‘You won’t have to. I’ll be waiting for you when you return. I promise.’
Shiva pulled back a bit, looking deep into Sati’s eyes. ‘Stay away from fires.’
‘Shiva, seriously, what...’
‘Sati, promise me! You will stay away from fires.’
‘Yes, Shiva. I promise.’
With the Help of Umbergaon
Shiva was ready to leave. His bags had been sent to his ship. He had ordered all his aides out of his chamber. He’d wanted a few minutes alone with Sati.
‘Bye,’ whispered Shiva.
She smiled and embraced him. ‘Nothing will happen to me, my good man! You will not get rid of me so easily.’
Shiva laughed softly, for Sati had used his own line on him. ‘I know. It was just an overreaction to a stupid nightmare.’
Shiva pulled Sati’s face up and kissed her affectionately. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
A couple of weeks later Shiva and Gopal stood on a beach in a hidden lagoon, a short distance to the north of the Narmada delta. The small convoy of military ships had sneaked into the lagoon the previous night. Shiva and Gopal had disembarked into rowboats, along with a skeletal crew, and stolen onto the beach. Early next morning, the merchant ship that would take them to Pariha arrived in the lagoon.
‘Hmmm... good workmanship,’ said an admiring Shiva.
It was, without doubt, a bulky ship, obviously designed to carry large cargo. However, any sailor could judge that with its double masts, high stern and low bow, this craft was also built for speed. In addition, the ship had been rigged with two banks of oars, to allow for ‘human propulsion’ if required.
‘We won’t really need the rowers,’ said Gopal. ‘Our vessel will have the Northeasterly winds in its sails.’
‘Where is this beauty from?’ asked Shiva.
‘A small shipping village called Umbergaon.’
‘Umbergaon? Where is it?’
‘It’s to the south of the Narmada River delta.’
‘That’s not a part of any empire, Swadweep or Meluha.’
‘You guessed right, my friend. That makes it a perfect place to build ships that one doesn’t want tracked. The local ruler, Jadav Rana, is a pragmatic man. The Nagas have helped him many times. He values their friendship. And, most importantly, his people are expert ship builders. This ship will get us to Pariha as fast as is humanly possible.’
‘Interesting. We should be grateful for their invaluable help.’
‘No,’ said Gopal, smiling. ‘It is Pariha that should be grateful to Umbergaon, for the Umbergaonis have ensured that the gift of the Neelkanth shall reach Pariha.’
‘I’m no gift,’ said a discomfited Shiva.
‘Yes, you are. For you will help the Vayuputras achieve their purpose. You will help them fulfil their vow to Lord Rudra: to not let Evil win.’
Shiva remained silent, as always, embarrassed.
‘And I’m sure,’ continued a prescient Gopal, ‘that one day, Pariha too shall send a gift in return to Umbergaon.’
‘How’re you feeling now, my friend?’ asked Gopal, as soon as he entered Shiva’s cabin.
The vessel bearing the two men had been sailing in the open seas for a little more than a week. They were far beyond the coastline and unlikely to run into any Meluhan military ships. They’d run into choppy waters though, in the last few days. The sailors, used to the ways of the sea, were not really troubled by it. Neither was Gopal, who had travelled on these great expanses of water many times. But Shiva had undertaken a sea voyage just once, from the Narmada delta to Lothal, where the ship had stayed close to the coast. It was, therefore, no surprise that the rough sea had given the Neelkanth a severe bout of seasickness.
Shiva looked up from his bed and cursed, his eyes half shut. ‘I have no stomach left! It has all been churned out! A plague on these wretched waters!’
Gopal laughed softly, ‘It’s time for your medicines, Neelkanth.’
‘What’s the point, Panditji? Nothing stays inside!’
‘For whatever little time the medicine remains, it will serve a purpose. Take it.’
Gopal gently poured a herbal infusion into a wooden spoon. Balancing it delicately, the Chief Vasudev offered it to Shiva, who swallowed it quickly and fell back on the bed.
‘Holy Lake, help me,’ whispered Shiva, ‘let this medicine stay within me for a few minutes at least.’
But the prayer probably didn’t reach Mansarovar Lake in time. Shiva lurched to his side and retched into the large pot that had been placed on the ground. A sailor standing by the bed rushed forward quickly and handed a wet towel to Shiva, who wiped his face slowly.
Shiva shook his head and looked up at the ceiling of his cabin in disgust. ‘Crap!’
Bhrigu and Parvateshwar rode on horseback at the head of a massive army that had marched out of Devagiri. They were on their way to the Beas River, from which point, ships would sail them down to Karachapa.
‘I was thinking that the powerful fleet in Karachapa is not the only advantage derived from our decision to shift our war command,’ said Bhrigu.
Parvateshwar frowned. ‘What other benefit does it serve, My Lord?’
‘Well, there’s also the fact that you will not have to suffer idiotic orders from your emperor. You will be free to conduct the war the way you deem fit.’
It was obvious that Bhrigu held Daksha in contempt, and did not think much of his harebrained schemes. But Parvateshwar was too disciplined a Meluhan to speak openly against his emperor. He was stoic in his silence.
Bhrigu smiled. ‘You really are a rare man, General, a man of the old code. Lord Ram would have been proud of you.’
Aided by the Northeasterly winds pushing hard into its sails, the merchant ship was cutting through the waters with rapid speed. Having tossed and turned for a few days, Shiva had finally adapted to the sea. The Neelkanth was able, therefore, to enjoy the stiff morning breeze on the main deck at the bow, with Gopal for company.
‘We are now crossing over from our Western Sea, through a very narrow strait,’ said Gopal. ‘It’s just a little over fifty kilometres across.’
‘What’s on the other side?’ asked Shiva.
‘The Jam Zrayangh.’
‘Sounds scary. What in Lord Ram’s name does that mean?’
Gopal laughed. ‘Something absolutely benign. Zrayangh simply means sea in the local language.’
‘And what does Jam mean?’
‘Jam means “to come to”.’
‘To come to?’
‘So this is the “sea that you come to”?’
‘Yes, a simple name. This is the sea you must come to if you want to go to Elam or Mesopotamia or any of the lands farther west. But most importantly, this is the sea you must approach if you need to go to Pariha.’
‘I’ve heard of Mesopotamia. It has strong trade relations with Meluha, right?’
‘Yes. It’s a very powerful and rich empire, established between two great rivers in the region, the Tigris and the Euphrates.’
‘Is the empire bigger than Meluha and Swadweep?’
‘No,’ smiled Gopal. ‘It’s not even bigger than Meluha alone. But they believe human civilisation began in their region.’