The Chakravarti was seated on a majestic elephant. There had been no notice of his arrival at Mamallapuram, and the people were going crazy with joy, dancing and shouting on the street as he came.
Marappa Bhupathi slunk off into the crowd. The merchant pressed into a thick part of crowd. He knew he should not see the Emperor or he might be recognized. But he wanted to see the Emperor. The Emperor was a gifted general and peerless warrior, not to mention a just ruler, and Devasena secretly looked up to him.
He did not consciously will it, but his eyes went up towards the Emperor’s face. At exactly the same moment the Emperor was looking over the section of crowd that the merchant stood in. Their eyes met. For a long second the merchant and the Emperor looked at each other. And then the Emperor’s gaze had gone beyond him, not, after all, having lingered on him. Not even the slightest hesitation; not even a minute lift of the eyebrows over the still-expressionless eyes. The Emperor moved on.
The ‘merchant’ heaved a sigh of relief as if he had escaped from a great danger. He stood there until the crowd had dissipated. He was deep in thought. It was mainly focused on his disastrous meeting with Marappa Bhupathi. Why had he spoken to him so? But Marappan as the Chola Senatipati! What a payment for his helpfulness!-and what he said about that woman. Was she really the Chakravarti’s daughter? If so, why had she lied to him about her identity?
There were dangers every way he turned, he concluded reluctantly. He had to leave Mamallapuram. He also needed to find out what had happened to Arulmozhi Devi. He would have to go to Uraiyur immediately.
He had intended to buy a horse to travel to Uraiyur; he now discarded that plan. If he followed that obvious course, likely Marappan would be waiting for him. He knew he wouldn’t be that lucky and get away easily the second time. Ironically, it was the Emperor who had saved him.
What was his uncle doing here anyway? Why had he come to Mamallapuram? Whatever it was, it was good that he was here. While Marappan was in Mamallapuram, he could go quickly to Uraiyur and return. He decided to leave that very night.
So Vikraman set out from Mamallapuram that evening. He hurried towards the hall he was staying in to get what few possessions he had brought, and to get the old man, the deaf-mute, to carry them. He was so absorbed that when he reached the hall, he didn’t notice the old man making gestures to another man standing in the entrance.
When Vikraman and the old man left the hall, it lacked half an hour to sunset. By the time they had left Mamallapuram’s outer gates, the sun had turned orange and was dipping beneath the horizon.
There were highways or Rajapattais between Mamallapuram and Kanchi and Uraiyur. The highway between Mamallapuram and Kanchi was always filled with people and was a great bustling affair. On horses, elephants, palanquins, even on foot, people were always travelling to either city or to one of the numerous towns and villages on the route. There were so many temples, sanctuaries and halls or ‘chatrams’ one could stay in, places where one could take refreshments, shops and stores of all kinds all over the road until a first-time traveler might wonder whether the road itself was a city.
There were short-cuts, of course. They split off from the highways at several points to go to various places. One of these was a small road, a path, really, that cut off some distance away from Mamallapuram and sliced right through a forest on the way to the Rajapattai from Kanchi to Uraiyur. It saved one about twenty-one kilometers.
it was not very well used. There was always the danger of wild animals, and
there was also a rumour of a famous-or infamous-
Vikraman was unaware of any danger in the path the old man had chalked out for him. He was unsure whether it was a correct course of action. Then he shrugged and wondered what there was to be afraid of. He needed to get to Uraiyur as soon as possible.
As they travelled down the path, night began closing in. It was winter, and shadows soon filled the path they had taken. Luckily, the sky was clear, and he could see by starlight. The fireflies also put in an appearance, and the night was lit by the magic.
But it was otherwise eerie enough that even Vikraman, who by no stretch of imagination could be called cowardly, was becoming uneasy. There were strange rustlings in the forest; he could hear animals howling and owls hooting in the distance. Vikraman wanted to know how far the path went on, and where they would stay for the night, but the old man would not see his gestures in the dark.
When half an hour had elapsed after darkness had truly closed around them, Vikraman lost all desire to travel down the path further. A reason, one he was not likely to disregard was his instinct, sharpened by danger, was screaming at him of hidden danger in the darkness.
And then he heard, ever so faintly, a sound very far away- hooves trotting in the forest.
He turned to place it correctly and saw the old man listening, head cocked, to catch the sound, exactly as he was.
Shocked, he thought, if this man is deaf, how can he…
Quick as a flash, even before the thought had finished forming, he drew his sword from where he had concealed it in his clothes and held it to the false deaf-mute’s throat. The polished, sharpened blade glittered dangerously in the starlight. He caught the old man’s hair and said roughly, ‘Look at me. Tell me the truth. Are you deaf? Can you hear me? If you can, speak up or I’ll cut your throat.’
The old man raised his face to Vikraman’s and cackled evilly. The sound, eerie and terrifying, rose menacingly in the night. Vikraman’s blood froze. In the one second his grip relaxed, the old man slipped through his hands and ran till he was some ten feet away. Then he opened his mouth wide, cupped his hands around them and screamed. The sound was even worse that the laughter. Not human; not animal; something infinitely worse. The man who heard it from far away might have thought it an evil ghoul howling in the night.
This time, Vikraman shivered uncontrollably. Still, he gathered the vestiges of his control and ran towards the old man with the intention of killing him. This notion was quickly discarded as trees parted on a side of the path and four men stepped out, making straight for Vikraman. When he saw the long knives in their hands, he actually felt relieved. The night, the solitude, and the man’s ghastly laughter, all had combined to scare the wits out of him for a second. Well, at least now he knew they were not ghosts. Flesh and blood and swords he could handle.
The four of them attacked at once, proving their experience. Since they had surrounded him, he was forced to spin continually to be able to block all their thrusts. In the first minute, he fatally wounded one of them in one of his first strikes. When he knocked a knife out of one’s hands, it happened to hit another. He squealed and fell to the ground.
By now, the remaining two had realized that he was obviously not the ordinary class of soldier. They kept their distance, attacking from out of the range of his sword, their intention to tire him. They were succeeding.
From the way they kept looking into the forest, he guessed they were expecting someone. Proving his guess, the hooves he had heard earlier faintly were coming closer. As the road was straight, he saw it almost immediately. A man on horseback was all Vikraman could see in the gloom. One of the men he was fighting cried out, ‘Master! Come quickly!’
Vikraman knew he wasn’t going to last. He was already tired. That he could defeat these two he knew. But with reinforcement, and a fresh opponent on horseback, he knew he could not hold out in his current state. He felt sad that would not see his mother again. He saw, briefly, the woman he had spoken with on the street.
The next in his mind was the scarred face of the Pallava Emperor, and he felt regret that a reign like his had banditry and lawlessness, though his was famed as an orderly kingdom. Then he remembered that the same Emperor was ruling his beloved country, and the thought gave him enough rage to go on. He dispatched one of the two efficiently.
At exactly the same moment the man on horseback made an incredible throw from the saddle. The knife flashed in the darkness- past Vikraman- and buried itself in the last bandit.
Vikraman was stunned. At first he thought that the man had mistaken him for his comrade. But he was the only one wearing an upper garment; the others were barechested. It would have been easy to pick him off, especially for someone with the skill this one obviously had.
So he was aiming to hit the bandit. Then who was he? Cetainly not the one they had been expecting.
The other man slid out of the saddle and onto the ground smoothly. ‘Who are you, sir,’ he queried, ‘And what are you doing here?’