The arrow buried itself into the target painted on to the tree. The arrow was a crude one, just a piece of wood sharpened till it looked more like a stake than an arrow. If not for the fletching of feathers at the end, no one would have taken it for an arrow. The target was equally crude, the painted image of a man’s head and torso on a large and thick tree trunk done by someone who was none too skilled at painting. The arrow was buried where the man’s neck was, and the two boys whooped in joy.
“Did you see that?” Vasushena was laughing. He looked the same, only slightly taller. A few months had passed and the trees in the forest had begun to shed leaves.
“That’s the first time you’ve hit the neck accurately!” Veera was grinning broadly, as pleased as if he himself had made the shot. Both boys were carrying bows, which were equally crude.
“You try now,” Vasushena said.
Veera nocked an arrow, took aim and released. The arrow buried itself somewhere to the left of where the man’s body was, in the same tree. Veera grimaced.
“Don’t worry. Remember how all my arrows used to go wide earlier? You’re improving a lot. I’ve been at this longer than you. That’s why I do better.”
“You know it’s more than that. You have a natural aptitude for this. I’m interested in learning, but it doesn’t matter to me if I make that shot as accurately. In a real battle, it would have felled a man anyway, because some soldier might have been there where my arrow is.”
Vasushena nodded. “That’s true I suppose, but there’s power in sending that arrow where we want, isn’t there?”
“Maybe,” Veera shrugged as he went to retrieve the arrows. A clear sap was oozing out of the tree where the arrows had pierced its bark. “Look at that. Do you think the tree feels pain?”
“It’s a tree,” Vasushena rolled his eyes.
“Then why is it crying?”
“It’s not crying. That’s just the sap. Don’t you remember anything the guru taught us?”
“Who cares for all that anyway? It’s not as if we’re princes. I don’t even know why that man bothers to teach us, and why our fathers let him. There’s something odd about him.”
“I think our fathers just want us to stay out of trouble, especially trouble with the soldiers. They’ve been on edge since the queen miscarried.”
“And now, she’s pregnant again, isn’t she? Within months too. One would think the King would’ve been more patient.”
“They’re Kshatriyas,” Vasushena said dismissively. “They have no patience or morals. Everyone knows that.”
“And yet, you want to be an archer.”
The boys stood side by side, lifted their bows, nocked arrows and took aim again. They released the arrows simultaneously. Vasushena’s arrow buried itself in the exact same spot as before, while Veera’s struck somewhere closer to the painted man’s heart.
“Personally I don’t see the advantage in an arrow. For people who fight from chariots, it’s good, I suppose. But we both know how likely we’re to be rathis. We’d be lucky to make the infantry. Wouldn’t a sword and a shield be more useful?” Veera asked.
“The arrow has more power,” Vasushena said. “It doesn’t matter if I become a rathi or not. It only matters that I do well with the bow, and one day I’ll prove to the world that I’m the best archer!”
“You’re certainly becoming the best in our street,” Veera smiled. “And you’re becoming a good wrestler too.”
“I’ve a good teacher,” Vasushena smiled as he went to get the arrows. Veera’s arrow came out easily, but his arrow was buried deep, and it broke off as he tugged it with force. “That’s another one gone!”
“Never mind. We can make more.”
“Yes. My knife needs whetting. Do you have a whetstone?”
“At home,” Veera said. “It’s my father’s. What do I need a whetstone for?”
Vasushena gripped his arm suddenly. “Did you hear that?”
There was the sound of twigs breaking, and the boys glanced at each other. Veera took the knife that Vasushena handed to him, even as Vasushena nocked an arrow and raised his bow. There was movement in the bushes and then, they both gasped as Samgramajith came into the clearing, his eyes wide and his arms and legs full of scratches.
“What are you doing here?” There was annoyance in Vasushena’s voice as he hurried to his brother, dropping his bow on the ground and examining the boy for any injuries. “How are you going to explain those scratches to mother?”
“I’ll tell her I fell. What are you doing here?”
“Playing with Veera,” Vasushena said, even as Veera tried to look nonchalant. “Did you follow me?”
Samgrama nodded. “I want to play with you too.”
“You shouldn’t follow me,” Vasushena said, straightening. “It’s dangerous.”
“But you’re here.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You take care of me too. But I want to play with you. The others are no fun to be with. They wouldn’t play with me.”
“Let’s go back home,” Vasushena said, taking his brother’s hand and leading him away while Veera followed close behind. He gave Vasushena a questioning glance as he passed the bow and Vasushena shook his head.
“Perhaps, I could teach you wrestling too,” Veera told Samgrama at which the smaller boy grimaced. “I don’t like to fight.”
“No wonder the others wouldn’t play with you,” Vasushena muttered under his breath. Aloud he said. “You can’t just follow me around all the time. I can’t always play with you.”
“Then I’ll tell mother you went into the forest.”
“And I’ll tell her you followed me even though I asked you to stay with your friends.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Samgrama said in a small voice, “And you don’t have to play with me. But I don’t like the others. I’ll just sit quietly and watch you two. I won’t say a word.”
“We’ll see,” Vasushena said resignedly as he hoisted Sangrama on to his shoulder. “Now, not a word to father or mother.”
Veera shook his head, chuckling as he followed them.