1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 27
Monique shook her head. “Castes, clans, religious divisions…It is all very complex.”
“Almost as confusing as the situation in Central Europe?” Gervais asked, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Or the city states surrounding Rome?” Angelo said, smiling.
“Point!” Gervais chuckled.
Monique didn’t bother to respond to their patronizing and short-sighted humor. She had other things on her mind.
* * *
“It’s actually kind of pretty when the rain stops, John,” Ilsa said, looking out over the grassland. The couple had ridden up the rise to get the lay of the land while the rest of their caravan rode by below.
“What?” John asked, distracted.
He panned the binoculars across the plain ahead. The wind was in their faces, making the grass rustle pleasantly. It was nearly a perfect moment, neither too hot nor too wet.
He let the binoculars hang from the strap and turned to look at her. She had angled her umbrella toward the caravan to conceal herself from the guards and pulled her veil aside.
He couldn’t help but smile, seeing her golden hair spilling out. “Yes?”
“Are you all right, John?”
“I’m…” His usual glib response froze behind the prison of his lips.
She waited for him.
“I am –” he choked on the words.
“Are you hurting, John?”
He couldn’t make his mouth work, eventually managed a nod.
She reached across to him, covered his larger hand with her smaller, finer one. “I love you, John Ennis. Nothing can change that.”
John just stared at her, his throat feeling as if a giant was pinching it closed.
“Now, I insist that you listen to me a moment. That boy, the one you shot, he was a pirate. He would have killed you and enslaved me had I not been able to kill myself before his crew got their hands on me. I was ready to do that, you know.
“Therefore: you did what had to be done to protect me and our friends. No one can fault you for that, including you, my rock-headed, obstinate, lovely, kind-hearted hillbilly!”
He swallowed half a dozen replies, tried to tell her she didn’t know, that she hadn’t seen the kid fall and die, that it didn’t matter what she thought.
But it did matter! It mattered more than life itself what she thought of him.
“I know,” he managed to say at last. He looked her in the eye again. “I love you, you –”
He stopped mid-sentence as her gaze flicked over his shoulder and hardened.
She pulled her hand from his as he turned to look.
A group of about a dozen men were moving out of the tall grass in a loose semi-circle around them. The nearest was only ten yards away, filthy and hefting a spear. All of them were armed with more than unpleasant expressions under hard eyes, and a few had bows.
Shit! They must have been lying in the grass, checking the caravan out when we rode right up on them…
They were poorly armed, but John didn’t think he could get the rifle off his shoulder and into play in time to stop them getting to either him or, worse yet, Ilsa.
Two of them were pointing excitedly at Ilsa’s uncovered head and speaking in hushed tones. Despite the language barrier, their manner managed to convey both greed and desire.
They started to close with a will, picking up speed.
“Ride, Ilsa!” he shouted, trying to swing the rifle from his shoulder and cover her retreat. The shout made his horse rear. He tried to get over the stirrups, but the weight of the rifle dragged him out of the saddle and back in a slow tumble over his horse’s ass.
He rolled with the impact as best he could. Losing his rifle and bashing his shoulder something fierce. John ignored the pain to pop up on his knees, struggling to orient himself.
He could hear the bandits shouting excitedly among themselves, but only one horse’s hooves fleeing down the rise.
Shit, she didn’t run!
Belatedly, John heard someone charging through the grass at him.
“Down, John!” he heard Ilsa shout from behind him.
For once John immediately did what his wife told him to, throwing himself flat.
CRACK! CRACK! The double tapping of Ilsa’s 9 mm Beretta was almost immediately followed by a meaty thump and patter of liquid on grass.
CRACK! Her third shot sounded before the first bandit fell just a few steps from his position.
John looked for his rifle, started crawling toward it.
CRACK! Someone else fell thrashing in the grass.
He rolled up, saw Ilsa standing in the stirrups, hair glowing golden in the sun over her deep blue burqa. She had the reins in one hand and was carefully lining up another shot.
CRACK! A third man went down. This one didn’t thrash.
Her horse stands still while she’s shootin’ and mine spooks at a fucking shout?! The world just ain’t right! he thought, rising to one knee and shouldering the rifle.
Less-than-excited shouts from the remaining bandits and horrifyingly, the snap of a bowstring.
CRACK! Ilsa was still in it, regardless of where the arrow landed.
John lined up a shot on the bowman and squeezed the trigger. The stock thumping his shoulder was a surprise, just like it always was when you did it right. The target went down.
CRACK! CRACK! Ilsa firing again.
He went in search of other targets, found them all running away down the slope. He put the rifle up and looked to his wife.
She was still standing in the stirrups, shifting her point of aim back and forth between the fleeing bandits. He could see daylight though the burqa under her shooting arm. The arrow must have missed her by inches.
He tried to call out to her, found his mouth too dry for speech. Swallowing, he started moving slowly toward her.
The movement drew her attention. Like a turret, she swiveled in the saddle. She almost had him in her sights before realizing who he was. Her eyes shot wide, whites showing all around the iris as she let her gun hand fall.
She started shaking as she tried to re-holster the gun inside the burqa.
“Ilsa?” he managed.
“John!” She slipped off the horse and into his arms.
They clung to one another for some time, even when Rodney and the boys rode past in pursuit of the remaining bandits.
Her horse ambled over, nuzzled her hair.
He laughed, an edge of hysteria in the sound. “What the hell did you do to make him stick around while you were shooting?”
“Nothing, he’s stone deaf.”
She nodded, head against his chest, making no comment about his cursing other than to clutch him tighter.
Iqtadar rode by, Angelo and a few of the diwan’s guards with him.
Angelo stopped a few paces from them, leading John’s horse.
Iqtadar rode around the corpses, examining them and what John supposed could be called a battlefield, from horseback.
Ilsa didn’t bother to cover her head, and John wasn’t about to ask her to, not after what they’d just gone through, not for anyone.
Iqtadar returned, spoke to Angelo at length while gesturing at the hilltop. “Iqtadar offers his respects, John, for the excellent shooting.”
“I only shot one. Ilsa shot the others.”
Iqtadar’s eyes went wide under his turban.
Angelo translated into politeness what John was certain was some variation on, “Bullshit!”
“He may believe what he wants, but she shot him,” he pointed at each corpse in turn, “him, and him.”
Iqtadar said something his men grinned at, then bowed to her from the saddle.
“What was that?” John snapped.
Iqtadar was already riding back to the caravan.
“John!” Ilsa warned.
Angelo smiled. “Actually, the Khan’s words are a deep complement.”
“What?” John and Ilsa chorused.
“He gave your lovely wife a title, Mister Ennis: Shirhan e Zarrin.”
Eyes narrowed with suspicion, Ilsa asked, “And what does that mean?”
“Golden Lioness, Signora Ennis.”
John couldn’t miss the pleased upward turn at the corners of his wife’s lovely mouth. He laughed for the first time in months. Laughed hard and long. “Golden Lioness! HA! Damned if he didn’t get you exactly right!”