Maravarman stood at the helm of the bed post, draped over on all sides by gilded azure curtains, which slowly danced in the gentle breeze that broke in through the creaks under the window frame.
The atmosphere was intense and silent, occasionally disturbed by the ten people who shuffled around the bed, most of them sporting rheumy dark eyes with flesh pouches under the eyelids. He felt claustrophobic, and clutched the round knob of the ornate back of the nearby cushioned chair. He could not sit down… not yet. Time was short and he needed his full set of mental faculties to get through the night.
‘Who will be the next king?’ the words leaked out, croaked and constricted, from the throat of Maravarman.
No one answered. Nearby, the Army commander was brooding and silent, his long arms tugging his sharp, pointed beard in slow motion. Even the queen herself was quiet, a faraway look imposed on her glistening eyes. Outside the confines of the fort, the stormy sea smashed against the long pier that jutted in defiance from the age of Monarchs. The noise must have been deafening, but the calculated construction of the tower let slip only an iota of the outdoor chaos and those inside felt only a soft bleating noise against the shuttered window.
The King, Jatavarman, lay on a square-shaped mattress, inlaid with a golden framework with a diamond-studded back rest which was gifted on his wedding day by the Persian Tsar. Where once there had been kind, benevolent blue eyes, there were dim, foggy orbs; of the broad shoulders that had once thrown the last evil tyrant Jakub, there remained only bones that strained against the bleached skin; the King’s mane was reduced to sparse, askew white hairs that could not cover the spotted scalp.
The ruler of Southern Kingdoms was reduced to a weakened soul trapped in a frail body, gasping for breath, any of which could be his last. According to the two physicians, Sekhizhar and Paranidharan, who were huddled closest to the bed, the throne would be vacant by the next morning, judging by the current state of King’s health.
Unexpectedly, a shrill whisper escaped the confines of the King’s lips. The slipped words were incoherent, but in the enclosed space, it was like drawing sharp nails against slate. The discordant note whooped through the mouth again, and this time the verbiage was decipherable. ‘Did anyone answer the call?’
This was the first time Jatavarman had spoken in the last three months. For a moment, they stood in surprise. Then Maravarman rushed to the King, bent his knees and cleared his throat, ‘No, your Majesty. There was no one… In fact, at this moment –’
The words held back at his gullet as the King sat up and stretched out his bony arms. The medics at the bedside jumped back, their demeanor shocked and surpised as if they had seen a ghost.
Maravarman’s left eye twitched and on impulse he held a scream back. He occasionally had premonitions, and this time it was the worst. He had a hunch that things were going to get much worse.
Jatavarman’s milky eyes gazed at nothing, but his jaws moved. ‘Why?’
‘Are you alright, Majesty? We can talk about this later… Right now, you need some rest,’ Maravarman fumbled forward, and began to raise the blankets when a stinging slap slammed him down to the tiled floor.
His head spun in circles, and he could barely see through his filmy eyes as Jatavarman tossed the blankets and stood. Maravarman elbowed his way up, his gait wobbly, legs unsteady and then he ran his shirt sleeve through the eyes. The King stood with his back to him, his pose rigid and hands clasped behind. Somehow the crown was back on his head.
They must have been jubilant due to the King’s miraculous recovery, but the mood was still dark, somber, and a general disquiet spread through the room.
Then the queen shifted forward, and laid her hands upon the King’s shoulders. Jatavarman’s brown mane was radiant and hung down at shoulder length. ‘Lord… are you –’ she groped for words, her heart raptured in emotions and her mind stewed in distrust at the incredible turn of events, ‘— how are you feeling right now?’
Just as the words left her mouth, Jatavarman turned around and walked towards the window. He opened the shutters and the wind blustered in with full blast. Pale, silvery eyes from the full moon illuminated the bed and winked against the blood-red rubies in the King’s crown.
‘It’s good to be alive, isn’t it?’ Jatavarman remarked. Maravarman saw that the King’s body was piecing itself back together like stitching the torn pages to the book. The baggy clothes worn by the King were beginning to fill up to the contours of his former self – fit and muscled. One of the doctors fell back, mumbling what seemed to Maravarman as ‘Sorcery!’ but at that moment, he did not care. His King was not only back but getting better.
Then the King twisted around, and all of them let out a collective gasp. Jatavarman looked as he was twenty years ago, when he had ascended the throne. He had the same charming, radiant smile of the young man when Maravarman had placed the crown upon his head.
But Jatavarman had never struck his uncle once, Maravarman thought, but pushed the thought away from his mind…for now.
Jatavarman walked towards the queen and placed his hand upon her head. She was trembling with trepidation and a primal distress had taken hold of her. Then he hugged her and she cried.
The surrounding courtiers had by then came out of their reverie and shouted, ‘Long like the King! Long live the King!’
Maravarman himself let out his anxious thoughts and tried to concentrate on the moment. His nephew was well and for now, it was enough. He would take him to the temple priest tomorrow… for a cleansing ritual.
The queen had her arms around the King. Maravarman smiled at their reunion as he remembered the marriage. His gaze slid towards the full moon and back to the King, and stopped.
He vaulted back as if a cobra had struck him. All control seemed to have left his body and a hot, coarse liquid stung down his breaches down to the mosaic.
The queen’s left arm was skeletal, and flopped under her blouse. She was totally unaware of it. His vision swept through the throng and all of them had a limp arm, or a bony leg or a smashed-in stomach. No one noticed. They were all of them, overjoyed at the King’s recovery to see anything else.
Maravarman’s gaze swept downwards to see his left arm completely useless. There was almost no sensation, which gradually reduced further, until it hung like a dead weight under his shoulders.
As he lifted his face up, the King was looking right at him. Jatavarman’s eyes had turned blood-red and his smile revealed rows of sharp, canine teeth jutting out beneath his snout.
Then, his arms came up to reveal curved claws that rivaled the mountain lion they had hunted around the same time last year. Then the claws punched into the soft belly of the queen and tore her into two. The King let out a chilling howl and sprung forward. In a few moments, bodies were lying askew; limbs were torn from their sockets, teeth scattered around the floor, heads were loped off — the faces frozen in a twisted grimace.
In moments, only Maravarman and the army commander, Nedunjezhiyan, remained of the people earlier standing inside the room. He hurtled towards the only pillar in the room around which Maravarman had taken shelter. The commander was in his early sixties, but his movements were choreographed with precision. Nedunjezhiyan also had on his standard issue armor – a habit which had probably kept him alive so far.
Maravarman looked down at his blood-spattered toga and sighed. His wife had constantly admonished him for not wearing the traditional armor during the king’s summons. She passed away a year ago, but he still missed her.
Jatavarman had grown and his head almost touched the ceiling. His clothes were torn, and he resembled a bear covered from head to toe in a shaggy fur – only he was two… no, three times the size of the bear. He snarled, and saliva oozed from the corner of his snout.
In a short span of time, the king was reduced to a mere beast who was unable to discern between friend and foe.
It was just a dream… An illusion from which he would awaken soon and be tasked with finding the next man who would become the King and rule the kingdom. His thoughts were fragmented and reality was contorted that’s all. He would awake as usual and –
He was brought back to reality when all of a sudden, the bedroom door caved inwards as the two soldiers guarding outdoor rushed the beast with spears, the sharp tips illuminated by the moonlight. One spear glanced off the thick hide while the other was clutched by the beast and broken in two.
Before they could draw their tulwars from the scabbard, the beast grabbed them in its claws and smashed their heads together. There was a PLOP sound like a watermelon being crushed with a hammer. Then the bodies of the soldiers flopped down lifeless and empty.
Nedunjezhiyan was bleeding from his nose and shoulder, where the pauldron had been torn away to reveal flesh and bone. He pointed the longsword towards the ravaging beast, and his fingers trembled at the hilt. Two serpents with emerald eyes snaked their way from the pommel to form the cross guard.
The window was half-torn and rattled against its rusty hinges. The beast turned and advanced towards them. Maravarman drew a deep breath and came out from behind the pillar.
‘Jatavarma! What happened to you?’ he shouted, but his voice came out hoarse and high-pitched.
The beast paused, and its ears flapped open, perked at the strange sound.
‘Jatavarma!’ Maravarman screamed again, but the beast had already lost interest, and licked its paws with a long, rough tongue.
‘Jatavarman is no more. All that remains is only the mindless beast… a beast that sucks the soul of a living creature,’ Nedunjezhiyan yelled just as the beast slashed into Maravarman, loping off his useless hand.
Maravarman was slammed against the wall, and all breath whooshed out of him. The world swam and spun out of focus. He slapped himself, and saw that the commander was leading the beast away from him.
‘Nedunjezhiya… what are you doing?’ he muttered, but he already knew the answer. Nedunjezhiyan looked at him, and beckoned his eyes towards the open window. Maravarman nodded, and leapt up the windowsill and sat on his haunches. The commander smiled, and raised his sword as the beast’s claw raced towards his gorget.
Before hitting the bottom, he thought that he heard a loud, piercing howl from the top of the tower.
Then hit the sea waves, and the spray of cold water absolved him of his memories and mercifully, he lost consciousness.