1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 33
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.