Wayfarers and slow-moving herds of cattle, goats and camels clogged the dusty road and forced Karna’s column to move no faster than the slowest moving herd of animals. He abandoned the road and took his column across the plains.

The guardsmen welcomed the open space. Karna sensed his men’s eagerness; gave the order to gallop. His driver snapped the reins; the horses raised their hooves, punched the air and set off. With hoops of joy, the soldiers heeled their horses and charged after the chariot, churning a swirling dust cloud in their wake.

After about an hour of hard riding, exhilaration gave way to fatigue. The column slowed and settled into a steady trot. The captain of the guards rode up to Karna’s chariot and said,

“My king, look.” He pointed to a boiling mass of sand that had crested a range of hills on their right. “A dust demon.”

“What’s that at the foothills?” said Karna.

The guardsman jumped onto his saddle. He stood upright and shielded his eyes with a hand and peered hard. “People. A carriage. Looks rich. They are signalling, my king.” The man interpreted the flashes from a mirror. “Wagon wheel shattered. Old men and women. Help.” The man slipped back into his saddle and took his reins. “They can’t outrun the dust demon, my king.”

“Sound the alarm. We’ll pluck them from the demon’s grasp.”

“As you order, my king.” The guardsman wheeled his horse around and galloped to the cavalry. The mournful sound of a single conch reached Karna. But his chariot was already flying towards the caravan. His horsemen, riding furiously, caught up with him and together they raced towards the crippled wagon.

The people, seeing the approaching chariot and horsemen, ran towards them; away from the dust storm. Oxen that had been pulling the wagon panicked and broke free from their handlers. The animals bellowed in fear and galloped away from the charging chariot and horsemen.

The wind grew stronger by the moment. Karna felt the first stings of biting sand. As he neared the running people, one man stood out from the small group of running people. He was dark skinned and handsome; wore a silken wrap around his waist and fine sparkling jewellery on his naked body. His hand clasped a flute and a single peacock feather adorned his top-knot.

“Karna!”

“Keshava!” said Karna. His driver halted the chariot and Karna stretched out his hand. With one heave, he pulled the Blue One into his chariot.

Karna’s cavalrymen snatched the people into the backs of their saddles. Then, it was a mad rush to get ahead of the dust storm which raced to engulf rescuers and rescued.

“What are you doing here?” Karna raised his voice above the clatter of hooves, chatter of wheels and the cries of men. And all the while, the wind howled past them, carrying with it an ever-thickening cloud of dust.

“I wanted to talk with you,” said Krishna; calm amidst the tempest.

“All you had to do was to send word and I’ll be at your doorstep.”

“A beggar will never summon the giver.”

“Not now, Krishna. We can joust after we escape this storm.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Why try to outrun something that you can’t outrun?”

“Is this another riddle, Krishna?”

“I meant, why try to outrun the dust storm when all you have to do is stop and let it pass.”

Karna threw a look at Krishna. The latter said, “This is not a cloud burst; you can’t ride out of it. This tempest races with you. Ride into it or stop.” The latter smiled and gave a slight nod. The Angaraj leaned forward and tapped his driver’s shoulder.

“Pull up.”

“My king?”

“I said, pull up.”

“Whoa! Whoa!” Karna’s driver reined in the horses and slowed.

His bodyguards, their horses burdened by the extra weight of the rescued, slowed down too. They got off their mounts and pulled the animals down; and wrapped cloth bandages over the horses’ eyes. The group huddled together and buried their heads between their knees. The dust storm beat hard and swirled and howled.

Suddenly, the wind weakened, and the storm abated. The sun shone through the dust filled sky and regained its brilliance. Krishna smiled, and Karna shook his head in wonder. They watched as the dust boiled and dispersed before their eyes. The dust storm had engulfed them and raced ahead so quickly that it felt like a dream. Surreal.

After ensuring that no one in the group was none the worse for having endured the sudden storm, the column set off at a leisurely pace.

Karna filled a goblet with water and offered it to Krishna, who shared the seat on the chariot. The latter took a sip and exclaimed.

“Chilled!”

“Rock water,” said Karna. He moved to the edge of his seat and, one leg tucked under his buttocks, faced his guest, who did likewise.

“You wonder why I sought you out,” said Krishna. His host gave a slow blink and smiled.

“You hold the key to peace between the Pandavas and Kauravas,” said Krishna. Karna raised his eyebrows and said,

“What do you want from me?”

“For now, all I want is for you to hear a story.”

“One that will sway me.”

“One that will enlighten you.”

“Enlighten me?” said Karna, and he laughed and surveyed the bright blue sky. “Go ahead, O Keshava, bring me your light, for as you can see, we live in darkness.”

“Sarcasm is quite unbecoming of you, O Angaraj.”

“And so too your attempts at manipulating the unwary, O Keshava.” Karna smiled and said, “Dally not. Let me hear the story which compelled you to raise a dust storm.”

“Who? Me? Raise a dust storm? You think too highly of me, Karna.”

“Your story, Krishna; do not deny me.”

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

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