In the mist that had settled in that morning, I spotted the hazy silhouette of a man in a white robe, riding a horse. He approached the drawbridge and then disappeared. A few moments passed before I heard his voice “The king rules in the sunlight and over darkness he prevails.” The words were accurate, and articulated precisely. But there was an uneasiness that drove me to question the rider’s motives. The tower guard is used to the sight of men approaching in the dark, we have seen sights many wouldn’t believe, sorcerers walking with chained beasts that didn’t belong to this world, warriors that were so far gone the Devil’s plane they had no business walking amongst the living.
But the pass key was sacrosanct.
It was never to be questioned. Many a fallen soldier had been tormented to reveal what it was. And many had revealed it, albeit, with a word missing, or the tense changed – red herrings that would help us thwart potential intruders. My job now was to lower the drawbridge for this rider in the mist. And yet, every bit of my resolve yearned, nay, begged me to reconsider. I pretended as if I hadn’t heard the man clearly the last time. “What was that, good sir?” I asked, for he most certainly was a nobleman of some degree, “My apologies, the wind diluted your words before they reached me” I added.
There was silence for a few moments. And then the voice rang out again, saying the same words, in the very same tone, with the same articulation – the similitude making me shudder. The voice was just as abhorrent to me as it had been in the moment past. But now that it had been repeated in exactly the same way, I was all the more taken aback. If something stings you once, you are uncertain about its potency… it takes you by surprise. But if the bite is just as strong the second time around when you are prepared, your fear assumes a much more pragmatic form. And pragmatic fear is of the worst kind, for now your excuse of it being unfounded is lost – The only veil with which you can hide yourself is gone. And now, so were my excuses to procrastinate. I would have to pull up the drawbridge.
I looked out at the valley below the hill on which the fort had been constructed. The mist had entrenched itself asymmetrically amidst the greens, like cotton in a child’s soapbox. The smoky wisps that had escaped along the trail the man had taken to arrive at the castle’s foot had now been all but repaired. What was it that caused my disconcertion? Why was I so worried? I did not know. And this was after all, just one man. If I allowed him in, it would have been a job done well, no matter the unease I felt within. And there were so many to take care of….
“Dwarpal, I sense anxiety in you. What seems to be the matter?” the man’s voice arose, serene, steady and yet the malevolence was there. It was very much there.
Now as much as I am the tower guard, I have been chosen from amidst a militia of several hundred thousands, for a reason. I know my martial prowess is mediocre – a fair assessment, not a modest or ambitious one – my arrows have more precision than the sting of my melee attacks, and I do have a rather keen sight. But apart from these, I have been told, my instincts at sensing danger far exceed that of any other man in the Northern Kingdoms. I had sensed the treachery of Kharasala when he had come to the court of the king, the despondency the new king would scorch us with before he was even anointed and the treachery of Parvateshwara in the Battle of the Rohil. And although, as a mere infantryman, my words fell on deaf ears, Shaktar, our great minister of war came to know of my perspicacity. It was he that appointed me to this role, and he had asked me to ‘use my discretion when necessary.’ Over the years, I have done just that, and many say that it has been the cause of my downfall. Or rather my stasis. For I have not risen in rank since I called foul on the emissaries of Mahendra, even though my fears about them were not entirely unfounded. And today, I stand on the brink of going against my better judgment and letting a man, who protocol dictates, should be allowed to pass.
“There is no matter good sir. It is just that the mist prevents me to discern your face. And in these times, if not me, then who should know better than to not let those pass who cannot be identified.”
My words floated in the mist like an ephemeral breeze. For not only was I unsure of my own intent at having said them, but also if they had made their way to the intended recipient who was now completely shrouded in a thick veil of smoke. The lack of an immediate response made matters all the more worrisome. But I did sense some movement thereafter in the smoke. The man seemed to dismount his horse and floated a few meters away from the tower so that I could now see him more clearly. His cloak he now removed and brandished around himself like a wizard about to reveal some form of mystical sorcery, as the mist around him twirled in confounding circles and rose into the sky. The lapse of time was momentary at best, but significant enough for me to catch a glimpse of the rider. As he perceived the few seconds of clear vision he had purchased by his gesticulations, he quickly dropped his cloak aside and looked up at me.
It was a Brahmin, lean of build, with frail limbs discernible within his thin garb of white panchakacham, with horizontal vibhuti lines marking him on his forehead, his arms and his chest. He had no weapons on him, and the disturbance he had created had revealed a brief glimpse of his horse to me as well – it had no saddle.
Although the sight should have calmed my senses, I cannot tell you how much disquiet, how much restlessness my soul suffered at the mere sight of him. For as bland as the man looked, there was a brightness, a hunger in his eyes that I had known to only stem from single minded ambitiousness. Which should hardly have been of significant consequence, but what you must understand that a Brahman, particularly one as astute as this one’s demeanor betrayed, was always a man without any worldly aspiration. There are exceptions no doubt, but for a majority of those tainted lot, the only misgiving was greed, an easily perceivable vanity. But there was none of that in this man either. “What business do you have in our kingdom O Brahmin?” I asked. A foolish maneuver on my part.
“A Brahman passes through kingdoms like water through a sieve dwarpal. Do you wish to incur the wrath of the Gods?” wafted the Brahmin’s voice from within the mist. He had been enveloped again. His threat had had its requisite effect. Who was I to question this man? And all of that based on a hunch. Something was amiss. I mustered the courage to throw one last question at him. From the distant woods a peacock called out, the only sound amidst the hushed up swirls of thick smoke.
“Give me your name good sir. I mean no offense. But there are many who have passed through these doors in the guise of piety, but their motives have been darker than the kohl of galena and malachite. Answer me this and I shall readily throw down the bridge.”
This would suffice. A Brahmin by dharma is not allowed to lie. They still do, for if not for the lies of Brahmins how would the land of the seven rivers have known so much strife. They are after all the greatest power brokers, bartering trust and wealth under the word of God, but a name would suffice. I am but a mere dwarpal.
“My name” his voice echoed, “is Chanakya.”
It had been my final throw of the die. Chankya… Chanakya. The name sounded very familiar. I rolled the name over and over my tongue, repeating it as if somehow the hard palate, my voice and the seat of my brain where information was stored were all connected. I trudged the staircase slowly, taking my time at each step… That name… Where had I heard it before??
The image of the Brahmin played on in my head as I made my way down the torch lit staircase which wound its way to the bottom of the tower. Chanakya… Was he at the king’s court sometime? His image danced around like the bouncing shadows on the concentric walls, and that’s when I realized something anomalous about his appearance. It was his shikha the lock of hair left on the back of the shaven head of the Brahmin, that was meant to be kept knotted at all times, was brandishing, unchecked. And that’s when my memory of who he was gushed back to me….
I remembered his voice now, blazing with fury that night at the King’s court as he vowed his vengeance on the Nanda empire, his oath to bring the Chandravanshis to their knees, to obliterate everything the king held dear, and to never tie his shikha again till his vengeance was fulfilled. I had heard from the guards about how he had been thrown out of the kingdom many years ago. This man was an enemy of the state who had most certainly returned, much as he had promised, for his retribution.
But I had also known of another side of this man. For in his now nearly decade long exile, whispers had grown of the man’s vision for a united country that stretched beyond the Sindh in the North and the Vindhyas in the south. Whispers that had reached my ears, for as I said before, a magnificent warrior I might not be, but a perceptive one, I most certainly am. Alexander’s initial foray into the country might have seemed the innocuous parley of an inquisitive young king, but Chanakya had written extensively about a drastic change in our perception of kingship and kingdom. He had said that although Alexander might not have come with provincial ambitions, it does not mean that we exist in a territorial vacuum. This feudal mentality of continuous fragmentation and reunification must cease and we must look at ourselves as a nation, a unified force to dispel invaders who will bring the might of their land to seize control over this, our motherland. I had remembered being inspired by his words and had felt shame at the same time for extolling the words of a traitor.
This dichotomy arose in me again, and as I unwound the chains that held the drawbridge up, I realized that it had been quelled much more easily this time. For now as I stood, watching Chanakya walk towards me like a wraith, floating through dense clouds of the mist, I knew what I needed to do.
As he passed me by, I reinforced the decision I had made with thoughts of dharma.
I do not know what he will accomplish in his lifetime. I do not know if his premonition will come true, or if the fall of the Nandas, would be the precursor to an era of great prosperity. What I do know is this. I am a dwarpal. And my loyalty, my life, my very being is pledged in service to the king.
I unsheathed my sword, and before Chanakya realized what I intended, I stabbed him through the heart. Thrice. His blood flowed through the naked blade, collecting on the seat of the hilt, staining my hands. I pulled out the blade as he dropped to his knees and with one final act of affirmation I sliced his head clean off his neck. As his body fell, and his head dropped to the blood stained floor I felt a moment’s remorse, but it dissipated even before it had completely formed.
This too, is patriotism.