It was dark that night, darker than the darkest depths of hell. The rain poured down in torrents, inundating the matter below. Lightning strikes provided temporary illumination followed by ominous rumbling thunder, making noise loud enough to awaken the dead. Howls of wild beasts could be heard occasionally and the wind blowing through the branches made eerie sounds. It was the night of the new moon: the night where evil spirits roam across freely, terrorizing innocent souls. It was a night no ordinary man would step out into.
But King Vikram was no ordinary man. With steadfast determination and unwavering resolve, he walked steadily along the path to his destination. Very soon, he reached the object of his perilous trek. It was a small clearing in the forest at the centre of which stood a tall and strong tree, probably around hundreds of years old with branches tapering out in all directions. Looking up, he saw the object of his dangerous expedition, a corpse of a human being hanging loosely on one of the branches high above. This was no ordinary corpse. It was a corpse possessed by an Indian Vampire, known as a Vetaala. Remembering his promise to the sorcerer, King Vikram climbed the tree and soon reached the branch with the corpse hanging on it. With superhuman strength and agility, he lifted the corpse and slung it across his shoulder taking care not to lose his footing in the process. He climbed down the same way he came up and started his long trek back to the sorcerer's place.
All of a sudden, the vampire which possessed the corpse started to struggle, hoping to escape. The body slung on King Vikram's shoulder started shaking violently. But King Vikram held on with a grip firm like a vice and soon, the convulsions stopped. At length, the Vetaala spoke breaking the ice. 'It seems you have got a firm grip on me. Escaping is futile!', he said in a croaking voice. King Vikram did not reply, for he was sworn on an oath of silence.
'O King of Kings! I am both perplexed and amazed at the tenacity and determination you have demonstrated in taking the corpse back.', the Vetaala continued. 'Time and again, I have given you the slip and yet time and time again you return for the corpse. Such commitment does not belong to the ordinary! You seem to be a King from an exalted lineage.'
The King remained silent, though keeping a keen ear to the words spoken by the Vampire and continued walking along, corpse firmly held on his left shoulder.
'Indeed, the actions and decisions of human beings are difficult to explain, given the circumstances. Since we have a long journey and you are in no mood to set me free, let me regale you with an interesting story, one which should explain the fickleness of human nature.', the Vetaala said.
'Long ago.", the Vetaala began, "The Kingdom of Gopalpur was ruled over by a wise monarch by the name of Raja Markanda. Raja Markanda was an able and just ruler, skilled in politics and administration. Gopalpur saw great peace and prosperity during his rule. Now, in the King's army there was a brave general by the name of Veerabhadra. Veerabhadra was a brave and skilled warrior, well versed in martial arts and all other forms of combat. His exemplary courage in the battlefield and his discipline and dedication for the defence of his Kingdom earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers and the fear of his enemies. Veerabhadra, apart from being a skilled fighter was also a brilliant and experienced war tactician. Those days, Gopalpur was subjected time and again to various attacks from neighbouring Kingdoms, envious of her prosperity, hoping to loot and plunder her vast riches. To counter this, Veerabhadra had strong, un-breach able walls build along the length and breadth of the Kingdom to prevent the enemy from charging in. Owing to this solid defence and Veerabhadra's exemplary courage on the battlefield, time and again the enemy was completely routed and was forced to retreat. Needless to say, Veerabhadra was the favourite of the King and ministers and was considered indispensable for the safety of Gopalpur.
But not everybody in Gopalpur was happy with the current state of affairs. Raja Markanda had a step brother named Shashank. Shashank, unknown to Markanda had his eyes set on the throne, and secretly hatched schemes to usurp it. But Shashank also knew that as long as Veerabhadra was in Gopalpur, he would never be able carry out his schemes. So, with the patience of a vulture hovering over his prey, he waited for the right time. As fate would have it, one day the King received news that a large enemy force had gathered on the northern frontier of Gopalpur, ready to launch an attack. Raja Markanda immediately summoned Veerabhadra and commanded him to take a large contingent of the army to repulse the enemy. Veerabhadra soon left for the northern frontier with a huge contingent of Infantry, Cavalry and War Machines. With Veerabhadra now safely out of the way, Shashank saw the perfect opportunity to execute his plans. He invited the King over for dinner one night. Secretly, he drugged the King's food and wine. The King, unaware of the plot blissfully ate and drank to his heart's content. Very soon, the drug took over and the King started feeling drowsy and faint. Shashank, who had been waiting for this very moment signalled to his soldiers hidden in the room. The soldiers launched a sudden attack on the King and his bodyguards. The guards, totally taken unawares by the surprise attack fought back bravely but were soon overpowered and killed and the King taken prisoner. Shashank then called for a public meeting and announced that the King had suddenly taken ill and till he recovered, he (Shashank) would be acting as his deputy. But unknown to the populace, Shashank had made a secret agreement with the ruler of a rival neighbouring Kingdom, Avantika. As soon as he became acting King, Shashank replaced the soldiers guarding the southern gates of the Kingdom with his trusted cronies, ready to obey his command without question. In the middle of the night, while the citizens were sleeping peacefully, he ordered the southern gates of the Kingdom to be opened silently. The soldiers of Avantika were waiting nearby and on being given the signal, rushed inside in full force and launched a scathing attack on the sleeping city. The soldiers of Gopalpur, outnumbered and without the charismatic Veerabhadra to guide them, fought back fiercely but were defeated after a short and bloody battle.
Shashank and his cronies watched over the events in satisfaction. After the carnage, Shashank approached the General of Avantika's army and asked him to carry out his part of the bargain. As per the agreement, the Avantika army would leave behind a large contingent of mercenary soldiers to be placed under the control of Shashank, in exchange for a huge sum of money and treasures. But the enemy had tasted blood and wanted more. Branding Shashank a traitor, they executed him and his henchmen and took complete control over Gopalpur.
In the meantime, unaware of the turn of events, Veerabhadra and his battalion were on their way back to Gopalpur, victorious but exhausted. One of the soldiers of Gopalpur, who had somehow managed to escape the carnage was taking refuge among the trees nearby. Seeing Veerabhadra and his battalion approach, he rushed towards with loud cries of grief and bade them to stop.
"It is you my Lord! Thank God you are safe and sound. Alas, you have arrived too late. Had you arrived sooner, we would not have this terrible fate befall us.", the soldier cried and prostrated himself at the feet of his leader.
Veerabhadra, puzzled on seeing this solider and his disorderly and blood-stained appearance commanded him to rise. "Raise yourself solider, and do not speak in riddles. What are you doing so far away from the Kingdom? Where is your command? Why do you appear so disheveled? What terrible fate do you speak of? Is all well in Gopalpur?", Veerabhadra fired the solider with a volley of questions.
The soldier then narrated all that had happened in the Kingdom after Veerabhadra left. Veerabhadra's heart sank. His beloved Gopalpur was now in the hands of the enemy.
"And what of our King? Is he safe and sound?", Veerabhadra asked nervously, expecting to hear the worst.
"As far as I know, the King is held prisoner in the Royal chambers. They have not executed his majesty yet. But he is surrounded by guards day and night. Escape of any kind is impossible. I have heard that they are planning to keep him prisoner till the ruler of Avantika arrives. The King of Avantika has a long standing enmity with us. He is planning to coronate himself as the ruler of Gopalpur in front of our Raja Markanda and execute him afterwards in full public view."
Rai Bahadur, one of Veerabhadra's favorite lieutenants' flew into a rage upon hearing the story.
"If they think they can rule over Gopalpur, they have another thing coming! Let's drive them out of our Kingdom.", he exploded. Turning towards Veerabhadra, he said, "My Lord! Just give us the order. We will attack them as soon as possible."
Veerabhadra however shook his head. He turned towards Rai Bahadur and said, "We will lose if we go for a frontal attack. The walls of Gopalpur are too strong to be breached even by a full scale army. I had them constructed that way. A frontal attack is tantamount to suicide. Ironically, the walls which once ensured full safety to our Kingdom now hinder us."
"Then what are we to do my lord?", Rai Bahadur replied.
"Patience Rai Bahadur! A proper leader should show patience and courage when things are not in his favor. I was merely saying that a full scale frontal attack will be suicidal as we will not be able to breach the gates of Gopalpur. We should instead focus on an alternative strategy.", Veerabhadra admonished him.
Knowing his leader only too well, Rai Bahadur asked him craftily, "It seems you have a plan in mind, my lord."
Veerabhadra nodded in affirmative and proceeded to outline his plan to Rai Bahadur and a few of his trusted comrades. He gathered them and addressed them thus:
"Brave comrades, our beloved Kingdom has been betrayed and now lies in the hands of the enemy and our King held prisoner at their mercy. Right now, circumstances are not on our side. But I have a plan to thwart the enemy's scheme. It is a very risky venture, something from which we may not return alive. But now is the time your Kingdom, your motherland needs you. Now tell me, who among you is willing to lay down your life for your country?"
"WE ARE READY MY LORD!", a loud chorus came from the group. Veerabhadra smiled. This was the very response he was expecting. He proceeded to outline his plan.
"As I said earlier, a full scale attack on the Kingdom is impossible. The walls are too strong and we will be sitting ducks for their archers and war machines. Hence, we will have to attack by stealth.", he addressed.
The soldiers stood with bated breath, hanging on to each word.
"Somewhere in between the Northwest corner and the Western walls, the river Prabhavati flows into our Kingdom, coming all the way from the mountains. The foundations of the wall over the river have a few holes to permit the flow of the water through them. These holes are large enough for us to pass through and extend not too deep below the surface. If we can swim past these holes, we will easily enter the Kingdom without being seen. Only I and a few trusted people know about this. I'm sure the enemy doesn't", Veerabhadra commented.
"But my Lord, what if the enemy has placed soldiers on one or both side of the walls, anticipating such a move from our side?", Rai Bahadur asked.
"I have anticipated that and have found the solution too.", Veerabhadra replied confidently. "We will create bags of Goatskin filled with air which we will use underwater as the need arises. We can use them to swim a long distance underwater without being detected. We will enter at night, when they will not expect anything untoward to happen. After we reach inside, we will go around in complete stealth towards the western gates and dispose of the guards there. Then we will open the gates and signal our army waiting outside to march in and launch an attack. We will attack them the same way they attacked us, in the middle of the night; unprepared. Do you have any other alternatives?"
"None my Lord! This plan is positively brilliant!", the lieutenants chimed in unison.
Veerabhadra chose Rai Bahadur and a handful of his trusted comrades for his stealth team. He then left the army under the command of Shankar Narayan, another of his trusted comrades and ordered them to be ready and waiting some distance at the Western Gates.
"Take care not to bring the army too close to the gates, lest the enemy will spot you and raise the alarm.", Veerabhadra advised Shankar Narayan before departing. Shankar Narayan replied in the affirmative.
Advising thus, Veerabhadra and his team left for the river banks on horseback. Shankar Narayan assumed temporary command of the remaining army and ordered the soldiers to start marching towards the western gates. Veerabhadra and his team reached the river banks near as it was nearing nightfall. Sounds of drunken revelry could be heard within the Kingdom. Veerabhadra and his men used nearby trees as cover, waiting for Shankar Narayan and the troops to gather in the required position.
"It seems they are celebrating tonight. That's all the more good for us. Most of them will be drunk and too inebriated to put up resistance.", Rai Bahadur said.
"All the same, let us not take anything to chance. We will move in complete stealth.", Veerabhadra replied. The others nodded in agreement.
Soon night fell and Veerabhadra and his men removed their Armor so that they would not be hindered by it's heavy weight while swimming underwater. They changed into dark stealth attire and discarded most of their heavy weaponry by the trees. They filled their goatskin bags with air and dived into the water. Veerabhadra led the team with Rai Bahadur and others following closely. The current was flowing towards the walls so they just had to make the minimal effort and staying afloat following the tide. As the walls approached, Veerabhadra signalled his team and they submerged in the water, using the goatskin bags for air. After swimming a fair distance underwater, Veerabhadra signaled his team to rise up. Slowly and quietly they arose and looked around. There was no-one to be seen near or far. Cautiously, they approached the river bank and climbed out. Veerabhadra took a head count and after making sure all were present, he addressed them in whispers, "We've made it inside. So far so good. Now follow me with utmost stealth and caution. To the Western Gates!"
"To the Western gates!", his team-mates whispered. They set off in complete stealth, their black outfits blending in the night. Sounds of revelry could be heard coming from the palace. The team proceeded unhindered, taking care not to be seen. Soon they approached their destination. There were only a few soldiers placed on guard at the gates. The general apparently had full confidence in the robust defense gates of Gopalpur. This was soon to be his undoing. Veerabhadra and his team crept up to them in complete silence, unseen and unheard in the darkness. After coming at close range, Veerabhadra gave the signal and the team pounced upon the hapless soldiers like tigers. Taken completely by surprise, the soldiers were eliminated quickly. Veerabhadra and his team soon raised the gates and signaled Shankar Narayan, lighting a torch.
Shankar Narayan, waiting some distance nearby saw the gates open and ordered his solider to rally around. They marched into the city and launched a surprise attack on an unprepared enemy. The enemy was taken completely by surprise, their soldiers too drunk to fight back effectively. The people were overjoyed on seeing Veerabhadra and they too joined in the fight-back with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Soon the tide turned and the enemy vanquished. The enemy general was executed in full public view. Veerabhadra freed Raja Markanda and amidst great pomp and celebration had him crowned once again as the rightful King of Gopalpur.
The next day, the King summoned Veerabhadra to his private chambers. When Veerabhadra approached, he rose and hugged him.
"Bhadra", he said. "Today not only me but the whole of Gopalpur is proud of you. No one, not even my own flesh and blood could have done for me what you have done. "
Veerabhadra stood proud and tall and replied, "Thank you for your most generous words of praise your highness. But I was only doing my duty."
"True. But all the same, I and the Kingdom remain indebted to you forever for your brave deeds. To show my appreciation, I wish to appoint you as my personal advisor on Civic and Military matters and state of affairs starting from this very day. It is an honor richly deserved.", the King stated.
"Your Majesty, thank you very much for the trust you have placed on me. Your offer is very generous, but all the same I cannot accept it. I wish to continue serving as general to your Majesty's army.", Veerabhadra replied.
All of a sudden, the King's countenance, which was up till now smiling and relaxed, showed anger. His eyes turned blood red and he rose up and spoke slowly with suppressed rage in his voice, "Are you refusing my offer?"
Veerabhadra replied slowly, his head bent, "Yes my Lord."
The King exploded in a fit of anger and shouted, "In that case, I banish you from my Kingdom this very moment. Leave quietly before dawn and never set foot in this land again."
Veerabhadra merely nodded and without saying a word left the chambers. He left the Kingdom and was never seen in Gopalpur again ever.'
'Now tell me O King, was there not anything strange in Veerabhadra's refusal to accept the coveted position and for the King to banish him soon after?', the Veetala asked, bringing them back to the present. 'The position offered by the King was one which people would have readily killed for, yet Veerabhadra stubbornly refused. Strange as that may be, even more strange is the decision by the King to banish Veerabhadra soon after, especially considering what Veerabhadra had done for him and his Kingdom. Why did Veerabhadra refuse the King's offer and why did the King banish him after his refusal? Answer me O King of Kings! If you keep mum despite your knowledge of the answer, your head will burst into a thousand pieces!' The Vetaala screeched.
'There is nothing surprising in Veerabhadra's refusal nor the King's decision to banish him.', King Vikram replied, speaking for the first time. 'The King was growing more and more insecure with Veerabhadra's growing popularity and power in the Kingdom, especially after this incident. He knew that with the people's support, if the feeling of Power crept inside Veerabhadra then he would one day overthrow the Raja and become King himself. He needed to keep Veerabhadra out of action and under observation at all times. And so he offered the post of personal advisor to him (Veerabhadra) to keep him under his thumb. Veerabhadra on the other hand was a seasoned but free-spirited military man. He straightaway guessed the King's intentions. He knew that if he accepted the post he would remain a puppet under the king for his entire life. So he refused. The King then, without hesitation, banished him from the Kingdom, removing the throne once and for all.'
'Well said O King of Kings! Only a wise man like you could have fathomed the answer. However, in answering the question, you have broken the oath of silence. I will now have to leave.', the Vetaala said. And saying so, he suddenly broke free from King Vikram's grip and flew away laughing. 'Goodbye King Vikram! Till we meet again!' he exclaimed and was gone in a flash, leaving behind a furious King, gazing back at him helplessly.