As the last trace of the sunlight faded from the horizon, the sky turned black and a strange eerie darkness engulfed the whole place. The water of the lake was placid and stray jackals and other nocturnal animals came out of their hiding places, stealthily. The chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs were the only sounds that could be heard on this moonless evening.
They approached the lakeside very silently. Three dark figures that merged with the darkness. They were walking silently, with trained footsteps of hunters in the darkness; their eyes searching for the sole human form lying by the side of the lake, literally crumpled. A slight muffled sound of pain alerted them. The person leading the small group halted. Then with a slight touch of his hand on the shoulder of the next man, he conveyed a signal. The second man did the same thing to the third.
With the training of a lifetime, these three men located, even in the darkness, what they were searching for. Just about 100 yards away from them laid the body of their lord, their king. But was he alive? They rushed towards him, together, even as they scanned the darkness for any danger, lurking around.
He was in a very bad shape, perhaps in the last hours of his life. He smelled of blood, which covered his body. It was surprising that he was still alive, after what he was subjected to. Perhaps it was fated that these three men would be the last of the people he would meet. But as long as he lived, he was their King and these three men were bound by their honour to defend him and fight for him.
It was a pity that they could not die for him, thought Ashwathama. That way, they were really unlucky. He remembered all the great warriors, who fought to their death in the Great War, defending the great empire. He remembered the face of his father too and suddenly a wave of hatred took over him. For the sole purpose of his life now was to avenge the killing of his father; whom they killed without mercy, against the rules of the war. Rage filled his eyes and even in the darkness, they flashed like burning coal.
Bending down, the oldest of the fighters kept his sword on the ground and touched the arm of the man lying crumpled on the earth in a heap. Even though he was a senior in age and had been a teacher to the king, he could not bring himself, he could not touch the head of the king, though he wanted to , in a gesture of solace . That would be against protocol. He let out a deep sigh and said “O great king, your servant Kripa is before you. With me comes Ashwthama, the invincible and Kritavarma , the mighty. Please instruct us your orders “
Kritavarma said nothing. Silently, he kneeled down near the feet of his king. He was a strong man. The darkness made it easy for him to shed tears , which now flowed along his cheeks.
The tallest of the three fighters, Ashwathama, did not appear to suffer from such pangs of protocol. For he was not only a trusted general of the king; he was a personal friend dating back to their child hood. Squatting down, he took the head of the fallen king on his lap and then gently caressed his forehead, removing the hair fallen over his face. Gently, in a voice quavering with emotion, he said “Don’t leave us friend. Stay with us. Let me take your revenge.”
Even in the excruciating pain that he felt, Duryodhana could not help smiling. These three were among the bravest and fiercest of his great army and been among his trusted aides. And now they were the last men standing from his side after the carnage of the last few days. They could not die, blessed as they were by the boons of the gods. But he was dying and along with him, the kingdom of Kauravas would come to an end. There was no one left, absolutely none. His 99 brothers, innumerable step brothers, their sons, relatives and friends, nobody remained. Great warriors like Bhisma Pitamaha , Guru Drona and dear friend Karna perished to defend him. All due to the machinations of that one person. And what a folly it was to let the Pandavas have Krishna on their side. It was not the might of Pandavas which defeated him but the guile of Krishna, the deception of the unaligned.
As another wave of pain racked him, he started coughing and spat blood. Ashwathama tore a portion of his cloth and silently cleaned him. He could see his face now, in the dim light of the stars . That dark brooding face which always hid so much than it expressed. His friend from his childhood, the only son of their great teacher, Guru Drona. Never wanted anything from him always followed him like a shadow. Perhaps his friendship was total. He felt a pang of regret. Because, in spite of being a friend from his childhood, Duryodhana always gave greater importance to Karna. Ashwathama understood that but never complained. And he remembered how it was Karna who always had his principles to honour more than his friendship. With Ashwathama it was never so. He was the most trusted of his close circle, after brother Dushsashana.
In a hoarse voice he said “ Acharya Kripa , friend Ashwathama , O mighty Kritavarma , I am counting the last hours of my life for surely I will die . Maybe this night by the side of this lake Dwaipayan will be my last. Please forgive me, for I have not been able to lead you to victory. Whatever I have as my kingdom now rests on your shoulders. Before I die, I would have liked to see the end of those Pandavas “.
“So will it be, my friend, O lord Duryodhana ! For as long as we three fight, the Pandavas will not be able to rest in peace. “Ashwathama said slowly, with thunder in his voice. “As with you, the fire of revenge burns in my heart and I can never reconcile the death of my father, your teacher, the revered Guru Drona. For, as long as the prince of Panchala lives the fire in my heart is stoked. I want revenge, for myself as well as for you, my king. “
Kritavarma remained impassive but Kripa shifted uneasily. He was a teacher by profession and not only that; Ashwathama was his own nephew, the only son of his sister Kripi . Even as others praised Ashwathama for his bravery, skills and heroics, he was aware about that reckless streak in his nephew that always made him align with darkness. It was Dushsashana who used this touch of evil in Ashwathama and made him a pliant tool, unlike Karna who always maintained his moral pretence like Kripa himself or the greats Drona and Bhishma .
He tried to say something. Clearing his throat he started “But my son, don’t you see. The king is lying here. And we are only three of us. How do we face the might of the Pandavas , still retaining the services of their great warriors Satyaki and Dhrishtadumnya.” He tried to reason.
Ashwathama flared up , just like a raging bull let loose in the market place . The name of his father’s killer on the lips of his own uncle brought the worst in him. Forgetting the need to keep their voice low or show restraint before the dying king, he lashed out at his uncle in the most foul manner ‘So , then uncle. Tell me what should we do ? Go and prostrate before the Pandavas and lick the feet of Arjuna, who killed the great Karna as he was changing his wheels ? Or should I be a servant of that lying serpent Yudhisthira who was the reason for my father’s death ? Will you be happy if I become a masseur for that glutton Bhima , who struck our lord against all rules of fighting . And the smiling face of my father’s killer, Dhrishtadumnya will sear my heart like a red hot iron as long as I live . Unless I kill them , my soul will never rest in peace. “