After three gruelling weeks of memorising formulae, they had finally arrived at the sacrificial grounds. For nights on end he dreamed of scions of the Surya line, men, women, even children. He learnt more at their feet than he ever had with the Sage. Not just about astras and weaponry, but about governing a kingdom, and strategies of war, and even a little bit about spying. Through constant practice he achieved a semblance of competency with his astras. He could never match Rama for sheer brutal efficiency, but an inventive use of his skills was all he needed to be good enough to keep up with his brother. He still couldn’t understand how his heir did it. While Lakshmana was proud of being able to fire off consecutive astras, Rama would string and fire three or four of them at once. In many ways he was destruction incarnate, and yet he found the time and the patience to nurse animals they encountered on the way. Lakshmana would have been bewildered if he had not known Rama as well as he did. It had been one of the Sage’s earliest lessons: ‘A king must be both compassionate and cold-hearted. Mercy without justice, and justice without mercy will surely lead to downfall’. It had been taken to heart by all of the princes of Ayodhya.
They had arrived just as the preparations were being wound up. The brahmins were ready for the Hermit to finish the rite, to cleanse the forest of the evil influence of Tataki and her ilk. They were expecting the remnants of the Asura force to attack shortly before nightfall. They had learnt their lessons well, after the death of Tataki and the subsequent skirmishes. At times it seemed as if the Hermit was steering them towards the encampments of the Asuras, just to see if the princes could handle it. It had been annihilation. After the first few battles, the Asuras had become much more careful, never coming out by daylight, always hiding in the shadows. But they had destroyed the majority of their forces in this way, and it would be a much-weakened Asura army they would face on the final day of their mission.
Lakshmana had drawn up a battle plan, such as it was. With only two warriors guarding the entire site, anyone else might have given up. Lakshmana nearly had, until the night before. He suspected the man he had seen in his dreams was Raghu himself, but he could not know for sure. Every portrait of him in the palace had only been painted after his death, and even those had been badly damaged through one mishap or another. He had only appeared for a minute, and said only one line. ‘If you cannot attack the flesh, attack the spirit’. It was a good idea, until Lakshmana knew what it meant. At that point it became genius.
The decimation of their comrades would have had a huge impact on the confidence of the Asuras. Any rumour of their prowess would only get more fantastic with time. All they had to do was play on that fear, break the morale of the Asuras, and they would win. They would make it seem easy. They would put Rama on the ground, and hide Lakshmana in the trees. When the rakshasas saw the blue skinned one they had dubbed the Destroyer, they would already be terrified. They would not miss his brother, by that point they would be too far gone in fear and adrenaline. And while Rama used his prowess to cut down the biggest and the strongest, and awed his enemies with his brilliance, Lakshmana would strike from the canopies. Any Asura that got too close would find himself the victim of an arrow that could not possibly have come from Rama. Not that he would survive to tell the tale. And the legend of the Heir of Ayodhya could only grow, could only make their next enemies easier to fool.
Like all battle plans, of course, this one had gone to pieces the minute the first arrow had flown. For the first few hours everything had gone swimmingly. The Hermit had been chanting hymns, in a better mood than he had been since Tataki’s death. His fellow priests chatted with each other, telling stories and arguing about philosophical quandaries. Rama and Lakshmana stood on guard, alert but not unduly concerned. The first Asura made his appearance just as the Hermit started the main ritual. Rama had dispatched him easily, using only his own strength, and it had begun. Instead of a straightforward attack, more and more demons appeared on their own, posturing and testing their defences, and each time Rama beat them back. An impossible hope grew in Lakshmana’s chest. It was as if their enemies had lost all conviction. He believed that right up until they surprised him.
Whatever they had been expecting, it certainly had not been this. Instead of the straightforward bull rush that the demons were famous for, they attacked intelligently. Three squads of Asuras circled the ritual glade, each comprised of several warriors, each bent on the desecration of the ritual. Every time Rama concentrated on one unit, the other two advanced, and it began to wear on both princes. Rama’s eyes flashed briefly, and with a flurry of arrows he destroyed all three squads. For a few brief, precious moments of respite Lakshmana thought they had won. But there was still something missing. His eyes widened.
‘Rama, her sons! Where are her sons?’ he shouted.
It was a question that should have struck them both much sooner. Agastya might have cursed Mareecha and Subahu, but even before that they had been the sons of two equally powerful and dangerous beings. They were princes of a lineage as ancient as Ayodhya’s own, and they were not going to be cowed by a few flashy astras. With a roar Subahu entered the fray, and the last shred of their plan blew up. Rama was beset on all sides by just one rakshasa, arms and legs clawing and tearing. Rama never faltered, but he was hard pressed by this opponent. Just as Lakshmana reached for an arrow to help his brother, something else caught his eye. Was that a foot?
A volley of limbs was being thrown at the sacrificial fire, blood still spraying from veins and arteries. It occurred to Lakshmana that they were battling geniuses, ones trained in war and forged and tempered with blood. They had counted on losing their soldiers, counted on it and used it against the princes. A single drop of blood could render the entire exercise futile, and they had more than enough for a dozen sacrifices. Lakshmana summoned Agni and burnt every fragment of rakshasa flesh that came his way, but he knew there would be something more. Then he was attacked by rakshasas. The other son, Mareecha, was still out of sight, but the Asuras attacking him were still very good. He drew his sword, slashing desperately, drawing blood wherever possible. The stench of dead rakshasa filled the air, as even more flesh was thrown at the Hermit, and Lakshmana jumped from one tree to the next.
Explosions rocked the battlefield as Rama and Subahu fought. Everytime Rama reached for an arrow; his enemy lunged at him, forcing him to dodge. Rama never had the time to aim, only to fire blindly and hope. But Lakshmana was equally beset by Asuras, and while he was doing a little better with them, his mind was still worried by Mareecha’s absence. More blood was being rained on the battlefield, and Lakshmana threw his sword at the last Asura, before taking up his bow again and incinerating them all. Rama could take care of himself, for now Lakshmana had an Asura prince to track. His eyes scanned the battlefield, until they rested on a brahmin seemingly at ease. Which was unnerving, because the only other Brahmin at ease was Vishwamitra himself, the rest of them were huddled around the fire, nervously chanting hymns to the Devas.
Lakshmana fired one arrow, then another, directly at the odd one out, knowing that if he was wrong, he would have singlehandedly completed the Asuras work for them. The death of a Brahmin would destroy the rite. But even as the arrows flashed towards the priest, he reached for them and broke them with his bare hands. No brahmin he knew could have done that on a whim. And then he saw Yama again. Death, with his noose, calmly trying every now and again to snare Subahu and Mareecha, sometimes missing and nearly encircling one of the princes’ necks instead. It enraged Lakshmana, that even after bargaining with him he was afforded no respect, no mercy.
Clearly he thought it funny. Mrtyu, asking for Mahabali and Markandeya. Well, they were the only two he had promised. He had not said anything about Mareecha, if only because now everyone knew where he was, and Yama assumed he knew where he would be shortly. But Mareecha would not die. Lakshmana was going to make sure of that. His eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he watched the Asura flit through the skies, through the rain of blood and gore, all the while wondering what astra to use. Then it struck him, another joke in the divine comedy that was their lives. Not a Devastra, but a Manavastra would he use. Correctly placed, it would banish the Asura from the forest, into the southern kingdoms, and leave him too weak to be a threat. He would be alive, but not much else. And it would irritate Yama beyond anything, and that on its own was worth it.
He recited the hymns, sixteen syllables for a line, and the corner of his eye saw Yama’s eyes light up in anticipation. Then he loosed. If Rama’s Suryastra was a golden messenger of destruction, Lakshmana’s Manavastra was an icy breath of doom. It left frost in its wake, and as it struck the Asura’s chest it froze his entire body. And then it sent him flying, far and away to the south, where none would ever see him again. Seeing his brother thus attacked left Subahu in a wild fury, and that was all Rama needed. At once he strung not one, not two, not three, but four arrows to his bow, and unleashed the elements upon his enemy. Agni, Vayu, Varuna, and Indra all converged upon Subahu, and with a last bellow of defiance, he swung at Rama, and then he was gone. Yama’s eyes seemed to shimmer at Lakshmana, chuckling, and then he returned, with his prize, to his abode.
With the deaths of their princes, the last rakshasas finally lost their morale, scampering into the forest. Breaking their spirit had taken a little bit more than just shock and awe. Too tired to chase them, the princes merely leaned on their bows, trying to catch their breaths, as the Hermit came to the climax of his rite. A crackle of something emanated from the fire, its very sound alien to all who heard it. And when it was done, the princes looked around, to see that there was no blood, no flesh, no trace of all the Asuras they had battled. Every vestige had been destroyed by the Hermit’s sacrifice. And so were the forests of Tataki cleansed of her evil influence, never to be seen again.
i liked this bit. action is always fun, no? one more until we finish with forests, and go on (with any luck) to mithila.