom. He looked more like a man who’d had everything taken from him, left with useless little trinkets, lord over a kingdom that meant nothing to him now that his only son and heir was gone.
“But that’s what power brings with it, doesn’t it?” Neelkantha continued, his tone subdued. “Prying eyes, unwanted attention…envy. The more you have, the more ill fate you foist upon yourself. And your kin, naturally.”
“We’ll get Prakash justice, Neelkantha,” she said. “Whatever happened there that night – we’ll find out what it was. I give you my word on that.”
He managed a wry smile, nodding.
They passed a woman sitting with her back against the wall of her house, wiping her tears as she tried to calm a bawling baby, rocking back and forth. When the riders approached, she turned away, hunched protectively over her child.
“Stay away!” she screamed. “Please, just…please don’t hurt her.” Even from where he rode, Neelkantha could see she was shaking with fear. Up ahead, they could see a group of men quarrelling with Chedi soldiers, and it was not before the soldiers pointed their spears at them that they quietened down and scattered, retreating into their homes. An old man sat next to his sobbing wife, consoling her, caressing her head. He was blowing on a large welt where the butt of a soldier’s spear had struck her forehead.
“And this is how we’re going about getting justice,” he said. “Look at these people, Ranganayaki. Look at how they must suffer. Because of what Bhagiratha did. He’s forced my hand. I had no other choice but to do this. You understand, don’t you?”
Nayaki’s expression was troubled, but she hid it from Neelkantha. She didn’t say anything for a few seconds.
“I asked you a question.” His sharp tone surprised her.
“Y-yes,” she blurted. “Of course I understand. It had to be done.” Nayaki tried to appear indifferent, shifting her gaze to the buildings on either side so she wouldn’t have to meet his.
This is what he’s been telling himself? Does he actually believe he was forced into this?
That was when the sound of a galloping horse reached them from behind. The four of them swung around, hand on their sword hilts. They relaxed when they saw it was only a messenger. He was rushing toward them, his mount foaming at the mouth, his face brown with dust. As he came near, he halted abruptly, swinging a leg off his horse to dismount, nearly falling over as he landed on the ground.
“Easy, boy,” Neelkantha said. “A few more seconds will cost you nothing.”
“Your Majesty, they told me it was urgent,” the thin young man said, trying hopelessly to smooth back his tousled hair. He searched frantically around in his cloak for something, then reached inside, producing a scroll of parchment, rolled up and tied with a spare cotton strip.
“This is what he asked me to deliver, Your Majesty,” the messenger said, holding up the scroll for Neelkantha. The king threw a circumspect glance his way, his eyes spending a moment longer on the scroll. Then he took the parchment, his fingers pulling the knot undone. As he did so, he looked at the young man once more.
“Who’s this from?”
“It’s from the renegade lord himself, Your Majesty,” he said, swallowing. “Lord Karna sends you his regards.”
To be continued…
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