As soon as the smoke hit them, the elephants shrieked desperately. The mahouts recognised the smell.
‘Retreat!’ screamed a mahout.
‘No!’ shouted back a belligerent elephant-rider. ‘We have them! Crush the oxen. Move forward!’
But the elephants were already in a state of frenzied panic. They turned from the source of their discomfort and ran. The hysterical oxen, with the fires burning hard on the carts, continued their frantic sprint forward as though to elude the blaze.
Sati could see the developing situation unfolding from the distance. Whatever the oxen were carrying was making the pachyderms hysterical. Within a matter of a few minutes the oxen would reach her remaining outer elephant line and spread the panic deep into her force. She saw a fire arrow being shot from the gates of Devagiri as they opened once again. The Meluhans could see their strategy was working and were committing themselves to a full attack. Her worst fears were confirmed as she saw the Meluhan cavalry thunder out of the Devagiri gates. The city was ten kilometres away, and she knew she had the luxury of some time before they reached her position. Her immediate concern was the oncoming oxen that could make all the Vasudev elephants charge madly back into her own force.
Turning back, she shouted out to her herald, ‘Tell the lines at the back to retreat to the boats. NOW!’
She ordered the remaining elephant line to disband and escape southwards immediately. If the ox-driven carts reached the line of the lumbering animals and managed to spread panic among the hundreds of elephants under her command, her army would get destroyed completely by her own pachyderms.
She then ordered her cavalry forward.
‘Charge at these beasts moving towards us! We have to deflect them on to a different path! We need time for our soldiers to retreat!’
Her cavalry drew their swords and roared: ‘Har Har Mahadev!’
‘Har Har Mahadev!’ bellowed Sati, as she drew her sword and charged forward.
Sati’s skilled cavalry kept up a steady volley of arrows as they drew near the elephants and oxen. While this did deflect many of the oxen away from Sati’s army, the elephants continued their headlong charge. Many of the elephant howdahs had transformed into hell-holes, emitting fire continuously. The shocked elephant-riders, sitting atop the berserk animals, had fallen on some of their flame-throwers, breaking the levers.
Moments later, Sati’s cavalry fearlessly charged headlong into her retreating elephants, riding expertly to avoid the wildly swinging trunks and metallic balls. They needed to bring their own elephants down. This required riding up close from behind and slashing the beasts’ hamstrings, thus making their rear legs collapse. But this was easier said than done, with the malfunctioning flame-throwers spewing a continuous stream of fire. Sati bravely led her section of the cavalry in pursuit of the task at hand. Since there were only twenty elephants, they were brought down quickly. But not before many of the cavalrymen had lost their lives, some crushed, many burnt by the flame-throwers. Sati herself had had her face scorched on one side.
In the meantime, the rest of Sati’s cavalry had managed to redirect all the charging oxen through the skilled use of spears and arrows. The bulls were still charging, panic-stricken with the burning carts tethered to them, but to the west and safely away from the rest of Sati’s elephant corps. Sati looked back to the east, where many of her foot soldiers were already sailing out to the safety of the ships. Her cautious planning had ensured that a large number of rowboats had been kept ready for just such an eventuality.
But this would prove to be a minor victory, before absolute disaster. The Meluhan cavalry had been riding hard towards the battlefield, making good time. And, as the oxen stampeded away, the Meluhan riders charged into Sati’s cavalry.
Sati’s cavalry had numbered three thousand riders and was evenly matched with the Meluhans. But her riders had just emerged from a bruising encounter with the panic-stricken elephants and oxen. Their numbers had come down and their strength was already sapped. However, Sati knew that retreat was not an option. She had to battle on for a little longer so that all her foot soldiers could get away to the safety of the ships.
Then Sati heard the sounds of the elephants once again.
She killed the Meluhan in front of her and looked behind.
‘Lord Ram, be merciful!’
Some of the elephant corps that she had ordered south were now thundering back. The elephants were trumpeting desperately, with fire spewing in all directions. The mahouts had already fallen off, leaving the animals totally out of control. Behind the elephants, were charging oxen with burning carts tethered to them.
The Meluhans had, in a brilliant strategic move ordered by Parvateshwar, kept another corps of ox-driven carts, laden with chilli-laced dung cakes, to the south of Sati’s position. These carts had slipped out of Devagiri the previous evening, disguised as agricultural produce transport. Since Sati had not besieged the city, but only camped close to it, they only attacked armament transport and let non-lethal materials travel freely in and out of Devagiri. The reason was very obvious: a full siege would have committed too many soldiers and possibly even provoked a battle. Sati had wanted to avoid that. Little did Sati’s Chandravanshi scouts realise that even dung and agricultural produce could be lethal for them.
As the elephants had charged towards these carts, they had also been set on fire. And, as expected, these retreating elephants turned around in alarm and charged back into the battlefield.
Sati was in a bind. The Meluhan cavalry was in front and a huge horde of charging, panic-stricken elephants spewing fire was behind her.
‘Retreat!’ yelled Sati.
Her cavalry disengaged and galloped towards the river. Fortunately for them, the Meluhan cavalry did not give chase. Alarmed by the sight of the terrified elephants speeding towards them, they turned around and rode towards the safety of their walls.
Many among Sati’s horsemen were trampled or burned down by the rampaging elephants. Some of the riders managed to reach the river and rode into the waters without a second’s hesitation. The horses swam desperately towards the ships, carrying their riders with them to safety. Many though, sank into the Saraswati under the weight of their light armour. Sati, Veerbhadra and Nandi were among the lucky few who managed to reach the vessels.
While most of the foot soldiers had been saved, the elephant and cavalry corps had been decimated. Memories of the elephants’ killer blows in the battle of Mrittikavati were quickly forgotten as the magnitude of the disaster the animals had wreaked sank in.
Chenardhwaj, who was in charge of the ships, quickly ordered that they retreat, as soon as the last of the surviving soldiers was onboard. Without the protection of the land army, their stationary navy was a sitting duck for further attacks.
‘Absolute decimation,’ crowed Vidyunmali. ‘We should now chase those imbeciles and finish off what’s left of the fraud’s army. They should learn that nobody invades our fair motherland.’
Vidyunmali had joined Daksha, Bhrigu, Parvateshwar and Kanakhala in the Emperor’s private office. Though brigadiers did not normally participate in strategy meetings, Daksha had insisted that he be allowed to attend, keeping in mind his sterling role in providing the information about the elephants.
Parvateshwar raised his hand to silence Vidyunmali. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Vidyunmali. Remember, Sati’s tactics under pressure were exceptional. She managed to save most of her army. So it’s not as if we’ll have a huge numerical advantage if we chase them.’