Saturday, 17 September 2016

Chapter 34: Firelight Extinguishes

It was Amavasya, the dark night. Dark clouds threatening to pour down anytime, hid the stars well enough and not a glimmer of light could be seen anywhere. The only light that was available was through a group of glow-worms that were hovering around the bushes. Vandiya Devan rode steadily through the forest path without any idea as to where he was headed and whether he would be able to save Princess Vanathi at all. Despite these misgivings, he forged ahead. He knew that Princess Kundavai loved Vanathi more than her life and if he didn’t make an attempt to rescue her he would regret it for the rest of his life.

Even after riding the horse for almost one hour through the forest path, he couldn’t find out where Vanathi’s captors had taken her palanquin. As he pondered the situation, he also wondered whether he was again embroiled in something that was not his business in the first place. He stopped the horse for a while wondering what to do next. At the same time, he heard a slight noise at a distance. It seemed like the sound that a trot of a slow horse. Could it be Vanathi’s captors guarding her palanquin behind? He followed the sound of the horse slowly and stealthily. Soon it became apparent that he was following a single lone horse and not a handful of people carrying a palanquin.

Soon the horse was on a higher ground like the banks of the river. Vandiya Devan didn’t follow the horse there wishing to remain hidden in the lower ground. He got down from his horse and waited beneath the tree, all the while keeping the other horse in sight.

“Who’s there?” asked a voice. Vandiya Devan was startled out of his wits because it was a voice that he had heard before.

“Maharaja! It’s me, your slave!” said yet another voice.

Soon there was firelight at the place where the lone horseman and his slave were standing.

Vandiya Devan could clearly see who it was. It was Prince Madhuranthakan on the horse and an unknown manservant holding a fire torch.
The man lifted the torch high up lighting up the area around him and that’s when it happened. The horse reared its legs in fear and sprang ahead in the riverbank. The man holding the firelight frightened by the horse’s action tried to run after the horse shouting ‘Maharaja! Mahraja!’ but slipped and fell and his firelight extinguished.

Vandiya Devan knew that Madhuranthakan was not skilled enough to ride a horse in the first place. It would be far too much to expect that he would be able to bring the beast under control especially when it was galloping wildly in fear. He worried whether the Prince would survive this adventure unhurt.

What if he falls down from the horse and hurts himself? Would that manservant save him?

Next he wondered what he should be doing.

Should I go in search of Vanathi or should I hasten to help Prince Madhuranthakan?

I don’t know where Vanathi was taken but Prince Madhuranthakan fell in danger right in front of my eyes. Let me follow his horse and ensure that he is unharmed and then I can go in search of Vanathi.

My God! Didn’t I make a resolution not to interfere in matters that do not concern me? What did I decide and what am I doing now?

He mounted his horse again and started towards the direction that the Prince’s horse had gone. He spurred his horse to climb the high ground and neared the banks but couldn’t find the Prince or the manservant who was with him. He could hear a medley mix of unknown sounds emanating at a distance.

He decided the follow the sound and entered a narrow forest path near the riverbank. At the same time, nature sought to make his mission more difficult and it started drizzling. He traveled slowly through the narrow path and every minute seemed like an hour to him.

Soon it started raining in earnest but that didn’t deter Vandiya Devan present quest.

Why did Prince Madhuranthakan come here alone on a horse? Who was that man who accosted him with the firelight?

Could there be any connection between Vanathi’s kidnapping and Madhuranthakan’s appearance in the forest?

Why am I embroiled in these affairs? I should be trying to find the King’s road and head towards Kanchi instead of searching for this Prince and Princess?

Then he reasoned to himself that it wouldn’t be possible to find the King’s road in this rain anyway.

Who is to say that I shouldn’t interfere in these affairs anyway? Didn’t it prove beneficial at a later day that I was able to overhear the entire conspiracy meeting that Pazhuvur Lord and Sambuverayar held in Kadambur?

When he rain started coming down upon him very heavily, he decided to abort the foolhardy mission and try to find a place to escape the shower.

If the horse slipped and fell down, then his entire journey was at a risk!

At that time, a lightening struck on the sky and in that he managed to see a lone horse standing on the banks of the river. He turned his horse again and headed towards the river bank. Before he could near it, another lightening struck and the horse reared again in fear and started galloping. By the time Vandiya Devan neared the place, the horse was gone but he looked around in the surrounding hoping that Madhuranthakan might have fallen down somewhere nearby. He thought it would be beneficial to help the Prince especially when he was in need.

Who knows, it might help me in future?

He called out for the Prince ‘Who’s there? Is anyone here?’ but the steady drip of the rain drowned his voice.

With the rain intensifying and the wind turning direction, Vandiya Devan felt that it was pointless to stay there. He decided to turn back and remonstrated himself for his lack of self-control.

No more distractions! No point in wasting one’s time in pointless quests. I have an important mission in hand and I need to reach Kanchi as soon as possible!

With the rain pouring down in sheets, he followed the horse’s natural instinct to get shelter and soon they were headed towards a dilapidated mandapam in the middle of the forest. His clothes were dripping wet and he entered the mandapam to check if there was some place where he could get dry and even possibly spend the night.

And that’s when Vandiya Devan almost jumped out of his skin. Why? Not because he encountered or a ghost or a wraith but because he heard the tender voice of a small boy.

“Amma! Amma!”

Vandiya Devan was frightened for a second.

How could a young boy’s voice be heard here, in the middle of the forest path?

But the boy was persistently crying for his mother.

“Amma! Amma!”

Curious to learn as to who the boy was, Vandiya Devan entered the mandapam and look around in the dark. He stopped in the direction, from which the voice was heard and asked loudly, “Who is there?”

The child asked back, “Who is there?”

Vandiya Devan said, “It’s me. Who are you? What are you doing in the dark? Come out.”

“It’s raining outside.”

“Where is my mother?”

“Your mother has gone to fetch some milk for you.”

“No she has not. You are lying.”

“Are you going to come out or not? Or shall I come in?”

“If you come inside, I have a sword and I will slay you with it.”

“My God! Looks like you are a great warrior. Why don’t you come outside and show your prowess?”

“Who are you? Are you a tiger?”

“I am not a tiger. I am a horse.”

“You are lying. Will a horse talk?”

“Would a tiger talk then?”

“My mother told me that if I come outside there might be a tiger that might pounce on me.”

“I am not a tiger and I will not pounce on you. Come out and don’t fear me.”

“Fear? I have no fear.” Said the boy and came out of the dark interiors of the mandapam.

By then the rain had subsided and the clouds had passed over revealing the stars. In the dim light of the stars, Vandiya Devan saw the child. He was a four-year old boy who was not only beautiful but also richly dressed in silk and a gold haram studded with precious gems. The boy was obviously the child of a rich family and a powerful clan but how did he come here? Who would have left the child here alone?

By then, the child came near Vandiya Devan and looked at him intently and said, “You don’t look like a horse. You look like a man.”

Vandiya Devan pointed to his horse tied outside and said, “There is the horse.”

“Oh! You have brought the horse for me is it? But they said that a palanquin will arrive.”

The child’s response aroused many doubts in Vandiya Devan’s mind.

Who is this child? Why is he alone here? How come this child is so unafraid of anything? Who was planning to bring a palanquin for the child? Why didn’t it come? Where is the child’s mother? Why did she leave him alone?

“Child! Why did your mother leave you here and go away?”

“I saw a horse and I told my mother I would like to mount it but she forbid me from doing so. I waited for a while and left her silently to catch the horse. Is this the same horse?”

“No. This is a different horse. And then how did you come here?”

“I searched for the horse. I couldn’t find it and nor could I find my mother. It was raining heavily so I came to this mandapam.”

“Were you not afraid of the dark?”

“What’s there to be afraid? I live in the dark all the time.”

“You are not afraid of the tiger.”

“Only my mother is afraid of tigers. I am a fish. I will swallow the tiger.”

“Ah! How can a fish swallow the tiger?”

“I am not a small fish. I am a whale. I am big enough to swallow tiger, lion and elephant too.”

Vandiya Devan’s mind was clouded with doubts.

It is indeed a very big fish that could swallow an elephant and a tiger! Who would have taught this child such a thing?

“There! What’s that sound?” asked the boy

Vandiya Devan looked in the direction and found that a few people were coming towards the mandapam. In their midst, there was a palanquin borne by bearers. The rest of the people seemed to be searching for someone as they shouted, “There! He is there! Here! Here!”

“There! They are coming. They are bringing the palanquin too but I hate to travel in it. Will you take me in your horse instead?”

The child’s face, talk and his overall personality was so magnetic that Vandiya Devan was tempted to take him away but he was also curious to know more about him.

“I have important work elsewhere.” He said

“Where are you going?”

“I am going to Kanchi.”

“Kanchi! That’s where my first enemy lives!”

Vandiya Devan was more than startled now. He then realized that he was courting grave danger even as he stood next to the child. But there was no time to escape. The crowd of people searching for the child arrived at the mandapam. He also wanted to know more about these people who would teach a child such unusual things. He left the child and walked to the darkest part of the mandapam and waited.

The child followed him with his eyes and then called out to the people who were coming inside the mandapam, “I am here.”

At the head of the crowd there was a woman who came rushing inside the mandapam. Her breath was coming in gasps as if she had been running for a long time.

She rushed to the child and held him tight and said, “Pandya! How can you do something like this?”

Next a man came near the child and his mother. It was Ravidasan. He said, “Chakravarthy! How can you scare us thus?”

The child laughed merrily and said, “Yes. That’s how I will scare you. I asked for a horse, why did you get the palanquin for me?”

Even as he spoke the rest of the people who had come in search of the boy gathered at the mandapam – Soman Sambavan, Edupankari, Deveralan and others members of the Pandya Abathu Udavi.

Chakravarthy! Why worry about one horse? I will get you thousands and ten thousand horses very soon. But just for today, I beg you, please get inside the palanquin.” Said Soman Sambavan.

“No. I will come in that horse.” Said the child and pointed towards Vandiya Devan’s horse that they had failed to notice earlier.

That’s when they saw Vandiya Devan behind the horse. Ravidsan’s face reflected disbelief, anger and fear in equal measures.

He took a step towards him and said, “You! Scoundrel! How did you come here?”

“You! Ghost! When did you come back from Kodi Karai?”

Ravidasan started laughing and said, “Did you really think that I was a ghost?”

“Some become a ghost after they die but you have become one even while you are alive.”

The child interjected then and said, “Don’t fight with him. I like him very much. He stayed with me when it was dark. He said that he would kill the tiger if it comes.”

Ravidasan said to the child, “If that is so, then we will definitely take him along with us but only if you get into the palanquin for one day today.”

The child immediately got into the palanquin and sat inside.

Ravidasan looked at Vandiya Devan and said, “What are you going to do now?”

“That’s up to you isn’t it?”

“Join us. You know everything about us now. We can’t afford to let you go free.”

“If I refuse?”

“Impossible. We know that you are a brave warrior but even you can’t resist twenty of us. You can’t escape us now.”

“You mean I can’t escape with my life intact.”

“You are young. You haven’t experienced any good things in this life. Why do you wish to give up your life in vain?”

“That’s true. I don’t want to give up my life in vain. You are asking me to join you, where are you going?”

“Ah! That’s my boy. We are going to Pazhuvur Elaya Rani Nandini Devi.”

“Oh! I thought so. Where is Nandini Devi?”

“She would have reached Thirupurampayam by now. Will you come with us?”

“I too am headed in that direction and I was worried that I didn’t know how to get there. Thank God! You people came. Come let’s go.”

They left the place immediately. Ravidasan and his gang surrounded the palanquin and Vandiya Devan in the midst followed them on his horse.

Vandiya Devan was plagued with worries.

What about Vanathi’s fate? What about Madhuranthakan? What will happen to them? What about me? What’s going to happen to me? That too is a mystery

Despite his worries, Vandiya Devan felt sure that he was about to learn many more mysteries that would surpass the conspiracy that he stumbled upon in Kadambur. The things that he learned in Kadambur proved to be helpful during his mission in Thanjavur but what will happen today?

Will this gang allow me to leave after learning all their secrets? No. They would again try to persuade me to join them and if I say ‘no’ they will try to sacrifice me for their cause. Maybe I could invoke Nandini’s pity yet again…

When Vandiya Devan thought about Nandini he could only wonder about his own helplessness at the face of her beauty.

How quickly did I agree to go along with them right after I learned that we are going to meet her? Elders in the family often talk about ‘Maya’ and I am surely caught in its web.

He was also aware of the fact that Nandini was involved in a deadly plot against the Cholas yet he seemed to find it difficult to bypass a chance to meet her again. Nonetheless it would have been foolish to fight with these twenty people. It would be more prudent to accede to their demands while looking for a chance to escape.

In the meantime, I will get a chance to learn more about them, which would prove to be useful.

The child’s words reverberated through his mind. “Kanchi! That’s where my first enemy lives!”

Who would teach the child such words? Why does this gang call him ‘Chakravarthy’? What did the child mean when he said, ‘First Enemy’?

His speculations about these questions swirled through his mind indicating just how dangerous his own situation would become if his surmise about the boy were true!

Even while he was thinking about it, they reached Thirupurampayam.

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Volume 1 - New Flood