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I knew Pari well enough. He would not allow the brigands to capture him for ransom. Honour demanded a fight to the death. But he also knew when to fight, fold or flee. With the nation facing grave danger, he must live. He must make good his escape. He must reach Piran Malai.

These Parambu realms were his kingdom, and he knew the lay of the land. He brought that local knowledge to full play to outwit the killers.

Reaching the shallow stream, without hesitation, he drove his team of gasping sweat sleeked thoroughbreds into the waters. With a great splash, the chariot and horses plunged into the swift flow and sent dozens of water fowls fluttering out of the brushes.

In normal times, entering the stream would be a mistake. The stone strewn river bed would slow us down much more than men riding horses. And we risked shattering the wheels. Any moment now I expected the axles to disintegrate and wheels to wobble loose. With the flower garlands pulling around his neck and long curly black hair bouncing on his shoulders, Pari continued to coax the horses.

The gurgling brook was not only shallow but also narrow. With thick growth on either bank, our enemies too had to enter the water. And they did. The pursuers crashed into the river and gave chase, their mounts raising hooves high to dig into the water.

A whistling sound and a whiff of air flew past, brushing my ear. A dull thud followed. One of our horses, the lead mare, shuddered and whinnied. A stubby arrow had lodged into its rump. But it was a war horse, accustomed to wounds and pain, and kept plunging forward. Its hind muscles tightened and loosened. With every leap, thick blood spurted and darkened its brown glistening coat.

Then providence struck. There was a great shout behind, followed by the frightened high-pitched neighs of horses. The lead pursuer’s mount had tumbled, having snapped a leg on the treacherous river bed, and sent the man flying ahead. His compatriots, packed in a knot, smashed into one another. And the stream filled with the clamour of cursing men and screaming horses.

This was what Pari hoped for and the gods had answered his tapas, prayers of penance.

We continued round a bend, and a narrow path opened on one bank of the brook. Pari manoeuvred the chariot into the mouth and raced up the slope. The wheels spun and dug into the slipping mud. The chariot sank and was in danger of getting stuck.

‘Take the reins,’ said Pari.

‘I can’t. I don’t know how to drive.’

‘Get off then and push,’ said Pari.

I jumped out and put my shoulder to the wagon. The horses strained and their hooves kicked wet mud and sharp gravel at me.

‘Oh my gods,’ I said.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued Monday 19 August 2019