Rukmini went through the list of traders who had returned from the seas, probably for the fifth or sixth time. Most of the women and children had left Dwaraka. She would be responsible to take the remaining of traders and the old. With rumours of Shalva planning an attack, Big brother Rama and Maharathi Kritavarma had camped at the borders. Vasudeva, Akrura and other elders had also moved to support them defend the northern borders. The Grandfather Ugrasena was prevailed upon everyone to stay back at Dwaraka. Rukmini pondered over ways to ensure a smooth travel for him to Indraprashta. They were not left with many palanquins and even the ones to carry them. Ugrasena’s palanquin would need around six people with four to standby and take turns. Rukmini took a fresh leaf to make a list of the retinue for the grandfather. The gusts of sea breeze made the lamps flicker making her move closer to the lamp and strain her eyes in the twilight. Counting ten palanquin bearers for ugrasena would leave her around twelve more for rest everyone else. With a deep sigh, Rukmini decided that she would take one of the smaller chariots drawn by two horses. She also pondered who else could withstand the longish journey, riding on a horse. That still left around six aged people without a palanquin. Ugrasena would not mind sharing his palanquin with a couple of elderly merchants.
She lifter her gaze, barely satisfied with her calculations to check on her personal maids who had packed her belongings.
“Mother of three worlds! How would you travel Malathi?” She turned to her head attendant who was pregnant with child.
“I would have loved to accompany you in any capacity, my Princess. But..” She hesitated and continued. “Mistress, my sister was married to one of the local Abhira headmen. I shall stay with them until you return. That is only if it helps you that I stay back.”
“Fine. Leave immediately after serving evening meal to grandfather. And can you take Mrinal with you too?” She asked pointing to the other maid.
“Who shall take care of you? I won’t leave you alone.” Mrinal, the younger of the two attendants protested.
“Am I a child of four? I can very well manage without you both scurrying around me. May be enjoy some peace too.” Rukmini remarked in light humour. Finally she dismissed them both and sighed with relief.
“Two women less to manage for the palanquins. That should accommodate those left out elders.” Rukmini spoke to herself.
Another gust of wind blew out the two lamps before her. Rukmini knew it was futile to light the lamp again with the wind continuously blowing. She was also fairly sure of her travel plans on which she had spent deliberating since afternoon.
Rukmini felt her way towards the couch and laid back feeling a sudden relief as the stressed muscles of her back relaxed. She hadn’t eaten her evening meal. But hunger was the last among what she felt. Thoughts of Krishna filled her with hope and optimism. “I shall soon be on my way to meet you, Krishna.”
Her tired body gave in to fatigue and she closed her eyes not worrying even to pull the blanket at her feet to shield herself from the howling sea wind. Hours passed as she slipped into dreams and then into deep sleep.
A howl sounded in her years rudely shaking her awake. She sprang to her feet, her mind still figuring out how much time passed since she gave in to sleep. She heard faint shouts mostly from traders who were being stopped by the guards. She ran out of her room, simultaneously draping a shawl around her. From the window in the corridor she saw to her horror that the humble dwellings of the Yadavas which stood at a distance from her palace were ablaze. There were chaos all around. She looked down to see that the scared commoners turned to the house of Krishna for shelter. The guards were trying their best to stop the rush into the palace in the mid of the night.
“Are we attacked” was her first thought as she instinctively raced back to her room and felt for her armour and changed into a warriorly attire.
“I shall remember to tell Mrinal that I missed her.” She thought while struggling with the fastenings of the armour which she had seldom worn and had apparently grown out of it. But she did not bother much about the partly unguarded places. Grabbing a sword, she ran down the stairs shouting to the guards to let the commoners inside.
“What is the matter?” Her authoritative voice, as well as her attire brought a sudden calm.
“Mistress, Chedi has attacked us. They swooped down in the dead of the night and set the outer part of the city on fire.” One of the guards reported, his voice overcome with concern and confusion.
“Save us, Queen. We are all doomed!”
“How would she save us? Her magician husband has deserted us.”
Rukmini’s grip on the hilt of her sword instantly tightened. She had heard what she was trying to avoid all these days..
“Let them all in and take them through the secret tunnel.”
“Mistress, that is a secret pathway meant for…”
“Get them through that!”She thundered. “And take Grandfather too! With appropriate guard.”
“Mistress what about you?”
“I shall follow soon. How many of our soldiers are fighting those ….” She controlled the abuse waiting to spill out of her lips and cleared her throat.
“Hardly around two hundred, mistress. Most of them left with Princess Revathy’s retinue.”
Rukmini looked at the guard if he was blaming her for not retaining more soldiers. But this was not the time for clarifications.
“Those of you who would like to court sure death, stay with me. Rest, escape through the tunnel path and escort grandfather towards Indraprastha. Also grab whatever supplies you can. “She signaled one of the manservants to follow her. Back in her room, she felt in her wardrobe and took out a box of priceless jewels. She swallowed a lump in her thorat as memories of Krishna gifting her those exquisite jewelry came to her mind. But she knew nothing mattered to him more than the safety of Yadavas.
“Take these with you. Let grandfather sell them if you need to buy anything for the journey. Horses, carriages. Here are some signets to use as promissory notes if you fall short of anything.”
The man shivered at her instructions.
“If grandfather asks for me, tell him that I have gone ahead. Don’t bother about lying to him.”
“Go!” it was the harshest tone she would have used in the last ten years.
As the man took the box and signets and rushed towards the inner corridors towards Ugrasena’s Chambers, Rukmini turned to the guards who preferred to stay with her.
“Your families are safe? Don’t you have to ensure their safety?”
“You have ensured it. Mistress. We are here to die for you.” One of them replied in fervor.
“Fine. I want you to ensure that every dependent commoner in the city is ushered to safety.”
Wordlessly, eight of the guards darted out of the palace while two of them stayed to guard her.
Rukmini rushed to the tulsi plant to offer a hurried oblation. “Call me superstitious. But she, this plant ensures that I am successful in my attempts.”
She and her companions saw that the remaining citizens were ushered into the tunnel way and the entrance was camouflaged well as it was before.
“Why don’t you leave too? We would have closed the door of the tunnel for you, mistress? ”
Rukmini wondered if she was pulling her ideals over the limits in staying back. She had promised Krishna that she would be the last person to leave Dwaraka. He would not be expecting her to stand by it to death in this situation. But she thought there were ways to keep her word too.
“Let us leave by the sea.”
“By sea, in this tide? You really meant we want to face our death.” The guard retorted at her idea.
“Dumbwit! We shall sail over to a safe place well hidden by the rocks and wait till the tide subsides.” Rukmini snapped and walked towards the side exit of the mansion which opened to the sea.
“Aren’t you late in escaping, Daughter of Bhishmaka!”
Rukmini’s blood boiled at the voice. The cold, shameless voice which never knew about a conscience could only belong to this wretched prince of Chedi.
“Maharathi! Or does this midnight adventure grant you the status of an Atirathi? Your Highness!” Rukmini’s words spat venomous sarcasm as her face turned a reddish hue due to blood rushing with rage through her veins.
“Beautiful women, do not have the reputation to be choosing best men. For your exceptional beauty, you are not an exception.”
“You took all the trouble to come to just counsel me on my choices. How noble, Chaidya.”
Rukmini saw her two companions step in front of her. “Wait, you are out numbered you’ll only be killed.”
“No, we’ll succeed in giving you the time to escape.” Saying so, he charged forward, the other guard following him to take on Sishupala’s soldier’s
“Wait, what are your names?” But Rukmini’s words were lost in the clangs of swords. She steeled her mind to turn towards the sea and ran, looking for a jetty. The sound of swords clashing and the shouts got fainter. But a sound of footsteps was heard with increasing clarity despite the sound of waves.
“Wait, Vaidarbhi. We both know that you cannot sail a jetty by yourself.”
Rukmini knew that her pursuer was partly right. She had learnt to row on the seas. But she had never ventured without her trainers. She had never tried to haul a jetty into waters by herself. The realization brought a suddent halt to her steps.
“Even if you can, I know you won’t”
Rukmini wondered if some divine intervention can take place and this tone can be silenced. If possible, silence for good. But she had still much to listen.
“You would never think of escaping if I said I have around twenty wealthy merchants of Dwaraka imprisoned by my soldiers.”
Rukmini could bear no more. “Oh, your nobility gets better and better. Doesn’t it? I only wonder how it is even possible that such noble man like you is born to a daughter of the lowly Yadavas like us.”
“I knew you were always a lioness. You did not lose your royal demeanour after years of association with the cowherd turned pseudo noble.”
“Don’t dare to insult him in my presence. You are right, Chaidya. A lioness belongs to a lion and not to a wolf like you.”
“Now, you would want to keep your tongue under check Vaidarbhi. That is if you care for the lives of your dear Yadavas.” Sishupala’s voice turned cold and cruel. As if he meant to be otherwise before. Rukmini defensively dew her sword to keep him at a distance.
“Come away with me, Rukmini. The Yadavas would be spared. And you would be a queen, not a deserted wife of a son of a slave.”
“Son of a..” Rukmini pursed her lips before the abuse could spill out. Rukmini knew anger would not solve the problem. She held on to her fast failing wits. Krishna had often told her about human instincts and his calculations about them which seldom proved wrong. What would Krishna have done in a similar situation? Rukmini tried to fathom Sishupala’s mind, desparately searching for a vantage point. This moment would find the prince of Chedi in his most triumphant moods of holding down the wife of his enemy to a point of acceptance. He would also be exultant about destroying the much prided city of Yadavas. Would his ego give her a vantage?
“You still lust after me Chaidya? I am a mother of two sons.”
“That has not withered a fraction of your flaming beauty, princess. It also proves that you are a fertile…” His words stopped mid way as Rukmini angrily stamped her foot with a forbidding expression.
“Now don’t seek to waste time. Your worthless husband might be busy stealing someone else’s bride on the pretext of participation in Rajasuya. You can as well come with me. When he returns with many other wives, you might as well be forgotten.” The jeering tone made Rukmini to consider one swift move to stab him. But she knew it would be a futile attempt as well as pose a danger to those poor merchants. She turned to look to ward the mansion where her guards now lay dead.
“Come with me.” Sishupala took a step forward to hold her by arm only to be warded off with a rebellious shove.
“Why only her? We are coming too!”
Rukmini turned to her left in shock at the unexpected voice. “Mitra, Bhadra! How in the name of Rudra did you!...”
Sishupala was as stupefied as she was. They were not just the wives of Krishna, but the daughters of his mother’s sisters.
“Don’t come here! Turn back!!” she unsuccessfully shouted. The cousins were clearly not in a mood to listen to her today.
“You both are only adding to my troubles, stupid girls!” Rukmini could not help feeling defeated at the foolish way in which Mitra and Bhadra exposed themselves to the danger.
“No, we came to remind you that you are not the only sahadharmachAriNi of Govinda” Bhadra coolly responded.
“And we have a rightful share in what you get, elder sister.” Mitravinda added as they defiantly approached Rukmini.
“Help is on its way, sister. Hold this fool back for a while.” Bhadra whispered, noting with glee that Sishupala had gone back a couple of steps, probably rethinking about the repercussions of harming Bhadra and Mitra.
He was not sure about the reaction of Vinda and Anuvinda who were his loyal allies and had given him a free pass to attack Dwaraka, but with a stern warning not to touch their sister. Taking Bhadra with him would enrage Kekaya.
“What do you mean help is on its way? And why did you turn back and come? Did you even think about the children?” Rukmini replied in a furious whisper.
“Children, yes. They were one strong reason we used to coax Lakshana to continue to Indraprastha. Or else, she would have come too.” Mitra chuckled
“Why are we waiting, Prince of Chedi? Lead the way.” Bhadra mocked.
“Wait, you both are not coming.” He haughtily replied. It was easily seen that his wits failed him.
“Why? Are we less beautiful? And we are younger too!” Mitra flashed her eyes in scornful defiance.
“Goddess Gauri! If you both are harmed, what can I answer Krishna?”
“Sister, how were we to face him leaving you alone? Well, he has been giving most of his attention to Indraprastha these days. For you, he would again look at Chedi.” Bhadra added, squeezing Rukmini’s arm. Rukmini had to admit that she felt a deep sense of comfort because of them.
“Cousin Sishupala, Aunt Shrutashrava would be overjoyed to receive us. Wouldn’t she?” Bhadra continued to mock, much to the frustration of the Prince of Chedi.
Before Sishupala could respond, a group of soldiers belonging to Chedi ran towards him in confusion.
“Lord, the combined armies of Kekaya, Madra and Indraprastha, headed by the Pandava Nakula have broken through the Gates and freed the Yadavas.”
“Look at his expressions! I would want to paint that to show Govinda.” Mitra whispered with a laugh as Sishupala abruptly turned his attention to rally the remaining of his soldiers and headed out.
As the enemy retreated, Rukmini felt her head reel with strain losing her balance as the concerned Bhadra supported her.
“Sister, are you alright? Or with child again?”
“No, I just skipped the evening meal and then all this.” Rukmini steadied herself. She was still annoyed at the bold step by Bhadra and Mitra. By the grace of all Gods, the Pandava prince happened to be approaching Dwaraka. But had any delay taken place, all three of them would have been in great trouble.
“And if in future you impudent girls dare to disobey me!”
“Take it from us, we would, if you opt for misadventures like this. Complain to the Lord or do whatever you want. We still maintain we have the same share as you. Be it a victory or an attack.” Mitra responded pretending to sulk.
Rukmini found it too hard to carry on with her authoritative self and wordlessly drew them both in an embrace. “Bad girls!! But I just couldn’t have done without you both.”