The horses were in a steady gallop now. The chariot passed smoothly over the uneven terrain, its design and build contributing no less than the skilful handling of the reins by the man driving the horses.
Now it seemed the man was no longer in a hurry. The first frenzied rush of the horses and chariot was past. And Subhadra was getting a good look at her abductor.
She had heard of him, of course. They were cousins after all. But even if they were not related, she would still have heard tales, for he was one of the greatest warriors of their time.
She had known he was a guest of her brother, Krishna but she had not met him. Many a times had Krishna regaled her with tales of the Pandavas and the fabled city of Indraprastha that they built out of the wilds of Khandava, but never had he specifically mentioned the middle Pandava.
She had also heard the bards sing of the story of the five brothers. Of how they were born, of their escape from the house of lac, of the slaying of Hidimba and Baka and of the near impossible feat of archery that the man beside her had performed at the Swayamvara of Draupadi.
She looked at him. All his attention was centred on the horses. And the horses were her brother’s, she noticed. So Krishna had abetted this man in abducting her. She felt bile rise and turned her face away.
Why brother, thought she silently. Why this newly discovered cousin is more important than your sister? Don’t I have more claim on you? Does the bond of blood between us mean less than the bond of blood between you and him?
She could almost hear Krishna’s answering laugh and his teasing reply, ‘Why sister? Don’t you trust me? How many times had you told me that your future husband shall be chosen by me? And when I do that, you are complaining?’
She could see the look in his eyes, tender and teasing, amused and grave. She had never seen any one’s eyes that held so many conflicting expressions at the same time.
She looked again at her abductor, her brother’s choice for her future husband. He was dark like Krishna but there the resemblance ended. He had thick curly hair which he wore long and which flew behind him like a horse’s mane.
She bit her lip. She could not see his face properly, but his profile was certainly arresting. He had high cheek bones which she found strangely attractive. His face was flushed dark from the exertion and probably excitement. His lips were drawn back in a smile and he did seem to have good teeth.
He had a magnificent physique too, and she had a clear view of his torso, his Uttariya having been blown away by the wind a long time back. But then, he was a warrior and an archer, the scars across his forearms bearing ample testimony to the fact.
He knew how to handle horses too, she conceded. Her brother’s horses were not easy to handle, but he seemed to do it so effortlessly. At least his face held no strain, only a smile, the bunched muscles of his arms the only evidence of his effort.
Dusk was approaching, she noticed. And it was beginning to be cold.
She shivered as the horses slowed to a trot.
They stopped by a spring and he got down briskly and started to unhitch the horses from the chariot. She sat down in the chariot, placed her chin over her laced hands and watched him as he attended to the horses’ comfort.
Next he built a fire and even a crude but serviceable shelter.
She also got a good look at his face, though he never once glanced at her. He was really most amazingly handsome, but that did not make her feel better.
She hugged herself to stop the cold. She was shivering again.
“You can sleep there, it will be warmer,” his voice broke into her thoughts. It was a pleasant voice, deep and rich and reminding her of mountain peaks and ocean waves.
She looked up to see him, regarding her gravely. A lump rose to her throat which she swallowed as she got down from the chariot, ignoring his outstretched hand and walked to the shelter he had built.
It was warm as he had said and she sat there, her knees drawn up and her chin resting on them, her arms around her legs. She watched the flickering fire and was aware of him kneeling next to her.
“Am I beyond forgiveness?” He asked.
She looked at him. “You abducted me.” Said she. “You did not think what my feelings would be.”
He looked into her eyes. She strove not to fall into the spell of his gaze.
“Is there anyone else in your heart?”
His question took her by surprise.
“No, but that is irrelevant.”
“But it gives me room to hope,” said he quietly. “And I am prepared to wait for as long as it takes, my lady.”
“That from the man who abducted me.”
“I was desperate, my lady. From the moment I saw you, I knew my life would be incomplete without you.” He paused. “That I would be incomplete without you.”
She looked into his eyes and believed him.
“And how did you reach that conclusion?” She ignored the tremor in her own voice. “Did a bolt strike you from the blue?”
He shook his head. “I saw you,” said he. “I loved you.”
It was a simple statement. She wondered if she was foolish for believing it.
“A bit sudden, wasn’t it?”
“Not for me. When I saw you, I knew my wandering was at an end. I had been seeking you, though I knew it not.”
He leaned over and took her face between his hands. His touch was as gentle as the expression in his eyes. “It was unthinkable that I should lose you. That is why I was hasty. But you have nothing to fear from me. I swear to you on my honour as a warrior that you shall have no cause to fear me.”
She looked into his eyes and saw herself reflected there. And she knew then what he meant when he said he had been seeking her, though he knew not. For, in that moment, she realized that she had been seeking him too.
She dropped her eyes. It was too sudden. She needed to think. She needed time.
He released her face and rose. “I shall sleep in the chariot,” he put something before her. “You must be hungry. These fruits were all I could find.”
She shook her head mutely. He stood, looking at her. Then shrugged and went to the chariot.
She looked at the fruits he had placed in front of her. She lay down, facing away from the fire, smiling softly.
It seemed she could trust her brother’s choice after all.