the oath of the vayuputras - Page 61

The Meluhan soldiers had formed themselves into squares of twenty by twenty men. Each soldier covered the left half of his body with his shield and the right half of the soldier to the left of him. The soldier behind used his shield as a lid to cover himself and the soldier in front. Each warrior used the space between his own shield and the one next to him to hold out his long spear. This formation provided the defence of a tortoise but could also be used as a devastatingly offensive battering ram with long spears bearing in on the enemy.

However, the tortoise had one weakness that was known to the creator of the formation himself: Shiva. This chink in the armour was at its rear; if attacked from behind, there was little that the soldiers could do. They were weighed down with heavy spears which pointed ahead. It was difficult to turn around quickly. Furthermore, there was no shield protection at the back of the formation. So if an enemy were to get behind, he could attack the soldiers and rout them completely.

Shiva turned towards Sati with a smile. ‘Vidyunmali is so predictable.’

Sati nodded. ‘To formation?’

‘To formation,’ agreed Shiva.

Sati immediately turned her horse and rode out to the right, quickly extending the line of the army under her command towards the pathway wall. She steadily put herself between the Meluhan tortoises emerging from the city gates, and Kali’s brave Nagas who were attacking the fortified pathway behind her. Her task was to first fight hard and then begin retreating slowly, giving the Meluhans a false sense of imminent victory, keeping them marching forward. It would be a tough battle which would lead to heavy casualties, as she would be right in front of the unstoppable tortoise formations. As the Meluhans moved ahead, space would open up behind them, allowing Shiva to ride out with his cavalry and attack them from the rear.

Shiva, meanwhile, rode towards the elephant corps and the cavalry on the left.

‘Steady!’ Shiva ordered the Vasudev brigadier in command of the elephant corps.

Shiva had to move quickly. But he also had to move at the right time. If he charged too early, Vidyunmali would smell the trap.

As Veerbhadra saw the Meluhan tortoise charge into Sati’s army, he turned to Shiva, worried. ‘The task is too difficult for Sati. We should…’

‘Stay focused, Bhadra,’ said Shiva. ‘She knows what she is doing.’

The tortoise formations were bearing down hard on Sati and her soldiers. In the best traditions of Suryavanshi warfare, Sati led from the front. She could see the wall of shields moving steadily towards her at a slow, jostling run, a forest of spears bristling out of every crevice. The sun bounced off the polished metal with every thudding step they took. She breathed out slowly and urged her horse forward into a smooth canter, then a gallop as she held herself just out of the saddle, poised and still, waiting for her moment.

Closer and closer she came to the formation, eyes searching for a gap. For a moment a shield shifted slightly out of alignment as they ran, exposing the neck of a soldier. Without shifting in her seat, Sati drew a knife from her sheath and flung it with deadly accuracy, striking home and felling the soldier in midstep.

The tortoise was almost upon her. She pulled hard on the reins, her horse rearing up as she tried to turn backwards. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder and heard her horse neigh desperately as it faltered beneath her. Gasping in pain from the spear thrust, she tried to kick free from her dying mount as it came to its knees. She looked up to see which soldier had stabbed her, but could not make out which pair of eyes, peering over their shields, held the spear that was buried in her shoulder. The spear was thrust deeper, and she cried out, half in pain and half in anger, her eyes watering. She swung her sword violently, hacking the spear in two, as she rolled off the horse and onto her feet.

A few arrows sped past Sati’s shoulders, striking more soldiers in the tortoise through the gap she had just created. For a moment, the Meluhan charge slowed and faltered, the shield line crumbling in slightly as replacement soldiers struggled to come forward and seal the breach. Admirably though, the Meluhans were back in formation quickly and resumed their charge. Sati stepped back a pace and in the same movement, almost like they were in lock-step, her army stepped back as well, imperceptibly, as they fought on bravely. They kept withdrawing gradually, as though being mowed down by the unstoppable tortoise corps. Just a few more minutes of steady retreat by Sati’s men and the Meluhans would have marched forward far enough for Shiva to ride out behind them and destroy their formations.

Shiva observed the battle raging in the distance. His eyes fell on the Meluhan chariots on the side of the tortoise formations, providing protection to their flanks. Each chariot had a charioteer to steer the horses and a warrior to engage in combat. The two-man team allowed for frightening speed and brutal force. These chariots could stall the impending charge of Shiva’s cavalry.

‘I want your elephants to take out those chariots. Now,’ he ordered the Vasudev brigadier.

The Vasudev brigadier turned to his mahouts, quickly relaying the orders.

The elephants raced out at a fearsome pace, making the ground rumble with their charge. The Meluhan warriors on the chariots confidently observed the elephants approach. They immediately relieved their charioteers of the reins of their horses, who in turn pulled out drums stored for just such an occasion. The Meluhans still remembered the battles against Chandravanshi elephants. Loud noises from drums always disturbed the giant animals, making them run amuck, often crushing their own army. But these beasts had been trained by the Vasudevs to tolerate sudden loud sounds. Much to the shock of the Meluhan charioteers, the elephants continued their charge.

Seeing their tactic fail, they immediately abandoned the drums and took up the reins of their horses. The warriors pulled out their spears and readied themselves for battle. The Meluhan chariots moved quickly as the Vasudev elephants drew near, weaving around the pachyderms as they charged, throwing their spears at the giant beasts, hoping to injure or at least slow them down. But the elephants were prepared. There were massive metallic balls tied to their trunks. The elephants swung their trunks expertly, smashing the metallic balls into the bodies of the horses and the charioteers. Some of the Meluhans were fortunate enough to die instantly, but others had the balls smash through their bones, leaving them alive to suffer in agony. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, a second surprise was in store for the Meluhan charioteers. All of a sudden, fire spewed out of the elephant howdahs!

The Vasudevs had fitted their elephants with machines designed by their engineers. Two Vasudev soldiers kept pushing the levers, shooting out an almost continuous stream of flames which burned all in its path. The few unfortunate Meluhan chariots that did not get burned were stamped out of existence under massive elephant feet. The chariot corps of the Meluhans was no match for the Vasudev elephants.

Shiva drew his sword and held it high. He turned to his cavalry, and shouted over the din, ‘Ride hard into the rear of those formations! Charge into them! Destroy them!’

Even as Shiva’s cavalry thundered out, Sati was playing her part perfectly. Her soldiers had been progressively stepping back, drawing the Meluhans farther and farther away into the open, exposing a massive breach between the rear of their tortoise formations and the fort walls. To maintain the credibility of the tactic and keep the Meluhans engaged in battle, Sati’s soldiers were not running away in haste but continuing to fight, taking many casualties in the process. Sati herself had also been seriously injured, having been struck on both the shoulder and thigh. But she battled on. She knew she couldn’t afford to fail. Her forces’ success in their task was crucial to their overall victory.