Dashahara was around the corner. Sitting under a peepal tree beside his land, Manuraj surveyed the tilling of his farm. Soon it will be time to sow the cotton. Ilaa has been studying in ashram for almost six years now. Guruma was already seeing her prophecy coming to life.
Last year the Nizams of Ahmednagar lost Khidki to Mughals. They say, Mughal prince has decided to make the town his southern head-quarter. He even changed the name of Khidki. Fateh Khan named the growing town on his name – Fatehnagar. Now the Mughal prince announced it to be on his own name – Aurangabad. If even half of what is rumoured is true, then it’s bad for all. Both Malik Amber and Fateh Khan were fierce warriors, but they cared for the commoners. Mughal’s have only aim; to fill their coffer. They have already started plundering all towns and villages one by one. They not only have eye for the cottons we reap but the girls we protect.
Manuraj’s chains of thoughts are disturbed by some unfamiliar nose. The relative calm of the land is pierced by some faint noise coming from the direction of Sauvira. Manuraj got up and turned his eyes towards his village. Soon a thick cloud of smoke started rising; the shrieks and cries of women grew louder. And then their worst fear was confirmed by the loud war cries of Mughal force. Their Sauviragram was being ravaged. Everyone dropped what they were doing and ran with their life. Manuraj was praying hard while he ran. They must have come to know about the troop that Guru Rahuji Somnath is training. But Sharada and Ilaa are also there. And everyone knows what a plundering army does to the females.
By the time Manuraj reached the ashram, it was already blazing. The thick smoke filled with the stench of blood and burning flesh made it hard to see of move forward. Manuraj wrapped his turban around his face and moved ahead. He stumbled on something and nearly fell on his face. Dead-bodies were strewn around in heaps. Involuntarily he raised his hand to his forehead as a mark of respect. The one on which he stumbled was not hard to recognize; the flowing white beard confirmed the fierce guru of the ashram has left this earth. But where is Ilaa? Did Sharadabai manage to escape?
The authoritative voice of Guruma pulled Manuraj to left of the ashram. Blocking the entrance of a hut, she was trying to stop the Mughal general.
“They are only female kids; they can’t hurt you. Please leave them alone. You already have what you came for.”
A soldier shouted back, Ï have seen a slimy Marathi woman take his boy inside; they must be hiding other boys too.”
Guruma was clearly taken aback. Then it stuck Manuraj, they must be talking about Ilaa and his wife. Before he could think of anything, the general signalled and the thatched roof of the hut was on fire. The collective cries of girls inside wrenched Manuraj’s heart out. He was about to dash out to save them, when a hand stopped him from behind. Others behind him pointed the shrubs at the back of the hut. They crouched and started making way to back. A young one not able to bear the heat dashed out, with her mother behind her. Before the mother could reach the girl, a spear impaled the hapless girl. Moments later the mother was scooped up by a soldier mounted on his horse. The men were already at the back of the hut with their farming tools, frantically trying to dig a tunnel.
Manuraj was among the first to enter the hut. Sharada was already on fire, with wailing Ilaa trying to put out the fire on her mother clothes. Manuraj held Ilaa’s hand and dragged her away. One look at Sharada, and he saw her dying eyes recognized him. He gave a peaceful smile before she finally passed away. Ilaa was desperately trying to break free to save her mother. Manuraj dragged her away.
Sound of a hundred footsteps, muffled screams in the dark tunnel. Clutching her father’s hand with all her might, she turns her head, eyes frantically searching for a face.
“Dad, she is still there inside, we must go back!”
“Come-on child, you want to live? Or die like rest of the lot?”
Father’s sweaty hand was slowly slipping out of her clutch as they emerged from the tunnel.