October 26, 2020

Duel

(c) J. Singh, 2017

It's been a long journey. We have been riding hard for four days, and are finally within reach of Anandpur. But we have lost most of our brothers along the way. Through fierce battles and the ravages of nature, we have made our way, determined to reach our home. But one by one, we have fallen. Until, finally, I am the only one left standing. But I am wounded. And infection has caught up with me. I have lost a lot of blood. My body is weak, vision in my left eye impaired. Fever has taken over and sapped my body of all my strength. I struggle to even take a breath. My faithful horse, who has carried me all this way without food or rest, finally collapses. He is beyond exhaustion. He has given his all. I lovingly pat him on his neck. Thank you, my loyal companion, you have done all that you could.


I scramble to my feet, stumble forward a few steps, and then fall to the ground and into an enveloping darkness. I can't afford to lose any more time, but my body does not obey my will, and just shuts down. When I wake, it is to the worst imaginable scenario. I hear the sound of heavy footsteps and the clinking of chain-mail. Even before I look up, I know who it is. A soldier of the Imperial Mughal Army.


He will not be merciful.


I must get on my feet. I cannot be slaughtered like a defenseless animal while lying on the ground. I must get on my feet. With all the strength I can muster, I push myself on to my hands and knees. I raise my shield above my head for protection, but no blows come. He is waiting. He wants me on my feet before he strikes.


It takes me a minute, but I eventually manage to get on to my feet. My eyes meet his. He is alone, perhaps having been separated from the rest of his troop. His uniform is dirty, his helmet dented and scratched. His shield bears the marks of the sword and the battle axe. There are fresh scars on his face. With elation, I realize that he must have been engaged very recently with the mighty force of the Khalsa.


I take a deep breath and raise my sword. He scowls at me with malice.


"I see you have met my brothers!" I say loudly in Persian, smirking defiantly at him.


That angers him. He growls and immediately attacks, charging forward and swinging his large curved sword at me violently. He wants my head. Perhaps he is unhappy about his previous humiliation at the hands of my brothers. No matter. I will meet him in the battlefield of his choice, even here, even now.


I raise my shield just as his weapon lands, slamming hard into it and sending me
reeling. I take a few steps back and then recover my stance. My head is pounding with a throbbing ache, my body trembling with chills. It is the fever. I feel weak, fatigued, lifeless. Yet, I must resist this foe. I cannot allow him this victory, no matter the cost.


I dig my heels into the soft ground, shield still raised above my head, as I eye him
cautiously. He is the one laughing now. His confidence has increased, since he struck the first blow and received nothing back in retaliation. I am itching to return the favor. But I must preserve my energy. I must be smart if I want to prevail. Patience. Patience.


He gets bored of waiting, and charges again. In a blur he is again upon me, steel
clanging against steel. This time our swords meet and clash together. Again I am pushed back by the sheer force of his attack. I cannot withstand too much more of this. I recover my stance again, and this time the next blows come immediately. My shield protects me. It is the only thing between me and certain annihilation. The split-blade and serrated teeth of his deadly sword is thirsty for my blood.


The constant clashing of metal upon metal tortures my ears. My strength is slowly
ebbing away. I can't see well, my left eye sees nothing now but a blur of an image. I feel my legs beginning to give way. Still, I hold my shield up as he continues to press his attack.


And then he employs a different weapon. A small dagger, the katar. I am so focused on keeping his sword at bay that I barely notice him sweeping the long arc with his arm, and burying the blade of the katar in my side. It finds it's target, and sends a searing pain through my torso.


I cry out in agony and drop to my knees, my shield falling by the wayside. I can hear him laughing. He has launched multiple attacks on me and I haven't been able to respond to even one of them. Now I am on my knees with the blade of his katar in my left side. Whatever poison he laced it with is mingling with my blood and coursing through my veins now, making its way to my heart.


"Now," he speaks in Persian, his voice deep and dripping with hatred, "you will die!"


I look up at him as he stands before me. It must be the smug, taunting look on my face that infuriates him. He growls in rage and raises his fearsome sword.


When the strike comes it will be fast and forceful. If I want a quick, clean death, I should bow my head so that he may strike at the neck and sever the head from the body in one stroke.


But I am not defeated.

There is something inside me, something indestructible, something that can never die. It rises now, coming to my aid in my darkest hour. My pulse quickens, and my strength begins to return. Instead of looking down, I raise my head and look up at my enemy. He is ready to deliver the final blow, to send me to my death.


But I have drunk the nectar of immortality. It has passed through my lips and into my body and has obliterated the fear of death from within me. It rises now, and every cell in my body begins to vibrate with a renewed energy. It revitalizes me and surges with an escalating fierceness within me.

Before he can swing his sword I am already on my feet. I have moved faster than he could anticipate. In the blink of an eye, like lightning, I am suddenly standing right next to him, so close that I can feel his breath on my face. He was not expecting this. He was not ready. I look into his eyes as the blade of my kirpan slowly but surely pierces his skin and enters his neck. He did not see this coming. He was not ready.


He reacts, pulling back so he can have enough room to swing his sword. But it is already too late. The sharp steel has found his jugular vein, and it is sliced open. He staggers back, astonished and in shock. I press in for the final attack, thrusting with the talwar straight into his midsection. It will take a few minutes for him to bleed out, but he will not survive. These strikes are fatal.


His eyes betray his disbelief. He drops to his knees, and then falls on to his side. I drop my weapons and crouch down next to him. I cradle his head in my lap. He is trembling as the blood flows out of his body like a river. His eyes look up at me, imploring me for mercy.


I lean down and whisper his prayers according to his faith, the last prayers for the dying, into his ear. His hand grips my arm tightly. His eyes speak gratitude, relief, and a resignation. He is no longer the terrible Imperial soldier. In this moment, he is just another frightened human being on the verge of the great unknown. All enmity has been cast aside, and he struggles as he grapples with the fear of death. Eventually, he loosens his grip and lets go, and then closes his eyes as his final breath leaves him.


I complete the rituals for his burial as per his customs. And then, weak and weary, I turn towards Anandpur to begin my long, difficult walk home.


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