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Thomas Hoover.

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We're too exposed. Half the guard will be in the river while we cross.
And there'll be no way to group the carts if we need to.

He paused a moment, then retrieved his sword from the cart and buckled
it on. Next he checked the prime on the two matchlock pocket pistols he
carried, one in each boot.

Five mounted Rajputs holding torches led as the convoy started across
the sandy alluvium toward the river. Hawksworth's cart was the first to
move, and as he drew his mare alongside, Nayka threw him a grateful
smile through the flickering light of the torch strapped against one of
the cart's poles.

"You've saved us all. Captain Sahib. When the river grows angry,
nothing can appease her."

The bullocks nosed warily at the water, but Nayka gave them the lash
and they waded in without protest. The bed was gravel, smoothed by the
long action of the stream, and the water was still shallow, allowing
the large wheels of the carts to roll easily. Hawksworth pulled his
mount close to the cart and let its enormous wheel splash coolness
against his horse's flank.

The current grew swifter as they reached the center of the stream, but
the bullocks plodded along evenly, almost as though they were on dry
ground. Then the current eased again, and Hawksworth noticed that the
Rajputs riding ahead had already reined in their mounts, signifying
they had gained the far shore. Their five torches merged with the three
of the Rajputs already waiting, and together they lined the water's
edge.

Hawksworth twisted in the saddle and looked back at the line of carts.
They traveled abreast in pairs, a torchman riding between, and the
caravan had become an eerie procession of waving lights and shadows
against the dark water. The last carts were in the river now, and
Vasant Rao was riding rapidly toward him, carrying a torch.

Looks like I was wrong again, Hawksworth thought, and he turned to rein
his horse as it stumbled against a submerged rock.

The torches along the shore were gone.

He stared in disbelief for a moment, and then he saw them sputtering in
the water's edge. Lightning flashed in the east, revealing the
silhouettes of the Rajputs' mounts, stumbling along the shore, their
saddles empty. He whirled to check the caravan behind him, and at that
moment an arrow ricocheted off the pole of the cart and ripped cleanly
through the side of his jerkin. He suddenly realized the torch lashed
to the side of the cart illuminated him brilliantly, and he drew his
sword and swung at its base, slicing it in half. As it fell,
sputtering, he saw a second arrow catch Nayka squarely in the throat
and he watched the driver spin and slump wordlessly into the water.

Godforsaken luckless Hindu. Now you can be reborn a Brahmin. Only
sooner than you thought.

A shout of alarm erupted from behind, and he looked to see the
remaining Rajputs charging in formation, bows already drawn. The water
churned around him as they dashed by, advancing on the shore. The
Rajputs' horn bows hissed in rapid succession as they sent volleys of
bamboo arrows into the darkness. But the returning rain of arrows was
dense and deadly. He saw the Rajput nearest him suddenly pivot backward
in the saddle, an arrow lodged in his groin, below his leather chest
guard. Hawksworth watched incredulously as the man clung to his saddle
horn for a long last moment, pulling himself erect and releasing a
final arrow before tumbling into the water.

Again lightning flared across the sky, and in the sudden illumination
Hawksworth could see shapes along the shore, an army of mounted
horsemen, well over a hundred. They

were drawn in tight formation, calmly firing into the approaching
Rajputs. The lightning flashed once more, a broad sheet of fire across
the sky, and at that moment Hawksworth saw Vasant Rao gain the shore,
where he was instantly surrounded by a menacing wall of shields and
pikes.

Then more of the Rajputs gained the shore, and he could hear their
chant of "Ram Ram," their famous battle cry. The horsemen were moving
on the caravan now, and when the lightning blazed again Hawksworth
realized he had been surrounded.

The dark figure in the lead seized Hawksworth's right arm from behind
and began to grapple for his sword. As he struggled to draw it away,
the butt end of a pike came down hard on his forearm. A shot of pain
pierced through to his mind, clearing away the last haze of the brandy.

"You bastard." Hawksworth realized he was shouting in English. "Get
ready to die."

He twisted forward and with his free hand stretched for the pistol in
his boot. Slowly his grip closed about the cool horn of the handle, and
with a single motion he drew it upward, still grasping the sword.

As he raised himself erect he caught the outline of a dark object
swinging above him in the air. Then the lightning flashed again,
glinting off the three large silver knobs. They were being swung by the
man who held his sword arm.

My God, it's a _gurz_, the three-headed club some of the Rajputs carry
on their saddle. It's a killer.

He heard it arc above him, singing through the dark. Unlike the
Rajputs, he had no leather helmet, no padded armor. There was no time
to avoid the blow, but he had the pistol now, and he shoved it into the
man's gut and squeezed.

There was a sudden blinding flash of light. It started at his hand, but
then it seemed to explode inside his skull. The world had grown white,
like the marble walls of Mukarrab Khan's music room, and for a moment
he thought he heard again the echo of drumbeats. The cycle swelled
sensuously, then suddenly reached its culmination, when all pent-up
emotion dissolved. In the silence that followed, there was only the
face of Mukarrab Khan, surrounded by his eunuchs, his smile slowly
fading into black.




CHAPTER FOURTEEN


The light of a single flame tip burned through the haze of his
vision, and then he heard words around him, in a terse language as
ancient as time. He tried to move, and an aching soreness shot through
his shoulders and into his groin. His head seemed afire.

I must be dead. Why is there still pain?

He forced his swollen eyelids wider, and a room slowly began to take
form. It was a cell, with heavy bamboo slats over the windows and an
ancient wooden latch on the door. The floor was earth and the walls
gray mud with occasional inscriptions in red. Next to him was a
silhouette, the outline of a man squatting before an oil lamp and
slowly repeating a sharp, toneless verse. He puzzled at the words as he
studied the figure.

It's the language of the priest at the wedding. It must be Sanskrit.
But who . . . ?

He pulled himself upward on an elbow and turned toward the figure,
which seemed to flicker in the undulating shadows. Then he recognized
the profile of Vasant Rao. The verses stopped abruptly and the Rajput
turned to examine him.

"So you're not dead? That could be a mistake you'll regret." Vasant
Rao's face sagged and his once-haughty moustache was an unkempt tangle.
He stared at Hawksworth a moment more, then turned back to the lamp.
The Sanskrit verses resumed.

"Where the hell are we?"

Vasant Rao paused, and then slowly revolved toward Hawksworth.

"In the fortress village of Bhandu, ten _kos_ northwest of the

town of Chopda. It's the mountain stronghold of the Chandella dynasty
of Rajputs."

"And who the hell are they?"

"They claim direct descent from the ancient solar race of Rajputs
described in the Puranas. Who knows, but that's what they believe. What
we all do know is they've defended these hills for all of time."

"Did they take the caravan?"

A bolt of humiliation and pain swept through Vasant Rao's eyes for a
moment and then his reserve returned. "Yes, it was taken."

"So your mighty 'solar race' is really a breed of God- cursed
common bandits."

"Bandits, they are. They always have been. Common, no. They're
professionals, honorable men of high caste."

"High-caste thieves. Like some of the merchants I've met."
Hawksworth paused and tried to find his tongue. His mouth was like
cotton. "How long've we been here?"

"This is the morning of our second day. We arrived yesterday,
after traveling all night."

"I feel like I've been keelhauled for a week." Hawksworth
gingerly touched his forehead and there was a pulse of pain.

Vasant Rao listened with a puzzled expression. "You were tied
over your horse. Some of the clan wanted to kill you and leave you
there, but then they decided that would give you too much honor."

"What the hell are you talking about? I remember I gave them a
fight."

"You used a pistol. You killed a man, the head of this dynasty,
with a pistol."

The words seemed to cut through the shadows of the room. The
pain returned and ached through Hawksworth's body.

More deaths. The two men who died on the _Discovery_. I saw Nayka die
with an arrow in his throat. And how many of the Rajput guards died?
Why am I always in the middle of fighting and death?

"The bastards killed my driver."

"The driver was nothing. A low caste." He shrugged it away. "You
are an important _feringhi_. You would not have been harmed. You should
never have drawn a pistol. And then you allowed yourself to be
captured. It was an act beneath honor. The women spat on you and your
horse when you were brought through the streets. I have no doubt
they'll kill us both now."

"Who's left alive?"

"No one. My men died like Rajputs." A trace of pride flashed through
his eyes before they dimmed again with sadness. "When they knew they
could not win, that they had failed the prince, they vowed to die
fighting. And all did."

"But you're still alive."

The words seemed almost like a knife in the Rajput's heart.

"They would not kill me. Or let me die honorably." He paused and stared
at Hawksworth. "There was a reason, but it doesn't concern you."

"So all the men died? But why did they kill the drivers?"

"The drivers weren't killed." Vasant Rao looked surprised. "I never
said that."

I keep forgetting, Hawksworth told himself, that only high castes count
as men in this God-forsaken land.

"This whole damned country is mad." The absurdity overwhelmed him. "Low
castes, your own people, handled like slaves, and high castes who kill
each other in the name of honor. A pox on Rajputs and their fornicating
honor."

"Honor is very important. Without honor what is left? We may as well be
without caste. The warrior caste lives by a code set down in the Laws
of Manu many thousands of years ago." He saw Hawksworth's impatience
and smiled sadly. "Do you understand what's meant by _dharma_?"

"It sounds like another damned Hindu invention. Another excuse to take
life."

"_Dharma_ is something, Captain Hawksworth, without which life no
longer matters. No Christian, or Muslim, has ever been able to
understand _dharma_, since it is the order that defines our castes - and
those born outside India are doomed to live forever without a caste.
_Dharma_ defines who we are and what we must do if we are to maintain
our caste. Warfare is the _dharma_ of the Kshatriya, the warrior
caste."

"And I say a pox on caste. What's so honorable about Rajputs
slaughtering each other?"

"Warriors are bound by their _dharma_ to join in battle against other
warriors. A warrior who fails in his duty sins against the _dharma_ of
his caste." Vasant Rao paused. "But why am I bothering to tell you
this? I sound like Krishna, lecturing Arjuna on his duty as a warrior."

"Who's Krishna? Another Rajput?"

"He's a god, Captain Hawksworth, sacred to all Rajputs. He teaches us
that a warrior must always honor his _dharma_."

Vasant Rao's eyes seemed to burn through the shadows of the cell. From
outside Hawksworth heard the distant chantings of some village
ceremony.

"If you'll listen, _feringhi_ captain, I'll tell you something about a
warrior's _dharma_. There's a legend, many thousands of years old, of a
great battle joined between two branches of a powerful dynasty in
ancient India. Two kings were brothers, and they shared a kingdom, but
their sons could not live in peace. One branch wished to destroy the
other. Eventually a battle was joined, a battle to the death. As they
waited on the field for the sound of the conch shell, to summon the
forces, the leader of those sons who had been wronged suddenly declared
that he could not bring himself to kill his own kinsmen. But the god
Krishna, who was charioteer for this son, reminded him he must follow
his _dharma_. That there is no greater good for a warrior than to join
battle for what is right. It's wrong only if he is attached to the
fruits of battle, if he does it for gain. It's told in the Bhagavad-
Gita, a Sanskrit scripture sacred to all warriors. I was reciting a
verse from Chapter Twelve when you woke."

"What did this god Krishna say?"

"He declared that all who live must die, and all who die will be
reborn. The spirit within us all, the _atman_, cannot be destroyed. It
travels through us on its journey from birth to rebirth. But it's not
correct to say merely that it exists. It is existence. It is the only
reality. It is present in everything because it is everything.
Therefore there's no need to mourn for death. There is no death. The
body is merely an appearance, by which the _atman_ reveals itself. The
body is only its guardian. But a warrior who turns away from the duty
of his caste sins against his honor and his _dharma_. Krishna warned
that this loss of honor could one day lead to the mixture of castes,
and then the dharma of the universe, its necessary order, would be
destroyed. It's not wrong for a Rajput to kill a worthy foe, Captain
Hawksworth, it's his duty. Just as it's also his duty to die a worthy
death."

"Why all this killing in the name of 'honor' and 'duty"?"

"Non-Hindus always want to know 'why.' To 'understand.' You always seem
to believe that words somehow contain all truth. But dharma simply is.
It is the air we breathe, the changeless order around us. We're part of
it. Does the earth ask why the monsoons come? Does the seed ask why the
sun shines each day? No. It's _dharma_. The dharma of the seed is to
bear fruit. The dharma of the warrior caste is to do battle. Only
_feringhi_, who live outside our dharma, ask 'why.' Truth is not
something you 'understand.' It's something you're part of. It's
something you feel with your being. And when you try to catch it with
words, it's gone. Can the eagle tell you how he flies, Captain
Hawksworth, or 'why"? If he could, he would no longer be an eagle. This
is the great wisdom of India. We've learned it's wasted on _feringhi_,
Captain, as I fear it's now wasted on you."

The talk left Hawksworth feeling strangely insecure, his mind wrestling
with ideas that defied rationality.

"I know there are things you understand with your gut, not with your
head."

"Then there may be hope for you, Captain Hawksworth. Now we will see if
you can die like a Rajput. If you can, perhaps you will be reborn one
of us."

"Then I might even learn to be a bandit."

"All Rajputs are not the same, Captain. There are many tribes,
descended from different dynasties. Each has its own tradition and
genealogy. I'm from the north. From the races descended from the moon.
This tribe claims descent from the solar dynasty, which also began in
the north. I think their genealogy goes back to the god Indra, who they
claim brought them into being with the aid of the sun."

Vasant Rao turned and continued reciting in Sanskrit. His face again
became a mask.

Hawksworth rubbed his head in confusion and suddenly felt a hard lump
where the club had dropped. The fear began to well up in his stomach as
he remembered the stony-faced riders who had surrounded him in the
river. But he pushed aside thoughts of death.

_Dharma_ be damned. What did he mean, they're members of a clan
descended from the "solar dynasty"? They're killers, looking for an
excuse to plunder.

I'm not planning to die like a Rajput just yet. Or be reborn as one.
Life is too sweet just as it is. I'm beginning to feel alive here, for
the first time ever. Shirin is free. I've got a feeling I'll be seeing
her again. Whatever happens, I don't care to die in this piss hole,
with empty talk about honor. Think.

He remembered the river again, and quickly felt in his boot. The other
pistol was still there.

We'll find a way to get out. Somehow. We may just lose a few days'
time, that's all. We made good time so far. Six days. We left on
Sunday, and we've been here two days. So today is probably Monday.

He suddenly froze.

"Where are the carts?"

"At the south end of the village. Where they have the _chans_, the
cattle sheds. The drivers are there too."

"Is my chest there?"

"No. It's right there. Behind you." Vasant Rao pointed into the dark.
"I told them it belonged to the Moghul, and they brought it here. I
guess the Moghul still counts for something here. Maybe they're
superstitious about him."

Hawksworth pulled himself up and reached behind him. The chest was
there. He fingered the cool metal of the lock and his mind began to
clear even more. Quickly he began to search his jerkin for the key. Its
pockets were empty.

Of course. If I was tied over a horse it.. .

Then he remembered. For safety he had transferred it to the pocket of
his breeches the second day out. He felt down his leg, fighting the
ache in his arm.

Miraculously the key was still there.

He tried to hold his excitement as he twisted it into the lock on the
chest. Once, twice, and it clicked.

He quickly checked the contents. Lute on top. Letter, still wrapped.
Clothes. Then he felt deeper and touched the metal. Slowly he drew it
out, holding his breath. It was still intact.

The light from the lamp glanced off the burnished brass of the Persian
astrolabe from the observatory. It had been Mukarrab Khan's parting
gift.

He carried it to the slatted window and carefully twisted each slat
until the sun began to stream through.

Thank God it's late in the year, when the sun's already lower at
midday.

He took a quick reading of the sun's elevation. It had not yet reached
its zenith. He made a mental note of the reading and began to wait.
Five minutes passed - they seemed hours - and he checked the elevation
again. The sun was still climbing, but he knew it would soon reach its
highest point.

Vasant Rao continued to chant verses from the Bhagavad- Gita in terse,
toneless Sanskrit.

He probably thinks I'm praying too, Hawksworth smiled to himself.

The reading increased, then stayed the same, then began to decrease.
The sun had passed its zenith, and he had the exact reading of its
elevation.

He mentally recorded the reading, then began to rummage in the bottom
of the chest for the seaman's book he always carried with him.

We left Surat on October twenty-fourth. So October twenty-fifth was
Karod, the twenty-sixth was Viara, the twenty-seventh was Corka, the
twenty-eighth was Narayanpur, the twenty-ninth was the river. Today has
to be October thirty-first.

The book was there, its pages still musty from the moist air at sea. He
reached the page he wanted and ran his finger down a column of figures
until he reached the one he had read off the astrolabe.

From the reading the latitude here is 21 degrees and 20

minutes north.

Then he began to search the chest for a sheaf of papers and finally his
fingers closed around them, buried beneath his spare jerkin. He
squinted in the half light as he went through the pages, the
handwriting hurried from hasty work in the observatory. Finally he
found what he wanted. He had copied it directly from the old Samarkand
astronomer's calculations. The numerals were as bold as the day he had
written them. The latitude was there, and the date.

With a tight smile that pained his aching face he carefully wrapped the
astrolabe and returned it to the bottom of the chest, together with the
books. He snapped the lock in place just as the door of the cell swung
open.

He looked up to see the face of the man who had swung the club.

Good Jesus, I thought he was dead. And he looks even younger. . . .

Then Hawksworth realized it had to be his son. But the heavy brow, the
dark beard, the narrow eyes, were all the same, almost as though his
father's blood had flowed directly into his veins. He wore no helmet or
breastplate now, only a simple robe, entirely white.

The man spoke curtly to Vasant Rao in a language Hawksworth did not
understand.

"He has ordered us to come with him. It's time for the ceremony. He
says you must watch how the man you killed is honored."

Vasant Rao rose easily and pinched out the oil lamp. In the darkened
silence Hawksworth heard the lowing of cattle, as well as the distant
drone of a chant. Outside the guards were waiting. He noted they
carried sheathed swords. And they too were dressed in white.

In the midday sunshine he quickly tried to survey the terrain. Jagged
rock outcrops seemed to ring the village, with a gorge providing an
easily protected entrance.

He was right. It's a fortress. And probably impregnable.

The road was wide, with rows of mud-brick homes on either side, and
ahead was an open square, where a crowd had gathered. Facing the
square, at the far end, was an immense house of baked brick, the
largest in the fortress village, with a wide front and a high porch.

As they approached the square, Hawksworth realized a deep pit had been
newly excavated directly in the center. Mourners clustered nearby,
silently waiting, while a group of women - five in all - held hands and
moved slowly around the pit intoning a dirge.

As they reached the side of the opening he saw the Rajput's body, lying
face up on a fragrant bier of sandalwood and _neem_ branches. His head
and beard had been shaved and his body bound in a silk winding sheet.
He was surrounded by garlands of flowers. The wood in the pit smelled
of _ghee_ and rose-scented coconut oil. Nearby, Brahmin priests recited
in Sanskrit.

"His body will be cremated with the full honor of a Rajput warrior."
Vasant Rao stood alongside. "It's clear the Brahmins have been paid
enough."

Hawksworth looked around at the square and the nearby houses, their
shutters all sealed in mourning. Chanting priests in ceremonial robes
had stationed themselves near the large house, and an Arabian mare, all
white and bedecked with flowers, was tied at the entrance. Suddenly the
tones of mournful, discordant music sounded around him.

As Hawksworth watched, the heavy wooden doors of the great house opened
slowly and a woman stepped into the midday sunshine. Even from their
distance he could see that she was resplendent - in an immaculate white
wrap that sparkled with gold ornaments - and her movements regal as she
descended the steps and was helped onto the horse. As she rode slowly
in the direction of the pit, she was supported on each side by Brahmin
priests, long-haired men with stripes of white clay painted down their
forehead.

"She is his wife." Vasant Rao had also turned to watch. "Now you'll see
a woman of the warrior caste follow her _dharma_."

As the woman rode slowly by, Hawksworth sensed she was only barely
conscious of her surroundings, as though she had been drugged. She
circled the pit three times, then stopped near where Hawksworth and
Vasant Rao were standing. As the priests helped her down from the mare,
one urged her to drink again from a cup of dense liquid he carried. Her
silk robe was fragrant with scented oil, and Hawksworth saw that
decorations of saffron and sandalwood had been applied to her arms and
forehead.

It's a curious form of mourning. She's dressed and perfumed as though
for a banquet, not a funeral. And what's she drinking? From the way she
moves I'd guess it's some opium concoction.

She paused at the edge of the pit and seemed to glare for an instant at
the five women who moved around her. Then she drank again from the cup,
and calmly began removing her jewels, handing them to the priest, until
her only ornament was a necklace of dark seeds. Next the Brahmins
sprinkled her head with water from a pot and, as a bell began to toll,
started helping her into the pit. Hawksworth watched in disbelief as
she knelt next to her husband's body and lovingly cradled his head
against her lap. Her eyes were lifeless but serene.

The realization of what was happening struck Hawksworth like a blow in
the chest. But how could it be true? It was unthinkable.

Then the man who had brought them, the son, held out his hand and one
of the Brahmins bowed and handed him a burning torch. It flared



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 23 of 52)