The Meluhan soldiers standing at a distance looked at Vidyunmali warily. What their brigadier was asking them to do was against the laws of Lord Ram. But they were too well-trained. Meluhan military training demanded unquestioning obedience to one’s commanding officer. This training had forced the soldiers to suppress their misgivings and carry out Vidyunmali’s orders until now. But their moral code was about to be challenged even more strongly.
Vidyunmali heard the Vasudev whispering something again and again. He bent close. ‘Do you have something to say?’
The Vasudev soldier kept mumbling softly, drawing strength from his words. ‘Jai Guru Vishwamitra. Jai Guru Vashishta. Jai Guru Vishwamitra. Jai Guru Vashishta...’
Vidyunmali sniggered. ‘They aren’t here to help you, my friend.’
He turned and beckoned a startled Meluhan soldier. The brigadier pointed at a metallic hammer and large nail.
‘My Lord?’ whispered the nervous soldier, knowing full well that to attack an unarmed and bound man was against Lord Ram’s principles. ‘I’m not sure if we should...’
‘It’s not your job to be sure,’ growled Vidyunmali. ‘That’s my job. Your job is to do what I order you to do.’
‘Yes, My Lord,’ said the Meluhan, saluting slowly. He picked up the hammer and nail. He walked slowly to the Vasudev and placed the nail on the captive’s arm, a few inches above the wrist. He held the hammer back and flexed his shoulders, ready to strike.
Vidyunmali turned to the Vasudev. ‘You’d better start talking...’
‘Jai Guru Vishwamitra. Jai Guru Vashishta...’
Vidyunmali nodded to the soldier.
‘Jai Guru Vishwamitra. Jai Guru... AAAAHHHHHHHHH!’
The ear-splitting scream from the Vasudev resounded loudly in the confines of the dungeon. But this deep, abandoned underground hell-hole, somewhere between Mrittikavati and Devagiri, had not been used in centuries. There was nobody around to hear his screams except for the nervous Meluhan soldiers at the back of the room, who kept praying to Lord Ram, begging for his forgiveness.
The soldier kept robotically hammering away, pushing the nail deep into the Vasudev’s right arm. The Vasudev kept screaming up to a point where his brain simply blocked the pain. He couldn’t feel his arm anymore. His heart was pumping madly, as blood came out in spurts through the gaping injury.
Vidyunmali approached his ear as the Vasudev breathed heavily, trying to focus on his tribe, on his gods, on his vows, on anything except his right arm.
‘Do you need some more persuasion?’ asked Vidyunmali.
The Vasudev looked away, focusing his mind on his chant.
Vidyunmali yanked the nail out, took a wet cloth and wiped the Vasudev’s arm. Then he picked up a small bottle and poured its contents into the wound. It burned deeply, but the Vasudev’s blood clotted almost immediately.
‘I don’t want you to die,’ whispered Vidyunmali. ‘At least not yet...’
Vidyunmali turned towards his soldier and nodded.
‘My Lord,’ whispered the soldier, with tears in his eyes. He had lost count of the number of sins that he was taking upon his soul. ‘Please...’
The soldier immediately turned and picked up another bottle. He walked up to the Vasudev and poured some of the viscous liquid into the wound he had inflicted.
Vidyunmali stepped back and returned with a long flint, its edge burning slowly. ‘I hope you see the light after this.’
The Vasudev’s eyes opened wide in terror. But he refused to talk; he knew he couldn’t reveal the secret. It would be devastating for his tribe.
‘Jai... Gu... ru... Vishwa...’
‘Fire will purify you,’ whispered Vidyunmali softly. ‘And you will speak.’
‘...Mitra... Jai... Gu... ru... Vash...’
The dungeon resonated once again with the desperate screams of the Vasudev, as the smell of burning flesh defiled the room.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Parvateshwar.
‘As sure as I can ever be,’ said a smiling Vidyunmali.
Parvateshwar took a deep breath.
He knew that it was Shiva who led the massive fleet of ships that had just sped past Devagiri two weeks back. Parvateshwar suspected that Shiva was sailing north to pick up Ganesh’s army and bring them back to Devagiri. He had also received reports about the delays faced by Ganesh’s army as they marched through the washed-out Ganga-Yamuna Road. It would probably take a month for Shiva to return to Devagiri, along with the hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in Ganesh’s army.
He also knew that another contingent of the Neelkanth’s army, being led by Sati, had just sailed out of Mrittikavati. They would reach Devagiri in a week or two. Knowing full well that Ganesh would be delayed, Parvateshwar expected Sati’s army to reach Devagiri first. He also knew that this was a force of a hundred thousand soldiers against his own seventy-five thousand. Once Shiva and Ganesh’s army sailed in, the strength of the enemy would rise to two hundred and fifty thousand. Parvateshwar knew that his best chance was to attack Sati’s army before Shiva and Ganesh arrived.
The only problem was that he had no answer for the unstoppable Vasudev elephant corps under Sati’s command. Until now.
‘Chilli and dung?’ asked Parvateshwar. ‘It just seems so simple.’
‘Apparently, the elephants don’t like the smell of chilli, My Lord. It makes them run amuck. We should keep dung bricks mixed with chilli ready, burn them and catapult them towards the elephants. The acrid smoke will drive them crazy; and, hopefully, into their own army.’
‘There are no elephants to test this on, Vidyunmali. The only way to test this would be in battle. What if this doesn’t work?’
‘My apologies, General, but do we have any other options?’
‘Then what’s the harm in trying?’
Parvateshwar nodded and turned to stare at his soldiers practising in the distance. ‘How did you get this information?’
Vidyunmali was quiet.
Parvateshwar returned his gaze to Vidyunmali, his eyes boring into him. ‘Brigadier, I asked you a question.’
‘There are traitors in every army, My Lord.’
Parvateshwar was stunned. The famous Vasudev discipline was legendary. ‘You found a Vasudev traitor?!’
‘Like I said, there are traitors in every army. How do you think I escaped?’
Parvateshwar turned and looked once again at his soldiers. No harm in trying this tactic. It just might work.
Devagiri, the abode of the gods, had become the city of the thoroughly bewildered. Its two hundred thousand citizens could not recall a time in living memory when an enemy army had gathered the gumption to march up to their city. And yet, here they were, witness to unbelievable occurrences.
Just a few weeks earlier, they had seen a large fleet of warships race past their city, rowing furiously up the Saraswati. It was clear that these ships were a part of the Mrittikavati-based Meluhan fleet and that it was now in control of the enemy. Why those enemy ships simply sailed by without attacking Devagiri was a mystery.
News had also filtered in about a massive army garrisoning itself next to the Saraswati, about ten kilometres south of the city. The normally secure Devagiri citizens now confined themselves within the walls of the city, not venturing out unless absolutely necessary. Merchants had also halted all their trading activities and their merchant ships remained anchored at the port.