The Secret of the Nagas (Shiva Trilogy #2)

by Amish Tripathi

Before the Beginning

The boy was running as fast as his feet could carry him, the frost-bitten toe sending shards of icy pain up his leg. The woman’s plea kept ringing in his ears: ‘Help me. Please help me!’

He refused to slow down, sprinting towards his village. And then, he was yanked effortlessly by a large hairy arm. He was dangling in the air, desperately trying to get a foothold. The boy could hear the monster’s sickening laugh as he toyed with him. Then, the other grotesque arm spun him around and held him tight.

The boy was shocked into stillness. The body was that of the hairy monster, but the face was of the beautiful woman he had just fled away from moments ago. The mouth opened, but the sound that emanated was not a mellifluous feminine one, but a blood-curdling roar.

‘You enjoyed this, didn’t you? You enjoyed my distress at being tortured, didn’t you? You ignored my pleas, didn’t you? Now this face will haunt you for the rest of your life!’

Then a grotesque arm holding a short sword came up from nowhere and decapitated the gorgeous head.

‘Noooooooo!’ screamed the little boy, snapping out of his dream.

He looked around his straw bed, disoriented. It was late evening. A little bit of sunshine had made its way into the otherwise dark hut. A small fire was dying out near the door. It suddenly burst into flames with a fresh breath of oxygen as a person rushed into the tiny room.

‘Shiva? What happened? Are you alright, my son?’

The boy looked up, completely bewildered. He felt his mother’s hand wrap itself around him and pull his tired head down to her bosom. He heard her soothing voice, sympathetic and understanding. ‘It’s all right, my child. I am here. I am here.’

The boy felt the fear release from his taut body as his eyes shed long held back tears.

‘What is it, my son? The same nightmare?’

The boy shook his head. The tears turned into an angrier deluge.

‘It’s not your fault. What could you have done, son? He was three times larger than you. A grown man.’

The boy didn’t say anything, but stiffened. The mother continued to gently run her hand over his face, wiping the tears away. ‘You would have been killed.’

The boy suddenly jerked back.

‘Then i should have been killed! I deserved it!’

The mother was shocked into silence. He was a good son. He had never raised his voice at her before. Never. She quickly set this thought aside as she reached out to soothe his face. ‘Don’t say that again, Shiva. What would happen to me if you died?’

Shiva curled his small fist, banging it against his forehead. He kept at it till his mother pulled his fist away. An angry, reddish-black mark had formed right between his eyebrows.

The mother held his arms down again, pulling him towards her. Then she said something her son was not prepared to hear. ‘Listen, my child! You yourself had said that she didn’t fight back. She could have reached for his knife and stabbed him, couldn’t she?’

The son didn’t say anything. He just nodded.

‘Do you know why she didn’t do that?’

The boy looked up at his mother, curious.

‘Because she was practical. She knew she would probably be killed if she fought back.’

Shiva continued to stare blankly at his mother.

‘The sin was being committed against her. And yet, she did what she could to stay alive — not fight back.’

His eyes didn’t waiver for one instant from his mother’s face.

‘Why is it wrong for you to be as pragmatic and want to stay alive?’

The boy started sobbing again as some sense of comfort seeped silently into him.

Chapter 1

The Strange Demon

‘Sati!’ screamed Shiva, as he rapidly drew his sword and started sprinting towards his wife, pulling his shield forward as he ran.

She’ll run into a trap!

‘Stop!’ yelled Shiva, picking up his pace as he saw her dash into a cluster of trees alongside the road leading to the Ramjanmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya.

Sati was totally focused on chasing the retreating hooded Naga, her sword drawn and held far from her body, like a seasoned warrior with her prey in sight.

It took a few moments for Shiva to catch up with Sati, to ascertain that she was safe. As they continued to give chase, Shiva’s focus shifted to the Naga. He was shocked.

How did that dog move so far ahead?

The Naga, showing surprising agility, was effortlessly navigating between the trees and undulating ground of the hillside, picking up pace. Shiva remembered battling with the Naga at the Brahma temple at Meru, when he had met Sati for the first time.

His slow leg movements at the Brahma temple were just a battle strategy.

Shiva flipped his shield, clipping it on to his back, to get room to run faster. Sati was keeping pace to his left. She suddenly made a grunting sound and pointed to the right, to a fork in the path that was coming up. Shiva nodded. They would split up and try to cut off the Naga from opposite ends on the narrow ridge ahead.

Shiva dashed to his right with a renewed burst of speed, sword at the ready. Sati stayed her course behind the Naga, running equally hard. The ground beneath Shiva’s feet on the new path had evened out and he managed to cover the distance rapidly. He noticed that the Naga had pulled his shield into his right hand. The wrong hand for defence. Shiva frowned.

Quickly coming up to the Naga’s right, with Sati still some distance away, Shiva reached with his left hand, drew a knife and flung it at the Naga’s neck. A stunned Shiva then saw a magnificent manoeuvre that he hadn’t imagined possible.

Without turning to look at the knife or even breaking a step, the Naga pulled his shield forward in the path of the knife. With the knife safely bouncing off the shield, the Naga effortlessly let the shield clip on to his back, maintaining his pace.

Shiva gaped in awe, his speed slackening.

He blocked the knife without even looking at it! Who the hell is this man?

Sati meanwhile had maintained her pace, edging closer to the Naga as Shiva ran in from the other trail onto the path that the Naga was on.

Seeing Sati cross the narrow ridge, Shiva picked up speed, closing in on his wife. Because of the steep angle of the sloping ridge, he could see the Naga further ahead, reaching the wall at the bottom of the hill. The wall protected the Ramjanmabhoomi temple at the base from animal attacks and trespassers. The height of the wall gave Shiva hope. There was no way the Naga could jump over it. He would have to climb, giving Sati and him the crucial seconds needed to catch up and mount an attack.

The Naga came to the same realisation as well. As he neared the wall, he pirouetted on his heels, hands reaching to his sides, drawing out two swords. The sword in his right hand was a traditional long sword, glinting in the evening sun. The one in his left, a short sword with a strange double blade mounted on a central pivot at the hilt. Shiva pulled his shield forward as he neared the Naga. Sati attacked the Naga from his right.

The Naga swung the long sword hard, forcing Sati to step back. With Sati on the back foot, the Naga swerved with his left hand, making Shiva duck to avoid a strike. As the Naga’s sword swept safely away, Shiva jumped high and struck down from his height, a blow almost impossible to defend if the opponent is not holding a shield. The Naga, however, effortlessly stepped back, avoiding the strike, while thrusting forward with his short sword, putting Shiva on the back foot. The Neelkanth had to quickly swing his shield up to deflect the blow.