The Kingdom of Kalinga
The Indian Subcontinent
The air reeked of smoke and burnt flesh. The army’s main encampment was on the other side of the destroyed city. The only sound was the restless shuffling of hooves from the Imperial Guard’s horses and the snapping of the Royal Lion banner in the breeze.
“How many dead?” Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Terrible asked his top general, Kathar, who sat astride an ebony stallion that contrasted with Ashoka’s brilliant white steed.
“It is a glorious victory, Excellency,” Kathar said. “We have lost only ten thousand men during the entire campaign.”
For a week Ashoka rode through the nation he had conquered and saw nothing but death and destruction. Now as they crested the heavily forested hill overlooking the remains of Tosali, Kalinga’s capital, he finally saw the true extent of his war to crush the last kingdom on the subcontinent that refused to bow to his rule. The entire city had been incinerated, and the fields were littered with corpses as far as the eye could see.
His army’s ten thousand casualties meant that one out of every seven soldiers had been killed or wounded in battle. Despite the staggering numbers, it was still the mightiest force south of the Himalayas, possibly in the whole world. No army known could stand against him. But that was not his concern right now.
Ashoka turned from the vast scene of carnage and stared at his general. “I mean, how many have we slain?”
Kathar smiled, cruel and unremorseful about the savage annihilation he had caused of a proud people. “My officers tell me that we have wiped out one hundred thousand Kalingan soldiers. None were spared. An equal number of civilians were either killed or deported in the plunder after the battles. We have taught the world a lesson. No one will dare defy us again.”
Ashoka did not return the smile. Instead of pride over his great triumph, he felt a deep shame that had been festering for days. Unwilling to become his subjects, the citizens of Kalinga had fought to the last man, woman, and child. He’d heard tales of entire villages committing suicide rather than suffer brutalization by his rampaging army.
His empire now stretched from Persia to the Ganges Delta. This ride was supposed to have been a survey of his monumental achievement. Instead, it had become a trail of infamy, a testament to his viciousness, and it was changing his view of the world in profound ways. Ashoka knew he couldn’t let this be his lasting legacy.
He deserved his title Ashoka the Terrible. He had done hideous things to secure his reign as emperor. He’d killed ninety- nine of his one hundred half brothers to prevent them from overthrowing him, sparing only his younger brother Vit, his most trusted adviser. He’d created a prison known as Ashoka’s Hell, where his enemies endured every kind of torture imaginable. No inmate had ever come out alive.
But all of that paled in comparison to the suffering he’d seen over the past week’s ride. These were not betrayers and criminals. The dead and exiled of Kalinga were noble soldiers fighting for their homeland and its innocent civilians who only wanted to live their lives in peace.
Vit and his forces were scheduled to meet Ashoka today at Kalinga’s capital to bring news from the rest of the country. But what he’d seen already was enough to convince him to turn away from further conquest and focus on improving the lives of his subjects.
The rustle of leaves in the forest caused his guards to draw their swords. Ashoka turned to see a filthy young woman in ragged clothing emerge from the tree line. Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she took in the holocaust her people had endured. Then she turned and caught sight of the Emperor and his men. She limped toward them.
“Kill this vermin,” Kathar casually said to one of the guards.
The guard raised his sword and readied to charge at her.
“Sheathe your weapons!” Ashoka ordered. “All of you!”
The guards instantly obeyed his command and put away their swords.
Kathar narrowed his eyes at the Emperor. “Excellency?”
“No one will harm this woman.”
She staggered to a stop in front of him without a hint of fear. Ashoka could see only sadness and defiance on her face. She glanced at the Royal Lion on his banner and then stared at him.
“Are you the Emperor Ashoka the Terrible? Are you the butcher who has done this to my people?” She gestured with a weak and trembling arm at the devastation below them.
“How dare you speak to His Excellency with such disrepect!” Kathar yelled. “You will—”
Ashoka put up his hand and looked at the general. “Quiet. I want to hear what she has to say.” He turned back to the woman. “I am Ashoka. Are you from this city?”
She nodded. “Tosali was my home.”
“Are you alone?”
“You should know. Your armies murdered my father, my husband, and my three brothers in battle.”
Kathar shouted at her, “They were not murdered! They died because they refused our gracious offer to surrender and become subjects of the Mauryan Empire! They were nothing more than pathetic vermin to be wiped off the face of the—”
“Enough!” Ashoka dismounted to the surprise of his guards, who immediately surrounded him and the woman as he approached her.
Ashoka took her hand. “Do you not have any family left?”
She shook her head. “My only son died of disease, and my sisters and two daughters were violated before they were sent away to become slaves. I escaped into the woods hoping to find more of my people, but there are none. I am all that is left.” The woman dropped to her knees and clutched at the Emperor’s hand. “Please kill me.”
“Why should I do that? You are no threat to me or my men.”
“You have taken everything from me. I have nothing left to live for. If I don’t starve first, I will suffer the fate of the other women.”
“I give you my word as supreme ruler of the Mauryan Empire that no further harm will come to—”
Before Ashoka could finish, Kathar drew his sword, causing the Emperor to jump back when he saw the flash of steel out of the corner of his eye, and slashed the woman’s neck. She gurgled blood and fell over, a look of calm and relief on her face as she died.
Ashoka felt a warm trickle of liquid on his throat. He touched the spot and felt a gash in his skin. When he pulled his hand away, he saw that his fingers were covered in crimson. The wound wasn’t deep, but the fact that it was there at all shocked him. If he hadn’t moved so quickly, he would have been killed by the same blow that struck down the woman.
The general’s sword was now pointed at Ashoka’s chest. The Emperor’s guards had already drawn their swords and were ready to defend him, but they could see that the slightest movement would doom their beloved leader.
“Kathar! You almost beheaded me!”
Kathar smiled and shrugged. “I underestimated your reflexes, Excellency.”
“Are you saying you were trying to kill both of us?”
“She wasn’t bad to look at, but there are many more where she came from. You, on the other hand . . .” Kathar shook his head. “I can see how this war has changed you. You no longer strive for the greatness of the empire. You have become weak.”
One of the guards inched closer, but Kathar pressed the tip of his sword against Ashoka’s chest to stop him.
“If any of you come nearer, I will run him through.”
“If you do that,” Ashoka said, “you will be dead before I hit the ground.”
“Possibly. But then I would be a hero of the empire.”
Ashoka could hear the sound of hooves approaching from the forest. It had to be his brother Vit coming with his archers. If Ashoka could delay Kathar just a little longer, Vit’s men could slay him before his sword moved.
“Don’t you see that conquest is a fool’s errand?” Ashoka asked. “What does it matter if we gain more land unless we improve the lives of our subjects?”
“Because conquest is what will guarantee that our names will be remembered throughout the ages,” Kathar said, his eyes wild with the power he now held in his hands. “Alexander the Great assembled the finest army in history, was never defeated in battle, and ruled over the largest empire the world has ever known. People will be speaking his name until there are no people left.”
Ashoka nodded solemnly. “And then he died at thirty-three and his empire was torn apart in a series of civil wars. Don’t you see that there’s another way?”
“This Buddhism you’ve been speaking about?” Kathar spat. “A waste of time. With our armies, you could have been remembered for even greater conquests. You could have ruled the known world. I won’t let you throw this opportunity away. Maurya will know greatness under my rule. I will be called Kathar the Magnificent. History will remember my name, worshipping it even more than Alexander’s.”
Ashoka looked around at his loyal guards. They would not let Kathar get away with killing him.
“What makes you think you’ll live through the next few moments?” Ashoka asked calmly. Kathar answered only with a grin. Horses emerged from the forest, but they did not belong to Ashoka’s brother Vit. They were Kathar’s most loyal soldiers, double the number of his guards. They flanked Ashoka’s men, who were now hopelessly outmatched.
“I did not do this on a whim,” Kathar said. “I have been planning this for weeks, scouting out just the spot to ambush you and your men. When I return with your body, I will tell your subjects about how rebellious Kalingan traitors had cut you down. Who else will they turn to but your most trusted general, who has delivered this great but tragic victory for the empire?”
“My brother will avenge me.”
“He will try. But he’s just as weak as you are. If I can defeat you, he will prove no trouble at all.”
Kathar turned to one of his soldiers, whom Ashoka recognized as a top cavalry officer.
“You found them?” Kathar asked.
The officer nodded and took a satchel from his shoulder. He removed a scroll and held it over his head for all to see.
“All nine,” the officer said.
Ashoka felt a chill at seeing one of the nine sacred Scrolls of Knowledge, representing the collected intelligence of the best minds in his kingdom. The fact that the scrolls were here had to mean the Librarian was dead, and now Kathar had everything he needed to rule with absolute power.
Kathar turned back to Ashoka and smiled. “Maybe you now realize that I missed you on purpose before, to give time for my men to arrive. I was keeping you alive until I made sure the scrolls were in my hands. Since they are, you are no longer necessary. Your dynasty ends here. Now.”
Kathar raised his sword for the killing blow as his soldiers charged toward the Imperial Guard.
Ashoka wasn’t going to make it easy for him. He crouched down and twisted to his side as the sword came down, striking his shoulder. The leather armor absorbed part of the blow, but the blade cut deeply into his muscle.
Ignoring the pain, he stood to run, but Kathar had the advantage of height and speed astride his horse. The general drew his sword back for another swing, a maniacal look of bloodlust in his eyes.
Among the din of clashing swords, snorting horses, and screams of dying men, Ashoka heard the distinctive sound of an arrow whizzing by. It struck Kathar’s hand, and he cried out as he dropped the sword.
With a look of fury, Kathar wrenched the arrow from his palm and looked in the direction it had come from. Ashoka followed his gaze and saw Vit and his archers stampeding toward them, arrows ying from their bows. A quarter of Kathar’s men went down in the first volley.
Seeing that his defeat was imminent, Kathar wheeled his horse around and charged the cavalry officer holding the satchel. He snatched it away and yelled, “Make sure no one follows me.” Then he whipped his horse and galloped into the forest.
Ashoka wasn’t going to let him get away so easily, not with the Scrolls of Knowledge. As long as Kathar had those, he would be a dire threat to Ashoka’s plans for his country’s new era.
Ashoka leaped onto his horse and drew his sword with his uninjured arm. Despite his brother’s calls to get to safety, he followed his betrayer.
Kathar was the better fighter, but Ashoka was a superior horseman. Instead of taking the clear path through forest where he could have used his horse’s speed to escape, Kathar was weaving through the thick stand of trees in an effort to lose any pursuers.
But Ashoka wasn’t fooled. He could spot Kathar’s trail of broken branches and trampled underbrush as he rode, taking whatever shortcuts he could to close the distance.
Finally, he spotted the bright silver buckles on Kathar’s armor flickering in and out of view. Ashoka raced to the side and paralleled his course, drawing nearer with every moment.
Kathar realized he was being followed and drew his dagger. In desperation, he threw it at Ashoka, but it sank into a tree that came between them.
Seeing his chance, Ashoka cut his horse through a narrow alley between the trees and drew alongside Kathar. He raised his sword and swung with all his might.
The sword met nothing but air.
Kathar had leaped from his horse to avoid the blow and careened into a tree. He bounced off it and came to rest on the ground. The scrolls tumbled from the satchel and scattered across the forest floor.
Ashoka turned around and dismounted, his sword held in front of him as he approached the kneeling general, who was shuddering with pain.
Ashoka knew it was a trick. He circled around until he was directly behind Kathar and put the tip of his sword to the base of the general’s neck.
“Drop the knife.”
Kathar stopped trembling and chuckled. The knife he’d been holding in his good hand dropped to the ground.
Kathar got to his feet and turned around.
“You won’t kill me,” he said with a wicked grin.
“Why not?” “Because of this Buddhist faith you’ve been talking about converting our entire country to. It doesn’t allow killing. I know. I’ve been hearing about it for weeks now. From you.”
“You’re right,” Ashoka said. “I have been thinking about ordering all my subjects to follow the ways of the Buddha. And your betrayal only confirms that it is the right thing to do. Killing only begets more killing. If you’d had your way, your rule would have been built on terror and death.”
“You know that’s the only way to build a dynasty.”
Ashoka shook his head. “There’s another way. As long as I’m alive, we will take a different path.”
Galloping hooves approached, and Ashoka could see that Vit, a fine tracker, had followed their trail. He pulled his horse to a stop beside them.
“Are you all right, brother?” Vit asked.
Ashoka nodded. “But I wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t come along at the right time. Gather up the scrolls.”
Vit got off his horse and began collecting the parchments to put them back in the satchel. “This piece of garbage must have killed the Librarian to get these,” Vit said. “Who will be the new one? Tell me and I’ll take them to him.” He walked over with all of the scrolls secure in the pouch.
“I am not naming a new librarian,” Ashoka said. “Kathar has proven that it is too dangerous to keep them all together. Vit, I want you to find nine unknown men, common men who have shown themselves to be good and loyal. Each of them will be tasked with safeguarding one of the Scrolls of Knowledge to keep any single man from using them to conquer the world.”
“It will be done,” Vit replied. Then he looked at Kathar with contempt. “And what about him?”
Ashoka took a step closer to Kathar and laid the sword along his neck. “My first order of the new age will be to strike this traitor’s name from all scrolls and etchings. If anyone speaks his name aloud, they will be banished from the country.” He looked at Kathar with pity. “By the end of this growing season, no one will remember your name. You will be lost to history forever. It will be as if you never existed.”
For the first time, Kathar’s smug expression faltered before he made another halfhearted attempt at bravado. “But I am still here. My followers are numerous and my soldiers loyal. They will rise against you and rescue me from your prison.”
“No, they won’t.” Ashoka raised his sword.
Kathar gaped at him. It was the only time the general had ever shown fear. “But the ways of the Buddha! They don’t allow killing!”
“You’re right,” Ashoka said. “From this point on, I will decree no living thing, human or animal, shall be killed for punishment or sacrifice. From this point on, it is my duty and responsibility to make sure that you, who are without a name, are the last.”
Ashoka brought down the sword.