“Once your father leaves, no one can keep you from following him.” Thamgan told her, holding the needed clothes in her arms, eyes oddly intent. “Better than prayers is the skill you hold, my Princess. Tell Hahuha you go to Maheshi Devi and go help your father.”
“But I promised my father and Hahuma I would not enter the battlefield.” Devsena protested, halfheartedly, eyes already looking longingly at the clothes Thagam laid on the bed.
“The choice is yours my to-be Queen.” The soldier replied stepping back and bowing. “But the Aryans are unlike any foe we have faced. In battles your father has been ever victorious, but having his daughter against these demons who care for nothing but destruction will be more useful to him than prayers.”
Devsena started at the clothes as Thangam exited the room. Shivering, Devsena remembered her dream- her father dying in the great hall, smiling and at peace.
No She thought, shivering lightly. Maheshi Devi sent me a sign of doom. Surely she did this so I could prevent that doom from coming? I will go and fight besides my father in disguise. Mahishi Devi has guided me in this.
“You need not worry, my Manu-Manchuri” Thangam cooed as she rode the elephant with her chosen queen. “I have ensured that Devsena will die on the battlefield. And with her, all obstacles in your path.”
There was freedom in parading about as an ordinary soldier, Devsena thought, hunkering down with the others as the rain of Aryan arrows continued. Her father was behind the boundary line, riding his fine elephant, ready to mow the Aryans down. In order to prevent recognition, Devsena had smuggled herself to the front lines, where she anyway belonged.
I am the future Queen of the Dravidians. I must be brave and lead from the front. How can I ask anyone to follow me if I cannot take on their trials myself?
The rain of arrows finally stopped, and in the distance she could hear the shouting of the Aryans and the thundering hooves of their horses as they sped through the jungle.
“Truly,” The soldier besides her muttered as he gripped his sword, “there is no match for their speed.”
“Then let them dash against us.” Devsena whispered back, smiling as the soldier nodded, visibly bolstering himself, “for we are the rocks against who all stop.”
Then the Aryans were upon them, and she let out a cry and joined the battle.
Mausiamma was right Devsena concluded, wiping the sweat and blood off her brow. War is not a game.
For all her valor she had never killed anyone. There was nothing glorious about beating an opponent to the ground, his cries ringing in her ears. There was nothing glorious about seeing a man choke to death on his own blood, falling slowly down to the earth.
There was no glory in war. Only death. Only sorrow.
They had taken the Aryans by surprise, but the tide of battle was evening out now. Their leaders had regrouped and one of them, whose face she had not seen but whose archery she had, for a brief mad moment! admired, had started shooting their archers from the trees. Devsena gritted her teeth, drawing her blade from the throat of another unfortunate, and began making her way towards the warrior. Suddenly the man turned and rode away. Devsena paused, wondering at the cowardice, when she heard her father’s elephant.
Appa! Her mind shrieked in terror, suddenly remembering her awful vision. Appa no! I have to help him.
Gnashing her teeth, Devsena grasped hold of the spear that had been coming towards her, pulling off the Aryan who held it. As the man grunted in pain, she leapt on the horses back, and urged it to ride, following the man who was even now, gaining towards her father.
It had taken Devsena longer than she thought it would to reach the Aryan. His men had fought fiercely, with an unending desperation, especially once they realized who she was moving towards. All fell before her blade.
Just one more, Devsena thought, I have to bloody this sword one more time before it is over. Then I will take Appa home.
Mausiamma was right. This is no game.
This is hell.
What was even more hellish was the slight she came up on. Madhivanan, her father’s attendant was running towards the Aryan who was about to…!
No Devsena’s mind would not comprehend the sight before her eyes surely it is not my Appa who is on the ground defeated? No!
A cry wrenched from her throat and the Aryan turned. Their eyes met.
Time slowed. It was as if the world had dropped dead before her. All Devsena could see, all she could comprehend were his eyes.
Searing. Piercing. As if with his gaze a thousand arrows had gone through her. Devsena was aware of blood thundered through her veins as never before. Aware of each breath she was taking. And all her being was concentrated on the warrior before her.
“Who?” Was that her voice? To Be Queen Devsena’s voice? That near desperate whisper? “Who are…”
He stepped forward, sword lowering, seeming as enthralled as she was.
And then the couch shell rung, blasting through Devsena’s awareness. The warrior fully lowered his sword, still looking upon her, taking a hesitant step forward. Suddenly he turned back, looking towards her father.
“Varundev!” The cry rang through the woods. “What are you doing? That is the Dravid king, kill him!”
Devsena snarled, turning to the man who was shouting. A stout Aryan sat upon a horse, his arrow pointed at her.
“I will take care of the woman.” He snarled. “Kill the King!”
“No, Angdev.” The warrior’s voice was firm, and Devsena wished she could turn towards her. “That is against the rules of conduct. You should lower your bow. The sun has set. The fight is over.”
“There are no rules in war! Look upon this woman- you think she will not kill you where you stand?! Kill him and be done with it!”
“If I kill him then we have won nothing and lost everything.” The warrior’s voice came closer, and Devsena’s swiftly turned around, taking a breath as she saw the man supporting her father and coming towards her. “Leave it Angdev. The battle is done. Lower your bow and be an Aryan, not a dayet.”
“Damn you Varundev.” The other man cursed. “Die then for your folly!” He rode away, curses blistering through the air. The man, Varundev Devsena recalled, finished walking towards her, stopping only a few steps away. They looked at each for a moment, taking their fill of the other’s countenance.
“Your King is injured, Devi.” Varundev nodded towards her father, who was moaning for water, “If you wait a few moments I can have the purohits here with medicine.”
Devsena wanted to snarl, but her voice came out soft instead. “We Dravids do not accept charity from the enemy. It carries the death sentence.”
“It is not charity.” Varundev argued mildly, turning his head to look at Madivanan who had just arrived, out of breath from his mad dash. He startled upon seeing her, but did not announce her title, for which Devsena was grateful. “It is humanity.” Varundev continued, transferring her father to his vassal. “And a part of our customs.”
“You Aryans have some strange customs.” Devsena countered, handing itching to…what? Touch him? What a mad thought.
“You Dravids seem to have the same.” Varundev noted, tilting his head to look upon her more fully, a smile teasing the side of his lips. “We have never seen women fight alongside the men, and fight so well. And we are well traveled.”
“You have left everything behind. To conquer us.”
“To find a home Devi. Isn’t that what anyone wants? To come home.”
“We should go.” Madivanan’s voice interrupted them, breaking up the charged air between them. Devsena nodded, and was beginning to turn when Varundev’s hand rose and flashed abruptly towards her. Devsena startled, but jerked back even further when she noted what he had caught. An arrow that would have cleaved her neck from her shoulders had it connected.
“It looks like someone wishes to see you dead, Devi.” Varundev noted, shaking off the drops of blood from his fingers. He made a startled noise when Devsena seized his hand, taking note of his injuries. A flash of electricity arched through them both, and Devsena could not help but look upon Varundev, finding his eyes upon her as well.
What madness is this? She thought hazily, wanting so badly to lose herself in his eyes. What is this?
Mahishidevi what are you trying to tell me?
She shook herself out of her stupor.
“Whoever did this will pay.” Devsena hesitated, then shook the hand she was still holding. “I will repay my debt Aryan.”
“My name is…” She hesitated, then finished, “Devsena.”
Varundev nodded and looked upon her as if she could disappear any moment. Devsena turned and walked away with her father and Madhivanan. But she could not help but look back. And he was still there, joined by two others, watching her walk away.