In the great forest, close to the city of Kampilya, lived an elderly widow. The older woman, whose husband had died many years ago, managed to eke out a frugal living by collecting medicinal herbs, which she sold in the city.

Late one night, the older woman was awakened by the sound of horse riders outside her cottage. Before she could reach her feet, there was a loud knock on the door. When she opened the door, she was startled to see several heavily armed men. They pushed past her and crowded into the cottage without saying a word.

“What do you want?” asked the old woman timidly.

“It is alright, Mother,” said one of the men, who was the leader by his attire and bearing. “From now onwards, you will prepare food for my men every night. You will be well paid, but breathe a word of our existence and never see the next sunrise.”

The older woman was far too frightened to refuse or even argue, and from that night onwards, she cooked food for ten men, who came silently in the hours of darkness, ate the food and departed. Although the money they paid her was more than she had ever seen, her life was uneasy, for there were many ugly rumours of robbing and murder in the city every night.

At that time, Kampilya was ruled by King Satyovarman, a powerful ruler and a great warrior. The king had a daughter, the comely Princess Sundari, and because of her great beauty and her father’s vast kingdom, there was no lack of suitors for her hand in marriage. The most persistent suitor was the arrogant and cruel Chandavarnam, King of Souvir, but his debaucheries were the talk of the land, so the princess treated him with utter contempt.

So enraged was Chandavarnam that he swore that come what he would possess this proud princess, even if he had to resort to force.

Another suitor was the charming Prince Avanish, whose father ruled a small kingdom in eastern India. When the prince met the princess, they were both taken with each other, but the prince ruefully felt that coming from an almost penniless kingdom, his chances of winning the princess were rather sad.

One evening the disconsolate prince was wandering through the forest when he chanced to pass the older woman’s hut. Feeling thirsty, he stopped and asked the older woman for water. When he entered the cottage, he was rather intrigued at seeing a massive pot of food on the stove.

“You must have a big family to feed,” said the prince, pointing to the pot.

“Yes,” replied the old woman. “I have ten men to feed tonight. But thank goodness, they say they will be leaving for somewhere in the north.”

“Who are these men?” he asked.

“I wish I knew,” said the woman dubiously. “Ever since they came here, there have been terrible murders and violence in the city. I fear they are wicked and shall be glad when they have gone for good.”

The prince could see that the older woman was uneasy and seemed to be listening to the sound of her mysterious men returning. It would certainly be interesting to meet these men. So giving a prodigious yawn, the prince asked. It is getting late, Mother. Can I stay here for the night?”

The older woman threw up her arms in dismay. “You must go. If these men find you here, they may kill us both. So please go.”

The prince tried to console the woman and promised to see her again. When he left the cottage, he did not go very far. Selecting a big shady tree, the prince climbed to a branch that gave a good view of the cottage and made himself comfortable to await the return of the older woman’s unwelcome guests.

Around midnight, he heard horses coming through the forest and watched the ten men dismount outside the cottage. There were two pack horses. On one, there appeared to be an extensive bundle, and on the other, two casks. He thought it must be wine as two men unroped the casks and carried them into the cottage.

As soon as the men were inside, the prince descended from his lofty perch and, keeping to the shadows, approached the cottage. There wasn’t much need for stealth, for the men had already started drinking, and their shouting and singing would drown any sound he would make.

Looking at the horses, the prince was sure that the men had not covered any great distance, and eyeing the bundle on the pack horse, the prince wondered what it could contain. When he felt the pile, he was sure it was a human being trussed in a blanket. Carefully lifting down the bank, the prince quickly undid the covering, and to his astonishment, inside, gagged and bound hand and foot, was Princess Sundari.

Removing the gag, the prince whispered to the princess not to make a noise. Then, as he loosened the ropes, she was tied with; she told him hurriedly how these men had abducted her from the palace.

The prince weighed the possibilities of taking two of the rogue’s horses and running for it. Then he had a better idea. “It is useless to attempt to escape now,” he told the princess. “Those rogues might overtake us; then your life would be in danger. You hide in the bushes, and when the rogues have gone, go into the cottage and the old woman there will look after you until I return.”

Once the princess was safely hidden from view, the prince wrapped the blanket around himself and hoisted himself across the back of the pack horse, fervently hoping that the rogues would be too bemused with a drink to examine their precious cargo.

Soon afterwards, the rogues came reeling out of the cottage, and several were so drunk that they had to be assisted onto their horses. Deep into the forest, they rode, and the prince. I was glad when they finally stopped at an old disused hut. Two of the men lifted the bundle off the pack horse and, with curses as to its weight, carried it into the house.

The prince dared not move, and after what seemed an age, all he could hear were loud snores, so apparently, the rogues had decided to sleep off all the wine they had consumed. Carefully wriggling out of the blanket, the prince ensured all the men were asleep. Once outside the hut, the prince selected the fastest-looking horse and, getting onto its back, rode at full gallop for the palace at Kampilya.

When he arrived there, the whole palace was in turmoil. The princess had vanished, and already search parties were scouring the city, and the king’s cavalry was ready to search the forest.

Making straight for the king, surrounded by ministers all talking at once, the prince intervened. “Your Majesty, the princess is safe, and I will take you to her. But first, let me lead your men to where the rogues, who kidnapped her, are sleeping.”

The king wasted no time asking for an explanation, and soon a substantial body of cavalry, led by the king with the prince at his side, was galloping through the forest.

The rogues, still befuddled with sleep, offered little resistance and were soon overpowered. With the king’s sword at his throat, the band leader was only too eager, in the hope of mercy, to confess that King Chandavarnam had promised them a considerable sum to abduct the princess.

“I will see the wretch pays,” said the king angrily. Then turning to one of the officers, he ordered. “Take these felons and hang them.”

Later, the king and the prince rode to the older woman’s cottage, where they found the princess safe and happy in the care of the older woman.

As soon as they returned to the palace, the king ordered his army to conquer the Kingdom of Souvir and to bring him King Chandavarnam, dead or alive. As it turned out, the Souvir army mutinied at the sight of the vast invading army, And his men slaughtered the despicable Chandavarnam.

Not long afterwards, the prince and the princess were happily married, and the king gave a pension to the older woman of the forest.

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