Uncle Madhava felt the worst kind of helplessness in his entire sixty-five years of life. All night he had searched the entire town and the surrounding forest for his beloved little niece. When he returned to the hut empty-handed, at mid-morning, Aunt Sulochana was sitting outside in the yard. She rushed to meet him. Fear marked her face. “Where is she?” the old woman asked.
Uncle Madhava shook his head. “I searched the town and the forest.”
“You couldn’t find her?”
“No one has seen her since yesterday.”
“What about Acharya?”
“He said he found her studying late and offered to bring her home. But she refused and ran off. He did not see her again.” The old man sat down under the tree. His shoulders were hunched. His eyes were weary and blood red. He had been crying. “I asked all her friends in town. There’s more bad news. Two more girls are missing from the village since last night. Everyone believes they were kidnapped too.”
Aunt Sulochana started weeping. “Oh my god! Not my Satya, too?”
“Possibly! The whole village was searching for them all night.”
“You fool! I told you not to let her go yesterday. My lamp is never wrong. I told you she would be safer at home.”
“I will find her!”
“You must find her! I will not let you eat nor sleep until you find her. I curse you, Madhava! I curse you-!”
“Sulochana,” the neighbour’s voice rang through the yard. They looked at her. “Sulochana, the girls are back!”
“They were found on the village road. They’re back! They’re safe!” The woman broke into loud noisy tears. Aunt Sulochana rushed towards her and grabbed her shoulders. “What about Satya? Is she there?”
“I don’t know. I was just about to go see myself.”
Before she could say anything more, a figure flew past them both. Uncle Madhava sprinted down the road at a terrible speed unexpected of his advanced years. He didn’t care about his old aching bones. He prayed that Satya was also with the girls. Aunt Sulochana and the neighbour tried to run behind him but they couldn’t keep up. At the very edge of the village, on the turning leading into town, six girls were sitting on a patch of dry grass. Four of them were surrounded by their families, rushing to meet them. Two sat apart from the rest. One had her arms wrapped around the other. Two burly guards stood close behind these last two girls.
“Satya,” Uncle Madhava cried joyfully, throwing his arms out.
“Uncle Madhava,” Satya unwrapped her arms from the girl beside her, sprang to her feet and rushed into her uncle’s warm embrace. From his shoulder, she could see Aunt Sulochana running towards her in the distance. The sight of her family overwhelmed her at last. The trials of the night before finally sapped her energy. She broke into loud wails and hid her head in her uncle’s shoulder. The old man stroked her unruly hair lovingly, allowing his own tears to fall unhindered. Finally, catching up to them, Aunt Sulochana threw her arms around them both, wailing as loudly as Satya.
All around them, the village gathered, rejoicing at the sight of the girls returning to their families. The truth about the whole incident had already spread through town. Brahmadatta’s execution was scheduled for the afternoon. Everyone spoke about it with astonishment and anger. The last remaining girl was the only stranger from outside town. She seemed much younger than the rest of the girls. The guards informed the village elders that the great general of Satayu had promised to find her family. Until then, as per her wishes, he had sent her to live in the village. All the elders welcomed her. Everyone agreed to take care of her until her family came to pick her up.
As the villagers started to return home, one of the guards approached Uncle Madhava. “Are you Satya’s uncle?” he asked. “This is from Senapati Veerata,” he handed a large, red silk pouch. “It’s a reward for Satya. Please accept it.”
“A reward?” Uncle Madhava looked surprised.
“We cannot accept this-,” Satya cried, snatching the pouch from her uncle’s hand and holding it out to the guard. Without another word, the man turned and left.
“Senapati Veerata?” Aunt Sulochana’s worried inquiry pierced Satya’s heart. The weight of an explanation now rested on Satya’s shoulder. “Satya, what happened?”
“Wait,” Uncle Madhava cautioned. “Let’s go back home first. We can speak later.”
Aunt Sulochana and Satya followed him back to the hut. A bitter silence had fallen between the three of them. It was only after she was settled in her own bed, up in the loft, with a cup of hot coffee in her hands, that her aunt and uncle asked her for answers. She took a deep breath and narrated the entire incident from the previous night. The alarm growing in Aunt Sulochana’s eyes at every word contrasted her muteness. Uncle Madhava’s face remained impassive as he listened. The red pouch sat on the bed next to her, a constant reminder of her fate.
“We have to leave,” Aunt Sulochana was the first to speak when Satya’s narration ended. “We have to leave this place right away. We can’t stay here any longer.” Her words were directed at Uncle Madhava. He made no reply.
“Senapati Veerata didn’t even recognise me,” Satya reasoned. “I don’t think we will ever see him again.”
“We have to leave, please!”
“But I don’t want to leave. I still have so much to learn from Acharya.”
“Madhava, please say something!”
The old man placed a hand on the red pouch. “I think your aunt is right, Satya. It’s not safe for us here anymore. We can use this money to settle in another town.”
“Think about it, my dear,” his voice dropped lower than a whisper. “You say Senapati Veerata did not recognise you. But he’s still looking for Princess Amodini even after all this time, isn’t he? It won’t take him long to figure out that our family came here from Amritambu after the war. Everyone in this village knows about us. Many families in town have heard about your skills too. If we continue to live here, it’s only a matter of time before he comes to arrest us.”
Satya knew he was right. Her heart ached at the thought of abandoning her studies and not going to school anymore. Her mind reasoned that the danger of being discovered was very real now. Regretfully, she agreed to leave the town forever the very next day.