Vasushena knew there was something odd about the broken arrow. And there was something odd about the place too. He’d not been there before. He’d never been this deep, but he had a powerful feeling of being watched. He did not know if it was some animal, perhaps a wolf or a lion or a tiger; they were so deep into the forest that it was quite possible. But if it was an animal, why didn’t it attack? He said nothing to Veera. Veera was already nervous enough. He did not like coming into the forest much, and came only on Vasushena’s insistence. Vasushena decided to go back at the earliest, just to put his mind to rest. He’d carry his knife and bow and arrow. That ought to be protection enough from any animal that might be there.
He went back the next day, around noon. It wasn’t easy to find the place, but Vasushena had marked the trees the previous day with the head of the broken arrow. Veera had been too busy, listening for predators to notice. Even with the marks, it took a long time to find the exact place. Though it was still day, the forest canopy was thick enough to block most of the sun or Vasushena would not have noticed the smoke. It came from behind some bushes, and he made his way there cautiously. He realized it was not a bush, but a large branch concealing something behind. He was about to push it aside when something touched the small of his back.
“Turn around,” a gruff yet familiar voice said.
Vasushena turned around to face Bakula. He was surprised to see him there. But even more surprised at his condition. He was unshaven, and his clothes were filthy, and his hair was wild. He was leaning on a stick, but the sword held to his heart was held in a steady hand, and his eyes were cold, and narrowed.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Exploring the forest,” Vasushena said. “What are you doing here? You… you disappeared. Months ago!”
“None of your business.” Bakula said. “Does anyone know you’re here?”
“My friends,” Vasushena lied without thinking. The look in Bakula’s eyes was frightening. It was evident the man was hiding from something or someone, and it was likely that Bakula might kill him if he learned no one knew of his presence. But even now, there was a chance. Vasushena took a step backwards, into the screen of branches.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“I ought to,” Bakula said. “I can’t afford anyone to know I’m here.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Vasushena said.
“You’re asking me to put my trust in your discretion? How old are you, boy? Twelve? You won’t be able to keep a secret even if you wanted to!”
Vasushena was offended. “I can keep a secret,” he said. “I’ve been keeping secrets for a long time.”
“Really? What secret would that be?”
“If I told you, it won’t be a secret, would it?” Vasushena knew he was pushing his luck, but somehow he needed to convince Bakula.
“Even so, it is safer for me if you’re dead.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Vasushena said. “I give you my word. No one shall know you’re here.”
Bakula studied his face for a moment. Vasushena wondered what he saw. Strangely, he was not afraid, but felt excited. To be held at sword-point was uncomfortable, but it was also thrilling.
“You really expect me to let you go?” Bakula asked, sounding surprised.
“Yes?” Vasushena suddenly had an idea. “But you know what? I could come every day, and you can teach me all the things you know.”
Bakula looked stunned. “Are you insane, boy? Don’t you know who I am? I’m no teacher! I needed a pretext to stay in the city, and it was a good cover, that’s all.”
“But you do know things. You did teach us things.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t make me a teacher.” he paused. “Besides which, what do I get out of it if I do agree to teach you?”
“I won’t tell anyone about you.”
“I have the sword, and you’re at my mercy. So, no, you won’t be telling anyone even if I don’t teach you anything. In fact, I don’t see why I should. Better to kill you.”
“I’ll bring you food, and clothes!” Vasushena said desperately. “You seem to be injured. It might be difficult for you to hunt.”
Bakula’s hand relaxed, and the sword point dipped. “Food,” he said flatly.
Vasushena nodded. “I promise.”
“Look,” Bakula said. “Aren’t you even curious to know why I was in Hastinapura and why I’m in hiding?”
Vasushena was curious, but he shook his head resolutely. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to know. You’re my teacher, and that’s all I need to know.”
“You are a strange one.” Bakula said, his eyes still intent on Vasushena. “What about your parents? You’re old enough to learn the craft and trade of your father. Won’t he miss you?”
“He knows I’m not interested in that. He lets me off in the afternoon, and I can come to you then,”
“And make your way back in the evening, in the dark? No. If we’re doing this, you’ve to be here at sunup every day. Get your father to teach you in the afternoon.”
“He has duties in the afternoon.”
“Not my problem. I’ll teach you, but only if you come at sunup. And as you noticed, I am injured, so the weapons training will have to be more theoretical. I can tell you, not show you.”
Vasushena considered. He could tell his father he needed to practice his archery in the morning. His father knew he wasn’t interested in learning the Suta trade anyway. He could not pass up this opportunity. Whatever Bakula was, he was knowledgeable, and he was willing to teach him. He might never get a chance to have a proper teacher again.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll come back at sunup tomorrow.”
“Don’t forget the food, or clothes,” Bakula said, stepping out of his way. “Can you find the place again?”
Vasushena nodded. He didn’t tell Bakula about marking the trees. He would have to make the marks deeper if he was to navigate his was early in the morning before sunrise.
“Yes,” he replied.