Suddenly the moon burst through the clouds and Bhagirath could see men running up and down the length of the enemy ships carrying fire torches. They were lighting the arrows for the archers.
‘Shields up!’ screamed Bhagirath.
Bhagirath’s soldiers, primarily Brangas, immediately prepared for the volley of arrows that would soon descend upon them. The sky lit up as the archers shot their fire arrows. They flew out in a great arc before descending into the jungle. Bhagirath had kept his men strictly within the forest line, so the trees worked as their first line of defence. The few that got through were easily blocked by the raised shields.
The Magadhans had hoped that their fire arrows would set the forest aflame, causing chaos and confusion amongst the Brangas. But mist and the cold of the night had ensured dew formation on the leaves. The trees simply did not catch fire.
As the arrows stopped, Bhagirath roared loudly. ‘Har Har Mahadev!’
His soldiers followed him as their cry rent the air, ‘Har Har Mahadev!’
The Magadhans quickly lit another line of arrows and shot. Once again, the trees and the Branga shields ensured that Bhagirath’s soldiers suffered no casualties.
The Brangas put their shields aside and let out their war cry, taunting their enemies. ‘Har Har Mahadev!’
Bhagirath could see the rowboats being lowered from the ships. The attack was about to begin. The fire arrows were just a cover. As he watched the arrows being loaded again, he turned to his men. ‘Shields!’
The Brangas effortlessly defended themselves against another volley of fire arrows.
‘Send a message to our men on the other side to launch their fire coracles! Now!’
As his aide rushed away, Bhagirath saw his enemies rowing out towards the kund. And yet another shower of arrows was fired.
‘Don’t move!’ shouted Bhagirath, keeping his men in check. ‘Let them land first.’
In order to inflict maximum casualties Bhagirath would allow a large contingent of enemy soldiers to land ashore before launching a three-pronged attack from the adjoining forest. An impregnable phalanx of his infantry, standing shoulder to shoulder, shields in front, would advance and push at the frontline Magadhan soldiers with unstoppable force. The enemy soldiers bringing up the rear would inevitably be forced into the water. Weighed down by their weapons and armour, they would drown. The frontline, hopelessly outnumbered, would then be decimated.
‘Shields!’ ordered Bhagirath once again as he saw the arrows being lit.
His gut feel was that this would be the last volley. Enemy soldiers were jumping off their boats onto the sands of Bal-Atibal. Brutal hand-to-hand combat was moments away. Bhagirath could feel the adrenaline rushing through his veins. He could almost smell the blood that was about to be shed.
‘Charge!’ bellowed Bhagirath.
Kartik rode furiously with his two-thousand strong cavalry. Even through the dense foliage, he could see fire arrows being shot from Magadhan ships. They had commenced battle, which meant that the southern contingent of the Magadhan army was in position.
‘Faster!’ roared Kartik to his horsemen.
They could see that the ships at the centre of the fleet had already caught fire. The devil boats had struck. Bhagirath was obviously hurting the Magadhan navy. What was surprising though, was that the southern end was also aflame. The Vaishali forces must have arrived and were attacking the Magadhan navy from behind.
Kartik was distracted by the din up ahead; it was the sound of a fierce battle between the southern contingent of the Magadhans and Divodas’ Brangas.
Surapadman’s men had probably shot fire arrows here as well, for parts of the camp were on fire. But this served as a beacon for Kartik’s horsemen. They kicked their horses hard, spurring them on. The Brangas at the southern end were hard at work, holding almost twenty thousand soldiers at bay. The Magadhans, who had expected to decimate an unprepared enemy, were shocked by the fierce resistance they were facing. Things would get a lot worse though, for the Magadhans did not expect danger from the back as well.
‘Har Har Mahadev!’ yelled Kartik as he drew his long sword.
‘Har Har Mahadev!’ roared the Branga horsemen as they charged.
The last rows of the Magadhan foot soldiers, completely unprepared for a cavalry charge from the rear, were ruthlessly butchered within minutes. Kartik and his cavalry cut a wide swathe through the Magadhan units, their horses trampling hapless soldiers, their swords slicing all those who stood in their path.
Initially, the rear attack of the Branga cavalry went unnoticed due to the massive size of the rival armies and the brutal din and clamour of a battle well joined. Quickly overcoming their surprise, many brave Magadhan soldiers leapt at the horsemen, stabbing at the beasts and even fearlessly holding on to the stirrups, hoping to bring them down. Sensing that he led the cavalry charge, a clutch of infantrymen tripped Kartik’s steed bringing them both down in a crash. They would soon wish that they hadn’t.
With cat-like reflexes, Kartik sprang to his feet, viciously drawing his second sword as well, and cutting at the first of the soldiers pressing on to him. The Magadhan crumpled in midstep and fell silently to the ground, his windpipe severed, a gush of air bursting from his slit throat, splattering blood on those around him. A second soldier charged, and was cut down before he’d taken two steps, a single stroke of Kartik’s blade slicing through his torso, almost to his spine.
The remaining soldiers paused, cautious now of this boy who could kill with such ease. They spread out in a circle around him, swords at the ready. Kartik knew they would charge together from all sides, and waited for them to make their move.
The charge came, two from the front, one from the back and a fourth from the left. Kartik crouched, and with near-inhuman speed sidestepped to the left and swung fiercely. Generating fearful blade speed through his swinging strikes, he brutally sliced limb, sinew, head and trunk all around him. Blood and entrails were splattered all over.
He paused, panting, the swords in his hands dripping red with blood. He looked around him, selected an opponent and charged again. As the Bhagavad Gita would say, Kartik had become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
The fighting raged for half an hour as the tide of the battle tipped more and more against the Magadhans. But they fought on as no quarter was given either by Kartik or his army.
Slowly the screams of the dying lessened, and then were silenced as Surapadman’s army perished. Soldiers stopped their slaughter and stood quietly on the battlefield, leaning exhausted on their swords and panting. But Kartik did not slacken, pressing attack after attack on all those that remained standing.
Divodas tried to run as he approached Kartik, but his legs were weak and trembling, and he could scarcely manage more than a stumbling trot. He was covered in blood from a dozen small cuts, and a deep gash on his shoulder left his right arm dangling limply to his side. ‘My Lord,’ he called out, breathless and hoarse, ‘My Lord!’
Kartik swung viciously, the speed of his movement building formidable power in his curved blade. Divodas took the blow on his shield as his hand reverberated with the shock of blocking the brutal blow, numbing his left arm to the shoulder.
‘My Lord!’ he pleaded in desperation. ‘It is I, Divodas!’
Kartik suddenly stopped, his long sword held high in his right hand, his curved blade held low to his left, his breathing sharp and heavy, his eyes bulging with bloodlust.