The Land Of The Crocodile | Part 8

[Samarsen led an army against the enemy who marched against the capital. Naravahana, next to Samarsen in command, stepped into his shoes when Samarsen was mortally wounded and proclaimed. King of Kundalini, Siva-Dutt, who was in charge of the fort’s defence, decided to leave the reason through the secret passage.]

“Had you not made use of the secret passage before?” Mandara-deva asked Siva-Dutt, in surprise.

“No,” Siva-Dutt replied and shook his head. “Somehow, I never got to acquaint myself with that passage. It was only now that I realised it was impossible to enter it without torches. But my followers proved to be more practical, they improvised some torches, and we had enough light to help us pass through.

“The torches dropped into the tunnel first, and I followed them. The man who was to descend after I stopped and said, “Hark, commander! They have broken down the door! You can hear their shouts!”

“Close the trap door behind you,’ I said to him. ‘Naravahana alone knows about the secret passage. The others know nothing about it. We may reach the other side before Naravahana arrives and comes after us.”

“We pushed on along the dark underground tunnel until I saw a chain hanging before us. I looked up and saw the chain attached to a wooden plank above. When I pulled lightly on the chain, the plank moved a little, and water came down, hissing past it. Then I understood the purpose for which the chain was there.

“In case an enemy discovered the existence of the secret passage and followed those who were retreating, the latter could pull on the chain and flood the path that led up to that point. There was a flight of steps at this point, and the rest of the tunnel was on a higher level.

“I wanted to ascertain if it was necessary to flood the passage for our safety. Sure enough, the precaution was worth taking, for in the distance, I saw points of light moving. Our flight was already discovered, and the chase was on! I pulled on the chain with all my strength, and the plank in the roof swung down with a tremendous crash. It covered the section of the tunnel neatly. I could hear the rush of the water behind the plank. The tunnel was being filled up gradually.

“Now, I had to reach my destination without the slightest delay. Naravahana was sure to rush his men to guard the other end of the secret passage in the forest. It was a race between Naravahana’s men and us. If we had arrived first, we would be safe. But if they came first, we would be trapped like mice in a cage!

“We were soon at the end of the secret passage, which culminated in several flights of steps with landings in between. We climbed the last of these stairs, and I listened at the rusty door arranged inside the hollow of a vast and ancient tree.

“At first, I could hear nothing. But as I put my hand to the rusted bolt, I heard the neighing of a horse and then a conversation.

“Nothing has happened yet,” said one. The door has not been opened.’

“Fine!’ said another. ‘I guess those traitors drowned in the tunnel’s water.’

“Then there was silence. I wondered what I should do when I heard a gruff voice speak with authority; what are you fellows gabbing about? We must ascertain whether those traitors drowned in the passage or whether they sneaked out before we arrived. King Naravahana has promised me a state if I brought him Siva-Dutt dead or alive.’

“Sir,’ asked two or three voices, ‘what are your orders?’

“Go into the tree,’ said the gruff voice, and open the door. See if the tunnel behind it is flooded. It will be some time before we can find the dead bodies if it is. If, on the other hand,…

“The fierce roar of a lion cut him short. Growls followed the cry. I guessed that more than one lion had appeared in the vicinity of the tree, and the men had moved off. Their shouts now came from far away.

“I think there are lions near the tree. Let us go away!’ said one of them.

“No!’ said the gruff voice. ‘Let there be lions or elephants; you cannot go away. Finish your job first. Mind you, anyone who will show a faint heart will be dead!”

“But the wild beasts of the forest decided the issue for them. I could hear the hectic rush of the lions followed by the stamping and neighing of horses and the cries of soldiers. I thought it was the ideal moment to slip out of the secret passage. Naravahana’s men were sure to lay siege to the tree once the wild beasts were disposed of.

“Here is the chance,’ I told my companions, for some of us at least to escape alive. Let us go out and see if our enemy has enough trouble with the wild beasts, in which case we can run into the jungle. If not, we shall join the wild creatures and fight them.”

“My men agreed to my suggestion. But I was conscious of my great responsibility at such a critical juncture. The future of all of us depended upon how I directed my men. And in a few minutes, we would either be dead or reach safety.

“Without any more hesitation, I pulled the door open. The rusted hinges creaked as the door swung out. I looked out and witnessed a scary scene. Some half dozen lions of varying sizes were attacking the mounted soldiers who were about a score in number. Hampered by the lack of space between the trees, the soldiers could not escape. Nor could they despatch the lions with their lances. Their leader was sitting comfortably on his horse in the distance. He kept encouraging his men, Courage, men! Kill the brutes! Destroy them!’ This man did nothing to overcome the lions except to wave his sword. On the other hand, he was pulling his horse back step by step, ready to bolt away in case of real danger.

“I made sure that neither Naravahana’s soldiers nor their leader saw us emerge out of the secret passage. They were busy fighting for their safety. We slipped behind bushes and managed to get to the rear of Naravahana’s men. I intended to attack them with my men from behind while the lions menaced them in their front.

“My men agreed that we could destroy the enemy by this stratagem. But one or two of my men thought that, after killing the enemy, we would be facing the lions. But I told them that it made very little difference whether we died at the hands of the soldiers or risked death through the lions.

“I yelled, Hail Samarsen! and dashed out of the bushes. My men, utt,ered fearful cries as they rushed forth and fell upon the enemy like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Before the enemy knew what was happening, my sword chopped off the head of the leader, which rose in the air and fell in the bushes nearby. My men attacked the other soldiers. The clash between our parties was so fierce that the lions scattered, leaving two or three of their number who Naravahana’s men mortally wounded.

“Our enemy was so taken unawares that we could despatch some of them without much effort. But soon they realised who we were, and one of them rallied the survivors by shouting, ‘It is that traitor, Siva-Dutt! Kill him! His head is worth a crown!’ Then he attacked us.

“This man exhibited such desperate Courage that the others, who were about ten in number, picked up the heart and followed his example. I am afraid some of my men were already overconfident of victory, and they went down before this wild attack. I chose the new leader as my victim. I powerfully struck the horse under this man with my sword, and it reared upon its hind legs, throwing the rider off its back. The next moment, the horse fell sideways over his rider.”

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