Extract from The Aryavarta Chronicles Book 3: Kurukshetra
Syoddhan sat on a well-rounded rock; examining the armour that Dron had given him during the war. Wright-metal. The armour of Indra himself… With a sigh, he cast it aside and resumed his activity of throwing pebbles into the glimmering lake. ‘Why did you come here?’ he asked the tall warrior who stood nearby. ‘Because I owe you my allegiance.’ ‘And what would you want your liege-lord to do now, Asvattama? Fight at your side? Make a last stand?’ ‘But of course!’ Syoddhan laughed, the sound hollow. ‘No, what’s the point of doing that?’ ‘But…’ ‘I’m no coward, Asvattama. I just don’t see any reason you should die… Aryavarta needs men like you, brave men who can defend it. There is no point in you wasting your life… Go to Hastina and offer your assistance to my father; there is much to be done. Whether you will serve Dharma or not is your choice, but for now, I still am the ruler of this realm. Help me care for my people.’ ‘What do you mean, Syoddhan?’ ‘I’ve asked Dharma and his brothers to meet me here, so that I can speak with them. It’s best you go now.’ ‘And? What would you have me tell Kritavarman and Uncle Kripa? That I ran away, leaving you here alone?’ ‘Tell them that you followed your king’s orders. I mean it, Asvattama, I order you to go!’ ‘Syoddhan, please…’ ‘Go!’ Defeated, Asvattama acquiesced. ‘All right.’ ‘Wait!’ Syoddhan chuckled as the other man turned back, hope alight in his eyes. He then turned grim. ‘Have you any news of Sanjaya?’ ‘No, but I promise you, Syoddhan, I’ll slit his throat as soon as I see him, the murdering scum.’ ‘And add to my sins of fratricide? First Vasusena, now Sanjaya…’ He shook his head. ‘It’s bad enough they’ve spent their lives deprived of their right as princes… No, Asvattama, promise me that Sanjaya won’t be harmed.’ ‘But why? After all that he has done…’ ‘He had his reasons. In his place, I might have done the same. We deprived him of his rightful status, we drove him to empathize with what he’d been taught was the dark stain upon his family – his great-grandmother and his grandmother, both Firewrights, both women of courage and defiance. He served the Vyasa, yes, but in his heart Sanjaya has always been a Wright… Did you know this?’ Syoddhan asked Asvattama. ‘I suspected as much. Especially about his great-grandmother… And when he turned up at Hastina with Devala in tow there was no longer room for doubt. For what it’s worth, Syoddhan, it would not have changed anything between us. Even…’ he hesitated under the weight of his own admission, before saying, ‘Even the Secret Keeper could not change anything between us.’ ‘I know. You make me think that the Wrights can’t be half as bad as the Firstborn made them out to be… Or will you still give us your old line, that you are an Angirasa but not a Firewright!’ The two friends laughed together for the last time, their voices ringing through the woods around them. ‘I needed that…’ Syoddhan confessed. Standing up, he embraced Asvattama for what he knew might be the last time. ‘Go now, before Dharma arrives… I want to do this alone.’ Asvattama bowed deep, as he would only before the greatest of men. ‘Rudra protect you, my king,’ he wished Syoddhan and walked into the woods. Syoddhan could hear Asvattama untie his horse and ride away. Still smiling, he sat down again at the lake’s edge and continued to entertain himself with the pebbles, watching the dancing ripples on the water’s surface with all the wonder of a child. After a while, he heard footsteps followed by a hushed exchange. ‘There he is.’ ‘Maybe it’s a trap?’ ‘No,’ Govinda’s familiar voice affirmed, as he emerged from the woods into the small glade. Syoddhan was filled with joy as he recognized the man who just behind Govinda. ‘Balabadra!’ Syoddhan was on his feet, bowing low to his mentor. Balabadra was lost for words, but the anguish on his face said it all. Syoddhan, however, was less dismayed. He said, ‘Come now. It is time your student made you proud. I shall live through this with honour or die with dignity. Either way, victory is mine!’ He smiled at Govinda, who nodded at him in greeting but otherwise remained impassive. Then Syoddhan went forward to meet Dharma, but paused, surprised to see Panchali and her brothers. Syoddhan found himself thinking of the day of Dharma’s coronation decades ago, of the few words he and Panchali had shared by a sparkling pond with its exquisite fountain. For the first time he noticed how she looked much like she had that day. Her eyes were still the same haunting, hypnotic ones he remembered from the archery contest at Kampilya, but her bearing had become wiser, stronger, slightly cruel, as an Empress ought to be. With a wistful smile, Syoddhan turned away from her to adress Dharma. ‘So, my brother, let us end this where it all began, generations ago…’ Dharma was unimpressed. ‘I see. You’ll now lay the blame on our forefathers, will you?’ He glanced around him, and said, ‘Ah yes, the barren tract that was once a riverbed. All that remains of life here is this small lake. Yes, a memorable place for Firewright and Firstborn both. But I fail to see what it has to do with you, Syoddhan.’ ‘Never mind,’ Syoddhan waved it aside. ‘You once asked me to make peace with you and I refused. I can’t expect you to believe that I had little choice but to refuse or that I have wanted nothing more than peace, with all my heart. Now I have nothing left to restrain me, neither friend nor enemy… And so, Dharma, I ask you now for peace. Peace on any terms you want. Aryavarta is yours, and you are its lawful Emperor. Take anything, everything you want…’ Dharma opened his mouth to say something but Syoddhan held up a hand and continued, ‘Those I fought for, those who I hoped would rule this earth and revel in its pleasures, are dead. I have nothing to live for, nothing to fight for.’ Dharma was enraged. ‘How dare you presume I’d take what you throw to me as though I were a beggar? I will win this Empire from you in fair battle, and over your lifeless body!’ ‘Fair, you say?’ Balabadra interceded. ‘If you truly mean that, Dharma, then allow Syoddhan to rest. You know that he held your men back, single-handed, yesterday. He is tired and wounded and in no position to duel.’ Dharma then turned on Balabadra. ‘Why should I show this scum, this smear on the honour of my family, any pity? What pity did he show us when we begged from him but five villages in the cause of peace? What kindness did he show us, when we stood forsaken by our own at the dice game? What mercy did he show Panchali when Dussasan dragged her into the assembly by her hair? That insult was but partly avenged with the spilling of Dussasan’s blood, but today it shall be complete.’ Balabadra made to retort, but Syoddhan rested his hand on his teacher’s shoulder to restrain him. ‘Balabadra asked for justice and fairness, not pity and mercy. Neither he nor I are cowards to grovel at your feet, Dharma. If you wish to settle this in battle, so be it. I am ready. As you can see, my armour lies on the river bank, and I stand before you with nothing but my sword and mace…’ A dismayed Balabadra appealed in silence to Govinda, and hesitation and doubt flickered across Dharma’s face. But Govinda said nothing. He simply crossed his arms over his chest and stood where he was. Balabadra’s nostrils flared, but he held his temper in check. Taking his speechlessness for assent, Dharma nodded at Bhim, who got set for battle, though not without some hesitation. ‘The mace?’ he asked Syoddhan ‘The mace,’ Syoddhan said with an affectionate look at Balabadra, ‘just like in the old days…’ ‘And I remain stronger than you, Syoddhan, just like it was in the old days,’ Bhim declared. The others backed away, letting the two warriors have the sandy lakeside tract for their arena. Then with a great cry, Bhim fell on his opponent, dealing what could have been a killing strike. Syoddhan deftly stepped away and used the opportunity to land a few blows on Bhim, from the side. ‘And I,’ he said, ‘remain more skilled than you. Just like it was in the old days!’ The statement rankled Bhim. He spun around, swinging his adamantine mace at Syoddhan’s skull. The sheer force of his move made the others move back further, giving both combatants a wider space. This time, Syoddhan did not dodge, but brought his weapon up to repel Bhim’s. He nearly lost his balance with the move, but was well rewarded for his attempt as Bhim took a hit on the face. Syoddhan paused as the ensuing cut on Bhim’s left temple bled profusely into his eyes, distracting him. Bhim wiped away the blood even as Dharma shouted at him to move in quickly. Ignoring Dharma’s shouts, Bhim faced Syoddhan. ‘Ready?’ ‘Ready.’ -------------- FIRST excerpted on dnaindia.com Excerpted with permission from The Aryavarta Chronicles 3: Kurukshetra, Krishna Udayasankar, Hachette India