The commander stood up from his stool, clapping his hands loudly and slowly when he heard the voices of his associates.
“I guess my secret’s out, eh Balaram? Lakshman…” He stared viciously at the latter, the old harbormaster. “I’ll be taking a leave of absence in about two weeks, by which time I expect to have this young lion nicely tamed, and kneeling at my feet. Anuruddha, my dear friend”-he looked at the prisoner again-“I want to know what fires you up all the time. Because I’ve seen plenty of men break down under my stare. Yet you still remain rather stubborn. What is it that makes you so powerful?”
He grinned at the prisoner, but received a gob of saliva in the face, in return.
“Well, I think I deserved that, now didn’t I?” he smiled sarcastically, beckoning his three colleagues closer. His hand gripped one of the bars of the cell, veins appearing across his fore and upper arms as his muscles tensed.
The prisoner was shrouded in darkness as he lay on his bed of straw. He’d left his bedpan directly below a crevice in the ceiling to catch any straw raindrops that were falling inside. Balaram was the only one who joined Narasimha, and he saw the man behind the bars. The Lankan prisoner’s body was stocky, with powerful limbs, and he was rather tall, a good hand taller than his captors when he stood up. How this human behemoth allowed himself to be captured, Balaram hadn’t a clue. Granted, he did not have much in the way of actual muscle definition, certainly nothing impressive despite his imposing bulk.
Yet he shuddered at the thought of having to fight such a massive beast.
Those huge hands and brawny arms were frightening to behold, as was the scar running across his cheek.
It began somewhere below his eye and snaked down his broad, square-chinned face, finally ending at his lower jaw. Narasimha gingerly slipped his fingers beneath Anuruddha’s chin, nonchalantly stroking the rough, matted beard.
“No time to shave, then? There’s a razor in the corner over there”-he pointed to a cruel-looking blade resting in a small crevice against the wall-“so why didn’t you? Want to look tougher, do you?” He toyed with the curly hairs of the prisoner’s beard. “Do you? Do you now?”
Anuruddha’s breaths were short and tense, and his eyes were dark with bloodlust and a primal longing for vengeance. Greasy hair, long and curly, stuck to his back, and the stale odor of sweat was overpowering. “My faith preaches very wise words to me,” he replied defiantly, his belly pulsing with each breath. His clenched fists relaxed and they hung down at his sides. Anuruddha nodded knowingly.
“Your taunts won’t hurt me. You Tamils don’t belong in this country; this is the land of the Sinhalese and us alone! Our monarchs have been pious Buddhists, Sinhalese Buddhists for millennia, and you can’t change that”-he pointed at the Chola officers-“with your invasions. Nobody can! Just you wait and see. Everything is impermanent, and we will strive on with diligence while your mandalam crumble with the march of time.” He sat down cross-legged in the center of his cell, eyes burning with the same flame as when he was captured.
Narasimha gazed straight into those blazing eyes as he remembered the huge man racing across the battlefields of the Vanni, rallying his troops, screaming orders at them from atop his elephant.
‘Maha Hastirajya Nalagiri’, he had called the magnificent tusker.
A pitched battle as Nalagiri charged from the forests adjoining the Vanni’s rolling scrub and grasslands, roaring with all his might, his trumpet only matched by his master blowing his conch shell to summon his troops.
Narasimha saw the Lankan elephants plowing through the great field of chariots, crushing the necks of horses with a mere swish of his trunks. Kalki had been shifting his weight beneath his rider, unnerved by the charge of the titanic, near-black pachyderm. The Lankan brigade was starting to mow down the Chola forces; charioteers allowed their masters to fire volleys of arrows at one another as the forest grew clearer. Guerrillas ambushed men passing through thick vegetation, and infantry divisions were thrown into chaos thanks to the powerful duo. Another man was speared on Nalagiri’s left tusk and sent flying, blood and entrails streaking through the air.
“Kalki my brother, we’re going to do something foolish,” he had whispered quietly to his sturdy steed. “When I give the signal”-he was carrying his bow at the time, and he put an arrow against it-“we charge.” He lined his arms up as the elephant grew dangerously close, the ground reverberating with his thudding feet. The black stallion neighed nervously, and started to get skittish, but Narasimha dug his heels into his mount’s sides and shouted.
Kalki’s blood boiled within him, his huge heart pumping rapidly as Narasimha put him into a gallop, rushing straight for the thundering elephant. Anuruddha intercepted him, but his mahout had not brought his master’s arrows. Narasimha’s eyes were excellent. He fired his arrow at the right time, catching the mahout in the throat while controlling Kalki with merely his feet and his words. Anuruddha was jerked about in Nalagiri’s howdah, and he couldn’t control the mighty beast.
The elephant was startled by the horse’s sudden maneuvers, and reared up, his trumpet having turned into a bloodcurdling scream.
Anuruddha had lost control and come tumbling down, right off his mount, and Kandula was left to wreak general havoc. It had been a dangerous time for both sides. Narasimha remembered how much he had smiled in pleasure when the huge creature had been restrained and finally captured thanks to his own elephant brigade; just another prisoner of war to be executed or used in service of the Chola Empire.
“Yes,” Narasimha added smilingly. He wrung his hands as he looked at Anuruddha’s pitiful position, languishing in his cell. “Clearly, everything is impermanent. How long has it been since we imprisoned you, dear veteran? Three weeks? Two weeks? Well, if you were an important general, we’d have put you to death the minute we caught you. So count your blessings for as long as you can. The only reason you’re alive is because I allowed it. We can only hope your monster is fine…”