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Chapter 24 — Second sighting
Year 63, Kali yuga
The clouds slowly parted, and shafts of silvery moonlight lit the grounds before them. A steady cool breeze blew from the east, and with it came the smell of the sea.
Mārthāndan and his platoon crouched in the mud. There were under the dense cover of small nāval pazham trees that grew in the marshy soil. A large sandy clearing lay between them and the city walls. Ripunjaya watched as the rest of the men scurried past them, and took their positions. Most of the palace windows remained dark.
The clock tower rang once, it was an hour after midnight. All remained quiet. They watched, and then a small lamp appeared on the battlements, and was gone in an instant. A few moments passed, and it appeared again, and was again extinguished in a flash. Mārthāndan nodded, and one of the men squeed like an owl. A few moments passed, and a long, slender rope flew over the battlements and slithered down towards the ground.
Mārthāndan waited for clouds to obscure the already faint moon a bit more, and then rustled the bush near him. A skinny man clad only in a dark loincloth and a turban appeared from behind the foliage, coils of rattan rope around his torso. He sprinted to the base of the wall, and quick as a cat, scurried up the talus with the rope and disappeared over the battlements.
A minute later, three rattan ropes came down the walls. Men slowly emerged from the bushes, and sprinted to the wall. Silently as they could, climbed up the sloped wall, in groups of two. Soon, they were all up, and crouched behind the merlons, and waited. All was quiet, no alarms sounded.
Mārthāndan grasped Kuppan’s arm. “Moochu Nākaalam-ukke!” Kuppan exclaimed, under his breath. Mārthāndan thumped his chest once with his fist. “Do they have patrols?”
“Yes, prabhu. Every hour. These men are the fresh change.” He pointed at the entrance of the nearest watch tower. Four guards lay dead on the walk, throats slit.
“Excellent work, Kuppā. Let us make good the next hour.” Mārthāndan said. “Where are they kept?”
“Thankfully, still in the royal quarters, prabhu. Semmaḷvarāyan wanted to put them in the dungeons, but Thiruvāsagan was against it.”
Mārthāndan rubbed his chin. “Good, the chambers are closer than the dungeons. Are they all together?”
“No. They are separated, each in their own chambers. I took the meals to the Prince myself. I told him of the plan.”
“Lead the way.”
Kuppan nodded, and walked to the watchtower. He listened for footsteps, and heard none, and gestured to Mārthāndan. Quickly, sixteen men formed a single file, and followed Kuppan down the winding stairs. Each of them drew a short sword as they entered the doorway.
Step by step they went down the winding stairwell. At the base Kuppan picked up the large copper jug he had stowed away. It was a convenient prop, he simply looked to be fetching water for one of the officers from the kitchens. He peeked out into the corridor, and checked for guards. There were none, and he turned to Mārthāndan. “This way is clear. But guards are posted all along the main entrances.”
“You have done well, Kuppā. Back to the kitchens now. Whatever happens here tonight, do not give away your true role—Nākalam just might need you again before long.”
Kuppan nodded. He stepped out, and walked towards the kitchen at a brisk pace. Mārthāndan waited for a few moments, and gave the signal to proceed. The platoon grouped themselves into four smaller units, and quickly went their separate ways. Their instructions were clear. They would operate in two four-man teams—one as a forward group and another followed in reserve. Eight men were assigned to retrieve Kumudhan, another eight for Piraivalli. The remaining trio of Mārthāndan, Ripunjaya and Ilarāyan would go for Aranvēndhan, who, after being rescued himself, would in turn would help with the efforts, if required. Half an hour later, they would all regroup back at the eastern wall, and escape the same way they had come.
A simple enough plan, thought Ripunjaya, but Mārthāndan often liked to say, plans were perfect only until their execution. He followed Mārthāndan with Ilarāyan just behind. The royal quarters were in the northern part of the palace, individual chambers on two different floors. Thankfully, there were lesser-known passages used by the palace staff that avoided most of the main corridors, where the bulk of Semmaḷvarāyan’s guards were posted.
At the first hall the group split, sixteen men parted down towards the lower floor, while the trio continued towards the prince’s chamber. Aranvēndhan’s quarters was at the end of a short corridor, and Mārthāndan estimated six guards—logically, two to each pair of pillars in the space leading to the door. They reached the way leading to the corridor, and Ripunjaya peeked from behind a corner. Mārthāndan was right—there stood six men in ochre turbans with spears, three on each side.
Ripunjaya signalled, and jumped out, sword drawn. In a flash, he cut the throat of the soldier nearest to him. Beside him, Ilarāyan slashed at the soldier opposite, and down the soldiers fell, clutching their necks. The remaining four formed a hasty array, and began to step backward towards the door, shields in front and spears pointed at the intruders. One of them shouted, but the royal chambers were built to be secluded from the rest of the palace, and no one heard his cries. Ripunjaya and Ilarāyan dashed forward. Ripunjaya caught the outstretched spear of the soldier on the left, and pulled. The soldier lost his balance, and stumbled forward. Ripunjaya caught the man’s shield, pushed it down and thrust his blade into the man’s neck. On his right, Ilarāyan rolled to the other soldier’s feet, and cut at his shins. Down went the man, and Ilarāyan quickly closed his hand over the soldier’s mouth, and slid his blade into his chest. Behind them, Mārthāndan had picked up the spear from the first soldier, and lunged at the soldier on the right. The soldier instinctively raised his guard, his shield up to deflect, and Mārthāndan shifted his leverage on the shaft, and the tip dipped. He thrust it deep into the soldier’s side, and withdrew, already slashing at the last man left. The soldier parried, and bought down his own spear down towards Mārthāndan. Mārthāndan stepped back, and the spear tip missed him by a hair. The soldier corrected, and shifted his weight, and the winged spear cut Mārthāndan lightly on his shoulder. The soldier pulled his spear back, ready to strike again. At that moment, the doors behind him opened and even as the doors swung inward, a knife came flying out, aimed at the soldier’s head. It was a small blade, but it found it’s mark true and deep. It struck the man on his neck, and he fell, motionless.
Aranvēndhan stepped out, four dead soldiers at his feet. He retrieved his knife from the soldier’s neck, and picked up a short sword from the other soldier. He clapped Mārthāndan on his unhurt shoulder. “To my father and daughter, Mārthandā! Quickly!”
The four now sped back into the chambers, where a hidden door with a stairway that led to the floor below. They hurried down the steps, and in moments, came face to face with a group of their own men, and the princess. “Vaḷli!” Aranvēndhan embraced her.
“What of Kumudhan?” Mārthāndan turned to the captain.
“The other group separated at the main corridor. We are to meet back at the east corridor, as planned.”
“Onwards!” Mārthāndan urged. The now large group now sped through the service passages, retracing their steps to the eastern walls. They turned a corner, and below the large window, crouched four men.
“Prabhu! The Emperor Kumudhan was not in his chambers,” said the leader, breathless. “No soldiers on guard, too. The four of us returned here, to regroup and await your orders. The other four of remain hidden in the Emperor’s chambers.”
“We should search the lower floor, Mārthāndā” Aranvēndhan said. “I remember Kuppan saying that he had been asked to fetch food for two people to Semmaḷvarāyan’s quarters today.”
“Could it not have been Thiruvāsagan?” Ripunjaya asked.
“No. Kuppan mentioned the meal had meat. Thiruvāsagan eats no meat.” Aranvēndhan noticed Ripunjaya for the first time.
Mārthāndan scratched his chin. Something is not right, he felt it in his heart. “Vēndhā, listen to me. Go with Vaḷli.” Mārthāndan whispered. “Vagaimāran’s men wait with horses, they will bear you to safety. I shall go search for the old man.”
“No! I am not leaving without grandfather!” Piraivalli cried through clenched teeth. “I will fetch him. Who will accompany me?” she snatched a short sword from one of the men. She did not wait for an answer, she started to sprint down the corridor, towards Aranvēndhan’s chamber.
Aranvēndhan ran after his daughter. Mārthāndan turned to the kneeling soldiers. “Quick, one of you go fetch some more men to the hall, go!” Then he, Ripunjaya and Ilarāyan and the three remaining soldiers raced to catch up with Vaḷli. They ducked back into the large room, and sprinted down the stairs at the far end. It wound its way down steeply, its uneven steps making their progress slow. At the landing they stopped. Vaḷli leaned against the large teak doors, ear pressed against the wood.
“You should go back, princess. Let us handle this.” Mārthāndan said in a hushed voice.
“I will not abandon thatha!” Vaḷli snapped.
“Abandon him? No. I promise you we shall bring him back. But you I implore to escape, Vaḷli.”
“No, uncle. I am with you and father—I am safer here.”
“Oh, you stubborn child!” Mārthāndan relented. This was no time, nor the place to argue. “At least let me lead, princess.” he struck a small piece of flint against his sword hilt, and lit a small torch on the wall.
“Maybe, but I know this old fort better than you. I spent all my childhood running around in these passages.” Vaḷli replied, and tied her hair up in a small bun.
Aranvēndhan allowed himself a small smile. “The sun shall rise in the west the day she listens to reason.”
“You can lead us, but if we run into soldiers, let us ahead.”
“I can fight, dear uncle.”
“It is not your ability I doubt, young Vaḷli. We need you, the only heir to this great land—you far too valuable to lose to some guard’s wayward blade.”
Vaḷli opened her mouth to reply, but a deep gong cut her off, and shook the walls. It sounded again, louder. It quickly increased in fervour, each report louder than the last.
“They must have discovered the bodies.” Aranvēndhan cracked the door open a few inches. The palace seemed now to come alive. Shouts of soldiers filled the air, torches on the walls were being quickly lit.
Vaḷli grabbed the torch from its sconce. “Appa, where did they have lunch?”
“The courtroom.” Aranvēndhan replied.
Vaḷli thought for a moment. “Yes, there is a way. Follow me!” she ducked through the doors. The group now raced down the corridor, and followed Vaḷli into a small room. Large wooden cabinets and chests lay covered in dust. Old paintings lined the walls. A sombre Thanmaya Thattān stared down at them, a large stack of palm-leaf manuscripts in his hand.
Vaḷli sprinted to a large stone statue of a dancer on the side. She was exquisitely carved, almost lifelike. Vaḷli pressed one of the anklets on the statue’s feet. A great grinding noise filled the small room, and the wall behind the dancer moved back three feet. A cool gush of air washed into the room.
Two small red eyes glowed in the darkness of the passage. Ripunjaya’s breath caught in his chest. He staggered back a step, and into Mārthāndan.
“Not afraid of the dark, are you, son?” Mārthāndan chuckled, and held Ripunjaya by the shoulder.
Ripunjaya turned around quickly at Mārthāndan. “N—no, I must have stepped on a rat.” he replied sheepishly, and shook his head. He looked back at the eyes. They hovered in the darkness, unblinking. A yamadūta!
Vaḷli stepped in, ducking into the low opening. “This one leads all the way to the stairs under the northern state room. Last person to enter, press the anklet on the right foot, the wall shuts a few moments later.”
The eyes continued to stare at the princess, and slowly drifted to the ceiling. Vaḷli turned a corner, and the vague outline of the yamadūta disappeared into the walls. Ripunjaya’s heart thumped. What did the yamadūta portend? Indeed, men were to die here tonight, as did the bandits after he had seen the first yamadūta on the way to meet Vēlan. But who tonight, at the hands of whom?
A soldier bumped into Ripunjaya, and broke his reverie. They filed in, and followed the winding passageway behind Vaḷli. Cool night air whistled through small slits on the walls. Soon Vaḷli stopped at a small alcove. An old frayed rope hung from the ceiling. “We are behind the tiger statue beside the stairs.”
Aranvēndhan nodded. “We should separate. I will take Vaḷli and two of your men, Mārthāndā, and make for the main entrance. The rest of you come in through the other door on the end.” They listened for soldiers outside, but heard nothing, and Aranvēndhan pulled the rope. A moment later, the mortar wall swung slowly inward, noiselessly. They emerged from within the wall, swords drawn.
The corridor was empty. The group exchanged glances, incredulous.
“An ambush?” Ripunjaya ventured.
“Likely.” Mārthāndan replied. “But we stick to the plan.” He nodded at two of the soldiers behind him. “Vēndhā! Go, enter the hall, we are behind you.”
The group split into two. Aranvēndhan ran to the main entrance with Vaḷli and the two soldiers. Mārthāndan, Ripunjaya and the two other soldiers sprinted to the door on the far wall, and they entered.
Vaḷli’s small, lone torch lit no more than a few feet ahead of them in the large hall. The curtains on large windows lining the wall were all drawn.
“Get behind us, Vaḷli.” Aranvēndhan said, and stepped in front of her.
A deep voice echoed from the within the darkness. “Stop there, Vēndhā! Come no further!”
“Show yourself!” Aranvēndhan shouted, peering into the darkness.
At the far end of the hall, a torch came alight, and slowly lit a knot of soldiers with ochre turbans, swords at the ready. At the front, stood Semmaḷvarāyan. An old man with wispy white hair was sitting on the floor before him. But Kumudhan seemed to be unconscious, his head lulled. Semmaḷvarāyan held a knife to the Emperor’s throat.
“Appa!” Aranvēndhan cried. “Let my father go, coward! Come fight me!”
Vaḷli took a few steps forward, but Mārthāndan caught her by her arm.
“Stay where you are, or Nākalam loses her ruler!” Semmaḷvarāyan threatened.
The soldier holding the torch threw it high in the air. It flew in a graceful arc, and landed on a low, wide pile of firewood that had been arranged across the width of the hall. The dry kindling immediately caught fire. A wall of flames quickly rose between the two groups.
“Drop your blade!” Aranvēndhan strode close to the fire. It was too wide to jump across, and the heat was unbearable.
“What do you want, Rāyā?” Mārthāndan shouted, over the crackling fire.
Semmaḷvarāyan pointed to a large painting that hung on the wall. “She, your beloved queen—she put me where I am today! I only came here to pay my respects to Umayāḷ Dēvi, your great warrior queen!” he scoffed, and spat on the floor.
“It was a hundred years ago, Rāyā!” Mārthāndan stalled. “What would you have us do? Make you monarch?” He counted thirty soldiers behind Semmaḷvarāyan. They have no spears, only swords. Good. We are seven. If we did have a way to cross the fire, it might be close fight. But no—cannot chance it, not with the Emperor at the mercy of a madman.
At that moment, the remaining five ūsippadai soldiers burst into the hall.
We are now twelve. An easy win. Mārthāndan glanced at Ripunjaya, and furtively pointed at the thick curtains on the wall. Ripunjaya understood.
“Wealth? You entice me with lands and titles? Nay, fools, it is merely blood I seek!” Semmaḷvarāyan sneered, and drove his blade deep into Kumudhan’s neck. The Emperor slumped, and Semmaḷvarāyan shoved the body to the ground. “There, your father is free, Prince!” He laughed mockingly, and disappeared through the mass of soldiers behind him.
Aranvēndhan roared. Mārthāndan ran to the nearest window, and tugged at the curtain. Ripunjaya and Ilarāyan joined, and the heavy cloth came away from its tethers. Mārthāndan swept one end of it across the burning wood. He leapt across the makeshift bridge with a fierce cry. The others quickly crossed, and fell upon Semmaḷvarāyan’s soldiers.
Aranvēndhan and Vaḷli ran to Kumudhan. They knelt on the floor beside him, and Aranvēndhan pulled Kumudhan’s lifeless body in a tight embrace, sobbing. The soldiers clashed around them.
“Protect them!” Mārthāndan cried, and the ūsippadai surrounded the royal family as they continued to fight. But with Semmaḷvarāyan escaped, his soldiers offered but a feeble resistance, and were cut down quickly.
Mārthāndan gestured hastily Ilarāyan. “Search the palace and the grounds. And send a mounted group after Semmaḷvarāyan, he cannot have gotten far. Go! Quick!”
Mārthāndan then walked to Aranvēndhan, and put his bloodied hand on the Prince’s shoulder. Aranvēndhan rocked with rage, his father’s head cradled in his arms. Mārthāndan knelt beside the Prince. “I swear on my life, brother, I will see Semmaḷvarāyan trampled by an elephant! He shall not have an peaceful death, I swear it on this old man’s soul.”
Aranvēndhan rose, not once looking away from his father, and carried Kumudhan’s body to a low table near the wall. Blood trickled from the knife wound, and slowly dripped from the table, and spattered on the floor. Tears streamed down Aranvēndhan’s face, but his eyes seethed with rage. “I want him found, Mārthāndā! Bring him to me! Bring me that snake!”
“We’re scouring the grounds, Vēndhā. We sh—”
“The princess! Where is the princess?” Ripunjaya interjected, and looked frantically around the hall.
Vaḷli was not behind them. The large painting of Umayāḷ Dēvi lay on its side, and revealed a gaping hole on the wall.
“With me!”Mārthāndan pointed at Ripunjaya and two other soldiers. They ran into the opening, and followed the dusty pathway as it sloped down. Behind them, the sounds of Aranvēndhan’s angry laments diminished, but the passage now echoed with the clash of metal and the horrific wails of men. A tall yellow rectangle of light appeared as they rounded a corner. They burst through a wall on the lower floor, swords at the ready.
But they needed them not. Vaḷli sat stooped at the end of the corridor, violently hacking at a soldier long dead, amidst corpses and pools of blood. Her blood-drunk cries of wrath echoed through the palace, and chilled the bones of those who heard. Mārthāndan ran to Vaḷli and pried the sword from her hands, and pulled her into a tight embrace.
Still at the alcove, Ripunjaya stood frozen, eyes fixed on the yamadūta as it drifted around Vaḷli’s head, its teeth bared in a macabre smile.