“Servant, here too you are just a servant, same as before, never forget that boy,” said Velan’s father to ten year old Velan as they walked on the forest road. Velan shivered now and then, half from cold and half from fright. He wasn’t afraid of the forest or the dangerous creatures it may hold. He was afraid of the new place, the ashram, wondering if the new masters will be cruel.
“Vayanad being a border village is populated by all kinds of lowlife drifted from Kingi. Black magic is practiced by some of the scum. Don’t do anything foolish boy. Stay away from focus,” said Velan’s father. Velan was surprised as to why his father was telling all these things. Normally he never spoke to Velan.
“Not that it matters, for the world we know, our kingdom Malla is coming to an end. The person ending it has already been born and will finish his task in a couple of years,” continued his father. The sky was overcast and it was dark even though the sun was up. For as long as he could remember Velan had been a servant in the household of lord Pamba. He rarely saw his father. He had been told that his mother had died giving birth to him.
Up ahead, Velan saw two bullock carts parked on the side of the road and an old man and a woman standing nearby.
“Hi,” they greeted as Velan and his father approached them.
“Are you the boy’s father? Are you taking him to Rishaba Shringa’s ashram?” the old man asked.
“Yes, this is my son, he is to join as a servant there,” Velan’s father replied.
“We are going to drop our master’s children off at the ashram,” said the old man.
“Help, help, someone please get this freak off me,” a voice hollered loudly from within the woods.
All of them rushed towards the source of the sound. A thin pale faced boy was lying pinned on the ground and sitting on top of him was a broad shouldered and strong girl with a huge boulder in her hand poised to drop over the boy’s head.
On seeing everyone come, the girl nonchalantly threw the boulder away, got off from the boy and said to him, “See, I told you girls can fight too.”
“Whatever freak,” the boy muttered under his breath and got up and dusted his clothes. “One minute I was telling girls don’t know how to fight and the next minute I was lying on the ground with that freak over me. It isn’t like I can’t tackle her or anything but I was just caught unawares,” the boy said to everyone around.
“What is a freak?” the girl asked the boy.
“Err… hmm… It means a nice girl,” stuttered the boy.
“I am a freak, I am a freak,” the girl hummed as she caught the two plaits of her hair in each hand and began to dance a little.
“It is enough Gowri,” said the woman giving the girl a stern look.
“And you master Mithun, do mind your words. I apologize for the behavior of my charge,” said the old man.
Velan was astonished. He had never seen servants ordering around lord Pamba’s children like this. The servants there were treated more like slaves.
“Shall we leave the children to themselves and go see if the bullocks are ready,” said the old man and the adults including Velan’s father left. Velan was confused as to if he should stay behind with the soon to be students of Yavvan. He ran behind his father to the forest road again.
Just then a gold colored chariot drawn by two spotless white horses approached. A tall and fair girl about his age with a taut expressionless face was seated in it. “Stop,” the girl said and the chariot came to a grinding halt beside them.
The girl got down and pushing away a strand of her shoulder length hair from her face said “Hi, I am Apsara,” then looking at Velan, “you must be a student who is about to enroll.”
“No Madam. I am just a servant about to join the Ashram. Two new students though are just behind the woods. If you like I can take you to them,” said Velan.
Apsara curtly nodded her head and Velan led her into the woods. Mithun and Gowri were not to be seen in the earlier place. Velan went deeper into the woods with Apsara closely following him. That part of the forest had rotten. There was only deadwood and fallen branches and leaves mostly. He found them near a muddy pond. Mithun was wetting his feet in the muddy water while Gowri was sitting on a rock a few feet behind.
“Hi, I am Apsara, also a new student, I come from the capital city Anantpur” said Apsara looking at both of them with an earnest smile.
“Hi, I am Gowri from the river tribe north of Malla.”
“She is a tribal, that’s why she is a tad dumb. Damn Rishaba Shringa, teaching girls, tribals and what not. I must have gone to Kaala Nathan’s ashram. The prince studies there and they don’t allow girls too. I am stuck here instead,” said Mithun.
“What is up with him?” asked Apsara.
“Oh, don’t mind him, he is just upset that he lost fighting with me,” said Gowri with a thin smile on her lips.
Mithun jumped up and said, “Lost, you must be joking. One moment we were talking and the next moment you pounced upon me,” then looking at Apsara he added, “She even had a boulder over my head. Can you believe it? She is mad. She is out of her mind. She must be locked up.”
“You lost fair and square. Yet if you want we can wrestle again. You know what bothers you too much? It isn’t losing but the fact that you lost to a girl,” said Gowri and stood up and edged towards Mithun.
“You stop right there. Look at Apsara, a proper girl who is here to learn knitting, cooking etc. Take a leaf from her book,” said Mithun.
“What? Are you out of your mind? I am here to learn how to fight and also learn ancient magic, like the rest of you,” said Apsara bristling with anger.
“Poor dearie, you don’t know, do you? He is right. We tribal folks from the river have women soldiers. So we are allowed to train in the arts of war. The daughters of lords from Malla aren’t allowed. They are trained in domestic activities by the Guru’s wife,” said Gowri.
“No, that won’t do. I came here to learn to fight and I will do it,” said Apsara clutching her fist.
“Save it for the Guru,” said Mithun. Then looking in the direction of Velan who was standing several paces behind Apsara, he said, “Boy, why are you all silent. Can you speak at all? You are not a mute, are you?”
Velan was happy as long as they were talking to each other. He was always happy when he was left alone. He was even happy when he was doing his chores. But when he was in the presence of the upper class and especially when they were talking to him he felt uneasy and nervous.
“Can I do something for you sir?” Velan asked hesitantly.
“Yes, you can drop the ‘sir’. Just relax man, chill, we are all kids here. You can save the servitude thing for the adults,” said Mithun.
“In an ashram, not just the guru but even the students need to be obeyed and tended to, I was told,” said Velan.
“Yeah man that’s true. It is kind of a tough life for you. But as far as me and the freak here, we aren’t that kind of students I guess,” Mithun said and then looking at Apsara added “I am not sure about miss haughty face there though.”
“No need to fear on my account. I am a friendly person really,” said Apsara.
“How many friends have you got then?” asked Mithun.
“No one till now but now I can count on you three as my friends. Can’t I?” asked Apsara.
“Friends aren’t made like that. You must like them, play with them, fight with them before you can be friends,” said Mithun.
“You can be my friend Apsara. I can’t believe that you have no other friends. You must be really lonely,” said Gowri.
“Ouch! What the hell is this,” yelled Mithun lifting his pant leg and shaking his leg here and there in a sort of a one legged dance.
Gowri laughed and said “Easy hero. Those are just leeches. They’ll suck off your blood, fatten themselves and then drop off.”
Mithun still jumping around said, “Easy for you to say.”
“If you heat them they’ll just drop off. Anyone here have any matches?” asked Gowri.
Apsara took a match box from the hip pocket in her dress and threw it to Gowri. Gowri lighted a match and burned away the leeches in Mithun’s leg one by one.
“Here all done,” said Gowri letting a deep breath.
Velan sensed the smell before he saw it. “We must get out of here,” he said to one and all.
“Whoa! What the hell is that,” yelled Mithun. They were surrounded by fire. Tall flames were leaping into the sky. The matches must have lighted the dry leaves around them. They might be the cause of a forest fire if the flames weren’t put down Velan realized. He looked for an exit but fire had encircled them.
“Help, help,” yelled Mithun.
“We are so deep into the forest that no one from the road can hear us,” said Apsara.
“Someone walk through the fire and bring back help,” shouted Mithun.
“I’ll go,” said Velan and began to walk towards the fire. He felt a hand grasping his hand and pulling him inside away from the fire. He saw Apsara standing beside him holding his hand.
“No, it is too risky,” she said.
“Ippidy dippidy do will turn out the fire for true,” chanted Gowri fervently.
“Have you lost it, what in the name of the seven kingdoms are you doing?” asked Mithun.
“It is a chant to quell fire that my friends taught me,” said Gowri.
“Has it worked before?” asked Mithun.
“How would I know, I’ve never been in a fire before,” said Gowri shrugging her shoulders.
“The world today shall lose a valiant warrior, all because of a stupid fire and a stupid girl,” said Mithun.
“Look there is a rabbit. Let us at least save it,” said Gowri.
“That is very considerate of you given the fact that a lot more animals than just a rabbit are going to die because of the fire that you started stupidly,” said Mithun.
“If not for your fear of leaches none of this would have happened,” said Gowri.
Velan felt bad for these kids. They seemed kind enough towards him. Suddenly the sky exploded with lightning and thunder. A ferocious rain came down upon them. They were all drenched but the fire was put out. Everyone rushed outside to the forest road. Velan was offered a ride in the bullock cart with Mithun.
Velan’s father pulled aside Velan and crouching beside him so that they were eye to eye said, “Listen carefully boy, I might lose my head if this gets out. This is the last time we will be seeing each other. I am not your real father. You were given to me to be raised by a high officer of the court when you were just a baby. It was on his orders that I made you a servant in lord Pamba’s household and now here. I am sorry that I didn’t act like a father to you. I wanted you to know the truth.”
Nothing in the world had prepared Velan for this. All the euphoria and joy he felt a little earlier were wiped away. He really had no one in the world. He was an orphan. He was all alone. May be it would have been better if he had perished in the fire, for his whole life seemed to be a misery.
Even from a distance Yavvan was the most spectacular sight Velan had ever seen in his life. It was situated in a huge clearing in the forest. There was a clear stream flowing around and further up was a clump of dense trees to both sides of a lengthy open ground that led to the spectacular central mansion. The mansion was flanked by an assortment of other buildings. There were too many people beyond counting assembled in small groups in the great open ground. There was a big banyan tree outside of the mansion. The most amazing thing was it had no surrounding wall around all of this.
Velan climbed out of the cart after the other kids and followed at a respectable distance behind them.
“What is this place? I was expecting a hut and a dozen students. What is a Guru without a hut? Maybe they’ve got a hut hidden somewhere in all of this,” Gowri said with disappointment.
“Wow! Toss aside what I heard, Guru Rishaba Shringa does have a cool, comfy and spectacular haunt,” chimed Mithun.
“Yuck, what is the smell? What a small and spartan place, how do people live here?” asked Apsara.
The Guru was sitting under the banyan tree on a raised platform. He seemed young for a guru but he did have a long and dark beard that extended up to his chest.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the dreaded quartet who almost caused a forest fire on their very first day. I have a mind to send you all away and save a great deal of trouble. I might send away the servant at least,” said the Guru.
“He had nothing to do with it. He was only a silent witness,” said Apsara in a challenging tone.
“Are you then willing to take responsibility for him if he does anything bad?” asked the Guru.
“We all will,” interjected Gowri before anyone else could speak.
Mithun pinched Gowri’s arm discretely and whispered, “Speak only for you, freak.”
“You two,” said the Guru pointing Gowri and Mithun, “Go join with your fellow classmates.”
“Can I ask you something? How did you know about the fire and stuff?’’ asked Apsara.
“I have the forest road and the perimeters of the ashram marked by the stream under a protective spell. I can sense things like the fire, happening within its boundaries. The spell also prevents intruders and dangerous creatures from entering,” said the Guru.
Velan saw a young, beautiful woman with kindly disposition emerge from the mansion. She came and stood beside the Guru.
“This is my wife Avantika and she will teach you Apsara, things like cooking and other etiquettes as befitting a girl of your stature.”
“But Guruji, I want to learn martial arts and to fight like the others,” said Apsara.
“What good will that do for you. I shall have no complaints,” said the Guru and then looking at Velan said, “You too will be told of your daily chores by Avantika. That is all.”
A dark and slim boy approached the Guru and said “Guruji, I am Rudra from the village, please accept me as your student.”
“I sensed you as soon as you entered the forest road. I can’t train every aspirant here. My advice to you would be to quit this foolish desire and learn a trade as befits your stature in society,” said the Guru.
“I will learn to fight, if not from you, then someone else,” said the boy and left.
They were in the library and Avantika smiled from across the table at Velan. She said, “Each day first thing in the morning you’ve to milk the cows and feed the horses and cows. Keep the stable and cowshed clean at all times. You must scrub the floors of the entire mansion, two times a day. There are other servants to wash clothes, help in cooking etc, you’ve got to help them in whatever way they ask you, understood,” said Avantika.
“Yes madam,” replied Velan.
“You can start now,” said Avantika.
Velan went to the cowshed and was happy to be alone at last. He whistled as he worked stacking hay for the cows, filling water and then cleaning the place. He then worked the stable too. It was almost noon and Velan felt hungry. He didn’t have breakfast and all the work had induced hunger. He walked back to the mansion and found Avantika and Apsara chatting and laughing while having lunch in an inner room with other students.
A stout middle aged lady came and said, “You, new boy, come to the back. That is where we servants eat. I am Jabala and I am the head of the servants here.”
Velan followed her to the back. The aroma was tempting. He had one of the most delicious meals he ever had. He had rice, rabbit curry and roasted mutton.
“Madam Avantika is an excellent cook. Now you have rest boy but come evening scrub the mansion floors real clean,” said Jabala.
Velan was astounded by the fact that the servants and the masters had the same food. Avantika had prepared the food. She was nothing at all like his previous masters.
Velan was lying in the hay mattress he had prepared himself. Yavvan is a far better place to work he thought. Life was simple and easy here. The work seemed easy and he had a lot of time to rest.
He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara came and said, “The classes are over. Come let us find Gowri and Mithun.”
Poor girl, Velan thought. She had to be confined inside the mansion for most of the day. Now she seeks Velan’s company, a lowly servant boy’s company. Velan got up and followed Apsara. They found Mithun and Gowri under a neem tree near the stream.
“Boy, do I regret partnering with her. She clobbered my shield and then me. It is just practice for god’s sake,” said Mithun.
“You are stuck with me now. May be I will harden you up,” said Gowri.
“You are nothing compared to what I am. I cut you some slack today, that’s all,” said Mithun angry and red faced.
“You used swords?” asked Apsara with excitement.
“Just stupid wooden swords and shields,” said Mithun.
“Still, it is cool. Avantika has promised to teach me sword fighting if I behave,” said Apsara.
“Great, for I’ve heard that she is far better skilled than all the other masters put together. Only the Guru is better than her,” said Gowri.
The students were taught by masters who were really the senior students of the Guru who have stayed behind to learn even more. Hours ran by as the kids talked. Velan mostly nodded silently.
“Sorry, I’ve to get back to the mansion. Catch you later,” said Velan and returned to the mansion.
Yavvan looked even more beautiful under the starry skies. He had scrubbed the entire mansion squeaky clean. Velan was meticulous in all he did and took great pride in his work. He had his dinner alone at the back of the mansion. He explored part of the woods within the perimeters of the ashram. He was tired and wanted to shut his eyes. He sought Jabala in the servant’s quarters.
“There is no space in the servant quarters for now boy. You go and sleep with the students. There is ample space there,” said Jabala.
When Velan entered the boy’s quarters there was a lot of noise, laughter and even a few pillow fights going on. At the far corner of the room Velan saw Mithun regaling a bunch of guys with jokes. A boy as tall and well built as Velan blocked the way. He was flanked by a few other boys.
“Hi, I am Briju, the General’s son. What is a servant like you doing here?” he asked.
“I was told I could sleep here,” replied Velan.
“I don’t care what you were told. Get out now,” shouted Briju.
On seeing the commotion Mithun came across and said, “Hey, leave the boy alone.”
“I don’t want a lowly servant sleeping here,” said Briju and in one swift motion slapped Velan hard.
Mithun lunged at Briju but was caught by Velan and he had to use all his strength to drag back Mithun. The students who were talking to Mithun earlier caught hold of Mithun and dragged him to a corner and held him back.
“Sorry sir, my mistake,” Velan said to Briju and was about to leave when Briju kicked him hard on the legs. Velan fell down. Briju and his friends started kicking Velan wildly. After some time they grew tired of it. That allowed Velan to rise and drag himself away from there.
As Velan was crossing the mansion he came across Avantika and he asked her, “Can I sleep in the cowshed madam?”
Avantika looked at him curiously and said “Yes.”
At the cowshed Velan took off his shirt and lay down on the hay. Velan wasn’t angry. He knew this Briju was only trying to show himself brave before his friends. He hoped one day he would rise in stature above this Briju and that alone would put Briju and the likes of him in place. He reserved his true anger for lord Pamba and the likes of him. He tossed and turned until sleep finally came to him.
He felt someone, a hand shaking him. He opened his eyes to see Apsara handing him his shirt. Mithun and Gowri were standing beside her.
“We came to console you about today but now realize you’ve seen worse,” said Apsara. “The scars on your back, a neat set of lines that go all the way down, must be canings.” After bowing her head silently, she looked up and asked “Who?”
“Many, lord Pamba mostly,” said Velan.
“I had no friends until I met you three. I didn’t have enemies either but now I have. Your enemies, all three of you, are now my enemies too,” said Apsara.
Velan was by now used to Apsara’s grand words and style yet Velan believed that she meant every word she said.
“How come you three came here?” asked Velan.
“Oh boy, I was all riled up about what Briju did and came outside. I found Gowri and Apsara taking a stroll because they couldn’t sleep, it being first day and all. I told them what happened,” said Mithun.
Velan grew fond of these kids. He might not have to be alone all the time after all. Yet a silent part of him warned that this trust was a glass shell that might also break like the way it had broken with his father. After some time they all left.
Velan went back to his sleep and his nightmares.
The days and then months passed in a blur for Velan. He didn’t mind doing the work. He was happy when he was with his friends. Meeting them was something he looked forward to each day.
Velan was dusting the furniture in the hall of the mansion when Apsara came out of Avantika’s study.
“I am on a break, come, let us go and watch the classes. It would be fun,” she said.
There were many groups for the various classes on the ground. Apsara led the way to the place where Mithun and Gowri were learning to fight with wooden swords and shields.
Master Vikram was shouting “Higher, hold your sword higher, when you go for the upper cut. See how Briju is holding the sword. That was fast Briju, you just gave your opponent a death blow.”
Velan could indeed see that Briju was really good. Mithun waved at Velan and got a hurting blow on the ribs from Gowri.
“Ouch! Give me a break will you,” yelled Mithun.
Gowri overpowered Mithun by sheer force. She was also very quick and nimble. She was a very good swordsperson thought Velan.
“Sir, the two servants there are disturbing us,” said Briju to the instructor Vikram and he gave a sly smile to the two of them.
“Kids, go away, you are distracting the students,” said Vikram to Velan and Apsara.
Apsara led Velan away.
“That Briju dares call me a servant,” puffed Apsara, then looking at Velan quickly added, “not that there is anything wrong in being a servant.”
“That is the price of mixing with servants like me,” said Velan.
“Leave being called a servant, I wouldn’t mind being a servant if that is the price to pay for our friendship,” said Apsara.
“The world will force us apart, if not now then when we are grown up,” said Velan.
“That is true but I will not allow it if I can,” said Apsara.
Thus talking she led him to where students were playing catch with a ball while riding ponies. Master Madhan welcomed them from atop a tall brown horse.
“Hi, Apsara and Velan, it is good to stretch your legs in the ground after being confined for long, isn’t it?” said Madhan.
“Master Madhan, how do you know our names?” asked Apsara.
“Who doesn’t know the notorious four who caused a forest fire on their very first day? The whole ashram knows. Some of the other miscreants are jealous of your head start. Keep up the good work and I’ll have it ensured that only the finest ponies are assigned to you guys,” said Madhan.
Apsara s wasn’t too pleased by the notorious fame. They then went to the archery range.
Master Vipul greeted them while scratching his chest “Hi, Velan and Apsara. Forgive me, I am running a fever for almost four days now, so don’t come too near. It is only today that I’ve come down to take class.”
Vipul was teaching the students to nock their bows swiftly. He emphasized speed was as important as accuracy in some close range situations.
After seeing this for a while they walked back to the mansion.
Velan and Apsara were seated on chairs in Avantika’s study. Avantika looked oddly at Velan. For a long time she did not speak but kept studying Velan. Velan got red in the face and looked away. He looked at Apsara, the tea pot and everywhere else but Avantika’s face.
“You have a great opportunity here Velan being close to Apsara. She considers you a very good friend and that can be useful, for I know something about Apsara that you don’t. May be it was meant to be this way, for I also know something about you, that you don’t,” said Avantika.
This piqued Velan’s interest and he looked up at her. Does she know what he did at Pamba’s place? Does she know his dark secret? May be she knew about who his parents were. What secret could someone like Apsara have?
“Wha—” he started but was cut off in midway by Avantika.
“Please don’t ask what it is, let it come, all in its own time. Now you are lovely little children, so just enjoy life. I love the way the four of you guys have bonded. I adore you guys,” she said.
Usually after his own chores are over Velan would have enquired if the others needed help or would have went to the cowshed. Today Apsara had dragged him in to Avantika’s study saying she was bored by being alone with Avantika all the time. To her credit Avantika showed no surprise at the presence of Velan. Avantika talked of black magic to Apsara.
“Did you know that black magic is allowed in Kingi. The chief priest of Kingi Vakrasura has usurped the throne. He has killed the former king and queen. He is the vilest and most powerful black magician in the world. He is making preparation for war. I want you Apsara to know more about the history of Kingi and the situation there today. Know your enemy well,” said Avantika.
“Ok, but can’t we do something more fun for now?” asked Apsara.
“Well, the three of us can play a game of dice but I want you to read this book later,” Avantika said.
Avantika sent them away when she realized that the classes outside have ended.
On Mithun’s suggestion the four of them decided to go to the village. The village was a vast, colourful and vibrant place. There was the rich part with towering mansions and the poor part with ad hoc shanties. There were also several dangerous places that they were warned against visiting. The villagers were tough but simple creatures. It had its share of strangers and travellers as it was a border village.
They entered the Vrindha inn in the rich part of the village. They saw that Briju and his friends were seated with a few strangers. One was tall and aristocratic and a bit older than them. A table on the side was occupied fully by the king’s soldiers.
“Here comes the beggar gang. Go away. Can’t you see we are dining with the prince,” shouted Briju.
Apsara was irritated by this and she tugged at a waiter and rolled her fingers dropping gold coins into the waiter’s hands. A separate table at the centre was placed and they were accorded royal treatment. Apsara gave the server and anyone that cared to come that way, gold coins. The prince was forgotten and every server flocked their table.
An irritated Briju shouted “That girl needs a lesson in manners, acting shamefully, not respecting the prince of the realm.”
Somehow this upset the prince and he left in a huff with his friends and retinue of soldiers.
An one eyed man with a sheathed sword at his hips and wearing silken robes asked them “What is all this commotion. Why did the prince leave in such a hurry?”
“How would we know? May be he didn’t like the company he was in,” said Mithun eyeing Briju.
This didn’t escape the attention of Briju. He was seething with anger.
Sharing the table with the one eyed man was the boy Rudra whom the Guru had refused to teach. On an adjacent table several masters from the ashram were seated. Even though it was situated in the rich part of the village Vrindha inn attracted all sorts of people due to its tasty food.
“Well, well, I had a nice appetite, but the leeches here have ruined it,” Briju said and approached their table.
“Look, a miracle, Vermins are now talking about leeches,” said Mithun.
Briju came up from behind and kicked the chair Mithun was sitting in and Mithun fell on the floor.
Velan didn’t know what came over him but he had lifted Briju by the throat and had him thrust against the table.
He said “If you hit me it is okay but if you even lift a finger against my friends you’ll have hell to pay for.”
Velan released his grip on a gasping Briju when he realized that the whole inn was looking at him.
A fat youth with a freckled face who was eating snacks got up and said, “You so tough boy, why not show it to someone like me.”
The fat guy lunged at Velan. Velan sidestepped and the fat guy hit another man instead. Soon a full-fledged fight broke out.
“Let us escape in this confusion,” Mithun said.
The girls on the other hand, patiently broke up the fight and Apsara paid the inn keep for the damages. They also apologized profusely to everyone. Soon the other customers came and appreciated them for handling the situation responsibly.
They returned to the Ashram. Jabala came and said that they must report to the mansion immediately. When they entered they saw the Guru standing with Avantika. Briju was standing near them with a serene face as if he were the symbol of obedience.
“You can leave,” said the Guru to Briju and he left with a wicked grin on his face.
“First a forest fire and now an inn fight. I knew you were trouble from the moment I saw you. I’ve never struck or caned anyone in my life but I must confess that you tempt me sorely,” said the Guru.
Avantika placed a hand on the Guru’s shoulder and said “Please be kind, they are just children.”
“They are not children, they are monsters. Since you are such a gang I will punish one of you and let it serve as a lesson to all. Velan shall have only gruel for a week. No tasty food for him. Let us see if that diminishes his interest for mischief,” said the Guru.
“But that is unfair. All of us were involved. If punished, all of us should be punished,” squealed Apsara.
The Guru just waved his hand and went inside.
Avantika said “I don’t know what to say.”
Velan smiled and said “In my previous employ I was starved a lot and had to clutch my stomach as I tried to sleep with an empty stomach. I respect the Guru too much and believe he has dealt with me kindly so far.”
“You poor little creature, you’ve been through a lot before you came here. It is all the more reason you must be taken good care of,” said Avantika.
Velan and his friends got leave and departed.
“We will also eat only gruel for a week,” said Apsara.
“Gruel is actually very tasty. I look forward to the week ahead,” said Gowri and everyone laughed at this.
“Why are you laughing?” asked Gowri innocently.
“Nothing, you just reminded us how good it is to have you around,” replied Mithun.
Apsara was trying to learn bird talk from Avantika who could talk with birds. Velan was scrubbing the floors. The classes outside got over and the students entered for their evening snacks. Avantika fetched the snacks and came in. Just then Briju and his friends entered.
“Clean properly servant boy,” Briju said and kicked the bucket with the dirty water. It splashed all over Velan.
Apsara flew over in anger and jumped on Briju twisting his arm and pinning him face down on the floor. By then Mithun, Gowri and the Guru had also entered.
“Enough,” shouted the Guru and Apsara slowly left hold of Briju.
“I was here and I saw Briju start it,” said Avantika in Apsara’s defence.
“If you so much want to fight, then you better learn it properly. Start attending the classes from tomorrow,” the Guru said.
“No, I will attend classes only if Velan is also allowed,” said Apsara and folded her hands stubbornly.
“Are you sure? Learning to fight was all you ever wanted,” said the Guru.
Apsara remained unmoved.
“Okay, but he will still be a servant, do all his chores and also do the bidding of other students and treat them respectfully. He shall also be a servant forever and use his skills only in the service of his future master,” said the Guru.
Apsara jumped up and down in joy and was joined by Mithun and Gowri. Velan was happy but without showing it went back to scrubbing.
They were mostly taught by the masters under the observation of the Guru. Occasionally the Guru would have them assemble in front of the Banyan tree and talk on subjects ranging from philosophy to politics. Most of the time they were wrestling, sword fighting with wooden swords and shields, throwing spears or shooting arrows in the archery range. Velan wasn’t as quick a learner as Apsara but with hard effort made progress. He had a knack for swordplay though. Even with time Velan couldn’t believe he belonged with the students. He got mixed reactions from them. At least he felt at peace with his three friends and he thanked god for that.
One day master Vikram praised Velan for his deftness and intelligence in swordplay.
An envious Briju said to Velan, “You are a servant, you don’t belong here. Leave,” and looking around to see no one was seeing, he spat on Velan’s face. He hoped to enrage Velan in to fighting and thus land him in trouble with the guru. Gowri who had seen it jumped on Briju hard and punched him hard in the face and stomach.
“Enough, if you are so intended on fighting each other then do it properly. We shall have a competition between the two groups. Let us call them the lordlings and the servant gang,” said the Guru who approached them from the neighbouring group of students.
We shall have it tomorrow the Guru said. The whole ashram was abuzz with the news. There were bets going on as to who would win. A majority of them betted that the lordlings would win as they had been in training for long. Velan and Apsara had only recently started to train. But there was no dearth of people who wanted the under dogs to win.
When they came across Avantika she said, “Don’t place too much emphasis on tomorrow’s events as it is only a game. The real competition is the life ahead of you. That is where you need all the strength. For tomorrow just go and have fun.”
The next day everyone in the ashram including the servants had come to see the spectacle. The servants liked the name servant gang and rooted for them to win. On the other hand most of the masters wanted the lordlings to win for they were themselves lordlings. The students were equally divided in their support.
The Guru said, “There will be five events. Wrestling, sword fighting, archery, spear fighting and a test maze.”
Gowri was the obvious choice for wrestling from their end. But it wouldn’t have mattered as a brute of a boy entered the ring from the opposite end. They hadn’t seen this boy previously near Briju, so they must have specifically recruited this boy the day before for this. Gowri fought brilliantly. She used his strength against himself. She parried his attacks and even managed to lift him and throw him hard on the floor. But in the end the boy had her pinned on the ground with her arms twisted. He was declared winner.
Briju and Velan sparred with their wooden swords and shields. Briju was on the offence from the beginning trying to inflict kill blows. Velan was cautious and caught all of Briju’s blows on the shield. His defence was solid and he worked at Briju’s arms and ribs with non lethal but hard blows. Briju got tired while Velan was just warming up. But the time got over and the contest was declared a tie.
At archery both Apsara and her opponent managed to hit the target board but were nowhere near the bull’s eye. After some time their contest was declared a tie.
With two ties and a loss only if Mithun won they had a chance.
“I am a champ man, but y’all know that and know I’m going to win,” Mithun said and entered the ring.
“That we know hero,” said Gowri.
The contest got over even before it started. Mithun kept the opponent at bay using his spear and jumped to and fro from left to right, never still. He then feigned a blow to the left with his spear but actually came full force to the right dealing a killer blow that knocked down the opponent. The whole ground erupted in applause.
Now they were tied with the maze being the decider as to who would win. The others were tired and entreated Velan to take up the maze challenge. Velan was the most tired but he didn’t complain.
All of them went to the part of the ground where there were two mazes built by the Guru.
The Guru said, “This is a test of the mind and soul. Inside the maze you’ll encounter pale imprints of people which are the spirits of people being tortured for their sins. You have the power to release them but use it carefully. You can save only seven of the souls. Be sure that you don’t free unworthy people while banishing the more worthy. You’ll enter the adjacent mazes.”
Briju came from their side. Both Velan and Briju entered the mazes. After what seemed a couple of minutes Velan came out. In another fifteen minutes Briju too came out.
The Guru said, “Briju has saved two souls while Velan saved all seven souls. Yes, there were only seven souls in both mazes. But often those inside keep judging the worthiness of the people to be freed. Those kind enough don’t judge. I declare Velan and the servant gang to be winners. But in real life you have to choose the worthy over the unworthy.”
All the people in the ground erupted in revelry irrespective of who they were supporting before. Spectacles like this were not a common occurrence in the Gurukul. A crowd of students swarmed around the four of them. They soon managed to escape all this and get to the cowshed where there’ll be no students, masters or servants.
“Who’s the man? I am. Woohoo, Did you see how I danced with the spear?” asked Mithun.
“Yes, for the hundredth time, yes we won because of you,” said Apsara smiling and winked at Gowri.
“I saw that. You wouldn’t be winking if I had lost, would you? I am glad that the days of drinking gruel are over. Today, it is time to feast,” said Mithun.
“I am kind of sad that there would be no more gruel. It was nice. Hey, why don’t we do something, that we are again made to eat gruel,” said Gowri.
“You are some weird girl. I’ve been thinking lately of going deep into the forest to the waterfalls and have fun bathing to our heart’s content,” said Mithun.
“We are not allowed to step beyond the stream, beyond the perimeters of the ashram. In fact only a few of the masters have ever been there. It is very dangerous,” said Apsara.
“I am going to have lunch and then finish my chores. You guys do whatever it is, but without me,” said Velan.
“Hey don’t chicken out man, I’ll be there to protect you,” said Mithun.
“Yeah, like you did at the fire and the inn fight, that was very brave of you,” said Gowri.
“Okay, we are doing this to celebrate our victory. Let us all meet here in the evening,” said Mithun.
Velan was scrubbing the floor when his three friends barged in.
“Come on let us scoot. We’ve got to be somewhere,” said Mithun.
“No, I’ve got to finish this,” said Velan.
“Okay, let us help and it will be over in a jiffy,” said Gowri.
“No, if the Guru or Avantika sees, it will be my neck on the block,” said Velan.
They didn’t heed him and came with buckets of water and wash clothes and each took a room and began scrubbing the floors.
Avantika came and on seeing them laughed aloud and pointing to Apsara she said “I know a juicy tidbit about this girl. She is a spoilt little girl and seeing her like this makes me weep and laugh at the same time.”
Velan became skeptical about this activity as Briju and his gang came in.
“Oh! Wow! Look at this, the servant brigade and who is leading the charge, miss high and mighty herself,” said Briju pointing at Apsara.
Apsara ignored him, as did everyone else and the work was over soon.
The four of them were standing on the edge of the stream on the northern border of the ashram. Ahead lay the dangerous forest and crossing the stream would mean they are stepping out of the protection of the Guru’s spell.
“Let us do this,” Gowri said and holding their hands together all of them waded through the water to the other bank.
They began walking in to the woods. Apsara was marking a few trees with chalk as they went deep in to the forest.
“Did you see it? There in the bushes did you see it?” asked Gowri jumping up and down. I saw a cardboard like figure of a man jumping from that bush to this bush.”
All of them went and peered into the bush very carefully. There was nothing there.
“You must have imagined it Gowri,” said Apsara.
“Whatever it is that is hiding in the bush, please show yourself, for I am going to stomp on it and tear it into little pieces,” said Gowri.
“Please don’t,” said a voice and a cardboard man, red in colour, the size of their knees showed up. “I am Zunga who belongs to the Lota lotis tribe and we can shrink to the size of ants invisible to human eyes and grow up to this size. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must return to our city. Maybe some other time we can chat. Or perhaps you can help me with something,” said Zunga.
“We’ve got to come a great distance from our village for water. Can you build a canal to our village?” asked Zunga.
“Yes,” said Velan.
The others knew nothing about this and followed Velan’s lead. They banked the canal which was a small pathway really with shores of wet clay. The Lota lotis village wasn’t that far and their work was completed shortly. The Lota lotis village was camouflaged and in a hollow of a huge tree several feet wide.. It was full of bright colours like red, orange and yellow. They were celebrating the canal, drinking some herbal juice.
“Boy, am I thirsty,” said Gowri and lifted a glass of the juice and Apsara too followed suit.
“No don’t –“ said Zunga but the girls had drank the juice. “Don’t you feel nauseated or anything.”
“No, why do you ask?” asked Apsara.
“This is our staple drink but can be fatal to humans,” said Zunga.
“Oh god, are you okay? There is a reason not to take food uninvited,” said Mithun touching Apsara’s shoulders.
Apsara pushed his hand away.
“Ouch!,” Mithun had fallen some twenty feet behind Apsara.
“If your body does accept it, then the juice would give you the strength of a dozen elephants. But it wanes away soon and you must sip it regularly for you to have that strength. I will fill two hip flasks full of the juice. You can come for a refill anytime you want. Boys can’t handle it and it is fatal for them. But I must warn you not to show this to anyone as there are all types of people. It might land you and us in trouble,” said Zunga.
Gowri went and shook a nearby small tree and she totally uprooted the tree with its roots. She threw it away and it landed more than a hundred feet away.
“My god this is awesome. Want to play with me Mithun,” said Gowri calling him with her fingers.
“In the mood you are in, I don’t think so, I won’t come within a hundred yards of you. Girls collect your flasks and let us go. We must hurry if we are to reach the falls before dark,” said Mithun.
They kept walking deeper and deeper into the forest. They heard it before they saw it, the sweet gush of the waterfall. Then they saw the massive lake and the awesome waterfall.
All of them jumped into the lake. They began swimming towards the falls. They bathed at the falls while hollering loudly. They screamed at the top of their lungs. Even Velan joined the fun.
“What is that?” asked Gowri pointing to the other bank of the lake.
“Maybe another Lota loti,” said Mithun.
All of them began to swim to the other bank towards the object that seemed to be writhing. There was a tiger cub and two arrows had pierced its stomach. Nearby lay dead a few other adult tigers.
“This is the act of a poacher. Someone dangerous, for killing a tiger is punishable by death. The wound is fresh and the poacher will soon come here to collect the cub. Let us get out of here and also get the tiger cub to safety, maybe Avantika can heal the tiger cub,” said Apsara.
They took the tiger cub, swam to their side of the bank. They ran towards the ashram. But as they tried to cross the boundary stream of the ashram, they were pushed away by an invisible force.
“It is the Guru’s protective spell. The tiger is considered dangerous. You guys wait here. I will go and fetch Avantika,” said Gowri and ran towards the ashram.
Velan felt like he was being steam rolled with all that was happening. All he ever wanted was peace. At a distance they could see Avantika and Gowri hurrying. Gowri was carrying a pouch which must contain the medicinal herbs. Avantika came and examined the cub. She went to work, removing the arrows and bandaging the tiger with medicinal herbs.
“Don’t worry, the tiger cub will survive. But it will take a few months before it can regain full health. The arrows have been black magicked to pierce deep. It is not the work of any ordinary dabbler of black magic. This is an expert of black magic.
“As you all know black magic is allowed in our neighbouring kingdom Kingi. It has always attracted a dubious sort of crowd there and now with Vakrasura as king it must be a riot there. Being the border village some of the dabbling in black magic has trickled to Vayanad as well. But here is an expert of black magic, probably coming from Kingi. This makes him very dangerous. He must have a deeper purpose to come here. We will have to wait and see.
“On another note, are you out of your minds to break the rule by going out of the perimeter? Then you try to bring a tiger cub in, when you are under the scanner. Don’t you know that the Guru could sense your comings and goings on the perimeter?” said Avantika biting her lips.
Gowri removed her pendant chain and tied it firmly around the tiger cub. She patted its head and others also petted it before finally leaving to the ashram.
“We will come and feed it until it is well enough to be by itself,” said Mithun.
“We will call her Libi. She can be our pet tiger,” said Gowri.
“Tigers are no one’s pets,” said Avantika, “I think there is testing time ahead of us.”
The next day, Velan finished all his chores and reported to class. Everyone knew who they were, now. They had become famous overnight at the ashram. Master Madhan was waiting on his brown horse.
“Welcome, to our competition winners. I have brought the best ponies for you as promised,” he said.
A servant led several ponies to the ground. All of them were properly saddled. Master Madhan pointed the four ponies that he had selected for them. They were all white. Apsara and Gowri mounted their ponies with ease. Velan and Mithun had trouble getting up and to be seated on their ponies. The ease with which Gowri rode her pony amazed everyone including master Madhan. Briju went in his pony near her and scratched her pony with thorn. The pony reared up but Gowri handled it well and soon had the pony calmed up.
Velan had promised that if Briju ruffled any of his friends there would be hell to pay for. So he rode his pony towards Briju. Briju seeing this went full speed on his pony. Velan went after him in a hurry. They cut through the other classes on the ground. All the masters told them to stop. Finally Velan caught up with Briju and jumped on him pushing him down. He would have clobbered him, if not for Gowri and Apsara jumping from their ponies and grabbing him and pulling him away.
They were brought to the Guru. Velan got away because Master Madhan had seen what Briju did with the thorn and told it to the Guru.
“This is the most shameful batch of students to arrive at the ashram. If I hear any more complaint I would be severe,” the Guru said and waved them away.
When they were back to the class all the talk wasn’t about Velan or Briju. Everyone was speaking with wonder of how after giving Velan and Briju a head start, Apsara and Gowri rode fast and hard and caught up with Velan.
“Why did you stop him? Briju deserved a thrashing,” said Mithun. “If Velan had laid his hands on Briju, he would have got it from the Guru,” said Apsara. That night they were back in the cowshed. Mithun stretched himself on a bale of hay. Though they hate to admit it, all of them liked to lie on the hay.
“Saving the tiger cub was cool, but it worries me, the poacher being a black magician from Kingi. Some dreadful black magician named Vakrasura has become king of Kingi, I am told. If this is somehow related to him …” teetered off Apsara.
“I too heard of his becoming king. It is just a formality, for some time now he is the one ruling Kingi. But he wouldn’t set his eyes on something as trivial as an ashram. Maybe they are testing the strength of the borders, who knows. But by god he is the most powerful black magician in the world,” said Mithun.
“Say if he attacks Malla, do we have the strength to ward him off?” asked Apsara.
“Don’t worry, our king is not only noble but also wise and strong. Moreover ancient magic is far more powerful than black magic. Vakrasura won’t attack unless he has an ace in his sleeve,” said Mithun.
“May be it is in pursuit of that edge he has sent this black magician who shot the tiger cub,” said Apsara.
“Call her Libi. She isn’t any other tiger cub. She is our pet,” squealed Gowri in anger.
“Whoa, cool it,” said Mithun.
“Why are there only black magicians. Why aren’t there white, red or blue magicians?” asked Gowri.
“Black stands for darkness and bad things and that’s why we call them black magicians,” said Mithun.
“I don’t care, I want to be a blue magician. But what does it matter, the world is going to end soon,” said Gowri.
“What are you saying?” asked Apsara.
“It is true someone has predicted that the world, our kingdoms will perish soon. Many have started moving to other places. This talk has been around for a decade,” said Mithun.
“It is very late and is time to sleep. Even if the world ends, I want to be well rested when that happens,” said Velan.
“I don’t feel sleepy, let us go for a walk in the woods,” said Gowri.
The others agreed and dragged Velan along. Gowri was leading the way. Suddenly Gowri screamed in a high pitched voice and they ran to where she was standing. There was a cow’s head and a circle of bones around it. Briju who had come to the place on hearing the scream, quickly bolted towards the ashram. Soon Briju came back accompanied by the Guru and Avantika.
“What is it that I hear, that you’ve been sitting in a circle and chanting something,” said the Guru and on seeing the cow’s head his face became grim. He tugged at his beard and said “If it is one thing that I despise most, it is black magic. Ancient magic is the only magic allowed in this kingdom. Black magic is a serious offence. Your presence here is suspicious. If you don’t prove your innocence soon, I will have to expel you. I shall be watching you and any one unwarranted step will get you all expelled.”
“Please let me take care of this and them,” said Avantika.
“So be it,” said the Guru and left.
“All of you come and meet me tomorrow after your classes. You can leave now and let me examine this,” said Avantika and leaned over the cow’s head peering at it carefully.
All four of them had assembled in the library after classes waiting for Avantika who was busy in the kitchen.
“We have not yet broken any major rules but going beyond the perimeter of the ashram was a grave rule to break at this time,” said Gowri.
“We have bigger problems. The Guru suspects us of black magic and wrong doing and will expel us if he–” Apsara was saying when she was cutoff in mid sentence by the arrival of Avantika.
“Hi guys. I’ve watched you all from afar for so long and I know things that even you don’t know yourself, like the crush Velan has on me,” said Avantika as she sat across from them on a chair.
Velan got beet red on hearing Avantika’s comment.
“Nice interrogation technique, to start by intimidating us like this, while sounding so sweet and loving,” said Apsara.
“What interrogation? What intimidation?” Avantika laughed sweetly and continued saying, “And Apsara you who’ve known me should think that, it pains me. I do not believe that you guys had anything to do with the cow’s head or any other black magic. I believe Briju was lying. I called you here because I believed you guys will help me prove your innocence beyond doubt. Show some trust please.”
“I trust you,” said Velan in an innocent manner and all the others began to laugh.
“See, I was right about the crush,” said Avantika and added “but seriously, it has been confirmed that one of our cows is missing. So what can you infer from what you saw yesterday?” asked Avantika.
“It seemed odd that there was no blood on the floor not even congealed blood. So the cow must have been slaughtered elsewhere and the head brought to the place,” said Apsara. “Excellent, what else?” asked Avantika.
“The rest of the cow, the carcass, what happened to it?” asked Gowri.
“Excellent question, it hasn’t been found lying anywhere. It must have been disposed somehow, buried or perhaps thrown in the river or something else,” said Avantika.
“The bones around it were cow bones. It might have been taken from that cow itself,” said Velan.
“But who did it and why?” asked Mithun.
“Those are the most pertinent questions. It was an attempt of black magic by someone inside the ashram,” said Avantika.
“But why wasn’t the evidence hidden after the act? Why leave it in the open?” asked Mithun.
“That might be because the person might have been interrupted. I believe the person was actually involved in doing the black magic ritual when your sudden arrival near the spot prompted the person to escape,” said Avantika.
“Briju was there. I bet he was the one doing all the black magic stuff,” said Mithun.
“While I agree that anyone near the spot at the time is a suspect, holding Briju to be the culprit is prejudiced, Mithun. The cut is clean, not made by a sickle but made with the fighting sword. Only a powerful adult and expert swordsman could have made the cut. That makes one of the masters the most likely suspect. I’ve compiled a list of masters who’ve been near the place and will enquire them. I will sort out those without alibis or with shaky alibis,” said Avantika.
“Why would a master want to dabble in black magic all of a sudden?” asked Mithun.
“The most disturbing thing is the purpose of the magic as sensed by the Guru is to try and penetrate the protective spell around the ashram. Why would someone who is inside want to do that? My guess is that the culprit is acting under the orders of someone outside. What does this outsider want? Anyway, keep your eyes and ears open and report anything you find,” said Avantika.
“By outsider, do you mean the black magician who shot the tiger cub?” asked Mithun.
“Yes,” replied Avantika.
“What if the culprit had led the cow to the outsider and the black magician had slaughtered the cow. Then servants and even women could be suspects,” said Velan.
“Valid point but mostly the belief is that to appease the demons of black magic, the performer of the rituals must have killed the life by their own hands,” said Avantika.
Velan had not shared something with them. He had seen someone like Jabala in the shadows, the night of the incident. He did it not so much as to protect Jabala but because he wasn’t entirely sure it was her.
That day all through training Briju kept smirking at them and made snide remarks about them being sorcerers doing black magic. Apsara had to be restrained from attacking Briju on more than one occasion. The other kids and a few of the masters kept a wary distance from them. Mithun sulked all day long. It was only Gowri who somehow through all this felt upbeat. She made the pony gallop fast and encouraged the other three to keep up with her. Before evening she had everyone in their spirits.
Near finishing time, the Guru called and all the students and masters assembled before the banyan tree.
“We have reason to believe that a powerful black magician lurks in the woods beyond the perimeters of the ashram. So don’t venture beyond the stream even if you had done before or were in the habit of doing it often. If you do so your life will be in peril. I scouted the woods without result. The king’s guards have been alerted. You can go to the village but be wary of strangers and avoid talking to them. That is all,” the Guru said.
“Where shall we go first?” asked Gowri as the four of them entered the village. “We’ll go to the butcher first. The crowd will be thin now. Later it will be overcrowded and all the good meat will be gone,” said Apsara.
“How much will Libi eat. Do you have an idea?” asked Gowri.
“We’ll buy plenty today and by tonight we’ll have an idea how much she’ll eat,” said Apsara.
“We’ve got to collect a figurine that Avantika has ordered from the statue shop,” said Mithun.
After almost an hour the four of them were outside the statue shop having the meat sack in their hands. The man inside the shop was a lanky man with peering eyes.
The figurine was of the goddess of knowledge. The man carefully wrapped it in straw and then with a cloth.
“Be careful, it is fragile, handle it carefully,” said the shopkeeper.
A man came barging in to the store. He had a long dagger in his hands. The frightened shopkeeper ran out of the shop. The man looked menacingly at the kids and stepped towards Mithun.
“Don’t be afraid, I will not hurt you guys. I just need a boy hostage to threaten the guards chasing me,” said the man and neared Mithun.
Mithun backed away in to a shelf and he hit the shelf behind him hard. A big bronze statue fell on the man and he dropped to the floor.
They dragged him outside the shop. The villagers outside began to clap their hands. Soon a stocky man with pencil thin moustache came followed by the guards.
“I didn’t want to kill the chief minister’s assistant. I was trying to obtain information for Vakrasura and the man didn’t know anything. If I had went to Vakrasura empty handed, you know what would have happened captain Prakash. Can’t you give me some slack,” pleaded the man.
“Take him away,” said the captain and turning to the kids, “It was brave of you to have taken on such a hardened criminal all by yourselves. Which Gurukul do you belong to?”
“We are from Rishaba Shringa’s ashram but how did you know we study in a Gurukul?” asked Apsara.
“Age, your clothes, demeanour and the fact that you were brave enough to take on the man,” said captain Prakash.
“Why were you chasing the man? What did he do?” asked Gowri.
“He is a lowlife. But he has recently murdered the chief minister’s assistant. It is a robbery gone wrong, we believe. He claims that he was recruited by Vakrasura as if that vile creature of Kingi would deal with the likes of this lowlife. Convey my regards to your Guru and Avantika,” said the captain and left.
The shopkeeper came and thanked them. Soon the other villagers surrounded them to offer their congratulations. All of them except Apsara shook the hands offered and soon they left from there.
As they were walking Gowri asked Apsara, “Why didn’t you shake their hands?”
Apsara replied, “Their hands were dirty.”
“You don’t mind getting your hands dirty when you get in to a fight.”
“That is different.”
Mithun said, “My hands are dirty. Would miss high and mighty shake my hands,” and offered his hand.
“No way you filthy mongrel and no more talking about this,” said Apsara.
They headed straight to the northern woods outside the perimeters of the ashram. The tiger cub Libi seemed to recognize them. They fed it and petted and patted it. Gowri cuddled with the creature. Apsara soon followed.
“Look who is getting all dirty,” said Gowri.
After playing with Libi they headed back to the ashram. When they reached the ashram, the guru was waiting near the banyan tree with a sword in his hand. There seemed to be some congealed blood on the sword.
“This is the weapon used to behead the cow. It was found in the cowshed near the place where Velan sleeps. It was found by Jabala. All of you are expelled and Velan shall be sent to prison,” said the Guru.
“I know what it looks like but please give them some more time to prove their innocence,” pleaded Avantika.
“They get two more weeks to prove their innocence. If they do not, expulsion of all and imprisonment of Velan shall follow,” said the Guru angrily and went inside.
Velan wondered what prison might be like. It must be no worse than his time with lord Pamba. He couldn’t bring himself to hate the Guru for his unreasonableness. The Guru had given him an opportunity to learn with the others. He felt grateful.
He had finished all his chores early today. He waited for his friends to come to the cowshed and he didn’t have to wait for long.
Apsara came and sat beside him and asked, “If it weren’t for us you would have been a lot better off, don’t you think so?”
“No, I’ve felt alive and happy only after I met you guys. People respect me nowadays, other students and some at the village, all because of you guys. A servant’s life is hard to consider but for me with Pamba it was the worst. Please don’t worry. No one is going to prison, we’ll find the person behind this,” Velan said.
“And how do you propose to find the person. We are just kids and this isn’t any game. Given we are smart but we are way out of our depths here,” said Mithun.
“I saw someone like Jabala in the woods when we found the cow’s head. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure. Now that she claims to have found the sword here, I think we should pay her a visit,” Velan said.
They found Jabala washing clothes by the stream.
“Why did you lie to the Guru about finding the sword in the cowshed?” asked Velan.
“I didn’t lie boy, I found the sword in the cowshed like I said,” Jabala replied.
“I saw you in the woods the day the cow’s head was found,” Velan said.
Jabala stared at him for a long time and said “I was taking a stroll when someone with a cloth around his face and a human skull in his hand ran past me. I stayed there in fear a long time after he was gone. I didn’t say this to anyone out of fear. I came to the cowshed looking for you but found the sword instead.”
They returned to the cowshed.
“I don’t believe a word she is saying,” said Mithun.
“No, she is telling the truth. There is no reason for her to invent such a lie,” said Velan.
“A skull could be hidden anywhere. This is a dead end. We have no hope of catching the culprit,” said Apsara
“I wish I had a human skull. I could decorate the skull and have it as a table piece. Human skulls definitely look more beautiful than human faces,” said Gowri.
“And while you are at it, why don’t you feed it lemon juice and rice cakes and see if you could make the skull talk. May be make the poor thing your friend, like us fools here,” said Mithun.
“That’s it. A human skull cannot be bought in ordinary shops. He must have got it from the graveyard,” said Velan.
“But a guard is there day and night,” said Mithun.
“Yes, but I bet they would sell you the skulls if a right price is offered. We must visit the day guard soon,” said Velan. Then looking at Apsara asked, “Did you ask for any missing sword?”
“Eight swords have gone missing. It seems when he decided to plant the sword to implicate Velan, he has stolen other swords to hide his tracks. A dead end,” Apsara said.
“No, our man will not have disposed his hard gotten skull or swords. He will have kept it nearby. When the time comes that is all the evidence we’ll need to nab him,” said Velan.
The day guard at the graveyard was a thin scrawny man with dirty clothes. Apsara had to shell out a few gold coins before he conceded to talk.
“It isn’t that uncommon for me to sell skulls as you think. Black magic is widespread than people think. My buyers don’t tell where they come from. People order all forms and shapes of skulls. If only you gave me something more to go on, sorry I couldn’t be of much help,” the guard said.
They all started to leave when Velan turned and asked, “Has anyone recently been here buying skull but not knowing what he was doing, like he was buying a skull for the first time,” Velan asked.
“Now that you ask, there was this young man who kept fidgeting and looking over his shoulder all the time. He had his shirt buttons undone on account of a freshly gotten skull tattoo on his left chest,” said the guard.
They thanked him and left.
As they were walking Apsara said, “We can’t go asking everyone to remove their shirts. But other masters might have noticed something, and it won’t harm to ask.”
“No he would be careful. He must know that a skull tattoo is a giveaway for black magic,” Velan said.
“What if we tell the Guru and examine everyone?” asked Apsara.
“The Guru won’t allow that and the culprit might use a skin patch or some other such thing to deftly hide the tattoo,” said Velan.
“Are we heading for the tattoo shops then?” asked Mithun.
“No, we must head back to the ashram. I have chores to do. Some important person is coming this evening and Avantika will be expecting me to keep the mansion spick and clean,” said Velan.
“Your call man, but not many days are left. So keep that in mind too beside Avantika,” said Mithun.
Apsara and Gowri giggled at this.
“You can laugh all you want but it is his head on the block, he is the one who’ll go to prison,” said Mithun.
“And that is so unfair,” said Apsara clenching her fist.
“It is okay,” Velan said.
Ordinarily Velan could have handled prison, he had seen worse, he kept telling to himself. But now he had got accustomed to his new carefree life.
“You know what, it is you guys I’ll miss mostly in prison,” Velan said.
Gowri and Apsara hugged him from the sides.
“I think there is time enough for a round up of the tattoo parlours. There is a time limit hanging on our shoulders. The faster we get this over with, the easier it would be for us,” said Velan.
Rang was the most famous tattoo parlour in the village, they decided to start their investigations from there. The owner Sarah was putting finishing touches on the scorpion tattoo she was giving on the arm of a person. They waited outside the shop for her to finish.
When she was done Apsara asked “Have you recently given a young man a skull tattoo on the chest?”
“Scorpion, skull and rose tattoos are very common and most men after their arms prefer to be tattooed on their chests. So I don’t recall any particular person. Sorry for not being much of a help,” replied Sarah.
There were about half a dozen tattoo parlours in the village. They visited all of them including those in the seedier parts of the village. Everywhere they got the same reply, skull tattoos were too common that they don’t recall any specific person.
“I am thirsty. If rich girl here is willing to shell out a few coins, I wouldn’t mind a jug of pomegranate juice,” said Gowri.
“Not today, may be some other time. It is already too late. We’ve got to return to the ashram,” said Velan.
Avantika stared at them from across the desk. From the day that Avantika said Velan had a crush on her, he became even more nervous in her presence and couldn’t bring himself to talk with her. He even had difficulty seeing her face.
“So how is the investigation of my most favourite kids in the world going?” she asked.
“The culprit inside, has a tattoo on his left chest, probably hiding it with a skin patch. He is also in possession of a skull and seven swords,” said Apsara.
“That is good you’ve got to clear yourselves from this cow’s head black magic accusation but keep in mind that it is the outsider, the really powerful black magician, we have to catch. He is up to something. Anyway Velan, start cleaning now and finish before the guest arrives,” Avantika said.
Velan had finished cleaning the entire mansion thoroughly. He was in the back drinking water and chatting with the other servants when he saw the guest, a tall gaunt man, come through the front entrance escorted by the Guru and Avantika.
After a while he heard the Guru’s loud voice, “… but chief minister are you sure? You say the prince has been kidnapped .”
Velan left in search of his friends mulling over what he heard. He found them under the neem tree near the stream.
“I overheard the Guru talking to the guest. The prince has been kidnapped. This is what the outsider, the vile black magician must have been planning all along. The black magic with the cow’s head was to test the strength of the protective spell. Guru Kaala Nathan also has such a protective spell around his ashram,” said Velan.
“But he failed. He couldn’t break the protective spell here and I don’t think he has managed to break the spell of Kaala Nathan either. Moreover Kaala Nathan’s ashram is surrounded by tall surrounding walls and there is almost a garrison of soldiers there. Even at the village the prince is heavily protected. How in the world could this have happened?” asked Mithun.
“We must find and rescue the prince. We can. We are good at this investigation thing,” said Apsara in a tight lipped manner.
“No we can’t. We have to solve our problems first or Velan goes to prison, remember,” said Mithun.
“Yes. The king’s guards will find the prince. We are kids. I don’t think anyone would take us seriously,” said Gowri.
Apsara broke down into tears, “But he is my brother. I have to save him.”
“You are the princess and you’ve been keeping it away from us for so long. That isn’t cool girl,” said Mithun.
So this was Apsara’s secret that Avantika obviously knew, Velan thought. Velan patting Apsara on the back said, “Don’t worry we’ll find your brother. The cases are related anyway.”
The Guru talked on the evils of black magic and its prevalence in Kingi. He stated that ancient magic was far more superior and mixing it with black magic was not advisable. He then stood before the platform and nocked his bow and chanted some mantras. He then took aim and fired his arrow at the skies. After a flash of lightning a thunderous downpour of rain came down forcefully. He launched another arrow and the rain stopped.
“This is the power of ancient magic,” he said. He then asked the students to train but asked Velan and his friends to remain.
“First a forest fire, then an inn fight and now black magic. It doesn’t matter what you did. Just tell me who contacted you to perform black magic and where he is. The issue is far more serious and grave now. A life is at stake,” said the Guru.
“We know. The prince has been kidnapped. He is my brother, how can you mistrust us?” asked Apsara.
“I am not accusing all of you. Perhaps one of you has misled the others. If only I can find the truth with my inner sight. That is not to be,” said the Guru looking at Velan.
“Why do you hate and mistrust Velan so much? Is it because he is a servant?” asked Apsara.
“I have far more graver reasons to not trust him but it is none of your concern,” said the Guru and waved them away with his hand.
Avantika was watering the plants in the garden when Apsara barged in followed by the other three.
“How can you water the plants at a time like this, my brother, the prince of the kingdom, has been kidnapped.” shouted Apsara.
“So you know. It is a testing time for all of us. What do you want from me?” asked Avantika.
“We want to help in the investigation,” said Apsara.
“That can be done. Captain Prakash is in charge of the investigation. A fresh set of eyes and thoughts would help. In fact it has been two days since the kidnapping but captain Prakash is still flummoxed by how the kidnapper gained entry in to the ashram. If you guys could shed some light, you’ll earn his respect,” said Avantika.
“We are just kids, there is no way we’ll be taken seriously,” said Mithun scratching his ear.
“Kids who’ve already subdued and helped nab a hardened criminal. In any case I’ll write you a letter of commendation to whoever you give it to. It will not help you with the ordinary folks but I assure you that the eminent people like Captain Prakash, Kaala Nathan and a few others will take you seriously,” said Avantika.
She led them to her study and began writing the letter.
“Do you have any idea who might have done this? My brother hasn’t been prepared for hardships, they’ll rescue him soon, won’t they?” asked Apsara sitting on the edge of her chair and clasping and unclasping her fingers.
“Your brother is tougher than you give him credit for. Furthermore your brother is only held as a bargaining chip. So rest assured that no harm will come to him,” said Avantika.
“If it is money they want why not just give it to them and get it over with,” said Apsara.
Avantika stared at Apsara a long time and then said, “It isn’t money. No one kidnaps a prince for money. I believe it is the black magician who had shot the tiger cub who is the person behind this. Don’t worry about the ransom for now, consultations are going on that. The Guru is going to the capital regarding this. You just make yourself helpful to Captain Prakash and let us hope that the prince is rescued soon.”
Avantika finished her letter and gave it to Apsara.
“Take the ponies and ride to Guru Kaala Nathan’s ashram. You’ll find Captain Prakash there. He’ll lead you from then. No need to attend classes until this mess is over. Remember this isn’t a game anymore. If you don’t want to be treated like children anymore then you must stop acting like it. Good luck,” said Avantika.
They collected the ponies and rode towards Kaala Nathan’s ashram. Kaala Nathan’s ashram is on one edge of the village unlike Yavvan which is inside the forest. One side of Kaala Nathan’s ashram is the forest though. They soon came within sight of the tall walls of the Ashram. Starting from the guard room till the entrance were guards at regular intervals. They were stopped at the gate by a guard. Apsara handed the letter.
A few minutes later the guard appeared and said, “You can leave the ponies here, they’ll be taken to the stables. Captain Prakash has asked you guys to be accompanied to the scene of the crime, the prince’s chambers.”
They followed the guard to the prince’s chamber. Captain Padmanabhan was waiting outside.
“Let us go right in,” he said and opened the door.
Kaala Nathan’s ashram and the rooms there were huge and shone of opulence but they lacked the quaint beauty and simplicity of Yavvan. The prince’s room was piled with things here and there but what caught the attention was the message ‘Give me Ender’ in red on the green wall.
“We browsed through each item here thoroughly but there isn’t one suspicious thing. We also brought in the prince’s friends to look at the place. They say it is exactly the way it used to be here. For a scene of crime it unusually lacks any sign of struggle. We asked the guards and they say they saw nothing unusual that day. Kaala Nathan is sure his protective spell wasn’t breached,” said Prakash.
“Then why do you suppose this is the scene of crime? Just because of the message?” asked Apsara.
“Obviously someone came here and wrote this message.”
“But what if it were an accomplice, someone from the inside?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The message is on the bottom portion of the wall. Any adult would have written the message larger and right in the centre. A kid has done this as instructed by the Kidnapper.”
“Excellent,” said Prakash eyeing Apsara for a while and then patting on her back.
“Is it human blood on the wall?” asked Mithun.
“The message has been written with goat blood,” said Gowri.
“Yes,” concurred Prakash.
“It must have taken a few gallons of blood to write this. Obviously the kidnapper doesn’t carry goats along with him. Any person buying that much blood without meat would be uncommon. In fact I believe the butcher would have emptied his stock,” said Gowri.
“I’ll send a man to the Butcher’s immediately,” said Prakash.
“No need, we’ll visit him when we leave. At least we can make ourselves useful that way,” said Apsara.
Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room. He seemed much younger than Guru Rishaba Shringa. He was tall and had no facial hairs. He had tonsured head so there was no hair there too.
“The kids just confirmed that your protective spell wasn’t breached. The scene of crime must have been elsewhere outside the ashram,” said Prakash.
Gowri went close to the wall and peered carefully at the message for a long time and said “Flowers will be flowers and fruits will be fruits.”
Velan could see the expression of the captain and the guru. He was amused, welcome to Gowri talk.
“What is it Gowri?” asked Mithun.
“The letters are slanted from right to left. The message has been written by a left hander,” said Gowri.
“There are only two left handers in the inner circle of the prince. We can interrogate them both and find the truth,” said Prakash.
“No need. Just get me their hand written notes and I will tell you who the accomplice is,” said Gowri.
Soon guards rushed to get what was required.
“Sorry, Kaala Nathan ji, that we didn’t greet you properly,” said Apsara.
“It is okay, such brilliance and yet I hear Guru Rishaba Shringa complaining about you guys. You’ll get all the assistance you need. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’ve got to leave for the capital,” said Kaala Nathan and went away.
“This Ender, is it a jewel or some precious gem or something with magical properties?” asked Mithun.
“Oh, I forgot you guys would have been babies when this Ender thing hit the streets and swept like a fire through the common folk. There is an Ender’s maze, you must have at least heard of it,” said Prakash.
“Yeah, we’ve heard of a maze in the forest that no one has completed. Anyone attempting it has either died or suffered grave injuries. So if it is a stupid maze the kidnapper wants then give it to him,” said Mithun.
“Ender is not just a maze it is a person and only the person Ender can complete—“ Prakash was saying when Gowri cut him off.
She struck her forehead and said “Ender is the prophecy about the end of Malla.”
“Actually the prophecy is about the person who’ll bring the end of Malla. Ender is a person. We have committed resources to find about this Ender person. No success so far,” said Prakash.
“Ender I won’t let you end the world nor let my brother wither for you. By god I’ll have you swapped for my brother,” said Apsara.
A guard came and gave two sets of notes to Prakash. Gowri got them and browsed through them.
After reading them for a long time she said “They learn some cool things here.”
On reading the stares her friends gave her she said, “Okay, okay.”
Now she peered through the two notes carefully. Then tossing aside one note she said, “This Hiresh is the person we want.”
“Will you allow us to interrogate him first?” asked Apsara.
“Sure,” said Prakash.
Velan felt proud of the intelligence of his friends. Yet he had a bad feeling about this Ender prophecy thing. It needs further probing he thought.
Kaala Nathan’s ashram had indoor classrooms too. In one class room Hiresh was confined by the guards.
“I would prefer if you stayed outside while we question him. For we believe he will be more forthcoming if he sees only us kids,” said Apsara to Prakash.
Prakash obliged and the four went inside. Velan went to a corner chair and looked outside the window while listening carefully. Mithun took the hint and sat at a distance. Apsara pulled a chair and sat right before Hiresh. He was a short, thin kid. Gowri sat beside Apsara.
“We know you are innocent and that you’ve been tricked in to writing the message. If you had known what was going to happen before hand you wouldn’t have done it. We promise you if you cooperate you can continue your studies like nothing ever happened,” said Apsara.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Better stop this nonsense right now,” said Hiresh.
“If you want to play it that way it is cool. The Captain and his guards won’t take a lenient view of this. Unless we intervene forget studies it would be prison for you,” said Apsara.
“Look I don’t know—“
“You have a really good handwriting. Neat but at the same time very unique though. I wish I could write like that,” said Gowri.
“Listen, you can’t do this to me just under the assumption of it being my handwriting,” said Hiresh.
“Look we aren’t here to find proof of your guilt. The captain is already convinced and is going to arrest you. We want information, anything you have, it will help rescue the prince who was your friend. We are giving chance to amend your wrongs,” said Apsara.
“I don’t believe that on the sayings of kids like you, the Captain will leave me alone,” said Hiresh.
Apsara waved to the captain outside and he waved back.
Then leaning towards Hiresh she said, “I’ll tell you a secret, I am the princess and I can influence –“
“So it is true what he said,” said Hiresh
“Who said what?” asked Apsara.
“Okay, I’ll tell you everything. Not because I believe you can help me. No one can help me out of this mess. I want to set things right and if it may be, help my friend come back,” said Hiresh.
“Good,” she said and waved over Mithun and Velan.
They came and sat near Apsara and Gowri.
“Would you mind if the Captain was present?” asked Apsara.
“No,” said Hiresh.
She beckoned the captain and he too came and sat beside them.
“I met the kid in the village. He was about the age of you, kids. He was also from your ashram. He bought me food and dessert often. He told me the princess was studying with him and was a close friend. I didn’t believe it at first but when I asked the prince, he didn’t refuse. One day he came up with a bucket full of what he claimed was red paint. He said the princess wanted to play a practical joke on him. He said she was in the western guard room near the forest waiting for the prince. He asked me to write the message on the prince’s wall saying he won’t mind it. I did as told but when I found what happened I got afraid and didn’t say a word to anyone,” said Hiresh.
“You should have come up with this first but now you are going to prison,” said Prakash.
“We kind of promised Hiresh that we’ll keep him out of prison, can you make it happen?” asked Apsara twirling a ringlet of her hair that had fallen over her face.
“For now, yes, but if the prince isn’t rescued soon we’ll have to take him in,” said Prakash.
Hiresh sighed with relief. He thanked Apsara and the others profusely. He said he must leave now before the other students get suspicious as to why he was detained for so long.
At that moment Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room and said to Captain Prakash, “As I was leaving for the capital, I realized I had left my snuff box with you. I can be without anything but not my snuff box,” and then he turned to leave. The snuff box was made of gold.
Gowri asked Captain Prakash, “If you can pardon Hiresh then you can definitely pardon Velan too. You can definitely keep him out of prison.”
“It is not in my hands and moreover your Guru has some serious misgivings about Velan’s innocence and is bent on sending him to prison. But I can say this if the prince is rescued then there is a big chance of him being excused.”
“I don’t mind prison except for the fact that I would be separated from my friends. I don’t believe prison would be any worse than what I went through at Lord Pamba’s palace. Moreover after learning that the Prince is Apsara’s brother I would do anything to rescue him,” said Velan.
Kaala Nathan who had gone half way across the hall turned on hearing this. He took a pinch of powder from his snuff box and inhaled it deeply and asked Velan, “You mean what you say kid?”
Velan nodded his head.
Kaala Nathan asked Prakash to leave the room and said, “My weakness is wealth and luxury but Rishaba Shringa has a greater weakness which is his patriotism towards Malla. Your fate is worse than prison if the prince isn’t rescued. So my advice to you would be to leave this godforsaken kingdom kid. Don’t tell anyone I told you thus,” and left.
An eerie silence fell over the room. “Like Apsara’s secret it seems there is a secret about me too. My father told me that I was given to him by a senior officer of the court.”
Gowri said, “Don’t worry we will coax it out of Avantika. But first let us try to find Apsara’s brother, the prince first.”
“They went to their regular Butcher’s place for he was the biggest in the village and only he would have got such a huge amount of goat’s blood. They went near closing time and waited till he was about to wind up before they approached him.
“Did anyone recently purchase more than a couple of gallons of goat’s blood?” asked Gowri.
“Yes, a boy your age bought recently. Had to almost empty my stock to give him. Why do you ask?” asked the butcher.
Ignoring his query Gowri asked “Did you remember anything peculiar about him?”
“No, he just had a book with him. Teach yourself swordplay or something like that,” said the butcher.
They thanked the butcher and left for the ashram. They went straight for the cowshed.
“I can’t believe Hiresh was so dumb as to get mixed in all of this,” said Mithun.
“Hear the wise man speak,” said Gowri.
“All in all it takes trust and a little bit of persuasion for people to do stupid things in the name of friendship,” said Apsara.
Velan raised his eyebrows at Apsara for this.
“I am lucky with you guys, your brains may not be up there but all your hearts are in the right place,” said Apsara.
“What do you mean by brains not being up there miss clever girl. I have more brains than you lot put together,” said Mithun.
“Careful it is spilling all over the floor,” said Gowri.
“What?” asked Mithun.
“Your brains,” said Gowri.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. When I said that I meant my brains also not being up there. Suresh and Keerti from our class are real brainy but I am glad to have you guys than them, as close friends,” said Apsara.
“Now that you mention it, someone from our class has deceived Hiresh. So now we must find that black sheep. Only then can we find this black magician,” said Mithun.
“No, I don’t think so. Hiresh has been led to believe that the person was from our ashram. Why would a person in an ashram want a teach yourself swordplay book? I believe it is a kid from the village,” said Velan.
“Could it be the kid Rudra rejected by the Guru?” asked Mithun.
“May be, may be not, we can know only if we have conclusive proof,” said Velan.
“Shall we go for a walk? It is too early to get to bed,” said Gowri.
“No, not today,” said Mithun.
To everyone’s surprise Avantika entered the cowshed carrying a big plate of sorts.
“What are you doing here?” asked Apsara.
“Why? Can’t I come? It is still my property after all. Jabala said you guys have returned. The Guru isn’t here and I was feeling bored so I came here. There is another reason also. So how is the investigation coming along,” said Avantika.
Gowri briefed Avantika about all the latest developments in the case.
Avantika lifted the cloth from the plate and delicious jilebis and some milk sweets were there. Everyone took the sweets.
“Why did you bring so much? We can’t eat this much,” said Apsara.
“Speak for yourself. I know the capacities of the boys. Don’t let Velan’s silence fool you. Mithun alone can finish the whole plate,” said Gowri between mouthfuls of jilebi.
“What is the occasion?” asked Mithun.
“Tomorrow is the birthday of one of you. I decided to celebrate a bit early,” said Avantika.
“Whose?” asked Velan.
“Your’s,” replied Avantika.
“No, that can’t be. Even I don’t know when my birthday is,” said Velan.
“But I do,” said Avantika.
It is true, thought Velan, she knows about my birth and who I am. If so why hasn’t he been told about that?
“Don’t ask me anything for now. In a little while you’ll yourself know all of it. I can’t say anything because I’ve been sworn to secrecy for your own well being,” said Avantika.
She is really a nice person. She is in fact nice to everyone, the servants, the students, the villagers. But with him, is she nice because of his friends or about something in his past. A lot of questions swirled around in Velan’s mind.
Gowri shivered and hugged herself.
“Why are you shivering? Do you have a fever?” so saying Avantika touched Gowri’s forehead.
“No, it is just the wind,” said Gowri.
“Did you ask the masters discretely as to if any of them has a skull tattoo?” asked Velan to Gowri. They figured since Gowri was liked by the masters it would be best.
“But wouldn’t that warn the culprit?” asked Avantika.
“We have to take that chance,” said Velan.
Apsara was still touching Gowri’s forehead checking for signs of fever.
“That’s it,” said Velan hitting his forehead. “Around the same time the culprit got a tattoo, master Vipul had a fever and was scratching his chest. Tattoos can cause fever,” said Velan.
“That is a very long shot but still the Guru is not here so you can corner Vipul. Even if it is a dead end nothing is lost,” said Avantika.
Though Velan was distraught with the slow progress in solving the mystery behind the disappearance of the prince he took solace in the company of his friends. He was happy in their company. He thought of his deepest darkest secret in lord Pamba’s mansion. One of lord Pamba’s distant relative, a girl named Madhana had arrived to the mansion and had enticed him to their study. Velan was so bewitched by her beauty that he did not mind any consequences that might arise from courting her favours. She was like a goddess to him. Little did he know that she was the devil incarnate enticing him to the gates of hell. She kissed him and was telling sweet words to him when Lord Pamba’s fat wife came and screamed at the top of her lungs. The whole of lord Pamba’s household woke up and no one was ready to hear his side of the story. The girl feigned innocence and accused Velan of taking undue advantage of her.
Velan was made to hang upside down and was stripped and given a caning that he would never forget to this day. More than the caning, the indignity of the whole episode hung like a cross around his neck. It made him lose the trust of people and especially girls from then. But he never revealed the girl’s role in the whole misadventure. He kept silent as if it was his cross alone to bear. He hung upside down as the whole of Lord Pamba’s household and other outsiders watched. This treachery was his deepest darkest secret whose signs lay in the form of the marks on his back. His friends and especially Apsara had seen the marks of his torture but didn’t know that it was the symbol of a deep dark betrayal.
After classes they all met in the cowshed. They all sat on the hay bale and chatted. “Master Vipul is no naive boy like Hiresh, so how to get him talking,” asked Mithun.
“First of all, we don’t know for sure if he is the culprit,” said Gowri.
“He is one of the strongest suspects and we must proceed as if he is the culprit if we are to find the truth behind this whole black magic mess,” said Mithun.
“I agree, for that we must expose his tattoo or find the skull and swords he must have stashed away like Velan said. There is no other way,” said Apsara twirling her shoulder length curly black hair.
“There are always other ways but I agree this is the best course of action for now. Come let us go feed Libi. It will keep us distracted,” said Velan.
Velan got some meat from the kitchen and they all ventured silently outside the perimeters of the ashram.
Libi being a little orphaned tiger cub knew nothing of hunting and would usually be waiting for them by the stream for them to come with meat. Today it was to be seen nowhere.
“Libi sweetie, munchkins, baba pyare,” intoned Gowri affectionately as though it were a puppy instead of a tiger cub. Libi was closest to Gowri and being from the river tribes she had a way with all animals. Apsara on the other hand was being trained by Avantika the art of bird talking which Gowri had no clue about.
After waiting for sometime they decided to search the bushes and thereby they ventured in to a part of the forest where they hadn’t been before. There amidst dense foliage and tall rosewood trees clumped together without allowing daylight to seep through, they found Libi tearing at the last remains of a cow’s carcass. A bare minimal skeleton of the cow was left remaining.
While the rest of them were watching in astonishment Gowri went and hugged Libi, she had been worried that something might have happened to him.
“This is the skeleton of the cow whose skull had been used for black magic. Vipul must have beheaded the cow here and carved out the skull to take it back within the perimeters to perform the black magic,” said Mithun.
Despite it being early evening it was pretty dark in the woods and there was a howling sound emanating from the bushes.
“I think it is dangerous to tarry here any longer, this spot gives me an eerie feeling,” said a tense Apsara and Mithun nodded in nervousness.
But a quaint Gowri said “I have no idea about black magic but if there is pink magic I would like to learn it. What do you think Libi darling.”
Velan suppressed a smile and said Jabala will be waiting for me to milk the cows for the evening. Avantika is preparing some sweets it seems. Let us head back to the ashram.
They all returned to the outer perimeter of the ashram followed by Libi. They tried to feed Libi but it had a full tummy and refused to eat any further. They all played with it for a while before heading to the ashram.
Jabala was waiting for Velan with a frown on her face.
“Where’ve you been boy, don’t you know that the cows need milking,” she said.
The other three left to play after saying good byes to Velan. Velan went to the cowshed and took the bucket and let his mind wander while milking the cows. The essential clue to finding the insider who helped the black magician was the skull tattoo. The masters took bath in the river outside the stream which formed the perimeter of the Ashram. It was on the west side of the ashram. They have already broken rules and crossed the perimeters of the ashram and ventured in to the forest and the falls. The problem therefore was to observe them without themselves being observed.
Velan finished milking the cows and shared his plan with the others. The next day before sunrise they went to the west side of the ashram to the river.
When crossing the stream Gowri asked, “The Guru can sense any crossing of the perimeters by anyone including us. Then why does he choose to selectively scold us instead of scolding us each time?”
“It is an age old technique. If scolded often we will lose fear and do as we please,” said Apsara.
“I don’t know about that but every time I got a caning at Pamba’s it put the fear of god in me.” said Velan.
Every one fell silent on hearing it. It was the first time he was talking about it openly before his friends. It inadvertently slipped out of his mouth.
“Sorry I didn’t mean to upset your moods,” said Velan.
“Dum da dididi dum, a caning spoils your morning,” said Gowri.
“Gowri,” yelled Apsara but both Velan and Mithun erupted in laughter.
“Moreover we are the only students to have daringly ventured outside the perimeters of the ashram. Briju and his friends are only all talk and a cowardly lot,” added Gowri.
A thick mist hung over the winter air and they had difficulty seeing in the poor light. They shivered and their teeth clattered as they talked. There was no tree cover near the river and they hid behind a huge boulder and waited for the masters to arrive.
“How will the masters bathe in the cold water of the river. We students are used to hot water,” said Mithun.
“They chant some mantras to keep them warm. Have you seen the masters always mumbling under their breath sabu skritham sash yam bush yam etc. I find it very funny,” said Gowri.
This time around Velan held his tongue and didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to be always the tragic or sorry figure amidst his friends.
But Apsara looked at him tersely as if reading his mind and said, “At Yavvan even the servants bathe in hot water but I know someone who doesn’t. Velan bathes in the cowshed in ice-cold water.”
“I am used to bathing like that at Pamba’s and I don’t mind….,” Velan was saying when he stopped in mid-sentence and added, “but how do you know, I bathe without any clothes on,” said Velan flummoxed.
“I saw you the other day morning when Avantika asked to fetch some dung for her Kolam (rice powder art). You looked cute without your clothes on,” said Apsara and everyone except Velan erupted in laughter. He reddened in his face but then again joined in the laughter.
All the masters bathed in their underclothes scratching their armpits or blowing their noses. This elicited a lot of giggles from Apsara and Gowri. But three of them masters Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh bathed with their vest on.
“This means it is either of the three that is the insider culprit,” said Apsara.
“How can you doubt master Madhan. He has been so helpful to us and he is a trusted lieutenant of the Guru. It is that scoundrel Vipul and it has been confirmed today,” said Mithun.
“His being helpful to us and being a trusted lieutenant proves nothing,” said Apsara.
“Apsara is right our list of suspects has widened from just one to three. We must watch them closely,” said Velan.
Gowri didn’t pay any heed to the conversation and was giggling loudly seeing the masters in their unguarded moments of bathing. She stumbled on a stone behind and crashed in to a thorn bush with full force. Her face was scratched roughly by the thorns and she squealed in pain. She then shut her own mouth even in the pain. Apsara opened her mouth to call for help from the masters but Mithun shut her mouth tightly from behind. Blood was leaking out of Gowri’s wounds.
The sound had attracted the attention of the masters bathing and Gorakh and Vipul tried to find out what it was but master Madhan stopped them and said, “must be some wounded animal, let me inspect.”
Master Madhan came behind the boulder and shushed them before taking out a potion from his locket and bathed Gowri’s wounds with it. All the blood congealed and the skin healed instantaneously.
By then the other masters had bathed and were walking towards the ashram and they beckoned Madhan.
He waved them away saying, “It is a wounded cat and you guys carry on and I will follow shortly,” then turning to them he said, “I know that you guys are trying to find the insider culprit who helped the black magician but let me suggest that it is not a job for kids. Why don’t you leave it to the adults. The Guru will deal with this matter. Trust him”
“The Guru is busy and we have the blessings of Avantika on this. We suspect master Vipul and it is almost confirmed now. Does he have a skull tattoo on his chest?” asked Mithun.
“Shut up. We also suspect you. Why don’t you show your chest to us,” said Apsara.
Madhan laughed at this and said, “Don’t be childish. If I wore a skin patch or if I had black magicked the tattoo in to disappearing would you kids know the difference.”
Apsara folded her hands and said stubbornly, “I still want you to show your chest.”
Madhan paused for a moment and then lifted up his vest to show his chest.
“See there is no tattoo.”
“Why don’t you have any chest hairs and why do you three bathe with your vests on?” prodded Apsara relentlessly.
“oh, come on yo….” started Mithun but Madhan cut him off by raising his hand.
“I have a skin condition and I am taking potion from Avantika ji to rectify it. You can verify it from her. As for the other two I guess they are just shy. Why don’t you grill them also like you grilled me,” he said in an irritated tone and then softening added, “I love you kids too much. Why don’t you kids leave it to the adults and focus on learning. I’ll talk to Avantika.”
“Teachers and masters love the student bloopers. Yuppidi dippidi boo, we still can’t do what you want woo hoo, bless us or curse us, we children outshine men,” said Gowri suddenly.
“What?” asked Madhan in an astonished voice.
“She says thank you for your concern but we still need to focus on the case for other reasons,” said Velan.
“Will you help us in this?” asked Mithun.
“Yes, but I don’t like the idea of spying on my own colleagues,” said Madhan and left for the ashram.
Gowri wanted to bathe in the river and so they all dipped in to it. They went back to the ashram and after breakfast they all gathered in Avantika’s study.
Mithun said aloud to Velan, “I love bathing in the river to bathing in the falls.”
Apsara kicked Mithun’s foot hard.
Avantika stamped Mithun’s foot hard.
“So you’ve been crossing the perimeters of the ashram again,” said Avantika with a mild frown and then a smile.
Apsara said, “It was for the investigation” and updated Avantika on all the recent developments.
Avantika nodded her head and said “Okay, let us play a game.”
Avantika went to a shelf and took out a pack of cards. Her room was adorned with pictures of birds and that of various Saivite gods and goddesses.
A girl came in and gave a plate of sweet pongal to Avantika who tasted it and said, “Nice work, child,” and sent her away.
There were several girls of aristocrats like Apsara under Avantika’s tutelage who learnt soft arts like cooking, kolam (rice powder art), classical dance like Bharatanatyam etc. There were also several girls from the river tribes and other tribes who learnt martial arts from the Guru. Avantika herself was well versed in martial arts and other esoteric stuff like bird talk but she was from a northern kingdom called Athivanam. Apsara was the only aristocrat and that too a princess training in martial arts as for as Velan knew.
The outside of the card was designed with a picture of an hour glass. On the inside were several other colourful pictures. She came and sat on the cot with it’s soft mattress along with them and shuffled the cards.
She said, “The game is simple. These are astrologer’s cards used to predict the future but we will use it to play. I will show a card and you guys can tell the words that come to your mind. Then you have to tell their definition or meaning. You can do it as many times as you want.”
“Oh, bug it, oops, sorry, when you took the cards I thought we were going to play some sort of a card game with even a bet of a few gold coins perhaps. I am a bit disappointed that’s all,” said Mithun.
Avantika smiled and shuffled the cards and drew out a card with a picture of a noose.
“Death,” said Mithun.
“Suicide,” said Gowri.
“A rope knot,” said Apsara trying to outshine the others in intelligence.
Velan just shrugged his shoulders as if he had nothing to add.
“Okay, good, now say a definition of death as you see it,” said Avantika.
“Going to god,” said Gowri.
“The end of life. There is no return. I fear it a lot,” said Mithun.
“Pain, emotionally and physically to us and others. It is a permanent separation giving a lot of sad memories and grief,” said Apsara.
Velan again shrugged. But this time Avantika coaxed him to answer.
“To me death is just an announcement after which the person supposedly dead travels with others who have not heard the announcement. In my depression at Pamba’s I’ve seen a lot, dogs and things disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, people morphing faces etc. I even tried to kill myself a lot many times, slashing my wrist or falling in to a well but I survived or was rescued for another round of torture.”
Avantika kindly caressed his hair. Apsara patted his back.
Velan continued, “I don’t think there is any pain in death and I don’t fear it. What I used to fear was life itself before I met these guys. Now my friends have given me a purpose and a new lease of life.”
“Well said,” Avantika said and drew another card in which was a picture of a boy and girl in embrace without any clothes on.
Gowri and Apsara started giggling heavily. The boys averted their eyes in shyness.
“Sex,” said Gowri.
“Define it,” said Avantika, herself smiling shyly.
“loving of boy and girl, kissing, hugging, seeing another without clothes. Though I have never kissed anyone,” said Gowri.
“I too haven’t kissed anyone, but I’ve seen that those that have kissed and seen another without clothes they become a very close and intimate couple forgetting everyone else.” said Apsara.
“There need be no love in sex and it involves a lot more than shedding clothes. I’ve seen pictures of it. I’ve been told it is quite pleasurable,” said Mithun.
This time around too Velan tried to remain a mute spectator but Avantika compelled him to say something.
“I’ve kissed a girl and seen her without clothes but then the girl betrayed me when caught and I received the worst caning of my life. I have a distaste towards all things sex,” said Velan.
Avantika smiled and in mild admonition nodded her head left and right and said, “Today’s kids, don’t you think it has something to do with marriage and children.”
“I was about to say it,” said Apsara.
Mithun smacked her head and said, “Don’t try to be the smart one always.”
Avantika admonished Mithun for hitting Apsara.
“What? Sex is all about love, marriage, children and lots of fighting. I was about to say it. I swear,” said Apsara placing her hand on Mithun’s head.
Now Avantika got a bit really angry and scolded Apsara, “Never ever swear on someone’s head for trivial matters.”
Apsara sat with a sullen face. Gowri tickled Apsara and she first giggled and then erupted in hilarious laughter. But she had a mild resentment towards Mithun for accusing her of trying to be over smart.
Avantika said, “Okay kids, enough of this game. The summer break starts today. All other kids are leaving to see their families. What are your plans?”
“We wish we could also go see our families. But the time the Guru gave us to find the insider culprit and clear ourselves of this black magic mess is almost over,” said Mithun.
“Or else it would be just expulsion for us and our families might scold us but they will take us back. They might even admit us in another ashram but for Velan it would be prison,” said Gowri.
Velan felt a wave of gratefulness and kindness towards his friends. He didn’t want them to suffer on his account. He thought of voluntarily going to prison or escaping out of the ashram without telling anyone.
He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara said to Avantika, “Can’t you change the Guru’s mind and let Velan walk free.”
“Black magic is a serious offence in our kingdom Malla. People are facing a lot worse for black magic and killing a cow in our kingdom. Still I would have talked to the Guru but for the disappearance of the prince and it being connected with this black magic incident.”
Avantika got up from the cot and after thinking for a while said, “Tell you what, you find this insider and Velan can stay out of prison and I will give you all the help you want. In fact I will even talk the Guru in to giving you all a holiday when you find this insider.”
They told Avantika about the interaction with master Madhan, their suspicion of master Vipul and the three masters bathing in their vests.
“We can’t identify a skin patch easily and I as a grown woman cannot ask the masters to disrobe and inspect. The Guru has gone to the capital and even otherwise he won’t take lightly to suspecting his own masters on the words of some newbie students. After all, all masters here are his old students. It is a catch twenty two situation,” said Avantika.
She held her chin for a moment and added, “Why don’t you try and locate the stash of swords and the skull. It might lead you to the culprit.”
They came out and headed towards the cowshed.
Apsara plonked on the straw bale and the others followed.
She said, “There is an old set of store rooms near the masters’ rooms that is locked all the time and piled with junk. Each master has a key to the entrance and to a special store room allotted for them. It is meant to hold teaching books, devotional items and other personal effects. The keys are jealously held by each of the masters and the locks can’t be broken.”
She scratched her head and added, “If only we could somehow enter the store room of master Vipul and verify.”
“Ha, ha ha, look at miss high and mighty, clever girl and princess of the land coming up with a master plan. If the lock can’t be broken how are we supposed to get in,” said Mithun.
Apsara broke in to sobs and jumping from the hay bale said, “I have my brother kidnapped and though I grudge him for being haughty I love him. Yet instead of being with my parents to be comforted by them I am here trying to sort out the mess we have gotten Velan in to. But all you do is ridicule me,” she said and ran away crying.
Gowri glared at Mithun and saying, “She must have gone to the girl’s quarters. I will calm her,” she followed suit.
Mithun still lying on the hay bale turned to Velan and said, “What did I do wrong? I just said the truth.”
“You shouldn’t have man. Anyway its just our Apsara she will calm down as usual,” said Velan.
But that was not to be. For Apsara refused to come out of the girl’s quarters. The rest of the students had went home leaving behind these four along with the masters and servants. Mithun felt guilty about the way he acted out with Apsara but did not show it outside. He talked cheerfully with Velan.
Mithun set about furthering Apsara’s plan and thought of using the Lota loti Zunga to steal Master Vipul’s store room key while he was bathing. He thought this would douse the quarrel between Apsara and him. They told the plan to Gowri asking her to convey it to Apsara.
Apsara came out of her room but said, “I am only here because if the insider culprit isn’t found with proof by day after tomorrow Velan will go to prison. So I will help with the investigation but will not talk to any insensitive scoundrel.”
Gowri agreed while Mithun simply stood there seeing the ground.
“Is it that soon? By day after tomorrow I might be in prison. Believe me, I’ve seen worse. You guys need not strain on my account,” said Velan.
“Don’t talk like that we will find the insider culprit and keep you out of prison,” said Gowri and Apsara nodded eagerly.
The next day they crossed the perimeter of the ashram marked by the stream and ventured in to the forest in search of the Lota loti Zunga. They reached the Lota loti village and found Zunga. While Velan and Mithun talked with Zunga the girls refilled their hip flasks with the magical potion that gave them immense strength like that of elephants. Mithun collected wax from the Lota loti village to take the impression of the key.
Apsara suggested, “While we are at it, why don’t we collect the keys of all three masters under suspicion, Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh.”
“She suspects master Madhan, but we don’t. I am almost damn sure it is master Vipul,” said Mithun looking away from Apsara.
Apsara scowled at this but didn’t respond. Despite the best efforts of Gowri and Velan, Apsara and Mithun were at loggerheads with each other and were a bit hostile to each other. Mithun at times conceded to Velan his willingness to end the quarrel. But Apsara was too hurt to accept any attempts at brokering peace.
That night while the masters were sleeping Zunga shrunk himself and creeped in to the marked masters’ rooms from under the door and after searching found the big keys that looked like room keys and took their wax impressions. Velan went to the kitchen and melted some old iron spoons and cooled them in the wax impressions to make keys. The quartet bid good bye to Zunga and went near the back entrance of the set of store rooms. It was too dark outside. A loud howling noise was heard and the chill sent shivers in to everybody’s spine. They used a rope to climb the back wall and slipped in through the ventilator shaft.
Gowri who had brought an oil soaked cloth tied to a wooden log, lit up that torch. A feeble light seeped from it.
“Eeeeeeeeew…..,” Apsara shrieked at the top of her lungs.