asato mā sadgamaya
tamasomā jyotir gamaya
Om shānti shānti shāntihi
Sheshamma Devi was no stranger to fear.
In her sixty one and a quarter years on earth, she has lived through her share of horror. She had battled death for three long days and nights to emerge victorious on the other side with the babe in her arms, she has lived with the dread of having her only son throw his life in danger each day and she has spent every waking moment with the fear of having her bed-ridden husband snatched away to a place she couldn’t follow. So no, she wasn’t unacquainted with fear but she has also never really learnt how to live with it, despite living in near constant state of terror for a year now.
Not since King Bhallaladeva ascended the throne of Mahishmathi nearly a year ago.
A full year of endless trepidation, grief and loss.
“Sudheera? Is that you kandha*?” Sheshamma whispered through the crack in the old wooden back door.
“Yes, Amma. Let me in. Quick!” Her son’s rushed answer eased her heart a little. With fumbling fingers, she unchained the door and held it open; watching anxiously as the pale light of the deepa* from within pierced the breach and spilled out into the night.
Her Sudheera emerged from the dark and quickly shut the door, leaning against it to catch his breath and Sheshamma couldn’t help but scrutinize him for signs of injury. Noticing this, Sudheera smiled tiredly. “I’m okay, Amma.”
In reply, his mother ran her fingers over a large tear in his guard uniform- right over the royal emblem of Mahishmathi.
Sudheera bowed his head. “That is.....I mean, there was a small skirmish. I came as soon as I could but the King hasn’t officially dismissed us yet. But I…I couldn’t stay. Not after-”
“What?” croaked a voice from the corner of the little house. “What has happened now?”
Sheshamma sighed and walked over to help her frail husband sit up. “He will tell you everything but let him eat first. Jalajakshi, set the plate for your husband!”
“Yes, Amma!” Sheshamma’s daughter-in-law called from within, prompting Sudheera to hush them. “Keep your voice down, Jalaja!”
His wife smiled sheepishly from the entrance to the kitchen, barely masking her worry as she looked her husband over. Sheshamma supposed she was good for something at least.
“Sudheera?” Sheshamma’s husband called weakly. “What news?”
Sudheera sat down heavily on the bamboo cot opposite his parents, his face twisted with pain. “Kuntala is no more.”
Sheshamma gasped, her hands gripping her husband’s blanket tightly. “What do you mean, boy?”
“He burnt the kingdom,” Sudheera confessed, hanging his head. Jalaja covered her mouth in horror and Sheshamma felt her eyes burn. “He burnt them all…”
“Why?” Jalaja cried, wringing her hands in her pallu.
“For Yuvarani Devasena.” Sheshamma realized, her throat catching on their beloved princess’s name. “He must still be looking for her.”
“She’s dead!” her husband burst out bitterly, ignoring the three chastising looks aimed at him. “She is and so is her babe. So much for Sivagami Devi’s words.”
“Mahendra Baahubali is our king,” Sheshamma said, hollow and instinctive.
“That family is no more!” her husband hissed and Jalaja smothering her tears in her pallu. “They are all dead and they’ve left us to our fate. We can do nothing but suffer.”
Sudheera dragged a weary hand over his face. “We’ve been over this, Appa. There’s a chance that the Yuvarani may be alive- ”
“That dog Kattappa killed her!” His father hissed, grief sharpening his tongue. “Burnt down their house, he did! We all saw it.”
“She may have escaped- ” Sudheera tried weakly but he knew it was a lost cause. They’d had this discussion many times in the past few months.
“No one escapes a fire that, boy!” His father replied, rolling his eyes when Sudheera gestured for him to lower his voice while casting anxious glances at the door. “Your mother was there! Ask her! Ask her if the dog didn’t come in with a bloody sword in his hand and threw everyone out of that hut, everyone but our princess and the child…and with that sword dripping with our G-God’s blood…”
They quietened at the reminder, sinking into the sense of loss that always accompanied any hint of their beloved Amarendra Baahubali and his family, a tragedy that had erased any and all hope for the future of Mahishmathi.
“The people of Kuntala…?” Jalaja ventured hesitantly, staunching her tears.
“Dead, all of them,” Sudheera answered stonily. “The king ensured it, crowing about honouring the Yuvarani by destroying the kingdom the same way that she…perished.”
“That foul, foul man!” Sheshamma whispered through gritted teeth.
“He killed his own mother, what can you expect out of such a man?” Sudheera said, looking heavenward. “May Shiva grant peace to Sivagami Devi’s aatma-”
“Peace?” His father spat. “After everything she’s done? She has single-handedly destroyed Mahishmathi.”
“We mustn’t lose hope- ” Sudheera began without conviction.
“The only hope we have now is Parashusardha.” Sheshamma uttered with finality and there was absolute silence in the house. Crickets chirped, mingled with the soft footfalls of soldiers on duty on the distant raaja marga*.
“We can’t trust some vigilante, Amma.” Sudheera began but was cut off, not by his father this time but by his wife.
“Why not?” Jalaja’s sat beside her husband with a huff. “He seems to be the only one fighting for us. We owe him the very meal we eat! When was the last time you checked the price of rice grains at the market?”
“I know he is increasing the taxes- ”
“Increasing?” Jalaja scoffed. “Soon Lord Kubera himself will be the only one who can afford rice or anything at all. If it weren’t for Parashusardha’s efforts to maintain the black market- ”
“ -black markets are bad, Jalaja- ”
“Say that to the hungry children who will have to sleep with an empty stomach if Parashusardha is unable to provide us with food.”
“Listen to your wife, boy.” Sudheera’s father cut him off, collapsing back against the pillows. Sheshamma drew the blanket over his body, absentmindedly smoothing out the creases. “That masked one-man army might do some good yet.”
“Not sure about the one-man army part though,” Sudheera revealed, giving up the pretense of protest. “There are whispers of someone assisting him. Possibly a woman.”
“A wife?” Jalaja asked curiously.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Who can say for sure?”
“At least he’s not alone,” Sheshamma said, looking around at her family and silently thanking the Parameshwara for sustaining her family as He had so far in such trying times. “No one deserves to be alone.”
“Is there any way…” Jalaja hesitated before continuing in a hush. “There are rumors that he could be…”
“Our beloved Yuvaraja,” Sudheera finished when she couldn’t. “But that’s not possible.”
“No,” his ailing father agreed softly, having exhausted the final reservoirs of his energy. “If he was our ayya, we would know.”
“The King doesn’t do things by half,” Sudheera said bitterly. “Nor would he be able to live with the maybes. We have to accept that our Yuvaraja is no more.”
They bowed their heads in unison, uttering the shanti mantra under their breath at the recollection of the dead.
“I pray that Parashusardha stays safe,” Sheshamma said, joining her palms together and bowing her head. “He is all we have left now.”
Three carts pulled by two hefty bullocks each rolled down the quiet, deserted road at dusk. It was a humble mud road at the outskirts of the great kingdom of Mahishmathi, with the forest to one side and a drop to another. The evening was unremarkable in their quietness and the carts were regular and unassuming.
Nothing could indicate just why they happened to be the target of a masked woman perched on the on a treetop further up the road.
Aashvi shifted slightly and adjusted her grip on the arrow pointed at the man steering the first cart, mentally smirking at the thought of the demon of Mahishmathi discovering that his latest plan to smuggle in weapons for his army was a flop, like all of them before.
But she had to admit that Bhallaladeva was smart. When he’d discovered that his imported goods- be it rice grains or weaponry or anything else- were targeted, he started coming up with new and innovative ways of smuggling it all into Mahishmathi. The latest of which was splitting the total load and hiding them in domestic carts, hoping to pass them off as belonging to innocent villagers.
Aashvi’s partner should be busting some of the others that had taken a different path.
She breathed softly, sharpening her focus when the carts neared but the jingling of bells tied around the necks of the bullocks was so familiar…soothing…sparkling blue skies and the fields so green that they seemed to shimmer in the warm sunshine, crops dancing merrily in tune to the cool breeze from the snowy mountains…Aashvi screwed her eyes shut so hard that stars danced behind her lids, trying desperately to focus but the sweet call of the cuckoo bird still rang in her ears, her mother’s laugh and the chiming of those sweet anklets around her Yuvarani’s feet as clear as it had been two years ago.
She gasped and wrenched herself back to the present in time to see the first of carts roll past her. Cursing under her breath, she shot arrows back to back at the men steering the last two carts and caught them in the heart. The second cart slowed, the bullocks coming to a stop when they no longer felt the whip on their hide but the other cart didn’t, so Aashvi waited and jumped down the tree to land on the back of the cart. Hastily, she gripped the ropes and drew the cart to a stop.
Two down, one to go.
She took off after the first one, cutting through the forest to catch up with the speeding cart. Jumping through the fallen logs and dodging the innumerable branches and creepers, she ran until drew level with it and rapidly shot an arrow at the back of the rider’s head.
The man died instantly but she’d not accounted for the bullocks being spooked as they did and speeding rapidly in the direction opposite her…down the slope on the other side of the road. Aashvi desperately scrambled to stop it, almost grabbing the reigns but the ropes tore through her hands, drawing blood. She lost her balance and fell hard, hitting her head on a rock but before she could do more than shout in pain, heavy footsteps pounded across the ground.
A blur of black passed her, making it in time to stop the cart from careening into the abyss.
Aashvi raised her head, blinking against the blood running down her forehead and saw, to her relief, that the bullocks were safe…and the cart too. She took the hand extended to her, pulling off her mask. “That was close.”
Parashusardha sighed and nodded, moving away to stand at the edge of the cliff overlooking the kingdom of Mahishmathi. “What happened?”
“I was…distracted,” she admitted, walking over standing next to him. It was a mark of the understanding they’d developed over the past two years that he didn’t question her. It also helped that he was going to through the same thing…only worse.
“I...” Aashvi hesitated and then shrugged. She didn’t have anything to lose. Anymore. “It was the sound of those damned bells-” She cut herself off before she could cry, pressing a hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to prevent her burning eyes from leaking.
“Yes.” He said softly, not turning away from the view. “I know.”
The pain in his voice was an echo of the pain in her heart. Two years ago, on that particular day, their worlds had shifted irrevocably. They were still reeling from the blow, trying to pick up the pieces and putting them together haphazardly in a desperate attempt to do something. Anything.
“I…never did thank you, Aashvi.” He said with a heavy sigh, his lips twitching upward in a vain attempt at a smile. But neither of them had ever smiled in the last couple of years so the attempt fell flat. “If you hadn’t saved me-”
“-then you’d be dead.” She told him bluntly, “and joined your family in the afterlife.”
For it was the day Amarendra Baahubali had almost died two years ago. It was the day his family had been cruelly snatched from him; his wife and newborn son succumbing to the fire while his mother was executed for treason at the hands of her son, the emperor Bhallaladeva.
It was the anniversary of the day she’d lost the person she’d dedicated her life and heart to. Her Yuvarani, who had urged Aashvi to leave her while she lay struggling on the birthing bed, who had urged her to discreetly follow her husband in case he needed help freeing his uncle.
“My work here is not done.” Baahubali may be a shell of the man he’d once been but he still carried the same conviction in his heart that he always had. “Death will wait. They will wait.”
Aashvi still remembered that stormy night vividly, watching as Baahubali and Kattappa battled the Kalakeyas, watching as the loyal Kattappa stabbed his beloved nephew in the back, watching as the murderer slipped away during the gloating king’s monologue and still watching as some surviving Kalakeyas attacked the emperor before he could harm his brother’s body, giving her a perfect chance to sneak him away.
“They have to wait,” she murmured in a daze. “The only reason you survived was because the Gods aren’t done with you yet, Anna.”
This, she believed with all her heart. Baahubali shouldn’t have survived, especially when left in her inexperienced hands. She’d snuck his body away under the cover of the battle, yes and her Yuvarani had taught her basic medicine but she was ill-equipped to heal stab wounds.
But he had survived, against all odds.
No, the Gods were definitely not done with Mahishmathi’s favourite son.
“No,” Baahubali agreed. “Not until Mahishmathi is free.”
“Not until Bhallaladeva falls.”
United by their love for Devasena and bound by a debt of life, Aashvi and Amarendra Baahubali stood side by side, at each other’s backs for two years in the never-ending fight against the regime. They wouldn’t involve anyone else, oh no. They did not want anyone to experience the pain of losing a loved one.
It was their fight, their revenge.
They wouldn’t rest until the debt of betrayal was paid.
“Adab, Aalim bhaijaan!”
“Adab!” returned Aalim jovially, skipping down the steps of a large bazaar. His bright blue coat fluttered behind him as he walked, his right hand coming up to shield his face from the scorching rays of the sun. “I must say, Dileep bhai, your Hindustani sun is quite overwhelming. Why, I already feel myself melting!”
Dileepa, his business partner, laughed at his words. “You are talking like it is the first time you have set foot in Ajayameru.”
“Ah but it’s been a long time,” Aalim said, stooping to drop a silver coin in a beggar’s bowl. “A remarkably long time. I’ve missed this city, Dileep.”
“There is nothing quite like it,” Dileep agreed, both of them pausing for a moment to take in the dusty roads, squabbling children, haggling vendors and the beautiful chaos that was Ajayameru.
“How are things at home?” Dileep asked as they continued down the road under the scorching mid-afternoon sun.
Aalim sighed, his joyous countenance dimming a little. “Home is home, Dileep and Aslam is Aslam. I can only take so much of both at a time.”
Dileep smiled sympathetically, topping next to a small booth selling cool buttermilk. Handing a glass to Aalim, he cleared a place for them to sit under the shade of the makeshift roof of the booth. “What has caught his fancy this time?”
“Chain mail,” Aalim revealed in a woeful tone too old for his age, wiping his forehead tiredly. “He’s got in his head to make the best chain mail there is and is driving himself and all of Kabul crazy.”
Dileep laughed, sipping on his buttermilk to avoid saying anything derogatory against Aalim’s older brother, the famous weapon maker Aslam Khan. Despite the fierce competition of who could build the better weapon, the brothers were as thick and thieves.
“Well, you will not be seeing him for another seven months and maybe it will have blown over by then?” Dileep ventured.
Aalim shrugged, his attention diverted by a makeshift cloth ball landing at his feet and he jumped up immediately to play an impromptu game of fetch with the street children and a flea bitten dog. When he finally made it back to Dileep, he was drenched in sweat and grinning like a maniac. “Oh, have I missed this!”
“I am sure,” Dileep bit his lip to hold back his laughter. “Shall we continue to your workshop? I have some prospective customers waiting to talk to you.”
“Excellent!" They resumed their journey down the city square, weaving through the crowd and dodging the occasional, overexcited trader. “Anyone we know?”
“They are from Mahishmathi,” Dileep frowned contemplatively. “They may or may not be rebels, going by their masks and shady behaviour.”
“Dileep, don’t judge.” Aalim chastised. “Besides, if everything we’ve heard about the king of Mahishmathi is true, he deserves to be rebelled against.”
Dileep hummed. “Perhaps.”
“Aalim bhai! Welcome back!” Someone shouted from across the street and Aalim waved distractedly, briefly wondering who it was. Was it Suguna’s son, Gaja-something? He desperately needed to reacquaint himself with his beloved city…
“I shall never understand monarchies,” Dileep was saying when Aalim tuned in again. “Why give so much power to a single individual? Why not give everyone a chance to govern themselves?”
“Isn’t that the beauty of Ajayameru? All of us are equal here. Everyone gets a fair chance to earn our bread and butter.”
“Indeed. If you are good at sewing, you sew clothes. If you are good at farming, you work in the farms. If you are good at fighting-”
“-welcome to the fighting pit!” Aalim finished and the men grinned at each other.
“It is good to have you back, bhaijaan.” Dileep said sincerely.
“It’s good to be back, Dileep.” Aalim replied, clasping Dileep’s shoulder briefly. “I simply can’t wait to visit the pit. Would the Mahishmathians mind terribly if I were not there?”
“Take them to the pit with you,” Dileep suggested, pushing open the door to the courtyard that led to Aalim’s workshop and everything else. “It would be a novelty to them and…” He trailed off when his eyes fell on a duo dressed in black, perched at the edge of the courtyard.
Aalim peered over Dileep shoulder. “Ah!” he said with a smile, squeezing himself in through the gap between the door and his frozen associate. “Adab! You must be our prospective customers all the way from Mahishmathi.”
The broad-shouldered, bearded man with a jaded look on his handsome face despite not seeming to be much older than Aalim himself, returned the salutation while the female with a large scar running down the side of her pretty face glared at him suspiciously. “Adab. You are Aalim Khan?”
“Yes, indeed. I take it Meenamma let you in?”
“She did.” The stranger’s sharp eyes seemed to assess the level of threat Aalim and Dileep could pose and the conclusion didn’t seem to be much.
Aalim considered being offended but he didn’t much have the patience for it. Instead, he smiled genially. “Good, good. Now, what kind of weapons would you be interested in?”
The pair exchanged glances. Aalim shot Dileep a puzzled look at the hesitation and got a frown in reply.
“There’s been a mistake,” The female spoke, her voice surprisingly soft. “We are not here to buy.”
Aalim cocked his head. “No?”
“No,” the man confirmed. “We are here to sell.”
Dileep arched an eyebrow. “That is…rare.”
The woman nodded. “We heard that you can melt the metal and reforge it. Is it true?”
“Yes,” Aalim allowed.
“Is it also true that you use the reforged swords to teach swordsmanship to the poor?”
“When did this turn into an inquisition?” Aalim smiled to soften his words. “But yes, we do. We teach anyone who wants to learn and prepare them to fight in the pit to earn a living.”
“The pit?” The man asked softly.
“...so much I can show you,” Aalim murmured, stroking his beard. “Dileep, why don’t you inventory the weapons they want to sell and I can show one of these fine people my training arena? Maybe even the pit…”
“I’ll take you to the weapons,” the woman volunteered and walked out, Dileep following her steps with a last glance at Aalim.
“Why don’t you follow me, mahodaya*?” Aalim gestured for the man to follow him, leading the way across the courtyard into a large open space that hosted a wide variety of activities.
Aalim saw the stranger’s eyes widen as they roved over everything and he couldn’t resist preening. He knew it all looked very impressive; right from the archery course to the mallakhamba* pitch, covering almost all the famous fighting forms from far and wide. People from all over traveled to Ajayameru to train in his stadium and fight in the pit.
Happily, Aalim walked the man through it all, letting him feast his eyes on his glorious fighters engaged in a duel or dancing around in the graceful steps of Kalaripayattu*. The clash of swords mingled with the clang of mace and the whip of a spear thrown, the conch shell being blown occasionally to signify a victory or drums beating in tune to an intensifying kusti* match.
“Glorious, isn’t it?” he whispered under his breath, breathing in the dusty air mixed with the tang of sweat and sweet, sweet effort.
“It is,” the stranger whispered, a small smile on his lips as he looked over at the archery track.
“I suppose you are partial to the bow?” Aalim guessed, a little thrown by the smile. His guest didn’t exactly strike him as a man who smiled often. Or at all.
“Axe,” the man revealed, pulling out a slim axe made of fine craftsmanship.
“Aah!” The pieces clicked into place. “I take it that you are the infamous Parashusardha?”
When the man looked at him sharply, Aalim held up his hands in surrender. “I mean you no ill. What goes on in Mahishmathi is not my concern.”
His guest studied him for one heart-stopping moment that made Aalim want to fidget under the scrutiny. Whatever he saw in Aalim must have mollified him, for his eyes lost some of their intensity. He turned back to the archery course and Aalim breathed freely, both of them watching the bowmen in silence; Aalim despairing when none of them hit the revolving target on the marked spot.
But as they watched, an arrow flew out of nowhere, straight and true and zipping through the air to strike the target right on the mark.
Aalim sighed, knowing it was. “Shivu! We’ve talked about this, beta.”
There was a pause, followed by tinkling laughter and they turned in time to see a mass of straw barrelling to the ground from the rafters of the barn directly opposite the archery target. Out of the cloud of dust emerged a small boy of maybe five summers, holding a wooden bow as if it was an extension of his own limb. The mischievous smile on his face was one that Aalim was very familiar with.
Shaking his head in a mixture of exasperation and fondness, Aalim turned to his guest to maybe explain but Parashusardha’s expression made him stop.
The man was frozen, as still as a statue of stone but his eyes..they were wide and glued to the boy jauntily walking towards them. But the stupor hardly lasted a second and his face was soon clear of all emotions.
Aalim wondered if he’d imagined the last second. Shaking his head, he turned to his ward. “How many times have I told you to not interrupt the practice?”
Shivu dimpled. “Too many times to count, kaka* but I couldn’t help it! None of them were hitting the target.”
Aalim crossed his arms. “And?”
“And I got bored.” Shivu replied cheekily before turning to scrutinize Aalim’s guest. Parashusardha’s breath seemed to hitch slightly when he met the boy’s eyes.
Curious, Aalim asked, “Something the matter, mahodaya?”
His guest looked away. “No. Just a glimpse of what might have been, I suppose.”
“Who are you?” Shivu asked bluntly, ignoring Aalim’s hiss of disapproval to focus on the stranger.
Despite the bluntness, or perhaps because of it, Parashusardha’s face visibly softened and he crouched down until he was level with the boy. “Sorry,” His little huff seemed to hide a laugh. “I haven’t introduced myself, have I? I’m Parashusardha, from Mahishmathi.”
“I’m Shivu, from Ajayameru.” The boy mimicked his tone perfectly.
“Shivu…” The man murmured softly as though cherishing each syllable. “Tell me Shivu, who taught you archery?”
“My Amma,” the boy said proudly, puffing his chest. His suspicious demeanor melted into enthusiasm as it always did when talking about the two things close to his heart: archery and his mother. “She’s the best archer in the world! She taught me how to shoot two arrows at once! Do you want to see?”
“Now, boy-” Aalim started, knowing that Shivu rarely left a chance to show off either archery or his mother, but before he could protest, he was be cut off by his guest.
“Of course,” Parashusardha smiled and straightened up, following the boy across the field with surprisingly new spring in his step. A spark seemed to have entered his eyes and Aalim shied away from the rather obvious similarity between his guest and a reanimated corpse.
Strange were the ways of kudha*, he mused as he dogged their footsteps. On one hand, Paramatma may connect seemingly unconnected lives and on the other, sever the otherwise strongest bonds of flesh and blood. Love and comfort may be found in the most unexpected places and sorrow and betrayal in others…
…familiarity when there should be none, Aalim added mentally as he looked at the duo framed by the afternoon sun, chatting away merrily like they’d known each other all their lives.
There was an almost unconscious curving of Parashusardha’s shoulders, a protective angle that shielded the boy from the harsh glare of the sun, a honest delight and keen interest in the way he leaned forward just slightly as he listened to Shivu prattle on about something or the other. The boy, on his part, was never more animated than in the company of his mother or with a bow in his hand. He didn’t usually warm up to strangers like this and indeed, it was as if there was some sort of bond or an echo of one from a previous life.
“So…there are no fighting pits in Mahishmathi?” Aalim caught up with them in time to hear Shivu’s question, asked with a confused frown as if he could not imagine such a place at all.
“No,” Parashusardha answered, amusement lacing his voice. “Alas, my life is not as interesting as yours, young man.”
“I’m sorry,” Shivu said sincerely, hesitantly patting the man’s elbow, the highest part of him that he could reach. Aalim found himself smiling at the exchange. “Aalim kaka and I can show you around the pit. You can even see my Amma fight and she is the best there is!”
“I do believe it is time we head there,” Aalim said, not really wanting to cut the heart-warming interaction short but they would be miss the beginning of the fight if they delayed any longer. “We cannot afford to miss your mother’s duel, can we beta?”
“Lets go!” Shivu enthused, his zeal for showing off his skill with the bow forgotten at the promise of seeing his mother. He grabbed each of their hand and tugged, jumping on the balls of his feet. “To the pit!”
“To the pit indeed.” Aalim cheered and was rewarded with a ghost of a grin on the stranger’s face.
Tiny pebbles quivered, jostling slightly in tune to the beats of hundreds of drums, which when joined by the mrudanga and khanjira seemed to shake the very earth. Thousands of footsteps pounded over the trembling terrain, climbing up the aisle to fill in the ranaranga*. Loud voices filled with excitement and laughter almost masked the various instruments designed to heighten the enthusiasm, both among the spectators and the fighters.
“Welcome, people of Ajayameru!” a loud voice booming through the multitude gathered brought some semblance of order to the crowd. “Welcome to the maharanga, where our skilled fighters will battle each other for your entertainment!”
A cheer went through the crowd who clapped their hands and stomped their feet to encourage the day’s chosen fighters congregated at the center of the pit. The chosen fifteen, comprising of men and women from all over, bowed to the crowd in unison which prompted an even louder cheer.
Shivu jumped up and down to catch a glimpse, laughing in delight when Parashusardha lifted the boy up to his shoulders while their companion, Aalim stared at it all with relish. Parashusardha’s eyes roved over everything; from the boy perched on his shoulders to assembled crowd before his attention was captured by the fighters at the center.
“They are the crowd favorites who have won many, many matches before.” Aalim explained, catching his fascination. And oh, he was fascinated.
For there they stood, the bravest of the brave warriors that routinely visited the pit; some to fight for glory, some for honor and some for their livelihood. There gender did not matter. Status did not matter. Only skill did. The kind of life they led...it was a chance he’d never had and would never have.
“Today’s match is a free for all, with our brave contestants battling it out with everyone else until only one man or woman remains!”
“Look, look, that’s my mother!” Shivu shouted, attempting to use Parashusardha’s head as leverage in an attempt to stand on the man’s shoulders. He steadied the excited lad by firmly grasping hold of his feet, all the while marveling at the strange warmth in his chest that the boy seemed to inspire. He wanted to take a look at the woman who had birthed such a precious child and-
His heart lurched abruptly when his eyes fell on a lithe form of a masked woman who stood proudly with the rest of the contestants. Something about her… Something that made his heart beat faster as he palms grew sweaty. His head spun and hastily, he lowered his precious cargo to the ground fearing that he would no longer be able to balance the boy.
“Hey, are you okay?” Parashusardha blinked, taking in the worry on his companions’ faces. Dabbing at his sweaty forehead, he tried to smile at Aalim and ruffled Shivu’s hair. “I’m fine.”
When they looked unconvinced, he rubbed his forehead. “Maybe a slight headache?”
Aalim nodded, “I suppose that is to be expected. It’s a little too much, no? You’ll get used to it. Now, come here boy! I know I may not be as strong as our guest here but I can certainly carry you.”
“Okay,” Shivu shrugged. “Feel better, mahodaya.”
Parashusardha’s smile turned genuine but faltered again when he lifted his eyes to the masked woman who was now twirling the sword around lightly. Something about that gesture…something about the way she stood, the way she moved, the way she…was. Why did it all tug at the strings of his heart?
There was no tangible reason for the longing he felt. There couldn’t be.
“May the blessings of Mahakali and the well wishes of the praja be with you always. Let the match…begin!”
The crowd held its breath for a split second, the damaru paused and the music stilled…and suddenly it was all unleashed, like the bursting of a gigantic explosive. People screamed and surged forward to lean against the railings, egging on their favorites. The drumbeats began in earnest, the nadaswara and exotic shehenayi were played with vigor, carrying through the cacophony as the fighters turned against each other in a dizzying blur of colors and gleaming weapons.
“Uhh,” Aalim had been reduced to incoherence and Parashusardha couldn’t even blame him. Unleashed against each other, the combatants were a visual delight as they displayed their skills and brought their best into the fight that could last hours, until they forfeit or rendered unconscious. There were strict rules against injuring anyone grievously and the warriors were expected to upload the spirit of fair play…and they did.
Devadatta smirked under her mask, her sword slashing through the air and cutting a thin but deep line over her opponent’s stomach. Blood flowed freely but the thickset man didn’t give up, tumbling forward wildly in an attempt to overpower her. Devadatta ducked easily and in a back-sweep that would have made -people proud were they were here to see it, slashed through her opponent’s back and drew more blood. Smoothly, she sidled under another opponent's spear and cocked him over the head with her elbow, pushing him onto her earlier opponent.
On and on she went, decimating any opposition ruthlessly with slashing swords and swooping arches, ducks and jumps and bruises and blood splattered over clothes and staining the ground. She was so lost in the zone that the first scream barely registered…
For a second, a split second her mind flashed to her son before her second, more horrifying thought was that she’d killed someone. But she hadn’t, had she?
More screams resonated through the stadium and she turned in time to see a massive cloud of black rising up from within the crowd. But it was no cloud...clouds did not go about attacking people.
More accurately, mercenaries sent by Mahishmathi.
Dark fury rose up within Devadatta at the realization, or more accurately at the reminder of the monster that had ripped apart her life so thoroughly. But she had a much more pressing concern…
“Shivu!” She screamed, tearing her mask away in a desperate effort to scan the stampeding crowd for her little boy, for he was bound to be there. “Shivu!”
She should have known better. Stupid, stupid! She should have warned them.
“Shivu!” Her sword cut through two of the mercenaries that dared to stand in her way. Barely pausing to help up an fallen woman, she ushered her away to safety even as her eyes didn’t stop their search for the light of her life. “Shivu, where are you?”
If only she’d told the elders of Ajayameru…they’d known defying Mahishmathi would come at a price, yes but no one was as intimately familiar with Bhallaladeva’s cruelty as she was. She should have spoken up, said something!
And there he was, her baby boy cutting through the panicking mass to reach her. With a cry, she flung herself at him, pulling back immediately to scan him for injuries. “It’s okay, kandha. It’s alright. We’ll be fine.”
“Amma!” His grip on her was tight, almost painful and her boy who was rarely ever afraid, hid his face in the crook of her neck. She wished she could soothe him but- her sword hacked through one of those black clad mercenaries who had reached her and sliced through another, splattering a streak of blood over her face.
That voice…she knew that voice.
The same voice that sang the song of her heart, long since snuffed out cruelly.
It couldn’t be.
Devadatta shook her head and hacked through a blood-thirsty terrorist, her son balanced on her hip while fighting for a way out of the stadium and into safety. But that voice…
Oh, it was close. So much closer than before.
Abruptly, she felt a familiar presence at her back and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Instinct told her to trust. To believe.
But whoever it was, they had followed Shivu and if that meant that her baby was in danger… Gritting her jaw, she raised her sword and spun around…
…only for the sword to slip through her suddenly slack grip when her entire world turned upside-down.
He…no, no. He was dead…he’d left her, left them…
And yet, her breath left her in a gasp and her chest ached fiercely, her once dead heart restarting painfully when wide, golden brown eyes met hers. Those eyes…there was no mistaking those eyes.
Was she dreaming? Hallucinating?
But it felt so real.
“H-how?” It had been his voice she’d heard before. It was…he was really here. He was here. He was alive. Was he? “Deva?”
Could hallucinations speak? Was she going crazy?
Without taking her eyes off of his, she thrust her sword neatly into a terrorist who had come up at her right. This seemed to remind the man-apparition?-of the mortal peril they were in, for his face hardened into that achingly familiar look of determination. Tearing his eyes away from hers seemed difficult for him too but he-it?-did, to scan the surroundings.
“We need to leave. But the exits are too crowded.”
Oh Krishna, she felt…untethered. Imagination or not, Amarendra Baahubali himself stood in front of her looking alive and healthy and all she wanted to do was collapse into him and forget-
“Amma?” That whisper, the frightened pitch and the desperate press of her son's small body against her was the enough to ground her and despite the overwhelming desire to drink in the sight of her dead husband, Devadatta- nay, Devasena, turned away to point to the small wooden door at the edge of the stadium.
“There!” She faltered when that familiar, beloved axe of his flashed in the light of the sun when he lifted it to ward off another attack on them. “Leads to a small preparation area and eventually into Aalim’s workshop.”
And they did, cutting through the crowd and fighting back to back when the situation called for it. Devasena could almost pretend it was all real…that he was here. But was he?
As though he’d heard her unspoken questions, Amarendra met her eyes in the split second pause when he drove his sword through a mercenary’s stomach and pushed him aside, right onto her awaiting sword. And in that second, she glimpsed a thousand emotions, the confusion of a thousand questions and the joy of a thousand prayers answered.
And like that, all her doubts were erased.
It was him.
It had to be.
Nothing else could account for the heady rush and indescribable pull she’d only ever felt towards him…
Devasena grasped onto the warm joy of the newfound realization tightly, enfolding it within her heart and allowing it to shine through her veins, through every cell and every pore of her very being.
Blinking away her suddenly burning eyes, she kissed her son’s hair as Amarendra tore open the door and ushered them inside quickly, into the narrow corridor that led to Aalim’s workshop.“We’re safe, kandha. It’s okay. We’re okay.”
The door slammed shut behind them but she kept her face buried in her son’s shoulder, rubbing his back soothingly. Slight tremors ran through his body and she wasn’t sure if she was even helping when she herself was trembling with suppressed emotions and battle lust.
“Are you hurt?” Shivu whispered, ever concerned about his mother.
“No Mahi, I’m fine.” Devasena replied, kissing his forehead and slowly rocking him. When she felt him settle a little, she lifted her eyes up hesitantly.
There he stood, the fallen king of Mahishmathi and the light of her life, framed by the dim light that entered through the cracks in the stone ceiling. Amarendra Baahubali looked like he’d been rendered into a stone statue, standing as still as he was several feet away from them. But his eyes…oh, his eyes shone with a myriad emotions as he drank in the pair of them with so much love and longing that Devasena felt her knees buckle, the truth settling over her all over again.
“Veera?” her voice was no louder than a whisper but she saw him visibly tremble, his eyes falling shut.
Devasena stumbled towards him on shaky legs, shock warring with immeasurable joy. Waves of exhilaration crashed onto the rocky shores of doubt resting on the sandy bed on overwhelming relief. Underscoring but overlaying everything was the all encompassing love and it was so…dizzying. Confusing…
Hesitantly she lifted a hand, hovering in air for a long moment before finally, finally touching his skin of his cheek.
“Devasena...” Amarendra had always whispered her name like a prayer, infusing the syllables with so much love and reverence like he’d painted each letter himself with carefully chosen colors.
“Devasena…” he repeated, his voice choked and she felt her own throat closing up. “Devasena,” as if he needed to ascertain the truth of her presence.
His forehead rested against her and his fingers wiped away the tears she hadn’t known she’d shed, his body warm against hers and his voice echoing in her ears. Amarendra Baahubali surrounded her completely, so thoroughly and Devasena fell forward into him as if the frayed strings that had held her up for so long could no longer do so. With their son between them, his strong arms wrapped around her and tugged her against a warm chest of hard muscle, underneath which pulsed a beating heart that was a sweeter lullaby that any she’d ever wished for.
“Sarvadha sambhuvoham*,” he whispered in her ear, clutching them to his heart, never to part again.
“Mahishmathi…” A low baritone crooned through the empty room, slithering over the cold stone walls and tangling in the hot air above the flickering fire burning in the large torches. “Why do you do this to me?”
King Bhallaladeva stood alone, head bowed and hands gripping the bars of the window. His posture was that of a defeated man but his eyes…oh, they burned with the fire of a thousand, undefeated suns. The silvery moonlight seemed to shy away from those eyes, bending around his frame as though scared of being incarcerated by his wrath.
“You are so completely and utterly mine but you continue to resist me,” he brooded, toeing the expensive rug underneath his feet as he gazed at his slumbering kingdom; microscopic from his window and altogether insignificant in their individuality but oh, so beloved for what they represented. “Why do you evade me so? Even now you shove trivial hurdles my way but you know that I’ve overcome worse. After all, who is Parashusardha but a bug to be crushed underneath my feet when I have defeated the likes of Sivagami Devi and him?”
Bhalla paused, looking up at the full moon shining brightly in the cradle of the dark sky.
“Your beloved son is dead, Mahishmathi.” He reminded the moon spitefully. “Amarendra Baahubali is dead and I am all that you have left. I am your everything!”
“As you are mine.” Bhalla’s fingers twitched, craving for the familiar weight of Mahishmathi’s crown that had been unquestionably his for five golden years. The beautiful symbol of his victory occupied a position of honour in his chambers when it wasn’t on his person and he just needed to feel its familiar weight in his hands.
Bhallaladeva stopped short, shocked when his eyes fell on an empty cushion balanced on the golden stool. Narrowing his eyes, he turned his head to scan the room and-
“Looking for this?” a voice called and Bhalla whipped around, growling when he saw his prized crown in hands other than his own. Those hands that were so much smaller than his and utterly undeserving to hold his crown.
“You better give it to me before you lose your head.” Bhalla growled, taking in the slip of a boy perched on the balcony railing.
Who was he? A stable hand? Kitchen help? He couldn’t have been older than five and already he wore a smirk…that was disturbing familiar.
“I don’t think I want to,” the boy replied, making himself comfortable on the narrow railing and holding the crown away from him, directly over the drop.
Bhalla snorted incredulously. “Do you know who I am? Do you know I can have you and your entire family killed before you so much as blink? Now, do not play games with me.”
The boy pouted and slightly shook the dangling crown, almost making Bhalla’s heart stop. “But I like playing games.”
“I admire your bravery,” Bhalla tried to keep his voice calm, risking a small step forward. Thankfully, the boy didn’t so much as blink. “But a man should always have a healthy dose of fear in his heart as well.”
The boy grinned. “I agree. So…do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you have fear in your heart?”
Bhalla narrowed his eyes and took another step forward. “Who are the hell are you anyway?”
There was that smirk again. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
With those words, the boy leapt off the railing and right into the abyss.
Bhalla’s heart lurched and ran forward, just in time to see a small silhouette ducking into the balcony underneath his own. Furious, he amassed his guards to search for the miscreant but he couldn’t stay still.
It was his crown in that boy’s hands, after all.
He stalked through the corridors alone, on the way to his father’s chambers. His guards would soon find the boy and when they did-
Laughter reached his ears, echoing through the hallway and prickling his skin. Not just any laughter…but that which reminded him of days gone by. Of innocence and playfulness, of banter and camaraderie.
It couldn’t be…no. It was impossible.
And yet…the boy?
“Tired already?” Bhalla gritted his teeth when the child appeared from between the flowing blood red curtains that framed the corridor. “Don’t you want the crown?”
“Give it to me!”
The boy grinned and Bhalla advanced, throwing aside the heavy drapes to reveal…nothing.
With a roar of frustration, he unhooked one of the torches and set fire to the curtains. As he watched it burn, he was taken back to the night he’d arrived at that pathetic little hut and found it ablaze, a crying Kattappa on his knees lamenting the death of the only woman Bhalla had ever desired.
“Maharaj!” His commander was there suddenly, pulling him away from the fire. He was followed by a few guards who formed a shield between their king and the burning curtains while they attempted to prevent it from spreading. “Maharaj, are you okay?”
“No.” He wrenched his arm away, glaring at Sethupathy. “Not until you recover my crown and bring me the thief.”
“We are trying, Maharaj-”
“Do not try. Do.”
“Yes, sir!” Bhalla walked away, desiring some silence and solitude. He was…shaken. Something about tonight…something about that boy’s face. As absurd as the notion was, he could feel Mahishmathi slipping from between his fingers.
“Why are you so attached to this crown?” Bhalla stopped dead in his tracks. Distantly he could hear the guards in another corridor but he knew they would never get to him on time. Clenching his fists, he turned his head to find the boy perched on yet another window. “It isn’t even yours to begin with.”
“Mahishmathi is mine and only mine.” Nothing could incite his anger like a denial of the throne he’d worked so hard to obtain. He itched to get his hands around the boy’s slender neck and feel the bones break beneath his hands while feeling the reassuring weight of the crown on his head.
“That’s not what I heard,” the boy was either oblivious to the danger he was in or just didn’t care, for he jumped down to the floor with a cheeky smile. “Did Sivagami Devi not give your precious throne to someone else?”
“You-!” Bhalla lurched forward but the child was faster. He jumped away but did not go further, taunting Bhalla laughingly. When Bhalla grabbed for him the third time, he was stopped by an arresting voice from the end of the corridor.
Bhalla sucked in a shocked breath. “Devasena?”
For the woman who stood at the end of the hallway could never be mistaken for anyone but the late princess. The proud posture, the ferocity in her eyes and her breathtaking beauty were as unique to her as the moon was to the sky.
“Step away from him,” she said calmly.
Bhalla narrowed his eyes. “Why do you appear before me?”
A smirk graced her hardened face. “Do you think I’m a figment of your imagination?”
“It matters not,” Bhalla said dismissively. “Either way, my question stands. If you were truly dead and I now see a ghost, I would like to know why you’d be chosen to haunt me when I’ve killed so many more. And if you are indeed alive…” Bhalla trailed off, opening his arms wide to encompass their surroundings, “this is the last place you should be.”
“You think so?” Again, her tone remained even, something Bhalla would never have expected from Devasena. “Why shouldn’t I be here? After all, I’m the princess of Mahishmathi. Or more accurately…the Queen Mother.”
“You are nothing.” Bhalla hissed, taking a step forward.
Devasena simply smiled and suddenly, the brat that had been troubling Bhalla so appeared at her side. She took the child into her arms and for a moment, stood suspended in time with the wind blowing through her long, free tresses and the boy strangely solemn in her arms. Then, with identical grins tainted distinctly with victory, the pair disappeared in a flash of bellowing curtains.
Bhalla rubbed his head, wondering if he was in some sort of strange dream. Nightmare, more like.
“Maharaj!” Two guards came running to him in panic. “Maharaj, people are gathering in the throne room!”
“Why?” Bhalla asked incredulously.
When the guards had no answer for him, he grabbed one of them by his collar. “I want answers and I want them now. If you like having your head attached to your body, get me answers. Now!”
But all he got were more questions.
“What is the meaning of this?” He, the Maharaja of Mahishmathi, was faced with the closed doors of throne room.
No door in the palace, his palace, was ever closed to him. None.
With a huff, he pushed open the massive doors with ease, only to stop short at the sight that greeted him.
Mahishmathi herself seemed to be in residence at the Court that night, with thousands of her common folk filling in their sections while the ministers ruling her occupied their assigned seats. The guards lined against the walls, keeping an eye on the proceedings but none, Bhalla noted distantly, were his. In fact, none of his ministers were present, nor his commander or his father.
But the court and indeed, the whole of Mahishmathi was his.
The noise level fell down abruptly when Bhalla’s presence was registered, the crowd finding its focal point but Bhalla’s focus had zeroed in on the brat who appeared to be sitting on his throne, toying with his crown.
“How dare you?” he boomed, voice echoing through the hall and if the silence before was that of a deep night, it was now filled with ominous sense of prelude of a massive disaster.
“Get off my throne,” he growled, storming through the vast walkway to physically rid the throne of filth but his dog, who had been standing just beyond the throne, shifted protectively.
That minute action on Kattappa’s part rang alarm bells through Bhalla’s head but he didn’t stop. His dog had many faults but disloyalty to the throne was never one of them.
“Take another step forward and it shall be the last one you take.”
“Ah!” Bhalla came to a halt a good feet away from the dais, raising his hands mockingly when an unfamiliar woman emerged from behind the throne with an arrow aimed an him but his eyes were on the other woman who had emerged from the shadows.
The crowd breathed as one, shocked to silence by her presence but the pieces had finally fallen into place in Bhalla’s mind. “Now I see.”
Devasena merely arched an eyebrow from her position to the boy’s right, raising a hand in greeting when the people realized that it was their princess in their midst- alive and well- and erupted with joy.
But Bhalla simply laughed, the menace in it hushing the people instantly.
“I take it this is a coup?” He slowly turning in a circle to survey his audience. “You’ve always been so impulsive, Devasena but I must say, this is quite well planned. Bravo!”
She remained still but the urge to lash out at the taunt was so clearly written on her face.
He laughed again, feeling the familiar adrenaline pounding through his veins and the strange exhilaration of finally, finally feeling alive. Here was a challenge and Bhalla itched to solve it, to crush this little rebellion under his heel. How he had missed being this…
“Of course the brat is your kid,” Bhalla continued, revealing more pieces of the puzzle that he had solved. “I don’t know why I didn’t guess it before. That laugh…of course it reminded me of the bane of my existence. But no matter. I crushed him, I will crush his brat as well.”
The buzzing renewed with vigor, the crowd growing angry at the reminder. But they were helpless, powerless against the curse that called itself their king.
“But you, Devasena…you can escape this fate.” Bhalla smirked, resting one foot on the first step to the dais and extending his hand. “Take my hand and promise yourself to me and I swear to you, you shall rule Mahishmathi as my equal.”
Devasena remained stone still for a moment, her face expressionless before she burst out laughing. Her tinkling laughter rang through the hall, echoing off the golden walls and quietly warming the hearts of the people who had loved her as their own, who had mourned her loss everyday. But each peal of laughter fanned the forever burning flames of anger in Bhallaladeva’s chest.
“Oh, you sad, sad man.” Devasena caught her breath, pretending to wipe a tear of mirth from her eyes. “Still so delusional. You haven’t changed one bit in five years.”
“Silence!” Bhalla thundered, his face as dark as a storm cloud. “I will have you bound in chains and paraded through the streets like a common whore that you are-”
“Another word and you will find yourself without that vile tongue of yours…” came a calm voice from far behind him. “…brother.”
Bhalla paled, his heart lurching in his chest at the sound of that voice.
The voice that haunted him, taunted him and stabbed at him every night upon night; the one he desperately wanted to forget but never could. With frozen limbs and a pounding heart, Bhallaladeva turned around.
There he stood, framed by the massive entrance doors and the flickering torchlight and the shocked eyes of hundreds and thousands of the very people whose hearts he ruled.
Amarendra Baahubali, the messiah of Mahishmathi and the menace that Bhallaladeva had long since crushed.
For one long moment, the hall was still before it exploded in a riot of noise and emotions. All around Bhallaladeva, the crowd rose up in celebration, dancing and crying and hugging each other, ecstatic beyond belief that their lord and saviour had returned to them while Bhalla stood alone in the middle, frozen with a blank mind for the first time in his life.
“Baahu?” the whisper left his lips without his consent.
“I haven’t been called in so many years,” he mused casually, walking inside with a gentle smile on his features as he looked around the throne room and the people that he’d always loved so much. Much like his wife before, he raised a hand in greeting and instantly, the rowdy crowd fell silent. “But I think you know me by another name now, Your Majesty.”
“How are you alive?”
Baahu’s smile was tinted with irony as he sidestepped the question. “Does the name Parashusardha sound familiar?”
“You-!” The crowd gasped, whispering and shoving each other and Bhalla came to life in a burst of anger and shocked realization. “That was you all along?”
Baahubali smiled serenely.
“I saw you die.” Bhalla hissed. “I saw my dog kill you!”
Bhalla stared at his brother, cousin and mortal enemy all at once and suddenly, he burst out laughing.
Maniacal, unhinged and completely mirthless laughter.
Devasena clutched her son closer, Kattappa hovering over the pair while Baahubali remained unfazed, merely waiting out whatever crazy spell that had overtaken his once beloved brother.
“Oh, this is so funny!” Bhalla gasped between bouts of laughter. “This is the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Aashvi exchanged apprehensive glances with Devasena over her nocked arrow.
“You know why, Baahu?” Bhalla snarled, the laughter drying up abruptly to make away for anger. “I get to kill you with my own hands this time around.”
The crowd roared and Baahubali’s face shifted, the calm facade melting off to reveal the rage underneath and Bhalla knew at that moment that the man before him was not the Baahubali he remembered.
This man had been cut one too many times, by the ones nearest and dearest to him and he’d bore it all, quietly simmering with anger at the injustice and waiting for a single moment, a chance to set it right.
This was a Baahubali who would not hesitate to kill his brother.
Bhalla crowed, jubilant to see the answering rage and the desire to kill in his saintly brother’s eyes. “What would Sivagami say if she saw you now, Baahu? Not so angelic any more, are you?”
Baahubali’s face hardened but his tone remained even, despite the mounting anticipation in the room. “I never was,” he said simply, stepping closer and that…that was exactly what Bhalla wanted.
Because Bhallaladeva was anything but stupid and he knew the chances of him escaping the Court with his life intact were slim to none. But he wouldn’t go quietly, oh no.
A cornered snake is always the deadliest.
“Do not even think about it.” Baahubali warned gruffly and Bhalla stopped short, stunned at the realization that Baahu could probably read him as easily as he had always read the other. Bhalla was so used to an oblivious Baahu… “You will not goad me into a fight, Bhalla.”
It wouldn’t be good for you, was left unsaid.
But the people of Mahishmathi did not seem to like his decision.
“Kill him, ayya!” shouted the crowd.
“Do not spare his life, my Lord!”
“He tried to kill you and your entire family, Baahu. Do not hesitate now.”
Bhalla chuckled disbelievingly and turned his head to smirk at Kattappa who had spoken. “I thought you would be loyal to the Crown, Kattappa. What would your ancestors think of you now?”
Kattappa remained unruffled. “The rightful king is Mahendra Baahubali.”
“And the brat ordered you to kill me?” Bhalla asked mockingly. “So much of blood lust at such a young age?” He leaned closer to Baahu and stage whispered, “be careful, Baahu. One fine day, your own son might put an arrow through your back.”
“Like you did to Mother?” Baahu growled, his hands clenched. He looked close to punching Bhalla who resisted the urge to shout triumphantly.
“Kill him, Baahu!”
“End his miserable existence, ayya!”
“Justice to Sivagami Devi!”
But before Baahubali could so much as move an inch, his wretched wife was by his side. Bhalla watched in horror as Devasena curled her fingers around his clenched fist and Baahubali visibly reigned himself, undoing all of Bhalla’s hard work in an instant.
Baahu squeezed Devasena’s hand, something unspoken passing between the couple before they go and turned to faced Bhalla as one.
He rolled his eyes. “So what is my punishment, oh great one?”
Devasena smirked. “You’ll see.”
See he didn’t, until the following morning when he was dragged out of the dungeons and deposited in the sandy ground of his private training arena, facing down a gigantic bull with the boisterous crowd around him.
Bhalla smirked and crouched slightly, marveling at the heights of foolishness his brother still seemed capable of when he heard the second roar.
His eyes widened, flicking to the passive faces of Baahubali and Devasena to the smugly satisfied Kattappa guarding his terrified father who was bound and gagged, finally settling on the other bull that had just been released. The people of Mahishmathi screamed themselves hoarse, excited to see Bhallaladeva finally meet his match.
Bhalla smiled and cracked his knuckles, confident that he could take on both the bulls even if he’d never faced off against more than one at any time before.
But ultimately, his death did not come from being torn apart by the bulls or from the jeering crowd that had started to throw things at him. No, his death came from a single arrow piercing his heart from his back just as he was about to decapitate the bull.
Bhallaladeva had snuffed out the lives of many, many people in his life. Some had been deliberate kills, carried out with malice while many had been collateral damage. If he were to guess, he might have said that his end was destined to be at the hands of Baahubali or Devasena; after all, they were the one who’d suffered the most at his hands. But no, his death, when his came was at the hands of someone he’d never have guessed.
Aashvi lowered her bow, eyes fixed on Bhalla’s crumpled form and not looking away when Devasena grabbed her arm or when Baahubali smiled sadly or when the people started talking loudly while pointing at her.
“For Kuntala,” she whispered, slinging the bow across her back. “For Kumar.”
“Jalajakshi, hold it carefully.” Sheshamma Devi admonished her daughter-in-law who held a tray of akshate* in her hands. “How have you draped your saree, girl? Young ones these days!”
“Amma, relax.” Sudheera laughed, straightening his best shawl on his shoulders. “There’s no need to be nervous.”
“No need?” Sheshamma asked shrilly, wrapping the pallu of her only silk saree around her shoulders and hunching a little when she was jostled by the crowd around them, all of whom were dressed in their best and making their way to the Palace grounds. “Do you not remember your wife telling us about the previous seemantha? They are tempting fate as it is. I would like to know whose brilliant idea it was to celebrate out in the open like this? Do you not realize the danger?”
“Amma, breathe!” Sudheera and Jalaja said in unison, grabbing hold of Sheshamma’s elbows to prevent her from barrelling into anyone. Some people passing by cast apprehensive glances at them but everyone was too preoccupied with festivities to care much.
Happiness had returned to Mahishmathi with the return of Baahubali and his family. Two years had flown by in a whirlwind of re-establishing order and rebuilding and re-fostering goodwill in the neighboring kingdoms. Mahishmathi had worked tirelessly and was now rewarded not just with a prospering kingdom but with new life.
“I wish your father could have seen this,” Sheshamma sighed, looking around the beautifully decorated southern palace grounds with its waving banners, large arches of flowers, colorful rangoli and joyful singing and dancing under the light of a pleasant morning sun.
“Father needs rest,” Sudheera murmured absently, waving at the others who were on duty, unlike him. “Excuse me for a moment.”
No sooner had he left, Jalaja grabbed Sheshamma’s arm and pointed excitedly. “Amma, look! There she is!”
There she was indeed, the heavily pregnant Queen of Mahishmathi on her golden chaise under the silk canvas, with her dutiful husband beside her. As they watched, Baahubali leaned over and whispered something into her ear, making her laugh. Their palpable happiness and glowing contentment on their faces made Sheshamma blink against the sudden moisture in her eyes.
“How adorable!” Jalaja crooned with her palms pressed to her cheeks.
“You wouldn’t think so if you had to see that all the time,” someone chimed in from next to Sheshamma who jumped and clutched her heart in surprise.
“Sorry, Amma.” Aashvi apologized, bending down to seek her blessings and Sheshamma found herself smiling.
“Aashvi,” she said, placing a hand on her head. “How are you been, my dear?”
But before Aashvi could answer, Jalaja tugged at Sheshamma’s elbow insistently. When the older woman looked her way with irritation, Jalaja did not meet her eyes, instead staring at someone behind Aashvi.
“Oh!” Aashvi stepped aside to reveal the Queen’s brother, the king of Kuntala himself. The news of his survival and that of a handful of Kuntalan children had spread like wildlife in the days following Baahubali's return and entire Mahishmathi witnessed the arrival of their Queen's surviving family. She had, of course, began rebuilding Kuntala as soon as possible and last Sheshamma had heard of it, the rebuilding was going on smoothly.
“Maharaj!” they pressed their palms together and tried to bow but Jayasena waved it away, “Please, there’s no need for that.”
“Sheshamma here helped birth Mahendra,” Aashvi told him with a smile. then, with a wink at Jalaja, she added, "her daughter-in-law was also quite helpful."
Jayasena smiled and bowed slightly. “I’m grateful to you both.”
“No, no, Maharaj. Anything for Devasena- sorry, I meant the queen.” Sheshamma stammered.
Aashvi and Jayasena glanced at each other with a smile. “You should know that she’s not fond of titles. Mahendra seems to love it though.”
They all laughed. “Where is he?”
Aashvi rolled her eyes and craned her neck saying, “he’ll most likely be climbing something-”
“The prince is there!” Jalaja said and they all turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the little prince-
-who was indeed climbing up a pillar of a nearby temple.
Or trying to.
A young man dressed in blue kurta had a firm grip on the boy’s clothes and they seem to be arguing. Mahendra was pointing upwards, a stubborn tilt to his mouth that Sheshamma could swear he’d inherited from his mother but the man remained firm, shaking his head and saying something that made the boy’s face fall before he perked up again, pulling the man by his hand as he made his way to his parents.
“That’s Aalim Khan,” Aashvi told them. “He knows Devasena and Mahendra from Ajayameru. Deva says that he was the one who helped them survive, having recognized her potential from the very first fight she’d participated in.”
“So it is true,” Jalaja whispered but Jayasena heard, nodding sombrely. “About the pit? Yes.”
For a moment, the four of them stood in silence. In the middle of all that joy and celebration, they couldn’t help but think of everything they’d had to overcome to get there.
“Your Majesty!” A guard appeared next to Jayasena. “The Queen is asking for you.”
“I’ll be right there,” Jayasena nodded and looked at the others. “Come with us. I’m sure Devasena would love to meet you.”
“Oh, I couldn’t-”
“Nonsense!” Aashvi grinned, taking Jalaja’s hand in hers and ignoring her little squeak of surprise. “Come!”
Sheshamma followed them slowly, her eyes on the happy couple with their son now sitting on his father’s lap. Their friends and family stood around them, completing the picture of love and joy that had made itself at home in the new Mahishmathi.
Darkness had no place here, just light and love and laughter.