‘Sounds good in theory,’ said Kali. ‘But coordination may prove to be a problem in practice. There could be delays. If one of our armies reaches Devagiri a few weeks earlier, it may leave them weakened against the Meluhans.’
‘But Shiva is not suggesting that we mount an attack and conquer Devagiri as soon as either one of us reaches,’ said Sati. ‘We would just fortify ourselves and wait for the other. Once we have joined forces, only then should we attack.’
‘True, but what if the Meluhans decide to attack?’ asked Kali. ‘Remember, anchored ships are sitting ducks for devil boats.’
‘I don’t see them stepping out of the safety of their fort,’ said Shiva. ‘The army that I will lead will have a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers who have just destroyed the mighty Magadhans; the Meluhans will not attack us with only seventy-five thousand soldiers. Sati’s army will have a hundred thousand, and don’t forget, she will also have the Vasudev elephants. So you see, even our separate armies are capable of taking on the Meluhans on an open field. General Parvateshwar has a calm head on his strong shoulders. He will know that it’s better for them to remain in the safety of their fort, rather than marching out and attacking us.’
‘But I get your point, Kali,’ said Sati. ‘If I reach early, I will encamp some ten kilometres south of Devagiri. There is a large hill on the banks of the Saraswati which can serve as a superb defensive position since it will give us the advantage of height. I will set up a Chakravyuh formation with our Vasudev elephants as the first line of defence. It will be almost impossible to break through.’
‘I know that hill,’ said Shiva to Sati. ‘That is exactly where I will camp as well if I happen to reach before you do.’
‘There is no respite from the speed, is there, My Lord?’
Shiva and Parshuram stood on the deck of his lead ship, battling to keep their eyes open against the onslaught of the wind upon a speedily moving object.
The fleet was racing up the Saraswati, skeletally staffed as it was, with just two thousand soldiers, not giving any opportunity for the Meluhans to launch small strikes. While none of the cities on the Saraswati were prepared for naval warfare – since the Meluhans never expected such an attack – Shiva had decided to not tempt fate. The Meluhans were not wanting in honour and courage. As an additional precaution, he had also inducted many of the courageous Naga soldiers into his navy. Kali, the Queen of the Nagas, was travelling in the rearguard ship of the convoy.
Shiva smiled. ‘No Parshuram, there will be no respite. Speed is of the essence.’
In keeping with Shiva’s orders, there had been no breaks in the rowing. Four teams had been set up on gruelling six-hour shifts. The timekeepers, beating on the drums to set the rhythm for the rowers, maintained it at battle-ramming speed. Shiva did not want to trust the unpredictable winds with determining how fast they moved. In the interest of fairness, Shiva had also added his own name to the roster for rowing duties. His six hours of rowing for the day were to come up soon.
‘It’s a beautiful river, My Lord,’ said Parshuram. ‘It’s sad that we may have to kill it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My Lord, I have been researching the Somras. Lord Gopal has explained many things to me. And an idea has struck me...’
‘The Somras cannot be made without this,’ said Parshuram, pointing to the Saraswati.
‘Brahaspati tried that, Parshuram... He tried to find some way to make the Saraswati waters unusable. But that didn’t work, remember?’
‘That’s not what I meant, My Lord. What if the Saraswati didn’t exist? Neither would the Somras, would it?’
Shiva observed Parshuram closely with inscrutable eyes.
‘My Lord, there was a time when the Saraswati, as we know it today, had ceased to exist. The Yamuna had started flowing east towards the Ganga. Saraswati cannot exist without the meeting of the Yamuna and the Sutlej.’
‘We cannot kill the Saraswati,’ said Shiva, almost to himself.
‘My Lord, for all you know, maybe that’s what Nature was trying to do more than a hundred years ago, when an earthquake caused the Yamuna to change its course and flow into the Ganga. If Lord Brahmanayak, the father of the present emperor, had not changed the Yamuna’s course to flow back into the Sutlej and restore the Saraswati, history would have been very different. Maybe Nature was trying to stop the Somras.’
Shiva listened silently.
‘We don’t have to think the Saraswati would be dead. Its soul would still be flowing in the form of the Yamuna and the Sutlej. Only its body would disappear.’
Shiva stared at the Saraswati waters, perceiving her depths. Parshuram had a point but Shiva didn’t want to admit it. Not even to himself. Not yet, anyway.
Every Army Has a Traitor
‘Any news, Ganesh?’ asked Bhagirath.
Bhagirath and Chandraketu had just joined Ganesh and Kartik on the lead ship. The massive navy was sailing up the Ganga en route to Meluha from the north. Farther ahead, they were to take the Ganga-Yamuna road. They had slowed down only for a few hours to allow a boat to rendezvous with them. The boatman carried a message from a Vasudev pandit.
‘I’ve just received word that my father’s army has conquered Mrittikavati,’ said Ganesh.
Chandraketu was thrilled. ‘That is great news!’
‘It is indeed,’ answered Ganesh. ‘And it gets even better; the citizens of Mrittikavati have been won over to my father’s side. They have imprisoned what was left of the Meluhan army in the city.’
‘And, have they discovered the location of the Somras factory?’ asked Bhagirath.
‘Yes,’ said Kartik. ‘It’s Devagiri.’
‘Devagiri? What are you saying? That is so stupid. It’s their capital. One would think that the factory would be built in a secure, secret location.’
‘But they could have built this factory only within cities with large populations, right? And if so, which city would be better than Devagiri? They must have assumed that they could certainly keep their capital safe.’
‘So what are our orders now?’ asked Chandraketu.
‘The Meluhans have only seventy-five thousand soldiers in Devagiri,’ said Ganesh. ‘So we’re going to launch a coordinated attack.’
‘What are the details of the plan?’
‘We’re to sail up the Ganga and reach the Ganga-Yamuna road. We will then march to Meluha. My father is going to sail up the Yamuna in a fleet to meet us as we march. Together, we will then sail down to Devagiri. My mother, in the meantime, will arrive with the hundred thousand soldiers under her command.’
‘So we will have two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, all fired up with the fervour of recent victories, against seventy-five thousand Meluhans holed up on their platforms,’ said Bhagirath. ‘I like the odds.’
‘That’s exactly what baba must have said!’ grinned Kartik.
‘You are going to give me the answer I want,’ growled Vidyunmali, ‘whether you like it or not.’
A Vasudev major, captured from Shiva’s army, had been tied up on a moveable wooden rack with thick leather ropes. The stale air in the dark dungeon was putrid. The captured Vasudev was already drenched in his own sweat, but unafraid.