8325 B.C. Day Before The Seige of Amritambu
“Please, sister! Don’t do this!”
The little girl raised her tear-stained face imploringly towards her older sibling. Her hands were locked on the young woman’s wrists. “Please, sister! Don’t do this,” she repeated in vain.
The elder sister opened her mouth to speak. No words came out. Instead, she tried to pull her hands away. The little girl tightened her grip howling louder than before. Her heart was inconsolable even though her sister's facial expression had steeled into resolute silence.
Any casual observer would not consider the two young girls to be related. Her elder sister was almost twenty-seven. She had a tall, slim figure and lean countenance, fiery copper-brown hair, set in a neat chignon on the top of her head, and ivory-white skin, which glowed even in the dim light of dawn. She was clearly dressed for battle, in leather jacket and armour over her slim-fitted antariya. In sharp contrast, at fifteen years old, the little girl had a petite and round frame. Her chubby face was framed with messy copper-coloured locks that hung in pigtails from both sides of her head. Her rose-coloured skin appeared darker in the same light. Her indigo-coloured, silk uttariya was thrown carelessly over her shoulders. The pleats of her antariya hung down to the ground at her feet. Only the large, mystical, deep-brown eyes, which mirrored her sister's, gave away their shared royal bloodline.
“Maharani,” a voice interrupted them. The elder sister turned her face towards the speaker. An old woman, dressed in the light-blue, uniform sari of a palace maid, stepped forward with her palms joined. Her cheeks were also stained with tears. “Maharani Nandini, we must leave now,” she added in a faltering voice.
The little girl watched in dismay as her elder sister, Queen Nandini of Amritambu, nodded to the old nurse. “Headmaid Sulochana,” Nandini said. “This is our last royal order for you. Take care of our sister.”
“I will protect her with my life, Maharani,” Sulochana tugged at the little girl’s arm, pulling her away from the queen. “Princess Amodini, please come with me.”
“No! Please, sister! Don’t do this! I beg you! Don't send me away! ”
Despite her entreaties, their hands parted. Little Amodini’s nails dug into Nandini’s skin leaving bright red lines in their wake. But the pain of the sting was nothing compared to the agony of parting that she could plainly see in her beloved sister's eyes.
“Maharani,” another person stepped forward this time. Dressed in the rust-coloured common attire and armour of the Amritambu royal army, the old warrior stood at the forefront of a team of soldiers occupying one end of the palace courtyard. “The light is getting stronger,” he joined his hands and bowed. “May I proceed?”
“Warrior Madhava,” Nandini replied. “The princess is your responsibility now. We don’t know where you plan to hide her and we don’t want to know. It’s probably best that way. Our orders are the same for you.”
“As you command, Maharani,” Madhava bowed again. “As long as I live, the princess shall come to no harm.”
“Is everything ready?”
“Yes, Maharani,” he gestured towards the dark silhouette of a horse chariot waiting in the middle of the courtyard.
“Very well! Proceed!”
This can't be happening, little Amodini's head whirled. For a moment, her eyes were unable to focus. Nandini's firm voice reached her ears. “Amodini,” she said. “Heed our words! You must live. You must find a new purpose in life. Never forget your true identity but keep it secret from all you meet. One day, you will return to Amritambu and all will be well. Now go!”
“No,” she tried to break free of Sulochana's grip and run back to Nandini. Madhava grabbed her just in time. He hauled her on his shoulder and walked off towards the horse chariot. “Sister! Sister!” little Amodini screamed till her voice was hoarse.
The old warrior placed her gently into the chariot. Sulochana climbed in after her, cupping her own mouth in her hands, unable to look at either the princess or the queen. Her entire figure shook with silent, bitter tears. Madhava bowed to the queen, climbed into the driver’s seat and tugged at the reins. The chariot rumbled out of the palace courtyard and sped away down the dirt road beyond. The first rays of sunlight lit up the courtyard at the same time. Little Amodini continued her pitiful lament even as she watched her sister join her palms together and chant a silent prayer to the sun.
The chariot turned at the end of the road and the courtyard fell out of her sight. The towers of Amritam palace were still visible against the brightening sky. The sight numbed her senses. Shock obliterated her thoughts. Her eyes dried up. She was never going to see her beloved sister or her childhood home again.
Why? The question invaded her entire being. Why? She shook her head, determined to wake herself from the stupor. I won’t accept this! I won’t accept this!
Clutching at the sides of the open chariot, little Amodini stood up and leaned towards the driver’s seat. “Uncle Madhava,” she cried. “Stop the horse!”
Madhava ignored her. He flicked at the reins to speed up the beast.
“Uncle Madhava! I said stop!”
“How dare you ignore my order?”
“Princess,” Sulochana had risen to her side, wiping her own tears away. “Please sit down. I beg you! This is dangerous.”
“Uncle Madhava, why won’t you listen to me?” little Amodini struck her tiny fist into his massive right shoulder. “Stop the horse! Stop the horse!”
“Hold on, princess,” Madhava shouted over the din of the horse’s hooves hitting the stony path below. “We can’t stop now.”
“Please, princess,” Sulochana entreated. “Be seated or you could fall down and hurt yourself.”
“We will reach the forest soon enough,” Madhava added. “We can stop there.”
Little Amodini turned her eyes to the road ahead. Madhava was right. She could see the trees lining the edge of the forest in the distance. Her mind flitted between shock and grief as she watched the trees sway in the gentle morning breeze. A thundering of hooves steadied her thoughts this time. Madhava pulled the horse to a sudden halt. Both Amodini and Sulochana grabbed the sides of the chariot to keep from falling off. They saw Madhava frowning at the far off low hills to the right of the dirt road.
As little Amodini turned her eyes in the same direction, she could feel tremors hitting the chariot from the ground below. A cloud of smoke was visible at the bottom of the hills. “What is it?” she asked.
“Oh my god,” Sulochana gasped in horror.
“Satayu soldiers,” Madhava growled, “and Senapati Veerata!”
As he spoke, the smoke dissipated. Little Amodini saw the young general riding on a magnificent steed at the forefront of the moving enemy column. The spectacle imprinted itself in her mind. Veerata and his horse sprang onward, as though with a single purpose. His dark mantle billowed behind him. The wind blew his curly black locks of hair into a halo around his head. The dust that rose from the horse's hooves had masked his face and arms making him look even more sinister to the little princess. His top-knot appeared to be saturated in sweat. A frown clouded his sweaty brow, further darkening his attractive young face.
“Fifty soldiers,” Madhava muttered. “He’s brought half a regiment here.”
Little Amodini was silent. Sulochana spoke in anguish. “Did he already know that we would be here?”
“It’s a cruel fate indeed that has brought us face to face with the enemy right here at the edge of the forest.”
“What are we going to do? If we are caught, we’ll be killed.”
“If I could, then I would fight them to death. But I can’t. Maharani’s last orders were to protect the princess at all costs.” With a deafening crack of his whip, Madhava spurred the horse into a trembling gallop towards the forest. The impact threw both Sulochana and little Amodini off their feet. They landed at the bottom of the chariot. The speed of the vehicle hindered their movements. Little Amodini felt Sulochana's gentle hands trying to help her into a sitting position. Her mind whirled once again.
“Stop that chariot!” The little princess heard the young general’s loud, chilling command just before she fainted.