Autumn, 531 a.d.By the end of the first hour, Kujulo was complaining."What a muck! Gives me fond memories of Venandakatra's palace. Dry. Clean."Ahead of him, picking his way through the dense, water-soaked forest, Kungas snorted."We were there for six months. As I recall, you started complaining the first day. Too dull, you said. Boring. You didn't quit until we got pitched out of the palace to make room for the Empress' new guards."Another Kushan, forcing his own way forward nearby, sneered:"Then he started complaining about the new quarters. Too cramped, he said. Too drafty."Kujulo grinned. "I'm just more discriminating than you peasants, that's all. Cattle, cattle. Munch their lives away, swiping flies with their tails. What—"He broke off, muttering a curse, swiping at his own fly.Ahead, Kungas saw the small party of guides come to a halt at a fork in the trail. The three young Maratha woodcutters conferred with each other quickly. Then one of them trotted back toward the column of Kushan soldiers slogging through the forest.Watching, Kungas was impressed by the light and easy manner in which the woodcutter moved through the dense growth. The "trail" they had been following was nothing more than a convoluted, serpentine series of relatively-clear patches in the forest. The soil was soggy from weeks of heavy rain. The Kushans, encumbered with armor and gear, had made heavy going of the march.When the woodcutter reached Kungas, he pointed back up the trail and said, "That is it. Just the other side of that line of trees begins the hill leading to the fortress. You can go either right or left. There are trails."He stopped, staring at the strange-looking soldier standing in front of him. It was obvious that the woodcutter was more than a little afraid of Kungas.Some of that fear was due to Kungas' appearance. The Maratha fishermen and woodcutters who inhabited the dense forest along the coast were isolated, for the most part, from the rest of India. Kushans, with their topknots and flat, steppe-harsh features, were quite unknown to them.But most of the young man's apprehension was due to more rational considerations. The woodcutter had good reason to be wary. Poor people in India—poor people in most lands, for that matter—had long memories of the way soldiers generally treated such folk as they.The woodcutters had agreed to guide the Kushans to the fortress for two reasons only.First, money. Lots of money. A small fortune, by their standards.Second, the magic name of the Empress Shakuntala. Even here, in the remote coastal forest, the word had spread.Andhra lived, still. Still, the Satavahana dynasty survived.For the woodcutter, Andhra was a misty, even semi-mythical notion. The Satavahanas, a name of legend rather than real life. Like most of India's poor, the woodcutter did not consider politics part of his daily existence. Certainly not imperial politics.Yet—The new Malwa rulers were beasts. Cruel and rapacious. Everyone knew it.In truth, the woodcutter himself had no experience with the Malwa. Preoccupied with subjugating the Deccan, the Malwa had not bothered to send forces to the coast, except for seizing the port of Suppara. Isolated by the Western Ghats, the sea-lying forests were of little interest to the Malwa.But the coast-dwellers were Maratha, and the tales had spread. Tales of Malwa savagery. Tales of Malwa greed and plunder. And, growing ever more legendary with the passing of time, tales of the serene and kindly rule of the Satavahanas.In actual fact, the woodcutter—for that matter, the oldest great-grandfather of his village—had no personal memory of the methods of Satavahana sovereignity. The Satavahana dynasty had left the poor folk of the coast to their own devices. Which was exactly the way those fishermen and woodcutters liked their rulers. Far off, and absent-minded. Heard of, but never seen.So, after much hesitation and haggling, the young woodcutters had agreed to guide Kungas and his men to the fortress. They had not inquired as to Kungas' purpose in seeking that fearsome place.Their work was done. Now, the woodcutter waited apprehensively. Would he be paid the amount still owing, or—Kungas was a hard, hard man. Hard as stone, in most ways. But he was in no sense cruel. So he was not even tempted to cheat the woodcutter, or toy with the man's fears. He simply dipped into his purse and handed over three small coins.A huge smile lit up the woodcutter's face. He turned and waved at his two fellows, showing them the money.Kungas almost smiled himself, then. The other two woodcutters, still waiting twenty yards up the trail, had obviously been ready to bolt into the forest at the first sign of treachery. Now, they trotted eagerly forward."And that's another thing," grumbled Kujulo. "I miss the trusting atmosphere of the Vile One's palace."The Kushans who were close enough to hear him burst into laughter. Even Kungas grinned.The noise startled the woodcutters. But then, seeing that the jest was not aimed at them, they relaxed.Not much, of course. Within seconds, they were scampering down the trail toward their village ten miles away. Being very careful to skirt the five hundred Kushan soldiers coming up that trail.Kungas strode forward."Let's take a look at this mighty fortress, shall we?" Twenty minutes later, Kujulo was complaining again."I don't believe this shit. Those are guards? That's a fortress?"Kungas and the five other Kushan troop leaders who were gathered alongside him, examining the fortress from a screen of trees, grunted their own contempt.They were situated southeast of the fortress. The structure was perched on top of a small hill just before them. Two hundred feet tall, that hill, no more. On the other side of the hill, still invisible to the Kushans concealed within the trees, stretched the huge reaches of the ocean.The forest which blanketed the coast was thinner on the hill. But not much. Some trees—mature, full-grown ones—were growing at the base of the fortress' walls. The branches of one particularly large tree even spread over part of the battlements."What kind of idiots don't clear the trees around a fortress?" demanded Kujulo."My favorite kind of idiots," replied Kungas softly. "Really, really, really idiotic idiots."Kungas turned to face his subordinates. For once, he was actually smiling. A real, genuine smile, too. Not the crack in his iron face that usually passed for such."What do you think? Can we do it?"Five sarcastic grunts came in reply. Kujulo pointed a finger at the fortress' entrance. The heavy wooden gates on the fortress' south side were wide open. In front of them, in the shelter provided by a makeshift canopy, eight Malwa soldiers lounged at their ease. Only one of them was even bothering to stand. The rest were sprawled on the ground. Two were apparently sleeping. The other five seemed to be engaged in a game of chance."Fuck the scaling equipment," growled Kujulo. "Don't need it. I can get my men within ten yards of those pigs without being seen. A quick rush and we've got the gate.""How long could you hold it, do you think?" asked Kungas. The Kushan commander studied the trees growing on the hill. "You can get your men up there without being seen. But I don't think I can get more than three other squads close before they're spotted. The rest of us will have to wait here until you start the attack."He glanced up, gauging the weather. The sky was overcast, but Kungas did not think it would rain anytime soon. Not for several hours, at least. He lowered his gaze and examined the hill itself. Estimating the distance and the condition of the terrain."Five hundred feet. Muddy. Steep climb. It'll take us two minutes."Kujulo sneered."Two minutes? You think I can't hold a big gate like that against those sorry shits? With the help of three other squads? For a lousy two minutes?"Kungas was amused. Kujulo's complaint, this time, was filled with genuine aggrievement."Do it, then. Pick whichever other squads you want for immediate support. While you're working your way up the hill, I'll get the rest of the men ready for the main charge."Kujulo began to rise. Kungas stayed him with a hand on the shoulder."Remember, Kujulo. Prisoners. As many as we can get—especially the ones who're manning the cannons. We'll need them later."Kujulo nodded. An instant later, he was gone.The other troop leaders did not wait for Kungas' orders to start organizing the small army for an assault. Kungas did not bother to oversee their work. He had hand-picked the officers for this expedition and had complete confidence in them. He simply spent the time studying the fortress. Trying to determine, as best he could, the most likely internal lay-out of the structure.Despite the slackness of its guards, the fortress itself was impressive. A simple square in design, the walls were thick, well-cut stone, rising thirty feet from the hilltop. The corners were protected by round towers rising another ten feet above the battlements. Two similar round towers anchored the gatehouse guarding the entrance. Along with the usual merlons and embrasures, the battlements also sported machicolations—enclosed stone shelves jutting a few feet out from the walls, with slots through which projectiles or boiling water could be dropped on besiegers below. The open embrasures were further strengthened by the addition of wooden shutters, which could be closed to shield against missiles.Those battlements would have posed a tremendous challenge—if the walls had been manned by alert guards. As it was, during the minutes that he watched, Kungas saw only four soldiers appear atop the fortress. From their position, it was obvious that they were moving along an allure, or rampart walk, which served as the fighting platform for the battlements. But the Malwa were simply ambling along, preoccupied with their own business. Not one of those soldiers cast so much as a glance at the surrounding forest.He tried to spot the location of the three siege guns, but couldn't see them. He knew they were there. Days earlier, from fishermen brought aboard Shakuntala's flagship, Kungas had heard good descriptions of the fortress' seaward appearance. There was some kind of heavy stone platform on the fortress' northwest corner. Atop that platform rested the siege guns. From that vantage point, the huge cannons could cover the harbor of Suppara less than half a mile to the north.But they were on the opposite side of the fortress from where Kungas lay waiting in the trees.Inwardly, he shrugged. He was not concerned about the cannons, for the moment. The Maratha fishermen had no idea how those cannons worked, or were positioned. Kungas himself, for that matter, had only a vague notion. Despite the many years he had served the Malwa, he had never gotten a close look at their siege guns. The Malwa were always careful to keep their Kushan and Rajput vassals from knowing too much about the "Veda weapons." But he knew enough, both from his own knowledge and the information imparted by the Ethiopians, to know that such enormous cannons could only be moved with great difficulty. There would be absolutely no way the Malwa in the fortress could reposition them in time to repel the coming assault.Speaking of which—He thought that Kujulo was probably in position, by now. No way to tell for sure, of course. Kungas had selected Kujulo to lead the attack because of the man's uncanny stealth. Not even Kungas, knowing what to look for, had caught more than a glimpse or two of Kujulo's men as they worked their way carefully up the hill. He was quite sure the Malwa guards had seen nothing.He swiveled his head slowly, scanning right and left. He was pleased, though not surprised, to see that his entire army was in position, waiting for the signal.Satisfied, Kungas turned his eyes back to the fortress. As if that little head motion had been the signal, Kujulo launched his attack.Kungas could not see all the details of that sudden assault. Partly, because of the distance. Mostly, because of Kujulo.That was the other reason Kungas had picked the man. Quick, quick, he was. He and the men whom he had trained. Quick, quick. Merciless.He saw Kujulo's ten men lunging out of the trees. They had gotten within ten yards of the guard canopy without being spotted.Three seconds later, the killing began. Eight seconds later, the killing ended. Most of that time had been spent spearing the five Malwa gamblers, whose squawling, writhing, squirming huddle had presented a peculiar obstacle to the Kushan soldiers. Almost like spearing a school of fish.Kungas watched none of it, however. As soon as he saw Kujulo's men lunge out of the trees, he gave the order for the general assault. Five hundred Kushans—less the forty already charging the gate—began storming up the hill.It was a veteran kind of "storm." The Kushans paced themselves carefully. There was no point in arriving at the fortress too exhausted to fight. Kujulo and his men would just have to hold on as best they could.That task proved much less difficult than it should have been. Before the alarm was sounded within the fortress, Kujulo and his squad had not only killed the eight guards outside the gates, but had managed to penetrate the gatehouse itself. The tunnel through the gatehouse was occupied by two other men, neither of whom was any more alert than the eight soldiers lounging outside the gate.Kujulo himself killed the two Malwa soldiers in the gatehouse. That done, he immediately tried to find the murder holes. But, searching the ceiling which arched over the entryway, he could see none.One of his soldiers trotted up to him. Like Kujulo, the man's eyes were examining the stonework above, looking for the holes through which enemies could thrust spears or drop stones and boiling water."Don't see 'em," he muttered.Kujulo shook his head."Aren't any." He spit on the stone floor, then made for the far entrance. His squad followed. Five seconds later, soldiers from the three squads serving as their immediate backup began pouring into the entryway.The entryway—in effect, a stone tunnel running straight through the gatehouse—was thirty feet long and about half as wide. The arched ceiling, at its summit, was not more than twelve feet high. The inner gate, opening into the fortress' main ground, was standing wide open. When Kujulo reached it, he saw that there were no Malwa troops standing guard."Fucking idiots," he sneered. He could hear shouts coming from somewhere inside the fortress. The alarm had finally been given. Either someone had heard the sound of fighting or a guard standing atop the battlements had seen the attack.After passing through the inner gate, Kujulo took three steps forward before stopping to study the situation. The inside of the fortress was designed like a hollow square. The walls on the north, east and south of the structure were simply fortifications. Outside of the horse pens and corrals nestled up against the northeast corner, there were no rooms built into the walls themselves.The western end of the fortress was a different proposition altogether. There, massive brick buildings abutted directly against the outer wall. Above those buildings, resting on a stone platform reinforced with heavy timbers, Kujulo could see the fortress' three great cannons.Those buildings would be the quarters for the garrison. Already, Kujulo could see Malwa soldiers spilling out from the many doors set into the brickwork. The soldiers fumbled with spears and swords. Many of them were still putting on their armor. Flimsy, leather armor. Kujulo almost laughed, seeing one of the Malwa stumble and flop on his belly.But Kujulo could see no grenades, and, what was better—"Look at that, will you!" exclaimed one of his men. "They can't have more than two hundred men guarding this place!"Kujulo nodded. His squad member had immediately spotted the most important thing about the fortress. The first thing Kujulo himself had noticed.No tents.The flat, empty ground which formed most of the fortress' interior should have been covered with tents. There was not enough room in the brick buildings for more than a small garrison. Kujulo thought his squad member's estimate of two hundred was overgenerous. The garrison's officers, for one thing, would have undoubtedly taken the largest rooms for themselves. For another, Kujulo could see no sign of any cookfires on the open ground. That meant a kitchen, taking up even more of the brick buildings' space."A hundred and fifty, tops," he pronounced. He studied the Malwa soldiers advancing toward them from the west—if the term "advancing" can be used to describe a mode of progress that was as skittish as a kitten's. Studied the soldiers, and, more closely, their leather armor."Shit." He spit on the ground. "Those aren't soldiers. Not proper ones. Those are nothing but fucking gunners. Cannon handlers."His squad was now ranged on both sides of him. Behind, he could hear the thirty men from the next three squads moving up.All of his men grinned. Like wolves eyeing a herd of caribou."I do believe you're right," said one.Another laughed. "Think we can hold this gate against them? For the minute it'll take Kungas to get here."Again, Kujulo spit on the ground."Fuck that," he snarled. "I intend to defeat those bastards. Follow me."He stalked toward the Malwa gunners. By now, all four squads had taken position in a line stretching a third of the way across the inner grounds. Forty Kushans, wearing good scale armor, hefting their swords and spears with practiced ease, began marching on the Malwa.The gunners stopped. Stared.Kujulo broke into an easy trot. Forty Kushans matched his pace.The gunners stared. Edged back.Kujulo raised his sword and bellowed the order to charge. Shrieking like madmen, forty Kushans charged the hundred or so Malwa some thirty yards away.The gunners turned and raced for the brick buildings. Half of them dropped their weapons along the way.By the time Kungas arrived, a minute or so later, Kujulo was already organizing a siege. And complaining, bitterly, that he would have to go into the fucking forest and cut down a fucking tree since the fucking Malwa didn't have any fucking timber big enough to ram through the fucking doors. Cutting down a tree proved unnecessary. The "siege" was perhaps the shortest in history. As soon as the Malwa gunners forted up in the brick buildings saw Kungas' five hundred men storming into the fortress, they immediately began negotiating a surrender.The biggest obstacle in those negotiations were the five Mahaveda priests holed up with the gunners. The priests, bound by holy oaths to safeguard the secret of the Veda weapons, demanded a fight to the death. They denounced all talk of surrender as impious treason.Kungas, hearing the priests' shouting voices, called out his own offer to the Malwa gunners.Cut the priests' throats. Pitch their bodies out. You'll be given good treatment. The first corpse sailed through one of the doors not fifteen seconds later. Within a minute, the lifeless bodies of all five priests were sprawled in the dirt of the fortress grounds.Kungas cocked his head at Kujulo. "What's your opinion? Think those gunners'll spill their secrets?"Kujulo spit on the ground. "Imagine so. Especially after I reason with them." "We're family men," complained the garrison commander. He was squatting in the middle of the fortress' gun platform, where Kungas had chosen to interrogate him. Kungas himself was standing by one of the great siege guns, five feet away. Near him, Kujulo sat on a pile of stone cannonballs."They told us this was just garrison work," whined the captured officer. "A formality, sort of."Kungas studied the man quivering with fear in front of him. It was obvious that the garrison was not one of the Malwa's elite kshatriya units. Technically, true, many of the gunners were kshatriya. But, just as there are dogs and dogs—poodles and pit bulls—so also are there kshatriya and kshatriya.Kungas realized that Rao's savage guerrilla war had stretched Venandakatra's resources badly. The Goptri of the Deccan didn't have enough front-line troops to detail for every task. So he had assigned one of his sorriest units to garrison Suppara's fortress.And why not? he mused. Suppara's on the coast side of the Western Ghats. Too far away for Venandakatra to worry about. Too far away for Rao to strike at, even if he wanted to. But none of his good cheer showed on his face. Kungas eyed the captive stonily.The garrison commander flinched from that pitiless gaze."We're fathers and husbands," he wailed. "Way too old for this kind of thing. You won't hurt our families, will you? We brought them with us to Suppara."Kujulo sat erect, his eyes widening. With a little sideways lurch, he slid off the pile of cannonballs and strode over to the Malwa commander. Then, leaning over the frightened officer, he barked, "Brought your families, did you? Women, too?Wives and daughters?"The garrison commander stared up at Kujulo's leering countenance. The Kushan's expression was venery and lust personified. Gleaming eyes, loose lips—even a hint of slobber.Now completely terrified, the officer looked appealingly toward the Kushan commander."Depends," growled Kungas. Face like an iron mask."On what?" squeaked the officer.Kungas made a little gesture, ordering the man to rise. The Malwa sprang to his feet.Another gesture. Follow me. Kungas walked over to the edge of the gun platform. A low stone wall, two feet high, was all that stood between him and a vertical drop of about a hundred feet. The western wall of the fortress, atop which the gun platform was situated, rose straight up from a stone escarpment. To the northwest, the town and harbor of Suppara were completely within view. View—and cannon range.Gingerly, the Malwa officer joined Kungas at the wall. Kungas pointed at the harbor below. To the three war galleys moored in that harbor, more precisely."It depends on whether—"He broke off, seeing that the Malwa officer was not listening to him. Instead, the garrison commander was staring to the southwest.Kungas followed his eyes. On the horizon, barely visible, were the sails of a fleet. A vast fleet, judging from their number."Ah," he grunted. "Just in time."He bestowed his crack-in-the-iron version of a smile on the Malwa officer. "Such a pleasure, you know, when things happen when they're supposed to. Don't you think?"The garrison commander transferred his stare from the distant fleet to Kungas. Again, Kungas pointed to the three galleys in the harbor below."Depends," he growled. The Malwa's eyes bulged."You can't be serious!" he exclaimed.Kungas flicked his eyes toward Kujulo. The Malwa's eyes followed. Kujulo, standing fifteen feet away, grinned savagely and grabbed his crotch.The Malwa recoiled, pallid-faced."Depends," growled Kungas. "Depends—on whether you and your men destroy those three ships for us. Depends—also—on whether you show us how to use the cannons."Silence followed, for a minute. The garrison commander stared at the galleys below. At Kujulo.Listened, again, to the growl:"Depends." The first cannon fired when Shakuntala's flagship, in the van of the fleet, was not more than three miles from the entrance to the harbor. The Empress and her peshwa, standing in the bow, saw the cloud of gunsmoke; moments later, heard the roar.Another cannon fired. Then, a third."Are they firing at us?" queried Holkar. Ruefully: "I'm afraid my eyes aren't as good as they used to be."The Empress of Andhra had young eyes, and good ones."No, Dadaji. They are firing at something in the harbor. Malwa warships, I assume."Holkar sighed. "Kungas has done it, then. He has taken the fortress."Young eyes, good eyes, suddenly filled with tears."My Mahadandanayaka," she whispered. "Bhatas-vapati." She clutched Holkar's arm, and pressed her face against his shoulder. For all the world, like a girl seeking shelter and security from her father."And you, my peshwa."As the huge fleet sailed toward the harbor of Suppara, Dadaji Holkar held his small Empress in his arms. Thin arms, they were, attached to the slender shoulders of a middle-aged scholar. But, in that moment, they held all the comfort which the girl needed.If an Empress found shelter there, the man himself found a greater comfort in the sheltering. His own family was lost to him, perhaps forever, but he had found another to give him comfort in his search. A child, here. A brother, there on the fortress above.A bigger, tougher kind of brother. The kind every bookish man wishes he had."Mine, too," he murmured, staring at the clouds of gunsmoke wafting over the distant harbor. "My Mahadandanayaka. My Bhatasvapati."