Dharmasena left for Avanthi as he had planned. Veerabahu accompanied him along with the army for a distance. After covering certain distance, Dharmasena continued with a lead of a few yojanas. Veerabahu followed at a distance with the remaining army.
Abhaya stood at the tower of her fort, looking at the retreating figure of her father. She stood there for long after that too. Something was not right.
“Whenever your father is implicitly and impulsively sure, something always goes wrong.” Vajrabahu had commented more than once. The words rang a note of disturbed sound through her self. “Mahadeva, whatever is happening, protect my father.”
“Venerable Vajrabahu, any news of Vikram?” She turned to Vajrabahu who was by her side all the time.
“Its just yesterday that he left, princess. He should be fine, but we cant know much so soon.” Vajrabahu assured her.
A couple of days passed with no significant event. A messenger came reporting the progress of the King’s journey. The King had reached and crossed over the borders of Avanthi. Everything was fine.
“May it continue to be so. I want both of them back, safe and sound.” Abhaya though to herself every morning, her mind not really on any task she did for the day.
One day, a guard was seen hurrying into the courtroom where the princess was seated to examine the trade tax details that were submitted a week ago. He brought with him, a couple of rustics looking like cowherds. Fear and uncertainty loomed large on their faces.
“Mercy princess, Mercy!” One of them shouted helplessly. “We are besieged! They are the soldiers from Avanthi”.
Abhaya sought the advice from Vajrabahu and debated over the next couple of hours as to what could be done. Soldiers were instructed to move the women, old and children inside the fort. The activity went on in a frantic pace. Everyone in the fort looked desparate. The spirit was low due to the absence of the King.
“Whatever happened to Father. Did they imprison him? Or worse .. kill him?” Abhaya gasped. She went about instructing and supervising mechanically wondering if she had any emotions left in her at this deceit.
Vajrabahu adviced her not to assume anything drastic till they got a message from either sides. With the present military strength, the fort could stand off a siege for just a day. May be a couple of days if gods favoured Anagha. But there was no hope beyond that. A messenger was hurried across through the western gate to appeal to the Nagas. There was a hope of standing the siege a little longer if the Naga soldiers came to their rescue within two days.
That evening, a messenger was sent from the attacking camp to the Princess.
“The message urges Your Highness to surrender to them and go with them, consenting your wedding to Anuvinda. If done so, His Majesty would be spared.” Vajrabahu read out, blood gushing through his veins as he spelt out words
“If not done so? What would they do?” Abhaya’s heart raced.
“We assume that good sense prevails in Anagha and you would see that neither the sides suffer any losses. Or else, my masters are capable of taking the fort and … Your Highness, Kindly do not make me say anymore.” The messenger spoke with a touch of sarcasm.
“We shall consider and reply after a day.” Vajrabahu dismissed the messenger.
“What shall we reply, Venerable Vajrabahu?” Abhaya asked blankly.
“My Princess, you must escape at any cost. Go to Dwaraka. I hope Princess Mitravinda would take care of you. We shall stop the soldiers of Avanthi at any cost.” Vajrabahu whispered after making sure of privacy.
“You call me a lioness. Don’t you? You tell me, can I run away leaving my country open to the enemy to ravish?” Abhaya asked back, defiance mounting in her eyes.
“You are my lioness. But understand this my child, with you in their hands and even the King, this country of yours would anyways be on a rampage by the ruthless soldiers of Avanthi. We would have some hope with you and Vikram safely out of the fort. I am sure there is help coming from other corners. We just need to hold the fort till then.”
“So assuming I shall escape, you would all fight?” Abhaya asked. Vajrabahu nodded like a lion getting ready to pounce upon its prey.
“What difference can it make if I stay and fight by your side?” Abhaya asked.
“Wait.” Vajrabahu interrupted as if a thought struck him. “Princess, we shall send one of your maids if anyone of them are willing to volunteer in your place. We can stave them off for a day or two this way. “Vajrabahu thought aloud.
“Oh yes, any maid’s life is far less valuable isn’t it?” Abhaya shot back with a sense of guilt engulfing her over the very thought.
“I am talking about volunteers, Your Highness. Surely, Anagha is not in shortage of maidens who can gladly die to save their mistress.” Vajrabahu tried to convince.
“And you have one of them ready at your disposal.”
The duo turned to the door. Jayanthi stood smiling and confident. “Your Highness, we both are of same height and same complexion. I can very well mimic your voice and imitate your body language. I can deceive them for quite a while.”
“Jayanthi, you are my best friend. I cant expose you to this. Not when I am alive.” Abhaya spoke horrified at the thought of Jayanthi being found out by the princes.
“Who is more valuable, Princess? Me or His Majesty? We have a hope of releasing His Majesty from their clutches. Do you want to forego that? Is this all the love you have for your father?”
“No! No!” screamed Abhaya. “How can I do this? Father would be ashamed of me if I forewent your life to save his and mine. Jayanthi, aren’t you the beloved of Vikram? How am I supposed to face him?!”
“Vikram would be proud of my sacrifice. But I trust you all, your Highness. You can rescue me once you can manage help from the Nagas and Dwaraka. Nothing would happen to me. Do trust my acting skills too.” Jayanthi smiled.
“Jayanthi, I am proud of you, child. Princess, this is the best chance we have. And this is not a selfish move. Its for the good of your own country.” Vajrabahu insisted.
“Come your highness, let me have the pleasure of adorning your jewelry for a night or two.” Jayanthi dragged Abhaya towards the inner chambers.
“No Jayanthi, this is grossly wrong. There has to be a better way. Let us think over.” Abhaya protested.
“Think over, yes, we have all the night to think over. If you strike upon a better idea, I an willing to listen to it.” Jayanthi had made up her mind.
“Mahadeva, stop all this! I stake all the merits of my past lives and those to come. I can’t do this!”
“If you are not helping me, I am helping myself with the choicest jewels from your valuable caskets.” Jayanthi stepped forward into the inner chambers of Abhaya.
“Take whatever you want. But I have still not agreed to this horrible idea. Venerable Vajrabahu needs some medical attention soon.” Abhaya shot back.
Jayanthi reached out to the decorated wardrobe of the princess maintaining her readiness to go forward with a plan. As she reached out to a casket kept at a higher shelf, she felt the world go blurred and faltered in her steps.
“Jayanthi!! Are you alright?” Abhaya rushed to her only to be pushed away as her maid rushed out of the room in hurry. Abhaya followed her in concern. Jayanthi fought back the feeling of mounting nausea and reached out to drink some water.
“I am alright, mistress.”
Abhaya stared at her with a sudden realization. “You are with child? Jayanthi, answer me.”
Jayanthi avoided her gaze and turned back to the chambers. “We don’t have much time left. Do we?”
“Dare you not escape me girl, Answer me Jayanthi. Are you with child? Vikram’s child?”
“Forgive me princess.” Her eyes welled up despite her best efforts. “We got married by the Gandharva ritual.”
“God of Gods! Am I to sacrifice the daughter in law of my family and her child?” Abhaya sank down to a low couch beside.
Jayanthi again reached out to the caskets to dress herself like the princess.
“Stop it, if you are looking for a reward, take it after you give birth to a child.” Abhaya stopped her. “My sister in law, How can I even entertain this thought of sending you to those jackals?” She embraced Jayanthi in an emotional outburst.
She released Jayanthi after a couple of moments. “My country is not without a heir. Jayanthi, you shall escape to Dwaraka and meet Vikram. Do whatever you both can with the Nagasoldiers and free my country. I shall gladly turn myself in to that Anuvinda.” Abhaya spoke with resolve.
“That’s a wise decision and you won’t regret it , Princess Abhaya.”
The girls turned around shocked at the interruption. “Prince Anuvinda!!” Abhaya gasped pushing Jayanthi behind her. “By Mahadeva, how the hell did he get inside?” She thought while slowly inching towards the wall where her dagger was hung.
“Now, princess, don’t waste time over displaying your martial skills. We both know that would only make things difficult for you.”
“As Abhaya backed a few steps behind, the light of a flickering lamp fell on her face. Anuvinda looked at her face, her lips quivering at shock and in fear, but eyes flashing with anger and defiance. Her bosom was heaving and her fingers clenched in an attempt to control rage. Drops of perspiration formed on her forehead indicating her exhaustion. Anuvinda stopped for a moment to marvel what he felt as a prized beauty.
Sheathing his sword, he moved closer to the two girls. “Apparently, the creator has been heaping his skills over you in the last three years.” He brought his right hand closer to her face, almost touching her cheeks that glowed in the flickering light. Pushing Jayanthi a few steps behind, Abhaya suddenly backed as if she was stung.
“Abhaya, you would make a great Queen. I hope you are not foolish enough to turn away the opportunity.” He tried to appear softened.
The desire and lust on his face made her squirm. Something suffocated her from within and every cell of her body revolted. She wanted to curse him, shout for the guards who surprisingly were not to be seen in the corridor. But it seemed like her voice betrayed her. “Mahadeva, if this sinner gets hold of me, I pray you to take my life!” Her heart prayed fervently.
Anuvinda unsheathed his sword again, the menacing smile coming back to his face and eyebrows twisting to throw a challenge. “Princess, I don’t want to kill your innocent guards. So make things easier and come with me. I shall spare your fort and you revered father.”
As he stepped aside, Abhaya noticed to her horror that ten of her guards had been pinned by the burly soldiers of Avanthi and held at their mercies with swords pointed to their necks. Her heart sank at the horrified and defeated looks on their faces.
“I .. shall come with you. But leave them. Spare them.” She managed to say mustering as much royal haught she could.