An Unexpected Twist…. Chapter Fourteen

Vasusena had got the soldier to the nearest village and left him with the physician before going back. He knew he was losing time, but he could not leave the man there to die. Neither of his wounds were fatal. Loss of blood and dehydration were the cause for his weakened condition. Under the circumstances, leaving him there would have been akin to cold blooded murder.
Fortunately, the village was quite near and the physician easy to find. He had not lost even an hour. He knew going into those woods by himself might not be the smartest move, but he had no choice. He only hoped he would not be too late.
He discounted the soldier’s babbling of monsters. The woods here were near enough to civilization and no other races dwelt in it. The royalty of Hastinapura often hunted in there and they had never come across even predators there.
Vasusena had been in these woods a few times with Suyodhana and his brothers. As such, he had some familiarity with it. Which was not saying much since woods never stayed as they were. New trees grew and old ones fell. Old paths disappeared and new ones were made. The woods changed constantly. And as such, it was not possible for anyone to be completely familiar with these.
He found the tracks almost immediately. It seemed like a fairly large party. They had left the evidences of their passing everywhere. From the trees that their weapons grazed, to the bushes they had hacked away, their trail could have been followed by a ten year old.
They had not expected pursuit, realized Vasusena. And therefore, they were so blatantly careless. It made sense too. All the soldiers were either dead or dying. There were no witnesses to the ambush. The villagers almost never went to the place where the ambush had taken place. In fact, if not for the recent spate of messengers between Hastinapura and the Pandavas, that path was rarely travelled by any. The chance of any messenger reaching the place within hours of the ambush was, at best, a remote possibility.
Vasusena could hear noises up ahead. Voices raised in argument. Or was it revelry?
He crept closer. The light was bad here. But he could see a clearing. It had been made by his quarry. They had cleared bushes and trees there. It might be a month old. Not more. And in that clearing stood a ragtag bunch of men.
Kunti was tied to a stump. She was unconscious, dusty and dishevelled. Vasusena knew instantly who these men were. They were the robbers that first Bheeshma, then Pandu, then Arjuna and finally Suyodhana had subdued and exiled from the Kingdom. But they always snuck in. Once there had been more than a thousand of them. They had terrorized many of the outlying areas.
Bheeshma was responsible for the decimation in their numbers. He had forced them to flee. But some had snuck back during the time Suyodhana’s father and his uncles were boys. They had started recruiting new members and were growing strong once more when Pandu had turned his attention to them. They had again fled, but trickled back after Pandu’s abdication. It was Arjuna who had put them down the next time, in the days when Yudhistira was the crown prince. They had again sneaked back after the division of the empire and Suyodhana had personally led a campaign against them.
But it seemed that they had again sneaked back in. He crept closer. There were exactly fifty men in the clearing. He wondered if they had posted any lookouts in the trees. He hoped not. The fact that he had reached this close, unmolested, also seemed to indicate that there were no lookouts. But the trees gave him an idea.
Vasusena had been a good climber of trees in his childhood. He prayed that the skills had not deserted him as he started climbing the tree that stood closest to the hearing. The loud voices of the men drowned out all other noises.
He reached a convenient low branch in no time. From it, he could pick each one out like flies.
“-kill her!” One of them was saying. Vasusena’s hand stilled. “We should never have brought her here!”
“Bah!” Said another one. “You are too scared! She is a rich one. Anyone can see that! Her family would pay handsomely to get her back!”
“But how do we find her family?” Asked a third one.
“We ask her when she regains consciousness,” said the one who had talked earlier.
“I think it might be better to slit her throat and to take her jewels. Or take her jewels now and dump her back in the road if you are squeamish about killing a woman!”
His tone implied that, he at least, had no qualms.
Vasusena took aim. His bowstring sang as the arrow sank into the man’s chest.
The others were instantly alert, jumping behind the makeshift shelters they had made with the trees they had felled. But Vasusena, from his vantage position had no difficulty in shooting them down.
He made it seem as if his arrows were coming from all around. He had not used that technique in ages and it felt good. Some of the men sent arrows to the trees and some threw spears. One spear buried itself on the trunk of the tree on which he was sitting, but it came nowhere near him.
Vasusena felt no pity or compunction as he killed them. They had ambushed those soldiers without mercy. And he had heard Suyodhana tell about some of the atrocities perpetrated by these men. They had to be exterminated. There was no other way.
Fifty times, his bow string sang and fifty times, his arrows found their mark. Soon, the clearing was devoid of movement. Kunti was still tied to the stump and still unconscious. He had been careful not to harm her. And the men were too panicked to think of her.
He whistled softly as he climbed down. His horse nickered in response as it trotted to him. He patted it and led it to the clearing. He went to the queen and untied her. He hoisted her on to the horse and mounted it.
He would take her to the village and leave her with the physicians thought he. He did not want to tarry.

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