1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 34
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.