Once Upon a Fort (Part 2)

Many years passed. The king had conquered many a kingdom, yet retained the fort as his capital city. Sometimes, when he was not attending to his noble duties, he would walk around the fort, proud of how impenetrable it was. And he would think of the architect, and the last conversation they had had.

The clarity of that memory always surprised him.

The men had returned from their surreptitious swim and were being dried by the King’s men. The king was elated with the architect’s handiwork, and ordered his men away after they had clothed them in fresh, dry robes.

“Why water?”, the King had questioned the architect as he stood tall and proud.

“It is a personal touch that I give to every structure I construct. My palaces have elaborate water fountains and water falls within the rooms. I had constructed fish tanks that doubled as seats in chambers of princesses. This is the first time I attempted an escape route within the water source of the fort, sir”

“But why water?”

“I would prefer not to say sir. It is a sad history”

The king’s piercing stare gave the architect no choice.

“When I was no more than a boy, I had the misfortune of watching my father drown. I remember how his flailing arms stopped..and how he sank a little..and then rose, and started floating away. I detested water then, for all that it took away from me-My childhood and my family”

The king gave the architect a few moments to compose himself. His cheek twitched to check the tears that threatened to flow down them.

“After that, however”, he continued, “Everything that I create with water, I create as an offering to my father. Hence, water.”

The King felt a sense of unease that he could not place. He let it pass, offering the architect a pouch of some of the finest diamonds, granting him leave.

“I will call for you soon, and you will build the rest of my palaces, young man”, said the king.

The architect bowed low, and in a sweeping whirl of robes, left.

Neither the King nor his men heard of the architect again, despite repeated invitations. The King’s men always came back with the same response- “He was never seen after building the fort on the hill”.

The King commissioned many architects, yet none of them matched the missing one in skill. Eventually, the king resigned to the fact that the architect had probably died, and he was doomed to mediocre craftsmen the rest of his life.

***

Eventually the kingdom fell into hard times. Known for the precious wealth that the fort housed, it was soon eyed by many powerful kings who ceaselessly tried to capture it. The impenetrable fort stayed true to its name, until the Kings of the North laid siege to it for a continual period of seven months.

The rains were delayed and the fort was running short of supplies. The Mughal army was far too huge to vanquish, and the King’s vassals had refused help. The Maratha sympathizers were finally coming around, but the Kingdom’s patience was wearing thin.

Late one evening, the King walked along the dimly lit hallway to meet with his commanders. It was a meeting that was called to identify who would ride to the Maratha kingdom to bring the Peshwa army to the fort. As his eyes swept the gathering, he noticed one conspicuous commander missing- his trusted aide Mir Alam. As his own commanders shuffled among themselves, refusing to look him in the eye, the cry of a war horn broke the stillness on the night.

“The fort has been breached! We have been betrayed!”

As the remaining commanders sprang to action, the King decided that his last hope was to ride to the Maratha kingdom himself, to seek help. He would re-capture his fort from the Mughals when they least expected it!

Sheathing his sword, the King marched into the mayhem that his fort had transformed into. In the chaos, nobody noticed the lean figure dive head long into the lake. Hands felt the familiar stones, and purposefully reached the granite slab. The king had memorized the location of the slab over the years, knowing he would not have time to search for it when the day came.

He pushed aside the slab and climbed onto the tunnel, and walked into the darkness, now infested with creatures he cared little about. As he walked, he heard the gurgle of water rise up behind him, as quickly as his panic.

The king broke into a run, arms outstretched, until he felt boulders, carefully placed, covering his path. There was no way around them, or through them- and there was no way that they were there by coincidence.

As the King stood, with his back to the boulders, the force of the water rising near his feet causing him to lose balance, he felt the familiar feel of his life flashing in front of his eyes.

He watched himself commit his first murder for the sake of the kingdom- that was not even his then. His cousin, a weakling, was the king then. He remembered how the thin figure wept when the king had come for him. It was a coup, for the sake of a kingdom that would have been swallowed by the neighbouring kings otherwise.

As the water rose, the king wondered if this was how his had cousin felt, watching death come for him. The king shut his eyes, and as the water filled his lungs, he remembered how his cousin’s cheek had twitched as he wept.

As the King, with a burst of energy at the treachery, thrashed against the water with a roar that bubbled away, his darkening vision conjured the image of the architect, bowing low, hiding a smile.