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Golden Stob, Silver Stob

~ 2 ~

A kingdom of towering peaks and lush valleys, open tracks and rushing streams, Girikshetra, the realm of Adripati, Maharaj Keertivarman was a rich and fertile land, prosperous and happy. The beautiful capital, Girindranagara, nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas.

To the north beyond the snow-clad mountains, and to the east beyond the reed wealds, lay the lands of the mysterious Kinnaras, the Yakshas and the Nagas - all mighty and powerful tribes. To the west, over a month's journey away, lay the small kingdom of Magdh, a petty principality of forest dwellers... and to the south, six days away from the capital by the fastest horse, stood the southern border.

Beyond this mete lay the impenetrable jungle of the riverine plains... once a powerful kingdom and now a forest that no man, nor king, had ever entered in the past fifteen years...

It was a forest devoid of all living creatures - man or beast - and infested with the most terrifyingly hideous ghouls and goblins, and ferocious man-eating ogres.

Luckily for the people of Girikshetra, the powerful magical charms of Kovidhacharya, the Royal Priest, had arrested all further progress of those terrifying creatures to the north, to the great lands of the Varmans.

Old Arunoday stood helpless, shaking as he watched the Prince mount the horse...

All his pleas, and his abject supplications, had failed to dissuade the Royal Prince, and now his old heart beat in dread of the King's wrath, his limbs frozen stiff with fear and apprehension.

The Master Chamberlain, the Grand-Master Chamberlain, the young Captain of the Palace Guards; even the old nanny, Vishakha, and the ancient Dhananjay, a man who had supervised and monitored the Prince's education and training in the affairs of the State as a young boy, and who loved the prince dearly, stood in dread having failed to stop the young Prince.

The pages, the footmen and grooms stood in the distant shadows, stiff with fear and dread... watching the Prince, glorious upon his magnificent steed...

He had made up his mind, and there was nothing that could stop him now!

"It's just a quick spin around the outer palace grounds," the prince smiled down at the men, "I won't be gone for long, and His Majesty will never know!"

The boys, his friends and companions, had begged too, pleading with him... but how could they possibly refuse their Prince, challenge his orders... and so, silently they too mounted their own steeds... totally resigned to their fate, sure that once their escapade was reported to the King, they would, all of them, be impaled upon the spike in the Royal Square of Justice - a punishment reserved for high treason!

The Prince spurred his horse and was gone in a cloud of dust... vanishing from sight even before the assembled onlookers could blink... leaving them staring on in horrified consternation.

"O, the Prince... the Prince..." went up a terrified cry as the assembled group - chamberlains, footmen and friends - scrambled...

The friends, sons of nobles and lords, quickly urged their horses; while the Captain and the Palace Guards mounted their own, each speedily galloping away in the general direction that the Prince's horse seemed to have taken.

But no matter how fast they rode, and how far they went... they could see no Prince - there was no sign of Kandarpavarman, nary his horse - he seemed simply to have vanished into thin air...

All was lost...

There would now be a terrible price to pay!

Kandarpavarman hurtled through the jungle in a blinding flash, the horse seeming to fly...

He didn't know where he was, or where he was headed... but it surely felt exhilarating - the wind in his face, the scented zephyr through his long, silken hair... the susurration of the breeze through the thick foliage... and the total silence of the woods... It was simply amazing!

On and on the horse galloped, untiring... weaving his way through the heavy growth, unhindered... further and further... before finally breaking free of the tangle and emerging onto open ground... the impenetrable woods suddenly, miraculously giving way to a bare, undulating weald... as large as the largest city.

Dusk was fast approaching, the western horizon streaked with the fiery amber of the setting sun... and in that light Kandarpavarman saw, standing upon the crest of the rise, the most magnificent castle that he had ever set eyes upon... shimmering in the last fading lights of dusk.

The horse moved on in a full gallop, finally coming to a stop before the massive gates, rearing and neighing, stamping the ground with his fore-hooves.

Kandarpavarman dismounted and looked up in awe...

Everything seemed to be gigantic - the gate, the soaring ramparts, and the lofty towers; the monolithic bastions, the crenelated battlements, the cleverly fashioned machicolations and embrasures... the stone a breathtaking shade of yellow, glittering like burnished gold!

Where was he? And what was this land? Who did this massive castle belong to? - He wondered as he looked on.

Why was it standing alone... where was the city... where were the dwellings and streets? How could a King's palace be set in the middle of wilderness... without homesteads and commune?!

From the movement of the sun in the sky, the Prince had already guessed that the horse had carried him south... the impenetrable jungle that he had just crossed, and the whiff of sea that the wind was now carrying to him only confirmed that conclusion. But how could that be possible?

It took a good six days by the fastest horse to reach the southern border... and then to cross the unending forest of the south to the very end of land - over two month's worth of journey - and all in just a couple hours?!

It was hard for him to imagine, to comprehend... and yet, he had indeed left his own kingdom far behind and was now standing at land's end, close to the sea... had actually travelled to this faraway land... It was fascinatingly incomprehensible!

Was this then some magic horse? Or, was it a Pokkhiraaj, those extremely rare breed of flying horse?!

Or, could it be that this was some magical trick of those ghouls and goblins that infested the woods? Once he had entered the forest, they had possessed the horse and brought him here... making it do the incredible feat of covering this great distant in just a couple hour?!

At that thought the Prince quickly drew his sword, glancing around... ready to give battle to anyone who dared to confront him.

But no, there was no one about... neither ghouls, nor demons... nary a monster, nor an ogre.

Was this then some preordained destiny... some karmic duty that he had to perform? That, which the stars had foretold... and the Royal Priest had cautioned against?

Looking around once more the Prince slowly went up to the massive entrance gateway and lifted the knocker, letting it fall...

The stillness of the evening was shattered by the resounding boom of the golden knob striking the base, but nothing stirred - neither bird nor beast... and surely not any man!

The Prince knocked once more, but it went unanswered...

It was fully dark now, and the air was getting decidedly cooler by the minute, well, he would surely need a shelter for the night, and the only thing for him to do was enter the castle... search within... if not a man, at least hope to find sanctuary from the elements.

He pushed and the door silently swung open... revealing an enormous, colonnaded tympanium, the cavernous vestibule brightly lit by mashaals (flambeaus and torches).

Fascinated, the Prince walked around, noting each ingenious defensive feature - the strategically placed embrasures and parapets, the cleverly constructed machicolations... marvelling at the perfection of the craftsmen... wondering where the guards might be... why the gatehouse was deserted...

Finally tying his horse in the small alcove behind the door, Kandarpavarman walked out onto the grand courtyard of the castle... paved with marble and surrounded by flowering trees and shrubs in full bloom... gasping in awe as he saw the Royal Palace loom before him...

It was the finest structure that he had ever seen, the grandest Palace!

Lofty arched entranceways guarded by rampant lions and elephants in marble, massive colonnaded verandas with carved balustrades... ornamental pavilions, sweeping ramps and stairs greeted his eyes. Everything was made of, or clad in the finest marble, lavishly decorated with delicate floral patterns... the niches and alcoves along the entire outer wall adorned with inscribed banderoles and exquisite sculptures... Auspicious markings and symbols etched over the doorways and arches.

It was all fantastic... extravagantly opulent!

But here too, there was not a single living creature in sight... everything quiet and silent. And like the gatehouse, the whole area was brilliantly lit by brightly burning mashaals.

Walking up the portico steps Kandarpavarman entered the building... stunned by the sheer scale and grandeur of the palace interior - the massive colonnaded halls and passageways, the lofty rooms, the winding stairways leading to higher floors, and down to the cellars... The walls and columns covered with the most delicate carvings, which were then decorated with inlaid gold and silver filigree. The corbels, cornices and entablatures trimmed with gold finials and encrusted with glittering corals, pearls, lapis lazuli and other gemstones; the large windows framed by rich tapestries and gossamer silk...

Luxuriant rugs covered the marble floors, and the ceilings were an intricate tracery of teak with inlaid silver, from which hung chandeliers and ivory punkhas (hand-pulled fans) trimmed with silk and brocade.

Kandarpavarman went from hall to hall, and room to room... strode the unending passageways, and explored the numerous inner-courtyards... examined the Royal Court, the Assembly of Nobles, and the Throne Room...

But the same scene met his eyes everywhere - each room, hall and passageway brightly lit and furnished with every manner of furniture appropriate for the setting, each piece beautifully carved and inlaid with brass and ivory... everything spotless clean and sparkling - and yet, no sign of a living soul anywhere, the entire place resonating with the silence of a crypt!

And the most puzzling thing of all was the total lack of any portraits or busts; a complete absence of arms of any kind - the walls of all the rooms and passageways, and even the galleries, empty!

He quickly realised that it would take days and days, if not weeks, to explore the castle... and yet, an inexplicable curiosity continued to tug at his soul... goading him on to explore further... climb up the stairs and check the upper floors...

Though tired, hungry and totally bewildered, he finally gave in to that urge, and went up... but here too, the high-vaulted passageways and the spacious rooms, each lavishly furnished and spotlessly clean, stood absolutely empty. He ran from room to room, and hall to hall, but saw no sign of life...

Utterly exhausted, he finally threw himself down on a couch in one of the landings at the furthest end of the passageway, wondering where everyone was... why the magnificent palace was empty... when his eyes caught sight of another corridor, set at a weird angle to the passage he was in, one that he hadn't noticed earlier... and at the end of that corridor was a closed door...

He sat up, pondering... all the doors of the palace, every single one - from the front door to that of each room that he had explored - had been wide open... then why was this single door closed? What did the room contain? What secret lay within?

Kandarpavarman rose, gripping his sword firmly... and slowly... cautiously, advanced towards the closed door... his heart suddenly beating fast, every muscle in his young body taut with excited anticipation...

to be continued...

If you like the story, please mail me: outlaw@aol.in

Copyright © Author, Nov, 2011

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[Golden Stob, Silver Stob]