They say every battlefield, no matter how big or small, emits a certain smell. It is a queasy mix of sweat, blood and faeces as men fight, kill or empty their bowels. But to me, that nauseous odour is just the smell of fear. And it attacks the nostrils long before arms are drawn, as men lie in wait to kill and be killed.

As I lay down next to the campfire that evening, I noted that queer battle smell. I knew there were attackers lurking in the shadows just outside our circle of light, waiting for the right moment to pounce. I didn’t want Datta to panic so I simply told her to lie close to me while I kept watch.

Harisena immediately understood and sat down next to us, his sword unsheathed. Ananta Varman ordered his men to form a tight circle around the campfire with their shields creating a makeshift palisade around them. Everyone held on to their weapons. And waited.

They pounced on us in the darkest hour before dawn. Soft-footed and lightening-quick like leopards, guided by the last-glowing embers of a dying campfire, they entered our dugout by slitting the throats of some guards on the outer rim of the shield wall. I saw their silhouettes soundlessly pick their way through the camp in the thinning darkness and I lightly touched Harisena.

I needn’t have bothered though. He was ready, sword unsheathed, as was I. We looked at each other and wordlessly signalled our move. At the count of three, I leapt up and tackled the two men closest to me. I speared the first, catching him squarely in his chest and then used his slumped body as a shield to ram into his comrade. The man lost his balance and my sword had no trouble finding his flank.

Harisena, still half-lying on the ground, used his thin knife to deftly slice the tendon on the ankle of the attacker closest to him. The man yelped and stumbled, giving Harisena the opening to rip his jugular, cleanly and nearly noiselessly.

Unfortunately, the man hiccupped and fell face forward on Datta, drenching her in blood and causing her to wake up, scared and startled. Her breath knocked out by the dead weight, she pushed the body away and called out to me. I shushed her into silence immediately, but the damage had been done.

The atavics knew now that we had a woman in our midst and their main body focused the attack on the three of us. The rest of our company was busy fighting off the ambush. Shields were up. Swords flashed silver in the pale grey of imminent dawn and the night air was full of gasps, grunts and the occasional death-throe scream.

I did a quick recce and realised the tribals were actually very well positioned. Ananta Varman and his core group were engaged in fierce combat near the shield wall. The attackers had surrounded us well enough to cut off any immediate assistance from that side. I threw Datta her sword, signalling to her to get behind me.

Harisena took the cue and backed in too, forming a tight three-pointed star, a classic defensive position. A casual look told me there were at least thirty men surrounding us. I knew these forest tribesmen were no match for our seasoned swordplay, but what I was worried about were their archers.

Atavic tribals typically dipped their arrowheads in poison – mostly hemlock juice. If they were to let loose their arrows, we would have to defend with our shields first. Which means fighting with a handicap. “Harisena, disable the archers first,” I whispered. “From what I can see, there are five of them amongst this rabble. You can spot them from the quivers slung across their backs.”

Harisena nodded. He kept an assortment of thin knives tucked into his breastplate and arm guards. The tribals knew our archers were cut off from us, which meant they weren’t expecting an aerial assault. Harisena was lightening quick – in a smooth, fluid motion he plucked out the knives from his breastplate and hurled them in the direction of the two archers facing him.

I heard the men hiccup and slump forward – their comrades gibbered in their strange tongue, too astonished to comprehend what had happened – and I knew my friend had found his target. Harisena slipped one knife into my hand and I hurled, cutting down the archer in front of me who was about to shoot his first arrow.

Rattled, the atavics decided to dump their arrows and swamp us with their sheer numbers instead. Exactly as I had expected they would do. I knew Harisena and I were enough to take on this semi-trained rabble in a clean swordfight, and Datta was well-trained enough to defend herself too. “Don’t break this formation,” I whispered into her ear and unsheathed both my Khadga broadsword and my trusted Asi.

Behind me, I heard a faint rustle that told me Harisena had drawn his weapons too. Like me, he could use both his arms, a Parashu battle axe in his left hand to hack his way through and the Asi in his right to cut down the enemy. “Harisena, NOW,” I shouted, just as the tribals started closing in on us, their ululating battle cry catching the attention of Ananta Varman.

The half-light did them no favours – I caught the first two easily, decapitating one with a mighty swing of the Khadga and disemboweling the other with a clean swipe of the Asi. “Kacha, don’t bother about protecting my flank – I can defend myself,” shouted Datta. “Take them down before the surprise wears off.”

I nodded in agreement, and Harisena and I split up to run headlong into the two halves of the tribal attack. Although good at ambushes, the tribals had never faced the kind of lightening quick swordplay that my weapons master insisted was my special forte. Their weapons too were crude – bows and arrows, clubs and spears. They had nothing to face the challenge of a beautifully made and meticulously sharpened Asi edge. Their heavier weapons made them slow and they had no idea what they were up against.

This wasn’t hard work for me – hack, hack, slash, slash – I wielded my Khadga and Asi with as much speed as I could muster, creating panic and confusion amongst their ranks. From the screams and grunts behind me, I knew Harisena was doing the same thing. The tribals fought bravely but heavy weapons are difficult to control and wield with precision, so their blows seldom hit home.

Nearly an hour later, I had eight dead and two gravely injured men at my feet. I turned around to find Harisena fighting off the few remnants of his group. Only six of the initial band of thirty now remained, and they were busy retreating. Datta stood with her sword unsheathed but was protected by a circle of Ananta Varman’s guards.

The ululations of the tribals as they had rushed in on us caught the commander’s attention and he’d immediately sent some men across to protect the crown princess. Near the shield wall too, the fight was wrapping up as the tribals stepped back, looking for forest cover to retreat.

The attack didn’t go well for them. A quick look around told me we’d taken down three quarters of the attacking atavic force. Still, Ananta Varman wanted to take no chances. “Decapitate all the dead and injured and put their heads up on stakes,” he barked out a command.

I didn’t much care for this brutal display, but I held my tongue. We were still in enemy land and this would send out a strong signal to Byagra should he have any other ideas. Harisena walked up to me, drenched in sweat despite the chill of the late-October dawn. Still breathing heavily from his exertion and the adrenalin rush of a close combat, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is just the beginning. There’ll be many more, Kacha. Make no mistake.’

“I know,” I replied. “I am ready.”

The Ocean’s Own

Excerpted with permission from The Ocean’s Own, Nandini Sengupta, HarperCollins India.