“They saw three men standing by the lake, talking,” Visokan told us with the air of having penetrated some deep mystery.
Dhristadyumna and I were resting in my lodge, talking desultorily of all that we had been through. The war was over – it had officially ended the moment Shalya, the latest commander in chief of the Kauravas, fell to Yudhishtira’s arrows.
When our uncle led the tattered remnants of the Kaurava troops out onto the field that dawn with only Shakuni among the major warriors for company, it was obvious he was prompted not by any expectation of victory as by his own notions of kshatriya dharma, the belief that a kshatriya who once sets foot on the field of battle cannot turn back until the war is won or he is killed.
Arjuna and Dhristadyumna, exhausted from their revelry of the previous night, did not bother to take the field. Sahadeva replaced me at the head of our forces and, as soon as the bugles sounded, headed straight for Sakuni’s position.
I saw no sign of Ashwathama and Duryodhana in the Kaurava ranks, and decided to stick close to Yudhishtira, to guard against some last minute surprise.
A messenger came with news that Shakuni had fallen. So many years ago, while waiting for the final throw of dice that would send us into exile, Sahadeva had told me he would one day seek out and kill Shakuni – another promise fulfilled and one more left, looming ever larger in my mind.
Off to one side of the field, Nakula had engaged Shalya. Yudhishtira headed in that direction, seemingly intent on battle. Over the last 17 days he had never once been part of any decisive battle involving a major warrior on the Kaurava side; he alone among us had no deeds the balladeers could praise in song.
My brother seemed bent on redressing that. Racing his chariot past Nakula’s, he challenged Shalya to direct combat. I maintained position to his left and a little behind, from where I could keep an eye on the field and intervene if necessary.
Yudhishtira seemed to be managing well enough against our uncle. My brother was fairly skilled in fighting from the chariot, but Shalya was his equal or better – and unlike Yudhishtira, our uncle had a lifetime of experience to draw on.
Discreetly, without giving my brother reason to suspect I had taken a hand, I used a few cleverly placed arrows to cut the traces of Shalya’s chariot. The suddenly freed horses bolted, bringing the Madra king to a standstill. I fell back to await the inevitable outcome; sure enough, Shalya soon fell before Yudhishtira’s arrows.
Our troops roared in celebration as the Kaurava army, now bereft of leaders, turned tail and ran. The war was, finally, over.
“Duryodhana still lives,” I reminded Yudhishtira as we headed back to camp.
“I saw him fleeing from the field, heading in the direction of the river,” Visokan interrupted. “He was alone and on foot.”
When we reached camp, Yudhishtira summoned Yuyutsu and charged him with rounding up a few boats and conveying our womenfolk to Hastinapura. Born to Dhritarashtra through a serving maid, Yuyutsu had abandoned the Kaurava side after the events in the assembly hall and, once our term of exile was over, joined our camp.
With Nakula and Sahadeva to help, Yudhishtira immersed himself in the task of breaking up the camp and preparing for our return. I left them to it and went back to my lodge; Dhristadyumna found me there a few minutes later, and it was as we were sipping from a skin of sura, talking of all that we had been through, that Visokan entered the lodge with two tribals in tow.
“These are hunters who live in the forest here,” Visokan told us. “They saw three men standing by the river bank, talking.”
Three men talking by the riverbank – what, I wondered, was Visokan fussing about?
“They say these three were talking to a fourth person who couldn’t be seen…”
“Duryodhana!” Even as the realization dawned in me, Dhristadyumna raced out of the lodge, yelling instructions to the soldiers.
Within minutes, a force mounted on horseback raced in the direction of the river with instructions to flush out the fugitive.
“We’ll go see if we can pick up his trail,” Visokan said, running towards my chariot with the two tribals in tow.
The hubbub had alerted everyone in our camp. I climbed into Dhristadyumna’s chariot and we set off after Visokan; Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhishtira and the others followed in our wake.
A tribal was waiting at the river bank to guide us; at his direction, we moved away from the river and through the woods until we came upon an immense lake that, the tribal told us, was known locally as Dwaipayana.
Visokan was waiting for us. “He is hiding in there,” he told me. “We tracked him from the riverbank to this place. These men are sure he is in there somewhere – they think he could be hiding in one of the subterranean caves.”
The lake stretched in front of us, calm, placid. Amidst the rushes near the bank, a few boats bobbed about.
“It is not possible to find him – we don’t know where to start looking. The only thing to do is shame him into showing himself,” Krishna suggested.
Yudhishtira approached the bank of the lake. “Duryodhana! Coward! You wanted this war – you wanted the kingdom for your own, so come out and fight for it like a man!”
“Is it manly for so many of you to surround someone who is exhausted, and defenseless?” The voice came to us from amidst the rushes. Duryodhana was hiding in their midst, sheltered from sight by the boats.
I toyed with the idea of diving in, and going after him.
“I have had enough of this war, enough of Hastinapura,” Duryodhana’s disembodied voice floated out to us. “My brothers are dead, my friends are dead, what is there left for me? Of what use to me is a kingdom of widows? I give it all up — let me go, I will retire to the forest and do penance for the rest of my life…”
“Have you no shame?” My brother seemed inspired by a rage he was no longer in control of. “You send your brothers, your friends and relatives to die for the sake of your greed, your selfishness – and all you care about now that they are dead is saving your own skin?!
“I will not take the kingdom without defeating you. Come on out and fight – it is the least you owe those who died for you. Pick any one of us — single combat, your choice of weapons… if you win, Hastinapura is yours!”
I chanced to glance at Krishna, and saw his face crumple in dismay at these words. “Are you mad!” he muttered in disgust. “What if he picks you or Nakula or Sahadeva – and chooses to fight with the mace?
“Apparently the sons of Pandu are destined to spend their entire lives in some forest or other, because this man is at heart a gambler!” Krishna walked off, muttering to himself.
I noticed movement among the reeds. Duryodhana emerged, caked in mud from head to toe, his favorite mace with the golden handle in his hand.
“I accept!” I saw the glimmer of hope in his eyes as he walked towards Yudhishtira.
My brother stood there crestfallen, unable to take back the words he had spoken in a moment of unthinking arrogance.
I stepped forward.
“We have a history between us, Duryodhana – and many, many debts to settle,” I said, eyes locked on his. “Let’s settle it all right here, right now. Maces – and only one of us walks out of here alive.”
“The man who can defeat me with the mace is yet to be born, you fool!” His voice was harsh with contempt.
I laughed in his face. “That’s right — I remember now. The first time we met, during the trial of strength, Drona had to stop me from killing you. And the last time we met, on the field of battle, you ran like the coward you are!”
He hesitated; it seemed to me that for that one instant in time, he was contemplating the escape route Yudhishtira had so carelessly offered him. And then something snapped; his arrogance — and the contempt he always had for me — kicked in, as I had hoped it would.
“Come!” he said. “Our battle will be one for the gods – and when I am done with you, your brothers can wander in the forest for the rest of their lives, knowing you died in vain.”
My trick had worked, just when all seemed lost. I had him now.