Vidyunmali fumed silently, keeping his eyes pinned on the floor. Praise for a rival general? What is wrong with Lord Parvateshwar? She may have been a Meluhan princess once, but now she’s a sworn enemy of our motherland.
‘And we should not forget,’ said Kanakhala, ‘that the Neelkanth is sailing down from the north with a large army. The safest place for our army right now is within these fort walls.’
Neelkanth? fumed Vidyunmali silently, unwilling to argue openly with senior officers of the empire. He is not the Neelkanth. He is our enemy. And our army should be fighting, not keeping itself safe behind high walls!
‘Kanakhala is right,’ said Daksha. ‘We should keep our army here and attack that fraud Neelkanth the moment his ships dock. That coward left my daughter to fight alone while he went gallivanting up the Yamuna! He should pay for his cowardice!’
Vidyunmali couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Does anyone here put Meluha’s interests above all else?
‘Let’s worry about Meluha instead of Princess Sati and her husband’s duties towards her,’ said Bhrigu. ‘Lord Parvateshwar is right. We have won a great victory. But we should measure our next steps carefully. What do you suggest, General?’
‘My Lord, we have taken out their elephant corps and cavalry,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘Sati’s army is in retreat. Hence, I do not expect the Neelkanth to stop and attack us here.’
‘Of course he won’t,’ quipped Daksha. ‘He’s a coward.’
‘Your Highness,’ said Bhrigu, barely hiding his irritation. The maharishi turned to Parvateshwar. ‘Why won’t he stop here, General?’
‘My scouts have sent back confirmation of our earlier estimates of Ganesh’s army,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘They do have one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers. That is a big army, but it’s not enough to defeat our forces if we remain within our fort walls, given that Sati’s forces are no longer available to augment them. And from our defensive positions, we can slowly wear his army down. Therefore, the Neelkanth will not want to commit to a long siege here. He’ll gain nothing and will unnecessarily lose men.’
‘So what do you think he will do?’
‘He will sail past Devagiri and join with Sati’s army, perhaps in Mrittikavati or Lothal.’
‘Then we should attack their ships,’ interrupted Daksha.
‘That will be difficult, Your Highness,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘Their ships are sailing downriver. We’ll have to march on road since there are no warships on the Saraswati under our control. They will have the advantage of speed. We will not be able to catch up.’
‘So where should we attack them?’ asked Bhrigu.
‘If we have to attack them, I would prefer to do so at Mrittikavati.’
‘Lothal is not a good idea. I have designed the defences of Lothal myself, and sacrificing false modesty, I will say that those defences are solid. We would need a ten to one advantage in soldiers to conquer Lothal. We don’t have that. We will be pitting eighty thousand of our men against more than two hundred thousand of the joint Sati-Ganesh army. Attacking Lothal will be a disaster for us; we will lose too many men. On the other hand, Mrittikavati’s defences do not require that kind of numerical advantage. Also, we have twenty thousand of our own soldiers within Mrittikavati. I agree they may be imprisoned, but if they find out that their brother Meluhan soldiers are besieging the city, they may create a lot of trouble for the Lord from within. Having said that, I would expect the Lord to retreat to Lothal and not Mrittikavati, for this very reason.’
Bhrigu had an inkling that Parvateshwar preferred an altogether different strategy. ‘I get the feeling that you would choose not to attack at all.’
‘Not attack at all?’ asked a surprised Daksha. ‘Why not? Our army has tasted victory. Parvateshwar, you should...’
‘Your Highness,’ interrupted Bhrigu. ‘Perhaps we should leave it to an expert like Lord Parvateshwar to suggest what we should do. Go on, General.’
‘The reason I suggest we avoid aggression right now is that the Lord Neelkanth would hope that we attack,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘One cannot attack a well-defended fort without the advantage of numbers. We don’t have that. So by attacking them, we’ll gain nothing and lose too many men. So I say that we stay within the safe walls of Devagiri. If we wait for six more months, Ayodhya’s army will get here. Combined with their three hundred thousand soldiers, we will have a huge numerical advantage over the Lord’s army.’
‘So are you suggesting that we just sit around like cowards?’ asked Daksha.
‘It would not be cowardly to refrain from attacking when the situation is not in our favour,’ said Bhrigu, before turning back to Parvateshwar. ‘Go on, General.’
‘Once Ayodhya’s troops come in, we should march to Karachapa,’ said Parvateshwar. ‘We still have control over the Indus command of our navy. Along with Ayodhya’s soldiers, we will have a four hundred thousand-strong army. Combine that with the vastly superior naval fleet that we have in the Indus, and we can mount a very solid attack on Lothal.’
‘What you are saying appears to make sense,’ said Bhrigu, before turning to Daksha. ‘I suggest that we follow Lord Parvateshwar’s strategy. Your Highness?’
Daksha immediately nodded his assent.
But Vidyunmali could guess that the Emperor’s heart was not in this decision. He wondered if there was an opportunity for him to convince the emperor of a more aggressive course of action.
The stunned army of Ganesh was transfixed by the devastation on the hilly battlefield south of Devagiri, as they sailed down the Saraswati. Bloated carcasses of elephants and horses littered the hill, flies buzzing around them. Crows and vultures fought viciously over the beasts’ entrails, even though there were enough corpses around for them all. The squawking and cawing of the feasting birds added pathos to the macabre scene.
Of particular interest to the soldiers though, was the fact that there were no human dead bodies on the battlefield. The Meluhans, true to their honourable traditions, had in all likelihood conducted funeral ceremonies for all their enemy warriors. Also, they noticed that there was no debris in the Saraswati. That meant Sati’s ships had escaped the devastation, hopefully with most of her army intact.
Shiva stood on the deck of the lead ship, surveying the battlefield along with his sons and sister-in-law. He knew that he couldn’t stop now and engage in a battle at Devagiri. He simply didn’t have the strength of numbers anymore. He had to retreat farther south and find what was left of Sati’s army. His scouts had already told him that the devastation looked worse than it actually must have been. Most of the infantrymen in Sati’s army had survived and her ships were sailing south to safety. Shiva knew that with much of Sati’s army intact, he still had a fighting chance in the war, but he would have to reformulate his strategy.
All that was for later, though. His mind was seized for the moment with one thought alone: was his Sati all right? Was she hurt? Was she alive?
‘Neelkanth,’ said Gopal, rushing up to Shiva. He had just received word from a Vasudev pandit envoy, who was hiding on the eastern bank of the Saraswati, waiting for Shiva’s ships to arrive. ‘Lady Sati was still alive when she was pulled aboard one of the retreating ships.’