Aditya led the way and Pandi followed; eyes and ears peeled for signs of danger. Thick, green foliage crowded in from all sides as ancient trees of peepal and banyan towered above them. They were in the dense sub-tropical forests outside Takshashila.
Crisp, early morning freshness hung in the air and the indescribable scents of wood, moss, flowers, mud, and wet leaves mingled in Aditya’s nostrils. He inhaled deeply of the cool forest air and shivered with excitement. All around them, the forest was alive, reverberating to the chirping of birds, the shrill cries of peacocks, and the chattering of monkeys.
Not a word was spoken. Now and again, Aditya pointed out something interesting to Pandi, who grinned with delight and then nodded for them to continue. Deeper and deeper into the jungle they went, till finally, Aditya held up his hand and got down on all fours. Pandi nodded. He too, went into a low crouch as they slowly crept forward.
They had come to the edge of a ravine. From here, the rocky land sloped steeply down. Odd-looking stunted bushes and trees, curving into the most fantastic shapes, grew along the sides of the ravine, disappearing into pitch darkness at the bottom.
Both held absolutely still, straining all their senses, running their gaze over the bushes, rocks, and trees growing along both sides and staring deep into the distance, over the edge of the ravine opposite. Finally, deciding that all was well, they made their way down the treacherous slope to the bottom.
At the bottom it was dark, cool, and silent. Far above them, they saw the skyline, a patch of blue sky framed by dark rock walls, and the silhouettes of trees. On the ground, tangled bushes and rocks gave way to clear, muddy land, through which flowed a thin trickle of water. A dead tree lay right next to this water channel, its trunk half-submerged in mud and its white, lifeless branches sticking out awkwardly. Aditya squatted down beside the tree and pointed to something in the mud.
There, in the soft clay on one side of the tree, could be seen the paw prints of a tigress and her three cubs. They had emerged from the brush, and then crossing the nala, had followed its course for some time.
“It is two days old, at least,” Aditya whispered, pointing to one of the tigress’s pugmarks. The sides were already crumbling, and ants traversed all along the depression. With a jerk, he stood up, “We should get out of here.”
Pandi nodded. It was dark and cramped, the perfect place to be ambushed by a tiger. He gripped his javelin tightly in both hands and they made their way up the opposite bank of the ravine in silence.
On the other side, the forest was less dense. Stray sunbeams pierced through the forest canopy, lighting up dust particles and insects swirling in the air, and creating a mosaic of light and shade on the forest floor.
Through the trees, they could make out an open glade, which was covered in waist-high grass that had been burnt yellow by the sun. Here and there, a number of bushes and small trees stood out, breaking the monotony. As they crept slowly up to this clearing, Pandi now squeezed Aditya’s shoulder in glee. They were in luck.
A herd of cheetal was browsing contentedly near the opposite end of the clearing. Aditya picked up a pinch of dust, and lifting it to eye level, he let it go to see which way the dust would blow. They circled over to their left. The wind, little as it was, was blowing into their faces now. Rather than take their scent to the animals, it would do the opposite.
Aditya signalled with his fingers. There were twenty-five in all, including seven young ones. Pandi gestured towards one of the bigger ones, which had its back towards them, and strung his bow with one of the heavier arrows.