“O Krishna, I see the battle flags of Drona, Shalya, and Ashwatthama high inside the needle formation,” said Arjuna. “And Karna is yet to make his move on me. He has already killed Ghatotkacha. I suspect Drona holds the Angaraj back and will unleash him when I near Jayadratha; that is, if I can reach the Sindhu.”

“Leave the worrying to me, O Partha. Focus on your immediate task.”

Arjuna continued to shoot hundreds upon hundreds of arrows. Each shot skewered two or three enemy soldiers. Commanders fell. Now and then, his darts found their mark on a rathi-general—a Kaurava prince—and his men cheered. Dhristarashtra’s sons died one after another.

All around Arjuna’s chariot, men on horses and elephants and men on foot fought; pushed forward and died. Other men replaced the fallen, fought, pushed forward, and died.

“See how our soldiers die, like locusts succumbing to flaming plains,” said Arjuna. “Even if we breached the needle point, will we have an army to fight tomorrow?”

“O Arjuna, why do you sink in despair when I am with you?” said Krishna. “Forget about tomorrow; forget about Karna. Care not about the men dying all around us, for Indraloka awaits them. Keep your eyes on the flags around Jayadratha. He hides in that midst. Focus on breaching the needlepoint.”

“O Krishna, my limbs ache from multiple wounds,” said Arjuna. “I feel faint. Will I last till the sun sets? I feel my energy wane and I want to sit down and rest my head on my knees.”

Just then, a great cry rose from the Pandava ranks. One of Arjuna’s celestial weapons had taken the head of an adirathi-general. The Kaurava soldiers panicked; their defence collapsed.

Krishna drove the chariot past the defensive wall and they were inside the needle-point.

Sakuni, Ashwatthama, and Kripacharya—all powerful maharathis and adirathis—converged on Arjuna and his cohorts. The needle point wall closed shut behind them, as Drona rallied his armies.

But Krishna was unperturbed. “Worry not,” he said, “their formation is not as strong as it looks.”

He was right. The Kaurava ranks had thinned and many of their generals lay dead. Drona had pulled his top generals to fill the gaps, and they had perished. Their demise forced the preceptor to risk second-tier commanders to lead the regiments.

“Bheema and Satyaki will make quick work of that lot and open the path to Jayadratha,” said Krishna.

But they were not out of danger. The Kaurava armies surrounded Arjuna’s chariot. A great slaughter ensued and the fresh Kaurava troops cut down the tired Pandava soldiers who had been fighting non-stop all day.

“O Arjuna,” said Sakuni. “We know you are intent on killing Jayadratha. But look around you. Witness how many of your men have surrendered their lives. Even Yamarajah has grown tired; instead of striking off names, he strikes off complete pages in his Ledger. Why pursue your insane goal that is doomed to failure. Return to your fireside and let us continue on the morrow.”

“O Sakuni, why play the court jester?” said Arjuna. “You know I’ve sworn to take Jayadratha’s head before the sun sets, failing which I shall enter the fire tonight. If I am to die, I rather die trying to take the Sindhu’s head.”

The cloudy sky turned dark; and the sun was nowhere to be seen. Their anxiety removed, the Kauravas gave over to laughter; and their soldiers cheered and beat their shields.

“Looks like you will bathe in fire today,” said Sakuni. “The sun has set; the day is done. Now, one can only hope you will live up to your vow. Is there a Karna in you? If so, prove that you too are a man of his word, O Disputed Champion of Champions.”

Arjuna removed his helmet and dropped it. His chin went to his chest and his shoulders slumped.

*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***

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