Abhaya soon found herself to the edge of the fort terrace. On the ground, a moat surrounded the fort, filled with water and some deadly crocodiles. This was to protect the fort from unforeseen invaders. In a weak moment she almost lost her balance and the dagger dropped from her hand into the moat and was caught by Anuvinda before she fell. She would have preferred to have fallen to the crocodiles than be captured by him.
“Is there no limit to your foolishness?!” Anuvinda shouted as he held her by her waist. She struggled to release his hold but he was much stronger and taller to be overpowered by her while she was unarmed. Now, more soldiers of Anagha ran into to support their commander. Jayanthi had raised the alarm on time.
Anuvinda looked at Abhaya as a sudden thought struck him to hold the enemy replenishments at bay. He shoved her more as she arched dangerously over the edge of the fort and caught her more firmly. “Don’t fear, dear. I don’t mean to do what I am going to say now.”
“Veerabahu! Surrender and tell your foolish soldiers to do the same, if you want to stop your precious princess from becoming a meal to your pets down there.”
Veerabahu stopped in horror at the words of Anuvinda. His frantic gaze met that of the princess whose eyes did not betray any fear.
“He won’t do that Veerabahu! Fight on!” Abhaya shouted. Veerabahu still stood dazed at her condition but did not losen his grip on the sword.
“Anuvinda, can you do that to someone whom you wanted to marry?” His disbelieving and dismayed voice betrayed helplessness and frustration.
“You’re not in a position to bargain. Are you? Now put down that damned toy to the ground, you low born!”
“Who do you dare to call a low born! Its you who have shamed the womb of Queen Rajadhi!” Abhaya shot back, completely unconcerned at her precarious position. If Anuvinda loosened he grip on her waist, she would drop straight into the moat amidst the crocodiles. But she dint fear death as she feared capture.
“Anuvinda, leave her!” Veerabahu could not help pleading.
“Are you sure! Are your crocodiles so desparately hungry? “ Anuvinda jeered, trying to shock him with another dangerous jerk threatening to push Abhaya down.
The look of self remorse and repentance on the face of her commander was too much for her to bear. Clearly he showed the signs of surrender and she was his weakness! Abhaya thought fast. Unless Mahadeva inspires Indra from the skies to catch her, there is no apparent help.
She silently pleaded Veerabahu not to let go of his sword. “Commander, the spirit of Anagha is more important than my life. Don’t surrender. Never!” She turned to look at Anuvinda. “You only want to use me to blackmail my people! If I am alive in your hands you would continue doing that. You would continue doing that with my father if I agreed to marry you. But Anuvinda, I wont let your lowly plans succeed!” With these words she jerked her body with all the strength she could, simultaneously turning over.
Anuvinda’s hand weakend for a moment and he stood, paralysed with horror as she fell from his hands straight into the moat.
“Abhaya!!!!!!!” Veerabahu’s scream echoed into the air.
The fort was not very tall and one could easily survive the jump. Abhaya had calculated this before she considered such a move. But the moat and the crocodiles were a sure death. Thankfully most of them lay sleeping in the dead of the night.
The splash awakened a couple of them and the reptiled lazily opened their eyes, surprised at the untimely food dropped to them. Abhaya landed right in the middle of the moat and paddled hard. “The drive to live is stronger than one assumes.” She realized as she found herself frantically moving to ward off the reptiles. “ By Mahadeva, I am not becoming a meal to these wretched creatures! I must live!” She though as she tried to swim across to the other side.
“Abhaya, defend yourself and forgive this unworthy commander!” Veerabahu dropped his sword hoping she would catch it. She nimbly caught it thanking the small mercies of Mahadeva. But how will that fool fight Anuvinda now? She dint have much time to think as she saw one of the crocodiles approach her with increased speed. She stopped retreating and threw herself above the waters to gain some breathe as well as a vantage point to stop the creature.
Anuvinda who was dazed at the sudden rash act of Abhaya found his senses. He turned to Veerabahu. “I did not do so. The foolish girl jerked herself in.”
“And you’ll pay for this, you son of a….” Veerabahu stopped as he remembered the gentle King and Queen of Avanthi. But fell upon Anuvinda, distraught at what had happened.
“Stop your drama! Idiot!. Now if your outdated military knowledge has heard of anything called bow and arrows and happened to have them handy, get me those. I can attempt to shoot at the beasts and save her.” Anuvinda pushed him away, injuring Veerabahu’s shoulder with his sword.
“Oh yes,, I am your slave to do your bidding. How about jumping in yourself to save her!” Anuvinda cried out not caring for the injury and the flowing blood.
Abhaya was now facing the beast which advanced at her with open jaws. “Encounter with Yama would have been far less scary. I am braver than Markandeya. But Mahadeva, would you protect me too?” Abhaya closed her eyes to avoid the ghastly jaws and opened them again to drive the sword right into the eye of the beast. It retreated, struggling in pain, swishing its tail furiously.
Abhaya drew out the sword out of its body with some effort and found a couple of other reptiles moving towards her looking treacherously placid. She furiously swam ahead to escape them. A young reptile lay in her way, but she would parry it easily.
Anuvinda noticed dust raising at a distance in the western horizon. An army seemed to be advancing towards the fort. Whoever they are, they were welcome at the moment if they can do anything to save the foolhardy princess down there. But Anuvinda changed his mind as he made out a faint outline of an eagle banner on the chariot leading the armies. He muttered a curse and turned to Veerabahu. He was not there. He turned around in surprise. Curse his agility, the wretched commander of this wretched province had leapt down to open the gates to those wretched….
Abhaya was oblivious of what was happening as she battled the younger reptile. Her strength was fast failing her. With a super human effort, she pushed aside the reptile as well as injuring it. But she could not draw out the sword. She swam in desperation, now unarmed and completely powerless against the next crocodile that would attack her. Thankfully she reached the edge of the moat. But another crocodile was close behind her with jaws dangerously open. She frantically looked for something to hold on. There were roots of a tree hanging down the edge a few yards away. But reaching there now seemed a marathon task. She gave a start at the sharp edges closing on her leg. The reptile had bitten into her flesh. With another super human effort she threw herself forward to catch a strong root. The reptile was pulling her down and she held on with all her strength and pulled herself a foot or two up the root. But this was all she could do. The creature is sure to make a meal of her.
“I had laughed at the legend of Narayana who in a legend, personally came to save the elephant king from a mere crocodile. I am being punished for the same for only his Chakra can save me now. God of Gods! Mahadeva, Anagheshwari, Narayana! I haven’t harmed anyone for selfish needs. I don’t know if killing that soldier and those two reptiles count! But if you don’t help me, Consider this my last prayer. Feast your eyes with my death if I have sinned, but save my father, my country.”
Abhaya let out a painful cry and she could no longer hold on to the root. The reptile now had the whole length of her leg till her waist in its jaw grip. “Narayana, O protector of three worlds! She muttered out the legendary prayer of the elephant King when he was caught by the crocodile. “Curse my foolish hopes! What am I hoping for? The sudarshana to come and cut this creature’s…”
Her thoughts stood midway as she saw a discus dazzle through the night, pass under her, cutting the creature that gnawed at her and boomeranging above, not losing its dazzle in the process.
“I am dreaming. Or I am dead!” She thought.
“Hold on!! She heard a voice from above the edge of the moat. It was a familiar voice. But did it matter when her life was ending?”
“Hold on Princess!! Hold on to this rope!!” She heard again from above. She caught the rope with her left hand while holding on to the root with her right. The rope pulled her up a little. She then left the root and held on to the rope, now forming a ring with it around her hands to strengthen her weakening grip.
She found herself pulled up and a hand caught her by shoulder. “You are safe!” she heard. Her eyes struggled to stay open. She was hauled up the moat and finally saw the feet of the man who pulled her up. She fell to the ground at the feet, partly in gratitude and partly succumbing to weakness. He lifted her numb body by her arms. She implicitly folded her arms in gratitude before she looked up to his face.
“Vaasudeva?!?” a gasp escaped her as her chest heaved at the pace of her heart.
“Is this a dream?” She thought to herself. No! He stood there, supporting her failing body. “Owe you my life, Vaasudeva!” jumbled words escaped her as she fainted.
When she regained her senses, she found herself in his arms as he mounted to his chariot. She stared at him in wonder, in gratitude, in disbelief and in awed surrender. Krishna gently placed her on the rear of the chariot and bent to examine her leg, which was bleeding profusely. The pain was excruciating, but her hear was bursting with an unexplainable joy.
“Your bone is not broken. The injury, thankfully is limited to flesh.” Vaasudeva assured. But leg, bone, flesh or blood dint seem to matter. Then she sensed the presence of other chariots behind. “The Yadava host? All of them?”
“No, just a third of them,” Smiled Vaasudeva as he firmly tied a cloth around her leg to bandage it.
“Best of Shooras, No!” Abhaya drew back her leg and folded her hands as she suddenly became conscious of propriety- The propriety that does not allow an elder to touch the feet of a younger. “We are already indebted to you for lives to come! I have no words to express my…” The words were left hanging as she paused to swallow a lump that formed in her throat. No, she was not going to break into tears in front of Vaasudeva.
“Well, I had to save the poor reptiles from your onslaught!” Krishna smiled indulgently in reply and turned to take the reins of the chariot in his hands. Abhaya slowly stood up despite the pain. The horses gave a start as he cracked the whip and Abhaya impulsively held on to his arm to retain her balance.
“Now with the princess at the door, would your gates open?”
“If there is anyone left alive to open them, they would.” Abhaya commented ruefully. The deceit by Avanthi came back to her mind and with that, a hundred concerns about the King, the commander, Vajrabahu, Vikram.
She looked up to spot Anuvinda and Veerabahu and other soldiers, but the terrace of the fort was empty. At the same moment, the gates opened up to the Yadu warriors to enter. Krishna drove into the fort signing the other Yadavas to follow him. As they entered the fort, Abhaya saw Veerabahu who lay on the ground in a pool of blood.
“Commander,” Abhaya gasped, shocked at his wounds. Krishna stopped the chariot again and a concerned Abhaya jumped out unmindful of her own pain and in the process had to be helped by Vaasudeva.
“It’s all my fault, Your Highness.” Veerabahu spoke in great pain. “Unknowingly in a drunken state, I had leaked the details of the escape tunnel. But I swear there was no malice in my heart.“He pleaded with his hands folded.
Abhaya tearfully reached out to hold the folded palms of the dying commander. She withdrew back concerned if it looked inappropriate and called out to the couple of stupefied guards. “Take him to the Vaidya immediately.”
“I won’t live, Your Highness. But I can die without regrets as you are in safe hands.“ Veerabahu replied glancing gratefully at Vaasudeva and pointed to a slash across the vein on his hand.
“Vikram has gone to rescue His Majesty. I regret not being able to follow him now. Would you kindly tell him that?”
“You would live, commander. How can Vikram survive without your taunts?”
Veerabahu smiled and closed his eyes. “She deserves better than me.” He thought as he was bodily lifted by the guards to be taken to the Vaidya.
“Apparently, your invaders have run away.” Vaasudeva commented after the Yadava soldiers scrutinized all the corners of the fort.
“Cheap.” Abhaya commented much to herself. “How about their camp at the eastern end? They were threatening to attack by the morning if I… failed to comply with their wishes.”
“We shall go and remind them that the Morning star has risen and they can attack.” Vaasudeva commented. “But the Yadava Maharathis are capable of much more, Princess. Your fort is in safe hands for the rest of the time till the Lord of Anagha returns.”
“Best of Shooras,” Abhaya spoke with her hands folded in gratitude, but was unable to put what she felt through words. Her gaze met his, she felt herself speaking volumes but then not a word could escape from her lips.
“Is the princess of Avanthi keeping well?” Abhaya managed to speak. “What is happening to me?” She thought.
“She would be disturbed to know about your injury.” Krishna commented. “You need the attention of the Vaidya too, Princess.”
“Distinguished guests need attention too, Vaasudeva. I regret that we are in a situation where we cannot even give you a proper welcome .”
“You jumped into the moat of crocodiles to welcome us! I can’t ask for more.”