A long long time ago, in a place far far away, in a forest lived a boy named Eklavya. Eklavya was a prince, and his father was king of the forest and of all the people who lived there. All the people of the kingdom were skilled hunters, proficient with bow and arrow and sword and spear, and Prince Eklavya was the best of them all, and of all the weapons he used, he loved the bow and arrow best.
Since he was a child Eklavya had loved practising archery. At first his mother let him use only the child’s bow and arrow, light-weight and made to the Prince’s size by the armourer, but soon he could draw back the bow that the women used, even stealing into her gardens to draw his mother’s bow—and the Queen was herself a great hunter, and oversaw the training of her children. On his twelfth birthday his parents gave him the gift of the man’s bow, and found Eklavya at his young years could easily string and unstring the bow used by the strongest of his father’s hunters.
He had started hunting when he was ten—trapping birds and rabbits in the woods—and at thirteen Prince Eklavya began to go on hunts with the adults, searching for nilgai and buffalo and for other large animals that could keep a family fed for weeks. These hunts went on for days, the hunters forging deeper into the forest while messengers took the carcasses back to the capital to be skinned and butchered and smoked.
Away from their families, alone in the deep paths of the forest with each other and their gods, the hunters grew gregarious. Prince Eklavya, never sheltered from them, they took to heart as their own, pouring stories into his waiting ears that were new to him alone. They told him of the wily animals they had failed to bring down,and the stories of the great hunts they had seen—of how his mother had once brought down a charging lion with a single arrow, and how his father had obtained trading rights for them in Panchal as a young prince, and how his mother’s eldest brother, who should have been king, had instead been banished for doing something too terrible to be spoken of. Nobody told Eklavya this last, but he was practising stalking, and nobody saw his shadow emerging from the shadow of the banyan.
On a hunt in the autumn he turned fourteen they tracked a herd of elephants for a week in the crackling forests, before bringing down a female and her calf. A short hunt, but more successful than any the Prince had partaken of in his fourteen months of hunting. The hunters broke open the sealed pots of mohua and washed it liberally down with the rabbits the newest of their number had trapped—a girl of twelve summers, kept from the elephants from fear of stampede and dancing with irritation by the time they returned. In the cold hours of dawn or in the low gloaming of twilight the carts would come for the meat and for its killers, the messenger already hurtling home, breaking the interweaving of the trees. Before that, somebody would have to start the butchering, strip the skin in great folds from the carcass, lop off the heads, but not just yet. The hunt was done, and tonight the stories would be wild, awash with blood-lust and glimmering with imagination—not simply stories of great hunts they had partaken in, or hunts they had witnessed. The hunters would talk that night of the greatest hunts that ever have been seen; the hunts that their mothers and the mothers of their mothers had told them about, had heard themselves as children; the hunts that had become lore, that were taught to children; the greatest hunts of the greatest hunters, trackers, archers, the heroes who had been touched by Kiriti, whose arrows never failed their mark.
At the edge of dawn, while Usha was walking the skies they spoke of Drona, the priest of war, whose arrows were god-touched. He fought like the best warriors in the grip of battle madness, though his fathers were priests. His fathers were princes; his fathers walked a lonely road away from their thrones; Drona the priest was Drona the prince, a priest like Viswamitra, another priest of war. He had declared war on the King of Panchal for breaking an oath, and the King had laughed; perhaps all Kings had laughed, save Eklavya’s father. The hunters crouched by the fire, expansive with meat and liquor and success, knew the threat for what it was, rubbed their hands together and laughed. The priest of war was roused, was angry; Panchal would hardly know what had befallen it. One began already to string together a new story to add to Drona’s growing hoard: how he had turned away from his old friend, furious; how he had wandered to the Elephant City and entranced its princes; how he was rearing them one and all and honing each into a weapon suited to his hands; how Drupad of Panchal should beware inevitable fate.
Eklavya, drunk on the fumes and heady slide of old mohua, on the splendour of the killing blow, strung together a new story in his head, adding to it the blood-beat of war-drums for music: how Drona had walked into his school-yard one morning to see a boy practising archery alone; how he had watched the boy loose arrow after unerring arrow; how he had stridden forward when the quiver was empty and pulled the boy into his arms; how he had taught the boy every trick and technique of archery, keeping nothing back; how the boy had served his preceptor with every valorous drop of blood; how the hunters had sung songs of the boy’s deeds and Kings had striven to draw him into their armies, sure of victory were they only sure of his presence.
The flames stuttered into shapes, fragmented into the unerring arrows of a fire-forged hero. A single golden arrow, five, a hundred; countless arrows slid up the air into the canopy on the back of fireflies, winking out of sight, hitting target. Eklavya smiled to himself in the close embrace of the new-washed morning. They hunters would remember him as lore; to their children they would speak of Eklavya the Nishad, worshipper of war, who had surpassed all archers.