"How far?" she asked.
"Two days more, I suppose.." he replied eerily. For someone as strong and vigilant as Shubham, it seemed very unusual to be cautious rather than be boldly outrageous. He knew very well that the forest would grow dense as they move forward, and with it would come the dangers - dangerous things that would be lurking out there at night. His instincts had taken them so far without any harm, but he did sense something suspicious movements as was expected. He was given the task by the queen to protect Ketaki, and he did not want to let her down. The task was daunting, but his years of experience and his battle skills were seemingly far better than anyone else in the kingdom. Tall, trim hair, muscles good enough to take on a beast, he wore a golden armor around his chest. A scabbard tighten around the waist had in it the finest of the swords. With it, he had a bow in the left hand and a quiver tied to the back. Age had hardly taken a toll on him. Sun was setting, and darkness started to loom already.
"Stay back!" he said to Ketaki. The dry leaves on the ground and the damp, cold air meant that the slightest of the noise by footsteps was very much audible. He took the arrow out of the quiver and set it on the bow. He waited patiently. But there was no sound, nothing at all. Reluctantly he went a couple of steps ahead, but to his disappointment could see nothing.
Ketaki seemed worried. She could still remember those words, "keep it safe..keep..keep it safe". The ring was not something Ketaki had seen anytime before. Having a profound knowledge of rings and astrology, she was perplexed and, at the same time, stupefied at the look of the ring. There was nothing mentioned about such a ring in the books, she thought after looking at the ring. She looked at it. The ring was spectacular in its display. Yet it was befuddling as the tarnished golden ring with three green emeralds embedded in it was in the vicinity of a void. Perhaps a gem had earlier occupied it. At the base of the ring, she peered at the inscription, something she could not decipher. "Keep it safe." the words echoed in her mind as she still was trying to figure out what the old man was murmuring. "Hold on," she said, searching for water. He held her hand and told her not to waste time. "Handing the ring is the most important thing you need to do now." With these words, his eyes looked lifeless. He thought his job was done. She closed the old man's eyes and stared at the ring in her hand. Ketaki still couldn't figure out what could possibly be so important about this ring. A sudden clench to her hand brought her back to the darkness of the forest. This time the voice was neat and clean, with no ambiguity this time. Shubham knew someone was following them. Behind the dense bushes, Sujit was irked with himself. Clearly, this was a mistake he should not have made.
Marching his way into the dense forest, he thought of the excruciating effect that he could inflict on his enemy, not an unknown one, but his arch-enemy. His athletic body helped him move swiftly and to keep track of Ketaki and Shubham for the whole day. He had hair long enough to reach his broad shoulders, tied a pouch across his waist, and covered his mouth and nose completely. 'No extra material, less weight, quick to move' he remembered his lessons very well. The thought went in his mind for a long time, "how will this small packet of aromatic herbs affect someone". He had no idea what he was going to experience. "You don't need to be very close.", the man told him when handed the aromatic herbs. 'Its effect is quite strong, will unconscious you for a significant amount of time. Cover your nose.' The night time was perfect to avoid any risk with Shubham, and as he managed to keep himself away from his sight, his move to get a little closer at dusk was quite a risk. His foot fell on the dry leaves and certainly caught the attention. The sword was drawn, and he knew either he should run for his life or should use the herbs. The latter solution would prove useful, he thought. He came forward out of the bushes, opened the packet, and threw the aromatic herbs towards them. Shubham sprang towards Sujit, but the effect was instantaneous. While his sword did come down hard at Sujit, leaving a deep cut in his left arm, he was in no position to cause any further harm. He was down on the ground, unconscious. Ketaki too had fallen, gasping for breath. She saw a man looking down at her with a wry smile. He searched her pockets and required rather no effort to get the ring. The blood was trickling down faster, but he was happy to get the ring. 'I need to get back as soon as possible' the queen would be glad to know this.
The sunset was a bliss to see from the top of the kingdom. The distant mountains gave the perfect way for the sun to hide behind them. The soothing wind tranquilized the mind. Today was no different. Yet, when the queen stood there, visiting it daily as if it was one of the mandatory things she had to do, she was concerned only about one thing: 'the ring.' For most of the centuries, Nazmin's family had the possession of the ring, marking it a symbol of trust and peace and making it a tradition to pass on
to the next generation. She recalled the crowning ceremony, the crown on her head, and then the ring being handed to her. "Use it well and keep it safe." the Magister told her. But now the ring was gone. She was relieved to know that the common people were not aware of it. "It was important that I get the bring back," she said. "He is the right person to get it back, isn't he?
"He certainly is!" exclaimed the Magister. Three days went, and still, there was no news about the ring. The anxiety faded away as the message came through one of the spies. "He's dead," he said.
The queen and the Magister looked at each other in despair.
"What!!" said the queen. "How did it happen? And where is the.."
"I don't know exactly how," he said, not matching his eyes with the queen."And the ring..."
"Don't worry," said the Magister "be assured that the job will be done, and the ring will be back." But the queen wasn't going to sit quiet on this. "Ask him to get into the act now!". The spy followed her orders and went out quickly. "This opportunity shouldn't be squandered away," she thought.
Seating by the lake under the shadows of the trees and gazing at the sky, looking at the rising Sun, Shadab wondered whether his deeds would be forgiven by the almighty. A strong medication to the old man would result in an excruciating death. The other one, handed to a young man, was good enough to make unconscious. 'Those who work for the good would be forgiven by God,' the queen's voice echoed through his mind. For all the years he spent in administering medicine to the soldiers
who were hurt in the war and to the common man who fell ill, he never thought his knowledge of plants and herbs would be used to hurt someone. The only thing he was wondering was about the blue emerald he was holding in his hand. What is this? Why did the old man give me this? Should I tell the queen about this? He could only think of it as long as he could. Yet, he could not draw any answer. Looking back at the palace, he could see the queen standing at the balcony, soaking in the rays of the rising sun.
Up in the balcony, Apurva, with her ancestral crown on her head, was wondering if everything went well. If it did, she should be in possession of the ring before the afternoon.
'I hope he made no mistake. He is shrewd and cunning.' she thought.
Let him make a move. He is not as strong as Shubham. Shubham can take him down in a single swing of the sword. But what happened in the aftermath, Sayali stood shocked. Her jaw dropped at what she was seeing. Shubham was down, and so was Ketaki, hoping they were not dead. After lurking in the bushes and conveying the messages to her deputies, the leader of the spy was left shattered. She thought of not risking her life after almost undermining the qualities possessed by the attacker. She
moved forward stealthily after Sujit went from there, his bloodstains following his footsteps. She went near Ketaki, hoping that she was wrong and moved closer to her face. Ketaki was breathing, so was Shubham. Sayali was relieved to know this. She tried to bring them to consciousness for a long time, but none of them moved. She checked Ketaki's pockets and knew straight away that she must inform the queen. They had lost the ring. He took it. She went back immediately, so the queen takes the
Ahead in the darkness, Sujit knew he must go as fast as he can. The blood was draining rapidly, but his hopes were still there. 'I should cover as much distance as possible in the darkness. For the giant will get to consciousness at dawn. I will make it back to the palace and hand the ring back to the queen'
he tried to reassure himself.
The branches above seemed to be peering towards her giving a very bizarre and scary look. Ketaki tried to get up, feeling still dizzy. Shubham held her hand and let her get up. At almost the next instance, Ketaki panicked as she could feel her pockets empty. Shubham knew this would happen. The sparse light at dawn was still enough to see the reactionless face of Shubham. "We know he would go back to his queen, and we must catch him before he reaches there."
"Yes, but there a lot of ways to go there - through the mountains or down through the villages. One can even go by the lake."
Shubham pointed his finger to the far end - the bloodstains "We know the way your highness. If you may follow quickly, we can catch him before he reaches the palace."
Back in the west, queen Nazmin couldn't believe what she heard from the Sayali. She ordered the military head to ride to the east. I am going there. I will take them down - all of them.
"But.." interrupted the Magister "It's almost midnight."
I don't care. My family's reputation is at stake; my reputation is at stake. She strode out the doorway. Sayali insisted that she would come with her as well.
As he continued to look at the blue emerald, his eyes suddenly caught the attention of the sight coming from the forest. He could see a man running towards the palace as if he was running for his life. As he moved closer, he recognized the familiar face - Sujit; he knew it was him. He could see Sujit running towards him as he detected Sujit's injured shoulder. "What happened to you?"
"Leave it," trying to breathe. "Where's the queen?"
"She's in the central hall."
"Take me to her now. She needs the ring."
Panicked at the sight behind Sujit, Shadab could see a muscular warrior coming in full rage towards them. Befuddling was the colossal sound of soldiers growing distinctly louder. He sensed something wrong and hurried to take Sujit to the palace.
In the central hall, Sujit handed the ring into the queen's hand. She was delighted. I will be the most powerful, the undefeatable ruler in history. She wore the ring, but to their surprise, nothing happened.
Nazmin, Sayali, Shubham, and Ketaki all reached the central palace, whose top had a circular opening through which the light entered the hall. It was noon, the light coming down perfectly straight. Nazmin threatened Apurva to return the ring, but she refused. Shadab realized the void in the center of the ring surrounded by the three green emeralds. He rushed to queen Apurva and handed her the blue emerald. She fitted it, and in an instant, the rest of them fell on their back. A bright light emblazoned from the ring, going out of the above light opening. A mystical voice echoed from above. It said in a very calm voice, "the one who is wearing the ring will remain single for the year 2020."
Apurva looked in utter bewilderment. She could read the text on the ring, "Pachka hua re tera toh!", and Sujit and the rest stood there laughing as if they witnessed the best pranks ever!
– Pratik Kharde