Immediately upon arrival, Kartik ordered the construction of water-proofed coracles which would serve as devil boats to set the Magadh fleet on fire. A thousand soldiers constructed them and then hid them on the eastern banks on the opposite side of the kund. They would destroy the enemy ships from the other side, even as the battle ensued in the area around the kund.
Hidden platforms had been constructed atop the trees to facilitate the relay of information back and forth between the two sides. A simple communication tool had been manufactured for these soldiers: small metallic pipes fitted on top of earthen pots containing anthracite, which burns with a short, but more importantly smokeless flame. The caps on these metallic pipes could be easily lifted open and then shut, allowing light out in a controlled manner. The apertures were small enough to give the impression of a collection of fire flies. For Kartik’s soldiers though, the light signals would carry coded messages from both sides of the river.
Kartik wanted the area around the Bal-Atibal Kund to be left undisturbed. The army was to stay strictly within the forested area.
‘I don’t understand, Kartik. We do want our men on the beach if they’re to serve as bait, don’t we? At least, that is what Ganesh had in mind.’
‘I would hesitate to underestimate Surapadman, Prince Bhagirath. And I daresay, he will not underestimate us either. If he sees a small number of our soldiers casually stationed in an area visible from the river, he may smell a trap. After all, if we were deserting our army, we wouldn’t be stupid enough to camp where we could be seen, would we?’
‘Fair enough. So what do you suggest?’
‘We are on the west bank. Magadh is farther to our south, also on the west bank of the Sarayu. If we were to march along the river, where the forest is not too dense, Magadh would not be more than two or three weeks from here.’
Bhagirath smiled. ‘You want Surapadman to guess our actual strategy, that the Ayodhya siege was a feint to try to draw him out. He will realise that by conquering Magadh, we will have much more effective control over Ayodhyan ships sailing by, as compared to besieging Ayodhya itself.’
‘Exactly. And if he is smart enough to suspect that, as I’m sure he is, he will have scouts looking out towards the forests running along the river. And when he gets reports of our massive army, he will draw the obvious conclusion: that we have marched out to conquer Magadh, while he is wasting his time sailing to Ayodhya.’
‘Leave your home defenceless to conquer another land and you may find your own home getting conquered instead.’
‘You got it,’ said Kartik. ‘Also, it will have credibility in Surapadman’s eyes, for that’s what he would expect a smart enemy to do. I do not see him underestimating us.’
‘But what would stop him from just turning around and sailing back to Magadh?’
‘Turning a large fleet of ships around in a river is easier said than done, especially if one is short of time. But even if Surapadman manages to do so, and speeds down the river to reach Magadh before us, he would know that our army could simply stop marching and not appear at the gates of his city. His own Magadhans may then believe that Surapadman ran away from the battle at Ayodhya using the false pretext of Magadh itself being in danger. A crown prince cannot afford to be perceived as a coward. So he would have no choice but to attack us here itself. What do you think?’
‘I like the plan,’ said Bhagirath. ‘It should work with a good general like Surapadman, for he will have scouts riding along the river banks to keep him informed of what’s going on. We have to be sure to attack those scouts but allow some of them to escape with information about the size of our army. Also, our camp in the forest stretches up to two kilometres. When their ships pass our position, we should have soldiers disturb the birds on top of the trees at the beginning of our camp. Also, we could have some fires left “carelessly” aflame towards the end of our camp. Judging the vast distance between these two signals, Surapadman would assume that there is a massive enemy army marching south along the river bank. He would be forced to attack.’
‘Let’s have some devil boats on the western bank as well.’
‘But the battle will be fought here on the west bank,’ said Kartik, frowning. ‘Their men would engage in battle here and our fire coracles would be clearly visible. Devil boats can set fire to ships only when they have an element of surprise. If they are visible then they can be easily sunk. That’s why I have set up the devil boats on the eastern banks.’
‘The fighting would happen on our side,’ said Bhagirath. ‘But Surapadman would be forced to land his men on the sands of the Bal-Atibal Kund, and nowhere else on the western side. It’s almost impossible to land men in large numbers in the dense forest which runs along the river farther north. So if we keep our coracles up north, they would remain hidden from enemy eyes. As soon as his ships anchor to investigate our position, we’ll attack them at the north end of his convoy.’
‘Good point. I’ll issue those orders.’
Kartik’s army was ready and poised for action as they heard the sounds of a massive navy rowing up the Sarayu. Judging by the dull drum-beats of the timekeepers and the faint sound of the oars negotiating the waters, it was fair to assume that the Magadhan ships would reach the Bal-Atibal Kund within the next hour or two.
Soldiers were immediately ordered to take battle positions. Weapons were checked, defences were tested.
Kartik walked up to the edge of the forest and surveyed the sands of the Bal-Atibal Kund as well as the river beyond. A crescent moon had failed to lift the darkness of the late hour of the night, which suited his strategy. A light seasonal fog had begun to spread along the river. Perfect! With a practiced eye he checked whether the communication pots were still visible in the fog and was pleased with what he saw.
Kartik turned to Bhagirath, and then looked farther ahead towards Divodas and the other commanders of the Branga army.
‘My friends,’ said Kartik. ‘Unlike my father, I’m not good with words. So I will keep this short. The Magadhans will be fighting only for conquest and glory. Those are weak motivations. You are fighting for vengeance and retribution. For your families and for the soul of your nation. You are fighting to stop the Somras that has killed your children and crippled your people. You are fighting to stop the scourge of this Evil. You have to fight to the end; until they are finished. I don’t want prisoners. I want them dead. If anyone takes the side of Evil, they forfeit the right to live. Remember! Remember the pain of your children!’
The Branga commanders roared together. ‘Death to the Magadhans!’
‘This land that we stand upon,’ continued Kartik, ‘has been blessed by the feet of Lord Ram. We shall honour him today with blood. Jai Shri Ram!’
‘Jai Shri Ram!’
‘To your positions!’ ordered Kartik.
The Branga commanders hurried away. As soon as the men were out of earshot, Bhagirath spoke, ‘Kartik, why do you want them all dead?’
‘Prince Bhagirath, if there are too many Magadhan prisoners, we will have to leave behind a large force to keep watch over them. Our eventual purpose is to get as many soldiers as possible to Meluha. If the Magadhan army is decimated, we will not need to keep too many of our own soldiers in Magadh. Just a few thousand of them would be enough to control the city. Also, the killing of all the Magadhans would send a message to Ayodhya. It might make them reconsider their alliance with Meluha.’