Chapter 33 – A Beauty Among The Branches
Vandiya Devan departed for sight-seeing in Tanjore, with the two men sent by the Commander following him on both sides. He had no doubt about the fact that they followed him to prevent his escape. Surely, orders would have been given to stop him if tried leaving the fort by the gates.
Nevertheless, I must escape before nightfall. Escape may become impossible after the return of the Elder Lord of Pazluvoor. My very life may be in danger. Therefore, while he roamed here and there looking at the sights of Tanjore City, Vandiya Devan’s mind was active trying to formulate a plan of escape.
First, I must escape from these messengers of death and then I must get away from the fort. How? That is the question.
Thinking various such thoughts he walked around. Suddenly he recalled the Young -Queen of Pazluvoor. Ah! If anyone would help me in this fort it is likely that she would! Even that is doubtful… But I can try some hoax in the name of Azlvar-adiyan Nambi. If I am to meet her, I must first find out the whereabouts of the palace of the Elder Lord Pazluvoor. Even if I find the palace these louts must not know that I am meeting the Young-Queen. If they know, they will report the incident to their master. Who knows the consequences of that? Moreover, what will happen if the Elder Lord returns when I am inside his palace? It will be like deliberately thrusting one’s head into the lion’s cave.
While thinking such thoughts, his eyes and lips did not keep quiet. His lips kept questioning his guides, “What is that?” “Who is that?” “Whose mansion is this?” “What building is there?” “What is this tower?” His ears were eager to hear something like “That is the mansion of Lord Pazluvoor” or “It is the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor’s mansion” — but nothing like that was said. His eyes searched and noted details in all directions.
One thing was revealed in this examination. He noticed that though the two wide, main streets inside the fortress were busy and crowded, there were several side-streets which were quite empty. Alleyways, and lanes abounded. One could enter those lanes and by-ways and escape into the thickly wooded parks; hiding in there would not be difficult even for a couple of days. But he must hide unnoticed by anyone and no one must search for him. Hiding was not possible if the Commander ordered a search by all his men.
Or, I must seek asylum in someone’s house. Who in this fort will give me asylum? The only possibility is the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor. I must use all my imagination and make up some story to force her into believing me. Before that I must free myself of these two men. Oh! What is this cheering and shouting? Such commotion! — Who are all these men marching by? Oh God! I now have no doubt about you being on my side! Here is the opportunity — here I see the strategy for escape…
When they had turned into one side-street, Vandiya Devan had seen the large group of men walking past the intersecting main street. He recognized that crowd to be the men of the Velaikara Battalion. As usual they had presented arms to the Emperor and were leaving the fort by sunset.
If only I could mingle into that crowd of men. There will be no better opportunity to escape.
The men following him would not let go of him so easily. If he mingled into the procession, they too would follow him. Then it would not be easy to exit from the gate. The gatekeepers would not be easily fooled. They would be able to easily stop him. Still I must try. There is no other way .. God has given this opportunity, I must make use of it … If I don’t, there is no greater ignoramus than me!
As usual, he looked at his guides and asked, “What is this crowd?” They replied, “Velaikara Battalion of Velirs.” He showed an eagerness to learn more details of that battalion. He declared that he too wished to enlist into such a brave battalion, therefore he wished to examine the procession more closely. While conversing in this fashion he had approached the marching men. Declaring a wish to look at the men in the front who were beating the kettle drums he quickly mingled into the procession.
As the procession marched on, he did not stay in the same place for he too moved up and down the column, here and there along the line. He cheered more lustily and loudly than the enlisted men. Some of those men peered at him with suspicion. Others looked at him thinking he had drunk more than his share of country liquor! But none held him back or stopped him.
The footmen of the Younger Lord of Pazluvoor who were guarding him, did not have the courage to mingle with the men of the Velir Battalion. They felt confident of catching him when he emerged from the procession once again. Trying to keep an eye on their quarry they walked on, along the sides of the procession.
He made up his mind in one second! We already know that determination and execution are one and the same to our hero. So, with shouts of “Go”, “Catch”, he too began following the other two men — running into the alley behind them. The milkmaid ran into an alley and turned into a tiny by-lane. When the men following her turned into the path, she had disappeared. The man chasing her, now gave up. He and his friends turned back to rejoin the parade. But Vandiya Devan did not turn back. He ran further into the by-lanes and alleyways leading off it. He ran down a few such streets and then slowed down to a steady walk.
Was it not usually sunset, by the time the Velaikara Battalion exited the fort? The side -streets through which he walked were now covered in darkness. In one street he noticed towering walls enclosing both sides. Tall fences abutted the street in some parts. Thicket fences hid the grounds beyond the street in some places. Vandiya Devan kept walking without stopping anywhere, unconcerned about the direction.
If I avoid the main or larger streets and wander through these lanes, I must finally reach the outer walls of the fortress. Once I am there I can decide about what to do. I have the whole night to think of some scheme. Very soon it was night and darkness encompassed everything. The path on which he walked dead ended into a towering wall. Walking in the darkness he collided lightly into that wall; but, he could not make out anything about what that wall was or how high it was.
Perhaps this is part of the outer ramparts. Then it is best to sit right here. The moon will soon rise and cast some light. There can be no safer place to hide than this dead end! By now the men would have gone back to report to their master. The Commander would have sent his men in all directions in search of me. Perhaps he will suspect that I have escaped and gone outside with the parade of the Velir men. They will search for me inside as well as outside the fort. Let them search; search very well. If I don’t fool all those men and escape from this fortress, my name is not Vallavarayan of Vaanar family.
After moonrise the light will help the searching men also. They may even show up in that dead end in search of him! Let them come. So what! If they come, I will jump across the wall and hide in the woods. Then, who can find me?
The gentle breeze, the swishing sounds of tree branches rubbing against each other and his tiredness after the long day compounded together to make Vandiya Devan sleepy. He sat down leaning against the wall — and soon was asleep.
When he woke up after some hours, he saw that the moon was riding the low skies. Moonlight filtered through the leaves of the thick trees and cast shadows on the ground. He could make out the outlines of the buildings around him. He tried to recall his situation. He was incredulous about having fallen asleep like that. Even more, he was astonished at awakening suddenly like that. What was that noise that woke him? Some voice had called to him … Was it human or was it the call of some beast? Or was it the call of some night bird that startled him? — Did he really hear something?
Vandiya Devan looked up above him. In the half light of the moon, he saw the high rising wall. Ah! this cannot be the fortress wall. The fort will have thicker and taller ramparts. Perhaps it is an inner wall encircling the city inside the outer ramparts. Or, could it be the outer fence-wall of some mansion?
He stood up, examining the top of that brick-wall more closely. For a second his heart stopped beating. His intestines rose from his stomach to come and choke his throat. Such terror possessed him!
What is that figure, on the wall hiding amongst the tree branches? He had read and heard too many stories about ghosts and vampires that dwelt in trees.
But, can ghosts talk? Will the vampire call out softly? That too in the sweet voice of a woman? This vampire seems to be talking, saying something?
“What Sir? Did you fall asleep leaning on the wall? How many times am I to call you?”
him? Let what may come, come! Let whatever happens, happen! Let me go up this ladder onto the top of this wall. I can find out the details later.
When he was half way up the ladder, the girl spoke again, “What a tardy fellow you are! the Young-Queen is waiting out there. Here you are asleep against the outer wall!”
In the astonishment of hearing these words Vandiya Devan almost fell off the ladder! Luckily he caught hold of the top of the brick wall and climbed up.
Young-Queen — it can only mean the Young-Queen of Pazluvoor! How did she know about me coming and sitting here in this alley? She must know some magic or sorcery! Why does she have such an obsession in meeting me? Perhaps, perhaps I am going up the ladder meant for some other fellow! So what? — I am not going back now. I can find out everything soon enough.
The girl lent her hand and pulled him up onto the wall. The shining moonlight almost revealed his face. But the girl did not say anything. He was now ready to accept any astounding happening that was about to take place.
“Umph! Why are you sitting and gaping like that on the wall? Pull up the ladder and throw it inside; jump; quickly.” With such quick orders the girl climbed down the tree deftly.
Vandiya Devan followed her instructions. He realized that he was now in the grounds of a large garden. In the distance he could spy the lighted windows, turrets and balconies of a mansion, as if in some dream world. He cleared his throat to ask whose mansion it was. Immediately the girl placed her index finger upon her sealed lips and hushed, “Ushh!” She walked ahead down a garden path. Vandiya Devan followed her.