Bakula woke suddenly, and was alert the next moment. Something had caused him to wake. He looked around, but all was still. He could tell that the sun was about to rise. He had to get a move on if he wanted to make the cave before sunset that day. He wasn’t certain he would. The swelling on his ankle was worse, and he could hardly move his leg. But he knew he had to try. He didn’t want to die in this forest. He didn’t want to die. Period. But that might just happen if he did not somehow get to that cave. He hoped his ankle was not broken. Though all assassins had enough knowledge about human anatomy to take care of most injuries, a broken bone was not one he felt competent to fix, especially not in a forest. But he could try and find herbs to bring down the swelling.
The day passed much as the previous one had. The swelling did not subside, and he felt as if he was walking on fire with every step he took. The weapons he carried were weighing him down, though normally he never felt their weight. Even the waterskin was heavier than usual. By noon, there was nothing he wanted more than to lay down somewhere and rest, but he knew that to succumb to that would be the end. Fortunately, he did manage to find the herbs he wanted. There were the ones to bring down swelling, to numb pain and to bring down fevers. He collected all of them, thanking the Aswins. Again, in a stroke of providence, he managed to steer clear of predators, though he could hear the roars.
The sun was almost down when he found the cave again. And for one moment, he stood there just staring at it. Though he wanted to rush into it, he was careful. He held his spear ready, and lit a torch with some fallen branches. He had to ensure that no animal had taken shelter in there. He approached the cave with as much stealth as he could manage in his condition. He had not had time to apply the herbs to his ankle yet, and the pain was making him feel lightheaded. The lack of food for the entire day did not help either. His skin felt clammy, and he was beginning to feel nauseous. He took a careful step into the cave. It was empty, and he sighed in relief. He began the process of hiding the cave mouth from view using branches and stones. Then he built a small fire just inside, and built a funnel of stones to form a makeshift chimney for the smoke. He boiled some water and ground the herbs to make the herbal mixture to apply to his ankle. That done, he lay down by the fire, and gave in to his exhaustion.
It was a small sound that woke him. His fire had gone out, and the cave was cold. He judged the time to be around dawn. He was feeling more refreshed after the long sleep. He checked his ankle and found that the swelling had reduced. The pain was also not so intense. He rose gingerly, picking up his knife in one hand and the spear in another. Using the shaft of the spear as a crutch, he limped to the front of the cave. There had definitely been a noise. He soon found it. A couple of birds were on the ground, pecking at something. But even as he took one more step, they took flight screeching. His stomach grumbled loudly reminding him that he had not had anything to eat for a while. He went to the river, filled his waterskins, washed himself and his clothes and caught a couple of fish. He cleaned the fish there itself, burying the remains deeply, and carried the cleaned fishes and a couple of flat stones, leaves and sticks that he had cleaned in the river. He had no cooking utensils except for the small pot which he used for food and medicines. He also carried some dry sand wrapped in a leaf. He did not think he’d be able to make the trip to the river too frequently till his ankle was healed.
He cooked the fish, wrapping it in leaves and burying it in the coals. There was no seasoning, but he had never tasted anything so heavenly, not even in the royal palace of Hastinapura. After that, he made the medicines once more to apply to his ankle. Then, he started checking his weapons. None of them were rusted or blunted, and he picked up his bow and strung it, and then unstrung it again. He could not afford to lose any arrows. Suddenly he heard the sound of voices. He stiffened immediately, crawling to the front of the cave, and pulling a leafy branch across its mouth to hide it. He crouched behind it, looking through the leaves. He sighed with relief when he found it was only two boys. But he frowned as he recognized them. They were from the village where he had stayed while preparing the poison for the queen. He’d taught some of the boys, and he remembered these two. Veera and Vasushena. Veera had stopped coming to the lessons after a few days, but Vasushena had come till the very end when he’d decided to run for it to escape the Pradhanamantrin’s men. The death of his friend in the palace had given him enough warning. There was a reason the assassins always worked in pairs.
Vasushena had interested him even then. The boy had qualities he’d never found in any Suta. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought him a Kshatriya. Even his appearance was different than that of his parents or his brother. But Bakula had made discreet enquiries, and learned that Vasushena was indeed born and named there. His eyes and nose were definitely of Kshatriya lineage and that was what had caused Bakula to be suspicious. Of course, all Sutas were originally descended from Kshatriyas, but the features had blunted after generations, and it was startling to see them on the face of this boy. There was also his near insatiable thirst for knowledge, and his interest in warfare. Most Sutas were interested only in horses or in stories. This boy had all Kshatriya characteristics. He was large for his age too. Though only twelve, he was already the tallest among his friends, and developing fast too. There was also something vaguely familiar about his face. Of course, Bakula thought it was more likely that his mother had cheated on his father with some Kshatriya prince. It was not an impossibility. As a royal charioteer, the father was absent more often than not, and the mother was only human.
He wondered what the boys were doing so deep into the forest. They appeared to be searching for something, and Bakula feared they might discover his hiding place. They came very close when Veera straightened with something in his hand.
“Here it is,” he said. “But it’s broken.”
“Let me see,” Vasushena took it from him. Bakula could see that it was a crudely made arrow, snapped clean in half. He must have stepped on it earlier. Vasushena examined it with a frown.
“This is odd,” he said. “What could have caused it to snap so cleanly?”
His eyes searched the surroundings as he spoke, and Bakula stopped breathing. He could not afford to be discovered. Vasushena’s eyes passed over the covered cave mouth without lingering, and with a shrug, he turned to go.
“Let’s get back before Sangrama comes looking for me again.”
Bakula released his breath and sagged against the cave wall, even as he wondered what Vasushena had been doing.
4 thoughts on “Chapter Thirty”
I love how you describe the settings. It’s so easy to imagine them. Why was Bakula teaching the village kids though?
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Thank you. He had to find a way to stay there without anyone becoming suspicious of him, and so he took on the role of teacher
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Ooohh! There’s definitely something lurking behind these shadows. And I’m simply awed by the way you describe your settings. 😍 Let’s see what happens next!😃😃
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