Rakshasa by Max Overton

EXTRACT FOR
Rakshasa

(Max Overton)


Prologue

I am Rakshasa.

Men will tell you I am a child of Nirriti and Nirrita, or born from the sage Pulastya or that I am a descendant of Kasyapa and Khasa, a daughter of Daksha, through their son Rakshas. More fantastically, it is said that when Brahma created the waters he made us from his foot, to guard them. Others say we are the descendants of the old stone-wielding races that lived in this land before the coming of the ones called Aryans. Men are liars however, telling tales around the hearth fires at night as they seek to control the unknown by talking about it. Men fear what they do not know. They do not know me and rightly, they fear me.
I cannot remember that I ever had a mother and a father, nor brother and sister, just being, coming from nonexistence to existence between one breath and the next, between one heartbeat and the one following. Not that I have either, but I seek to put my existence in terms that mortal beings can comprehend. I have no physical body, save when I desire one, and then it can take the form of whatever my mind desires. I have been man and woman, beast and fowl, serpent and fish. I have even been a tree when occasion warranted but I do not like to take on the form of a plant for their minds are slow and uninteresting, being concerned solely with water and soil, wind and sun.
Where did I come from if I had no mother to bear me, no father to quicken his seed in his woman’s belly? In truth, I do not know. My first memory is of a low and dusty plain, the grass cut up and furrowed, the red soil stained darker by fluids that leaked from ragged lumps of meat strewn about this dark and silent place. Men lay in heaps and mounds, glassy eyes staring sightlessly, limbs hacked and loose, bodies rent with gaping wounds that disgorged glistening coils and liquids. Over everything swarmed the eaters of the dead, from jackals and vultures to dark clouds of flies and the pulsating white mass of their grubs. Instruments of this destruction lay scattered too, thin feathered wands and thicker staves tipped with stone, curved pieces of metal, all stained with the fluids that leaked from the bodies. Beasts larger than men were lying here also, four-legged with limbs that ended in a single horned toe. They were attached to strange things of wood and beaten metal, with two round things like large river stones on edge. I did not understand these things then, seeing them for the first time, but now I know them for the aftermath of a thing called ‘battle’ when men’s minds become red and violent, acid and sweet, delicious to one such as myself.
I think I was born of battle, engendered by the rich and violent thoughts of men on the brink of death, when terror and ecstasy vie for control, when the heart beats faster, the breath of life gushes and the limbs tremble in expectation. I can give no better explanation for my becoming, for I enjoy all these things, take pleasure in the instant of death. When I feast, I do so on the hot sweet flesh of men, drinking in their energy and life, crunching their bones and sucking on the delicate brains as their last fleeting, terrified thoughts scurry across my consciousness. So, men call me Rakshasa, or demon. For long ages I thought this was my name as men died with it on their lips, yet now I know that it is the name men give to ones like me. I have never wanted a name though and am content to be known by this generic term.
Why Rakshasa then and not Rakshasi if I have no body, no gender? Why do I choose to be predominantly male rather than female? For no other reason that I can be whatever I want and in my experience, men are destroyers and women creators. Men have power in this world and women do not. Why would I give up power unless I benefited? I like to think of myself as a balancer between the two extremes of man and woman, destruction and creation, enjoying both, though I admit, my natural inclinations favor destruction. I feed on humankind and, like any good farmer; I seek the health of my meat animals. I seek to preserve them. In this I, and humankind, men and women, are bound together like the three-fold god Trimurti – Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer.
Do the gods exist? Of course – can any doubt it? But they are seldom as men imagine them to be. A man sees their power and clothes them with a body not unlike his but stronger, more beautiful, more majestic. He imagines they wield power much as he would, capriciously and selfishly. Driven by the urges of his own organs of procreation, he endows these genderless beings with the weaknesses and foibles of his own life. The gods and demons both are seen as man wants to see them – gods as what he aspires to and demons as what he fears he will become. But his aspirations and fears avail him little; the spark of his life burns too low for him to become either. I have been present at the deaths of many and feasted upon the flickering embers of life. I know that once the body dies, the life within rapidly dissipates and disappears. That is why I must be there at the moment when one leaves the other, in order for me to feed.
To be honest though, I have met men whose life force is a raging furnace rather than smoldering coals. These men, I could believe, will survive the separation of death, but what they will become, or where they go, I do not know. I have never been privileged to attend upon such a one at the moment of death. Not for want of trying, I assure you, but they have the ability to prevent me feeding. These ones I have learnt to enjoy for other reasons. The minds of such ones often have insights beyond those of common men and knowledge of the ways of the gods.
Have I met the gods? Some of them – but it is not healthy for one such as me to be close to the gods. Even the ones who are most concerned with living things, with the preservation of creation, show a disturbing inclination to destroy Rakshasas, Nagas, Yakshas, Anusaras, Asaras and all the other beings who are called demons by these self-righteous beings. I try not to stay close to gods – they are not trustworthy and far too powerful. Hardly better are the men who are called heroes by mankind. They too will destroy demons but heroes at least have weaknesses and with a little thought and cunning, can be survived.
I once met a hero and a god together and lived to learn from the experience.
I cannot tell you what battle it was that gave me life, or even when, for I did not learn to count the years until many seasons had passed. In those early days I wandered the hot and dusty plains, clothing myself in whatever form I chose, sometimes letting the flame of my being re-animate a dead man or woman on a whim, or traveling as a breath of wind or pale, dancing flame under the pale glow of the stars. I roamed the streets of towns and cities, watching, learning, and feeding, mingling with prince and peasant, merchant and farmer, child and courtesan. When I felt the need for solitude I wandered the dark forests or rested among the tombs and graves in the lonely places, knowing that few people would venture there.
After a while I came to a place where two great rivers meet, the Yamuna that flows south from the White Mountains, and the Chambal, coursing from setting to rising sun. Mighty floods of water they are, with many people living along the banks but I felt myself drawn to the north and presently, on the banks of the Yamuna River I found the forest known as Khandava. Entering it, I felt at peace – a strange feeling for I had never been one to stray far from violence. I walked through its leafy glades, along sun-dappled paths and into bright open pastures of lush grass where elephant and gaur grazed alongside red and spotted deer. Swarms of brightly colored butterflies danced around blossoms high in the trees or gorged on rotting fruit among the leaf litter; birds called and monkeys screamed. At night, the darkness pulsated with the sounds of insects and frogs, constellations of fireflies lighting up the meadows. Tigers dwelt here too, but these predators are intelligent and could see past the disguise I had assumed to my inner flame. They melted silently from my path and all I glimpsed was a hint of red pelt or soft white underbelly.
Men lived in the Khandava, though to hear the stories in later times one would think they were a race of demons. They called themselves Nagas and worshiped snakes, in particular the great hooded cobra. Their priests handled the huge serpents fearlessly and were seldom bitten. The Nagas were as one with their forest and tended it, keeping out the woodchoppers and the charcoal makers, preventing hunters from pillaging the thickets. Being eaters of fruit and grain, the Nagas were not feared by the animals of the forest and carried no weapons to defend themselves. The only animal that occasionally did them harm was the leopard and against this night killer they had no defense save to barricade themselves inside their huts at night.
I stayed in the Khandava forest and preyed on the Nagas as I needed, taking the guise of a leopard. This did them little harm, for I took only as I needed and my presence repelled real leopards which would otherwise have killed many more. I never entered their villages, being content to find a lone traveler on the less-frequented paths and appear to him or her. My guise was perfect and as the traveler’s terror reached a crescendo, my teeth and claws extracting their life, I fed on the delicious storm of emotion that raged within their dying minds.
I could have lived like this for years, but unknown to me, the Nagas had bitterly offended five kings who lived in the city called Indra-Prastha on the borders of the forest. One of these kings, Arjuna, and his cousin the god Krishna, sought revenge and brought raging destruction down on this peaceful place.
Here is how it happened …

Chapter One

The Khandava forest lay clean and sparkling in the early morning light. Mists rolled and swirled above the deep waters of the Yamuna River as it meandered through dense thickets, grassy meadows that swept down to the dark rush-clothed water’s edge and between rock-strewn shores where the surface of the flood roiled and danced above the dimly heard clatter of boulders in its green depths. Dew hung in myriad tiny droplets from grass and leaf, bending the light of the rising sun back in a sparkling array of jewels that flashed like the gems in a king’s treasury. The air hung heavy and cool, moist still, but already the touch of the sun promised the burning heat of summer.
Down by the water’s edge a small herd of chital deer drank, the does and half-grown young with heads down while the buck stood with head raised, snuffing the air for the least scent of danger. Nothing stirred and the faintest of breezes blew from across the river, bringing with it nothing more ominous than the whiff of fresh elephant. The buck snorted and stamped a forefoot, bringing two of the does to alert. After a few moments they relaxed again and the buck turned to slowly scan the meadow behind him once more. The wind, such as it was, blew from him toward the meadow and his questing nostrils could not tell him anything. Instead, his eyes sought for any sign of danger, his ears for the sounds of bird and beast that might warn of the presence of a predator. A pair of jays chattered in a tree top nearby, seeing nothing that might disturb them.
A fallen tree lay angled across the meadow, the gnarled and splayed-out roots closest to the herd. The buck swept his eyes over the trunk and as the wind bent the grass stems a hint of red caught his attention. He froze, staring at the place, looking for the flash of color to come again. The wind died away and the green of the grass was once more unbroken against the peeling brown bark of the fallen tree. After long moments, the buck stamped his foot again and dipped his head, lowering his lyre-shaped antlers for an instant before turning away.
As he turned, the chattering of the jays in the nearby tree stilled. At the same instant, the grass by the fallen tree parted and a half-grown tigress erupted from cover, the rippling muscles of her hind legs and flanks propelling her in a burst of reddish death toward the small herd. The bark of alarm from the buck as he pivoted, launching himself away from the predator, startled the does into panicked motion. They scattered. The tigress raced by the buck, so close they almost touched, but she disregarded him, her attention fixed on the doe she had spent the last hour stalking. She closed on her even as the doe bunched her legs beneath her, her mouth gaping, eyes wide in terror. Predator and prey collided at the water’s edge, the force of the impact carrying them both into the shallow water. The doe bleated once before her spinal cord was severed, and her legs kicked spasmodically for a few seconds.
The tigress stood over her prey, straddling the body of the chital doe, her eyes scanning the now deserted meadow and the faint sounds of the scattered herd fading into the forest. Slowly, the bird song started up again. Lowering her head to nuzzle the doe, the tigress gripped the deer by the base of the neck and walked stiff-legged from the water, head held high. She carried the body to the fallen tree and deposited it near the tangle of roots. After licking the blood from the wounds around the neck she lay down, ripped the thin skin around the doe’s anus and started to feed.
The sun climbed higher, driving the mist from the river and banishing the dew. The tigress finished her meal and walked sedately down to the water’s edge to drink heavily before seeking the shade of the forest. A monkey screamed an alarm from the tree tops and followed the tigress as she walked slowly along a game trail toward her lair at the base of a tall sandstone outcrop near the top of a small hill. As she climbed beyond the trees, the monkey fell silent, staring in the direction of the hill and grumbling to itself. The tigress slumped to the ground in the shade of the rock and stared out over the tops of the forest trees toward the edge of the woodlands where small figures could be seen. Neither scent nor sound carried that far and the tigress disregarded them, settling down to sleep her meal off. Her eyes closed though her other senses remained alert for several minutes. At length, she was lulled by the serenity of the sun-bathed forest beneath her, and she slept.
Far below, on the edge of Khandava forest, a light chariot stood facing the dense vegetation, the two white horses in the yoked traces stamping and blowing with the effort of staying still when their senses told them they should be moving. In the light wooden framework of the chariot itself stood two men, one tall and fair, the other shorter and stockier, dark-haired and dark-skinned. Both carried themselves with a regal bearing, the fair one with the consciousness of being a king in his own lands, the darker one with the unassuming arrogance of one who knows himself above all others.
The tall, fair man raised his eyes to the flag fluttering at the tip of a supple bamboo pole fixed to the rear of the chariot. The figure of a gray and blue ape squatting on a yellow background was a well-known standard even beyond the realms of Indra-Prastha and gave the king one of the names by which he was known – ‘Kapi-dhwaja’ or ‘ape-standard’.
“The wind has changed,” the king known sometimes as Kapi-dhwaja commented matter-of-factly.
The darker one nodded and smiled, white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “You will have good hunting, cousin.”
“You will not join me? The more I practice, the better I get.” The fair man held up his strung bow and pointed toward the forest with it. “Besides, Gandiva is hungry.”
“I do not need to practice,” the dark one said softly. “None are more skilled with the discus than I.”
The fair one laughed. “Sometimes I forget you are a god, Krishna. You take on the ways of men so well; I could almost believe you to be one.”
Krishna inclined his head graciously. “And you cousin, are so skilled with the bow, one could almost believe you to be a god.”
The fair one grinned. “So you will not hunt today?”
“No, but I will drive your chariot if you will let me.”
“Gladly. There is no-one I trust more.”
“Then see, Lord Arjuna,” Krishna pointed to where the path leading into the forest had been cleared to allow the free passage of the king’s chariot. “The master of the hunt approaches.”
From the forest a man came hurrying. He wore a white cotton churidar and tunic like his lords in the chariot and his lustrous black hair was swept back and tied behind with a scarlet ribbon. Across his chest from left shoulder to waist he wore a sash of bright red as befitted his rank. He slowed to a walk as he neared the chariot and dropped to his knees, staring up at the tall figure of his king, third son of Pandu and one of the five rulers of Indra-Prastha. Beside his monarch a pearly nimbus, hardly visible in the bright sunshine, surrounded the features of the dark one.
“My lords,” the master of the hunt said. “All is prepared. At your signal we shall beat the forest and drive the game.”
Krishna frowned and it seemed for a moment as if the sunshine lost its strength. “You are having the game driven toward us? Where lies the sport in that?”
Arjuna laughed and handed the reins of the chariot to his friend. “Nothing so tame. I have had the path widened to take a chariot but the game will be driven across our path. We shall drive through it, never knowing what will appear before us.” He looked quizzically at the god. “Of course, if you have not the courage …”
For an instant the air around the chariot crackled as faint blue sparks jumped from the metal fastenings. The horses reared and screamed in sudden panic, calming only as Krishna held out his hand. “We shall see who lacks courage today, cousin,” he said softly. Cracking the reins, the god urged the horses forward, forcing Arjuna to grip the sides to prevent himself falling back. Bouncing and jolting, Krishna drove the chariot across the field toward the gash in the forest wall. Behind them, the master of the hunt leapt to his feet and waved his hands frantically to his servants waiting by the forest edge. Horns blew urgently and within minutes a great cacophony of sound rent the air as a thousand men sounded horns, clashed bronze swords on shields, beat on drums or just used their voices, ululating wildly into the still air, shattering the peace of the forest. Other men armed with long staves beat the bushes and grass, driving out the animals.
The chariot charged down the forest track, the horses in full gallop with the light wooden carriage bucking and heaving, sometimes leaving the ground entirely only to return with a teeth-jarring thump. Krishna stood flatfooted on the wicker flooring, his only grip being on the reins with which he guided the straining horses. He moved with the swaying chariot, effortlessly, a smile on his dark face, as if he stood on solid ground. Arjuna shook back his long tawny locks and grinned fiercely as he hooked one strong leg around an upright and reached for the first arrow from the three quivers attached to the front of the chariot.
A herd of chital burst from the undergrowth fifty paces in front. Arjuna slipped an arrow into place and in one fluid movement raised the bow Gandiva and loosed the arrow. The buck took the shaft behind the left front leg and cart-wheeled, dead before it slammed into the ground. Two does followed their leader into death before the chariot flashed by, Arjuna yelling in triumph. A brief pause, during which the only sounds were the drumming of hooves and the rumble of the wheels then a wild pig appeared. The beast stopped in the trail, facing the onrushing chariot and Arjuna sent an arrow into its eye. The horses trampled the fallen animal and the chariot wheel bounced high, forcing Arjuna to grab the frame. A peacock flew overhead, its streaming tail of blue and green a brief beacon in a patch of sunlight before it fell dead in an explosion of feathers. A flock of pigeons, a darting hare in an open glade, more chital deer, gaur, and an old water buffalo, crossed the path of god and king and died, each one pierced by Arjuna’s shafts. After several miles through the dense forest, the winding track re-emerged into bright sunlight where gaily-colored pavilions of cotton and silk fluttered in the breeze of the open meadows. The ape standard flew prominently and men hurried to catch the bridles of the sweating horses, to rub them down with toweled cloths, to hand gold goblets of chilled fruit juices to man and god.
“You have not lost your eye,” Krishna said calmly, offering a blessing to a servant proffering a tray of fruit. “Seventeen arrows and every one of them a hit.”
Arjuna wiped the sweat from his face and grinned. “I cannot miss with Gandiva in my hand. But neither have you lost your touch with horses, Lord Krishna. I thought we were going to come apart there once or twice.”
“The horses love me. They merely do what I ask of them.” The dark one handed his goblet to a servant and looked back at the forest. “Shall we return?”
The king nodded. “I have not yet killed a tiger. No hunt is complete without one.” Arjuna accepted a bundle of arrows and refilled the quivers in front of him. “The cowardly animals will have passed by now. The courageous ones will delay until the beaters drive them out. We should go.” The fair one set his jaw grimly and gestured back toward the forest.
The chariot leapt forward again, re-entering Khandava along the packed earth and scythed grass of the trail. Almost at once a leopard bounded across the track, turning as it reached cover to defy the pounding horses. Its ears flattened and it spat angrily, a snarling whine of rage as its muscles bunched beneath the glossy spotted pelt. Arjuna smiled and loosed an arrow that sprang across the rapidly closing gap, piercing the creature’s right eye. The leopard reared, clawing vainly before falling shuddering to the leafy floor of the forest as the chariot swept onward.
The game of the forest was now in full flight as the beaters advanced, the cacophony of sound making the air itself shudder. Animals and birds poured across the trail, sometimes right under the flying hooves of the horses and the blurred wheels of the chariot. Krishna’s iron control held the horses on their course and Arjuna was in constant motion, sending arrow after arrow into the fleeing animals. He emptied two quivers and was starting on the last when a great trumpeting cry sounded, the leaves on the trees shaking as the blast passed over them.
“Hathi,” Krishna said with a smile, drawing the chariot to a halt. He lifted his face and sniffed. “A bull in musth. Do you wish to flee, cousin?”
Arjuna snorted derisively. “There is no man or beast I will not face.”
“He is cunning,” Krishna said. “He will not leave the forest.”
“So take us into the forest.”
Krishna smiled again and urged the horses forward into a gap between the tall trees. The wheels slammed against exposed roots, hurling the chariot into the air and forcing Arjuna to hold on grimly. Krishna stood his ground, seemingly unaffected by the careening vehicle. They plunged deeper into the forest, passing between the tall columnar trunks of teak and the more twisted ones of neem and pipal. They crushed the spindly young seedlings worshiping the sun with up-stretched arms and bruised the briars and the young bamboo. The dhaak trees blazed with orange blossoms that shivered and fell as they passed, and they plunged through thickets heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. The ground dipped toward tall grass meadows taller than a man and became softer underfoot, the horses having a harder time of it as the mud clung to the chariot wheels and their hooves. The squeals and trumpeting of the unseen Hathi led them on to an area of shorter grass before suddenly stopping. Krishna reined in the horses and they listened.
“He comes,” Krishna said softly. “Over there.” He pointed to a thick stand of Acacia a hundred paces away to their right.
A gray shadow moved beneath the trees, silently, the only sign of his passing the whipping of the branches. The elephant burst out of the thicket and came straight for the chariot, trunk outstretched between two stained tusks. The tarry deposits of musth dripped from the inner corners of the beast’s eyes, staining his cheeks. A bellow of rage whipped the ape standard about, flicking the cloth out with a snap.
Arjuna calmly fitted an arrow to Gandiva and let fly, but the shaft bounced harmlessly from the bony dome of Hathi’s skull, merely drawing blood from a shallow wound.
“You’ll have to do better than that, cousin,” Krishna observed, and turned the horses away from the onrushing beast, urging them into flight.
Arjuna did not answer but picked another arrow from the quiver and deliberately took the time to examine the shaft. He fitted it in his bow and looked up at the charging elephant that filled his sight. Soundless now except for the rushing of air, Hathi stretched out his trunk until it was but a hand’s breadth from the man with the bow. Calmly and without seeming to hurry, Arjuna measured the rise and fall of the chariot as it careered over the soft ground, then lifted his bow. At the instant the finger of the elephant’s trunk touched him, he released the bowstring, Gandiva flexed convulsively and the arrow leapt down the animal’s pink gullet. Hathi squealed in agony and dropped back, shaking his great head.
Arjuna touched Krishna’s shoulder. “Turn us. I will finish him.”
Krishna nodded and swung the chariot in a wide circle, leading them back to where the elephant stood trumpeting his rage and pain. Blood gushed from his mouth and his trunk sought out his enemies, though he ran no more, but lurched and staggered.
“Take me past on his left side.”
The horses responded to a finger touch and changed course. As they neared the elephant swung round in an effort to face them but could not turn fast enough. Arjuna fitted an arrow and placed another between his teeth and, as they passed Hathi’s great head, the fair one leapt from the chariot and landed running. He stumbled and almost fell before stepping forward into the shadow of the elephant. Arjuna drew back the string and pressed the arrow tip to the great chest beneath whose gray hide he could hear the muffled drum of the beast’s life. He released and the arrow disappeared, sucked deep into Hathi’s chest.
The elephant’s head went up and he screamed loudly, spraying blood in a pink mist, rounding on his tormentor. Arjuna danced back, snatching the second arrow from his teeth and fitting it to his bow. Hathi lurched forward, trunk questing, but his life fled as he moved and he fell like an avalanche in front and around Arjuna.
For several seconds the man stood still, looking wide-eyed at the outstretched trunk to his left and a great tusk that ripped a furrow in the grass right up to his right foot. A smile grew to a grin then by leaps and bounds to a roar of delighted victory. He raised Gandiva suddenly and fired it directly upward, without looking, piercing the burning humid air.
Krishna leapt down from the chariot and ran lightly across the grass and up the elephant’s trunk to its domed head, the swelling curve of its belly, and to where Hathi’s backbone stood out as great knuckled fists beneath the wrinkled hide.
“A noble animal, cousin, and bravely fought. I withdraw my earlier accusation.”
Arjuna bowed smiling. “Accepted, my Lord Krishna.” A muffled thump on the grass behind him swung Arjuna round, his hand drawing uselessly on his empty bow. A dozen paces away lay a transfixed crow, a few feathers drifting in the still air, his last arrow firmly wedged in its body. He laughed delightedly and the dark one joined in from the back of the dead elephant.
“Today I cannot miss, even when I do not aim.”
“Who is it that hunts in the sacred forests of Khandava?” The voice hung in the still air, seemingly directionless. Arjuna pivoted, scanning the edge of the forest and the long grass.
“There.” Krishna pointed a dark finger toward the Acacia trees from whence the elephant had charged only minutes earlier. A short, stocky man in a plain brown robe stood in the shadows. The hair on his head hung to his shoulders in a silvery mane, merging with his beard to form a gleaming halo around his head. Despite the man standing motionless the robes writhed about him ceaselessly.
“What is it to you, stranger?” Arjuna asked. “Who are you?”
“I am Naga Mura. These are my forests. I allow none to hunt here.”
Arjuna laughed. “Has no one told you these are the forests of Khandava, gifted to the sons of Pandu as their inheritance from King Dhrita-Rashtra? I am Arjuna, one of the five Pandava.”
Naga Mura gave no sign he was awed by the presence of the king. He nodded toward the body of the elephant. “And who is that who so arrogantly bestrides the body of fallen Hathi?”
“I am Krishna,” the dark one said, leaping down to the ground. He walked over to Arjuna’s side and looked intently at the man in the brown robe. “You are of the sons of Kasyapa and Kadru, Nagas created to rule below the earth. Why are you so far from your domain?”
“I am Naga Mura and I answer to no-one save the god Indra, under whose protection these forests lie.”
“Then you will know that I am his son,” Arjuna said. “And that I and my brothers rule from the city of Indra-Prastha.”
“I care nothing for those that call themselves sons of Indra. I honor his holy name and keep his sacred forest clean of wood cutters, charcoal makers and hunters. In his name I bid you leave at once and never return.”
“And if I will not?”
Naga Mura shook the sleeves of his robe out. “Then my servants will kill you,” he said calmly. Two long cobras slithered out of his sleeves and moved rapidly toward Arjuna. “Their bite is certain death, arrogant king.”
Krishna bowed his head and made a subtle gesture with his right hand. The snakes stopped and coiled, rearing up with hoods expanded.
A look of fury came over Naga Mura’s face and he hissed loudly between his teeth, stamping the ground in a complex rhythm. Within minutes, the grass of the meadow started swaying and rustling as other snakes converged on the spot, from long black cobras to small but deadly krait, and even giant pythons from the forest depths.
Krishna gestured again but not all of the serpents stopped. “I would suggest a tactical withdrawal,” he commented.
Arjuna bared his teeth. “Call them off, Naga, or suffer the consequences.”
“Go. Leave my forest and never return.”
Arjuna sidestepped the coiled cobras and ran to the chariot. He snatched an arrow from the almost empty quiver and whirled to face the Naga, his bow drawn. “Are you willing to die, Naga?”
“You cannot kill me.”
“You think not?” Arjuna released the bowstring and the arrow sped across the clearing, transfixing the Naga, slamming him back against a tree and holding him upright. The man slumped down and his eyes clouded in death.
“A pity,” Krishna commented. “I was hoping his arrogance was founded in power. It would have been an interesting experience.”
“Leave this forest.”
“What?” Arjuna and Krishna stared at the lifeless corpse pinned to the tree. “Who speaks?”
“I, Naga Mura.” A man in brown robes stepped out from behind the tree, his silver hair and beard glowing like a halo under the sun-dappled trees.
“What are you?” Arjuna asked, frowning. “Are you that one’s brother?” He pointed at the dead man.
“I am Naga Mura. I rule in this forest in Indra’s name. Leave, vile hunter and never return.”
Arjuna turned and snatched another arrow from the quiver on the chariot. “If you are Naga Mura, then you must die. I am happy to oblige.”
“Wait,” Krishna said, holding up one dusky gray-blue hand. “He is a Naga priest. You cannot kill him this way.”
“I recognize you, Lord Krishna,” Naga Mura said. “Do not interfere. This fight is between me and this man.”
Krishna brought his hands together in front of his face and he bowed slightly. “He is my friend.”
“Then I regret you will die with him.” Naga Mura gestured and the snakes broke free of the god’s restraints and resumed their approach.
“My friend, we must leave. Come, before my beautiful horses are killed.” Krishna leapt up onto the chariot platform and held out a hand to Arjuna. With a show of reluctance, the fair king stepped up beside the god and Krishna urged the horses into flight.
Arjuna never took his eyes off the Naga priest as they rode back into the cover of the forest. “I make a vow,” he said softly. “And I call on the gods to witness it. I will kill every Naga within this forest.”
“And how will you accomplish that? You saw the effect of your arrows.”
“I will find a way. There must be a way.”
Krishna kept silent until they were out of the Khandava forest. Around them, the king’s men hurried to collect up the dead animals, marveling at the precision of Arjuna’s bowmanship. “There is a way,” he said at last.
“Tell me.”
“Fire. Even the Naga priests cannot withstand the flames.”
Arjuna snorted. “Nothing simpler. I will send my thousand beaters back with torch brands. I will lay waste to Khandava.”
“Even at the cost of destroying your property? Would it not be wiser to seek another solution? Take the problem to your brother Yudhi-shthira.”
“I have made a vow. I cannot take it back.”
“Fire alone will not suffice.”
“What do you mean?”
“The forest is wet. Lord Indra is generous and brings heavy rains to soak the trees, the shrubs and the grass. An ordinary fire will not consume the forest.”
Arjuna scowled, his eyes flashing with anger. “Then what will?”
“Agni.”
“The god of fire? Why should he help?”
“Lord Agni has long coveted Khandava. Only Indra has kept him out.”
“Then let us invite him to a feast.” Arjuna smiled. “I can offer him a meal that will satisfy even the appetite of a god.”
Arjuna and Krishna returned to the great palace at Indra-Prastha. Dismissing the servants and making excuses to Arjuna’s brothers, the other four kings, they made their way up onto a great flat roof that overlooked the palace gardens and many miles of rich farmland in front of the distant blue-green swathe of the Khandava.
“How do we invite the Fire god?”
“I know a mantra that will invoke him,” Krishna replied. “It is not to be used lightly for a man invokes the gods at his peril. However, in this case, your purpose matches his.” The dusky god sat cross-legged, facing the sun and started a low droning murmur. Arjuna strained to hear but could not make sense of the words. After a long time, Krishna fell silent.
“Is he coming?”
Krishna nodded. “Watch the sun.”

Rakshasa by Max Overton

EXTRACT FOR
Rakshasa

(Max Overton)


Prologue

I am Rakshasa.

Men will tell you I am a child of Nirriti and Nirrita, or born from the sage Pulastya or that I am a descendant of Kasyapa and Khasa, a daughter of Daksha, through their son Rakshas. More fantastically, it is said that when Brahma created the waters he made us from his foot, to guard them. Others say we are the descendants of the old stone-wielding races that lived in this land before the coming of the ones called Aryans. Men are liars however, telling tales around the hearth fires at night as they seek to control the unknown by talking about it. Men fear what they do not know. They do not know me and rightly, they fear me.
I cannot remember that I ever had a mother and a father, nor brother and sister, just being, coming from nonexistence to existence between one breath and the next, between one heartbeat and the one following. Not that I have either, but I seek to put my existence in terms that mortal beings can comprehend. I have no physical body, save when I desire one, and then it can take the form of whatever my mind desires. I have been man and woman, beast and fowl, serpent and fish. I have even been a tree when occasion warranted but I do not like to take on the form of a plant for their minds are slow and uninteresting, being concerned solely with water and soil, wind and sun.
Where did I come from if I had no mother to bear me, no father to quicken his seed in his woman’s belly? In truth, I do not know. My first memory is of a low and dusty plain, the grass cut up and furrowed, the red soil stained darker by fluids that leaked from ragged lumps of meat strewn about this dark and silent place. Men lay in heaps and mounds, glassy eyes staring sightlessly, limbs hacked and loose, bodies rent with gaping wounds that disgorged glistening coils and liquids. Over everything swarmed the eaters of the dead, from jackals and vultures to dark clouds of flies and the pulsating white mass of their grubs. Instruments of this destruction lay scattered too, thin feathered wands and thicker staves tipped with stone, curved pieces of metal, all stained with the fluids that leaked from the bodies. Beasts larger than men were lying here also, four-legged with limbs that ended in a single horned toe. They were attached to strange things of wood and beaten metal, with two round things like large river stones on edge. I did not understand these things then, seeing them for the first time, but now I know them for the aftermath of a thing called ‘battle’ when men’s minds become red and violent, acid and sweet, delicious to one such as myself.
I think I was born of battle, engendered by the rich and violent thoughts of men on the brink of death, when terror and ecstasy vie for control, when the heart beats faster, the breath of life gushes and the limbs tremble in expectation. I can give no better explanation for my becoming, for I enjoy all these things, take pleasure in the instant of death. When I feast, I do so on the hot sweet flesh of men, drinking in their energy and life, crunching their bones and sucking on the delicate brains as their last fleeting, terrified thoughts scurry across my consciousness. So, men call me Rakshasa, or demon. For long ages I thought this was my name as men died with it on their lips, yet now I know that it is the name men give to ones like me. I have never wanted a name though and am content to be known by this generic term.
Why Rakshasa then and not Rakshasi if I have no body, no gender? Why do I choose to be predominantly male rather than female? For no other reason that I can be whatever I want and in my experience, men are destroyers and women creators. Men have power in this world and women do not. Why would I give up power unless I benefited? I like to think of myself as a balancer between the two extremes of man and woman, destruction and creation, enjoying both, though I admit, my natural inclinations favor destruction. I feed on humankind and, like any good farmer; I seek the health of my meat animals. I seek to preserve them. In this I, and humankind, men and women, are bound together like the three-fold god Trimurti – Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer.
Do the gods exist? Of course – can any doubt it? But they are seldom as men imagine them to be. A man sees their power and clothes them with a body not unlike his but stronger, more beautiful, more majestic. He imagines they wield power much as he would, capriciously and selfishly. Driven by the urges of his own organs of procreation, he endows these genderless beings with the weaknesses and foibles of his own life. The gods and demons both are seen as man wants to see them – gods as what he aspires to and demons as what he fears he will become. But his aspirations and fears avail him little; the spark of his life burns too low for him to become either. I have been present at the deaths of many and feasted upon the flickering embers of life. I know that once the body dies, the life within rapidly dissipates and disappears. That is why I must be there at the moment when one leaves the other, in order for me to feed.
To be honest though, I have met men whose life force is a raging furnace rather than smoldering coals. These men, I could believe, will survive the separation of death, but what they will become, or where they go, I do not know. I have never been privileged to attend upon such a one at the moment of death. Not for want of trying, I assure you, but they have the ability to prevent me feeding. These ones I have learnt to enjoy for other reasons. The minds of such ones often have insights beyond those of common men and knowledge of the ways of the gods.
Have I met the gods? Some of them – but it is not healthy for one such as me to be close to the gods. Even the ones who are most concerned with living things, with the preservation of creation, show a disturbing inclination to destroy Rakshasas, Nagas, Yakshas, Anusaras, Asaras and all the other beings who are called demons by these self-righteous beings. I try not to stay close to gods – they are not trustworthy and far too powerful. Hardly better are the men who are called heroes by mankind. They too will destroy demons but heroes at least have weaknesses and with a little thought and cunning, can be survived.
I once met a hero and a god together and lived to learn from the experience.
I cannot tell you what battle it was that gave me life, or even when, for I did not learn to count the years until many seasons had passed. In those early days I wandered the hot and dusty plains, clothing myself in whatever form I chose, sometimes letting the flame of my being re-animate a dead man or woman on a whim, or traveling as a breath of wind or pale, dancing flame under the pale glow of the stars. I roamed the streets of towns and cities, watching, learning, and feeding, mingling with prince and peasant, merchant and farmer, child and courtesan. When I felt the need for solitude I wandered the dark forests or rested among the tombs and graves in the lonely places, knowing that few people would venture there.
After a while I came to a place where two great rivers meet, the Yamuna that flows south from the White Mountains, and the Chambal, coursing from setting to rising sun. Mighty floods of water they are, with many people living along the banks but I felt myself drawn to the north and presently, on the banks of the Yamuna River I found the forest known as Khandava. Entering it, I felt at peace – a strange feeling for I had never been one to stray far from violence. I walked through its leafy glades, along sun-dappled paths and into bright open pastures of lush grass where elephant and gaur grazed alongside red and spotted deer. Swarms of brightly colored butterflies danced around blossoms high in the trees or gorged on rotting fruit among the leaf litter; birds called and monkeys screamed. At night, the darkness pulsated with the sounds of insects and frogs, constellations of fireflies lighting up the meadows. Tigers dwelt here too, but these predators are intelligent and could see past the disguise I had assumed to my inner flame. They melted silently from my path and all I glimpsed was a hint of red pelt or soft white underbelly.
Men lived in the Khandava, though to hear the stories in later times one would think they were a race of demons. They called themselves Nagas and worshiped snakes, in particular the great hooded cobra. Their priests handled the huge serpents fearlessly and were seldom bitten. The Nagas were as one with their forest and tended it, keeping out the woodchoppers and the charcoal makers, preventing hunters from pillaging the thickets. Being eaters of fruit and grain, the Nagas were not feared by the animals of the forest and carried no weapons to defend themselves. The only animal that occasionally did them harm was the leopard and against this night killer they had no defense save to barricade themselves inside their huts at night.
I stayed in the Khandava forest and preyed on the Nagas as I needed, taking the guise of a leopard. This did them little harm, for I took only as I needed and my presence repelled real leopards which would otherwise have killed many more. I never entered their villages, being content to find a lone traveler on the less-frequented paths and appear to him or her. My guise was perfect and as the traveler’s terror reached a crescendo, my teeth and claws extracting their life, I fed on the delicious storm of emotion that raged within their dying minds.
I could have lived like this for years, but unknown to me, the Nagas had bitterly offended five kings who lived in the city called Indra-Prastha on the borders of the forest. One of these kings, Arjuna, and his cousin the god Krishna, sought revenge and brought raging destruction down on this peaceful place.
Here is how it happened …

Chapter One

The Khandava forest lay clean and sparkling in the early morning light. Mists rolled and swirled above the deep waters of the Yamuna River as it meandered through dense thickets, grassy meadows that swept down to the dark rush-clothed water’s edge and between rock-strewn shores where the surface of the flood roiled and danced above the dimly heard clatter of boulders in its green depths. Dew hung in myriad tiny droplets from grass and leaf, bending the light of the rising sun back in a sparkling array of jewels that flashed like the gems in a king’s treasury. The air hung heavy and cool, moist still, but already the touch of the sun promised the burning heat of summer.
Down by the water’s edge a small herd of chital deer drank, the does and half-grown young with heads down while the buck stood with head raised, snuffing the air for the least scent of danger. Nothing stirred and the faintest of breezes blew from across the river, bringing with it nothing more ominous than the whiff of fresh elephant. The buck snorted and stamped a forefoot, bringing two of the does to alert. After a few moments they relaxed again and the buck turned to slowly scan the meadow behind him once more. The wind, such as it was, blew from him toward the meadow and his questing nostrils could not tell him anything. Instead, his eyes sought for any sign of danger, his ears for the sounds of bird and beast that might warn of the presence of a predator. A pair of jays chattered in a tree top nearby, seeing nothing that might disturb them.
A fallen tree lay angled across the meadow, the gnarled and splayed-out roots closest to the herd. The buck swept his eyes over the trunk and as the wind bent the grass stems a hint of red caught his attention. He froze, staring at the place, looking for the flash of color to come again. The wind died away and the green of the grass was once more unbroken against the peeling brown bark of the fallen tree. After long moments, the buck stamped his foot again and dipped his head, lowering his lyre-shaped antlers for an instant before turning away.
As he turned, the chattering of the jays in the nearby tree stilled. At the same instant, the grass by the fallen tree parted and a half-grown tigress erupted from cover, the rippling muscles of her hind legs and flanks propelling her in a burst of reddish death toward the small herd. The bark of alarm from the buck as he pivoted, launching himself away from the predator, startled the does into panicked motion. They scattered. The tigress raced by the buck, so close they almost touched, but she disregarded him, her attention fixed on the doe she had spent the last hour stalking. She closed on her even as the doe bunched her legs beneath her, her mouth gaping, eyes wide in terror. Predator and prey collided at the water’s edge, the force of the impact carrying them both into the shallow water. The doe bleated once before her spinal cord was severed, and her legs kicked spasmodically for a few seconds.
The tigress stood over her prey, straddling the body of the chital doe, her eyes scanning the now deserted meadow and the faint sounds of the scattered herd fading into the forest. Slowly, the bird song started up again. Lowering her head to nuzzle the doe, the tigress gripped the deer by the base of the neck and walked stiff-legged from the water, head held high. She carried the body to the fallen tree and deposited it near the tangle of roots. After licking the blood from the wounds around the neck she lay down, ripped the thin skin around the doe’s anus and started to feed.
The sun climbed higher, driving the mist from the river and banishing the dew. The tigress finished her meal and walked sedately down to the water’s edge to drink heavily before seeking the shade of the forest. A monkey screamed an alarm from the tree tops and followed the tigress as she walked slowly along a game trail toward her lair at the base of a tall sandstone outcrop near the top of a small hill. As she climbed beyond the trees, the monkey fell silent, staring in the direction of the hill and grumbling to itself. The tigress slumped to the ground in the shade of the rock and stared out over the tops of the forest trees toward the edge of the woodlands where small figures could be seen. Neither scent nor sound carried that far and the tigress disregarded them, settling down to sleep her meal off. Her eyes closed though her other senses remained alert for several minutes. At length, she was lulled by the serenity of the sun-bathed forest beneath her, and she slept.
Far below, on the edge of Khandava forest, a light chariot stood facing the dense vegetation, the two white horses in the yoked traces stamping and blowing with the effort of staying still when their senses told them they should be moving. In the light wooden framework of the chariot itself stood two men, one tall and fair, the other shorter and stockier, dark-haired and dark-skinned. Both carried themselves with a regal bearing, the fair one with the consciousness of being a king in his own lands, the darker one with the unassuming arrogance of one who knows himself above all others.
The tall, fair man raised his eyes to the flag fluttering at the tip of a supple bamboo pole fixed to the rear of the chariot. The figure of a gray and blue ape squatting on a yellow background was a well-known standard even beyond the realms of Indra-Prastha and gave the king one of the names by which he was known – ‘Kapi-dhwaja’ or ‘ape-standard’.
“The wind has changed,” the king known sometimes as Kapi-dhwaja commented matter-of-factly.
The darker one nodded and smiled, white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “You will have good hunting, cousin.”
“You will not join me? The more I practice, the better I get.” The fair man held up his strung bow and pointed toward the forest with it. “Besides, Gandiva is hungry.”
“I do not need to practice,” the dark one said softly. “None are more skilled with the discus than I.”
The fair one laughed. “Sometimes I forget you are a god, Krishna. You take on the ways of men so well; I could almost believe you to be one.”
Krishna inclined his head graciously. “And you cousin, are so skilled with the bow, one could almost believe you to be a god.”
The fair one grinned. “So you will not hunt today?”
“No, but I will drive your chariot if you will let me.”
“Gladly. There is no-one I trust more.”
“Then see, Lord Arjuna,” Krishna pointed to where the path leading into the forest had been cleared to allow the free passage of the king’s chariot. “The master of the hunt approaches.”
From the forest a man came hurrying. He wore a white cotton churidar and tunic like his lords in the chariot and his lustrous black hair was swept back and tied behind with a scarlet ribbon. Across his chest from left shoulder to waist he wore a sash of bright red as befitted his rank. He slowed to a walk as he neared the chariot and dropped to his knees, staring up at the tall figure of his king, third son of Pandu and one of the five rulers of Indra-Prastha. Beside his monarch a pearly nimbus, hardly visible in the bright sunshine, surrounded the features of the dark one.
“My lords,” the master of the hunt said. “All is prepared. At your signal we shall beat the forest and drive the game.”
Krishna frowned and it seemed for a moment as if the sunshine lost its strength. “You are having the game driven toward us? Where lies the sport in that?”
Arjuna laughed and handed the reins of the chariot to his friend. “Nothing so tame. I have had the path widened to take a chariot but the game will be driven across our path. We shall drive through it, never knowing what will appear before us.” He looked quizzically at the god. “Of course, if you have not the courage …”
For an instant the air around the chariot crackled as faint blue sparks jumped from the metal fastenings. The horses reared and screamed in sudden panic, calming only as Krishna held out his hand. “We shall see who lacks courage today, cousin,” he said softly. Cracking the reins, the god urged the horses forward, forcing Arjuna to grip the sides to prevent himself falling back. Bouncing and jolting, Krishna drove the chariot across the field toward the gash in the forest wall. Behind them, the master of the hunt leapt to his feet and waved his hands frantically to his servants waiting by the forest edge. Horns blew urgently and within minutes a great cacophony of sound rent the air as a thousand men sounded horns, clashed bronze swords on shields, beat on drums or just used their voices, ululating wildly into the still air, shattering the peace of the forest. Other men armed with long staves beat the bushes and grass, driving out the animals.
The chariot charged down the forest track, the horses in full gallop with the light wooden carriage bucking and heaving, sometimes leaving the ground entirely only to return with a teeth-jarring thump. Krishna stood flatfooted on the wicker flooring, his only grip being on the reins with which he guided the straining horses. He moved with the swaying chariot, effortlessly, a smile on his dark face, as if he stood on solid ground. Arjuna shook back his long tawny locks and grinned fiercely as he hooked one strong leg around an upright and reached for the first arrow from the three quivers attached to the front of the chariot.
A herd of chital burst from the undergrowth fifty paces in front. Arjuna slipped an arrow into place and in one fluid movement raised the bow Gandiva and loosed the arrow. The buck took the shaft behind the left front leg and cart-wheeled, dead before it slammed into the ground. Two does followed their leader into death before the chariot flashed by, Arjuna yelling in triumph. A brief pause, during which the only sounds were the drumming of hooves and the rumble of the wheels then a wild pig appeared. The beast stopped in the trail, facing the onrushing chariot and Arjuna sent an arrow into its eye. The horses trampled the fallen animal and the chariot wheel bounced high, forcing Arjuna to grab the frame. A peacock flew overhead, its streaming tail of blue and green a brief beacon in a patch of sunlight before it fell dead in an explosion of feathers. A flock of pigeons, a darting hare in an open glade, more chital deer, gaur, and an old water buffalo, crossed the path of god and king and died, each one pierced by Arjuna’s shafts. After several miles through the dense forest, the winding track re-emerged into bright sunlight where gaily-colored pavilions of cotton and silk fluttered in the breeze of the open meadows. The ape standard flew prominently and men hurried to catch the bridles of the sweating horses, to rub them down with toweled cloths, to hand gold goblets of chilled fruit juices to man and god.
“You have not lost your eye,” Krishna said calmly, offering a blessing to a servant proffering a tray of fruit. “Seventeen arrows and every one of them a hit.”
Arjuna wiped the sweat from his face and grinned. “I cannot miss with Gandiva in my hand. But neither have you lost your touch with horses, Lord Krishna. I thought we were going to come apart there once or twice.”
“The horses love me. They merely do what I ask of them.” The dark one handed his goblet to a servant and looked back at the forest. “Shall we return?”
The king nodded. “I have not yet killed a tiger. No hunt is complete without one.” Arjuna accepted a bundle of arrows and refilled the quivers in front of him. “The cowardly animals will have passed by now. The courageous ones will delay until the beaters drive them out. We should go.” The fair one set his jaw grimly and gestured back toward the forest.
The chariot leapt forward again, re-entering Khandava along the packed earth and scythed grass of the trail. Almost at once a leopard bounded across the track, turning as it reached cover to defy the pounding horses. Its ears flattened and it spat angrily, a snarling whine of rage as its muscles bunched beneath the glossy spotted pelt. Arjuna smiled and loosed an arrow that sprang across the rapidly closing gap, piercing the creature’s right eye. The leopard reared, clawing vainly before falling shuddering to the leafy floor of the forest as the chariot swept onward.
The game of the forest was now in full flight as the beaters advanced, the cacophony of sound making the air itself shudder. Animals and birds poured across the trail, sometimes right under the flying hooves of the horses and the blurred wheels of the chariot. Krishna’s iron control held the horses on their course and Arjuna was in constant motion, sending arrow after arrow into the fleeing animals. He emptied two quivers and was starting on the last when a great trumpeting cry sounded, the leaves on the trees shaking as the blast passed over them.
“Hathi,” Krishna said with a smile, drawing the chariot to a halt. He lifted his face and sniffed. “A bull in musth. Do you wish to flee, cousin?”
Arjuna snorted derisively. “There is no man or beast I will not face.”
“He is cunning,” Krishna said. “He will not leave the forest.”
“So take us into the forest.”
Krishna smiled again and urged the horses forward into a gap between the tall trees. The wheels slammed against exposed roots, hurling the chariot into the air and forcing Arjuna to hold on grimly. Krishna stood his ground, seemingly unaffected by the careening vehicle. They plunged deeper into the forest, passing between the tall columnar trunks of teak and the more twisted ones of neem and pipal. They crushed the spindly young seedlings worshiping the sun with up-stretched arms and bruised the briars and the young bamboo. The dhaak trees blazed with orange blossoms that shivered and fell as they passed, and they plunged through thickets heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. The ground dipped toward tall grass meadows taller than a man and became softer underfoot, the horses having a harder time of it as the mud clung to the chariot wheels and their hooves. The squeals and trumpeting of the unseen Hathi led them on to an area of shorter grass before suddenly stopping. Krishna reined in the horses and they listened.
“He comes,” Krishna said softly. “Over there.” He pointed to a thick stand of Acacia a hundred paces away to their right.
A gray shadow moved beneath the trees, silently, the only sign of his passing the whipping of the branches. The elephant burst out of the thicket and came straight for the chariot, trunk outstretched between two stained tusks. The tarry deposits of musth dripped from the inner corners of the beast’s eyes, staining his cheeks. A bellow of rage whipped the ape standard about, flicking the cloth out with a snap.
Arjuna calmly fitted an arrow to Gandiva and let fly, but the shaft bounced harmlessly from the bony dome of Hathi’s skull, merely drawing blood from a shallow wound.
“You’ll have to do better than that, cousin,” Krishna observed, and turned the horses away from the onrushing beast, urging them into flight.
Arjuna did not answer but picked another arrow from the quiver and deliberately took the time to examine the shaft. He fitted it in his bow and looked up at the charging elephant that filled his sight. Soundless now except for the rushing of air, Hathi stretched out his trunk until it was but a hand’s breadth from the man with the bow. Calmly and without seeming to hurry, Arjuna measured the rise and fall of the chariot as it careered over the soft ground, then lifted his bow. At the instant the finger of the elephant’s trunk touched him, he released the bowstring, Gandiva flexed convulsively and the arrow leapt down the animal’s pink gullet. Hathi squealed in agony and dropped back, shaking his great head.
Arjuna touched Krishna’s shoulder. “Turn us. I will finish him.”
Krishna nodded and swung the chariot in a wide circle, leading them back to where the elephant stood trumpeting his rage and pain. Blood gushed from his mouth and his trunk sought out his enemies, though he ran no more, but lurched and staggered.
“Take me past on his left side.”
The horses responded to a finger touch and changed course. As they neared the elephant swung round in an effort to face them but could not turn fast enough. Arjuna fitted an arrow and placed another between his teeth and, as they passed Hathi’s great head, the fair one leapt from the chariot and landed running. He stumbled and almost fell before stepping forward into the shadow of the elephant. Arjuna drew back the string and pressed the arrow tip to the great chest beneath whose gray hide he could hear the muffled drum of the beast’s life. He released and the arrow disappeared, sucked deep into Hathi’s chest.
The elephant’s head went up and he screamed loudly, spraying blood in a pink mist, rounding on his tormentor. Arjuna danced back, snatching the second arrow from his teeth and fitting it to his bow. Hathi lurched forward, trunk questing, but his life fled as he moved and he fell like an avalanche in front and around Arjuna.
For several seconds the man stood still, looking wide-eyed at the outstretched trunk to his left and a great tusk that ripped a furrow in the grass right up to his right foot. A smile grew to a grin then by leaps and bounds to a roar of delighted victory. He raised Gandiva suddenly and fired it directly upward, without looking, piercing the burning humid air.
Krishna leapt down from the chariot and ran lightly across the grass and up the elephant’s trunk to its domed head, the swelling curve of its belly, and to where Hathi’s backbone stood out as great knuckled fists beneath the wrinkled hide.
“A noble animal, cousin, and bravely fought. I withdraw my earlier accusation.”
Arjuna bowed smiling. “Accepted, my Lord Krishna.” A muffled thump on the grass behind him swung Arjuna round, his hand drawing uselessly on his empty bow. A dozen paces away lay a transfixed crow, a few feathers drifting in the still air, his last arrow firmly wedged in its body. He laughed delightedly and the dark one joined in from the back of the dead elephant.
“Today I cannot miss, even when I do not aim.”
“Who is it that hunts in the sacred forests of Khandava?” The voice hung in the still air, seemingly directionless. Arjuna pivoted, scanning the edge of the forest and the long grass.
“There.” Krishna pointed a dark finger toward the Acacia trees from whence the elephant had charged only minutes earlier. A short, stocky man in a plain brown robe stood in the shadows. The hair on his head hung to his shoulders in a silvery mane, merging with his beard to form a gleaming halo around his head. Despite the man standing motionless the robes writhed about him ceaselessly.
“What is it to you, stranger?” Arjuna asked. “Who are you?”
“I am Naga Mura. These are my forests. I allow none to hunt here.”
Arjuna laughed. “Has no one told you these are the forests of Khandava, gifted to the sons of Pandu as their inheritance from King Dhrita-Rashtra? I am Arjuna, one of the five Pandava.”
Naga Mura gave no sign he was awed by the presence of the king. He nodded toward the body of the elephant. “And who is that who so arrogantly bestrides the body of fallen Hathi?”
“I am Krishna,” the dark one said, leaping down to the ground. He walked over to Arjuna’s side and looked intently at the man in the brown robe. “You are of the sons of Kasyapa and Kadru, Nagas created to rule below the earth. Why are you so far from your domain?”
“I am Naga Mura and I answer to no-one save the god Indra, under whose protection these forests lie.”
“Then you will know that I am his son,” Arjuna said. “And that I and my brothers rule from the city of Indra-Prastha.”
“I care nothing for those that call themselves sons of Indra. I honor his holy name and keep his sacred forest clean of wood cutters, charcoal makers and hunters. In his name I bid you leave at once and never return.”
“And if I will not?”
Naga Mura shook the sleeves of his robe out. “Then my servants will kill you,” he said calmly. Two long cobras slithered out of his sleeves and moved rapidly toward Arjuna. “Their bite is certain death, arrogant king.”
Krishna bowed his head and made a subtle gesture with his right hand. The snakes stopped and coiled, rearing up with hoods expanded.
A look of fury came over Naga Mura’s face and he hissed loudly between his teeth, stamping the ground in a complex rhythm. Within minutes, the grass of the meadow started swaying and rustling as other snakes converged on the spot, from long black cobras to small but deadly krait, and even giant pythons from the forest depths.
Krishna gestured again but not all of the serpents stopped. “I would suggest a tactical withdrawal,” he commented.
Arjuna bared his teeth. “Call them off, Naga, or suffer the consequences.”
“Go. Leave my forest and never return.”
Arjuna sidestepped the coiled cobras and ran to the chariot. He snatched an arrow from the almost empty quiver and whirled to face the Naga, his bow drawn. “Are you willing to die, Naga?”
“You cannot kill me.”
“You think not?” Arjuna released the bowstring and the arrow sped across the clearing, transfixing the Naga, slamming him back against a tree and holding him upright. The man slumped down and his eyes clouded in death.
“A pity,” Krishna commented. “I was hoping his arrogance was founded in power. It would have been an interesting experience.”
“Leave this forest.”
“What?” Arjuna and Krishna stared at the lifeless corpse pinned to the tree. “Who speaks?”
“I, Naga Mura.” A man in brown robes stepped out from behind the tree, his silver hair and beard glowing like a halo under the sun-dappled trees.
“What are you?” Arjuna asked, frowning. “Are you that one’s brother?” He pointed at the dead man.
“I am Naga Mura. I rule in this forest in Indra’s name. Leave, vile hunter and never return.”
Arjuna turned and snatched another arrow from the quiver on the chariot. “If you are Naga Mura, then you must die. I am happy to oblige.”
“Wait,” Krishna said, holding up one dusky gray-blue hand. “He is a Naga priest. You cannot kill him this way.”
“I recognize you, Lord Krishna,” Naga Mura said. “Do not interfere. This fight is between me and this man.”
Krishna brought his hands together in front of his face and he bowed slightly. “He is my friend.”
“Then I regret you will die with him.” Naga Mura gestured and the snakes broke free of the god’s restraints and resumed their approach.
“My friend, we must leave. Come, before my beautiful horses are killed.” Krishna leapt up onto the chariot platform and held out a hand to Arjuna. With a show of reluctance, the fair king stepped up beside the god and Krishna urged the horses into flight.
Arjuna never took his eyes off the Naga priest as they rode back into the cover of the forest. “I make a vow,” he said softly. “And I call on the gods to witness it. I will kill every Naga within this forest.”
“And how will you accomplish that? You saw the effect of your arrows.”
“I will find a way. There must be a way.”
Krishna kept silent until they were out of the Khandava forest. Around them, the king’s men hurried to collect up the dead animals, marveling at the precision of Arjuna’s bowmanship. “There is a way,” he said at last.
“Tell me.”
“Fire. Even the Naga priests cannot withstand the flames.”
Arjuna snorted. “Nothing simpler. I will send my thousand beaters back with torch brands. I will lay waste to Khandava.”
“Even at the cost of destroying your property? Would it not be wiser to seek another solution? Take the problem to your brother Yudhi-shthira.”
“I have made a vow. I cannot take it back.”
“Fire alone will not suffice.”
“What do you mean?”
“The forest is wet. Lord Indra is generous and brings heavy rains to soak the trees, the shrubs and the grass. An ordinary fire will not consume the forest.”
Arjuna scowled, his eyes flashing with anger. “Then what will?”
“Agni.”
“The god of fire? Why should he help?”
“Lord Agni has long coveted Khandava. Only Indra has kept him out.”
“Then let us invite him to a feast.” Arjuna smiled. “I can offer him a meal that will satisfy even the appetite of a god.”
Arjuna and Krishna returned to the great palace at Indra-Prastha. Dismissing the servants and making excuses to Arjuna’s brothers, the other four kings, they made their way up onto a great flat roof that overlooked the palace gardens and many miles of rich farmland in front of the distant blue-green swathe of the Khandava.
“How do we invite the Fire god?”
“I know a mantra that will invoke him,” Krishna replied. “It is not to be used lightly for a man invokes the gods at his peril. However, in this case, your purpose matches his.” The dusky god sat cross-legged, facing the sun and started a low droning murmur. Arjuna strained to hear but could not make sense of the words. After a long time, Krishna fell silent.
“Is he coming?”
Krishna nodded. “Watch the sun.”

EXTRACT FOR
Rakshasa

(Max Overton)


Prologue

I am Rakshasa.

Men will tell you I am a child of Nirriti and Nirrita, or born from the sage Pulastya or that I am a descendant of Kasyapa and Khasa, a daughter of Daksha, through their son Rakshas. More fantastically, it is said that when Brahma created the waters he made us from his foot, to guard them. Others say we are the descendants of the old stone-wielding races that lived in this land before the coming of the ones called Aryans. Men are liars however, telling tales around the hearth fires at night as they seek to control the unknown by talking about it. Men fear what they do not know. They do not know me and rightly, they fear me.
I cannot remember that I ever had a mother and a father, nor brother and sister, just being, coming from nonexistence to existence between one breath and the next, between one heartbeat and the one following. Not that I have either, but I seek to put my existence in terms that mortal beings can comprehend. I have no physical body, save when I desire one, and then it can take the form of whatever my mind desires. I have been man and woman, beast and fowl, serpent and fish. I have even been a tree when occasion warranted but I do not like to take on the form of a plant for their minds are slow and uninteresting, being concerned solely with water and soil, wind and sun.
Where did I come from if I had no mother to bear me, no father to quicken his seed in his woman’s belly? In truth, I do not know. My first memory is of a low and dusty plain, the grass cut up and furrowed, the red soil stained darker by fluids that leaked from ragged lumps of meat strewn about this dark and silent place. Men lay in heaps and mounds, glassy eyes staring sightlessly, limbs hacked and loose, bodies rent with gaping wounds that disgorged glistening coils and liquids. Over everything swarmed the eaters of the dead, from jackals and vultures to dark clouds of flies and the pulsating white mass of their grubs. Instruments of this destruction lay scattered too, thin feathered wands and thicker staves tipped with stone, curved pieces of metal, all stained with the fluids that leaked from the bodies. Beasts larger than men were lying here also, four-legged with limbs that ended in a single horned toe. They were attached to strange things of wood and beaten metal, with two round things like large river stones on edge. I did not understand these things then, seeing them for the first time, but now I know them for the aftermath of a thing called ‘battle’ when men’s minds become red and violent, acid and sweet, delicious to one such as myself.
I think I was born of battle, engendered by the rich and violent thoughts of men on the brink of death, when terror and ecstasy vie for control, when the heart beats faster, the breath of life gushes and the limbs tremble in expectation. I can give no better explanation for my becoming, for I enjoy all these things, take pleasure in the instant of death. When I feast, I do so on the hot sweet flesh of men, drinking in their energy and life, crunching their bones and sucking on the delicate brains as their last fleeting, terrified thoughts scurry across my consciousness. So, men call me Rakshasa, or demon. For long ages I thought this was my name as men died with it on their lips, yet now I know that it is the name men give to ones like me. I have never wanted a name though and am content to be known by this generic term.
Why Rakshasa then and not Rakshasi if I have no body, no gender? Why do I choose to be predominantly male rather than female? For no other reason that I can be whatever I want and in my experience, men are destroyers and women creators. Men have power in this world and women do not. Why would I give up power unless I benefited? I like to think of myself as a balancer between the two extremes of man and woman, destruction and creation, enjoying both, though I admit, my natural inclinations favor destruction. I feed on humankind and, like any good farmer; I seek the health of my meat animals. I seek to preserve them. In this I, and humankind, men and women, are bound together like the three-fold god Trimurti – Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer.
Do the gods exist? Of course – can any doubt it? But they are seldom as men imagine them to be. A man sees their power and clothes them with a body not unlike his but stronger, more beautiful, more majestic. He imagines they wield power much as he would, capriciously and selfishly. Driven by the urges of his own organs of procreation, he endows these genderless beings with the weaknesses and foibles of his own life. The gods and demons both are seen as man wants to see them – gods as what he aspires to and demons as what he fears he will become. But his aspirations and fears avail him little; the spark of his life burns too low for him to become either. I have been present at the deaths of many and feasted upon the flickering embers of life. I know that once the body dies, the life within rapidly dissipates and disappears. That is why I must be there at the moment when one leaves the other, in order for me to feed.
To be honest though, I have met men whose life force is a raging furnace rather than smoldering coals. These men, I could believe, will survive the separation of death, but what they will become, or where they go, I do not know. I have never been privileged to attend upon such a one at the moment of death. Not for want of trying, I assure you, but they have the ability to prevent me feeding. These ones I have learnt to enjoy for other reasons. The minds of such ones often have insights beyond those of common men and knowledge of the ways of the gods.
Have I met the gods? Some of them – but it is not healthy for one such as me to be close to the gods. Even the ones who are most concerned with living things, with the preservation of creation, show a disturbing inclination to destroy Rakshasas, Nagas, Yakshas, Anusaras, Asaras and all the other beings who are called demons by these self-righteous beings. I try not to stay close to gods – they are not trustworthy and far too powerful. Hardly better are the men who are called heroes by mankind. They too will destroy demons but heroes at least have weaknesses and with a little thought and cunning, can be survived.
I once met a hero and a god together and lived to learn from the experience.
I cannot tell you what battle it was that gave me life, or even when, for I did not learn to count the years until many seasons had passed. In those early days I wandered the hot and dusty plains, clothing myself in whatever form I chose, sometimes letting the flame of my being re-animate a dead man or woman on a whim, or traveling as a breath of wind or pale, dancing flame under the pale glow of the stars. I roamed the streets of towns and cities, watching, learning, and feeding, mingling with prince and peasant, merchant and farmer, child and courtesan. When I felt the need for solitude I wandered the dark forests or rested among the tombs and graves in the lonely places, knowing that few people would venture there.
After a while I came to a place where two great rivers meet, the Yamuna that flows south from the White Mountains, and the Chambal, coursing from setting to rising sun. Mighty floods of water they are, with many people living along the banks but I felt myself drawn to the north and presently, on the banks of the Yamuna River I found the forest known as Khandava. Entering it, I felt at peace – a strange feeling for I had never been one to stray far from violence. I walked through its leafy glades, along sun-dappled paths and into bright open pastures of lush grass where elephant and gaur grazed alongside red and spotted deer. Swarms of brightly colored butterflies danced around blossoms high in the trees or gorged on rotting fruit among the leaf litter; birds called and monkeys screamed. At night, the darkness pulsated with the sounds of insects and frogs, constellations of fireflies lighting up the meadows. Tigers dwelt here too, but these predators are intelligent and could see past the disguise I had assumed to my inner flame. They melted silently from my path and all I glimpsed was a hint of red pelt or soft white underbelly.
Men lived in the Khandava, though to hear the stories in later times one would think they were a race of demons. They called themselves Nagas and worshiped snakes, in particular the great hooded cobra. Their priests handled the huge serpents fearlessly and were seldom bitten. The Nagas were as one with their forest and tended it, keeping out the woodchoppers and the charcoal makers, preventing hunters from pillaging the thickets. Being eaters of fruit and grain, the Nagas were not feared by the animals of the forest and carried no weapons to defend themselves. The only animal that occasionally did them harm was the leopard and against this night killer they had no defense save to barricade themselves inside their huts at night.
I stayed in the Khandava forest and preyed on the Nagas as I needed, taking the guise of a leopard. This did them little harm, for I took only as I needed and my presence repelled real leopards which would otherwise have killed many more. I never entered their villages, being content to find a lone traveler on the less-frequented paths and appear to him or her. My guise was perfect and as the traveler’s terror reached a crescendo, my teeth and claws extracting their life, I fed on the delicious storm of emotion that raged within their dying minds.
I could have lived like this for years, but unknown to me, the Nagas had bitterly offended five kings who lived in the city called Indra-Prastha on the borders of the forest. One of these kings, Arjuna, and his cousin the god Krishna, sought revenge and brought raging destruction down on this peaceful place.
Here is how it happened …

Chapter One

The Khandava forest lay clean and sparkling in the early morning light. Mists rolled and swirled above the deep waters of the Yamuna River as it meandered through dense thickets, grassy meadows that swept down to the dark rush-clothed water’s edge and between rock-strewn shores where the surface of the flood roiled and danced above the dimly heard clatter of boulders in its green depths. Dew hung in myriad tiny droplets from grass and leaf, bending the light of the rising sun back in a sparkling array of jewels that flashed like the gems in a king’s treasury. The air hung heavy and cool, moist still, but already the touch of the sun promised the burning heat of summer.
Down by the water’s edge a small herd of chital deer drank, the does and half-grown young with heads down while the buck stood with head raised, snuffing the air for the least scent of danger. Nothing stirred and the faintest of breezes blew from across the river, bringing with it nothing more ominous than the whiff of fresh elephant. The buck snorted and stamped a forefoot, bringing two of the does to alert. After a few moments they relaxed again and the buck turned to slowly scan the meadow behind him once more. The wind, such as it was, blew from him toward the meadow and his questing nostrils could not tell him anything. Instead, his eyes sought for any sign of danger, his ears for the sounds of bird and beast that might warn of the presence of a predator. A pair of jays chattered in a tree top nearby, seeing nothing that might disturb them.
A fallen tree lay angled across the meadow, the gnarled and splayed-out roots closest to the herd. The buck swept his eyes over the trunk and as the wind bent the grass stems a hint of red caught his attention. He froze, staring at the place, looking for the flash of color to come again. The wind died away and the green of the grass was once more unbroken against the peeling brown bark of the fallen tree. After long moments, the buck stamped his foot again and dipped his head, lowering his lyre-shaped antlers for an instant before turning away.
As he turned, the chattering of the jays in the nearby tree stilled. At the same instant, the grass by the fallen tree parted and a half-grown tigress erupted from cover, the rippling muscles of her hind legs and flanks propelling her in a burst of reddish death toward the small herd. The bark of alarm from the buck as he pivoted, launching himself away from the predator, startled the does into panicked motion. They scattered. The tigress raced by the buck, so close they almost touched, but she disregarded him, her attention fixed on the doe she had spent the last hour stalking. She closed on her even as the doe bunched her legs beneath her, her mouth gaping, eyes wide in terror. Predator and prey collided at the water’s edge, the force of the impact carrying them both into the shallow water. The doe bleated once before her spinal cord was severed, and her legs kicked spasmodically for a few seconds.
The tigress stood over her prey, straddling the body of the chital doe, her eyes scanning the now deserted meadow and the faint sounds of the scattered herd fading into the forest. Slowly, the bird song started up again. Lowering her head to nuzzle the doe, the tigress gripped the deer by the base of the neck and walked stiff-legged from the water, head held high. She carried the body to the fallen tree and deposited it near the tangle of roots. After licking the blood from the wounds around the neck she lay down, ripped the thin skin around the doe’s anus and started to feed.
The sun climbed higher, driving the mist from the river and banishing the dew. The tigress finished her meal and walked sedately down to the water’s edge to drink heavily before seeking the shade of the forest. A monkey screamed an alarm from the tree tops and followed the tigress as she walked slowly along a game trail toward her lair at the base of a tall sandstone outcrop near the top of a small hill. As she climbed beyond the trees, the monkey fell silent, staring in the direction of the hill and grumbling to itself. The tigress slumped to the ground in the shade of the rock and stared out over the tops of the forest trees toward the edge of the woodlands where small figures could be seen. Neither scent nor sound carried that far and the tigress disregarded them, settling down to sleep her meal off. Her eyes closed though her other senses remained alert for several minutes. At length, she was lulled by the serenity of the sun-bathed forest beneath her, and she slept.
Far below, on the edge of Khandava forest, a light chariot stood facing the dense vegetation, the two white horses in the yoked traces stamping and blowing with the effort of staying still when their senses told them they should be moving. In the light wooden framework of the chariot itself stood two men, one tall and fair, the other shorter and stockier, dark-haired and dark-skinned. Both carried themselves with a regal bearing, the fair one with the consciousness of being a king in his own lands, the darker one with the unassuming arrogance of one who knows himself above all others.
The tall, fair man raised his eyes to the flag fluttering at the tip of a supple bamboo pole fixed to the rear of the chariot. The figure of a gray and blue ape squatting on a yellow background was a well-known standard even beyond the realms of Indra-Prastha and gave the king one of the names by which he was known – ‘Kapi-dhwaja’ or ‘ape-standard’.
“The wind has changed,” the king known sometimes as Kapi-dhwaja commented matter-of-factly.
The darker one nodded and smiled, white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “You will have good hunting, cousin.”
“You will not join me? The more I practice, the better I get.” The fair man held up his strung bow and pointed toward the forest with it. “Besides, Gandiva is hungry.”
“I do not need to practice,” the dark one said softly. “None are more skilled with the discus than I.”
The fair one laughed. “Sometimes I forget you are a god, Krishna. You take on the ways of men so well; I could almost believe you to be one.”
Krishna inclined his head graciously. “And you cousin, are so skilled with the bow, one could almost believe you to be a god.”
The fair one grinned. “So you will not hunt today?”
“No, but I will drive your chariot if you will let me.”
“Gladly. There is no-one I trust more.”
“Then see, Lord Arjuna,” Krishna pointed to where the path leading into the forest had been cleared to allow the free passage of the king’s chariot. “The master of the hunt approaches.”
From the forest a man came hurrying. He wore a white cotton churidar and tunic like his lords in the chariot and his lustrous black hair was swept back and tied behind with a scarlet ribbon. Across his chest from left shoulder to waist he wore a sash of bright red as befitted his rank. He slowed to a walk as he neared the chariot and dropped to his knees, staring up at the tall figure of his king, third son of Pandu and one of the five rulers of Indra-Prastha. Beside his monarch a pearly nimbus, hardly visible in the bright sunshine, surrounded the features of the dark one.
“My lords,” the master of the hunt said. “All is prepared. At your signal we shall beat the forest and drive the game.”
Krishna frowned and it seemed for a moment as if the sunshine lost its strength. “You are having the game driven toward us? Where lies the sport in that?”
Arjuna laughed and handed the reins of the chariot to his friend. “Nothing so tame. I have had the path widened to take a chariot but the game will be driven across our path. We shall drive through it, never knowing what will appear before us.” He looked quizzically at the god. “Of course, if you have not the courage …”
For an instant the air around the chariot crackled as faint blue sparks jumped from the metal fastenings. The horses reared and screamed in sudden panic, calming only as Krishna held out his hand. “We shall see who lacks courage today, cousin,” he said softly. Cracking the reins, the god urged the horses forward, forcing Arjuna to grip the sides to prevent himself falling back. Bouncing and jolting, Krishna drove the chariot across the field toward the gash in the forest wall. Behind them, the master of the hunt leapt to his feet and waved his hands frantically to his servants waiting by the forest edge. Horns blew urgently and within minutes a great cacophony of sound rent the air as a thousand men sounded horns, clashed bronze swords on shields, beat on drums or just used their voices, ululating wildly into the still air, shattering the peace of the forest. Other men armed with long staves beat the bushes and grass, driving out the animals.
The chariot charged down the forest track, the horses in full gallop with the light wooden carriage bucking and heaving, sometimes leaving the ground entirely only to return with a teeth-jarring thump. Krishna stood flatfooted on the wicker flooring, his only grip being on the reins with which he guided the straining horses. He moved with the swaying chariot, effortlessly, a smile on his dark face, as if he stood on solid ground. Arjuna shook back his long tawny locks and grinned fiercely as he hooked one strong leg around an upright and reached for the first arrow from the three quivers attached to the front of the chariot.
A herd of chital burst from the undergrowth fifty paces in front. Arjuna slipped an arrow into place and in one fluid movement raised the bow Gandiva and loosed the arrow. The buck took the shaft behind the left front leg and cart-wheeled, dead before it slammed into the ground. Two does followed their leader into death before the chariot flashed by, Arjuna yelling in triumph. A brief pause, during which the only sounds were the drumming of hooves and the rumble of the wheels then a wild pig appeared. The beast stopped in the trail, facing the onrushing chariot and Arjuna sent an arrow into its eye. The horses trampled the fallen animal and the chariot wheel bounced high, forcing Arjuna to grab the frame. A peacock flew overhead, its streaming tail of blue and green a brief beacon in a patch of sunlight before it fell dead in an explosion of feathers. A flock of pigeons, a darting hare in an open glade, more chital deer, gaur, and an old water buffalo, crossed the path of god and king and died, each one pierced by Arjuna’s shafts. After several miles through the dense forest, the winding track re-emerged into bright sunlight where gaily-colored pavilions of cotton and silk fluttered in the breeze of the open meadows. The ape standard flew prominently and men hurried to catch the bridles of the sweating horses, to rub them down with toweled cloths, to hand gold goblets of chilled fruit juices to man and god.
“You have not lost your eye,” Krishna said calmly, offering a blessing to a servant proffering a tray of fruit. “Seventeen arrows and every one of them a hit.”
Arjuna wiped the sweat from his face and grinned. “I cannot miss with Gandiva in my hand. But neither have you lost your touch with horses, Lord Krishna. I thought we were going to come apart there once or twice.”
“The horses love me. They merely do what I ask of them.” The dark one handed his goblet to a servant and looked back at the forest. “Shall we return?”
The king nodded. “I have not yet killed a tiger. No hunt is complete without one.” Arjuna accepted a bundle of arrows and refilled the quivers in front of him. “The cowardly animals will have passed by now. The courageous ones will delay until the beaters drive them out. We should go.” The fair one set his jaw grimly and gestured back toward the forest.
The chariot leapt forward again, re-entering Khandava along the packed earth and scythed grass of the trail. Almost at once a leopard bounded across the track, turning as it reached cover to defy the pounding horses. Its ears flattened and it spat angrily, a snarling whine of rage as its muscles bunched beneath the glossy spotted pelt. Arjuna smiled and loosed an arrow that sprang across the rapidly closing gap, piercing the creature’s right eye. The leopard reared, clawing vainly before falling shuddering to the leafy floor of the forest as the chariot swept onward.
The game of the forest was now in full flight as the beaters advanced, the cacophony of sound making the air itself shudder. Animals and birds poured across the trail, sometimes right under the flying hooves of the horses and the blurred wheels of the chariot. Krishna’s iron control held the horses on their course and Arjuna was in constant motion, sending arrow after arrow into the fleeing animals. He emptied two quivers and was starting on the last when a great trumpeting cry sounded, the leaves on the trees shaking as the blast passed over them.
“Hathi,” Krishna said with a smile, drawing the chariot to a halt. He lifted his face and sniffed. “A bull in musth. Do you wish to flee, cousin?”
Arjuna snorted derisively. “There is no man or beast I will not face.”
“He is cunning,” Krishna said. “He will not leave the forest.”
“So take us into the forest.”
Krishna smiled again and urged the horses forward into a gap between the tall trees. The wheels slammed against exposed roots, hurling the chariot into the air and forcing Arjuna to hold on grimly. Krishna stood his ground, seemingly unaffected by the careening vehicle. They plunged deeper into the forest, passing between the tall columnar trunks of teak and the more twisted ones of neem and pipal. They crushed the spindly young seedlings worshiping the sun with up-stretched arms and bruised the briars and the young bamboo. The dhaak trees blazed with orange blossoms that shivered and fell as they passed, and they plunged through thickets heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. The ground dipped toward tall grass meadows taller than a man and became softer underfoot, the horses having a harder time of it as the mud clung to the chariot wheels and their hooves. The squeals and trumpeting of the unseen Hathi led them on to an area of shorter grass before suddenly stopping. Krishna reined in the horses and they listened.
“He comes,” Krishna said softly. “Over there.” He pointed to a thick stand of Acacia a hundred paces away to their right.
A gray shadow moved beneath the trees, silently, the only sign of his passing the whipping of the branches. The elephant burst out of the thicket and came straight for the chariot, trunk outstretched between two stained tusks. The tarry deposits of musth dripped from the inner corners of the beast’s eyes, staining his cheeks. A bellow of rage whipped the ape standard about, flicking the cloth out with a snap.
Arjuna calmly fitted an arrow to Gandiva and let fly, but the shaft bounced harmlessly from the bony dome of Hathi’s skull, merely drawing blood from a shallow wound.
“You’ll have to do better than that, cousin,” Krishna observed, and turned the horses away from the onrushing beast, urging them into flight.
Arjuna did not answer but picked another arrow from the quiver and deliberately took the time to examine the shaft. He fitted it in his bow and looked up at the charging elephant that filled his sight. Soundless now except for the rushing of air, Hathi stretched out his trunk until it was but a hand’s breadth from the man with the bow. Calmly and without seeming to hurry, Arjuna measured the rise and fall of the chariot as it careered over the soft ground, then lifted his bow. At the instant the finger of the elephant’s trunk touched him, he released the bowstring, Gandiva flexed convulsively and the arrow leapt down the animal’s pink gullet. Hathi squealed in agony and dropped back, shaking his great head.
Arjuna touched Krishna’s shoulder. “Turn us. I will finish him.”
Krishna nodded and swung the chariot in a wide circle, leading them back to where the elephant stood trumpeting his rage and pain. Blood gushed from his mouth and his trunk sought out his enemies, though he ran no more, but lurched and staggered.
“Take me past on his left side.”
The horses responded to a finger touch and changed course. As they neared the elephant swung round in an effort to face them but could not turn fast enough. Arjuna fitted an arrow and placed another between his teeth and, as they passed Hathi’s great head, the fair one leapt from the chariot and landed running. He stumbled and almost fell before stepping forward into the shadow of the elephant. Arjuna drew back the string and pressed the arrow tip to the great chest beneath whose gray hide he could hear the muffled drum of the beast’s life. He released and the arrow disappeared, sucked deep into Hathi’s chest.
The elephant’s head went up and he screamed loudly, spraying blood in a pink mist, rounding on his tormentor. Arjuna danced back, snatching the second arrow from his teeth and fitting it to his bow. Hathi lurched forward, trunk questing, but his life fled as he moved and he fell like an avalanche in front and around Arjuna.
For several seconds the man stood still, looking wide-eyed at the outstretched trunk to his left and a great tusk that ripped a furrow in the grass right up to his right foot. A smile grew to a grin then by leaps and bounds to a roar of delighted victory. He raised Gandiva suddenly and fired it directly upward, without looking, piercing the burning humid air.
Krishna leapt down from the chariot and ran lightly across the grass and up the elephant’s trunk to its domed head, the swelling curve of its belly, and to where Hathi’s backbone stood out as great knuckled fists beneath the wrinkled hide.
“A noble animal, cousin, and bravely fought. I withdraw my earlier accusation.”
Arjuna bowed smiling. “Accepted, my Lord Krishna.” A muffled thump on the grass behind him swung Arjuna round, his hand drawing uselessly on his empty bow. A dozen paces away lay a transfixed crow, a few feathers drifting in the still air, his last arrow firmly wedged in its body. He laughed delightedly and the dark one joined in from the back of the dead elephant.
“Today I cannot miss, even when I do not aim.”
“Who is it that hunts in the sacred forests of Khandava?” The voice hung in the still air, seemingly directionless. Arjuna pivoted, scanning the edge of the forest and the long grass.
“There.” Krishna pointed a dark finger toward the Acacia trees from whence the elephant had charged only minutes earlier. A short, stocky man in a plain brown robe stood in the shadows. The hair on his head hung to his shoulders in a silvery mane, merging with his beard to form a gleaming halo around his head. Despite the man standing motionless the robes writhed about him ceaselessly.
“What is it to you, stranger?” Arjuna asked. “Who are you?”
“I am Naga Mura. These are my forests. I allow none to hunt here.”
Arjuna laughed. “Has no one told you these are the forests of Khandava, gifted to the sons of Pandu as their inheritance from King Dhrita-Rashtra? I am Arjuna, one of the five Pandava.”
Naga Mura gave no sign he was awed by the presence of the king. He nodded toward the body of the elephant. “And who is that who so arrogantly bestrides the body of fallen Hathi?”
“I am Krishna,” the dark one said, leaping down to the ground. He walked over to Arjuna’s side and looked intently at the man in the brown robe. “You are of the sons of Kasyapa and Kadru, Nagas created to rule below the earth. Why are you so far from your domain?”
“I am Naga Mura and I answer to no-one save the god Indra, under whose protection these forests lie.”
“Then you will know that I am his son,” Arjuna said. “And that I and my brothers rule from the city of Indra-Prastha.”
“I care nothing for those that call themselves sons of Indra. I honor his holy name and keep his sacred forest clean of wood cutters, charcoal makers and hunters. In his name I bid you leave at once and never return.”
“And if I will not?”
Naga Mura shook the sleeves of his robe out. “Then my servants will kill you,” he said calmly. Two long cobras slithered out of his sleeves and moved rapidly toward Arjuna. “Their bite is certain death, arrogant king.”
Krishna bowed his head and made a subtle gesture with his right hand. The snakes stopped and coiled, rearing up with hoods expanded.
A look of fury came over Naga Mura’s face and he hissed loudly between his teeth, stamping the ground in a complex rhythm. Within minutes, the grass of the meadow started swaying and rustling as other snakes converged on the spot, from long black cobras to small but deadly krait, and even giant pythons from the forest depths.
Krishna gestured again but not all of the serpents stopped. “I would suggest a tactical withdrawal,” he commented.
Arjuna bared his teeth. “Call them off, Naga, or suffer the consequences.”
“Go. Leave my forest and never return.”
Arjuna sidestepped the coiled cobras and ran to the chariot. He snatched an arrow from the almost empty quiver and whirled to face the Naga, his bow drawn. “Are you willing to die, Naga?”
“You cannot kill me.”
“You think not?” Arjuna released the bowstring and the arrow sped across the clearing, transfixing the Naga, slamming him back against a tree and holding him upright. The man slumped down and his eyes clouded in death.
“A pity,” Krishna commented. “I was hoping his arrogance was founded in power. It would have been an interesting experience.”
“Leave this forest.”
“What?” Arjuna and Krishna stared at the lifeless corpse pinned to the tree. “Who speaks?”
“I, Naga Mura.” A man in brown robes stepped out from behind the tree, his silver hair and beard glowing like a halo under the sun-dappled trees.
“What are you?” Arjuna asked, frowning. “Are you that one’s brother?” He pointed at the dead man.
“I am Naga Mura. I rule in this forest in Indra’s name. Leave, vile hunter and never return.”
Arjuna turned and snatched another arrow from the quiver on the chariot. “If you are Naga Mura, then you must die. I am happy to oblige.”
“Wait,” Krishna said, holding up one dusky gray-blue hand. “He is a Naga priest. You cannot kill him this way.”
“I recognize you, Lord Krishna,” Naga Mura said. “Do not interfere. This fight is between me and this man.”
Krishna brought his hands together in front of his face and he bowed slightly. “He is my friend.”
“Then I regret you will die with him.” Naga Mura gestured and the snakes broke free of the god’s restraints and resumed their approach.
“My friend, we must leave. Come, before my beautiful horses are killed.” Krishna leapt up onto the chariot platform and held out a hand to Arjuna. With a show of reluctance, the fair king stepped up beside the god and Krishna urged the horses into flight.
Arjuna never took his eyes off the Naga priest as they rode back into the cover of the forest. “I make a vow,” he said softly. “And I call on the gods to witness it. I will kill every Naga within this forest.”
“And how will you accomplish that? You saw the effect of your arrows.”
“I will find a way. There must be a way.”
Krishna kept silent until they were out of the Khandava forest. Around them, the king’s men hurried to collect up the dead animals, marveling at the precision of Arjuna’s bowmanship. “There is a way,” he said at last.
“Tell me.”
“Fire. Even the Naga priests cannot withstand the flames.”
Arjuna snorted. “Nothing simpler. I will send my thousand beaters back with torch brands. I will lay waste to Khandava.”
“Even at the cost of destroying your property? Would it not be wiser to seek another solution? Take the problem to your brother Yudhi-shthira.”
“I have made a vow. I cannot take it back.”
“Fire alone will not suffice.”
“What do you mean?”
“The forest is wet. Lord Indra is generous and brings heavy rains to soak the trees, the shrubs and the grass. An ordinary fire will not consume the forest.”
Arjuna scowled, his eyes flashing with anger. “Then what will?”
“Agni.”
“The god of fire? Why should he help?”
“Lord Agni has long coveted Khandava. Only Indra has kept him out.”
“Then let us invite him to a feast.” Arjuna smiled. “I can offer him a meal that will satisfy even the appetite of a god.”
Arjuna and Krishna returned to the great palace at Indra-Prastha. Dismissing the servants and making excuses to Arjuna’s brothers, the other four kings, they made their way up onto a great flat roof that overlooked the palace gardens and many miles of rich farmland in front of the distant blue-green swathe of the Khandava.
“How do we invite the Fire god?”
“I know a mantra that will invoke him,” Krishna replied. “It is not to be used lightly for a man invokes the gods at his peril. However, in this case, your purpose matches his.” The dusky god sat cross-legged, facing the sun and started a low droning murmur. Arjuna strained to hear but could not make sense of the words. After a long time, Krishna fell silent.
“Is he coming?”
Krishna nodded. “Watch the sun.”