The shrill hooting of the owl followed by incessant barking, cut through the dark night like a knife. A chill went down her spine and sweat trickled along her temples. She was hanging precariously on the window sill of the first floor, hiding among the eerie shadows cast by the Palace. Holding on to the sill with a valari ( Tamil boomerang) and sword weighing her down and fingers aching to let go, she gritted her teeth and looked towards the clock tower. The men guarding the Fort of Ramnad were weary after the long celebrations of Vaadai Vizha. ( Winter solistice) The drinking and merry- making must have made them unusually lethargic, she mused to herself. Safety cannot be compromised and she will be proving it to her dear father tomorrow by day break. Her lips curled into a mischievous smile as she thought of her father and his hell of a temper. And she did want to stir the hornet's nest often. She loved how her friends named her- Tempest- aptly due to her fast and furious persona, something that she inherited from her father.
A small rustle underneath the jasmine climber caught her eye. All her senses went on alert mode as three figures hurried out of the dark corridors into the courtyard, huddling close together. One look at them, she was relieved. So, they have indeed come here. What a nerve- entering the Palace of Chellamuthu Sethupathy in the middle of the night was not cake walk, they would have to pay dearly for it. She snatched her sword which gleamed under the starry night and slashed at the jasmine climber. The twigs broke with crackling sound and the commotion brought a team of soldiers rushing. The three figures in the courtyard looked up at her, whistled and climbed the jutting pillars. Laughing loudly now, she followed suit quickly, jumping from pillars to the neem trees surrounding the courtyard with the deftness of a seasoned climber.
All the four of them held hands together as the noisy footsteps of the guards woke up the entire palace. Scaling the Fort wall, the four of them jumped on to the waiting horses and rode away, thundering into the dark night. The soldiers followed as quick as they could. Only when the first valari ( Indian boomerang) struck the man in the middle of the pack on his knee, did they realize who it was. Such accuracy in throwing the valari belonged to only one person in the whole Kingdom- they discussed among themselves, lost track of the foursome soon and trailed back.
|Valari- The ancient Tamil boomerang|
Only when they entered the clearing in the middle of the forest did the four horse riders stop. She shook her head and started laughing till tears rolled down her kohl laden eyes. The other three followed soon and the laughter of all four of them echoed through the forest. "I won", she said finally, still her body rocking with laughter. "Oh no, you cheated us, if you hadn't cut the climber, we wouldn't have woken the entire palace up", said the towering Periya Maruthu. His dark handsome face shone with happiness as his eyes roved lovingly along the woman seated on the horse next to him. Kuyili lowered her eyes as Periya Maruthu stared at her without batting his eyelids. Chinna Maruthu was too tired to even speak as he felt his head still spinning, under the influence of the liquor he had with his friends. Yet he glanced longingly at Kuyili, the pretty damsel clad in men's clothes. Velamma had won her bet, yet again!
As the horses drank water to their hearts fill in the stream nearby, the four friends lay on the banks, whispering and giggling in the dark. Life had always been fun-filled for the four of them, the closest of the friends, all students of Udaiyar Servai. Servai taught them the skills of war, literature, religion and what not. The Maruthu brothers were lucky enough to learn under their own father, Velamma thought. Kuyili on the other hand counted herself lucky to have earned the friendship and trust of the Maruthu brothers and Velamma. A commoner who had nothing, no name, no family name to cling onto. She was glad to be the disciple of Servai. The friendship and bonding the four shared earned the envy of many, including the King of Ramnad himself!
Meanwhile, in the palace, all the lamps had been lit and the rumor mill was abuzz. Queen Sakandimuthal almost ran to her daughter's room and heaved a sigh of relief at the sleeping figure on the cot, covered head to toe. As the King thundered into the room, she took a few deep breaths and faced him. " Poor one, she is fast asleep. Let us move out", she whispered and awaited his reply. "Who? Your daughter? That mischief monger is out again in the forest with her friends", he bellowed and pulled back the covers. A bunch of pillows lay clattered beneath the covers- the Princess was missing. The door had been locked from outside, then how could she have got out, the Queen thought and much to her chagrin discovered the bed linen twisted and used as a rope, hanging down the window sill. "Let her come back tomorrow, I shall teach her a lesson", she said and left the room quietly. King Sethupathy paced his room, tense and angry. This little girl, all of sixteen, was now beyond his control. It is time she got married. Sethupathy was planning his daughter's wedding, as the Princess Velamma lay blissfully asleep in the forest, bathed in the moonlight.
p.s.: This is purely fiction, but draws heavily from the life of Queen of Sivagangai, Queen Velu Nachiyar(1720- 1780), the first ruler who revolted against the British in India, much ahead of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
p.p.s.: This series is named Queen of Spades, acknowledging Queen Velu Nachiyar's intelligence, practical and intellectual judgement.
p.p.p.s: Beware- long series ahead:)