As the elephant charged at the Vaishnavar, Nambi threw his staff at the elephant’s face. Vandhiyathevan saw that the staff hit the elephant on its forehead. When Vandhiyathevan’s gaze returned to where Nambi was standing, he could not find the Vaishnavar. The elephant charged to where Nambi was standing before. Its front feet slipped on the loose sand, and with a loud roar, the elephant started slipping down the abyss.
The harder it tried to regain ground, the further it slipped down. It made one last attempt, but failed. The large animal slipped down the ravine. It let out an earth-shattering roar. It rolled down the steep slope crushing every plant and stone in its path.
Vandhiyathevan walked over to where it had slipped and saw this sight with astonishment. He felt sorry for the Vaishnavar. He was a good man and had been good company on this journey so far. It took a few minutes for the dust to settle, and Vandhiyathevan was still staring down the abyss.
“Thambi, what are you still looking at? Give me a hand, will you?”
Vandhiyathevan jumped in shock. He looked towards the direction of the voice. He saw Nambi hanging from a stout root that stuck out of the ground a few feet away from where he was. Vandhiyathevan’s joy knew no bounds, and he quipped –
“Vaishnavare, it looks like, while Gajendran got his moksham, you are still hanging in Trishanku’s heaven in the middle. He untied his waist cloth and threw it out towards Nambi, who let go of the root and caught the cloth. The two soldiers and Vandhiyathevan pulled with all their might and got Nambi back on to terra firma.
Nambi heaved a big sigh and lay down for a bit to catch his breath. For a few minutes, the soldiers and Vandhiyathevan let Nambi relax.
Suddenly, Nambi got up with a start.
“Where is my staff? Let us go. We need to reach the Rajapaattai (highway) before it becomes dark.”
They heard the sound of a pack of wolves somewhere.
“The death of an elephant means supper for a large number of animals. They will descend on this area very soon. We need to hurry.”
The four of them hurried down the forest path. By sunset, they reached the Rajapaattai. There were many chariots and wagons of different kinds. There were people walking down the highway. There were also people who were riding on top of elephants. Vandhiyathevan had never seen something like this before and looked around with inquisitiveness.
“Nambi, where does this highway come from? And where does it head to?”
“This highway starts at Anuradhapuram and heads to Simhagiri. Thambalai is about an hour’s journey from here. We should stay the night there.”
“Couldn’t we have come through the highway all this while? We could have come here so much more comfortably.”
“Yes. We could have. We would have been stopped at a hundred security check posts. It would have taken us forever. I heard from someone that the person we are seeking was last seen near Simhagiri. That is why I brought you here through a shortcut.”
On either side of the Rajapaattai, there were several houses and shops. The people who inhabited these areas seemed to look like Sinhalese. There was heavy Chozha troop movement on the highway. The people, however, were going about their normal lives, without any fear of the Army.
“Nambiyaare, is this town with our troops or the enemy?”
“Up until Thambalai, it is under our control. I hear that areas around Simhagiri are still with Mahendran.”
“And the people here?”
“Most of them are Sinhalese. The Prince has been fighting the war in a very righteous manner. The war is only between the Sinhalese soldiers and the Chozha soldiers. The normal people are not to be affected in any way. That is the order from the Prince. The Buddhists here are also a very happy people now. The Prince is rebuilding several Buddhist Viharas that were damaged during the war. I am very upset with the Prince for doing this. I will definitely let him know my discontent.”
“Oh yes. You definitely should. How can the Prince do something that Nambi does not like?” said Vandhiyathevan sarcastically.
“The Prince, however, has this one singular power that no one else has. Whatever one might talk about him behind his back, when you go and meet him in person, you just melt in front of him. He has that power. The only person on this Earth, who does not get affected by his charm, is Princess Kundavai. Her wish is his command.”
“Oho, is that so? I thought you were talking about your sister, Nandini Devi.”
“Nandini also has some powers, but she is different from the Princess. When Princess Kundavai encounters a man, who is jumping into the fiery pits of hell, she would convince the man against it and show him the way to heaven. Nandini, on the other hand, would convince the man that he was actually jumping into heaven, and make him jump in with joy.”
Vandhiyathevan shuddered on hearing this analogy. He was surprised to see how well this Veera Vaishnavar knew about the enchanting powers of Nandini. He kept thinking about whether Nandini could really be Nambi’s sister. They walked on in silence for a while.
The silence was shattered by the sound of the hooves of four horses that approached from the opposite direction. The horses were galloping at a brisk canter. In a fleeting moment, when the horses passed, Vandhiyathevan recognised one of the riders – Parthibendran. Vandhiyathevan wondered what he was doing in Lanka at this time. Vandhiyathevan knew very well that Parthibendran did not like him too much.
After riding a little further, the horses came to a screeching halt and turned around. The riders slowly rode up towards Vandhiyathevan.
“Ade, look who is here. What a surprise to see you here? Last we heard was that you had magically disappeared from Thanjavur. I was thinking that the Pazhuvettarayars had finished you off.”
“It is not that easy for the Pazhuvettarayars to finish me off.”
“Oh yes. I know very well that you are a master of vanishing to save your life.”
“I know when to stay and fight, and when to run to save my own life. And if I do want to fight, I would rather fight Pallava warriors like you than fight people like the Pazhuvettarayars.”
Saying so, Vandhiyathevan pulled out his sword from his scabbard.
“Chi, I will not waste time fighting you, and that too in this faraway land. Anyway, what happened to the job that the Prince gave you?”
“The job is all done. I have delivered the scrolls to the Emperor and the Princess.”
“And what are you doing here now?”
“I have always wanted to visit Lanka. I met this Vaishnavar on the way, who offered to bring me here and show me around.”
Parthibendran looked at Nambi, “I seem to have seen this man also before.”
“It is very much possible, sir. I came to meet Prince Aditya Karikalan when I was searching for my sister. You were with the Prince when I came.”
“And who might your sister be?”
“The lady who is now the Queen of Pazhuvoor – Nandini Devi.”
“Aha. For all the treacherous work that she is doing now in the kingdom, I should ideally kill you, for being her brother.”
“Anyway, did you hear any news about the Prince? Has he reached Anuradhapuram?”
Nambi started, “We do not know anything about the Prince. We came by the forest route. En route, there was this mad elephant…”
“Stop. Enough of your rambling.”
Parthibendran and the other three men turned their horses and galloped away.
“Thambi, do you know any of the remaining three men with Parthibendran?” asked Nambi.
“No. I have not seen any of them before.”
“Hmm. I am not surprised that you have not seen them. I have seen two of them. I saw them at the Thiruppurambiyam Pallippadai. They were part of a bigger gang of men, and what a terrifying pledge they had taken, that day.”
“What did they pledge to do?”
“They pledged that they would get rid of the entire Chozha royal dynasty.”
Nambi shuddered thinking about that dark night.
“I wonder how these two got here before us. And I wonder how they got the company of this Pallava prince.”
Vandhiyathevan remembered the lighthouse keeper’s words in Kodikkarai. He had said two men had come the previous night, and had persuaded Poonkuzhali’s brother to take them to Lanka. These two might be the men. I wonder how Parthibendran is related to these two men.”
The four men were nearing the Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Thambalai.