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In the spring month of Chithirai, in the Fourteenth Regnal Year of King Vel Paary’s Rule, the wheels crushed the blooms and cut a new and dangerous path for Parambu Nadu. Cursed I was to witness the anguished cries – Kabilar

The chariot swerved from side to side and trundled up the dusty rise. I glanced back at the soldiers in the dip. They had dismounted and were on their knees. In quick succession they drew and let loose arrows. Two more brigands flew forward as their horses succumbed to the volley and buckled at the knees. A soldier caught up with our carriage and shouted at Paary.

‘Flee my king, flee!’

There was a sharp hiss of air. The man grimaced. He toppled off his saddle. Rolled on the dust. The arrow in his back snapped.

More howling attackers, their black tunics fluttering around them, bored down. They smashed into the line of archers. Lancers skewered the kneeling men. They clutched their torn torsos and toppled back dead. Without breaking gallop, the brigands waved swords above their turbaned heads, and charged towards us.

Paary urged the team of horses. The wagon flew over the ground and crushed and scattered the gravel. Though I wedged my feet into leather straps nailed into the floorboard, it took all my concentration to maintain balance. I clung to an upright and held a small round shield in the other hand; but otherwise, I was of no help to my friend.

Again, Paary snapped the reins but the horses, their tongues lolling and heads bopping in rhythm, were tiring. The weight of the heavy chariot, built for ornament rather than for war or speed, was fast depleting the thoroughbreds.

Rested and strong, the brigands’ mounts closed the gap with every bound. The lead attacker drew abreast, squeezing himself between the royal cart and the blur of shrubs fringing the path. The man reached to grab a handhold. Paary leaned his chariot and smashed into him. The screaming rider and his neighing horse crashed into the ripping thorn filled brushes. More attackers appeared on all sides of our trundling carriage.

‘Kabi, the gold,’ shouted Paary. ‘The gold!’

‘What?’ I shouted back.

‘The gold. Throw the gold.’

I snatched the bag of gold and swung, scattering the coins at the attackers. It made no impression. Highwaymen would stop in mid-fight to reach for gold. But our ruse failed.

The riders were after bigger bounty. Royal ransom. Royal blood. Paary’s blood. They persisted in their pursuit. One rider pulled ahead, intending to leap onto our lead horse. Paary tugged the reins and leaned to a side, and the horses veered just as the man leaped. He slipped and rolled on the dirt and missed the clattering chariot wheels by an arm’s length.

‘Attention!’ Paary shouted.

Another rider gained. Reaching forward, he raised and brought down his sword. My shield took his blow. The impact sent a painful shudder down my arm to the shoulder. And I fell.

‘Deflect! Deflect!’ yelled Paary.

I scrambled to my feet. The rider too had recovered from his downswing. Again, he raised his arm and delivered a slash. I swung my shield. Not versed in martial mores, I reacted, fought for my life. The man made to swipe his blade across my side. Panic stricken, I lunged forward and hit his face with my shield, catching him in the mouth. His eyes popped, and he fell back off his horse. I blanched.

‘I killed him. Oh god. Did I—’

‘Well done!’ yelled Paary. ‘Hold tight.’

He guided the carriage away from the path and into the trees. We hurled over thick roots in joint jarring bolts and shakes. One slip of the digging hooves, and a broken leg would send us headlong into the ripping ground.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued Friday 16 August 2019