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One of the gods must have heard my plea. For hard ground under the mud gave the wheels traction. I sighed with relief as the carriage crested the slope.

‘Hop on, Kabi. Quick!’

I jumped. Pari caught my arm and hauled me onto the floorboard. The chargers kept labouring into the forest. and Paary did not rein them. Sensing the immediate danger had passed, the horses slowed.

Convinced that the enemy had yielded the chase, Pari leaned back on tight reins and brought the horses to a welcomed stop. Jumping down, he unshackled the team and set to work. I helped him to pull some branches and creepers to hide the carriage. Then, we led the horses, including the injured mare, in a slow walk.

We did not talk; each wrapped in our thoughts of all that which had happened since we met the Cholans earlier in the day.

Was this ambuscade a chance of fortune, an unlucky encounter with the brigands or was it an assassination attempt on Pari? I threw a questioning look. Pari read my mind.

‘Let’s find safety first,’ he said.

Taking advantage of the peculiarities of the land and exploiting every bit of cover, Pari hid us and our team of horses. He was not only a statesman but also an accomplished hunter. A warrior. He read the terrain, deciphered jungle sounds and spotted dangers hidden in the mulch.

Before nightfall, we came across a patrol. They were searching for their king. Pari’s first question to them was typical.

‘What of the Royal Guard? How are they?’

‘All fifty accounted for, my king,’ said the captain, and he hesitated before adding, ‘and all gained warrior deaths.’

‘All fifty?’ said Pari.

‘They slew the captain and his cohort before coming after you, my king.’

Pari went silent, and I spoke in his stead. ‘Who are these villains?’

‘Kalavars, Guru Kabilar.’

A dread seized my being. These dwellers of the arid lands ran goats and cattle but also had a predilection to brigandry.

‘The Kalavars carted off their dead,’ said the captain. ‘But we found one body among the thorn brushes. Our physicians are examining the cadaver. Sir Jaga-Puthirar awaits your leisure.’

We returned to Pari’s fortress capital, Piran Malai, and met the royal physician. Jaga-Puthirar’s parlour opened into a silent passage leading to the mortuary. Though a Brahmin, in the interests of science, he dabbled with the dead. He ate with his assistants, people of the castes who prepared corpses for cremations, dug graves, and did such abhorrent but necessary tasks for the dead and the living.

As Royal Chronicler of the Parambu throne, I accompanied Pari on all his official duties. As a trusted friend and confidante, I shared many of his quiet moments too.

We went to the mortuary. Pari harboured no qualms about associating with the lower castes who toiled in that morbid sanctum. He liked them. But as king he maintained a discreet distance and did not fraternise with the lower castes for fear of offending his custom and tradition bound courtiers.

Foremost among these nobles was Prime Minister Chitragandan. A tall elegant man, he had mastered all sixty-four branches of knowledge and was a repository of ancient practices and canons; and a ready well spring of advice. He was also an accomplished administrator and steadfast in his loyalty to the throne.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued Friday 23 August 2019