We have all sold our hope.

The words beat in a jarring rhythm inside his head, swirled around in a hopeless dance like oil and water. Defeat lingered on the edge of Govinda’s consciousness, a welcome salve to the torment he felt. But to deny himself that consolation held pleasure, as though there was something more to be said and he had not said it yet.

In a daze, Govinda reached up with a strength he did not know was in him and grabbed Chanuran’s right arm. Before his opponent could react, Govinda pulled the limb towards him, uncaring of the way the fingers curled as Chanuran harnessed his magic. Ignoring the ball of fire that bloomed from the middle of the Magician’s palm, the way it singed Govinda’s brows and lips, he bit down as hard as he could on Chanuran’s wrist. “Aah!” Chanuran cried out, more taken unawares than hurt by the attack. His vice on Govinda slackened.

Govinda was ready. He pulled down on Chanuran’s left arm with all his might. Slipping out of his opponent’s grasp, he rolled away and pushed himself up on to his knees. A welcome pain hit his lungs as air finally filled them. Wheezing and coughing, he got to his feet.

His ears filled with the sound of his own heartbeat. His fingers curled into a fist.

Swinging his arms back in a powerful arc, Govinda advanced to meet his opponent with a double-fisted punch. It landed on the man’s sternum, breaking the hard bone.

Chanuran reeled back. Blood spewed from his nostrils in a fine spray with each exhalation. Clearly, the impact had punctured one, or both, of his lungs. Chanuran looked around in a bewildered, stupid way, as though he could not believe what had just happened.

Govinda was as taken aback as Chanuran. He had heard that danger often gave men strength beyond the natural; roused their instinct to fight, to survive. Was that what he now felt? Or was this insanity?

His vision felt distorted, but his hearing and smell were painfully acute. Screams rent the air, piercing through his brain till he thought his ears would bleed. The smell of Chanuran’s sweat, so different from the smell of his own, made him want to retch. He felt a shiver run through him. It was unpleasant but he also knew somehow that it was strength, a newfound, inhuman strength that coursed through his veins like molten iron till he could taste the metallic tang on his tongue. He made himself focus, wiping the blood from his nose and mouth.

Chanuran scowled. Raising his arm, he again hurled a formless weapon, creating a wall of flame.

Govinda was not deterred. He knew he had to get to Chanuran before the man could fortify his wall of flames with further blasts. Wrapping his arms around his face and head to shield himself from the blaze, he ran through the fire and at his opponent.

Chanuran let out a bestial snarl. He cupped his hand again, invoking his fiery weapon. Before he could cast it, Govinda was on him, his fingers clamped around the man’s right wrist. Chanuran punched Govinda with his other hand. He tried to shake him off, but the blow to his chest was taking its toll. Chanuran swayed, unsteady, but lost none of his malice. “I’ll kill you!” he rasped. “I’ll kill you even if it kills me! Die! Die, you filthy cowherd!”

Govinda said nothing, showed no emotion as he slowly forced Chanuran’s palm back and, with a jerk, broke his wrist. Chanuran howled in agony, the unearthly sound searing through every person present. Clutching at his broken wrist with his other hand, blood streaming from his mouth and tongue protruding unnaturally, he staggered from side to side in a futile attempt to escape. His eyes bulged with the insanity that came of mortal terror.

Govinda let out a blood-curdling yell as a feverish shiver ran through his entire being, filling him once again with that sense of inhuman strength. He jumped and landed a single blow to the side of Chanuran’s head.

With a soft, imperceptible sigh, the Magician fell dead.

An awed hush filled the arena.

Then, as one, the crowd cheered.

Men and women yelled themselves hoarse, they cried, and words of praise and glory echoed through the arena.

Balabadra, who had watched the entire fight in disbelief, jumped to his feet. He hobbled up to Govinda and drew him into a tight embrace regardless of their injuries. Then picking up a nearby stone, he broke their manacles, flinging the cuffs across the arena with a victorious yell.

The crowd cheered louder and louder still, as though voices were coming awake one by one.

Through it all, Govinda’s gaze remained, unseeing, on Kans, while his ears, then his entire being filled with the sounds of the crowd’s adoration. He knew that there were no maybes and no misgivings. His insides churned with emotions he did not dare identify. It was not the Assembly that mattered. It was neither the throne he had come here for, nor his sister. Nor was it to right old wrongs. He had to do more, he had to do what needed to be done.

Men are symbols, Govinda. Those who cower in fear can also rise to great heights if the symbol they are shown is one of hope. Govinda took a step forward. Murmurs ran through the crowd and stopped as Kans held up his hand. Into that expectant quiet, Govinda said the words he knew would irrevocably change his life.

“I am Govinda.”

The Cowherd Prince

Excerpted with permission from The Cowherd Prince, Krishna Udayasankar, ebury.