and they say they want to make it
a better place for our children and our children’s children
so that they they they know it’s a better world for them
and I think they can make it a better place”
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.”
Jayampati stood up, his hair battling the slight gust of wind which breathed a cooling breath over the waterway. He bit his lip hard, swallowing back his tears, when a familiar hand gave his a gentle push. He had to smile now.
“Saliya…” he breathed, “and what in heaven’s name do you think you’re doing? We were waiting for you. See?” The other boy pointed at the river.
“Devaka and Dashrath are already here, but Mahinda won’t be coming. His father took he and his brother out on a supply expedition. They went to Magama, if I’m not mistaken. For the soldiers, a convoy of carts with rice and meat and things. All the merchants are doing it. Are you feeling alright?” Saliya looked into Jayampati’s eyes. The latter’s lids seemed to the former like rocks made of flesh that tried desperately to dam the gap between eyes and cheeks.
“I can’t stop thinking of my family! What if one of them is next? What will my mother say? My brothers have families of their own too!”
Saliya tried to understand his friend’s pain. He slipped his hand into Jayampati’s own and tried to squeeze it, but no words could come out for a while. What could he tell the son of a soldier, a true kshatriya, born and bred for a mortal life of honor and glory? For, wasn’t it someone extremely wise who’d said, “Durlabham hi sadaa sukham” or something of that nature.
Prince Rama really was a wise man.
A legend, true, but a wise one.
Happiness was truly impermanent as he had said that day thousands of years ago. Plus, you live in a world where the two alternate. Sailya quietly attempted to digest the meaning behind the legendary kshatriya’s words. Perhaps this one, his friend, himself born to a warrior, would understand? But all Jayampati did was grunt, “I’m not a fool, not at all. I know what’s going on. It’s not like I’ve never seen sorrow wherever I went, so stop quoting dusty old myths to me. I had to deal with this war for so long, but still I mean, my father would never forgive himself if even one of my brothers died. And my mother wouldn’t forgive herself knowing that she had allowed them to enlist. Saliya, you can’t pretend to be something you’re not!”
“Pretend to live like a god!” cut in Jayampati. “I mean, isn’t that why all those old stories were written? They were moral stories, true, but you can’t always live by their words. Frankly I’m past caring, I”-he flung his arms up in exasperation, but then looked at his friend’s face-“I’m sorry I shouted. I think we all should be allowed to feel pain. Yes, you…you’re right, I guess…I…I’m confused.”
Dashrath, the large boy with short hair shouted, “Is anything wrong?”
His companion looked up at the two boys on the rock for a minute.
“Come on in, the water’s nice and cool. Besides, a good swim will take your mind off any troubles you have, won’t it?” he continued loudly, with Devaka doing his best to cut in.
“Alright.” The answer from the rock was curt, but not so rude that it was off-putting. There were, after all, far worse ways to spend an afternoon. His three friends had their eyes trained on him as he walked down the rock. His facial muscles twitched as he tried to form a ghost of a smile, but the wind chill was starting to bite their naked torsos. Especially the two who’d been in the river.
Jayampati himself was nervous.
The other three boys looked at him in admiration as he smiled shyly at them.
His face was that of a young god, with his full lips, soft as lotus petals and expressive eyes, brown irises looking around almost with uncertainty. In their eyes was the reflection of a broad-shouldered boy, just short of eighteen, with the big chest and powerful back of a warrior, perhaps a young practitioner of malla yuddha, fresh out of his first five years of training. Not that his muscles were greatly defined, but nonetheless he was fit and strong as an ox, the mounds of his chest clearly visible, rising above his flat stomach.
His forearms had long veins running across their surface. He always carried himself erect as a pillar, sandy skin glowing as he rose from the water. Long hair, silky and black as a dancer’s, framed his round, well-formed face.
All five feet eight inches of him were magnificent.
The much taller Saliya looked down at himself, hand running down his stomach, and then at Jayampati. His eyes stared hungrily at his friend’s powerful arms and then at his own as he pursed his lips.
(Once more, this time during a power cut)
All thoughts of politics and war threw themselves out into the mud of the swamp as Rudran’s eyes bore into the steel body of his sword. He grunted in pain as he continued his trek. His hands instinctively reached for overhanging branches and vines as his incisors gnashed in anger, leg muscles screaming in protest at having to move. His heart beat with every thudding step in the muck and tangled weeds.
He had moved a fair distance along the shore, when he finally saw a small sandbank between two rocky outcrops. The sun’s face hid as he tilted his head upwards. The cooler, more bearable part of the afternoon was coming over the world.
The waterway was no more a mere canal.
It had the depth and width of a large river, and he knew that he was somewhere around a very famous settlement.
Mahinyangana as the locals called it.
The monotone drone of the cicadas and the raucous cries of avian fishermen stung his ears. “Let’s cover our bases,” he gasped, “I’m injured. Plus the people of this country are on slightly better terms with a Pandyan from Madurai than with someone on the Chola side. At least I speak…Tamil…a little Pali and Sanskrit…Sinhala, bits and pieces of it at least…” He stopped himself, still hard in thought. That last language was a noble tongue, spoken by a select few only. “As long as I find some nobles I should be fine. A few uneducated villagers would be too suspicious of me and my cover would be blown. But of course, what’s to stop even another kshatriya from buying my story? I’ll have to come up with something…”
The details poured out of him as meticulously as the details of a hard siege.
Rudran crouched as he ran his fore and index fingers across his fingers to relieve a passing headache. A nerve in his forehead spasmed and he fought to swallow back the vomit rising in his throat. Dizziness attempted to grip his senses once more but gritting his teeth, he snarled, “Not this time! No weaknesses!”
His fist closed even tighter around the hilt of his sword.
The chorus of shouts-probably from young people in the area-was too clear now to be simply dismissed as an auditory illusion.
The rock formation on the left bank sloped downwards away from the river, cutting into the thick forest. Jayampati panted as he picked up his heels and arrived at the spot, laughing delightedly at the prospect of a swim. His thick hair was slick with sweat as he paused by an old tree stump to catch his breath. His fingers brushed through his curls as he tried to crack a smile.
“Don’t you dare leave me here! Or any of us for that matter!”
The cry teetered on the edge between annoyance and amusement as his companions came closer.
“You’ll have to catch me first!” He stood up, deftly wiping the river of perspiration on his brow as he took off again. His eyes literally sparkled devilishly as he arrived at the knotted, gnarly roots of the ancient banyan that spread its branches over the rock-face.
At the top, he whacked his dagger firmly into the trunk of the massive tree.
Sitting down, he peered down at the sandbank. The water beyond it was deep enough, and this was a wide channel, after all. After all, he was born and bred here, on the outskirts of the ancient city of Mahiyangana. The canal had intersected with a branch of the great River Mahavaluka here, but jumping in from his perch of forty feet would be suicide.
Yet his heart knew that this victory was required. The egrets were no more than minute specks of white against the verdant crowns of the trees on the further side of the tributary. There was no way he could inspect his reflection, of course-this was no puddle but the largest river in Lanka. Jayampati sat cross-legged, seeming to the world, as he breathed in and out like a mockery of a mendicant sage. Unintentional of course.
The white thread around his wrist told of his faith. Yet the little amulet whose head rested against his upper arm was too precious to lose. Working away at the knot, he loosened it and hung it from the hilt of his dagger.
His young head was filled with a rushing mass of thoughts as he gazed down at his feet.
That was the cause of all that pain. A little bit of mimosa had stabbed him nicely in the little toe. Harmless, to be sure, but a nuisance.
“What a damn bother.”
But he bit his lower lip, his face darkening instantaneously.
“Who am I to be thinking about nuisances and trifle grievances when I don’t even know if you are all alive?”
A small rivulet of blood dripped from his lip to the cleft of his smooth shaven chin.
Just like half his family not being home to help his mother and he in their daily work.
A huge estate was not going to look after itself, plus his relatives…what if…”No, the Upagupta family won’t try taking over anything. I hope. Oh by the gods, this damned war isn’t going to end itself just like that, is it? Pandu, Abhaya, Themiya…I need all of you back alive, my brothers.” He felt a tear tracing its way down his cheek. “I need all of you back with father. Your own families want you back so badly. Abhaya”-he laughed, left hand briefly covering his full feminine lips-I have to say, Sundari misses you so much, and so do your boys…I can’t take their place if you die. None of us can. They want their father so much. Same goes to you Pandu. Khema loves you dearly, even if she doesn’t show it often…”
He stood up, leaning back against the banyan.
Three sunbeams tore through the ashy barrier of clouds as Jayampati’s thoughts too darkened. Surya’s life-giving power had no hold over the loving youth of a country torn apart by alien invaders.
Jayampati merely paced up and down restlessly, still in waiting, but no longer happy.
“Where are you Jayampati?” The shouts continued to ring from the forest. The boy’s mind felt heavier than it had been earlier.
That other problem gnawed at him as his muscles tensed.