the oath of the vayuputras - Page 50

‘I do not intend to attack,’ said Shiva.

‘I think you should.’

‘All we need to do is destroy the Somras manufacturing facility, Kali.’

‘But you have the Nagas with you. You shouldn’t be afraid of a direct confrontation.’

‘I’m not afraid. I just don’t see the sense in it. It will distract us from our main purpose – the destruction of the Somras. We do not want to destroy Meluha. Don’t forget that.’

‘I’ll count on you to remind me of that every time I forget,’ said Kali.

Shiva smiled and shook his head.

The voyage up the Sarayu had been surprisingly uneventful. The Magadhans did not attack Ganesh’s ships. The massive convoy was so long that the guards on the Magadhan towers spent an entire day watching ships go by.

A little over a week later, Ganesh ordered his ships to weigh anchor. Kartik, Bhagirath, Chandraketu and Ganesh got into a small boat and rowed ashore. The forest had been cleared up to a fair distance. Divodas, the leader of the Branga immigrants in Kashi, waited there along with twenty men.

Ganesh jumped off as soon as the boat beached, and waded through the shallow water to the river bank. The others followed. He touched his head to the ground as he reached the shore. He looked deep into the forest, remembering a time long ago when he had hidden behind the trees and observed his mother. ‘Kartik, this is the Bal-Atibal Kund. This is where Saptrishi Vishwamitra taught Lord Ram his legendary skills.’

Kartik’s eyes were wide open in awe. He bent down and touched the ground with his hand and whispered, ‘Jai Shri Ram.’

The others around him repeated it. ‘Jai Shri Ram.’

‘Kartik,’ said Ganesh, ‘this ground was blessed by Saptrishi Vishwamitra and Lord Ram. But its greatness has been forgotten by many. We may have to redeem the honour of this land with blood.’

Kartik took a moment to understand. ‘Do you think Surapadman might chase us?’

Ganesh smiled. ‘He will chase us. Trust me. I see the siege of Ayodhya as a bait to draw Surapadman out of Magadh. Once he is out, we will destroy his army and capture his city. We’ll be able to stop Ayodhyan ships easily with Magadh blockading the Ganga. And the battle to decide the fate of Magadh should be fought here. For this is where I would like you to attack him.’

‘I would have thought that Surapadman would prevail on his father.’

‘He is a clever man, Kartik. From what I have understood, his instinct was to support us but in the face of so much opposition, he will do what is now in his best interest. And he does have much to gain. He will win the favour of his father and his countrymen by taking revenge for his brother’s death. He will come as the saviour for Ayodhya, albeit a little late so that Ayodhya is weakened. And who knows, he may even capture the sons of the Neelkanth... Wouldn’t that make him a strong ally of Bhrigu?’ asked Ganesh with an ironic smile. ‘Yes, brother, he will attack and he will learn that clever men should always listen to their instincts.’

Kartik took a deep breath and looked up at the sky before turning back to Ganesh with resolve writ large in his eyes. ‘We will turn the river red with blood, dada.’

Bhagirath looked at Kartik with a familiar sensation of fascination and fear.

‘Why this ground, Lord Ganesh?’ asked Chandraketu.

‘Your Highness,’ answered Ganesh, ‘as you can see, this stretch is long and narrow. That will lure Surapadman into anchoring his ships along the banks, thus stretching his army thin. The forest is not too far from the shore. Which means our main army can remain hidden behind the trees. We will leave only a small contingent on the beach.’

Bhagirath smiled. ‘That will be a very juicy bait. Surapadman will probably imagine that this is a small brigade that has deserted the siege of Ayodhya. He’ll want to kill them to give his soldiers a taste of victory.’

‘Right,’ said Ganesh. ‘But the main battle will not be on land. We just have to pin him down here, which will, in all honesty, take a lot of courage, since he will have a large force. That is why I want Kartik here. But Surapadman will be defeated in the river itself.’

‘How?’ asked Chandraketu.

‘I’ll move back from Ayodhya and ram his ships from the front,’ said Ganesh. ‘I’ve also asked King Maatali to wait in the Sharda River along with thirty ships. The Sharda meets the Sarayu downriver. The Vaishali fleet will sail up the Sarayu once Surapadman’s ships have passed, placing them behind the Magadhans. My contingent will attack from in front while the Vaishali forces will hit them from behind. Kartik has to hold Surapadman in position for long enough to make his fleet of ships immobile.’

‘He will be sandwiched between King Maatali’s ships and yours,’ said Chandraketu. ‘He won’t stand a chance.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Sounds like a good plan,’ said Bhagirath.

‘The success of the battle hinges on two points,’ said Ganesh. ‘Firstly, Kartik has to entice Surapadman to anchor his ships and attack our soldiers on shore. In the absence of that he will keep moving, and his larger boats will ram through my smaller ships and possibly turn the tide in his favour. Our ships are light, manoeuvrable and built for speed. The Magadhan ships are bigger and have been built for strength. If Kartik fails to lure Surapadman ashore, my side of our fleet may face heavy casualties. I must be in command to take care of that possibility.’

‘And the second point?’ asked Bhagirath.

‘King Maatali must be positioned to block Surapadman’s escape back to Magadh. That will close the pincer trap.’

Chandraketu doubted neither Kartik’s courage nor his strategic mind. His words to the young warrior bespoke respect. ‘You’re on your own, Kartik. It’s all up to you now.’

Kartik narrowed his eyes, his hand on his sword hilt. ‘I’ll draw him in, King Chandraketu. And once I do, I assure you I’ll obliterate his entire army myself. Our ships won’t even be required to join the battle.’

Ganesh smiled at his brother.

Ganesh reached for another document from the stack on the desk and began to read, then paused to rub his tired eyes. He was seated in his private cabin, surrounded by messages from his informants about the progress of the assault. There were dozens of missives telling him every aspect from the mood of the Ayodhyan populace to the progress of the armourers in meeting the archers’ demand for arrows. He had hardly slept in the weeks since the battle had begun and his body ached for rest, but these reports could not wait. It appeared that Ayodhya stood poised on the brink of surrender, and any misstep now could spell disaster. Kartik and Chandraketu sat patiently by his side, assisting Ganesh with the endless stream of messages. The three sat together in silence as they awaited Bhagirath’s return, to hear news of his mission.

The siege of Ayodhya had begun over a month ago. Ganesh’s navy had assaulted the city in the classical manner of the ancient war manuals. A large part of the fleet had been anchored along the west banks of the Sarayu in a double line, out of the range of the catapults on the fort walls of the eastern banks. The lined ships had extended up to the north of Ayodhya, just shy of the sheer cliff upriver where the Sarayu descended in a waterfall. Small lifeboats had been tied to the right of the ships in Ganesh’s convoy, with guards present round the clock. This was to prevent devil boats from attempting to set fire to the vessels from the Ayodhya end. A section of the army had camped to the left of the ships, on the shore itself, to thwart guerrilla attacks from the Ayodhyans.