The three warriors headed towards the edge of the forest adjoining the lake where they left their leader. They had tethered their horses just behind the first clump of trees. Their bows, quiver of arrows and other arms were also placed on a tree. Fetching them down, they rode their horses and entered deep into the forest. The evening was fast turning into a night as the moon rose in the sky. It was three nights after Purnima , the full moon night in the month of Kartika . In the moonlight, nocturnal animals like jackals scurried from one bush to another as the horses made their way through the forest. Bats and other predatory birds like owls were also flying from one tree to another, in search of prey. A large owl flapped its wings as it flew just ahead of them.
A little while later, they came upon a clearing with a single large tree. At the signal of Ashwathama , who was leading , the party stopped.
“Let us stop here till dawn “he said as he dismounted his steed. His companions nodded and also dismounted. They tethered their horses to the large roots at the base of the tree and sat under it.
“Tomorrow, we take them on son “ Kripacharya spoke , breaking the silence.
Ashwathama just nodded absentmindedly. His mind was a turbulent river of emotions.
“The Pandava camp is not far from here “said Kritavarma. If I am not wrong it will be just behind the forest on the western side, this way “he indicated with his arms. Nobody spoke.
“Let us keep vigil on three sides of this tree “said Kripa and proceeded towards his post. Kritavarma also left to the other side and sitting on the ground loosened his back against the trunk of the tree . Kripacharya , was however sitting in a lotus position , trying to meditate . Ashwathama squatted on the ground, his gaze fixed into the darkness.
Kritavarma closed his eyes and tried to suppress a yawn. He would have appreciated a cot and a foot massage from a Dasi. Not that he was unaccustomed to spending nights in a forest under a tree. But he was not sure of the future course of action. According to what he believed, with the fall of Duryodhana, the war has ended. He saw no reason to prolong it. He could not understand the whole ritual of Duryodhana anointing Ashwathama as the commander. And he was also a little worried about the personal revenge that Ashwathama was seeking.
But , though a Maharathi , he was not a part of the inner circle of Duryodhana . Neither was he a member of the Hastinapur court nor was he from the clans of this dynasty, which fought this terrible war between themselves.
He was a Yadava , from the Brishni clan , now settled at Dwarka under the leadership of Vasudeva Krishna and his brother Balarama as the mentor. The Yadavas had family ties with both Kurus and Pandavas and otherwise were considered not partial to any of the warring sides. But by a strange quirk of fate and a decision of Krishna, he was participating in this war, on the side of Duryodhana; as the leader of the Narayani Sena , the army which had no parallel . He sighed, as he remembered the total annihilation of his army, in the battle. Such was the ferocity of the war.
He was also thinking about his old friend Satyaki , who was the only Yadava to fight this war voluntarily , when they were asked about their preference by the great Balarama , who himself preferred to remain neutral. Satyaki was an unabashed follower of Arjuna and a mentor to his son Abhimanyu , who grew up and learned a major part of his skills at Dwaraka , the kingdom of Yadavas. He tried to forget the face of Abhimanyu, the lion hearted young man , who faced the seven Kaurava Maharathis alone in an unjust fight. He thanked his stars that he was not present there , on that fateful day , as he was given the task of keeping Arjuna busy elsewhere with his Narayani sena .
But then Kritavarma always considered himself to be the true to his profession, that of a warrior. Much as the others sniggered behind their backs, about their cowherd roots, the Yadavas were actually a subclan of Kshatriyas , the warrior community and were in no way lesser to them. And Kritavarma, along with Satyaki was considered to be one of their pillars of strength. They had rode together in so many campaigns. It was somewhat sad to be pitted against him on the opposing sides.
He had nothing to do with the war, other than fighting it, like a mercenary. A pawn of the politics played at the highest level, by the sharpest of minds. His own king and lord, Vasudeva Krishna. Just before the war, as alignments were being proposed, discussed and made, the Yadava leader Balarama decided that he was going to be neutral. He did not want to offend his favourite disciple Duryodhana , nor did he want to offend Arjuna who was married to his own sister Subhadra . He also beseeched Krishna to be none aligned. But Krishna ultimately could not remain neutral. He was too much at stake with the Pandavas.
When both Duryodhana and Arjuna , as a representative of his leader Yudhishthira, visited Vasudeva at the same time with their offer to join either of them , he was sleeping . Duryodhana decided to wait sitting on a gold embroidered seat by the side of his head, as befitting the king of Hastinapur. Having no other place to sit; Arjuna decided to squat on the floor near his feet. As Krishna rose and opened his eyes , he saw Arjuna first and gave him precedence to ask a favour .
Arjuna requested Krishna to join their side with his massive army. By this time Duryodhana could sense that he would lose out and protested vehemently saying he deserved the favour first. To solve the impasse Krishna decided to let Arjuna chose either him alone as a non combatant or the Narayani Sena . Arjuna , out of his respect for Krishna chose him and Duryodhana was happy to get the services of the unbeatable Narayani Sena.
Kritavarma smiled cynically in the darkness , as his drowsy eyes closed to have that small nap. Little did Duryodhana know about the ways of Krishna. But he was not happy with his lord. Why did he have to sacrifice the Yadavas in this useless war? The sacrifice of his army had shaken Kritavarma . More than anyone else, he did not want any more of this war. So he was confused with Ashwathama . What actually were his plans and how could the three of them possibly take on the Pandavas . Even though their army was now a rump, the five brothers were still alive and together. Not to speak of the great warriors Dhristadumnya , their commander , Satyaki and Shikhandi . They have bled a lot, too but still they retained an army.
He decided to get the strategy cleared from Ashwathama, first thing next morning, as he started to doze off.
Even as Kritavarma enjoyed his slumber and Kripacharya went into a trance in his meditation, Ashwathama remained awake. He could not close his eyes. Memories of the last 18 days haunted him. So many of his friends fell in this war. And above all the face of his dear father, whom he loved more than anyone in this world, maybe more than his own mother. The scene of his father lying on the battlefield with Pandavas and Kauravas standing downcast even as the Panchala soldiers breaking into raucous revelry was playing repeatedly in his head and with every instance his resolve to destroy them grew stronger.
He was not really against the Pandavas before this. He had actually pleaded with Duryodhana once to stop this war in private. But it was of no avail. He went to the war like a soldier does for the king. But now, after his father’s death, it was personal. He could never forgive the treacherous Yudhisthira who lied to his father saying “Ashwathama is dead “and then adding in a whisper “It was the elephant”. Yudhishtir , of all persons . People called him Dharmaraj for his honesty. Why did he have to do this? And if he has done this, he has to pay for it. And a big price, too.
And Arjuna , his childhood friend and rival . His father’s best student. The one whom he taught the best secrets of the trade, only and just a little lesser than Ashwathama himself. How could he rebuff him so badly when he cried his heart out. Arjuna cited the death of his son Abhimanyu and justified the slaying of his own teacher, Guru Drona , by a charade . Now he will know, it was not Karna nor Arjuna but Ashwathama who was the greatest of them all . The one who can take both of them out with his Divyastras , which his father had taught only him to handle.
But the entire force of his wrath was reserved for the Panchala prince , Dhrishtadumnya , commander of the Pandava forces and the brother of Draupadi , the common wife of the five brothers . It was he who slayed his father and openly boasted that the purpose of his life was fulfilled . And the raucous celebration of those gutless Panchal dogs throughout the night . Nothing could be more painful than that. Even as he tried to concentrate on a strategy for the next day the flow of rage within blinded him . Pure hatred for Dhrishtadumnya was burning him from within .
To be continued