Skanda Gupta, the grandson of the great emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya, is at the helm of the still-mighty Gupta Empire. Brave, noble and a living legend, the emperor is fighting hard to save his legacy from wave after wave of invasion, intrigue and insurrection. The borders are restive; the palace is swirling with conspiracies; and the Huns are back. Into this cauldron steps Rohini – an enigmatic half-Hun runaway. She is a riddle Skanda cannot crack. Might she be an assassin, or a spy? Or has she come to the court with an agenda all her own? As ambition crosses swords with affection, Skanda and Rohini must learn a painful lesson: as in war, so in love, victory always comes at a price. The second book in the Gupta Empire Trilogy, The Poisoned Heart is a saga of tragic love, treachery and hard-won battles in the inner reaches of a once-mighty empire.
The smile disappeared. Rohini was still riding hard but suddenly it was no longer about just the race. Skanda had vanished over the horizon and the flat surface of the meadow opened out before her eyes, the occasional clump of neem trees in the far distance offering the only break in the monotony of the terrain. Rohini shaded her eyes with her right hand, straining to see how far the meadow stretched. In her hurry to ride out this morning, she hadn’t had time to send word to Puru and therefore had no idea of the topography of the land. Like all Huns, Rohini hated surprises and now, with the meadow stretching out endlessly before her eyes, she began to wonder what lay beyond the grassland.
For the nth time Rohini cursed her own impulsiveness and idiocy. “I should never have allowed him to get so far ahead,” she muttered to herself. “Now I don’t know where he is, I don’t know what lies ahead and I have no idea which way all this will end. Damn damn damn.” She kicked her horse harder on its flanks urging her to go faster and faster. The grassland zipped by as the horse picked up speed, frothing slightly at the mouth, her nostrils flaring with the adrenalin rush. For three quarters of an hour nothing changed – either the topography or the clop clop of hoofs on the ground. Then she saw it.
It loomed out of the flat grassland like a fortress, the low hills and boulder-strewn pathway zigzagging between two overhanging rocky outcrops. The old dried up canyon was narrow enough to allow two riders to ride side by side but the path twisted itself so sharply that you couldn’t see anything beyond the bend. Rohini cursed herself under her breath. This was dangerous terrain. Too rocky for a full gallop, too narrow for a face-to-face fight and, what was worse, you couldn’t tell what was lurking beyond the curve. Rohini slowed down and took out her long-blade dagger. She knew a sword fight would be impossible to pull off in a terrain like this and an ambush party would likely spring a guerrilla attack which means more arrow shower and less swordplay. She slid off her horse and tiptoed ahead, hugging the rocky surface of the hillock to her right.
Rohini heard the ululations as soon as she crossed the second bend. “Huns! What is the Hun army doing here?” she wondered. Puru had not given her any update on a likely ambush. Neither did her father send any word. So what was going on? Rohini crouched low behind the scattered boulders and crawled forward for a better view. She didn’t need to go far – just beyond the third bend she saw Skanda, with his back to the rock face, firing one arrow after another, so lightening quick that his attackers couldn’t go a step beyond the mouth of the third bend. The ambush party wasn’t very big – around 30 odd men — and already half a dozen bodies were scattered among the boulders, arrow heads sticking out of their neck and chest.
The attackers covered their faces with their turbans – strange, thought Rohini, since when did Hun soldiers start wearing headgear? – but their
trademark battle cry gave them away. The leader of the party was a stocky man wearing the traditional leather breast plate of the imperial army. “They are Huns trying to look like they belong to Skanda’s own battalion. Why? What’s the game here?” she wondered. Either way she figured that she’d have to get in there and help Skanda. “His arrows won’t last forever and what better way to gain his complete confidence than by rescuing him from an ambush,” she reasoned.
Rohini targeted the burly Hun closest to her at the edge of the bend. He was part of a small team that were raining arrows on Skanda and she realised some of them had found their target. Skanda’s left shoulder had an arrow embedded in it even though his sturdy breastplate kept his upper torso safe from arrow wounds. Rohini steadied her stance and flung the dagger aiming for the archer’s jugular. Seconds later the man hiccupped to the ground in an ungainly heap, thrashing around in his death throes. His confederates took some time to realize that the attack had come from behind rather than from the enemy in front. But that moment’s hesitation and confusion gave Skanda the chance he was looking for. He dumped his long bow and switched to his asi, shouting the Garuda war cry and barging into the archers in all his battle fury.
Get your copy of The Poisoned Heart here: https://www.amazon.in/Poisoned-Heart-Nandini-Sengupta/dp/9353029368
About the Author
Nandini Sen Gupta is a Pondicherry-based journalist and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first published work – Babies from the Heart: a complete guide to adoption by RandomHouse India – hit the stands in 2011 followed by a translation of Mamata Banerjee’s memoirs entitled My Unforgettable Memories (Roli Books) and a selection of her poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively. For the past 12 years though it is ancient India that has fascinated her. After a chance trip to the Ajanta and Ellora caves in 2007, she began researching third and fourth century India which quickly deepened into an obsession with the golden age of the Gupta Empire. The King Within, her first work of fiction and the first book in the Gupta Empire Trilogy, was born out of this obsession. It debuted in the summer of 2017 and has just been relaunched with a new cover for its second edition. The Poisoned Heart is the second book in the series and debuted online in the first week of May 2019. The third book will be out in the summer of 2020.
You can contact Nandini for a casual chat on history and its stories at http://www.nandinisengupta.com/