The noise was loud and raucous and it woke him. Vasushena blinked his eyes in the dark. He raised his head slightly. He could see his father on the cot. Atiratha was fast asleep. His mother was awake, as she sat up from her pallet and looked around, bewildered. Sangrama was still sound asleep. Vasu opened his mouth to ask her what woke her when the noise started up again. It was a cacophony of noises. The sound of donkeys braying and jackals howling and he could also hear crows cawing.
“What is that sound?” his mother whispered, her eyes wide and full of fear, and her voice shaking.
“It sounds like animals,” Vasu said quietly.
“In the middle of the night? In the city?” His mother asked, her voice still shaking.
It was unusual. But Vasu was certain there must be a logical reason for it all. He wished Bakula, the man who used to teach them was still around. He could have asked that man about the noises. But he had disappeared one day. The elders thought that he must have left Hastinapura. After all, his arrival was sudden too, and none of them knew anything about him. He was a knowledgeable man and had been willing to give lessons to the children, and so no one had asked any questions. All he asked in return was a place to stay and food to eat.
None of the elders knew that Bakula had started to teach Vasu to fight with a sword. In the short time he had, he had taught Vasu the basics of sword fight, archery and how to use the spear and the knife. He also taught him how to sharpen his weapons, and to care for them.
“Are you certain you are no Kshatriya?” Bakula had asked him one day, a quizzical look on his face. Vasu had laughed, and Bakula had shaken his head. “I’ve seen many Sutas, but none with an aptitude for weapons as you have. There aren’t even many Kshatriyas with this much affinity and ability. You’re certain you’re no foundling?”
“Of course not!” Vasu had snorted.
Vasu wished now that Bakula was still around. He might have been able to explain why wild animals were in the city. The noise continued. He stood up. “I’ll go outside and see what’s happening,” he said.
“Vasu, be careful,” his mother said anxiously.
“There’s only some donkeys out there,” he said. “Don’t worry, mother.”
Outside, the sky was clear, and the moon shone bright, but hail was falling. Not a shower, but a drizzle, and the hails tones were the sizes of the small pebbles Vasu and his friends used to gather from the riverbank. There was also fires in the distance, though they were far from the city. Perhaps a forest fire had started. That would explain the animals rushing out, and the noises. The streets were empty despite all the cacophony, but Vasu could see lamps being lit and people standing on verandahs and behind half open doors. No one wanted to go out into the hail. Vasu shook his head as he closed the door behind him and went back to his room.
“I think there’s a forest fire,” he said. “That’s what probably caused all the animals to go berserk. Don’t worry. The soldiers would not allow them to come into the city.”
His mother nodded, relieved. “I was really scared,” she admitted as she lay back down.
“I know,” He lay down next to his brother, who immediately curled up closer. The night was slightly cold, and Vasu put an arm around his brother, holding him close. It was still strange. The forest fire breaking out suddenly. And where did all the donkeys and crows come from? Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen a single animal anywhere, though the noise was still there. And from where did the hail come from? There was not a single cloud in the sky. Hail, fire, animal sounds. It was all extremely strange.
Vasu wished that there was someone he could ask about such things, someone who wouldn’t give him superstitions as if they were fact, someone who knew. And there was no one he knew that matched that criterion. Perhaps it was having Bakula there for a while that caused him to feel so. Bakula had been truly knowledgeable and he had taught him to use his head, to question, to think, and he’d also taught him the difference between superstitions and facts. Most of his friends were not interested in Bakula’s lessons. They were there because their parents asked them to be there. Vasu too had started out that way, but after a few lessons, it had changed for him. And now, Bakula had gone, and Vasu knew that he could not go back to being what he was before. He could not accept platitudes and superstitions anymore. He could not stop thinking.
Bakula’s words had made him think. Why was it he thought Vasu was a Kshatriya? Was an affinity towards weapons something inherent only in Kshatriyas? Bakula had also praised Vasu’s ability. Did that mean only Kshatriyas had the ability to wield weapons? Or that only they had the ability to learn as fast as Bakula had said Vasu was learning. He remembered that Veera still was not able to hit a target with his arrow. Nor was he able to wield a sword or a spear the same way as Vasu. Bakula had taught him only the basics, but none of his friends had been able to learn that. Most of them had stopped attending the weapons training after the first few lessons and only Vasu had persisted.
“None but a Kshatriya could have this persistence or this endurance,” Bakula had told him once.
Why? Vasu wondered. Why were Kshatriyas so special? And if for some reason, they were, then how did Vasu who was a Suta get so many of their qualities? There had to be a reason why he was the way he was. Or perhaps Bakula was just wrong, and these qualities were not exclusive to Kshatriyas but could manifest in anyone.
The noises had died down, and from the silence, Vasu knew that the hail had stopped too. But he was too tense to sleep again. He held his brother close and wished again for a teacher.