Meeting Devaralan unexpectedly at that place startled Vandiya Devan completely. He inadvertently remembered his wild dance at the Kadambur Palace and their last conversation on the ship along with Ravidasan. He still couldn’t discern the truth of their words and their revelation about Nandini but he did know that they were engaged in a murderous plot against the Chola Prince and the King.
He contemplated on how to escape from him.
How do I escape from him?
Thinking thus he looked around and found that he was near a funeral ground and spotted a corpse burning at some distance.
Life is surely strange. This was a living man or woman once whose heart was brimming with dreams, hopes, ambitions and aspirations but in another hour or so, all that would remain of him or her would be a mound of ash. It didn’t matter whether he was a beggar or a king whilst living, one day their body would feed the fire.
As he pondered upon the vagaries of life, the fear that had gripped him earlier disappeared.
Why should I run away from him? It looks like he wishes to tell me something. Why don’t I hear out what he has to say? That’s when he remembered seeing Devaralan at the Ironsmith’s hiding at the rear entrance when he entered the house. The fish emblem etched in the hilt of that magnificent sword made sense now. Why don’t I talk to him and learn more about it?
Deciding thus, Vandiya Devan slowed down his horse. The horse too seemed a bit ungainly after fixing the iron shoe and was moving with a slow trot.
“Where did you spring from so suddenly?” he asked
“Rightfully, I should be asking you the same question. Didn't we leave you in the middle of a stormy sea, alone in a ship? How did you escape?”
“You are not the only one who knows the mysterious arts of magic,”
“I am happy that you have so much belief in magic. I employed the same magical arts and learned that you would be travelling through these parts. That’s why I waited for you here,”
“Why are ‘you’ waiting here for me? What do you need from me?”
“Think carefully and you will understand, if not use those magical arts that you supposedly posses and find out,”
“You revealed your secrets to me while we were in the ship. I do not know the truth of it. I have decided to forget about them and have resolved not to share it with anybody…”
“I am not worried that we shared our secrets with you. If you ever share them with anybody, that very instant your tongue would severed and you will be mute for the rest of your life,”
Goose pimples rose on Vandiya Devan’s body as he remembered the mute women that he met in Thanavur and Elangai.
What do I do with him now? Why is he following me? What does he want of me? Ah! Those quick sands in Kodi karai were very convenient. If only there was one here, I could have got rid of him easily. What else can I do with him? Shall I throw him into this lake? But the lake seems half dry… What’s the use? I can always draw my sword and run him through with my blade!
“Thambi! I know what you are about. Do not waste your time with such futile plans of escape. It will not work,”
Vandiya Devan immediately changed the subject.
“Where is your friend Ravidasan?”
Devaralan laughed out aloud in his signature screechy tone and asked, “You are asking me? It is ‘you’ who should be telling me where Ravidasan is?”
Vandiya Devan was startled and he realized his mistake. He shouldn’t have asked about Ravidasan. In all probability, Devaralan has already met Ravidasan and was pretending to the contrary.
“What thambi? Why this silence? So you will not tell us where Ravidasan is? Is that so? Why don’t you tell me where that boat girl is?”
Vandiya Devan remained silent but his heart was beating fast and he hesitated to say anything lest he reveal anything inadvertently.
“Alright! Looks like you will not say anything about her either. I don’t blame you. You might have your reasons to protect her. You sang a love song a few moments ago… was it perchance in her memory,”
Vandiya Devan responded immediately, “No!”
“Why are you so agitated?”
“Look here! Why are you holding my horse’s head? Why don’ you allow me to leave? I want to be on my way,”
“You haven’t asked me why I am here?”
“You haven’t told me about it,”
“Did you know this Mullaiarrankarai Lake fulfils the wishes of those who pass its way?”
“But I haven’t wished for anything,”
“That’s a lie. The woman for whom you sang that love song is here to meet you…”
“You are lying…”
“I am not. Look there…” pointed out Devaralan and at a distance Vandiya Devan could make out a veiled palanquin and its bearers waiting for him.
Ah! That palanquin! It looks familiar. Could it be the Elaya Rani’s palanquin? Is Nandini waiting for me inside?
Try as he might, he couldn’t check the urge to meet her once again. He turned his horse towards the palanquin. The veils of the palanquin were moving and Vandiya Devan immediately got down from his horse and went near it. Just then Devaralan gave a guttural shriek and several men emerged from behind the trees and shrubs and fell upon him at once. They held him from behind as they bound his eyes, hands and legs while one of them removed his sword and then they lifted him and dumped him inside the palanquin. The palanquin bearers immediately lifted their burden and started running while the rest of the gang ran along with them on both sides.
While all this happened within a blink of an eye, Vandiya Devan was not only taken by surprise, he also lost the ability to think! The cloth that bound his hands and legs weren’t very tight though and with some effort, he knew that he could free himself. He could then jump out of the palanquin and run towards his horse that was being led by these rogues.
Even while he planned his escape, something held him back. A strange lassitude came over him and the reason for that was a beguiling fragrance that seduced him to breathe deeply. At first, the scent gave him happiness and then it made him weak with pleasure.
Where is this palanquin taking me? Will I meet Nandini at the end of this?
The urge to see her rose high in his heart squashing the counter arguments that his brain was giving him, but desire won over logic.
What will she do to me? Or rather, what can she do to me? Why should I fear her? Let me meet her this once and learn what she wants of me? There might not be another opportunity to meet her again. I can never go to Thanjavur again. It is best that we meet here, on the way. What’s the harm in meeting her once?
Yes! I need to meet Nandini for one more reason. That deaf and mute woman in Elangai! She resembled Nandini! How could that be? Who was she? What’s her relation to Nandini? Does Nandini know about her?
And while Vandiya Devan thought about this, his head swirled and he felt sleepy.
No! No! How could I feel sleepy? Didn’t I sleep for hours at the Ironsmiths’? No it is that smell that is intoxicating me… seducing me to sleep… This is dangerous. Why didn’t I jump out of the palanquin soon enough?
Vandiya Devan tried to remove the cloth that bound his hands but found that his limbs have fallen weak. His legs felt heavy and he couldn’t sit anymore and soon he laid his head down and his drowsy eyes closed soon enough.
When Vandiya Devan regained his consciousness back, he realized that he was not in the palanquin anymore. Instead, he found himself in a large spacious room laid on an old ornate cot. Many lamps were lit across the room and here too there was a fragrance. But unlike the other scent that seduced his senses, this fragrance cleared his mind. He sat down on the cot and held his head for a while. The door opened and he looked up eagerly.
Nandini came inside the room. Vandiya Devan stared at her in surprise. There were many reasons for his reaction. Her enigmatic beauty was one of the reasons, as it defied imagination. The second reason was the fact that he met her so unexpectedly and the third was the fact that she resembled the deaf and mute woman from Elangai in all except her attire and jewels.
In the meanwhile, Nandini smiled and said, “Ayya! You are indeed a good man,”
“Devi! I offer my humble salutations to you,”
“I helped you to get inside the Thanjavur fort and you left without taking my leave. I took out the palm engraved pazhuvur ring from mine own hands and gave it over to you. And this is how you repaid me? You didn’t even bother to return it to me?”
Vandiya Devan shamefacedly remained silent.
“Where is it? Why don’t you return it to me now? I don’t think it is of any use to you anymore. I don’t think you have any intention of coming to Thanjavur anymore!”
“Devi! Budhi Vikrama Kesari forcibly took your ring from me in Elangai. Therefore, returning it to you would have been impossible. Forgive me!”
“You allowed my ring to fall into the hands of my sworn enemy! Now I know that you are truly grateful!”
“I didn’t hand it over deliberately. They confiscated it from me,”
“I can’t believe that the brave scion of Vanar clan would allow himself to be taken forcibly…”
“Devi! I am in your presence now after being kidnapped by force… by your men.”
“Be truthful Ayya! Think carefully and tell me. Didn’t you have an opportunity to escape whilst you were brought here? What stopped you from jumping out of the palanquin and escaping on your horse?” she asked and searching looked at his face for truthful answers.
“I agree. I came willingly.”
“Why did you come?”
“Why did you want to see me?”
“I wanted my signet ring back,”
“Is that the only reason?”
“I wanted to know one more thing. The day we met in Thanjavur… that night… you were in the underground treasure chamber of Pazhuvur Lord? Weren’t you?”
Vandiya Devan looked startled.
“You thought that I didn’t know? I knew it all along and so did my lord husband. He commanded the guard of the chamber to kill you but I changed his order after he left. That’s how you escaped with your life that night. But your beloved friend Kandanmaran fell prey to the guard’s knife. If not for me, your bones would have been rotting in the treasure chamber today!”
Vandiya Devan was shocked beyond words but there was still a germ of suspicion in his mind as to whether she really knew about his presence in the treasure chamber or if she was making a wild guess. He felt that he owed her gratitude for helping him out of the Fort.
“Devi!” he said and hesitated.
“Don’t express gratitude for form’s sake…”
“I did not save your life that day, hoping to earn your gratitude. I mentioned it to tell you about the fate of your beloved friend. I personally undertook the task of healing him and then sent him on his way. I hope you are happy about that. If not, then I will have to conclude that you are a man utterly devoid of gratitude and friendship,”
Nandini’s words hurt Vandiya Devan’s heart like poison darts. He couldn’t think of an appropriate answer for her accusations.
“You trapped that poor physician’s son and sent him back with the Pazhuvur soldiers in your stead. Don’t you want to know what happened to him?”
“No. I thought I would ask you,”
“I will tell you but first you will need to tell me where Prince Arul Mozhi Varmar is.”
Her words cleared many of Vandiya Devan’s doubts and the reason why she met him. She was after the Prince’s whereabouts! He rallied his heart and mind and resolved not to get caught in her web of seduction.
“My Queen! Forgive me. I am not at a liberty to discuss it with you,”
“I knew that you wouldn’t reveal it to me. What about your lover? Will you tell me how she is?”
Fury rising within his heart, Vandiya Devan’s hand went to his sword hilt and he said angrily, “Careful! Whom are you talking about?”
“Aha! I will be careful. Do you think that I am referring to that arrogant Princess in Pazhaiarai. She would never stoop to talk to poor soldiers like you. You would be treated like a speck of dirt on her feet. I was talking about that boat girl who had taken you to Elangai. Poonguzhali is your lover, isn’t she?”
“No. You couldn’t be more wrong about it. I have met her lovers and I am not one of them. Her lovers are the fire bubbles that form in the marshes of Kodi Karai.”
“She is lucky then. Her lovers are beings of fire, flame and light while mine are born and shaped in the dark. They haunt the dark. Have you ever stayed in dark isolated mandapams within a forest? Have you seen the bats and owls flitting away within the dark contours of the night? My lovers haunt me the same way. My heart is a dark place where no light can pierce and within it these beings exist, eating me away. I know not where they have come from… I know not where they would go… I know not why they haunt me? Do you know why?” exclaimed Nandini. Her speech was full of pain and an unknown fear.
Vandiya Devan was shocked to hear her speak thus.
“Devi calm down… I beseech you!”
“Who are you? Why do you ask me to calm down?”
“I am a poor soldier from the clan of Vanars. Who are you Devi?”
“You are asking me, ‘who am I?’ I do not know truly. I am trying to find that out. Do you want to know whether I am an ordinary woman or a ghost?”
“No Devi. I think you are a heavenly damsel who has been cursed to be born here amidst us ordinary men…”
“You may be right. There is a curse upon me. Who am I? What’s the purpose of my birth? I know not. But thankfully God has given me something to live by,” said Nandini opened an ornate chest next to her and withdrew a bejewelled sword studded with gemstones.
Vandiya Devan recognized the sword as the same weapon that the Ironsmith was working on. Nandini’s wild words had panicked his heart drowning him in guilt, pain and fear. When he saw the sword, he recognized a friend. Swords and spears have been his close companions since childhood. He was not afraid of them and he knew how to counter their attacks.