"Father, is it necessary that you take our decision based on this single duel?" Abhaya anxiously asked her father, the King.
The King seemed lost in a cyclone of grave thoughts. He heard the words of the princess. It was not that he wanted to take the decision. But the province of Anagha could not be without a commander for long. The recent tragedy that hit the erstwhile commander Vajrabahu left him crippled for life which robbed him of the convenience of wielding the blade for life. The Kingdom needed an able commander at the earliest.
There were two able contenders for the high post. Both of them were the best of personal pupils of Vajrabahu. Both were peerless swordsmen. but the selection was inevitable and this duel was crucial. They both had excelled in strategising, arraying and other tests in equal merit. Still the thought of duel between the both had its clouds of doubts in the heart of the King.
He turned to his daughter. At thirteen, she was wise for her years and understood the depth of the crisis that faced her Kingdom. "Princess, we do not have a choice. But we need to face it some day or the other. It is better if the decision is made when there is no immediate need. The incumbent can learn more qualitative lessons from my Vajrabahu, crippled as he is, he still has the vigour to groom the next commander to suit the role."
"Forgive me Your Majesty, Commander.. er.. Venerable Vajrabahu seeks your audience. He wants to accompany you to the arena of today's duel." Jayanthi, the daughter of the charioteer and companion of the princess stood at the door.
The father and daughter dropped their conversation and stepped out eagerly to meet the former commander. Vajrabahu stood outside, supporting himself with a stick. The sight of the lion who strengthened the military of Anagha in such a pitiable condition melted the heart of Dharmasena. He hurried forward and received Vajrabahu in half embrace.
"My friend, did you save me that day only to keep me alive to see this state of yours and experience a life of pain? Friendship with me has costed you dearly. How I wish we had never met!" The King could not control his emotions. Abhaya and Jayanti stood at a distance after gracefully bowing to Vajrabahu.
Vajrabahu gathered the King in his arms and smiled. "Everything is my good fortune, My Lord. And what have I lost at all? My Lord, My King and his darling princess are safe. My disci0ples today, vie with each other with a promising future. I shall see the glory of Anagha peaking in my lifetime. What more could I want my King?"
Dharmasena smiled through his sadness and replied. "Yes, you haven't lost anything indeed. Its me. I had to see my commander getting fatally wounded to save me, a tragedy which arose due to my thoughtlessness. Come, let me see these young lions whom you are so proud of."
The arena was filled with people who came with the hope of seeing their next commander. As The King seated himself, he eyed each of the contenders.
Veerabahu, the nephew of his Vajrabahu. He had a muscular built and a confident gait. Having lost his parents at an early age, he was under the care of his uncle. As a boy, he was known to throw tantrums and being stubborn and unreasonable. But the raw obstinacy had to be groomed with valour and ambitions needed to be loaded with a feeling of responsibility. This was the lesson Vajrabahu gave him every day. At least the older commander hoped his nephew had imbibed them. If he wins the duel it would boost the confidence f the youth as well as the soldiers of Anagha.
The king saw the other contender. Vikram. The tribal boy who had come under his care at a tender age. At all informal ocassions, Vikram used to pass off as the adopted Son, to the King. He shared that brotherly bonding with the princess too and had been teaching her the art of blade since three years and had really transformed her fiery spirit into the skill on sword. The King would have personally wanted him to win the duel. But he questioned himself if the tribal origins of Vikram would hamper the devotion of the soldiers.
With these thoughts, he gave the signal for the duel to begin.
The clang of blades which would usually excite the princess failed to do so today. The victor would be only one. It was well known all over Anagha how skilled both the opponents were. Veerabahu had a good promise to lead the armies of Anagha. When he leapt forward, with his sword unsheathed, he looked invincible. But Vikram on the other hand had the agility to dodge the deadliest of the moves. The continuous effort did not show on Vikram as he skilfully defended the moves of Veerabahu. Abhaya felt proud to be learning swordplay from him.
The duel continued for more than an hour or so, with soldiers starting to divide into groups cheering either of the opponents. As it extended more, the feeling of discomfort took over the King and the princess. Dharmasena had all the impulse to stop the fight. But he held on, keeping the state of the army and its wounded commander in mind. He noticed Vajrabahu too lost in thought instead of focussing on the duel. He gently laid his hand onVajrabahu's shoulder startling him.
"Vajrabahu, the arrival of the new commander would not in anyway belittle your position in my court. You would still be venerated by one and all." Dharmasena assured in a friendly tone.
Vajrabahu looked surprised at the unexpected words. "My Lord, when I have your prized friendship, would I care for any other position in this world? I am only trying to come to pact with the future. The future which would not allow me to charge into battles, to wield my blade with all am worth for, to slash the throats of those fools who would dare to mean harm to this Anagha and her citizens."
Vajrabahu's daze was focussed elsewhere which made the King doubt the full truth of his words. Dharmasena still chose not to prod his commander for his integrity and devotion to the throne was impeccable.
When the duo turned back their attention back to the duel, it looked more like a fight unto death than a duel. Both Vikram and Veerabahu were wounded at multiple places, but did not give up the spirit of wielding the swords. It went on that way till a fateful moment when the sword of the brave Vikram dropped to ground.
Dharmasena could not believe his eyes for it was the most unexpected thing to happen at that particular juncture. The sword of Veerabahu still advanced towards Vikram who now held it with his bare hand to stop it from driving into his flesh.
Vajrabahu lost no time in blaring his conch to end the duel. Veerabahu had won! The soliders who favoured the nephew of the commander cheered and it was announced that he would be the next commander of Anagha.
Abhaya was rooted to the spot. Her eyes followed Vikram who exited the arena without any show of defeat. The princess did not bother to stay for the rest of the ceremony and slipped out of the place to confront Vikram. Her heart told her something was wrong.
She went around the wall of the arena to meet her teacher, whose hand was now dripping with blood. She noticed his eyes escaping hers. Without a word, she took the wounded hand of Vikram into hers and led him towards her chambers to treat it. With maids there, helping with washing the wound and bandaging the hand, Abhaya intently looked at Vikram who looked his normal now.
With an unperturbed smile Vikram asked, "Is your Highness disappointed to be learning from a loser?"
"Brother Vikram, " the princess replied, not caring his formal address. " I am anyday proud to be your pupil. I also accept that I am still to learn a lot more. But with my limited knowledge Vikram, I could make out that your defeat was not natural. Tell me the truth"
Vikram pulled back his hand again escaping her gaze. "Princess, your love for your teacher makes you feel so. But Veerabahu, I mean the commander was excellent today. I truly did not stand a chance."
"Vikram,"protested the princess, "I know very well about your expertise. You dropped the sword before Veerabahu's sword hit yours. Thats why you held it with your bare hand. Were you not teaching me about the grip on the hilt of the blade? How am I to believe that you yourself would forget that lesson and drop the sword?"
"Princess Abhaya, there is a lot more for you to learn as far as a duel is concerned. You would then understand about what happened today."
Before the princess could portest more, he declared with a firm voice, "I need to rest your Highness. The duel and the tests in the past days have drained me. Kindly grant me leave my princess."