Jayampati stood at the head of the bed while the doctor and his assistants worked away at a herbal mix. Plants and leaves were massacred under the weight of a granite grindstone in the corner. The keen, skeletal hands of the doctor unwound the bandage that Rudran had slapped onto his head to stop the bleeding.
The boy tried his best to hold the contents of his stomach within him as the bloodied cloth was flung to the ground. The massive gash carved into the soldier’s head was deep enough to have killed almost any other man. He must have his gods on his sides, but still, blood and pus ran down his face in torrents, mixing with the stale sweat that ran down his as he groaned.
“He is in pain, but all we need to do is clean this wound and re-bandage it to stop the blood flow. He’ll have to stay here, son,” the doctor told Jayampati knowingly. “Under no circumstances must he be aroused before that.”
Rudran cut in. “No miracle cures, eh?” he grunted with a mix of sarcasm and derision. The doctor looked at him with a wry smile. “If you want to pray a little for your health, you’d better go to a temple. Those have hospitals too, just more high profile since the bhikkus run those. We’re just independent practitioners. But anyway, I don’t think even Shiva himself could extend his healing touch over something like that”-the doctor gestured to one of his apprentices to bring the mix-“so that’s why we’re here. I’m not a mere village doctor, you see. I don’t go about believing in demons and holding exorcisms and the like. Guess it’s just the skeptic in me.”
He folded up a clean cloth, slightly coated in a green mash of plants, and started to reach into the depths of the wound. Blood and grit came away, but Rudran still winced slightly. The doctor looked questioningly at him.
Seeing his concern, the soldier replied, “It’s alright, venerable sir. I have experience with the army doctors. Of course”-he gasped slightly-“one never really gets used to this. Surgery, now that, well…we fear the surgeon’s knife more than our enemy’s sword to be honest!”
“Which brings me into this conversation. Tell me, how exactly can we trust you, sir?” Jayampati leaned heavily against the wall facing the bed. “Because something’s been gnawing at me. You claim to be from Pandyadesha, in Tamilakkam. Of course, last I checked, you Pandyans were under the Chola yoke for a while now. Who are you, really? Because your story doesn’t convince me. Actually”-he scratched his head momentarily-“I never know whom to believe any more. the Angampadi Brigade itself is under the invader. This is enemy territory I’m living in. There are plenty of Chola offices and forts in the Mahiyangana region and its hinterland. Sinhalese and Tamils alike are under them. So far, you are Tamil, and that means-“
“My dear boy, may I kindly remind you not to stress the patient out? It doesn’t matter who he is. To me every man can become infirm, so that in itself, is an equalizer. Now please, join your companions, and leave my patient to me.”
Jayampati pursed his lips at the doctor’s words, but with a slight nod, he walked out. He distinctly heard the old man muttering something distinctly related to the Buddha-or some other sage-but decided to ignore it.
His friends sat outside on an old stone medicine trough. It was truly a wonderful piece of work, or had been, until it had been broken. This was probably something that dated back to Lanka’s golden age, but time had not been kind to it. The distinctly canoe-like granite object was weathered through centuries of heavy rain.
Saliya was first to intercept him.
“So what’s our next move?”
“Next move? What are you jabbering about?” grumbled Jayampati, kicking a small stone as he approached them.
“I mean, about our guest. What are you thinking Jayampati?”
“Well, my suspicion is that he could be almost anyone, but…what if his story checks out? What if he really is on our side?”
“Whoever he is,” cut in Devaka, “taking him to Mahiyangana would be our best move. We’re just a bunch of boys. What do you expect us to do? We hand him over to the governors, and we’ll be done. Maybe he can be sent off to Rohana to meet the king. Or to Rajarata. Either way, it isn’t our business.”
“We found him, so we are responsible for him. Nobody needs to know, alright? I don’t want us to be caught up in some political conspiracy,especially not at a time like this. Plus, think about his fate. If he’s our ally, the Cholas will just torture and kill the man. Same thing will happen if Rohana gets to hear about him. If not, well, then they get their man back.”
The other boys looked at him questioningly.
“Look, see, if he is indeed an enemy spy, we don’t know how much information he has. He’s too valuable to be lost, especially if he has something that’ll help the Chola forces take down Rohana! So we keep him close and keep our eyes on him. He’ll be at my house. He’s obviously too well built to pass off as a poor Tamil villager who got caught in the crossfire, and besides, since my father’s away, his whole no Tamils attitude won’t be a problem. Let him be who he claims to be. That way he’ll be more comfortable.”
“So we babysit this fool,” snorted Saliya. “Great.”
Jayampati nodded solemnly. Then he stiffened, and a vicious flame burned in his eyes.
“But the minute he tries something suspicious…we kill him. Or die trying.”
“Dashrath, Devaka, Saliya,” said Jayamptai as he immersed himself in again, “I know what you want to ask me, and the answer is no. There’s no way you’re joining the army just to be next to me. I don’t need personal bodyguards.”
A murmur passed among the boys. His three friends looked intently at him as his piercing eyes. He tried to turn away but theirs was an inescapable gaze. He looked at them as well; these boys were so different from one another. Saliya, tall, thin and dark-skinned, his slender neck topped with a longish face and well-formed cheekbones but always bearing a sad although beautiful smile. This was not a fighter who’d last that long against a powerful opponent. Then again, he was an expert when it came to horses.
Devaka, though shorter, was broad-shouldered and looked heavier. He was much more muscular; no doubt his own father’s lessons with yoga had toned him well. Being a noble, his father being a retired purohita no less, had plenty of advantages.
There was always plenty of money coming into their accounts and the money was put to good use by Devaka.
Tutors and gurus flocked his house.
There was no shortage of women either.
One could also see in Devaka’s sharp eyes and almost hawk-like gaze, the look of a predator, hungry for his enemy’s blood. Not a proper fighter of any sort, but he would probably be the first to race onto the battlefield given the chance.
Jayampati had to admit, he saw himself in Dashrath’s eyes, quite broad and strong as opposed to being so well chiseled.
Yet the latter was taller, somewhere close to six feet in height, with predominantly short black hair. A short mustache framed his upper lip, and he had puffy eyelids, thus making him look older than his nineteen years. Perhaps it was due to being married off so young and hating his young wife. All Dahsrath did was smile at the flirtatious young thing, nothing more. He often wished that his accountants could keep his money well hidden from her claws. “I’ll probably end up wasting away in the army I guess,” he grunted, a small smile on his face. “I guess I’m a realist. But why do you need to go to war?”
“It’s…my way of knowing the suffering of my father and brothers, Dashrath.”
“Or is it because all you Buddharaja men became commanders at some point? At least some of you?” It struck a cord in Jayampati.
Dashrath continued, “You do want some sort of glory to be bestowed on you, don’t you Jayampati? I can see it in your eyes. Do what you will to deny it, but I’ve known you for ten years. Nothing”-he folded his arms across his big chest-“escapes me anymore.”
It was perfectly true that his family had served the royal House of Lambakanna for as long as he could remember. They were always soldiers after all, senapatis and adhikaras of the highest caliber. He had heard of how his great-grandfather had tried to incite rebellion after rebellion against the corrupt monarchs of his time. Anuradhapura had long since fallen, but Vikramabahu, ruler of Rohana, was the last of the great dynasty, a line over nine centuries old.
Maha Sri Buddharaja…Adhikari Buddharaja…Lankadhikara Buddharaja…titles.
But what of it?
They had all perished, prestigious though they were.
“Maybe I want to bring back our honor…” He bit his lip as he stared at Dashrath. “Adhikari Jivaka Buddharaja…”
“Your great-grandfather, yes…”
“…was he last to be a great commander. Granted, he didn’t live during the best of times but he was still something. The last great soldier left in the army. So you see, all of you, this is my job alone. I want to be with my family, so that I can do something about this war!” His smile turned into a terrifying grin as his eyes widened with a sudden thirst for blood. “I’ve cried enough! I’m done regretting. I will be the greatest commander this country has ever known! I”-his fist pounded the surface of the water-“will massacre a thousand men if I have to, if only I can grab hold of my rightful place at the top. Nobody will stand in my way. So no, I don’t require any of you by my side.”
Rudran groaned as he gazed out at the boys.
“You are indeed interesting, young man.”
He hoped that he was loud enough, but he had too much spit at the back of his throat. Loudly, his cleared it out as he edged towards them. He winced for a few minutes but did not look where he was going, and stubbed his toe against a submerged root. Finally, Rudran roared in pain, and this had the desired effect.
“Help me!” he shouted again, swishing his arms through the water. “Please, do a kindness to an injured man!” Rudran staggered out, and stood in the middle of the waterway. His shoulders sagged due to the effort, and he quivered slightly, sweat pouring down his body. Finally he was in the sights of the four boys. He had seen enough kshatriya men to know who they were. He panted hoarsely, “I thought I would get help, not dumb stares. Or do you not understand Tamil?”
The biggest boy, short-haired Dashrath, replied, “I do. There’s a hospital down the road to Mahiyangana. We can make it, but…Jayampati, come on! We’ll have to carry him. Hey”-he turned back to face his friend-“are you listening?” Rudran saw that the thoughtful young man was of medium height, fairer and shorter than the big Tamil fellow, but his eyes had a gleam of suspicion in them.
There was a fire in that Jayampati’s eyes, and it flickered with each glance at Rudran.
He had seen the fire in his own eyes sometimes.
Perhaps he had been right all along to keep his eyes on this one. His poise was calm despite his musculature. Not as dense as his own, but this wasn’t someone to be trifled with. Jayampati never seemed to take his eyes off Rudran, instead scanning the soldier’s body and face all the time.
Finally, he spoke.
“Alright. Devaka, go help out. I think…no…I need to talk to you, sir”-he pointed at Rudran-“once you’ve got your treatment.” He climbed out of the water, looking darkly at Rudran for an instant and then at his companions.
The two boys Dashrath and Devaka supported their unlikely companion all the way to the roadside hospital.
It was, in reality, a spacious longhouse, just like the roadside inns, the ambalama as the locals called them. This hospital had enough room for about fifteen or sixteen people. Naturally, Rudran assumed, that the hospitals needed to be large enough to see to soldiers being treated for their injuries. He reclined on the bed and breathed deeply as the doctor flipped through a manuscript, names of herbs and treatments scrawled down hurriedly in the classic doctor’s handwriting.
A trio of sullen attendants brought out a tray of scalpels and surgical knives. Rudran shuddered slightly at the sight of the devices.