The mountain slope was slippery with snow and ice. Duryodhana took six of his best bodyguards and left the rest of his party in a camp that hugged the slope. The seven hikers, wrapped in furs to keep warm, spent several days criss-crossing the mountain side but found no trails or traces of Satyaki and his hunting party.

They melted snow for water but were running low on food. Duryodhana proceeded alone; ordered his men to return to the base camp. Shakiliyan, a bodyguard who had known the Kaurava since they were children, refused to abandon his prince.

“There is not enough food for you.” The wind howled and Duryodhana had to raise his voice. “Return to camp; collect more supplies and catch up with me.”

“Worry not for my welfare, my lord,” said Shakiliyan. He blinked as snowflakes attacked his eyes. “But I’ll die first than risk losing you in this treacherous weather.”

“Go, I say.”

“Begging your pardon, but no, my lord. Our military manuals are specific. No warrior is to venture alone into an unknown terrain.”

Shakiliyan was right. Duryodhana acceded. While the rest of the men turned south, the two men, heavy rolls of rope slung across their bodies, trudged up the mountain.

They reached an outcrop and took a rest break. The wind dropped, and it grew dead silent. Sunlight gave a false sense of warmth. Shakiliyan heated some snow, and they washed with warm water to remove the frost that had formed on their eyebrows, eyelids and beard. He also warmed the last portion of food in a small pot and served his prince. Duryodhana ate half and gave the rest to his bodyguard. The latter declined.

“You’re no good to me if you don’t keep up your strength. I insist,” said the Kaurava prince.

“It’s too much, my lord. Take some more. I’m not a big eater.” The man lied, but the prince took another mouthful and held out the pot again. Shakiliyan bowed and received the pot with both hands. He turned to a side, and with head low, devoured the meal.

“What was that?” Duryodhana heard the sound again. His hand went for his mace. Another low grunt.

“Below,” said Shakiliyan. The two men crawled on their stomachs and crept to the edge of snow-covered ledge. They peered over the edge, careful not to dislodge even a speck of snow.

A big man, wearing what appeared to be a white fur coat, was moving about among a cluster of boulders. He tugged and pulled what looked like roots from the ground and threw them over the mountain side.

“He is alone. A scout perhaps,” said Duryodhana. The big man stopped; sniffed the air. In a flash, he sprang and disappeared behind the boulders.

“Let’s follow him, my lord. He could be one of Satyaki’s hunting party.”

“Or worse. You remain here; rope me down.”

Shakiliyan fastened a safety rope around Duryodhana’s waist and wrapped the other end around a small boulder; the only anchor available. The prince went to the side of the outcrop and gingerly went down the slope. He reached the spot where the white-furred man was last seen. Someone had tied several ropes around the boulders. The big man had been pulling the ropes loose and throwing them over the mountain side.

“Why?”

The light shifted; Duryodhana whirled around, mace at the ready. A roar; the big man; a blur of movement. A huge fist smashed into the mace. If not for his upraised weapon, the fist would have plunged into Duryodhana’s face. He lost his balance and fell. The momentum of the punch carried through, and the big man tripped over Duryodhana. Taken by surprise, Shakiliyan, who was higher up, lost his grip. The sudden stress uprooted the small boulder and the safety rope snaked into the air and fell over the mountain side.

The next moment, Duryodhana felt a sharp jerk around his waist, and the rope tugged hard. He dropped the mace and grabbed the taut rope, but continued to slide and slip to the mountain side. Something heavy was dragging him to the edge. He dug his heels into the snow; found solid ground. But the weight on the rope pulled him up on his feet and brought him down on his stomach. Duryodhana kept inching to the edge. His arms went over the edge and he stopped; hooked by his armpits.

A roar reached him. It was so loud, his ears ringed. Duryodhana’s jaw dropped open; blinked to clear his vision.

Hanging on the rope over the edge was a massive beast-man covered in white fur. The thing snarled; its tongue danced in its opened jaws.

*** Copyright @ 2021, Eric Alagan ***

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