After decades of warring, a time of peace came to the Krushan dynasty. The great armies of the Burnt Empire set aside their battle armor and weapons in exchange for flowers and rice.
A great celebration lit up the streets of Hastinaga, the capital city.
The marriage of Emperor Sha’ant and his unusual new Empress, Jilana.
The daughter of a fisher chief married to the Emperor of the greatest empire in the known world!
This in itself was highly unusual.
The circumstances in which the marriage had occurred were even more unusual.
It was the stuff of legends, and even though the Burnt Empire bred legends as easily as a sugarcane crop breeds snakes, some legends bear telling more than others.
Prince Regent Vrath’s terrible oath of lifelong celibacy was already the stuff of legend. Everyone knew that the heir to the world’s largest empire had sworn to never cohabit in order to ensure that his new stepmother Jilana’s future progeny would be the only ones with a claim to the throne. Jilana herself bore no animosity toward Vrath; if anything, his unprecedented vow earned him her admiration and respect. But she was visibly proud of her undisputed status as Empress and mother of the future heirs of the great empire.
And so Sha’ant and Jilana were married and now lived together in great happiness. With his second wife, Sha’ant found all the fulfillment he desired. Even more than with his first, long-mourned wife Jeel, he experienced the full spectrum of companionship, for Jilana was mortal and had no great secrets, nor any hidden agenda. In fact, it was for the ways in which she differed from Jeel that Jeel herself had chosen her as Sha’ant’s second mate, guiding him unknowingly towards Jilana’s boat on that fateful day of their first encounter.
In time, he filled her womb with child and she gave birth to a beautiful son. They named him Gada. From the very outset, he was fond of sports and games of valor, and it was evident he would turn out to be a brave and famous warrior. Soon after, Jilana gave birth to a second son, whom they named Virya. While unable to keep up with his elder brother in sports, Virya discovered that he was superior with the bow and concentrated his efforts on mastering that weapon. Soon he was one of the best young archers in the city.
But their happiness did not last. The malaise of dynasty that had plagued the kingdom since the origin of their race continued to take its toll upon all those who called themselves Krushan as well—and before his sons could attain full maturity, the great King Sha’ant sadly succumbed to a fatal illness.
Sha’ant and Jilana’s eldest son Gada had been named heir, and Gada took his position and his father’s loss very seriously—perhaps too seriously, as his subsequent actions would soon show.
Very shortly after inheriting the throne and just beyond the age of majority, Gada was challenged to a duel by a powerful harva. Like other urrkh, harva were powerful demon-mortal mixed breeds, imbued with the physical form and limitations of humans but driven by the needs and appetites of all urrkh, the demon races; they often served as spies and provocateurs acting on behalf of their urrkh brethren. For years, the harva had sought to lure Vrath into combat, in order to ferret out the demi-god’s weaknesses, if any, so that other urrkh might note them and learn how to defeat the most feared Krushan warrior. Unable to draw the legendary Vrath into battle, the harva saw his opportunity to best a Krushan king by provoking Gada instead. Against Vrath’s advice, the young king agreed to the combat with the notorious trickster.
One day toward the end of winter, Gada and the harva met on the banks of the river Hiranyavati and began to fight.
Days later, they were still fighting and camp had to be set up nearby to provide for them and their supporters.
Both opponents were evenly matched.
What Gada possessed in size, bulk, and strength, his opponent matched in agility, force, and speed.
Usually, when two warriors with contradictory talents met in combat, one tended to overcome the other. But in this case, both inflicted injury upon injury on the other without being able to deal a fatal or deadly blow. Somehow, their different body types and fighting styles, even their disparate physiques, erased each one’s advantage, and they clashed again and again without a conclusive outcome.
One thing that both had in common was endurance and stubborn determination.
Their duel continued for three long years with neither warrior able to prove himself superior.
Finally resorting to trickery, the harva used urrkh maya—the power of illusion—to delude the young Krushan king, seemingly turning himself into a mirror image of Gada. Gada was inexperienced and untested enough that he fell for the ploy. Unnerved at facing himself in combat, Gada hesitated but for a moment, yet it was enough for the harva to at long last strike a fatal blow. But even as Gada fell, he struck back, slaying his opponent in turn. Both opponents died together, equally matched in death as they had been in life.
After this tragedy, Vrath installed Jilana’s younger son Virya as the king of Hastinaga. Virya was still but a boy and was sensible enough to know that Vrath, though he held no official titles, was the real force behind the governance and administration of the empire. So he did as his stepbrother advised and the kingdom ran as efficiently as ever, for the people and the enemies of the kingdom all knew that so long as Vrath stood by the throne, none could challenge it successfully.
Unlike his over-eager brother, Virya had no appetite for war.
Perhaps it was the result of growing up in his brother’s shadow during his formative years, watching his elder sibling achieve such mastery at such a young age—and knowing he could never match that level of achievement or talent. And, then, later, to see that same valorous brother—whom he had come to think of as indomitable and invulnerable—killed in combat . . . perhaps the shock was too great, or perhaps he simply lacked as great a desire to do battle, but Virya was careful to choose his fights wisely and engage in violence only when he had no other option.
When he did fight, Virya did so bravely and fiercely and none could question his ability or his courage. But with Vrath as his champion and protector, he rarely had occasion to lift a sword or put arrow to bowstring.
And this perhaps was the real reason why Virya had never had a chance to acquire the fame of a warrior as had his brother and so many others in their line before him, for who could emerge from the shadow of Vrath—and why would Vrath ever let his ward face any unnecessary risks? Vrath was twice as protective of Virya now that Gada was gone, leaving this slender and quiet young man the sole heir to the throne of Hastinaga. Indeed, Vrath seemed to go to great lengths to ensure that the young prince was never put in the path of danger for any reason.
This became most evident when Virya became an adult and of marriageable age. Vrath and his stepmother Jilana both knew that it was imperative that Virya marry soon and sire children in order to further the dynasty. It was rare for there to be only one Krushan male extant; if anything were to happen to Virya, the dynasty would come to an abrupt end, and that would be the greatest tragedy of all. Vrath assured Jilana that he would not allow such a thing come to pass.
So when he heard that the king of Serapi was seeking suitable husbands for his three daughters, each of whom were famed for their beauty and talents, Vrath resolved that he would marry at least one of them to Virya.
The opportunity presented itself when the lord of Serapi invited all the kings of the land to come and prove their prowess at arms at a mate-pairing event known as a swayamvara; each would compete to claim the attention of the lord of Serapi’s daughters, each of whom would then choose her husband from the victors.
Tradition dictated that Virya attend the swayamvara and compete for the hand of the Serapi princesses. But Vrath knew the level of competition was extremely high—far higher than his ward was capable of matching. At best, Virya might fare as well as some of the others in archery; at worst, he would be hopelessly humiliated and stand no chance of winning the hand of any of the Serapi lord’s daughters.
After all, Virya had grown up in the shadow of his brother—but also of the legendary Vrath—and this had made him less aggressively inclined than most Krushan princes. Vrath knew the kings who would be attending the swayamvara: They were lions and hyenas and would happily tear one another apart with their bare hands to do nothing more than prove their masculine superiority; with three beautiful princesses at stake, they would do almost anything.
In such a contest, there was no way Virya would return home alive.
Vrath knew what he must do.
The harsh, cruel customs of the Burnt Empire, often seen as rapacious, predatory, and unabashedly aggressive, were not his natural way. Vrath was a man of gentle graces and quiet power. He preferred to win by speaking softly and carrying a very big sword. But there were times that called for something more assertive. Tradition demanded now that Vrath find brides for his half-brother Virya without risking the prince heir’s own life. Even outright abduction was considered acceptable practice under the circumstances! Such were the ways of the Krushan.
But Vrath was only half-Krushan and though his aloof manner and unstoppable drive could be seen as cruel and overriding, he was in fact simply a man focused on doing what was needed. When his father Sha’ant had sought to marry Jilana, and had required that enormous sacrifice from Vrath, his vow of celibacy had allowed Vrath to play the hero. But now, if the Krushan dynasty was to continue, Vrath would have to play the villain.
He went about it as he went about everything else: in legendary manner.
Vrath had a single large chariot prepared for himself and set out for Serapi, having informed neither Jilana nor Virya of the swayamvara or his plan.
When he arrived at the tournament pavilion, he observed the thousands gathered there. There were hundreds of participants alone: all kings of larger or lesser kingdoms, each a champion in his own right. In addition, tens of thousands of Kosalans had come to view the competition.
Upon the great dais sat King Kashya, after whom the capital city of Kosala was named. Beside him were three young women of such breathtaking beauty that even Vrath, celibate though he was, knew that he could not find a better wife for Virya if he were to search the entire kingdom.
Swayamvaras were elaborate affairs and King Kashya intended to make the swayamvara of his daughters the grandest ever. There were endless formal gestures and protocols, culminating in a lengthy laborious recitation of the long list of participants, with suitable introductions for each of the kings present. This itself went on for an hour or more and it was while the recitation was at its most boring point, with even the kings themselves eager for the contest to be underway, that Vrath made his move.
Striding onto the dais, Vrath boldly approached the bejeweled thrones upon which the three princesses sat. They looked up at the unexpected stranger, puzzled at his sudden appearance. Vrath smiled at them, then bent down and grasped their wrists. His hand was large enough to clutch two of them in one fist, and he caught hold of the third princess’s arm with his other hand. Forcing them to their feet, he began walking off the dais with them in tow. At first the princesses were too shocked to react. They stumbled after him, not fully comprehending what was going on. It was their father the king who saw the tall black-bearded man leading his daughters away and rose to his feet, stunned.
“Halt!” cried Kashya. “Unhand my daughters! Who are you? How dare you lay hands on my princesses?”
Vrath continued without responding.
“Guards,” cried the king. “Stop that man!”
There were thousands of guards present at the event and all of them were alerted by the king’s cries. The announcer who had been droning on with his recitation of the names of the participants ceased speaking, and by degrees everyone present began to grow aware of the commotion on the royal dais. Several scores of soldiers began approaching and surrounding the dais, blocking Vrath’s path. With drawn swords, spears and bows, they threatened him on every side.
In response, Vrath pushed the one princess towards her two sisters and grasped hold of all three wrists in his left hand. Then, with his right hand he drew his sword and held it to their throats, or close enough that he could stab them with a quick jab if he wished.
At once, the king cried out in dismay. “Please! Do not harm them! They are the jewels of my life. Tell me what it is you desire.”
Vrath indicated the soldiers with a jerk of his head. “Ask your soldiers to withdraw. Let no one threaten me or your daughters may fare the worse for it. I will not leave without a fight, and if we fight, these three jewels will surely be reduced to precious dust.”
King Kashya swiftly gave orders for the soldiers to back away. Vrath saw that his request was being obeyed and waited for a pathway to be cleared so he could leave with the princesses. Meanwhile, they had begun to struggle against his grip. Amber, the eldest, struggled most fiercely, and when she found herself unable to break free of her captor’s iron grip, she said to her sisters, “He must be too cowardly to take part in the swayamvara and win us by fair means, therefore he manhandles us and steals us away by force!”
Vrath grinned at her words and turned to her father, the king. “Kashya! Your daughter calls me a coward. Do you think me one as well?”
The king was too diplomatic to answer aloud but stared balefully back at the abductor of his daughters.
It was Ember, the second sister, who spoke up. She said spitefully, “What else can we think of a man who behaves in this barbaric fashion? If not a coward, a barbarian!”
Vrath laughed long and hard. The other kings, now aware of what was going on, stared balefully at the man who was attempting to steal away the women they had dreamed of making their wives. “Listen to me, all of you! My name is Vrath, son of Sha’ant. Do you know who I am?”
At the mention of his name, all present reacted. Champions and warriors all, they each knew who he was and what he was capable of doing on the battlefield. “Do you think me a coward?” he asked. “Or a barbarian?”
They shook their heads, many speaking aloud to say “Nay.”
The king of Serapi knew who Vrath was too. He decided to chance speaking: “Then why do you do this deed? You are a legendary warrior from one of the greatest dynasties. If you desire one of my daughters as your wife, win her hand fairly. If the legends are true, you are capable of besting all the kings present here!”
“I am,” Vrath said, completely without arrogance for he knew this to be a simple fact, “and that is precisely why I assert my right to take your daughters home today. I do not need to participate in this weeklong contest to prove my superiority at arms. And surely all these men gathered here today do not wish to die by my hand. But I wish you to know that I do not do this for myself, for I have taken a lifelong vow of celibacy. I am taking them to Hastinaga to be wives to my ward Virya. Take comfort in the fact that they shall be queens of Hastinaga, Serapi-naresh. Surely you would take pride in that?”
Kashya had to admit the thought of being allied to the House of Krushan was a fine one. The Krushan nation was more powerful than any of the others represented here. He was silenced by Vrath’s words.
But his daughters were not. “What of our choice?” cried Umber, the third sister. “In a swayamvara, we have the right to choose our husbands from among the victors. This violates our right to choose!”
Vrath nodded. “I cannot argue with that. But under Krushan law, this form of marriage is equally acceptable. It is one of the eight known forms. And as your father and many others here will attest, it is a long time-honored tradition to take brides by force. If any here is brave enough to stop me, I shall face him in combat and prove my worth. If not, then I assert my right to win these princesses for my ward Virya!”
And with these words, he began walking again, dragging the princesses past the cordon of guards that stood and watched powerlessly as he went up to his chariot. Lashing the girls to the reins-post so they could not escape while he drove, he started the chariot and began riding away at great speed. He had asked his charioteers to harness the strongest fastest horses in the royal stable, and the chariot raced away from Serapi with the speed of lightning. At once, each of the kings present began donning his armor and calling for his chariot or horse in order to give pursuit. A few were wary enough of Vrath’s reputation to abstain from any direct conflict, but they were willing to follow to view the encounter.
The king of Serapi’s chief minister asked him if the army was to be sent out to follow after the princesses.
King Kashya watched the hundreds of kings who had come to participate in the swayamvara, clambering aboard their chariots and mounting their horses, clad in full armor, each accompanied by their retinue of personal guards, all wheeling and turning to leave the city, giving chase to the kidnapped princesses. “How many armies shall we send?” he asked. “Besides, these were the men who were to compete for their hands in marriage. Let this be their test.”
The chief minister was an old man and he saw the wisdom in the king’s words. In older times, this was in fact what a swayamvara meant: a melee in which all suitors fought to the death. Once the dust and blood spatter settled, the women chose their husbands from among those left standing. All Vrath had done was to cut short the ceremonial pomp and regress the event to its older, more brutal origins. Now, all that remained was to wait and see who “won.”
They were less than a yojana out of Serapi when Amber called out triumphantly: “Here they come!” Her sisters cried out with matching enthusiasm.
Vrath glanced back over his shoulder. Driving an eight-horse team required constant adjustment and a single error of judgement could bring down the entire team, most likely hobbling or crippling several of the horses. The journey to Hastinaga was a long one and he needed all eight to carry the combined weight of the chariot and four persons. It was the reason why he had not brought even a charioteer, preferring to take on this task alone rather than rely on anyone else. Alone was how he fought best. He allowed himself a single glance back.
They had pursuers.
An unfurling cloud of dust was visible on the horizon, perhaps half a yojana behind them. At that rate, they would catch up with Vrath’s chariot very quickly. He had expected that. He didn’t know the territory here too well, otherwise he would have picked a suitable vantage point and waited for them to come to him. He could still do that: This was a hilly region and there were any number of high spots which made suitable defensive sites. But he discarded that option in an instant: He had no desire to prolong this fight. Stopping and picking a spot could easily turn into a long siege. His pursuers had only to surround him and keep overwhelming him with force of numbers. He would not lose in the end but the princesses would likely end up dead as a result, if not from the crossfire then from starvation, thirst, or exposure.
So he chose to ride on, increasing speed. He would force the enemy to come to him and fight him on the run. Few warriors could fight well from a chariot and it would weed out the ineffectual and incompetent. Those that remained would have to use their best efforts right away or risk being outpaced. This way, he would force the fight to begin and end quickly, reducing the risk to the princesses to a minimum.
The princesses took his increase of speed to mean the exact opposite, of course.
“See, Ember, Umber,” said the eldest one with the sharp tongue. “He is too cowardly to stand and fight, so he tries to run away. He does not realize that Shalva will catch him no matter how fast he rides!”
Vrath wondered who this Shalva might be, but knew better than to speak just then. He focused his attention on steering the team across a rocky path, trying as best as he could to avoid one of them stepping on the fist-sized rocks that lay strewn about everywhere.
They took his silence to mean fear as well. “You speak truly, Amber,” said the third sister Umber. “It will not be long now before we are saved and can return home.”
Vrath smiled at that. He finished negotiating the rocky path and saw that the way ahead was clear for a good few miles. “Is that what you wish?” he asked, speaking loudly enough to be heard above the sound of the horses and the chariot and the wind. “To return home . . . and continue the swayamvara?”
“Yes!” said Ember, the middle one. “For that way we have pride of choice and dignity!”
Vrath laughed at her pomposity and naivete. “You foolish girl! If you really wish to have pride and dignity, you would not have a swayamvara at all. You would simply choose your man and marry him. That is true freedom of choice.”
They exclaimed at the absurdity of this suggestion. “How would we know if he is the best at arms or not?” asked the eldest again, her beautiful brown eyes flashing angrily.
Vrath had to admit she was the most attractive of the three, if also the most shrewish. “Why should a man only be best at arms to be a suitable husband? Can he not simply be a good man? A loving, caring, sensitive, educated, intelligent man?” He was describing Virya although she did not know it.
She wrinkled her nose at him as if he had suggested she marry a bird or a fish instead of a man. “A man who cannot best others at arms to prove his love is not fit to be my husband,” she said haughtily. “Or the husband of either one of my sisters!”
Vrath laughed long and hard at that. She did not understand why he laughed and turned away, after shooting him a last smoldering look of fury. He was surprised to find himself provoked, perhaps even a little aroused by that look. But he had long since mastered his senses and desires and his arousal was more by way of a faint memory of what arousal had once been rather than the actual sensation. Still, it took him by surprise, to encounter a woman who evoked even the memory of that feeling within him. He thought it would be a fine thing to see this one, Amber, eat her words and accept that she was wrong. And he also thought that she would be a difficult but strong wife for Virya.
Their pursuers caught up with them after another yojana. Vrath felt them coming by the change in the vibrations from the chariot. There were at least a hundred of them in the first group itself, with others forced to follow only due to the limitations of the terrain. He felt also that several would be taking different routes to try to cut them off at various points, some to lay ambushes ahead. He grinned to himself. It would be an interesting journey home, that was certain.
He bent to pick up his bow, to string it. He could, of course, have summoned his celestial bow—that unbreakable, formidable divine weapon that could outmatch any man-made one—but he chose to use a simple unmagical one instead, perhaps to even the odds in his mortal opponent’s favor. He sensed one of the princesses watching him balefully and glanced at her: It was Amber, of course. She turned her eyes away when he caught her looking and he sensed that she had been sizing him up, evaluating him as a warrior. And perhaps something more.
“Who is Shalva?” he asked casually as he strung the bow. The effort didn’t exert him at all, and he noted the way her eyes narrowed at the ease with which he bent the longbow and strung it deftly.
She did not answer at once. He waited, not pressing her, acting as if the question hardly mattered to him, which in fact it did not.
“He is the one who would have won me,” she said shortly, then looked away as if regretting having answered. But something occurred to her and she turned back almost at once. “And will do so even now,” she asserted vehemently.
“He shall certainly have his chance,” Vrath replied jovially. “But do not judge him too harshly if he fails. Winning at arms is not the only victory.”
She stared at him as if he had spoken a foreign language. “Of course it is!” she said indignantly. “You only say that because you are afraid you will lose and be killed!”
He smiled sadly at her. “There is much you do not know about the world, princess Amber,” he said. “And I am one of those things.”
She stared at him in complete incomprehension. Then, frustrated, she turned away again and ignored him. She spoke to her sisters and all three of them looked back and watched as the dust cloud following them coalesced into recognizable forms.
Vrath counted at least four score chariots hard on their heels. Of them, about two hands’ count would reach arrow range in moments. And one of them, a bright shining gold-inlaid chariot that reflected the late morning sun’s rays like a mirror, was far ahead of the pack, already within arrow range and gaining fast. He wondered why that forerunner had not started firing arrows yet, then realized the reason: He was afraid of hitting the princesses by mistake.
He smiled to himself. That was one of the things he had hoped for when he had decided upon this plan. At least for now, the desire to prove themselves superior warriors was still outweighed by their desire to gain wives. It was when that balance shifted to the former desire that the real fighting would commence.
The forerunner drew closer, and as he approached, the two younger sisters exclaimed and turned to their elder sister, smiling. “There he comes! We knew he would come!”
Out the corner of his eye, Vrath saw Amber smile. She sensed him watching her covertly and glanced at him. He turned to look at her and she turned away at once, but not before he had seen the uncertainty clouding her beautiful brown eyes. She is intelligent enough to know that this will not be as simple as she would like it to be. Or else I would not have been able to abduct her and her sisters in the first place, from under the very aquiline noses of several thousand armed men in the heart of her own homeland.
Yes, he thought, smiling inwardly, this one would make a very good wife for Virya! He only hoped that Virya would be able to keep her under control.
The thundering of chariot wheels grew steadily behind them until the forerunner was only a few score yards behind. When the distance between them had reduced to three score yards, Vrath saw sunlight flash on something metallic as it left the chariot and rose into the air in a bowing arc. “Keep your heads down,” he told the three princesses matter-of-factly. “And don’t get in my way.” He looked at each of them in turn, making sure their eyes met and he communicated his seriousness. “Don’t even try,” he said, his voice steely. “Even if one of you survives the trip, that will be acceptable to me.”
He saw their eyes widen as they realized what he meant. All their lives, they had encountered only men who obeyed their every command or desired them intensely enough to do as they desired. He was probably the first man who didn’t care if any of them lived or died.
The javelin was beautifully launched, taking into consideration the respective speeds of both chariots, the wind factor, and the precise location of the target. Vrath estimated that it would land precisely on his back, punching a hole through his rib cage and bursting his lungs, to explode out of his chest. The wound would be a mortal one, instantly fatal. There would be no escaping it. And due to the nature of the road, he could neither swerve the chariot to avoid it, for fear of striking against one of the many large boulders bordering the road on either side, nor leave the reins for fear of the horses veering slightly off path and the chariot striking the same boulders.
So he did the only thing he could. Waiting until the last instant, judging the trajectory of the falling javelin exactly as the thrower himself had done, he reached out and snatched the falling missile out of the air. The sound of the heavy wood slapping hard into his palm was shockingly loud, even above the thundering of the horse hooves and chariot wheels. The force of the impact was enough to jar him to his heels. But he caught it perfectly, the deadly metal-coated point barely inches from his back.
He turned to glance at the princesses. They were gaping wide-eyed at his hand, the one holding the javelin.
“Sisters, did you see . . .?” asked the youngest one.
They nodded dumbly, too stunned to speak.
Vrath grinned at them, then, turning from the waist without leaving the reins, he sent the javelin flying back the way it had come, but at a direct trajectory. The missile flew back as straight as an arrow shot from a bow, and passed within a hair’s breadth of the forerunner’s chariot. The weapon’s passing startled the horses into loud whinnies, even as it embedded itself in the front armor plate of the chariot. The chariot shook with the impact and the man driving it stared down with eyes that showed white even at this distance, realizing what Vrath intended him to realize: that he had deliberately thrown the weapon to warn him away, not injure or kill.
“The next one will go through your chest,” Vrath murmured, and turned back to mind his horses. He had only taken his eyes off the road for a few moments and already the team leader had begun dragging them leftwards. He straightened them out as he heard a familiar whistling sound that could mean only one thing.
“Arrow shower,” he sighed.
He raised his bow and loosed a single arrow, firing up into the air.
Then he continued driving the chariot without looking back.
Amber had never seen a warrior like the man who called himself Vrath. He was terrible, monstrous, awful. The nerve of the man, to storm into her father’s city and abduct her sisters and her away while every suitor who desired them watched helplessly! What audacity! And the way he had spoken to her father—she had seen her father’s face change when he announced his name and dynasty. She knew of the Krushan Empire and the Krushan race too. In a sense, they were the mother race of all who lived upon the subcontinent. And their nation was one of the most powerful, widest, and richest. Had their name been called during the recitation of suitors participating, she would have felt a thrill of excitement at being desired as the wife of such a great House. But to be abducted like this was humiliating and degrading! She had prayed for Shalva, her beloved, to come and slaughter this impudent bearded giant and cut off his head . . . or worse.
But then she had seen the way he caught the javelin. She had never witnessed anything so miraculous. She had seen a man catch a javelin once, but that had been on an open field, where the man had been able to watch for the javelin’s approach and adjust his body to catch it. This Vrath fellow had been driving a chariot team of eight horses, looking ahead, and he had simply stuck out his hand and caught the javelin as it fell. How was such a thing even possible? How could he have seen and judged its approach so perfectly, and how much strength did it take to stop a flung javelin like that? She could hardly imagine. It was a godlike feat, the kind written about it in the fables one read in the puranas and itihasas. Something that Indra once did, or Varuna or Vayu.
Now, she watched with wide eyes as he shot a single arrow upwards, this time not even glancing back to judge the trajectory, wind speed and direction or any of the myriad factors involved in a precise bow shot.
What impudence! How could anyone possibly aim an arrow without seeing? By sound alone? What if he misjudged? There were so many factors to consider, it was not remotely possible that he could hit his mark. Even if he didn’t care whether or not he struck true—even if he was simply shooting blindly to dissuade the pursuer—what about the arrows shot by Shalva that were now falling towards him, only an instant away from killing him?
Yes, arrows. Plural. For Shalva had loosed his legendary astra, the Hailstorm. A single thick arrow that split open during flight to divide into numerous smaller darts, each deadly enough to punch through armor and deal a serious injury, if not a mortal blow. It took great strength to simply loose such an arrow, and a special bow that required three men’s strength to bend and string. Once shot, Shalva had claimed, it never failed. He had downed entire companies of enemy soldiers with that arrow. He had even demonstrated it once to her, showering an area three yards square with scores of tiny deadly black darts.
Amber had never expected to see the same weapon deployed at her.
If even one of those strikes me or my sisters in a vital organ, she thought as she watched the hail of missiles descend towards her, we will surely die.
She realized that Shalva must know that. Which meant that he had chosen to loose it anyway, risking her lives and the lives of her sisters, in order to stop their abductor from getting away.
Stupid man, she wanted to scream.
But then Vrath had loosed his single arrow.
And as it shot up, she found herself unable to take her eyes off it, even though the Hailstorm would strike down in an instant.
Vrath’s arrow rose up and burst into a hundred fragments.
Each of the fragments flew sideways, parallel to the surface of the earth, like a flock of birds that rose upwards then suddenly split off to go their separate ways.
The fragments of Vrath’s arrows sliced through the Hailstorm.
Amber watched in disbelief as the fragments cut each of the several black missiles into half, rendering them harmless as well as halting their progress.
The chariot thundered on, and the pieces of Shalva’s fabled Hailstorm clattered to the dusty road behind the chariot, useless pieces of metal and wood.
“How—?” she started to ask, then stopped.
Vrath’s face had turned as dark as a storm cloud.
“He meant to kill you as well!” he roared. She recoiled at the sound of his voice. It was louder than any voice she had heard before. She had heard men bellowing before, but never so loudly. She had not thought it possible for any man’s voice to be this loud! “He was able to judge my ability from that single catch and counterstrike, and because of my reputation, he assumes that he will not be able to defeat me fairly. Therefore he continues to strike from behind in violation of Krushan warrior code and attempts to slay you innocents as well! This is unacceptable!”
Amber felt her sisters clutch her arms for comfort, frightened by the anger and intensity of Vrath’s roaring. Amber herself was more frightened by the knowledge that he was right: Shalva had meant to kill them, or else he would never have used the Hailstorm.
“Kill him then,” she heard herself say, her voice barely a croak lost in the thundering of hooves and wheels.
Vrath turned his head towards her and she had a moment when she felt as if he would surely strike out at her. He possessed the power and rage to do it. But she saw his eyes and they were not filled with hatred for her, only curiosity.
“Kill him then!” she repeated, loud enough that he could hear her clearly. “He has already forfeited me by targeting my sisters and myself. So do what you must to save us. I will never accept him as my husband now.”
Vrath’s face cleared as suddenly as it had clouded. It reminded her of a time when she was younger and had been looking down at her reflection in a lotus pond, wondering if she really was as beautiful as everyone said she was. A cloud had passed across the sun just then and she had been startled, thinking something had changed in her face, then realized it was only a change in the sky. The way her own reflection had darkened then cleared as the cloud moved across the sun was exactly the way Vrath’s face darkened and cleared. He is as transparent as water itself if you know how to gauge him, she thought, and the insight moved her deeply for some reason.
Vrath smiled at her. “I did not ask for nor need your permission, milady,” he said, in a tone that mocked her lightly. At that, her anger flared again and she hated him once more.
But she watched with new interest as he raised his bow again, shut his eyes, and loosed another arrow.
She watched the arrow rise at the same instant as Shalva loosed another arrow as well. Because she was watching so intently, she knew that Vrath had loosed his own arrow a fraction of an instant before Shalva had done the same. She knew also that Vrath had his eyes shut and was facing forward, one hand still gripping the reins even as it gripped the bow—another impossible feat she would not have thought possible if she had not witnessed it herself—and so he could not possibly have seen Shalva fire his arrow.
Yet when she looked back she realized that Vrath must have predicted Shalva’s actions, and countered with the perfect attack.
Shalva’s arrow rose at a sharp angle, as if climbing a mountain gradient rather than sketching a rainbow curve. She knew what that meant as well: It was Acidfire. The arrow that passed directly above its intended target, showering droplets of powerful acid as it went. Even a single drop of that acid was toxic enough to burn through skin, flesh, and bone itself, causing unbearable agony if not the end of the targeted enemy.
But because Vrath’s arrow had been loosed an instant earlier, it arrived while Shalva’s arrow was still rising sharply, at its slowest point, before the ventricles had opened to release the acid. Vrath’s arrow burgeoned like a sheet hung to dry on a windy day, spreading outwards in all directions to completely envelope Shalva’s arrow.
Shalva’s struck the enveloping folds of cloth and instead of ripping through, was enfolded in the fabric and plummeted groundward. It fell with a useless plop to the ground and was trampled underfoot by Shalva’s own team of horses.
Amber gazed at Vrath in amazement. He grinned at her. “A good warrior always knows the enemy’s next move.”
Then his face darkened again. “This time he meant you not merely to die, but to suffer.”
Her heart was chilled by the knowledge that once again, he was right. The Acidfire was an arrow Shalva would only use if he felt personal animosity towards the enemy. She looked back with sudden growing hatred at the chariot of the man she had been prepared to marry that very day. “How could you, Shalva?” she shouted, shaking her fist at the pursuing chariot.
In response, Shalva loosed again. This one aimed directly at them, not at an angle. She watched in horror as the missile sped towards them at the speed of wind, and reacted to the sight of it splintering into a score of tiny metal flechettes, each sharp enough to tear through flesh and cause great pain and damage.
Before the shower of metal flechettes could reach their chariot, an arrow shot from beside her raced to meet them, splitting itself into as many pieces, each of these pieces obstructing the flechettes and dropping them harmlessly to the ground. She turned back to stare at Vrath, who was lowering his bow, still looking ahead to watch the road. She understood that his aim had been perfect, but how could the metal pieces in his arrow have perfectly blocked every single flechette coming at them? Could anyone loose an arrow with such a precise degree of skill?
That was when she first began to realize that Vrath was no mere mortal. And when she first fell in love with him.
Vrath grew steadily angrier with Shalva as the suitor continued pursuing them and continued to loose deadly arrows at them, each more ingenious and malevolent than the one before. He dealt with each missile in turn, shooting back a suitable counterattack, but after this had progressed for a while, he began to resent the attacks. It was now no longer a question of escaping with the princesses; it was a matter of Krushan pride. He could keep this up all day, and counter everything Shalva threw at them, but it would encourage the other kings following and give the impression that Shalva harried him all the way to Hastinaga. It was important that he prove his superiority once and for all and end this game. He was incensed by Shalva’s repeated attempts to kill the princesses rather than merely stop Vrath. This was a direct challenge to Vrath’s manhood and family pride: Shalva was effectively saying that he would rather see the girls dead than married to his ward and what the devil was Vrath going to do about that?
The first chance Vrath got, finding an open area with dry baked earth and almost no foliage or tree cover, he turned the chariot around. He did not bother with a wide wheeling arc and a genial approach. He slowed his team, executed a smart turning maneuver, then coaxed them back up to speed and charged directly at Shalva. Before he did this, he had gained a good mile or so on the forerunner. This gave him an excellent approach and he picked up speed as he drove towards his pursuer. He was pleased to see Shalva’s chariot slow as the suitor reacted to the sight of his prey turning upon him, and behind the fore chariot, he saw the other pursuers arriving in quick succession, drawing up their chariots and horses and fanning out in a wide arc to enable a better view of the coming duel. He knew that none of them would interfere, since Shalva had taken first strike and was entitled to the first duel as well. That too was a matter of Krushan warrior code. So long as two champions fought single-handedly, none could interfere, no matter what the outcome. Entire armies sat and watched and waited until champions finished their bout, leaving one dead and the other victorious, and often these duels lasted for hours or days, or even longer—as in the case of poor Gada, who fought his opponent for three years!
Vrath had no intention of letting this bout last more than three minutes.
He saw that Shalva had opted to remain standing while Vrath approached. It was a sensible move. This way, Shalva would presumably have better aim and stability while Vrath, having made the first move, was entitled to take his best shot. Shalva intended to survive this shot and then make his own counterattack against Vrath, this time using the closer range to finish off his targets. Vrath would not give him that chance.
But as Vrath had expected, Shalva deviated from custom. Instead of letting Vrath have the first shot as was traditional in such a situation, he loosed first. This time, he used the advantage of stillness and stability to unleash what must be one of his most powerful weapons.
The princesses screamed in alarm as the javelin-thick arrow shot by Shalva burst into a veritable cloud of arrows. It seemed as if the arrow split and split again and continued to divide itself infinitely, producing an impossible number of missiles that filled the air and darkened the sky itself! Vrath knew that Shalva had used a cannon-bow, an oversized bow fixed to the chariot itself that loosed a container missile as thick as a pole. Within this container missile were the individual barbed arrows, released in stages as the pole split apart during its short flight. Due to the power of the cannon-bow and the relatively lengthy flight time, Shalva was able to loose a second and a third container missile in quick succession, and now, even before the first shower of arrows arrived at its destination, he was loosing a fourth.
A great roar of approval rose from the gathered crowd of princes and kings. Naturally their support was for Shalva, who was fighting for all of them. In Vrath’s view that made all of them equally culpable for Shalva’s actions and transgression of the norms of combat. Even now, what Shalva was doing was unethical in the extreme: It was one thing to use such weapons against superior forces such as a larger army, but to do so against a single warrior enemy, with innocents in harm’s way, that was unacceptable.
“Vrath!” cried Amber, the eldest daughter of Kashya, appealing to him. She was staring up at the approaching cloud of arrows with abject horror. He saw that she expected to die this time. For how could he possibly counter such an attack? Even if he loosed an arrow to stop the first barrage, the second barrage was already following close after—and the third and the fourth and the fifth . . . and Shalva would continue to rain down arrows until his goal was accomplished. It was impossible to escape such an attack in theory and impossible in practice as well . . . for any mortal warrior.
Vrath had adjusted the pace of his charge to match the trajectory of the approaching arrows. He only desired that his horses escape unhurt. They were most innocent of all in this conflict and did not deserve to be injured or killed. He rode until he was certain that the team had passed ahead of the shower of death that rained down from above, then released the reins and turned to the princesses. There was nothing here to fear if the team went off course. The princesses were his only concern now.
Vrath threw himself over all three girls, embracing them tightly, wrapping his arms and legs over them, ensuring that every inch of their bodies was covered by his own. They initially squealed in shock, unaccustomed to any man coming into physical contact with them, but naturally quickly realized he sought only to protect them, and grew still.
The arrows rained down.
Vrath felt them land. They struck the ground, the chariot, and his body. Dozens, scores, hundreds, then it seemed, thousands.
The barrage continued endlessly. The clattering and thudding of arrows as they struck ground and embedded their metal heads in the packed earth, or in the wood of the chariot, or in the flesh of his body, a variety of related sounds that rang out like a death rattle, playing a ghastly dirge. It seemed to go on forever.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the rain of arrows ended.
No doubt, Vrath mused through the fog of pain and sensation, Shalva had run out of container missiles. There was a limit to how many he would have been carrying in the limited space of his chariot.
He estimated that Shalva would have loosed at least ten or twelve barrages in all. Perhaps ten or twelve thousand individual missiles. Most of them would have fallen around the chariot. Perhaps a tenth of that number would have fallen on the chariot itself. And of that number perhaps a third would have struck Vrath.
He unwrapped his body from the princesses, regaining his feet. He stumbled and had to reach out for support. He saw Amber’s face as she looked up, staring at him in astonishment. She was staring at his back, his arms, the rear of his neck, his legs . . . She exclaimed in horror, clapping a hand to her mouth. Her sisters simply stared silently in mute disbelief.
Vrath felt as if his back had been set ablaze. He could feel a thousand pinpricks of fire burning into his skin, boring through his flesh, some reaching all the way into his organs, touching upon his bones, penetrating his joints, cracking his spine, his neck, piercing his lungs, his heart, even punching through the soft area at the back of his neck to penetrate his brain-case at two points. It felt like nothing he had ever experienced before: To call it pain would be to understate it woefully. To call it agony would be merely a word. The actual sensation was indescribable, and yet it was also much as the reality suggested. He had been pierced by hundreds of tiny barbed arrows. He knew from the wetness that drenched his back, pouring down the rear of his legs, collecting in a puddle on the floor of the chariot, that he would have been mortally wounded if he were indeed a mortal. In fact, he was probably mortally wounded several score times over. Yet he could still stand, albeit with great effort.
He looked at the face of the eldest daughter of the king of Serapi. Amber lowered her hand from her mouth, still staring at him in utter disbelief, yet assimilating the fact that he still stood, despite his terrible wounds. He saw in her eyes an understanding, an awareness that he could not possibly survive such wounds, no man could, and yet, if he did, then it meant something. It meant he was more than just a man. He saw also that she understood the most important thing: that he had done this to protect her and her sisters. He could have let them die and saved himself—or even if he could not save himself, he still did not need to protect them by using his own body as a shield. Yet by doing so, he had proved one thing beyond dispute: He deserved to decide their fate far more than that treacherous rat of a suitor Shalva who intended to murder his own beloved rather than let her wed another man.
He saw also that she now desired him, Vrath. She was in awe of him. The way she looked at him at that instant was the way he had seen his mother’s followers gaze at her, reverentially, adoringly, devotedly. She looked at him as if he were a god. And she wished to give herself to him.
He shook his head once, silently denying her. She blinked, startled. He did not speak or explain. This was not the time nor the place.
He turned, hearing the gasps of horror from the princesses as they saw his back now and viewed the full extent of his injuries. He knew his back must resemble a porcupine, bristling with arrows. Except that he did not possess the power to simply shoot these arrows from his own body and assault his enemy. He would have to remove them the hard way, by tearing out his own flesh and skin and organ tissue. But that was for later, after he finished the task at hand. For now, he had to deliver a rejoinder to King Shalva, one that he would never forget so long as he lived.
Vrath was relieved to see that the horses were unharmed. He had used those precious seconds to ensure their safety and then the safety of the princesses. He had not cared about himself. He could survive this. He could survive far worse than this, he knew. Although at this instant, with arrows piercing every part of his body, he could not imagine what could be worse.
He coaxed the team into starting forward. They smelled his blood and whinnied angrily, upset. Animals responded well to him, sensing his affinity. He knew they could still smell the river in him, even if mortals could not. It was not a fish smell, but something deeper. An atavistic link to other animals of all species that bonded them at the deepest level.
“Ride,” he urged the beautiful Longrider mares, great powerful glossy giants all of them. “Ride, my beauties! And trust in me.”
They did trust in him. They would ride off the face of a cliff if he commanded them—because he never commanded, merely coaxed, urged, requested, asked lovingly. It was sufficient. When there is a bond of love, even selfish mortal men lay down their lives for one another. Animals? They are born loyal. Dying for one another is part of life for them.
The cheers and roars of approval from the large gathering of watching kings had continued all this while, celebrating what they believed was the extinction of the impudent Krushan abductor and the saving of their honor. It died down now as they saw his chariot pick up speed, resuming its charge directly at the chariot of Shalva. They watched with surprise and renewed interest. He saw many hands raised to point and many voices raised in consternation as they saw the brindled fur coat of arrows he had sprouted.
“Today, in battle, you face Vrath,” he roared, loudly enough to be heard by even the farthest pursuer, still half a mile distant and approaching steadily. “Those of you that survive, return home and tell your kin this tale!”
He saw many of them look at one another in panic, some taking up weapons, others reaching for their reins then dropping them as they realized that flight was useless: They were gathered too closely together to escape easily. Easier to stand and fight. Shalva too was raising a weapon, his longbow again. No doubt he intended to demonstrate some new ingenious kind of arrow.
Time now to use his powers as a demi-god to the fullest. No reason to hold back if the mortal pursuing was himself resorting to magical weaponry.
Vrath uttered the mantras he had learned when still a boy, the ones he had been taught in the heart of the deepest ocean, where the sun had not shone for untold years and where only one god ruled supreme. Vrrun. It had been Vrrun-Tau himself who had taught Vrath the mantra, back when he was still the prince-heir to all his family, friends, and gurus. Vrrun had taught him the arts of fighting war in watery environments, arts which Vrath later realized he might never have occasion to put into practice during his life as a mortal on dry earth. But some of what Vrrun taught him was applicable on land or sea or sky.
Like this mantra, and he used it now.
In response to the mantra, a bow appeared instantly in his hands. The moment it appeared, a thunderclap sounded in the clear sky, deafeningly loud. The bow itself was immense, the size of a lance from tip to tip, and the only way it could be held was by standing it on the floor of the chariot. Even so, it towered above him. The texture of the bow itself was not wood but water, for it was made of water held in solid form; not ice, but simply water held rigid by the power of the mantra. The arrow that appeared, accompanied by a flash of lightning, was white as the lightning itself. It was made of densely packed ocean salt, as hard as lohitwood and as heavy. Hard enough to penetrate armor and bone and punch through flesh with the same impact as any wooden missile. Yet when it penetrated flesh, it would dissolve to its natural state, filling the wound with pungent ocean saline.
He was within a hundred yards of Shalva’s chariot now and could see Shalva berating his charioteer. The charioteer was panicking, and in the confusion, their horses were rolling their eyes and whickering restlessly, unnerved by the thunderclaps and Vrath’s chariot, which was bearing down on them at relentless speed. Vrath loosed the first arrow from Runya’s bow and watched it slash through the reins and rigging of the team. Freed of their harnessing, the horses milled about a moment, then realized they were free and began to race away.
The chariot itself settled to the ground with a rude thump, spilling the charioteer out and onto the ground where he sprawled.
Shalva shouted with anger and raised his bow again to fire back at Vrath. He loosed an arrow which spread into a wall of fire that raged towards Vrath’s horses. The team whinnied, unable to control their natural terror of fire, but Vrath’s next arrow turned to water, dousing the wall of fire before it could come close enough to harm his horses.
What followed then was a humiliation and a rout.
Vrath snapped Shalva’s bow with his next shot. Then shattered his chariot wheels.
Turning around Shalva’s chariot, he rode in a circle, firing inwards at the suitor, demolishing his chariot piece by piece. Each time Shalva attempted to raise a weapon—an axe, a sword, a spear, a javelin, another bow—Vrath destroyed it with a single shot.
Soon, Shalva lay on the ground, the ruins of his chariot around him. He beat his chest and slapped his arms in anger, challenging Vrath to do his worst.
Vrath ripped the man’s clothes off, rendering him naked for all to see.
Then he sliced off his moustaches and hair, turning him bald-faced and bare-headed.
Then, unleashing an arrow that turned in mid-flight into a storm of tiny birds, he pinned Shalva down on the ground, arms and legs spread akimbo, naked and bald and helpless.
The suitor of Amber cried out with shame and humiliation and begged Vrath to kill him.
Instead, Vrath turned on the watching kings. They had stayed to watch Shalva’s humiliation, unable to look away from the denigration of one of their own rivals. The truth was, while they had cheered on Shalva earlier, he had been the prime contender at the swayamvara and most likely to have his pick of the princesses. That earned him a great deal of animosity. So long as he was victorious, they cheered him. Now, they jeered instead, and applauded Vrath’s skill at arms and extraordinary ability.
But their jeers did not last long.
When Vrath turned his bow on them, they quailed with fear. At once, those that were expecting this loosed their own volley of arrows. Another storm of missiles shot towards Vrath. But this time, he had time enough to counter. He shot a single arrow that exploded with a blinding blue flash in midair. So powerful was the explosion, the hail of arrows was shattered into fragments which were in turn driven back at the kings who had loosed the arrows. Thrice each king was pierced by his own arrows, and cried out in agony as he fell to the ground or to the floor of his chariot, clutching his wounds.
Those who remained unharmed applauded Vrath’s skill nervously, hoping they would be spared his wrath. They were. Vrath did not harm those who did not attempt to harm him.
Then Vrath turned the heads of his horse team and rode away, heading towards Hastinaga.
This time, he was not followed.
After travelling for the rest of that day, Vrath and the princesses stopped to make camp for the night. The princesses had been silent after the battle with their suitors, although they held one another close and averted their eyes from Vrath’s terrible, terrible wounds.
Once they had a fire going and had eaten the game Vrath hunted for them, and the horses had been watered, fed and groomed, Vrath asked Amber’s help in removing the arrows from his body. She agreed readily. It was a long and painful process, the worse for him, of course, but no less for her, because she could feel the pulling and tearing of each barbed head as she teased and worked it free of his flesh. His wounds began to bleed again and soon the grass beneath his body was soaked with his blood. She began to weep then, unable to help herself. He turned his head to look at her but did not say anything at that time. After a brief respite, she regained control of her emotions and resumed her work. It was late, the night was quiet, the moon was high, and her sisters were asleep when she finished. The pile of arrows lying on the ground was half a yard high. It was impossible to imagine that they had all been embedded in his flesh only hours earlier.
And yet, even as she washed the last of his wounds clean under his direction, she saw that the first ones, the ones from which she had first removed the arrows, were already closed and starting to heal. It was remarkable. She had never seen the likes of it before. Clearly, his ability to endure pain and injury and to recover successfully from them was beyond human measure. The fact that he could still sit, stand, move, and talk was in itself a miracle.
He thanked her quietly and was about to turn over and sleep when she spoke.
“Great Krushan,” she said, still too self-conscious of his stature to call him by his name directly. She was a princess born and raised; she could not overlook protocol and etiquette, even under the circumstances. Besides, for all his actions, he was still very much a gentleman and a royal, as was she. “I had already chosen the king of Soubha as my husband to be. He had accepted me and made his desire known to my father. It also pleased my father to have him as his son-in-law. Once he excelled at the swayamvara, I would have declared him as my choice of husband. But now I can never do so. This is your doing. You appear to be a man who knows Krushan. Therefore I ask that you decide what is the right course of action for me to follow under Krushan law.”
So saying, she went to bed beside her sisters. But she did not fall asleep at once. Instead, she lay awake, hoping that Vrath would come to her and answer her proposal in words or deed, or both.
Vrath lay on his pallet of grass and thought long and hard on her words. He knew what she meant but could not say more directly. You have defeated the man whom I intended to marry. By defeating him and proving yourself the better man, you earn the right to claim my hand. It would not displease me if you declare your intention to marry me.
He knew that she was awake yet, sighing and turning from side to side in order to let him know that she waited for his answer. He knew she meant for him to come and claim her. She desired him and wanted him to desire her as his wife.
In another life, at another time, perhaps he would have done as she wished. Perhaps he would have wished the same.
But in this life, he was foresworn from marriage, cohabitation, love, sex . . . and that meant he could not allow himself even to feel such desires for a woman, let alone express them. To him, the line between celibate and homemaker was not a fine one. It was clearly etched, large and bold. And he could not approach it even from afar, let alone broach it.
Moments later, he woke Amber with a hand on her shoulder.
She started awake at once, beaming with pleasure. For she thought he had come to steal her away into the shadows to demonstrate his desire for her. She was excited and awaiting it eagerly. Never before had she desired a man as she desired Vrath. Even Shalva’s proposal and her infatuation for him seemed juvenile and puerile now in retrospect. This was a real man, and real love. And under the circumstances, what could be more thrilling than to give herself under the stars to a prince of the Krushan empire after being abducted from her own swayamvara? It was like being the heroine of her own puranic fable.
What she failed to remember was that the heroines of puranic fables almost always found their stories ending tragically.
Vrath took her around the trees to where the horses were tethered. Her heart was pounding and she found her breath catching in her throat as she prepared to receive the touch of her first lover. She was surprised to see that he had separated a horse from the team and had saddled and harnessed it for individual riding. She was even more surprised when he turned to her and said, “This horse will carry you to your destination. Ride southwards and westwards and you will find your way.”
She stared at him blankly. Southwards and westwards? What did he mean? Then she remembered what kingdom lay in that direction.
“Shouba?” she asked. “You are sending me to Shouba?”
It was impossible to see his face clearly in the shadows of the tree. “It is what you desire, is it not? You were all but betrothed to King Shalva of Shouba. I am doing the right thing under Krushan law, as you requested. Your two sisters will continue to Hastinaga with me, to be married to my ward Virya. They shall be treated as princesses deserve and shall be as happy with him as they could ever desire. He is a handsome young man and a good king. They will not lack for anything and shall live as queens of the earth.”
She was still trying to get over the shock of disappointment. “But . . . you do not wish me to go as well . . . to Hastinaga?”
“Two wives are good,” he said. “And yes, had you not asked me to release you, I would wish you to go to Hastinaga as well. To wed Virya. But since you asked for my mercy, I am granting you this reprieve. I wish I could let your sisters go as well, but trust me when I say, I am sure they will do far better with Virya than with any of those that hoped to win your hearts at the swayamvara.”
She did not know what to say. This was an unexpected turn of events. Clearly, he had misunderstood her, or . . . Or he had deliberately rejected her overture and invitation, spurning her. Why else would he send her to that naked blubbering fool? That coward who had tried to kill her and her sisters to prove his own valor as a warrior and had then proved himself utterly incompetent before a real warrior like Vrath. She didn’t want to go to Shalva now! She had no desire to see Shalva ever again. Yet she seemed to have no choice. She could not refuse to go now, for it would be humiliating to beg him and be rejected again.
She made one last attempt. He was turning to go and she reached out and caught his arm. He stopped and looked down at her hand holding his forearm.
“Will you not take me?” she asked, leaving it open for him to interpret in any way he pleased. To say more would be to say too much, and that would mean a loss of dignity. For a princess raised as she had been, dignity was more important than anything else.
He reached down and removed her hand from his forearm, gently. “I cannot,” he said, and as the legend grew over time, its narrators would claim there was a hint—just a hint, mind you—of regret in his tone, “My own vow forbids it.”
To which he added softly: “Goodbye, princess.”
Amber left in tears, riding hard.
Vrath lay awake, after, and looked up at the stars, listening to the sound of the hooves fading into the night. And none knew what he felt in that moment, except perhaps the stars that looked down upon him, as cold and inscrutable as the son of Jeel and Sha’ant himself.
The stories in the Legends of the Burnt Empire series take place in the same world as Ashok K. Banker's Upon a Burning Throne, the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata.
John Joseph Adams Books
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