Chapter 1: That which cannot be explained
“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.
Chapter 2: The song goes on and on
“Angdev wants your head on a platter.” Abrook sighed walking towards Varundev. Shivum tagged behind, watching the surrounding area.
“We had started giving aid to the Dravid injured when he rode up, frothing about how you had taken away the chance to end the war because of sundown. Thankfully Purohit Agnimitra praised your devotion to the Aryan customs, so now Angdev is drinking and stewing.”
“We should not aid the Dravids.” Varundev murmured back, watching as Devsena walked carefully by the Dravid King, looking even as she was absorbed by the ranks of the soldiers. By their reaction to her, she was an important figure to them. Perhaps a commander…?
“Why not?” Abrook’s words intruded into his thoughts. Varundev shook his head, bringing himself back to the matter at hand. At his side, Shivum grinned, having followed his friends gaze.
“It’s against their customs to accept aid from the enemy.”
“So we could disregard our customs to respect theirs?” Abrook’s face was turning red as he faced Varundev. “You who always trumpet about our customs are saying this?”
“No Veer Abrook.” Varundev patiently replied. “But it seems that they kill the ones who accept aid. It does no good to aid a man and then watch him be murdered.”
“I’ll tell the purohits to allow the Dravids to gather their injured without helping them. If nothing else it is a waste of medicine.” Shivum piped up. “But to kill for accepting aid? It seems a barbaric practice.”
“Yes,” Varundev murmured, recalling the fear and sadness in Devsena’s eyes as she told him about the death sentence. “I can’t imagine all the Dravid’s agreeing with it.”
“Especially if they are beautiful young woman, huh Varundev.” Abrook’s tone turned teasing as he also stared at the clump of Dravid soldiers who were moving away. Now Devsena’s straight back was visible, slender but beautiful.
“But Varundev” He added, voice turning solemn, “even looking is foolish in these circumstances. Turn your eyes to one of our women, beautiful and docile. There is no chance here.”
I know that. Varundev thought, finally turning and walking away with his companions. I know there is no chance. But people said there was no chance we would find the Sapt Sindu. People said there was no chance we would survive the trek. People said there was no chance that I would be worthy of Kayast’s legacy.
My father never believed in that phrase. Perhaps he was right.
There is nothing that is impossible.
That night Varundev slept and dreamt of Devsena.
“I told you not to go into battle! I told you not to bear arms! Why do you never heed my commands Devsena?! Do you not realize I do this for your future? For the future of the Dravid Rajya?” Hahuma’s furious tirade still echoed in her ears. Devsena shook off the attendants who had been tending to her wounds, waving them away. Thamgan and her Mausiamma had also tried to talk to her but she had hurried to her rooms, eager to be away from everyone.
Devsena’s focus had been on ensuring her father had received the best care, and after that, her aim had been to sit in her room, get her wounds tended to, and brood over Hahuma’s lecture. The first two goals had been achieved. Only the third was left.
And yet it was not Hahuma’s voice that followed her as she walked towards her balcony. It was not Hahuma’s flashing eyes that filled her vision. Rather, it was that Aryan Varundev’s mellow tone that filled her ears. It was his deep eyes that encompassed her as she stood outside, shivering lightly in the cool breeze.
Devsena titled her head back, remembering how the man had called her Devi. What did that mean, in his language? The same as it did in hers? Or was it a subtle insult? Even more horrifying, or so she tried to convince herself, was it a subtle compliment? Or, and Devsena would never admit this, the most horrifying possibility-that it was nothing at all? A term he would use on every woman who crossed his path? A sign of his indifference?
And why does this bother me? Devsena asked herself, irritated at her fickle thoughts. I am the to-be Queen of the great Dravid Rajya. All bow before me. Why should I care what a lowly invader calls me by? I shouldn’t!
But all her self-berating, her thoughts betrayed her, going again and again to that man.
Those strong arms. That broad forehead. The sharp nose. Those flowing locks. Those eyes that bore inside her very soul. Devsena hunched over, clutching the balcony support as her mind refused to give her respite.
That mellow voice. That quiet conviction in his tone. The lips from which that voice issued.
“Stop it.” Devsena groaned, holding her head, trying to stop the images. “Stop thinking about him!”
The speed at which he stopped the arrow…
Devsena’s eyes flew open. “The arrow.” She gasped, wondering how she could have forgotten for even a moment that someone had shot an arrow at her.
And if the Aryans did not fight after sunset- she believed Varundev, strangely on that, then that meant that the arrow had been shot by a Dravid soldier.
Her face had been uncovered. All Dravid’s knew who she was.
Devsena’s gritted her teeth and stared into the distance.
“And what makes you think it was a Dravid soldier who shot at you?” Hahuma asked coolly, anger still visible on her face. Her father stood at Devsena’s side, grimacing in pain. Her Mausiamma was not at the meeting, and Devsena wondered at her exclusion.
“She is overseeing the execution of those few Dravid soliders who were given Aryan aid.” Hahuma answered her unspoken thoughts. “Thankfully the Aryans stopped their aid in a short while. Almost as if someone” And here Hahuma’s tone turned withering, “had told them about our customs.”
“I do not regret my words when they gave my solders life Hahuma.” Devsena replied, striving to keep her tone humble and not irritated. Strange that her conversation with Varundev had gained so much importance! Stranger still, the flush of pleasure that curled within her when she realized that Varundev had heeded her advice!
“You should not have been there to exchange words Devsena!”
“I saved my father, Pujye Hahuma. Mahishi Devi gave me an indication and I followed her command. Whether I raised my sword or my Pooja plate, I do not think it matters to her.”
“Do you think you interpret the words and wishes of the Goddess better than I do Devsena?”
“No Hahuma.” Devsena backtracked. “I simply meant that I…”
“What persuaded you to fight Devsena?”
“Please tell the truth, beti.” Her father’s voice was weak, a tone it should have never been. How would Devsena have felt if she had never heard him again? No, her decision had been the right one to take. But Ayurvidhan was right. Devsena owned her father and Hahuma the truth.
“Thamgan did.” She confessed. Her father started, exchanging a quiet glance with Hahuma that left Devsena nonplussed. What was that glance about?
“Yes. She made the salient point that my father had always had me besides him in battle. And Hahuma as Bhavi Rani it was my duty to be there for my soldiers. To fight besides them. I have seen the enemy now Hahuma. I know what they can do. I understand now, in a way I didn’t before your and Appa’s fears. Going to battle was the right decision!”
“Thamgan told you to go into battle. Dayalini and she stayed in the back despite knowing that the Bhavi Rani was in the frontlines. And now you tell me that someone shot at you, and you insist it wasn’t an Aryan.”
“Who is Varundev?” Hahuma interrupted
“The yodha who was fighting me.” Her father replied. “He seems to be a premier warrior among them.”
“And why do you believe him?”
I just do would not be a good answer, Devsena knew. And yet, for a brief, mad moment, she had wanted to say it.
“He stopped fighting when the sun set, despite one of his compatriots telling him to kill Appa. He knew Appa was king, but he respected his customs. Such a man…such a man would not lie.”
“You seem to know well the character of an enemy you have just met.” Hahuma’s voice was expressionless as she said this.
I feel like I have known him for forever, even though it was only a moment. Everything in me cries out when I think about him. When he was in front of me, everything faded away.
Devsena lowered her eyes, unable to answer, unwilling to say what was on her mind. Silence reigned in the stone chamber, before Hahuma signed.
“It would seem that in addition to external forces, we have internal forces weakening us. In light of this and the losses we have taken, another battle so soon seems unwise.”
Hahuma tilted her head, the snakes hissing as she moved. “In light of this, I say we propose a truce to the Aryans, and work on consolidating our power in court. We will root out these traitors and then turn our combined might and crush the Aryan host.”
“How will they agree to a truce?” Ayurvidhan asked, wincing as he shifted. Devsena walked towards him, supporting him as he stood.
“They have also been bloodied.” Hahuma replied. “I imagine they will also wish for time while their reinforcements come.”
“And we need time for ours as well to come from the South.”
“It is decided then. We shall send emissaries tomorrow to petition for a truce, and perhaps start an exchange. This will lure them into compliance and give us time to clean house.”
“I will go as Bhavi Rani.” Devsena declared, and the stubborn set of her mouth persuaded Hahuma not to raise her objections. “Appa is too weak, and Mausiamma has to take care of this internal inquiry. I will go to the Aryans.”
You aunt if the person under suspicion Hahuma thought, meeting Ayurvidhan’s eyes. Thamgan is her creature. Oh Devsena, why must you be so innocent and so stubborn? Did you have to inherit these traits from your mother? You mother who loved an Aryan. What does it mean that you are so willing to trust one? Will Chamundi’s prediction come true after all? No. I must do all I can to prevent it. The future depends on it.
“Arya Veers” Purohit Agnimitra announced, walking into the tent. The falling flap showed two women holding a Dravid shield in front of their bodies. “The Dravid contingent has sent us a message. Please attend so we may receive it.”
Varundev walked out, making sure to keep some distance from Angdev. The man was still sore as a bear with a head cold about Varundev’s decision, despite it being backed up by the Purohit and the other Sabhasads. It saddened Varundev how much the long trek had worn away at their resolve and traditions, and made him even more determined that they would settle here, on the Sapt Sindu.
A vision of Devsena’s flashing eyes stopped him in his tracks. Varundev knew he would fight her if it came down to it. But he did not know if he would win. He did not know if he wanted to win.
How can one woman, who met only for a brief moment, weaken my resolve so much?
“This message is a message of respect, not a message of fear.” The Dravid emissary stated, beginning the visit.
Agnimitra nodded “Understood, and please accept our respects as well.” The woman bowed lightly in response.
“Seeing the tattered state of both armies, our Bhavi Rani, Reining King, and Pujye Hahuma have proposed a thirty day truce. For the betterment of both peoples and to see if there is an alternative to fighting, we ask for talks between our two people to begin.”
“Give us some time to confer among ourselves.” Agnimitra responded, sharp eyes not missing the sudden fidgeting of the sabhasars. “Please avail yourselves to our hospitality while we work on our response.”
The women nodded, following the guards to a resting tent.
“It’s a trap.” Abrook stated as soon as the messengers were out of view. “They want time for their reinforcements from the South to come.”
“We need time for our reinforcements as well.” Varundev replied. “Our other armies are making their way to the Sapt Sindhu but it will take them around that time to reach.”
“Don’t forget with those armies comes our medicine. We don’t know the plants around here, we can’t use them.” Kaldev said, bread bristling and he spoke. “We are running low- we have a lot of injured soldiers.”
“And they have more able bodies than we do.” Vayudev added. “Their women fight- they have more soldiers to begin with.”
“Surely we have seen that they cannot match our valor.” Angdev said gruffly. “How many fell beneath our blades!”
“And how many fell beneath theirs?” Varundev shot back. “They may not match us in arms skills but they are clever and have good strategy, however we may deplore it.”
“Our men are finding it hard to fight women.” Abrook’s tone was introspective. “We cannot sustain a loss of men such as we had with this battle. We won’t have the men needed to plow the fields then.”
“Abrook is right.” Varundev said in support. “We need men not only to win, but to settle. Do you want to live in a nation of widows and children?”
“More than that.” Agnimitra finally spoke. “We cannot have the disgrace of being beaten by women etched into our history. Better we wait for our reinforcements and see where to go from there.”
“Agreed.” “Agreed.” “Varundev and Abrook speak sense.” The Sabhasad’s murmurs blended together in agreement. Agnimitra nodded to Varundev, a pleased smile lighting his craggy features.
“Bring the women back.” He ordered the guards. Soon the messengers stood in front of the council.
“We accept your proposition. When shall be begin talks?” One of the woman smirked, lowering the shield and bringing up what looked like a stick.
“Now.” She replied, tossing it in the air after cracking it. It flared for a brief moment, and then movement began from the other side.
All of the Sabhasads hand’s went to their swords and the other messenger stepped forward.
“We are emissaries of respect, not fear.” She reminded them.
“Our queen is merely impatient.” The other one murmured under her breath, though Varundev got the impression that the Sabhasads were meant to hear the words spoken.
All thought fled when he saw the figure riding at the front of the procession. Eyes flashing as they had when he first saw her, riding with a proud mien, was Devsena.
And on her head lay the Dravid crown.
Chapter 3: What is this feeling in the air?
“Be reasonable, be rational, but remember you are Bhavi Rani of the greatest kingdom in creation.” Her minister’s voice hissed in her ear. Devsena nodded but remembered her father’s words.
This isn’t like talking to our provinces.
They have left everything behind to come here. They are a desperate, starving people, starving for land and safety. Keep that in mind.
Varundev’s words also echoed.
To find a home. Isn’t that what everybody wants? To come home.
Let me bring you home Varundev An insane part of her whispered, twirling through her mind in ever maddening circles.
Come to my home. Let me be your home. Be my home.
“Your Majesty.” The purohit who seemed to be the leader bowed towards her, though the council arrayed behind him did not. Too busy gaping; it seemed to Devsena, looking at her as if she had come down on wings instead of riding on a horse.
Varundev caught her gaze, face impassive, though she could tell a smile was threatening the corner of his mouth.
How were his features already so familiar, his expressions so dear? She had only met him once, yet her soul felt as if it had been a relationship of a hundred years.
“Purohit.” Devsena replied, wrenching her gaze away. “I am pleased you chose the right response” A light shove by the minister behind her led to a hasty addition “For our people and yours.”
The man smiled. Though his eyes were cold, there was no malice towards her in his gaze. Merely the practicality of a man who needed to see his people settled. It was comforting in its own way. Here was an enemy who had nothing personal against her. He was an enemy. Back in the Dravid Rajya, if Hahuma was correct, all the attacks were from people she trusted. There was a comfort in knowing that the men in front of would kill anyone who was in their way.
“When the Queen of a great Kingdom asks for a meeting, only a fool disobeys.”
“And you are not a fool then?” Devsena jested, mirth soaked in scorn. “Leaving your home and travelling untold distances to ravage another kingdom…is that not foolish?”
“No, O’ Queen that is not foolishness.” Varundev interjected, striding ahead. The priest raised a brow, but let him answer. “It is desperation that drives us.”
“And it is desperation which compels us.” Devsena replied. “Desperation to protect what is ours.”
“Just as we are desperate. To find a home.”
“Varundev enough.” One of the shaggy council men said, walking towards him. “Your Majesty, forgive his words. He is new to his post and so does not know how to speak.”
“One the contrary.” Devsena smiled. “I find his words and demeanor to be that of a seasoned diplomat.” Ignoring the befuddled expression across the other man’s face, she turned to the purohit again. “I care not for honey riddled with lies. So long as we are truthful to each other I see no obstacles in this assembly.”
The purohit bowed his head again, motioning her to walk beside him. Devsena did so, waving her retainers away.
“Varundev join us.” The priest said. “Abrook you as well.”
“Come.” Devsena motioned to her minister. “Let us go and speak of weighty matters.”
“We are a moving nation.” The purohit, Agnimitra said walking sedately, Varundev and Abrook behind him. Devsena walked by his side, though she could not help but peek at Varundev, who was busy talking to her minister.
“You get what you need from the land?”
“No. We did not become nomads willingly O’ Queen. Calamity drove us from our homes years ago. Warriors like Varundev have grown on the trails, and know nothing else. I am old enough to remember what it feels like to have one home.”
“And you choose to invade a thriving nation to do so.” Devsena stated coldly.
“The Sapt Sindu has been in our shastras since time immemorial. This is not the first time Aryans have come to your shores. We have tried to settle here before.”
“But not in such numbers. Not as a nation.”
“No, but our desperation was never such. Your Majesty, I did not come here with the express purpose of killing a people to settle mine. But if I have to do it I will do so. I swore to my father, to my ancestors that my people would find a home. We have wandered for decades, looking and dying while looking. Now that paradise looms before us, do you think we will falter? We will die but we will not leave.”
“I swore to my father, and his father before him.” Varundev’s voice broke into the conversation before Devsena could respond. “I swore I would help establish Aryavrat. Our home. It is a promise etched into my soul.”
“I can understand your desperation.” Devsena replied, turning towards him and ignoring Agnimitra. While she and Varundev missed the expression on the purohit’s face, Abrook did not. Neither did the minister.
“But I too swore an oath when I was a child. To protect my people. To protect the Dravid Rajya.”
“But do the goals need to be mutually exclusive? Can we…can we not find a way to co-exist?”
“Aryans have ever tried to breach our borders.” The minister interjected.
“Only because the Dravid’s have never opened them up.” Abrook refuted. “I remember stories about how you dammed up a portion of the river to keep us away.”
“Such topics are not resolved in one conversation.” Devsena spoke, turning back to Agnimitra. “I would not expect this to change today. But you are amenable to the thirty day truce?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Both our clans have reasons to welcome such a thing, Priest. After all, we are both waiting for reinforcements are we not?” Devsena smiled at the surprised look on the man’s face. “But I would like to speak with you more. I want to learn more about your clan. And do not fear from my end.” She turned to Varundev, eyes locking onto his as she spoke.
“When we fight, I would fight an honest foe rather than a deceitful friend. Do you agree?”
“Yes Your Majesty.” Varundev breathed. “I agree.”
“Varundev I have never seen you look upon a woman in all our years.” Shivum said, grunting as their swords impacted. “Now you choose to long for the enemy Queen? Have you addled your wits?”
“I’m not mooing.” Varundev spoke, hands twirling the sword. “I am…admiring. She is a warrior, but delicate. Resolute, but beautiful. Her eyes speak so much when her lips don’t say a word…I….”
“Never mind.” Shivum panted, dropping his sword and lying down. “You aren’t mooning, you are in love.”
“In love?” Varundev blinked in surprise. “I’m not…that isn’t possible Shivum.”
“For you or for her?”
“I can only speak to myself. Despite this truce she is still our enemy. There is hatred between our clans.”
“Yes, between the clans. I don’t see you spewing venom. Varundev…when she rode in the look on your face was such…”
“She looked like a nymph. Like one of our stories come to life. And I wasn’t the only one looking Shivum.”
“No my friend you were not. But, you blind idiot, didn’t you notice? You were the only one she was looking back at.”
“Your chatty friend speaks the truth Varundev.” Abrook’s voice rang through the clearing. “I hesitated standing between you and her, so intense were the stares.”
“I met her before.” Varundev admitted. “She was the woman who was in the clearing with the King.”
“Ah, so it is an old relationship.” Abrook jested. “But your friend is right. You found no other woman?”
“No, I was wrong.” Shivum spoke, standing up and brushing the dirt off his clothes. “I think this Dravid queen is not Varunev’s infatuation but Varundev’ atmasangini.”
“Have you lost your wits?” Abrook’s voice lost its joking tone. “Varnundev’s soulmate would be a Dravid? Foolish.”
“It’s not.” Shivum argued back, looking at a lost in thought Varundev. “Our texts speak of how you can meet your soulmate at any time. Be it friend or foe. Have you ever seen Varundev connect so quickly and intensely with someone Abrook? And the way she looked at him it was not one-sided. A connection such as this? It isn’t normal.”
“Don’t equate lust with…”
“Don’t call it lust.” Varundev’s voice was solemn. “I do not know what I feel, but I know it isn’t lust. I do not want her body in my bed.”
“No.” Shivum grinned, getting ready to run. “You just want her to push you down on one…!”
“Shivum you!” Varundev made to chase his friend, but Abrook stopped him.
“He is a fool, but his eyes don’t miss much.” Abrook’s eyes searched Varundev’s, frowning as the other man turned away. “Is what he says true?”
“I don’t know about love.” Varundev admitted. “But I have never felt like this before.”
Abrook swore. If he knew the reaction across the river, in the Queen’s tent, he would have felt better.
He wasn’t the only one dealing with a confused love-stricken warrior.
“I’ve never met someone like this before.” Devsena spoke to the Priestess, lying down on the divan. Her tent was at the center of their tent city, and lavishly decorated. Yet her mind was not appreciating the luxury surrounding her. Rather it was dwelling, yet again, on that warrior.
“Varundev.” She breathed.
“And he is the man you met when you snuck away from Mahishi Devi’s Pooja?”
Just like Hahuma Devsena thought resentfully. So obstinate and judgement! Mahishi Devi speaks to all!
“Yes. He is.” She replied instead.
“And what makes you so…” The priestess trailed off, unable to find a word.
“He is a noble warrior.” Devsena repeated. “He keeps his word and to his customs. I have never met a man with such firm beliefs who isn’t a blowhard. Varundev has a quiet dignity to him that…”
“He is your enemy, Princess.” The reply was gentle.
“Not for the next thirty days he is not.” Devsena smirked back, delighting in the widening of eyes she received.
“Your Majesty.” The messenger barged into the tent, panting. Devsena sat up, wondering at the urgency.
“What is it?” She asked, alarmed. “Is Appa all right?”
“The King is well, Majesty. I only sought to tell you that he and Hahuma say you must stay here for the next thirty days, and not enter the city. Their investigation is bearing fruit, but they do not wish for you to enter the palace and be victim to a conspiracy.”
“I will obey them both only so long as they are safe.’ Devsena replied, clutching the devan cloth in her hands. “Convey that to them.”
“Majesty.” The messenger bowed, gulped at the water given to him and exited the tent.
“It would seem that I have to stay here.” Devsena smiled at the priestess, who signed. “I would say Mahishi Devi is giving us a sign, would you not?”
“It is not up to you to interpret the signs on the goddess, Princess.”
“Why not? You are human for all your powers. You have biases. Why can’t your judgement not be skewed? In any case, I am not going to argue with you. Call a messenger. I want them to go to the Aryans. I want to speak with them more.”
It had been strange, Devsena mused as the priestess left the tent in a huff. She had never thought of arguing against a Priestess. Let alone thinking such things. But she had woken up feeling emboldened.
Last night, for the first time she had dreamt of her mother as she had been. Alive and laughing. Not dead and on a bier.
Actually her laughter was almost triumphant. Devsena furrowed her brow. She was laughing as if she had won something.
What a strange dream.
“We should have Varundev show her around.” Kaldev’s voice did not hide his mirth. Angdev scoffed in response.
“I thought the purpose was to speak to her of our people. No stare at her as if he had no voice.”
“He spoke to her just fine, Angdev.” Abrook’s rebuke was mild. “Quite eloquently. She was impressed.”
“I don’t think his words were what impressed her. Don’t you realize how shameless these Dravid women are? Like har…”
“Angdev!” Varundev snapped, stopping the man before he insulted Devsena. “Do not forget that she is a Queen. Her blood is royal and you cannot speak of a valiant warrior thus!”
“That woman is the biggest obstacle in fulfilling our dream.” Angdev snarled back. “And you pant after her like a dog pants after a bone!”
“Enough Angdev.” Agnimitra said. “To speak up in defense of a gallant foe does not make Varundev a traitor. And you betray your childishness by speaking thus. Calm yourself.” He continued as Angdev subsided. “This is the first Dravid queen who has been in our sphere. She is the first who has expressed interest in speaking to us. It would behoove us to take advantage of this and show her that we are not the barbarians that her advisors are telling her we are. I do not relish the thought of sending more of our men to heaven. Not if we can prevent it.”
“You wish to convert foe to friend?” Abrook asked, surprised.
“If nothing else, if she sees us as human she might hesitate to strike a blow.” Agnimitra’s voice was practical. “I shall take all the advantages I can get at this point. Abrook you shall escort her. Your history of spying makes you ideal for showing her what she needs to see and making sure she see’s nothing else.”
“If you wish you may accompany Abrook.”
“Thank you Purohit.” Varundev bowed.
“And why do you wear such light armor? It gives you no protection.” Devsena asked, walking through the encampment, Abrook and Varundev on either side. Her retinue trailed behind her, looking like hunted animals. Only she was confident, striding as if all before her were her subjects.
And the Aryan soldiers stared. They had never seen such a bold woman, let alone such a beautiful one. Several men had tripped while staring at her, and one lost consciousness as he lost concentration while sparring and missed his opponent’s spear.
“It enables us to move faster.” Varundev replied, preempting Abrook, who sighed in exasperation. “As you know, speed if our primary weapon Your Majesty.”
“Call me Devsena.” She said spontaneously. Varundev blinked in surprise, but Devsena soldiered on. “I don’t believe in formalities really. I even eat with my troops when I can.”
“We too try to eat with our men.” Varundev agreed. “Though, of course the difference between the Sabhasads and the men is not a matter of blood, but a matter of skill.”
“Are you saying it is only my blood that distinguishes me?”
“No Maje…Devsena,” He amended the address at her glare. “Only that for Aryans there isn’t a royal family truly. Even I am only a new Sabhasad.”
“Yes, you said that.” Devsena told Abrook, who blinked in surprise at being addressed. “How did Varundev become Sabhasad?”
“He completed a series of trials. First Sabhasad who has no scars. His father was very proud.”
“You spoke of him before when you said you swore a vow to him. I remember.” Devsena smiled at Varundev’s surprise. “Where is he now? Your father?” she asked, curious. Both men stiffened.
“He is dead Your Majesty.” Varundev replied after a pause. Abrook frowned, and elaborated.
“He was killed by a Dravid commander. She tortured and murdered him. Varundev has sworn to avenge him.”
Devsena blinked. “I did not know you were the ones who had been caught spying in our kingdom.” She replied. Abrook frowned and looked away.
Looking at Varundev until he met her eyes, Devsena continued. “I know the pain of losing a parent, and I grieve with you Varundev. Though I cannot regret that a spy against my kingdom was executed, I am sorry that he was tortured. Such things are…they do not suit a culture as great as ours.”
“Had he been killed there would be no enmity from my end, Devsena.” Varundev responded, holding her gaze. “We Aryans are warriors. Death walks with us, and we do not fear Yama. But he was tortured to death. That is no fit death for a warrior.”
“Torture is useless.” Devsena nodded. “It never yields the answers you need; only the answers you want. I do not know how to help you in this. I cannot punish my commander for doing their duty, but I cannot agree with the method used. I will only say that if you meet in battle, I shall ensure that no one interferes with your duel.”
Varundev turned towards Abrook, who nodded, giving a description. Devsena listened intently, and then started in surprise.
“The person you speak sounds like Thamgan, my aunt’s attendant. She as always been a bit…enthusiastic about her duties. Far too brash. Varundev, as Bhavi Rani I cannot give her to you, however, I disagree with her actions. But, I promise you again, should you meet her in battle, no one will interfere.”
“Thank you Devsena.” Varundev impulsively took hold of her hand. Both looked down at their clasped fingers, surprised yet again at the electricity that arched through them. The squawking of Devsena’s retinue and Abrook’s headshake of annoyance was ignored.
“Would you ask to duel?” Devsena blurted out. Abrook’s head snapped up, and the squawking of her retinue increased.
“A duel?” Though his tone for the most part was even, Devsena could make out the excitement hidden beneath. Once again, she wondered how she had gotten to understand the nuances of this man so well. This man that she had only met a few times. And yet…
“I want to see if I can best the warrior that defeated my father.”
“Devsena.” Varundev bowed, bringing their clasped hands closer to his heart. “There is nothing I would like more.”
Abrook signed, looking at the Dravidian retinue. To his shock they wore the same expressions.
Love-stricken fools He grumbled to himself. What game is fate playing with us?
Oh Mahishi Devi The head priestess thought, looking at Devsena and Varundev gazing intently at one another. Their hands remained clasped, and it seemed that they had forgotten to let go. What are you allowing to come to pass? Could it be that the flame of Queen Chamundi’s love has ignited in Devsena’s heart?
And if that is the case, what will Hahuma do?
Chapter 4: Come into my arms
The clash of steel rang throughout the clearing as Varundev and Devsena danced around it each. The watchers stood in awe at the skill of the participants. Varundev’s forceful blows were countered by Devsena’s nimbleness, while her slashes often missed the mark thanks to his flexibility. It was obvious to the watchers that the two were each others perfect match in this duel. Neither could win over the other.
Mahishi Devi are all Aryans like this? The prime minister thought worriedly. No, impossible. We would have been trounced despite our numbers if that was the case. This Aryan is merely the perfect example of his kind. Oh I wish he had not dueled the princess! She is intrigued enough as it is!
Really? On top of beauty and wit she has to be a fighter as well? Abrook thought, stifling his groan. Why oh why is she so perfect for Varundev? Could there be truth to that lackwit Shivum’s ranting that she is his atmasangini? In that case, can we count on Varundev to kill her when the time comes? Abrook blinked as another thought came to mind
Can we count on her to do so?
“You are a marvelous fighter.” Devsena’s smile was radiant. Varundev blinked, taken aback by her dazzle mien.
“You too are a pratham yodha, Raj-Devsena.” He amended, smiling at her mock glare. “I’ve never met a fighter as good as you.”
“A woman fighter you mean?”
“No, the men pale in comparison to you as well.” It was Varundev’s turn to give a wide smile. It transformed his face, going from a solemn, grim cast to a more boyish manner that suited him well. Devsena blinked, stopping for a moment, amazing at the transformation. Varundev took advantage of her distraction, moving swiftly and hooking a foot through her leg. Devsena let out a startled hmph as she tumbled into his arms.
Varundev paused, looking back at the Princess, who was staring at him with an almost confused expression. As if she could not reconcile being in his arms. Varundev too was startled. Looking at him from above, it was as if a fist had squeezed his heart. He wanted to keep Devsena in his arms and never let her go. Her weight was comforting, and for the first time since his father’s death Varundev felt at peace.
Devsena blinked and made to move up. Varundev also shook himself from his reverie and helped her up, easing away from her. As he did so, he realized that the entire time, Devsena had had a knife at the side of his neck, a breath away from plunging in.
“You did not win Varundev.” Devsena smiled at him softly. Varundev’s lips lifted despite his permission.
“Not did you.”
“The first time this has happened to me.”
“And to me.”
“The solution to such a dilemma is simple is it not?”
“We must fight again.”
Varundev continued to smile, lowering his head in a shallow bow. “I would like that.”
Devsena turned to a silent Abrook.
“Unless you object?” She challenged. Abrook shook his head.
“I have no objections, Princess.”
That night, both Varundev and Devsena visited each other in their dreams. For Varundev Devsena danced around him, fighting one moment, running away playfully the next. He couldn’t make heads of tails out of her actions, but her expressions caught his heart and would not let go. It was an odd feeling. Feeling alive and exhilarated and almost a total stranger to oneself. Yet, at the same time, being truer to oneself as never before.
On Devsena’s end, Varundev’s countenance tormented and tantalized her. His smile transformed into a smirk as he challenged her, and she was helpless to do anything to but respond. Something had happened to her since she met the Aryan. Some strange longing had enveloped Devsena, taking her far away from the person she was…to perhaps the person she was meant to be. All Devsena knew, staring at the mirror, seeing her tired countenance, was for the first time she felt simultaneously terrified and elated.
“I’m telling you, she is your atmasangini.” Shivum insisted. On his other side, Abrook sighed and shook his head. Since the Dravid princess had entered the encampment, his headaches seemed to have exponentially multiplied. And it didn’t seem like it would end anytime soon.
“Stop listening to him.” Abrook insisted wearily. At this side, Varundev started ahead, eyes fixed on the Dravid encampment, gaze distant. Abrook knew what Varundev was thinking of. At this point, everyone knew what Varundev was thinking of.
“Why am I wrong?” Shivum challenged. “Because she is the enemy? Might I reminder you, Sabhasad, that the shastras say that the enemy can also be your atmasangini. There is no one better suited for…”
“Why are you insisting on this Shivum?” Varundev’s calm voice broke the budding argument. “Abrook is right. We are enemies. Why do you keep waking my heart?”
“The fact that you say this gives my reason Varundev.” Shivum replied angrily. “Since we were children you have sacrificed yourself on the altar of Aryanhood. Not one moment has gone by where you have ever thought for yourself. But that was what made you happy so I said not one word as I saw my friend castigate himself for the smallest mistakes. But when this girl came into your life…Varundev your eyes light up when she is nearby. You don’t realize it but you near glow, my friend. It is as if Agnidev takes residence inside you. And it’s not one-sided! No Abrook,” He shook his head, stopping Abrook’s interruption, “let me finish. The Dravid princess looks upon you as if you have stepped out from her dreams. Varundev, if we fight the Dravids, you will not be able to fight this woman wholeheartedly. Not if you don’t confess. If you are incomplete, your karmic cycle will not let you rest. Please my friend, do not deny yourself this. Do no spiral down the path of self-destruction. You, who have always striven to be the perfect Aryan…do not make yourself incomplete. Confess, and know the truth of her heart. Because, my friend, the truth of yours is evident to all around you.”
The clearing was silent. Varundev looked to Abrook, who shook his head. In frustration? In commiseration? Varundev could not tell. But his heart was beating like it had never beaten before in his life. His hands were clammy and trembling. Shivum’s words, the truth he had held in front of Varundev…there was no walking away from that.
“All right.” Varundev exhaled. “All right. I will go to her now and tell her the truth of my heart.”
He walked away. Abrook and Shivum looked at each in silence for a moment.
“You may just have ended his life.” Abrook said quietly. Shivum shrugged, picking up his sword.
“If he dies, he will die as a whole man. Not an incomplete warrior- not an incomplete lover. We lead such uncertain lives, Abrook. It makes no sense to constrain ourselves. Not in matters of the heart.”
“Half-wit you may be Shivum. But in some matters you do see clearly.” Abrook replied, finally defeated. Both watching Varundev’s proud, straight back making its way to the Dravid encampment.
“One way or the other something will change.” Abrook exhaled. “Let us see what the fates have planned.”
“Princess it is the Aryan Varundev.” Devsena started, eyes moving away from her reflection. Her stomach fluttered, a sensation she had never had before. She swallowed, mouth inexplicably dry as she moved towards the entrance of the tent.
“Let him in.” Devsena said softly, standing a little ways from the entrance. She clenched her hands to stop the trembling, eyes fastened on Varundev’s form as he entered. Devsena shook her head, preventing the guards from coming in. They retreated, leaving the two alone.
“Is something the matter?” Devsena asked, moving towards her vanity, trying not the fidget as Varundev’s gaze bored into her, as if he was peeling her apart, peering into her soul.
“Your Majesty, I have something I wish to speak to you about.” His voice seemed to bore into her as well. Devsena had never felt so exposed, standing in front of this Aryan.
“I told you to call me Devsena. This is an order of a princess.”
“Devsena.” Varundev corrected himself.
“Speak then. What has bought you here?”
“Your love has pulled me here.”
Devsena jerked towards Varundev, mouth dropping slightly. Varundev straightened further in response, eyes locked onto hers.
“My friend believes I am in love. And this is true. Since I have seen you…touched you, my mind has been filled with you. My brain says you are my enemy, and my heart says you are my atmasangini. You haunt me Devsena. You image haunts my dreams. Your voice follows me wherever I go. Your grace, your mannerisms…I close my eyes and they flash before me. Everything in me says you are my destiny. And as a warrior, I could not keep my feelings to myself. My life has always been about believing in and upholding the truth. It would an insult to you…to my love for you, if I faltered and did not let you know my feelings. I…”
“Stop.” Devsena breathed. “Please stop. Don’t you realize what you are saying? Our clans hate each other. You are my enemy. Whatever is happening now, a fight is inevitable. And we will face each other across the battlefield…”
“Then we are fortunate.” Varundev countered, walking towards her, but stopping as Devsena raised a hand. Instead he stood a few feet away, intense gaze upon her.
“Rarely have people had the honor of meeting their soulmates. Even if we fight, our swords will clang with our love song, instead of hate. Each blo w a sign of our love and regard.”
Devsena exhaled, eyes not even blinking as Varundev continued.
“We Aryans believe in reincarnation. Whatever happens in this life, our bond will echo across eternity. Nothing can stand in the way of that.”
“Devsena…even before I knew who you were…I have always been…and always shall be…yours.”
Devsena swallowed, closing her eyes and turning away. She felt Varundev step closer, his nearness a brand of warmth at her back. Devsena couldn’t help but lean back, aching to absorb that warmth, greedy for the sensation of that skin.
“You make me feel…you know I am a Princess. The sole heir of the Dravid throne. I cannot…I cannot allow my feelings to overtake my duty Varundev. Don’t you think I sense something between us? I have been fighting it since we first met. But you make me feel that laying down my arms would not be wrong. I, who have never tired of any fight…I feel worn out.”
“Worn out? No Devsena, no. Our love makes the world new. I feel…I feel reborn.”
“Reborn?” Devsena laughed, eyes remaining closed. “Birth, death…all is in the hands of Mahishi Devi.”
“And love?” Varundev placed a hand on Devsena’s shoulder. Devsena shuddered, but didn’t move. His touch sent sparks singing down her skin. She was greedy for more.
“Love…that too is her domain”
“If it is her domain, then is it not her wish that we feel the way we do?”
“Stop.” Devsena finally got the strength to shrug Varundev’s hand off her shoulder. Instantly, she ached for the lost contact. Hardening her heart, she walked further into the tent. Varundev stood still for a moment, then firmed his jaw and walked after her.
“How we face life is just as important as how we face death Devsena. You are not a coward, my Princess.”
Devsena remained silent. Varundev nodded, turned and then turned back. Taking a bronze jeenu from his side pocket, he placed it by her bed.
“The silver jeenu of the Sabhasad I cannot give you, as it is not mine to give. It belongs forever to the Aryan council. But this jeenu, humble bronze though it is, has belonged to my family for generations. It is the one thing that is truly mine. If my love is one-sided, discard it. I will accept your feelings and my destiny will decide what my life will be. But if you accept my love...wear it, however you choose. And no matter what happens in the future, our love will be the winner.”
Laying the jeenu on the bed, Varundev took a last long at Devsena and walked out, heart thudding. Though he did not know it, Devsena’s heart was beating in tandem with him.
Devsena turned and looked at the jeenu, mind churning.
Devsena, The voice intruded in her dreams. Devsena frowned, turning and going deeper into her sleep.
My darling daughter. My heir. I told Hahuma you were my blood. I told her you would follow my dreams, not hers.
Mother? Mother is that you?
Mahishi Devi finally allowed me to enter your dreams. Oh my sweet child, I have missed you so! Maharni Chamundi was just as beautiful as Devsena remembered. Here in her dream world, the Queen exuded life, so different from the cold corpse who Devsena had been dreaming off for the past fifteen years.
It was strange. Her mother’s mouth did not move, but her voice boomed throughout the landscape.
Hahuma? Devsena’s thought’s whirled Mother what do you mean?
I prayed and prayed to Mahishi Devi. I didn’t go forth to Paradise because I didn’t want Hahuma to trap you my love. Well-intentioned a cage may be, but all it does is slowly kill the bird. My sweetest daughter.
Mother please, tell me what you mean!
I loved an Aryan too Devsena. I loved an Aryan too. And I died for that love.
Devsena reeled. She wanted to wake up from this dream. But Chamundi’s presence surrounded her, twirling about her like a mad wind. She stood, in the eye of the storm, feeling flayed by the revelations around her.
Do not allow Hahuma to push you down that narrow path my love. Everything must change. Everything. Thinking, culture. Nothing is static. Not even us Dravids. A tree must be flexible, lest it be uprooted. Even Mahishi Devi wants us to change. She is beautiful and terrible Devsena. One way or the other we must change. I could not stand against Hahuma. You must
Be Devsena. Be the future.
Remember me. Remember my words.
Hahuma killed me. My sister is not your well-wisher
You are the future of the Dravid Rajya. Forge that future with your own hands. With your own thoughts.
Now my darling. Wake up!
Devsena jolted awake, panting lighting, sweating into the night.
“What kind of dream was that?” Her heart was pounding, sweat had broken out across her body. She could not control her trembling.
It was no dream Devsena thought Chamundi Amma did come to me, I know it. It was a sign from Mahishi Devi.
Or am I just making this up? Am I trying to find a reason to accept Varundev’s love?
“Your Majesty!” the messenger broke into the tent. Devsena started, then snarled.
“What is wrong with you?! Don’t you know common etiquette?” Devsena’s maid ran after him. “How dare you enter the princess’s room without being announced?!”
“The news is urgent” The messenger panted, bent over, hands on his knees. He stood up, after a moment, looking at her in fright.
“Your Majesty, your aunt attempted a coup!”
For a moment Devsena started at him, struck silent. The words refused to make sense. How could they? How could her aunt, who had raised her, taught her all about ruling…how could that woman have attempted a coup?
“What?” Her voice was weak.
“Queen Regent Dayalini and Commander Thangam attempted a coup.” Her minister’s voice coolly cut into the tent. Devsena stood up, staggering slightly in shock before straightening. “Luckily Hahuma and your father had inkling of her intentions, and subdued them both before much damage could be done. But we must leave now and head back.”
“We should leave behind a presence. The Aryans must not know of this internal weakening.” The head priestess had also entered the tent. Devsena stood silenty as the two women argued.
Hahuma killed me. My sister is not your well-wisher
“Enough.” Devsena snapped, silencing the two women in her tent. “I will not listen to you bickering when something of such great import has happened. We will leave now. But first,” She turned to her minister. “Have our spies said anything about the Aryan reinforcement?”
“They are still making their way through the mountains. Heavy snowfall has delayed them. But, heavy rains have delayed our troops as well.”
“I don’t know why Mahishi Devi is delaying this confrontation. I cannot understand why she does not speak to me anymore” The head priestess twirled her beads nervously.
Mahishi Devi wants us to change. She is beautiful and terrible Devsena.
“Perhaps it is not that she does not speak to you, Priestess.” Devsena said, surprised by the coolness of her tone.
“Perhaps you choose not to listen to what she is saying.”
“We are leaving now! I must go and speak with the Aryans. Pack my tent and make ready!”
I must speak with Varundev and tell him the truth of my heart. How we face life is as important as how we face death
And then I must speak with Hahuma
I must know the truth
“I wish you all luck in whatever matters take you away from us, Your Majesty.” Agnimitra said, inclining his head slightly.
“You need not display false concern, Purohit. Rest assured, we will be back.” The minister replied coolly. Agnimitra raised a hand in negation.
“The concern is not false, I assure you. Rarely have Aryans and Dravids enjoyed such peace. You will note that our people were able to interact without much discord.”
“Reinforced strongly through fists and words.” Kaldev muttered. Varundev shifted uneasily, eyes trying to catch Devsena’s. She ignored him, gazing wordlessly at the priest. Silence reined before Devsena stepped forward.
“Purohit.” Her voice, clear and cool rang through. “We have not forgotten how you seek to invade our shores and take what is ours by right. But,” She paused, eyes finally locking with Varundev before continuing “I have also seen the strength and nobility in your clan. When we return, I would like to speak with you more with regards to your long-term plans.”
“Your Majesty.” Agnimitra gave her a deep bow. Devsena, nodded, then turned to Varundev.
“I look forward to our next duel.” She flicked away the cloak, watching him steadily as it puddled at her feet.
Varundev blinked, stunned. He could hear Abrook choking behind him, and the other Sabhasad’s stifling gasps. Even Agnimitra blinked, looking nonplussed.
Tied loosely around Devsena’s waist, outlining the slender curves, was his jeenu. The Dravids stood with furrowed brows, obviously not understanding the gesture the way the Aryans did.
“As you can see, I have armed myself accordingly.” Devsena nodded at him, smiling softly and walking away.
“Don’t just let her leave.” Shivum hissed behind him. “Go after her!”
“I can’t right now.” He murmured back. “I’ll ride and catch up as soon as we disperse.”
“Varundev.” Purohit Agnimitra interjected, “I hope you have not forgotten your primary responsibility as an Aryan- the establishment of Aryavrat.”
“I have not, Purohit.” Varundev replied, making to move away. “That has remained and shall remain my premier goal.”
Loving Devsena is not a goal, Purohit Agnimitra. It is the purpose of my life.
You will never understand.
“We will stop here for the night.” Devsena said, spying the telltale movements in the woods. She had been waiting for Varundev since the Dravid encampment had packed up, and had been watching for signs of his presence.
“I need to be by myself for a little bit.” Devsena continued, jumping off the horse and walking towards the woods. “I can take care of myself. Do not follow or my arrows will find you.”
“Yes your Majesty.” Was the chorus behind her.
Going deeper into the woods, she paused at the stunning vista before her. A lake stood, surrounding by the lush woods. The silence was broken by the sound of footsteps and Devsena closed her eyes as Varundev’s breaths stirred her hair.
“You took your time.” She breathed.
“Forgive me.” He replied breathlessly, slowly putting his hands on her arms, turning her around. Devsena opened her eyes, gazing into that beloved gaze. Varundev took her into his arms, marveling that she was so near him. The feel of her in his arms bought him peace like nothing else had. Strange that the woman who made his blood burn gave him the greatest feeling of contentment.
“I never want to make you wait for me, Devsena.”
“And yet have I not been waiting for you all my life Varundev?”
“I too have waiting the same length of time Devsena…though nothing may come of this love, though our clans may separate us…I will wait for you. A day, a year, a lifetime. I will wait.”
“No.” Devsena shook her head, breathing in Varundev’s scent. “Why do you speak as if we have already been defeated?”
“Devsena, I was the first to confess to you. Having you acknowledge our love is our victory.”
“I don’t want it to end there, Varundev.” Devsena replied impatiently, pulling away from slightly, though her hands remained locked behind his back.
“We have other obligations Devsena. Perhaps in another life…”
“I want to be with you in this life. I don’t want to give you up without a fight.”
“I want to be with you.” Devsena’s tone was soft, but the conviction in her voice would be enough to move mountains. “I want to share my life with you. I want to spend long nights with you, wake up with you in my arms. I want to show so many things from my kingdom with you.”
“Tell me.” Varundev said hungrily, eyes fastened on her form as she titled her head towards him. “Tell me more.”
“Have you ever heard the song of the silver birds yonder Varundev? It is the sweetest melody you will ever hear. I want to hear that with you.” Devsena breathed, her hands moving from his back, stroking in turn his neck and his hair.
“You Aryans are always in a hurry, always going from one thing to another. You don’t savor joy the way it is meant to be savored. We Dravids know there is always time enough for everything. I would make you rest in my arms.”
“Rest in your arms for all the time in the world?” Varundev said hopelessly. “Don’t weave such dreams for me, Devsena.”
“It is not a dream.” Devsena replied sternly. “Fight for me as fiercely as I will fight for you Varundev. Our world will be filled with tomorrows. You are the one who awakened the lover in me. Will you abandon me now?”
“I will abandon my breath before I abandon you.”
“Then take my hand.” Devsena extended her palm. “Whatever promises we swore to uphold we will. But we will not let our love be the sacrifice.”
Varundev grasped the offered hand, pulling her closer to him in the process. “If need be, I will die with you Devsena. Better to die with you then spend a moment alone.”
“Let us face this life first Varundev. Let death be only the last option.”
“All right.” He exhaled, inhaling the scent of her hair. “All right.”
She pushed herself on her tones, breathing in his ear “Be mine?”
Varundev huffed, laughing softly. “Do not ask for that which is already yours.”
“Kiss me.” Devsena replied, titling her head.
Varundev lowered his head at the demand. She met him halfway, and their lips touched in a slow, soft kiss where both of them were trembling a little.
They continued for a long time, standing by the side of the lake, exchanging clinging kisses and whispering sweet promises.
Chapter 5: Change comes regardless of feelings
Devsena knew there was no point in lying to Hahuma. Since meeting Varundev the urge to do so had started happening all the time.
And yet, was that not justice? Apparently Hahuma had been lying to her for a long time. Even her father had participated. Was it not just then, that Devsena keep some secrets?
No. Devsena decided. She was not a hypocrite. Soon she would reveal all she knew to Hahuma. Her path was set. All that was left was executing the actions.
“I know how much your heart aches on hearing of Dayalini’s betrayal, Devsena.” Hahuma’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Was it a shock to you Hahuma?” Devsena’s caustic reply silenced the room. “Or did you know all along and choose to keep in the dark so I would act better as bait?”
“Devsena!” Her father snapped, but quietened as Hahuma raised a hand.
“No Ayurvadhan. She is right to be upset.”
“I have a right to be more than upset Hahuma. You knew my aunt was unhappy with being regent. All those accidents when I was a child…were they even accidents?”
“Some were.” Was the calm response. “You were a very exuberant child. But it appears that others were deliberate machinations of your aunt.”
“And yet, when you began to uncover this you told me nothing. Even you, Appa.” Here, Devsena turned to her father, who averted his eyes. “Even when you warned me of those who would wish me harm, you never told me who. You both left me uninformed and ignorant.”
“It does not matter…” Hahuma started.
“It does!” Devsena snapped back. “It does matter. Because it shows that in your eyes I am still a child. How can I be a child and Bhavi Rani? How can I be a child but be entrusted to make decisions for the Dravid Rajya? Or was that you thought that a malleable rule would be easier to mani…”
“Devsena!” Ayurvadhan snapped. “Hahuma has always loved you and looked after you! Apologize at once.”
“I have no doubt Hahuma loves me.” Devsena replied coldly. “Just as she loved my mother.”
For the first time, Hahuma’s façade cracked. “What do you mean by mentitoning your mother Devsena?”
“You loved her Hahuma. You loved her until she refused to take your advise. Is it not true?”
Ayurvadhan’s brows burrowed, his expression reflecting his puzzlement. “Devsena, what are you talking about.”
“You aren’t the only one Mahishi Devi speaks to Hahuma.”
My falling in love with this Aryan is only by the blessing of Mahishi Devi
“No.” Hahuma gasped, eyes boring into Devsena’s. “How did you know?!”
Devsena closed her eyes, heart shattering at the confirmation of what her mother had told her. Was that all she was to Hahuma? The mirror for all her dreams? And if the mirror broke what then? Hahuma cared more for fanciful Dravid pride and traditions, far more than she did the people who upheld those traditions. Far more than she did for the people who were suffocated under those traditions.
I am the future of the Dravid Rajya.I am above the law. I make the law.
I am the future. Hahuma is the past.
I must seize my future with all my might.
Devsena lifted her face proudly. “My mother sends her greetings Hahuma. She gives me her and Mahishi Devi’s blessings for the path I will embark upon.”
“Your mother…path…Mahishi Devi? Devsena I don’t understand.” Her father’s voice is confused, and he makes his way towards her. Devsena halts him with an outstretched hand.
“Like my mother before me, I too am in love with an Aryan.”
Hahuma shook her head in denial, getting up and faltering as Devsena mercilessly continued.
“And unlike my mother, I will not die so readily Hahuma. I will not fall upon my sword at your command.” She ignored her faltering father, who had sunk to his knees. Her eyes remained locked with Hahuma’s.
“Unlike my mother.” Devsena finished softly. “I will make my Aryan my husband. Varundev will be my King.:
“It was one thing when I thought she was just toying with you.” Agnimitra said. “But it appears that the matter is more serious than that. I confess I am surprised Varundev. I did not think these Dravids were capable of such attachment.”
“Come now Varundev. I’m not Angdev, blind in my prejudices. But you do know that Dravid Queen’s have the right to take four husbands don’t you? Who is to say you will be the only one in her heart? In her bed?”
“Please do not speak of her in such a way.” Varundev’s voice was restrained, but Agnimitra could hear the fury boiling beneath. “You know nothing of Devsena.”
“And you do?”
“I know the beat of her heart as I know the beat of my own.”
“And yet the establishment of Aryavrat remains your primary goal?”
“Yes. I made that promise to my father, to Veer Kayast, to myself. Devsena understands the sanctity of promises made Purohit.”
“So long as you remember that, I have no issues with this…whatever this is between you and the Dravid Queen.”
“Thank you for your support.” Varundev inclined his head.
Agnimitra shook his in return. “Don’t thank me yet Varundev. I am only one of many- and your fellow Sabhsad’s will not be as easy to convince.”
“It will not be a royal death sentence.” Devsena fought to keep the dismissive tone. It was hard. This was her aunt, who despite everything, had had a hand in raising her and shaping her into the woman she was today. Had it all been a lie?
Looking back at her past, what could Devsena see as a genuine interaction with anyone but her father? Her aunt had been trying to kill her and Hahuma had been lying to her about her mother. All her memories had been tainted. Devsena felt unmoored. But she was a Queen, and wailing was not a luxury she could afford herself. Furthermore, Devsena consoled herself, Varundev was there. Varundev who had broken all the rules of his clan and come and confessed to her. Vaundev who did not have her power, but had the nobility and courage to stand up for his love. And he was like and unlike her. And Varundev understood her, in a way no one, not even her father did.
For how purely good Varundev was, there was a violence in his blood, the same need to fight that pumped through Devsena’s vein. That need, that desire, that kept her alive, day after day.
Varundev, who deserved her wholehearted effort to bring them together in this life.
Devsena did not have his patience. She would rather come together in this life and be with him, than bank on the hope that in their next life they would be one. To make that dream come true, Devsena could not let herself be lost in despair.
“Your Majesty?” Her minister’s voice shook her out of her thoughts.
“Yes, as I was saying,” Devsena continued, “I will not give my aunt a royal death. She is a traitor and will receive a traitor’s death. And if any of her supporters have any arguments, then may find me. And duel me for the right to change my decision.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The minister made to move away, but Devsena’s voice halted her.
“As for Thangam.” The Queen’s voice was thoughtful. “For her sentence, I decree that she will duel to the death. There is a warrior who is waiting for her.”
“It is so strange to have you here in my arms.” Varundev told Devsena as they lay by the side of the lake, under a tree, shadows dappling over their skin. “It feels like a dream.”
Devsena stretched, delighted in the shift in Varundev’s body as he accommodated her. “Do I feel like a dream?”
“Like no other dream I have ever had.” He replied seriously. “If you are a dream, then let me dream again and again, anew and anew.”
“So strange,” She mused, titling to look up at him, “You profess to be a roughspun warrior, but speak more beautifully than any poet I’ve met.”
“What can I say?” Varundev smiled down at her. “You inspire me.”
“As you inspire me.” Devsena sat up, pulling his hands around her waist.
“I have a gift for you.” She whispered, laying back in the circle of his arms.
“There is nothing you could give me that could surpass this.” Varundev murmured into her ear, delighting at the slight shiver he felt.
“Listen to what I say and then decide.” Devsena finally pulled away fully, turning to face him. Varundev arched a brow, sitting forward and waiting for her to speak.
Devsena took a breath and started. “You know that we have recently rooted out some traitors in our government, my aunt among them. What you do not know is that second in command was also implicated. Her name is Thangam.”
“I remember.” Varundev muttered, “Is she the one…”
“That tortured and killed your father? Yes, I believe so. Though of course, Abrook will have to verify that it is her before we move forward.”
Devsena laid a hand on his. “I promised you that you would have an opportunity did I not? This is the opportunity. Varundev I want you to duel Thangam. And I want you to win.”
He grabbed her hands. “I want to. But Devsena…” He bowed over their linked hands. “How will you justify an Aryan being a duelist.”
“It won’t be an Aryan Sabhasad in the ring.” She whispered to him, bridging the gap between them until her breath washed over his lips.
“It will be a Dravidian King.”
And with that solemn vow, she sealed their lips together.
“Its all happening too fast. “ Shivum grumbled. He and Abrook was resting after their spar. Varundev had left, and it was evident to all where he had gone. The stony looks on the ministers and guards of the Dravid encampment had laid truth to where their Queen had gone.
Honestly, didn’t these two idiots understand the meaning of discretion? Subtlety? Restraint?
Oh no, they were in love. Nevermind all that.
Abrook contemplated braining his head on the post. It would be easier than dealing with everything that was going on.
“Our reinforcments will be here in a few days. The Dravid reinforments are also on their way. What are we going to do when both armies get here? Our armies will need supplies. If we don’t attack where will we get the supplies from?” Shivum’s frustration was evident in his tone.
“You talk as if we haven’t been discussing these things. Our armies will fight that is all.”
“Don’t be obtuse Abrook. Even Agnimitra knows that Varundev will not survive a fight with Devsena. If she doesn’t kill him, he’ll kill himself the moment she dies. And then where will we be?”
“Down one Sabhasad while the Dravid rajya will be lost without its Queen.” Abrook countered mildly.
“Not true.” Shivum argued. “They will have their king. And we will have a demoralized army, in addition to a rabid Dravid force looking for revenge. Say what you want but Varundev is loved like few Sabhasad’s before him. The entire army adores him. Even when he sneaks away to go met Devsena, not one of our soldiers will hear one word against him.”
“What do you want me to say Shivum?” Abrook’s voice was weary. “I know all this. It’s a tangle and I’m not sure how to deal with it. I don’t even think Varundev knows.”
“We have to change the way we look at the problem. We think that the Dravid’s must be destroyed for our civilization to flourish. Why? Why should we not assimilate?”
“Give up our culture and identiy?”
Shivum waved away the objection. “The minute we settle we will be doing that. Going from nomads to farmers? How can we not change? The primary goal is survival is it not? Far easier to survive by integrating with an existing population than starting from scratch.”
“You assume the Dravids will be fine with this arrangement.” Abrook pointed out. “When throughout time they have pushed us away.”
“This Queen is different.” Shivum insisted. “She loves Varundev. And her people love her. I’m not saying there won’t be issues, but…”
“Look,” Abrook interrupted, motioning to the forest, from which Devsena and Varundev had emerged.
“Well,” Abrook signed as the two walked towards the Aryan encamplement. The Dravids across the river started moving, coming into the encampment to greet their queen. “At least everything is out in the open now.”
“Don’t be a grumpy old man Abrook.” Shivum noted, walking towards the lovers. “It’s a time for change now.”
“Oh shut up you brat.” Abrook grumbled.
“She cannot do this.” Hahuma ignored how her voice shook. In front of her Ayurvadhan stood still, though the ministers behind him fidgeted nervously.
“She is Queen, Hahuma.” He answered, tone even. “You will find that she can do…many things.”
“The Aryans have ever been our enemies. Their eyes have always been on our lands.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps we believe it because it is what you say.” Ayurvadhan’s voice was cold. He had withdrawn from her council when Devsena had exposed the truth of her mother’s death. Now, he was one of her chief detractors. “After all Hahuma, so long as there is an Aryan threat, the throne of the Dravid’s will always listen to you. Always obey you.”
“Please Your Majesty.” The head priestess stepped forward. “You cannot speak so to Hahuma.”
“My wife is dead.” The old grief flared in Ayurvadhan’s voice. “And under her counsel my daughter would have died as well, Priestess. I do not contest that Hahuma is loyal to the Dravid Rajya. I only say that she will have it never change. What was four hundred years ago cannot be what is now. Hahuma and her views are in the past. Devsena is the furture.”
“And if the future foretells calamity?”
“Devsena too has spoken with Mahishi Devi, Hahuma. I will support my daughter. And when the truth comes out- that you killed Rani Chamundi, then all of the Dravid Rajya will support her too.”
“And what can you do Hahuma?” Devsena’s voice rang out into the chamber. All scrambled and bowed as the Queen walked in. Gasps echoed across the chamber as an Aryan followed. He was tall and handsome, and walked behind Devsena with all the assurgency of a King. He was the one Hahuma had been dreaming of.
“You.” She spit out. “You are the reason for the end of the Dravid Rajya!”
“It is not the end Hahuma.” Devsena smiled, stopping in front of the old woman. “It is merely the beginning of a new kingdom. A new dynasty. One that will be strong as Dravid Rajya, with deep roots. One that will be as swift as the Aryan kingdom, ever able to blow away its enemies. It is a new beginning Hahuma.”
“Devsena, I beg you.” The old woman pleaded. “End this insanity and kill him where he stands!”
“No Hahuma.” Devsena’s voice was resolute. “In another life I would have done as you said. But it is not this life. I will marry Varundev Hahuma. I will integrate the Aryans into our kingdom. And I am not my mother. I will not fall to my death on your say so.”
“And what will you do if she does?” Ayurvadhan’s voice echoed through the chamber. “Devsena has no heirs Hahuma. Dayalini is scheduled for execution- no Dravid will follow a convicted traitor. And without Devsena the Dravid kingdoms will fall to pieces and destroy each other with their squabbles. You have lost.”
“Devi.” The Aryan’s voice was soft, but for all that it impacted Hahuma like a lightning strike. “I promise you my intent is not malicious. I have always been truthful with Devsena. My first promise has been to my ansectors to establish Aryavrat it is true. But since meeting Devsena…since realizing she was my soulmate….I am hers Devi.”
“That does not mean you will not kill her to get what you want.” Hahuma replied coldly.
“And he would die in the next moment.” Devsena’s reply was equally cold. “Hahuma I have engineered circumstances so that neither of us perish, and the Dravid Rajya becomes something greater than itself. I have fulfilled Mahishi Devi’s expectations of me. It is time for you to do the same.”
“You will dictate to me how to serve Mahishi Devi?”
“I think you have served her well all your long life Hahuma. But it is time to rest. When you cannot untwine your views from Mahishi Devi’s….it is time to rest.”
“And who will advise the Dravid Rajya?”
“It is time for us to walk on our own two feet.” Devsena replied confidently. Taking Varundev’s fingers in hers she continued. “Mahishi Devi will guide us Hahuma. We only have to listen.”
“I refuse to be party to this.” Hahuma’s voice was final. “I will seal myself in this cave and when the Dravid Rajya needs me I will awaken. When you come to your senses in your next life Devsena, I will be there. But I will not see you destroy the Dravid Rajya in this life.”
Devsena nodded, eyes thoughtful. Varundev tightened his hold on her hand. “I understand Hahuma. I wish you all luck in your journey. For everything you have done for me….Thank you.”
“Tommorow you will duel Thangam.” She informed him. The attendants had been dismissed and it was just the two of them in her rooms now. Varundev had heard the whispers of the attendants, just as he had heard the whispers of his soldiers and fellow Sabhasad’s. Right now, with Devsena beautiful and glowing in front of him, none of those whispers mattered.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to avenge my father.” He swallowed. “The opportunity to establish Aryavrat. I know I do not deserve you but…”
“Hush.” She laid a finger on his lips. “I decide what I deserve or not and I choose you. My warrior. My lover…”
“Everything I am. Everything I will be. All is yours.” He took her into his arms.
Devsena tugged him to the bed, pushing him down. Varundev exhaled as she straddled him, smiling like a playful nymph.
“Put your secrets in me.” Devsena whispered against his lips. “They will never be let out.”
“I will speak of all to you.”
“And I will speak all my secrets. All my dreams. All my hopes. Until the words burn into you the way your words burned into me.”
Exhaling Devsena lowered herself. Varundev met her halfway.
And only the stars witnessed the union that followed.
Chapter 6: Never an ending, only a beginning
The duel that was supposed to take place at the break of dawn had to be postponed. Her servants had come to wake her up, taken one look at the nude Aryan in her bed, and fled. By the time she had gotten ready the entire palace had been buzzing.
“It is one thing for you to be rumored to have an Aryan lover, another to see him in the flesh!” Her minister shrieked.
“Rumors? Here I thought I had done everything to make the rumors truth.” Devsena replied. Varundev had, by this point, been dressed and eating fruit that had been thoroughly tested. He passed a cut apple to Devsena, who ate it without second thought, ignoring the wince of her minister as she did so.
“People…people do not believe in change so easily, Your Majesty.”
“They have no choice in this matter.” Devsena softened her manner, registering that her minister was distraught. “What I am doing is for the better Minister, I promise you that. We will go through some pains but the rewards will be well worth it. The empire that will rise will be the greatest the world has ever seen, far beyond imagination.”
“I know that it seems a pipe dream.” Varundev added, noticing the now skeptical expression on the woman’s face. “But speaking as someone who has lived only on hope his entire life, Devsena’s plan has many merits and is practical.”
“So far she has only shared her plans with you.” The minister relied quietly. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but this man will not tell you the truth. He wants his people to settle here.”
“Varundev has told me nothing but the truth since we met, including his desire to establish Aryavrat.” Devsena countered. “Minister, if nothing else, as your Queen I ask for your loyalty in this. My family, my bloodline has never let the Dravid Rajya down. I will not be the first Queen to do so.”
“I believe that you believe that, Your Majesty.” The minister bowed “However, your subject Queens are asking for an audience. The duel has to be postponed until their concerns are met.”
“Very well.” Devsena sighed. “I suppose it is better to deal with this now, rather than later.”
“I wonder why you think this is a debate.” Devsena’s patience had finally run out. Ayurvadhan was surprised it lasted this long, but suspected it had something to do with the Aryan that had been standing by her side, periodically placing a hand on her shoulder to calm her down. Unfortunately that same action had resulted in further ire from the subject queens.
“I am Queen. Your Queen. You are my subjects. My bloodline established the Dravid Rajya. And you stand before me today and say I cannot choose my own husband? Choosing our spouses is the basic right of any woman in our Kingdom and that right cannot be denied to anyone.”
“You are not just anyone.” The Queen of Siyal retorted, frustration creasing her features. “As you have said, you are Queen of all Dravids. A Queen cannot marry a foreigner and make him her Chief Husband.”
“Only husband.” Was Devsena’s reply.
The Queen of Siyal took a breath, but the Queen of Pad spoke first.
“Whatever the case may be Queen of Queen’s, the matter remains. This man, this Aryan cannot be our King.”
“And why not? Because you say so?” Devsena’s voice cooled, eyes narrowing in a glare that had the assembled queen trembling.
“Would you prefer we fight the Aryans off our shores?” Devsena purred, moving from her throne towards her subject queens. “When was the last time any of you fought?” She continued, going from Queen to queen. Varundev stood in place, eyes following her intently, ready of any sign of danger. Ayurvadhan approved of his vigilance.
“When was the last time you actually killed a man, instead of shouting at your army from atop an elephant, far far away from the fighting?” Devsena murmured in the Queen of Siyal’s ear. “The last time you cut a man crying for his mother? His wife? His children?” The Queen shuddered. Devsena turned to the Queen of Pad.
“When was the last time you felt the hot spray of blood on your face as you pulled your sword out of a man? When?!” The other queen bowed her head.
Devsena walked back to the throne, Varundev taking her hand. She leaned into his warmth.
“I have seen all that I have described, O’ Queens. I have seen men trying to put their guts back as they went on their knees. I have seen men trying to attach their arms back, crawling without limbs while being stabbed.”
“Nothing good comes for our people if we start a war. There is no goodness, no glory, no honor, no wisdom. War is pain. Futility. Horror.”
Varundev grasped her hand as Devsena shuddered. She leaned into him for a brief moment. He held and faced the assembly.
“I have traveled with my clan my entire life.” Varundev started. “I have fought battles, skirmishes. I had let my men to victory after victory. And I have heard the screams of the dying. I have held enemy soldiers and my own as they passed away in my arms.”
“None of them,” He continued “said that it was an honor to die, a pleasure to go from this world. Those men I held, enemy and friend alike, they died wailing for their mothers. They died howling, crying for one more glimpse of their loved one’s faces. They died screaming, my lords and ladies. They died screaming about how they wanted to live.”
The assembly was so silent you could hear a pin drop. The subject Queen’s faces were ashen. Ayuravadhan’s closed his eyes, not surprised to feel the tears spill over. The agony in Varundev’s voice…it was something he had been familiar with.
As a warrior you were told of the glory of war. But those glorious warriors didn’t tell you what it felt like to sit in a mudpit and see your friends die slowly around you. They didn’t tell you what it was like to hold your childhood friend as he screamed for his mother because most of his bottom half was gone.
Chamundi had saved him in more than one way when she had chosen him as a husband. He had loved her most for her steadfast refusal to go to war at the first opportunity. His heart had shattered when Dayalini had forced war again and again upon the Dravid Rajya.
Perhaps under Devsena it would be different. Would that not be worth marrying an Aryan?
Ayuravadhan opened his eyes to see his daughter and her lover face the still silent assembly.
“If a war comes we will fight, and we will fight for our homeland, for our people. For their safety, their happiness, and their comfort. That is our role as Queens.” Devsena said.
“But nothing is worth starting a war.”
Silence reined in the chamber. Ayurvadhan nodded. His daughter had grown up. Varundev stood tall now, and spoke.
“I promise you, O’Queens, that I will ensure that no Aryan takes from you unfairly, goes against you unjustly, and will work hard to integrate our people. Our two civilizations will flourish like never before.”
“Fair words from a false friend.” The Queen of Pad replied, but the vitriol had seeped away from her tone.
Varundev restrained Devsena, and answered firmly. “Then let me prove my words true.”
“Varundev will prove himself by executing a traitor.” Devsena announced. “He will fight and kill Thangam tomorrow. Will that be proof enough of his loyalty?”
The Queens looked at each other and nodded slowly.
“It will be a start.”
“Did you ever believe that it would come to this?” Shivum asked, shifting in his seat in excitement. Abrook sighed, looking at him in exasperation. By his side Agnimitra and Angdev sat, pretending not to listen.
“I didn’t think that Varundev and the Queen of Dravid’s would fall in love and Varundev would have to prove himself in a duel to the death no.” Abrook grumbled. He paused, then added thoughtfully. “If I had thought about it, I would say that I would have anticipated a duel to the death between Varundev and Devsena, not Varundev and Thamgam.”
“We should be grateful that it is the only blood being shed.” Agnimitra said quietly, eyes focused on the Dravid procession making its way down. “Our warriors will live another day.”
“I don’t think the transition will be easy.” Angdev commented. His grumbling had died down when it became clear where the lay of the land was, but he was far from the only one discontent.
“People dying in rebellions are fewer than people dying in wars.” Abrook told me, standing with the rest as Devsena descended. “Be happy we have men and not corpses to deal with. Or have you forgotten how many men we had to burn after the first battle?”
Devsena took her place, and even to Abrook’s jaded eyes her beauty was undeniable. However, she looked cool and remote, more like a statue to be admired than a living, breathing, woman. Then again, Abrook admitted to himself, that could be his bias talking. Varundev certainly didn’t think of her as a statue. And the way she had acted clearly showed that she had strong feelings underneath that controlled exterior.
In truth, the mingling was going far better than Abrook had expected. Of course, there were dissidents and they were loud, but there were pockets of Dravids and Aryans associating, and socializing well. The women liked the strong men, and the men liked the competent women. Even the Dravid men liked the soft docility of the Aryan woman who had accompanied the main army. And trade had started booming, with black market good and deals already underway.
“Remind me to talk to the Dravid Trade Minister about a treaty after the duel ends.” Abrook whispered to Shivum. “We need to reap the profits soon.”
Below, the duel started.
Its conclusion was certain.
Killing his father’s murderer had quenched the thirst of vengeance Varundev hadn’t even realized had been aflame. Panting slightly, he flicked the blood of the sword. His opponent had fought well, but Thangam was no Devsena. It had taken effort but he had killed her.
Lifting his head, Varundev smiled at the cheers ringing around the arena. The Aryans were cheering him on, of course, but surprisingly the Dravidians were also clapping. He supposed that killing a traitor who would have responsible for a civil war would go some way to endear him to the common people.
The nobility would likely hate him forever.
His eyes caught Devsena’s and his raised his sword towards him in a salute. The crowd roared in response. Devsena smiled back.
No matter. All was right with his world.
“Your marriage rituals are far too sparse for such a grand personage.” The head priestess gritted.
“Our marriage rituals are fine for a nomadic tribe.” Kamdev replied with clenched teeth.
“And yours are far too elaborate. Who needs three days of cleansing?!” Angdev added.
“Leave me out of this.” Abrook told the head priestess as she looked at him. “I’m far too busy trying to keep them separated before the wedding. And may I say that keeping those two away from each other is far harder than planning this insanity.”
“Have some shame!” The Head Priestess bellowed. “Lowly you may be, but you should at least be able to defend our Queen’s virtue!”
“I think both she and Varundev have no virtue left.” Shivum mumbled, walking past, yawing. He had been staying up late the past few weeks trying to waylay Varundev when he left to meet Devsena. He had been unsuccessful each time.
“At least be fully aware of your own Queen’s shameful activities!” Angdev exploded. “She has dragged Varundev into her den of iniquity!”
“He doesn’t need to be dragged.” Abrook mumbled. “Believe me, he is not being dragged. He’s running into that den of iniquity.”
“Do you think they realize that the Queen and Lord Varundev are no longer in the palace?” A servant girl whispered to Shivum. He gulped, and then walked away, tugging her along speedily.
“Let’s not tell them shall we?”
“I wish they would end the stupidity and let us wed already.” Devsena grumbled, cuddling against Varundev’s side. They were both soaked from a swim in the lake- and other activities in the lake as well.
She felt the rumble as Varundev chuckled.
“It is hard enough for them to accept that you are marrying an Aryan. A little fuss is expected.”
“You are far too lenient. Don’t think that your friend hasn’t told me about the two assassination attempts on you Varundev.” Devsena replied, pulling herself up. Varundev sighed, pulling her down again.
“I will never win the respect of your nobles if I don’t show them I am good enough to be by your side. This includes defeating the assassins that they send after me. If they don’t taper off after the wedding, then you may interfere.”
“Because then it will be an attack on the Dravid throne.” Devsena concluded, looking at him shrewdly. “You have been speaking to my father.”
“He has been very helpful in showing me how to conduct myself.” Varundev admitted. “And he has been teaching me about the Dravidian court.”
“Abrook has been the same.” Devsana replied. “He has been very helpful. Even your guru Agnimitra has been helpful.”
“Be careful of him.” Varundev cautioned. “Agnimitra is one of the people that wish to retain our traditions, not mingle. He is trying to influence you.”
“I thought something was strange when he kept talking about Indra.” Devsena mused playfully. “But you need not worry. Once we are married, you will be my shield.”
“And your sword.”
“We will protect each other.”
“Until my last breath.” He whispered against her lips, hands moving down further. “And after that as well.”
“Not even death will part us.” Devsena said back, and those were the last words exchanged for a while.
After many arguments and squabbling, and a memorable duel between Angdev and the Minister for Finance, the wedding finally arrived. Never had the Dravid Rajya seen such opulence and splendor. Even Devsena’s coronation paled in comparison. All the Dravid subject queens had attended, and each Kingdom was represented in the celebration. Devsena was able to introduce Varundev to all aspects of culture and arts in her Kingdom during the celebrations. The Aryans too were a enthusiastic part of the occasion. Horse riding was a major feature of the festivity, though of course, Devsena and Varundev eclipsed all other participants. Even Abrook had a chance to shine during the dancing.
But no one outshone the bride and groom. Devsena was effulgent, her happiness making her glow. Varundev was her match in every way. All at the wedding agreed that while watching a Dravid and an Aryan get married was the strangest thing they had ever witnessed, no one could argue that the bride and groom were not perfectly matched.
Devsena tilted her head back, pressing a kiss to Varundev’s mouth, giggling softly at the scandalized gasps.
“You would think they would learn.” She whispered. Varundev chuckled in response, sweeping her into his arms.
“You will always be a surprise.”
“Even to you?”
Devsena grinned, laughing as Varundev lifted her in his arms. The Aryans and Dravids arrayed around them cheered and threw flowers as the newly wed couple went down the stairs.
“I will always be with you.” She whispered as they both climbed their horses, getting ready to race out.
“In this life and the next and the next.” He promised.
Laughing, they both raced out, two kingdoms celebrating them.
200 years later.
Hahuma, my ancestors have said that in times of turmoil, in the gravest of times we must turn to you. I ask you please, wake up and aid us in our time of need.
Hahuma’s eyes opened as Devsena’s plaintive voice echoed throughout the chamber. She smiled slowly. Hahuma knew that one day Devsena would have called her- she wondered if it was in the first life or another life. Only one way to find out…open the door.
Opening the door did not take a long time. Hahuma wondered again how long it had been again.
“Take me to the Queen.” She said to the soldiers waiting outside.
Going through the old streets of the Dravid Rajya, Hahuma marveled at the changes. Obviously the Aryans had settled well before they sowed their true treacherous roots. Integration was evident all around her. Here and there were temples to Mahishi Devi and the Aryans gods. She could also see new temples for new gods that the two clans had begun worshipping together. Hahuma wondered when the relationships had broken down. Recently she assumed, as Devsena had called her only a little while ago.
“How many years has it been?” Hahuma asked the soldier besides her palanquin.
“It has been almost 200 years.” The soldier replied, ducking his head at her hiss.
“So long…it took 200 years for the Aryans to betray us?”
“The Aryans…? Devi Hahuma…”
“Do not use that Aryan address to me!”
‘Apologies. I will keep my mouth shut until we reach the Palace.”
“Hahuma.” Queen Sambhavija bowed before the venerated woman. “We are very grateful that you listened to my daughters pleas.”
“Where is Devsena? Is she not yet Queen?”
“We are waiting for the marriage ceremony only Hahuma.” Silambhan, Sambhavija’s husband chimed in. Hahuma noted that the man was standing as if he was equal to his wife. How deep had the Aryan rot set in?!
“Marriage ceremony? Who is she…”
“Hahuma.” Devsena’s voice preceded her coming in. Hahuma noted that this incarnation of Devsena was very similar to the previous incarnation she was acquainted with. The only differences lay in manner. This Devsena seemed…more carefree. Dutiful, yet, Hahuma could tell, but without the heavy burden of duty that had so vexed the previous Devsena.
Devsena bowed before her, smiling. Hahuma smiled back. Devsena, no matter what incarnation, charmed her.
“We are so grateful for your assistance Hahuma. We will need your clairvoyance for the upcoming war. Jaldev and I are confident we can win but if we have your visions we can minimize the cas…”
“Who is Jaldev?” Hahuma interrupted the torrent of words.
Devsena blushed as another girl entered the room. She was younger than Devsena, and very vivacious and cheerful.
“Jaldev is Didi’s fiancée.” She said, bowing before Hahuma. “I am Mekhla, Devi Hahuma. I am Didi’s younger sister, the second daughter of King Silambhan and Queen Sambhaviya. Our brother Mani is at the front, with the scouting parties.”
“Fiancée?” Hahuma echoed. “I am glad you have glad you have decided to form ties with another kingdom to counter the Aryan threat.”
“Aryan threat?” Devsena repeated, stunned, and then to Hahuma’s horror, a man looking the same as Varundev walked in. Devsena turned to him, discarding Hahuma immediately and he hurried towards her, taking her into his arms before turning to Hahuma and bowing.
“No.” Hahuma breathed. “How are you here?”
“I am the Princess’s fiancée, Devi.” The man replied. Hahuma did not miss how Devsena kept a hand on him protectively. “My name is…”
“Jaldev, actually.” The man corrected. “Though yes, the priests and priestesses did tell both Devsena and I that were the reincarnations of Maharani Devsena and Varundev.”
“As if we couldn’t tell thanks to the status.” Meklha snorted. “The minute these two saw each other they were completely in love. Poor Mahisha. He had to endure so many beatings before he gave up!”
Hahuma staggered. Silambhan and Sambhvija hurried to support her. She waved them away.
“The Aryans are not the enemy?”
Devsena and Jaldev glanced at each other. “There aren’t really two clans any more.” Devsena said firmly. “Of course there are some groups that have traits but our people have been fully integrated. Jaldev is the son of one of our councilors.”
“A practice derived from the Aryan sabhasads. The first Devsena and Varundev integrated them into the government of the Dravid Rajya.”
“Then who is the enemy?” Hahuma asked, finally sitting down. Devsena and Varundev knelt before her.
“The mountain clans.” Jaldev answered. “They have been harassing us on and off for the past 200 years. But they have now amassed an army. We are confidence we can win, but the casualties will be far too numerous. We must work to minimize the damage to our people.”
“And so you called me.” Hahuma bowed her head. “Tell me, when I went to sleep, were there any problems?”
“Of course.” Devsena said. “Queen Devsena and King Varundev had to fight numerous duels throughout their lifetime. Their children had to put down many rebellions. And of course the religious arguments…but the clans did integrate. There are fights here and there, people who trump hatred here and there but overall…”
“You are an integrated Kingdom.” Hahuma said wearily.
“Yes.” Jaldev said firmly, hand holding Devsena’s firmly. Hahuma’s eyes fell onto the intertwined pair, and she remembered their first incarnations. Even those two had been unable to keep their eyes off each other.
I miscalculated Hahuma thought. I thought the Dravid Rajya needed to be triumphant above all. I didn’t realize that that did not always mean subjugation.
Mahishi Devi was right to speak to Devsena.
I was wrong.
“I am so glad that Hahuma decided to help.” Devsena told Jaldev, sitting beside him.
“Yes, the 200 year old nap seems to have helped.” Her fiancée replied cheerfully. Devsena hit him playfully.
“Don’t joke! I am so relieved. Bhai can also come back without any problems now.”
“Yes, your brother.” Jaldev grumbled. “Along with his very handsy best friend.”
“Don’t sulk.” Devsena chided. “You know Mahisha is no threat to you.”
“Strutting peacock.” Jaldev grumbled.
“Hush.” Devsena soothed, pressing a kiss to Jaldev’s mouth. Jaldev deepened the kiss, both tumbling onto the bed.
“I’m yours. I have been yours. I will be yours.”
“And I am yours.”
Devsena grinned as Jaldev pressed her into the bed. Hahuma had agreed to help them. Her brother was returning. Her people would be saved.
The world was bright.
And most importantly, Devsena knew, at the end of the day, where her and Jaldev’s hearts lay. There was no higher calling than each other.
“Our love has no ending.” She whispered against his lips and he moved above her.
“Only an aarambh.”