“Single combat, O King. Challenge the Trigartas to pitch their champion against ours. The loser submits to the winner’s authority.”

“This is not a dice game, Kanka,” said Virata, with a hint of anger in his voice. “They have murdered our champion. Who will represent me?”

“We’ve another champion, O King. Our Royal Cook, Vallabha the Bald.”

“The bald one is as strong as an elephant and has an appetite to match, but can he fight?”

“Vallabha was once Bheemasena’s sparring partner, O King.”

“Bheemasena, the Bull of Bharata?”

“The same bull.”

Virata summoned Thanthripa, Royal Steward for Animal Husbandry, and Vallabha the Royal Cook. The king said to the former,

“You have in your paddocks, a wild bull; the one that gored three of your men. Bring him forth. And you, Vallabha, prepare yourself to fight the bull.”

Thanthripa fetched the bull, and attendants secured its chain to a timber pole driven into the ground. The animal’s black coat shimmered; muscles rippled on its shoulders. Coolies planted logs into the sandy courtyard in the fortress and erected an enclosure. When the arena was ready, handlers smeared chilli in the beast’s eyes and let it loose in the timber-walled square. The animal lowed and snorted. It butted its head against the wall and shook loose the last specks of dust from the timber.

“Vallabha, prove your mettle,” said the king.

The bald one stripped to his loin cloth and entered the arena. Virata and his officials stood on the walls and watched the action unfold below.

The animal charged; Vallabha stepped aside, surprised the onlookers with his agility; grabbed the sharp horns and snapped the neck. The bull fight had ended as soon as it began. Soldiers and attendants cheered and clapped. But the quick kill disappointed the king.

“Bring forth Jagannatha,” said the king.

“Jagannatha, O King?” Thanthripa hesitated. Jagannatha was a killer bull elephant, raised to train young bulls in the art of attacking enemy soldiers who fought on foot, horse, chariot or elephant.

The mahouts fetched Jagannatha. The elephant already sensed the promised fight. Its high-pitched trumpets terrified its handlers. Thanthripa stepped forward and soothed the animal.

“It’s uncanny,” said Virata. “How does he do it?” Thanthripa’s ability to calm down agitated animals never failed to impress the king.

“It’s a gift from the gods, O King,” said Kanka. “There can be no other explanation.”

“The way you spin your dice, sometimes I suspect you converse with your dice the way Thanthripa talks with his animals.”

“You are most kind, O King.”

Down in the courtyard, Thanthripa whispered to Vallabha. “Prolong the duel. The king wishes for entertainment. Do not go for a quick kill or matters will escalate. The king has recently acquired ten tigers from the north country, the Bengals.”

“I’ll kill all the tigers,” said the bald one.

“Bheema, don’t be a fool. This is not the time for bravado or to risk injuring yourself.”

“Has it come to this, Sahadeva. You call your elder brother a fool?”

“Please, prolong the fight.”

Thanthripa stepped back, and the mahouts released the elephant. Jagannatha charged at Vallabha. The cook ran around the timber square; the animal gave chase. An elephant’s bulk is deceptive, for it can outrun any man. And Jagannatha was an exceptional beast; and quickly gained on Vallabha.

“Prolong the fight, says my smart brother.” Bheema gasped in between breaths as he ran. “The tigers will probably fight among themselves. This one will trample me to death.”

***

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