The forest was dark and there were no visible paths. The trees grew so close together even daylight could not penetrate the canopy of leaves. There was barely enough gap between trunks for a man to pass through, and the ground was a network of crisscrossed tree roots, sticking up every which way. The man who leaned against one of the trees was panting. He looked around and sank down on to a root, leaning against a tree. In the gloom, he looked like a shadow.
“Bakula, this is a right mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” he muttered. “Only a fool deals with royalty and an absolute idiot deals with the Kurus. You should have known better. Let’s just hope that Pradhanamantrin Vidura is not having any spies in this place, or the length of your life’s anybody’s bet.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, listening. The forest was not quiet, and he could hear the sound of leaves rustling, birds chirping, and muted roars too. This part of the forest was too thick even for predators, but not for snakes. Pythons and cobras were there in plenty, but he was yet to come across one. He knew it was just good fortune, but there was no guarantee it would last. With his luck, it was quite possible that he would end up a snake’s dinner.
He got up, though he was tired. He needed to find some place safer. The lack of undergrowth here did not make it any easier for walking. He had to get out of the forest soon. If he kept going in the same direction, he would be in the mountains within a few days, or perhaps a few weeks. Either way, he was in for a long trudge. When he accepted the job, he had not expected to be fleeing for life. Some of the people in the guild of assassins had warned him. Kshatriyas could not be trusted. Neither could Brahmanas. Only Vaisyas could be depended upon to keep to the terms of an agreement. Both Kshatriyas and Brahmanas would try and wriggle out of one. But at least when you deal with Brahmanas, there was no risk of losing your life. Kshatriyas were a whole new breed altogether. They used assassins to do their dirty work, and then got rid of the assassins. Clean.
His right foot snagged in a root and he fell down, his ankle twisting. He swore. He rose gingerly, and took a few steps, not putting any weight on the injured ankle. But he knew that he was not going to make it out of the forest alive now. He sat down again, and considered his options. He could stay here and be a python’s dinner. He could try and move forward, but with his ankle, Rudra alone knew when he would get out of the forest. If he did not get devoured by a lion or a tiger or a wolf or any of the other animals that frequented these forests first. He could go back and allow Pradhanamantrin Vidura to capture and execute him as an assassin. There was a reason assassins were banned in most Kingdoms, though true to their hypocritical nature, the ruling classes were not above making deals with them. None of the options looked attractive.
Then he remembered the small cave he’d spent the night in a day ago. The cave was hidden, was secluded, and was deep enough in the woods to ensure no stray traveller or soldier was going to stumble upon it by accident. He had found it because he’d been seeking shelter. A fire at its mouth, just outside would keep animals at bay. There were deer and rabbits, and he still had his bow and arrow, and other weapons. There was also a small stream nearby. If he could make it to the cave, he could lay low till his ankle healed, and then he could be on his way. But how to make it back there? He could barely walk, and with both legs working it had taken him more than a day to reach here from the cave. With his ankle in the condition it was in, he did not think he would make it far. But he had to try. The cave was his best option so far.
He stood up again, leaning against the tree. He took out an axe from his belt. Fortunate that he was not a Kshatriya. Kshatriyas had such odd notions about weapons. He started hacking at one of the larger roots protruding from the ground. After two blows, his legs were shaking and he had to sit down, panting. His legs were still shaking. He gritted his teeth and stood up again. He might not be a Kshatriya, but he was a trained assassin, a Ghataka, and he had better tolerance for pain than this. He swung the axe again, taking care not to put much weight on his right foot. It was slow work, and he had to stop often, but he managed to cut off a stout piece which he could use as a crutch.
He limped back the way he came, stopping for the night near a large bush. He lit a fire near, and snared a rabbit. He skinned it with his dagger and roasted it over the fire. There wasn’t much meat in the animal, and it was tough and chewy, but he was so famished he finished every scrap, even sucking off the bones in the end. It was hardly filling, but it was better than starving, and he drank some water from the waterskin he had. The water was almost over, and if he could not find the stream the next day, and follow it to the cave, he would be in trouble.
He had his dagger under his arm, and his bow at arm’s reach with his spear close by and his shield over his chest as he slept. He only hoped it would be enough. He was a light sleeper, and had been trained to wake at the slightest of noises, but with his ankle which had already swollen, he knew that he was at a disadvantage, especially in the forest. He had spread dry twigs all around where he slept and had lit them on fire, creating a circle of fire. There was no dry leaves or twigs inside the circle, so he had little fear of the fire spreading even if there was not a ring of stones inside. He knew the fire would not last the night, but most nocturnal predators in these parts did not hunt late into the night. He ought to be safe enough. And he was still deep enough inside the forest that he would not attract attention from people either.
Despite the hardness of the ground, he fell asleep instantly. He was trained to sleep in all circumstances just as he was trained to wake at the slightest disturbance.
3 thoughts on “Chapter Twenty Nine”
Vasu at his characteristic best. Short one though, this seems to be a prelude to something bigger and maybe even, dangerous. Good thing, I won’t have to wait. 😁
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A little mistake here, excuse the first line about Vasu here, 😁. Typing error when you’re almost asleep. 😁
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