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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Nineteen
Last updated: Saturday, March 25, 2017 09:08 EDT
A few kos west of Ramdaspur
The courier came to a halt in front of the Red Tent, dismounted and spoke: “Suleiman Khan reports he will have claimed the fort in your name by nightfall, Shehzada.”
Dara offered a satisfied smile. The army had invested the small fort west of the Ramdaspur just hours before. Suleiman was making excellent time, especially given Dara’s own request that none of the farmland of the Sikhs be unduly damaged.
Dara nodded and gave the messenger leave to depart. He checked the angle of the sun. About two hours remained before sunset. He looked again at the small fort and said to Mukhlis Khan: “Hardly seems a battle. Suleiman Khan is far quicker than I thought he would be.”
Mukhlis waved a languid hand, drank from his chalice of chilled wine. “They can hardly be called warriors, these farmers. That they were too few to resist your vanguard, and from behind walls, even, is proof of their weakness.”
Dara watched as the dust rising from all around the fort cleared briefly, showing Suleiman Khan’s men atop one wall.
He hated how hard he had to work to keep the plaintive note from his voice as he continued: “I can scarce see what is going on, we are so far to the rear.”
“While I would not turn down a chance at the choice loot Suleiman is sure to collect, your father would have my head should you come to needless harm, Shehzada.”
“Perhaps both desires can be satisfied. Scouts reported Hargobind’s palace, the place they call The Eternal Throne, lies just beyond the fort, and was evacuated upon our arrival. Surely securing it would be a blow to Sikh morale, and give the sowar an opportunity to enrich themselves.”
Appealing to Mukhlis’ greed worked: “If Shehzada insists, then I can see no reason to refuse.” The older man set his goblet down and called for a horse.
“Horses?” Dara asked.
“Elephants are too slow for this type of work, and would make your presence obvious to the enemy.”
A wry grin. “My father sired no fools.”
Manor of Guru Hargobind
The guru’s throne complex was a substantial set of attractive buildings designed around an open plan that made it poorly suited to withstand an assault. So poor, the Sikhs had not even bothered to defend it: Mukhlis Khan, Dara, and their combined bodyguard of nearly two thousand men rode in unopposed.
Within moments Mukhlis Khan’s men had dispersed and set about stripping everything of value from the opulent residence.
“Shehzada?” Mohammed, captain of his personal bodyguard, used the single word to request permission for Dara’s bodyguard to join the khan’s men.
Dara gave a minute shake of the head in reply, belatedly sensing the displeasure of his men as the order to stay mounted was relayed.
So be it. Mian Mir would not look upon this day with pride in his pupil: the Sikhs were favorites of the Living Saint, and he would consider making war for loot well beneath the righteous man.
The thought was punctuated by the sounds of breaking glass and shattered porcelain from across the yard.
Mohammed spoke: “Should I set a guard, Shehzada?”
Dara shook his head. If he denied his men the chance at loot, the least he could do was not give them extra duty.
A large pile was quickly growing in front of Mukhlis: ornaments of gold and silk, casks of drink and incense as the man called out to the occasional trooper, claiming a choice piece of loot for his own.
Wishing that war were otherwise, that there existed some other manner in which he might prove himself worthy of the throne, Dara raised his eyes and squinted into the setting sun just in time to catch sight of the Sikh banners being pulled down from the ramparts of the mud-walled fort to the west of the palace.
“Mukhlis Khan,” he called.
“I return to camp. See that no fires are set here. The new governor may wish to use it as his residence.”
Red Tent, Camp of Dara Shikoh
Aside from the occasional disgruntled trumpet of his war elephants, the night camp was quiet on their return. Those not actively guarding the camp were at Maghrib prayers, facing Mecca.
Though he wished for the solace of prayer himself, Dara found a messenger waiting for him as he pulled up in front of the red tent and dismounted.
“What is it?” Dara asked, striding into the golden glow of the lanterns set about his tent. Mohammed remained with him, removing his chain-backed gloves and taking a position near the low table Dara used for correspondence.
The messenger did not wait for his prince to take a seat among the cushions. “Shehzada, Suleiman praises God and extends his complements: the fort is taken with minimal losses.”
“One hundred and two dead, another hundred wounded.”
“So many? How many of the enemy killed?”
“No, Shehzada. They refused to be taken alive.”
Those were acceptable losses for storming fortifications. Aloud, he said, “I see. Suleiman remains in the fort?”
“Yes, Shehzada. Further, Suleiman Khan begs permission to sally forth and take the town tomorrow at dawn.”
“Extend my complements to the Khan on his rapid and well-conducted assault. I will see him well rewarded for his successes.” Dara drank to buy time to consider what orders he should give next. Erring on the side of caution, he said, “Suleiman Khan may make preparations, but he must await orders from myself or Mukhlis Khan before launching any attack.”
“Go, and tell him I am most pleased.”
“Yes, Shehzada.” The messenger bowed and departed.
Dara turned to his correspondence. Within moments he had finished the report begun that morning, informing Father and the court of his daily progress. When done, he called one of the imperial messengers into his presence and gave the report, in addition to his private correspondence, into the man’s hands.
That done, he leaned back among the cushions and finished his julabmost, idly reflecting that this much closer to the Himalayas it must be easier to fetch ice for his drinks.
He heard Mohammed sniff. It had, in the last few weeks, become the man’s method of requesting Dara’s attention — initially as an accident, now as a bit of short-hand code.
Dara turned to the man. “What is it, Mohammed?”
A clink of mail as the tall Persian shrugged. “I am uneasy, Shehzada.”
“It seems too easy, Shehzada.”
“The taking of the fort. So few defenders. That place could easily be manned by nearly two thousand.”
Mohammed was a veteran of Father’s wars, and Dara knew better than to dismiss his misgivings. “Tell me your thoughts.”
“Why so few defenders? We know they have not fled the town itself. Why die to a man if not to cover the flight of family and kin?”
“Perhaps because of the religious significance of the town?”
“Then why not man the fort fully?”
A shake of Mohammed’s head. “There is a tank in the fort, and the monsoon has just passed.”
“And we know we did not surprise them with our arrival,” Dara said. They had made no attempt to conceal their approach, hoping the Sikhs would attempt to meet them in an open-field battle where the vastly superior quality and numbers of Mughal cavalry would come fully into play.
A snort. “No, Shehzada, that is certain. And we were unmolested moving back and forth to the guru’s palace. Perhaps they wish to draw us into a siege? They must know we brought no heavy guns.”
“Aren’t their walls barely sufficient to require a ladder?”
Mohammed nodded. “And, by all reports their women are still inside. They may believe in equality between the sexes, but even that foolish notion must fail before the logic of a siege: more mouths means they will run out of food that much faster. It makes no sense.”
Dara’s stomach growled. “This talk of food has spurred my own hunger. Come, share a meal with me and we will see if we cannot divine the guru’s purpose together. At the very least, we can decide tomorrow’s order of battle.”
Dara just finished morning prayer when one of his slaves came in, sweating despite the cool pre-dawn air. He waved the eunuch permission to speak as another slave belted on his sword baldric.
“Shehzada, someone has set fire to the palace.”
Mohammed entered, fully armed and armored. “Do we go teach him the error of his ways, Shehzada?” he asked, clearly already aware of Muhklis Khan’s disobedience.
Dara considered, then shook his head. “No, I will not risk a confrontation and open break with him, not while there might still be fighting to be done.” He put on his helmet. But I will see to it that he is never made governor, here or anywhere.
“Are the men ready?”
“They are not just ready to attack the town, they are eager, Shehzada! I have ordered all the men to join their khans in the order of battle you commanded. They have but to mount up.”
“Message to Suleiman Khan: prepare to attack on my command. We will move out at first light.”
Dara followed his messenger from the Red Tent, stalking toward Gajendra, his armored war elephant. The massive beast knelt at the command of his mahout, allowing Dara to climb aboard.
Once the beast stood erect again, Dara looked to the east. The red fire and under-lit pall of smoke from the palace was clearly visible.
He looked to his men, preparing to issue his orders. Everyone was craning their necks to see the fire. Beyond them, Dara could even see the dawn-lit points of the helms of Suleiman’s men, lined up along the eastern wall of the fort, watching the palace burn.
Then the helmets disappeared in a sudden eruption of a dirty cloud of smoke and earth with a dirty red spark at its heart.
A moment passed in silence before the deep rolling boom reached out to drum his chest, pound his ears.
“Merciful God!” the mahout groaned as the cloud expanded into the descending line of dawn’s light.
Utter surprise made a hash of Dara’s thoughts. A third of his forces were gone in the blink of an eye.
“Mined!” Mohammed shouted to him from the ground. He had not mounted his own elephant.
Mined. Dara nodded stupidly, kicking his thoughts into motion. They had mined the fort with a massive black powder charge, which was why they’d defended it so fiercely but with so few.
He blinked. And why they left the palace intact for looting. Which begs the question whether or not Mukhlis Khan is even alive, let alone set the fire we were all watching like idiots!
Horses and men suddenly started screaming along the western edge of the camp, which was now the rear of Dara’s army.
BAM! An easily-recognized volley of massed arquebus fire from the north — his right flank. More screams from men and wounded horses followed.
But, he hadn’t brought any arquebuses. The thought came slowly, like he’d spent the night on an opium-smoking bender instead of preparing to command his first battle.
“There!” one of the bodyguard shouted. The call was chased by a sound it took his inexperienced ears a moment to identify: the heavy crunch of a hard-driven arrow striking through mail to bite flesh.
Mohammed’s veteran instincts set him into motion. He started shouting at the sowar, turning them to face the threat to the rear and flank as he ran for his horse, leaving Dara and the elephants.
It was then Dara heard the pounding of hooves from the south. Dara blanched at the sight of a party of at least five hundred mounted lancers charging home into the rear of what had been his left flank.
Where were they all coming from? What should he do?
Someone was screaming at him.
“What?” he shouted back.
The mahout, yelling over the rising din of the sudden battle that had surrounded them on three sides, repeated his question, “Where do I go, Shehzada?”
Dara took a deep breath and tried to take stock of the situation. The lancers were nearing the Red Tent. Having lost their spears in the corpses of Mughal warriors, most of the Sikhs were still charging forward, laying about them with swords.
There was no further gunfire from the north, only a roar from the throats of men engaged in the life or death struggle of hand-to-hand combat. One volley and they’d charged. Now they were in among the men.
Dara’s eyes slid to where Mohammed had mounted up. The chief of his nökör had already started to get the men to face the threat, but each trooper was hampered by the tight confines created by the man and horse beside him. Mohammed needed time.
Time the charging cavalry would not allow. The left flank was already crumbling, the Sikh cavalry having penetrated nearly all the way through that element of Dara’s army and to the center.
They had to be stopped.
Dara picked up the powerful recurve bow already strung for his use and shouted, “We go to face their cavalry, mahout!”
The thin little man whose name Dara hadn’t bothered to learn smiled, eyes alight with a warrior’s spirit. “Yes, Shehzada!” He bent over the head of Gajendra. “Lord of Elephants, it is time you earned your keep and showed our prince your worth!”
The bull elephant responded to his handler’s exhortations, turning in place with surprising agility. He surged forward, armored flanks clanking. Dara looked back and was comforted to see the other elephants following.
There was no room to maneuver, no niceties, nothing but to charge headlong and hope his own men were able to get clear before Gajendra and his brood smashed into the Sikhs.
Timing each release of the bow-string with the gait of the elephant, Dara started serving targets with his arrows.
The heavy bow drove shafts through armor and flesh, tumbled riders from saddles. He had time for only three arrows before his elephant slammed into the cavalry. Horses and riders shot away from Gajendra’s passing, transformed in his wake to broken, heaving mounds of tangled flesh and broken bone.
A rider came in close, hacked at the elephant’s neck, catching an ear instead. The angry pachyderm lowered his head and caught the man’s mount under the withers with his tusks. With a heave he sent rider and horse together into the air.
Dara nocked another arrow. In this, at least, Dara had been lucky: most of the Sikhs had already lost their spears, and had nothing to reach him with.
He drew and loosed, taking a man in the head. Drew and loosed, taking a rider’s horse in the neck with his arrow. Again. This time the arrow snapped against the man’s raised shield.
His shoulders were burning now, the repeated drawing of the heavy bow tiring muscles unused to such prolonged abuse. Ignoring the pain, he drew and loosed again, but the arrow found nothing more vital than the earth.
His hand was collecting another arrow when his eye caught upon morning light splashing from a spear tip. A lancer had ridden ahead of Gajendra, turned, and was riding back toward him.
Horse and elephant closed with alarming speed. Dara nocked arrow to bowstring as the man couched his spear. He drew and loosed, but his target swayed to one side and Dara missed.
He was reaching for another arrow when the Sikh disappeared from view below the mahout and Gajendra’s head. There followed a crash and a loud, crunching snap.
The massive beast stumbled. Dara leaned forward in the howdah and was nearly pitched from it as the elephant fell to its knees. Then the sliding, shuddering halt of Gajendra made the howdah snap forward and strike the mahout in the back, launching him screaming over the elephant’s head.
Dara didn’t see where he fell, concentrating instead on preventing his own fall. He wrenched his shoulders and lost his bow, ended hanging from one of the uprights that held the roof of the howdah, but managed to keep his grip.
When it was all over, Dara hung over the still head of his dead mount and saw the cause of Gajendra’s demise: the Sikh’s spear-hand had struck lucky and true, entering scarcely a hand-span of unarmored space around the elephant’s eye and snapping off in the heavy skull.
Dara dropped to the ground a gaz below his feet, stumbled and fell on his back in the blood-slick turf. He rolled over, hands shaking as he put them beneath his body. Knees protesting the additional weight of armor, he drew his sword and surged erect, searching for threats.
A Sikh warrior, powerfully built and well-armored but lacking a horse, moved smoothly toward him with sword and shield at the ready.
Wishing for his own shield, Dara recognized the footwork. The man was using — if not the style, then certainly one very similar to — the style Dara’s Hindu sword master had taught for use on uneven ground. Dara adjusted his stance accordingly, made for a patch of clear ground.
“I am Bidhi Chand,” the man announced, stopping a few steps out of reach.
“Is that to mean something to me?” Dara asked, drawing katar and dagger both into his left hand. Without a shield, they would be both threat and protection.
A shrug of broad shoulders: “I thought you might wish to know whom to curse when you fall dead at my feet.”
“How polite of you.”
A broad smile and even teeth. “We serve.”
“All of us.”
“No, who do you serve?”
Bidhi Chand’s smile disappeared as he hung his chain veil. “Exactly.”
The tip of Bidhi’s sword was a blur as they closed. They met, parted, turned.
Again Bidhi advanced. Dara tried to dictate the flow of the combat, but quickly found he was facing a master, unable to touch the other man with his blade. He felt the mail protecting his armpit part, saw the rings spin free in the morning light as they completed the exchange.
The dance was fast, too fast for Dara to sustain for long.
“Breathing hard, already?” Bidhi Chand asked when next they parted.
Dara detected no mockery, merely a mild interest he found more unsettling than any attempt to goad him would be.
Still, if he would give Dara time to draw breath, he would not complain of it. He nodded, took a deep, controlled breath, and replied on the exhalation: “Yes. Among those failures I regret most today is that I was never diligent in training my body to prolonged combat.”
“An understandable regret,” Bidhi said, moving forward. Dara was fascinated by how seamlessly the man switched between styles. He tried to keep his eye on the blade-tip; got slammed in the face with the shield for his trouble, swayed sideways to avoid the following crosscut he could not see but knew was coming. Tried, but still felt the hot kiss of a blade parting the tender flesh under his arm where Bidhi had opened the armor on their last pass.
Staggering, Dara tried to duck under the return cut flashing toward his head. The blade caught him a glancing blow on the skullcap, setting his ears to ringing and stars dancing to the tune.
Something hot and wet was dribbling along his suddenly-cold flank. He swayed, felt another hot kiss, this time in the belly.
The last thing Dara Shikoh saw was the dew-and-blood-damp earth rushing to embrace him.
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