Here is another part of my historical novella/novel of sorts:
Lieutenant Harihar paced up and down uncomfortably, gripping his spear in his hand. His leather flak jacket stuck to his back as he sheltered himself as best as he could from the driving rain. He looked maybe once or twice at the man next to him.
“Tell me how we can do this Kesari,” he began, “when we can’t even get word out of Commander Brahmarajan and his forces. The men are not ocmfortable about holding this fort either, and I hardly think Prince Vikramabahu could have any way of commanding his troops out of Rohana so quickly.” Kesari had no answer, but he just looked out into the rain that beat against the battlements. Some of the guards had unfurled umbrellas to keep them safe and to keep the wind chill off them they wrapped large cloaks around themselves. Some of them had hoods covering their heads.
Harihar looked at the guards once more.
“You, man!” he shouted at the soldier closest to him. The soldier sneezed loudly and cleared his throat as he nervously moved closer.
“I want you to spread the word. Get a message out to whoever went off north last evening. I don’t care if it’s hard riding in this weather, I need word of Brahmarajan’s movements, and how soon the Governor of Rajarata can send soldiers to the Dhakkinadesha border. I just”-he sighed loudly, hands behind his head as he craned his neck out-“need to win this. If we’re holed out here and the Sinhalese get here, it’ll get ugly pretty quickly.” The man nodded and ran away. He moved among the other guards, spreading the message.
“Kesari,” Harihar continued, “most of these men are young, new and have never seen the realities of battle. If anything should happen to them, I’ll probably feel worse than anybody else feels, really. Kesari my dear friend, if anything, we must talk to them again.”
“And that will do them any good?”quizzed Kesari. Harihar turned suddenly. Kesari was looking at him with a strange sort of expression in his eyes. Doubting, for some reason, although Harihar had originally seemed pretty confident with his suggestion. He searched his friend’s eyes again, but quickly turned away with a sigh.
He walked away to the shelter of the watchtower. A staircase led downwards into the very middle of the fort, and opened out again into the courtyard at last.
That fort was a real menace.
You could get lost in there pretty easily.
Harihar saw some of the soldiers around him, going about their business in the normal way.
Polishing weapons, making friends, stretching and exercising, loosening their muscles for the battles that lay ahead. All of it was restlessness and jitters.
“I know how you all feel,” he breathed gently, passing them to get to his quarters.
The only one who looked up was Sivapalan. He had been running his sword against his dagger, sharpening the whole length of it as he expertly swung it in an arc above his head, seeming as graceful and balletic in action as he almost always did to Kush. The effect was heightened by his wet hair, which he had the tendency to toss like it was a horse’s tail or a young woman’s great length of hair. Apparently, Harihar had seen him going through his little theatrics and smiled slightly as he retired to his area.
Kush then turned to him.
“I’m starting to wonder what I’m doing here, Sivapalan,” he began, moving towards his friend but trying to avoid the muddy puddles that were forming nearly everywhere. Sivapalan rolled his eyes.
“Oh please don’t start this again.”
“I mean, I told you I wanted to see Lanka, and here it is! This is not the Lanka of my father, and that….that hurts me.”
“Even a verse out of place in a poem hurts you but I read it anyway”-he looked rather doubtfully at his friend, hand on his shoulder-“but never mind. This is a battle, you are a visitor. Just keep it that way, and you’ll survive.” He looked down for an instant, seeing a small bronze figurine on the ground. His little Ganesh. The small, elephant-headed, plump-bodied deity had the gentlest eyes that Sivapalan had ever seen, and he touched the head of the statue reverently. Kush often wondered as to why the soldiers around him and the soldiers of all those southern kingdoms had to go through all that ritual. You can’t pray and kill with the same hands, after all. At least it was what he’d always been told. Sivapalan kept holding onto the Ganesh figurine.
If only I could do the same….with a slightly downturned head, he walked away reluctantly.
As if by a cue from nature, Kush raised his head slowly.
Flocks of water birds, possibly egrets, were flying in formation from the south.
Feeling a bad vibe coming on, he ran up the staircase and onto the battlements, cloak over his head and shoulders.
As he ran up, he spotted the other guards braving the terrible northeastern monsoon that chilled them to the bone. More and more birds flew in the skies above them. The soldiers were whispering quietly as a mounted patrol was dispatched.
“Probably to warn our men out on the field,” one of them said to the other as he rudely pushed past Kush. “Here.” He handed a conch shell to one of his companions, and continued, “I have a bad feeling that the enemy will be upon us soon. Normally, this sort of quietness is unusual, you know. I have a feeling that something might happen, and it might happen quite fast.”
The other soldiers laughed. “Have you been reading too many poems and epics then? All that thrill going through to your head?” “I am serious!” The first soldier’s teeth were gritted as he snapped at them, passing out more shells. Some archers also began filing out onto the walls. Very soon, it became crowded, as the men jostled for the right positions to take. There would be no flaming arrows or any sort of fire to do extra damage to the enemy. The rain, however, showed some signs of ease. Visibility was better. However, everybody was antsy while waiting for the inevitable.
A few men, all heavily armed, began to ride out as well.
Grim and stern, they rode out in all directions, forming a deadly perimeter all around the fort. The Chola flag, that beautiful banner emblazoned with its snarling tiger, battled against the vicious rain, trying desperately to keep itself, and the spirits of the men, up. Sivapalan seemed to take the cue. He busied himself with his strap armor, helmet and weapons as he joined his comrades. Gradually, most of the soldiers started riding out and branching away, conch shells, swords, spears and shields all in their hands.
After all, these men needed to be ready for anything, even the smallest surprise.
A conch blew hard, followed by some more. They had a pattern, and it seemed like there would be something happening after all.
Harihar himself was still inside, struggling with his arms and armor.
“Kesari,” he told his friend, “look, this may be a false alarm, but we need to prepare for whatever our enemy can throw at us. Rally the troops! And fast!” He looked around his quarters. The desk, strewn with calculations and battle formations, all those decisive maneuvers he’d been planning out if they had to face an elephant brigade, an outline of the legendary Chakravyuha formation, drilling and exercise schedules for the soldiers, lists of supplies, everything. His personal assistant, a boy of no more than fifteen, looked at Harihar, while his old secretary glanced once more out of the window at the rain that still drummed without rhythm against the stone walls. Kesari’s eyes were on the small, carven wooden statues that Harihar had placed on his desk. Kali, the vicious female warrior with many heads and weapons, caught performing her mad dance of destruction and death. Beside it was a garlanded Durga astride her lion. And, beside both of them was a small bronze thimble, or something like it.
It was filled with incense.
However, Kesari saw Harihar light two small joss sticks as well, pushing them gently into another little ornament of transparent, but slightly etched glass, possibly from Gandhara, or even from the area of Bamiyan in the far, far west.
He then looked grimly at his friend, and put his hands together.
The two warriors uttered a silent prayer.
They felt their hearts lifting with the soft tones of their words, old Tamil hymns and thevarams that they’d learned when they were very, very young. Even the secretary, and the young boy, began to pray. The silent chants of “Om” went on for a while, and when the warriors arose, their eyes seemed to glimmer with a very soft light, a light that showed inevitability, or a sense of understanding and enlightenment. Harihar looked up at his friend, and then looked at his secretary.
Clapping the old man on the back, he said softly, “Sundara Rajaram my friend, I don’t know if there will be an attack or whether there won’t be one. If I die, please, I wish to be cremated in my beautiful home of Gangaikonda, not on this alien soil. And please, tell my father I am sorry. I promised him that I would be there for as long as I could. And Kesari, old friend, we’ve seen ourselves through a great deal, and let’s make this one good fight to remember!” He embraced his friend tightly.
“I’ll always ride with you Harihar,” replied Kesari warmly. Both of them put on their helmets and walked out.
Conch shells blew in the distance.
The Sinhalese army had come from Rohana, and they had come in force.
From his post up on the wall, Harihar watched intently as Kesari rode out to join the perimeter guards. They had their spears out, shields at the ready, all drawn for a brutal fight. They waited. Harihar himself kept his body in motion as he picked up a large, unattended bow and strung it expertly, looking like the noble Prince Rama at the city of Mithila, only difference being that the bow didn’t break and there was no divine light in the skies. Sivapalan himself looked up as he stationed himself at the left wing of the fort, ready to defend against anybody who came his way. He was surrounded by good, faithful, and powerful men, but was that all that would take to win this battle? After all, this fort was pretty huge.
All those ramparts, all those walkways and battlemented keeps and watchtowers and moats here were covered. The walls of the stone structure were huge and thick too, so what could go wrong?
He was thinking of a hundred things, but he was not going to run away.
Gritting his teeth and straining his eyes, spear ever at the ready. Just next to its head was the little Ganesha figure, tied there with a length of string. The other soldiers were in similar positions, muscles tensed for action, teeth gritted as they steadied themselves for the attack. The perimeter guards were still skirting around on their horses, restless as ever, as the conch shells grew louder in the distance.
The sound of thunder filled the air, boiling it fiercely as the perimeter rode out bravely to counter the front lines of a vast Sinhalese cavalry that valiantly rode towards them. Kesari steadied himself on his horse, as the Rohana soldiers unified into a large mass, their huge spears and lengthy, lance-like cavalry swords sticking out to impale the first careless Chola horseman they saw. Sivapalan and the rest of the foot soldiers could see what was going on.
Kesari was commanding his men to keep pushing the massive cavalry back to the plains beyond, trying to distract them by branching off and tearing through the Sinhalese ranks. All the while, he was flanked on all quarters by rows upon rows of expert horsemen. In fact, now almost the entire perimeter had broken away from the fort and was engaging the Sinhalese on all sides, launching surprise attacks and speedy strikes and trying to keep them from reaching the structure.
Yet, the soldiers from Rohana still held on with tenacity that the Cholas had never, ever seen before. And some of these men came from Chera, the old kingdom of Rastrakuta, all over South India. So many, in fact, were skewered on the gigantic blades of the enemy troops as they did their best to contain them.
They all saw that Kesari was having a hard time too.
Some of the Sinhalese warriors had actually begun riding towards the front wall of the fort, flinging their spears towards any perimeter guards who were defending it. Now, finally, Harihar stepped out as he watched the defense being slaughtered mercilessly. He paced up and down, clapping each of his soldiers on the back as he waited for the right moment. The Sinhalese had not come close enough yet.
“The guards can’t hold them off!” he snarled through gritted teeth, at which the archer nearest to him raised his bow.
Harihar was clear and quick with the command.
Just then, one of his other lieutenants came running up.
“Commander Harihar, we are setting up more men as perimeter defense right now. But I fear that these people will unleash their elephants upon us,” he said without hesitation, “so do you think we should counter that? You know, send them running?”
“Send this lot running? No, I don’t think we can make anyone run here. These people from Rohana are always a vicious lot, all with terrible tempers. When it comes to battle, they really send the enemy licking his wounds. However, I don’t think Vikramabahu himself is with them.”
“Oh?” The subordinate looked puzzled.
“Haven’t you heard? Prince Vikramabahu is at Devinuwara at the extreme south of Lanka. Or at least, somewhere out there. Anyway, the situation in Rohana itself is rather tense, with no clear ruler. As far as we know, he’s the only one trying to break away from our Emperor’s rule. That doesn’t mean that his commanders are bad though. These men here”-he breathed hard, looking out at the field as he steadied his bow, putting an arrow to it-“seem to have a crack general, that’s for sure.”
The Sinhalese cavalry was now demolishing almost the entire defense as Kesari spun round and round, swinging his sword at whomever he saw.
The lieutenant beside Harihar, however, was jittery while watching the battle as the enemy infantry started surging towards the front wall.
“Sir!!! We won’t be able to reach the gates in time!” shouted the lieutenant.
“Sir….Commander, we have a clear shot!” He picked up a bow and some arrows as well. The enemy was dangerously near the fort now, and the defending infantry was starting to take up position. They had gotten into formation with their spears and shields facing forwards, a deadly wall that could push towards the enemy at any moment.
A few moments passed…
Then came the long-awaited command.
“Archers at the ready….LOOSE!!” Harihar’s roar jumpstarted the men on the wall, and a rain of arrows fell on the enemy soldiers. Again and again the archers fired while the Chola infantry engaged themselves against the Lankans, pushing their whole column outside, spears meeting flesh at last.
The men heaved for breath as they kept on charging the front lines of the enemy infantry, although finally, all that pushing from the front had begun to force the relatively small number of defenders right back. Harihar, and his subordinates were just about to get down from the walls when they spotted a massive branch of the enemy force breaking away. He was confused, but then he saw where they were going. “They’re….they’re going to pick Brahmarajan’s troops off one by one! Oh, by the serpent of Siva, Kesari!! Kesari! I…” He was struggling to get down as he tried to imagine the brutality of the massacre that lay ahead for his comrades. However, he picked himself up quickly, just enough to intercept an attack by a foolhardy, rather young Lankan soldier. The man swung his sword, screaming loudly at Harihar, but the latter dodged the attack smartly and stabbed him in the belly. Harihar then ran, slashing his way through the gathering throng of Sinhalese soldiers as he spotted his own men gathering and standing together against the ceaseless waves that shot past them. The archers still shot the enemy down.
Harihar tried to consider the odds they were facing.
Obviously, his men were outnumbered hopelessly, and there was absolutely no way of warning Brahmarajan either.
Dispatching a messenger would take too long, wouldn’t it? But there had been no sign of Kesari….
Sivapalan felt like he was in a sweaty, heavily-armed box as he and his men pushed forward. Once or twice, his weapons met his enemies, but other than that, much of his mind was working overtime on everything else. The wet earth made it hard to keep their balance, and the ground was an unpleasant mix of blood and mud. Accidents happened everywhere, as men slipped and slid, sloshing through the puddles as they struck one another. It was all a confusing mix of Aryan and Dravidian bodies, sometimes brutally injured, sometimes in peak condition, with absolutely no wounds at all.
Already, the dead lay torn and bloodied around the living.
This made Sivapalan retch, almost. Was this the reality of war?
Where was the glory of the sudden charge across no man’s land, the shouts to the gods for good luck in battle? Where were the heroes of Kurukshetra, the avatars of the deities who’d fought tooth and nail alongside men? Where were the thunderous blasts of the conches that announced the arrival of the heroes? Arjuna, flanked by the blue-hued Krishna, Bhima, Abhimanyu…great Rama himself in his flying chariot with the great Hanuman at his side? The gods had walked among men, the gods had given men good fortune, but those days were no more. It seemed to Sivapalan that the Kali Yuga, the unholy eons, were set in full upon his world, and all the blood, sweat, spit and mud had been sprayed in his face itself.
Not all deaths were quick.
Some of the men groaned in terrible agony as they fell, broken and twisted, trampled underfoot by comrades and adversaries alike.
This was NOT war…or was war always sugared up and forced down his throat for all these years? Why had Krishna, armed with his ever-faithful chakra, not come to his aid, and preached to him the Gita when his friend Arjuna felt afraid? There were no special weapons, and these soldiers were destined to be forgotten by history.
This fort itself would be lost in the memories of the people. Nobody would know about what had happened here.
Neither would anybody know him, or Harihar, or Kesari or even his father…
But at least the voices around him seemed to.
The terrified, and terrifying screams of his comrades as they were sliced into pieces all around him. Some of the mace-wielders managed to crush some Lankan skulls, but there was the factor of numbers playing constantly against the Chola side. However hard he fought, edging further away from the left wing, he seemed to feel weaker and weaker. Where were his martial arts now? In the heat of battle, everything was a bloody, speedy blur that sometimes took him almost completely by surprise. However, in all the wrestling and dueling matches he’d taken part in, nobody had really wanted to kill him at all. Sivapalan felt his spear grow heavy in his hands as his blood and his rage, boiled within him, turning into a storm of viciousness and blind rage as he swung his spear around, whacking his enemies in the face with its shaft, and driving its head deep into their vulnerable areas.
He looked at his handiwork every time he stabbed.
Blood ran down their faces and their torsos as his spearhead dug deeper and deeper.
“Face it,” he gasped as his weapon grew heavy in his hands, and his muscles tensed from all that action, “this is life. You’re in the army now.”