Thomas Hoover.

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flesh seemed to roll like a wave as she kneeled, front legs out, back
legs bent at the knee, ready to be mounted. Two keepers were there,
opening the gate of the gold-trimmed _howdah _and then kneeling, ready
to hoist the _feringhi_ aboard.

"Have you ever ridden an elephant before, Ambassador?" Nadir Sharif
monitored Hawksworth's apprehensive expression with delight.

"Never. I've never actually been this close to one before." Hawksworth
eyed the elephant warily, mistrusting her seeming docility.
Elizabethans circulated fabulous tales about this mountainous beast,
that it could pull down great trees with the power of its trunk, that
it had two hearts - one it used when calm, the other when incensed - and
that in Ethiopia there were dragons who killed elephants merely to
drink their blood, said to be ice cold at all times.

"You will find an elephant has more wit than most men. His Majesty
keeps a thousand in his stables here in the Red Fort. The Great Akman
used to trap them in the wild, using a female in heat, but then he
learned to induce tame ones to couple. Your elephant, I believe, is
second-ranked. She's a fine-tempered animal."

Kumada examined Hawksworth with her sad, dark eyes, and waved her
fanlike ears skeptically.

"I'm not entirely sure she's taken to me."

"Here, Ambassador." Nadir Sharif slipped a paper-wrapped stick of
sugarcane into Hawksworth's hand and nodded his head toward the

Hawksworth gingerly approached her and began unwrapping the paper. No
sooner was the cane in view than Kumada nipped it deftly from his hand
with a flourish of her trunk. She popped the cane into her mouth and
flapped her ears with obvious pleasure as she cracked it with her
immense teeth. For a second Hawksworth thought he caught a flash of
appreciation in her eyes. He paused a moment, then walked close enough
to stroke the heavy skin at her neck.

"She'll not forget you now, Ambassador." Nadir Sharif was feeding his
own elephant. "It's said these animals have a memory longer than a

Hawksworth vaulted into the _howdah _and the entire world suddenly
seemed to shudder as her mahout signaled Kumada to rise. He seized the
railing surrounding him and gasped as she rumbled to her feet.

"You'll soon ride like a Rajput, Ambassador."

The elephant rocked into motion. It was worse than heavy weather at

"I think it may take practice."

"Women from the _zenana _ride elephants all the way to Kashmir in the
summer. I'm sure you'll manage a two-day hunt." Nadir Sharif swung
easily into his howdah. Around them other elephants were kneeling for
nobles to mount.

"Where will the hunt be?"

"This time we're going west, out toward the old city of Fatehpur Sekri.
But His Majesty has hunting preserves all over. In the neighborhood of
Agra and near the small town of Delhi north of here, along the course
of the Jamuna and reaching into the mountains, there is much
uncultivated land. There are many places with grasses over six feet
high and copse wood. This land is guarded with great care by the army,
and no person, high or low, is allowed to hunt there except for
partridge, quail, and hare - which are caught with nets. So the game -
nilgai, deer, antelope, _chitah_, tiger, even some lions - is plentiful.
Some of His Majesty's hunting preserves may extend as far as ten _kos
_in every direction - I believe that's around twenty of your miles."

"You said preparations for the hunt had been underway for days?"

"Of course. When His Majesty announces a _shikar_, a royal hunt, the
grand master of the hunt in that particular location has to begin
extensive preparations. The hunts now are usually a _qamargha_, which
was invented by Akman."

"What's that?"

"First, sentries are posted on all the roads leading into the preserve
to keep villagers out, and then the entire preserve is surrounded by
beaters, we call them _qarawals_, who begin to close the circle and
drive in the game. For this week's hunt he used thirty thousand
_qarawals_. The grand master of the hunt informs His Majesty when the
game has been brought together. The next day the court and officers
from the army leave early, to be at the appointed place to meet His
Majesty when he arrives. His Majesty usually hunts alone at first, if
there are no tigers, and everyone else must wait at a distance of about
one _kos_. Only some members of the Imperial army are allowed to
accompany him, for protection. After His Majesty wearies of the kill,
then others of his choosing are allowed to kill the last of the game.
But if tigers are to be hunted, it's customary that only His Majesty
and the royal family enter the circle. It's always been the tradition
of Moghul rulers that only they and their kinsmen are allowed to hunt
tigers. But this hunt will be different. This time His Majesty will
merely watch."

"Who'll do the killing then?"

"That my surprise you, Ambassador. Let me merely say that it is no man.
You will see."

Hawksworth was still wondering what he meant. But the time was not far
away when he would know. They were nearing the area that Nadir Sharif
had said was designated for the hunt.

"Inglish," Arangbar shouted back over his shoulder. "Does your king

"Rarely, Your Majesty. But he has no elephants."

"Perhaps we should send him some. But then I assume he has no tigers
either. Should we also send him some tigers to run free in Ingland so
he can hunt them?"

"I'll remember to ask His Majesty."

"But first you must see our tigers for yourself, Inglish. Today you and
Nadir Sharif will join us as we go into the _qur_, the hunting round.
Have your elephants fitted with leather armor."

Nadir Sharif started with surprise. "I thank Your Majesty for the

Allaudin stirred in his _howdah_, and Hawksworth caught the disdain in
his eyes. "Majesty, why are you inviting the _feringhi _into the

"Her Majesty suggested it. And it amuses me." Arangbar seemed to
dismiss Allaudin's question. "He will not have a weapon. All he'll do
is watch."

As servants rushed forward to begin fitting the leather armor,
Hawksworth saw the queen's elephant approach. This was the closest he
had ever been to her, and still he could not see her. Her _howdah _was
completely enclosed with curtains, which now flapped lightly in the
midday breeze.

"Her Majesty, Queen Janahara, will be going into the hunting circle."
Nadir Sharifs voice was discreet as he spoke to Hawksworth. "She rarely
joins in _shikar_, but she is an excellent shot. This is a rare honor
for you, Ambassador."

Hawksworth studied the closed howdah and wondered why the "honor"
seemed to leave him with such an uneasy feeling.

The waiting nobles formed a line with their elephants as the Imperial
entourage moved past. Armed guards followed on horseback at a distance.
Leather padding had been fitted over the face and shanks of
Hawksworth's and Nadir Sharif's elephants, and they joined the end of
the procession.

Hawksworth held firmly to the side of the _howdah _as his elephant
rocked along, with only occasional instructions from her mahout. Now
they followed a winding road, which was surrounded on either side by
tall, brown grass. He warily studied every sway of the grass, imagining
tigers waiting to spring.

"Why don't we have guns?" He turned to Nadir Sharif, who rode
alongside, rocking placidly in his swaying howdah.

"There's no need, Ambassador. I told you the tiger will not be killed
with guns today. Of course, His Majesty and Prince Allaudin have guns,
but they're merely for protection, in case there's some minor

"Minor difficulty? What are _we _supposed to do if there's a 'minor

"The army will be there, men with half-pikes." He smiled easily.
"You're in no danger."

Ahead the woods seemed to open up, and the grass was shorter, perhaps
only as high as a man's waist. Deer darted wildly from side to side,
contained by high nets that had been erected around the sides of the
clearing. As they approached, Hawksworth saw a long line of several
hundred water buffalo waiting, heavy bovine animals with thick curved
horns dipping back against their heads, each fitted with a leather
saddle and reined by a rider on its back. The reins, which passed
through the buffalo's nostrils, were held in one hand by a mounted
soldier, whose other hand grasped a naked broadsword.

"Those men may well be the bravest soldiers in the army." Nadir Sharif
pointed to the riders, who were all saluting Arangbar's arrival.
"Theirs is a task I do not envy."

"What do they do?"

"You will see for yourself, Ambassador, in just a few moments."

From beyond the other side of the clearing, as though on an agreed
signal, came the sound of beaters. As the Imperial elephants drew near
the gray line of buffalo, their riders began to urge them ahead. The
buffalo snorted, knowing what waited in the grass, and then they
lumbered forward, tossing their heads in disquiet. The line of buffalo
was curved in the shape of a half-moon, and Arangbar urged his elephant
directly behind them. The grass ahead swarmed with frightened game, as
deer and antelope dashed against the nets and were thrown back, and
from the woods beyond, the clatter and shouts of the beaters increased.

Suddenly from out of the grass a tawny head appeared, with gold and
black stripes and heavy whiskers. The animal dashed for the side of the
enclosure, sprang for freedom, and was thrown back by the heavy net.
Hawksworth watched it speechless, unprepared for the size and ferocity
of an Indian tiger. It was enormous, with powerful haunches and a long
striped tail. The tiger flipped to its feet and turned to face the line
of buffalo with an angry growl.

Arangbar clapped his hands with delight and shouted in Urdu to the line
of riders, all - Hawksworth now realized - Rajputs. The buffalo snorted
and tried to turn back, but their riders whipped them forward. The
tiger assumed a crouching stalk along the gray, horned wall, eyeing a
large dark buffalo with a bearded rider. Then it sprang.

The buffalo's head went down, and when it came up a heavy curved horn
had pierced the tiger's neck. There was a snort and a savage toss of
the head that flung the wounded tiger upward. As it whirled in the air,
Hawksworth saw a deep gash across its throat. The Rajput riders nearby
slipped to the ground and formed a wall of swords between Arangbar and
the tiger as the line of buffalo closed in, bellowing for the kill. In
what seemed only moments the tiger was horned and pawed to a lifeless

"Superb!" Arangbar shouted something to the enclosed _howdah _that
Hawksworth did not understand. "A hundred gold _mohurs_ to every man on
the line."

The Rajputs remounted their buffalo, retrieving the reins from the
bloody grass, and the line again moved forward.

"This is a variation on His Majesty's usual tiger hunt," Nadir Sharif
shouted through the dust, above the din of bellowing buffalo and
trumpeting elephants. "Often he shoots, but today His Majesty elected
merely to watch. Actually, animal fights have long been a favorite
pastime in India."

At that moment a pair of tigers emerged from the grass and stared at
the approaching line of buffalo. They did not seem frightened, as had
the first, and they watched the line coolly, as though selecting a
strategy. Then they dropped into a crouching stalk, moving directly
toward the center of the line.

Hawksworth noticed Arangbar suddenly order his mahout to hold back his
elephant. The other Imperial elephants had also paused to wait. Then
Arangbar turned and ordered the servant who rode behind him to pass
forward a long-barreled, large-caliber sporting piece. Allaudin, whose
fright was transparent, also signaled for a gun.

Hawksworth's mahout pulled his elephant directly behind Arangbar's, as
though for protection.

The tigers seemed in no hurry to engage the buffalo. They scrutinized
the approaching line and waited for their moment. Then, when the
buffalo were no more than ten feet away, both sprang simultaneously.

The female was speared on the horn of a buffalo, but she flipped in
midair and sank her teeth into the leather shielding on its neck. As
its Rajput rider slipped to the ground, the male of the pair dashed
past his mate and sprang for him. The Rajput swung his broadsword,
catching the tiger in the flank, but it swatted him aside with a
powerful sweep of its paw and he crumpled, his neck shattered. Other
Rajputs rushed the male tiger with their swords, as their buffalo
closed in to kill the female, but it eluded their thrusts as it circled
Arangbar's elephant. Soldiers with half-pikes had already rushed to
form a barricade between Arangbar's elephant and the tiger, but the
Moghul seemed unperturbed. While the panting male tiger stalked
Arangbar, the female tiger was forgotten.

As Hawksworth watched spellbound, his pulse pounding, he caught a
yellow flicker out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the
female tiger slip past the ring of buffalo and dash toward the rear of
Arangbar's elephant. It was on the opposite side from the armed
soldiers, where the Moghul's elephant was undefended.

Hawksworth opened his mouth to shout just as the female tiger sprang
for Arangbar, but at that moment a shot rang out from the enclosed
howdah of Queen Janahara and the female tiger crumpled in midair,
curving into a lifeless ball as it smashed against the side of the
Moghul's mount.

The jolt caused Arangbar's shot at the male tiger to go wide, merely
grazing its foreleg. A dozen half-pikes pierced its side as it stumbled
forward, and it whirled to slap at the Rajputs. Allaudin also fired his
tiger gun, but his shot missed entirely, almost hitting one of the men
trying to hold the tiger back. It whirled in a bloody circle for a
moment, and then stopped.

It was staring at Hawksworth.

He heard his mahout shout in terror as the tiger sprang for the head of
their elephant. A wrap of yellow fur seemed to twist itself around the
elephant's forehead as the tiger dug its claws into the protective
leather padding. As Kumada tossed her head in panic, the mahout
screamed again and plunged for safety, rolling through a clump of brown
grass and scrambling toward the soldiers.

The tiger caught Hawksworth's eyes with a hypnotic gaze as it began
pulling itself over the forehead of the terrified elephant, directly
toward his howdah. Kumada had begun to whirl in a circle and shake her
head, futilely trying to dislodge the wounded fury slashing at her
leather armor. The tiger slipped momentarily, then caught its claws
more firmly and began to climb again.

Almost without thinking, Hawksworth reached forward and grabbed the
_ankus_, the short pike and claw used for guiding an elephant, that the
mahout had left lodged in a leather fold behind the elephant's head. He
wrenched it free and began to tease the tiger back.

Kumada was running now, wildly it seemed, toward a large _pipal _tree
at the edge of the clearing. But the tiger had pulled itself atop her
head and, as Hawksworth jabbed its whiskered face with the _ankus_, he
heard a deep growl and saw a flash of yellow and claw as a sharp pain
cut through his shoulder.

He knew he was falling, dizzily, hands grasping against smooth leather
as he slipped past the neck of the elephant, past its flapping ear,
against a thundering foot that slammed the dust next to his face.

Kumada had suddenly stopped dead still, throwing him sprawling against
the base of the _pipal _tree. He looked up to see the tiger suspended
above him, glaring down, clawing at the face of the elephant and
bellowing with pain.

Then he heard the snap of the tiger's spine, as Kumada slammed it again
and again against the massive trunk of the

tree, Only when the tiger was motionless did she let it drop, carefully
tossing its body away from Hawksworth as it tumbled lifeless onto the

Hawksworth looked up through the dust to see Arangbar pulling his
elephant alongside.

"That was most auspicious, Inglish. It's an ominous and evil protent
for the state if a tiger I have shot escapes the hunt. If that beast
had succeeded in going free, we would have had to send the entire army
into the countryside to find and kill it. Your Kumada saved me the
trouble. The gods of the southwest have been auspicious for our reign
today. I think you brought us luck."

"I thank Your Majesty." Hawksworth found himself gasping for breath.

"No, it is you we must thank. You were quick-witted enough to keep the
tiger where Kumada could crush it." Arangbar called for his own
elephant to kneel, and he walked briskly to Kumada, who was still
quivering from fright. He stroked her face beneath the eye and she
gentled perceptibly. It was obvious she loved Arangbar. "She's
magnificent. Only once before have I ever seen an elephant do that. I
hereby promote her immediately to First Rank, even though a female." He
turned to Nadir Sharif. "Have it recorded."

As Hawksworth tried to rise, he felt a bolt of pain through the
shoulder where the tiger had slapped him. He looked to see his leather
jerkin shredded. Arangbar seemed to notice it too and he turned and
motioned to Nadir Sharif, who signaled to another man, who called yet
another. Moments later a physician was bending over Hawksworth. He
probed the skin for a painful moment and then slammed a knee against
Hawksworth's side, giving the pained arm a quick twist.

Hawksworth heard himself cry out from the pain and for a moment he
thought he might lose consciousness. But then his mind began to clear
and he realized he could move the arm again. The pain was already
starting to abate.

"I suggest the shoulder be treated with compresses for a few days,
Majesty." Nadir Sharif had dismounted from his elephant and was there,
attentive as always.

"Then he must be sent back to Agra."

"Of course, Majesty." Nadir Sharif stepped closer to Arangbar. "But
perhaps it would be equally wise to let the _feringhi _rest somewhere
near here. Perhaps at the old city." He turned and pointed toward the
west. "There at Fatehpur. I think there may still be a few Sufi hermits
there who could attend the shoulder until _shikar _is over. Then he
could return with us."

Arangbar turned and shaded his eyes as he stared at the horizon. Above
the tree line could be seen the gate of the fortress at Fatehpur Sekri.

"But my shoulder is fine now." Hawksworth tried to move into the circle
of conversation. "There's no need . . ."

"Very reasonable." Arangbar seemed to ignore Hawksworth as he turned
back to Nadir Sharif. "You can escort the Inglish to the fortress. Call
up a palanquin for him. Leave your elephant here and take a horse."

As the physician bound Hawksworth's arm in readiness, a palanquin was
brought from among the women's elephants. "A contingent of Rajputs can
go with him." Arangbar shouted instructions to the captain of his guard
and watched the men fall into formation. Then he remounted his elephant
and signaled for the buffalo to resume their sweep of the tall grass.

As the party started forward, Hawksworth saw Nadir Sharif shout orders
to one of the servants attending him. And as four Rajputs lifted
Hawksworth's palanquin off the ground, a servant rushed forward to
shove a flask inside.

It was brandy. Hawksworth turned to see Nadir Sharif grinning, a gleam
in his eye.

She watched the palanquin ease up the weathered, winding path leading
to the fortress gate. The procession had moved slowly through the gate
at the northeast corner of the city's walls and now the Rajputs were
clustered around the palanquin and the lone rider. The night was still,
awash in a wild desert fragrance, and the moon was curing slowly from
white to a rarified gold. Her vantage, in a corner turret of the wall,
was shadow-less and perfect. She examined the rider and smiled when she
recognized the face.

Nadir Sharif. You have kept your part of the bargain. All of it.

As she studied him through the half light, she wondered why they were
coming a day earlier than planned. Then the palanquin stopped and the
other figure emerged. She hesitated before looking, at last forcing
herself, willing her eyes to see.

After a long moment she turned to the tall man standing next to her.
His beard was white, as were his robes. His eyes saw what she saw, but
he did not smile. He turned to her and nodded wordlessly. Then he
tightened his white robe and moved easily down the stone staircase
toward the courtyard below.

Hawksworth had sensed the autumn light begin to fall rapidly as they
approached the gates of the fortress-city. Already there was a pale
moon, promising fullness. In size and grandeur the portals of the gate
reminded Hawksworth of the Red Fort in Agra, only the walls themselves
were considerably less formidable. The palace itself sat atop a wooded
hill, and already the stones of the abandoned roadway leading up the
hill were becoming overgrown. There was a small village at the bottom
of the hill, where smoke from evening cooking fires had begun to rise,
but from the fortress itself there was no smoke, no hint of life or

He alighted from the palanquin at the bottom of a steep stairway
leading to the palace gate and together with Nadir Sharif passed slowly
up the abandoned steps. The Rajputs trailed behind them as they reached
the top and passed under the shadow of a tulip-curved arch that framed
the gateway. The dark surrounded them like an envelope, and the Rajput
guards pushed forward, toward the black outline of two massive wooden
doors at the back of the recess. They pushed open the doors, and before
them lay a vast open courtyard, empty in the moonlight.

"Is this place completely abandoned? I still don't understand why I'm

Nadir Sharif smiled. "On the contrary, Ambassador. It's far from
abandoned. But it appears so, does it not?"

Then Hawksworth saw a figure approaching them, gliding noiselessly
across the red sandstone pavement of the court. The figure carried an
oil lamp, which illuminated a bearded face framed in a white shawl.

"You are welcome in the name of Allah." The figure bowed a greeting.
"What brings armed men to our door? It is too late now to pray. We long
ago sounded the last _azan_."

"His Majesty has sent a _feringhi _here, to be cared for by you for two
days." Nadir Sharif stepped forward. "He was injured today during

"Our hands are always open." The figure turned and moved across the
plaza toward a building that looked, in the new moonlight, to be a
mosque. When they reached the entrance, the man turned and spoke to the
Rajputs in a language Hawksworth did not understand.

"He says this is the house of God," Nadir Sharif translated. "He has
commanded the Rajputs to leave their shoes and their weapons here if
they wish to follow. I think they will refuse. Perhaps it would be best
if we all left you now. You'll be well cared for. Day after tomorrow
I'll send a horse for you."

"What's going on? You mean I'm going to be here alone?" Hawksworth
suddenly realized he was being abandoned, at an abandoned city. He
whirled on Nadir Sharif. "You suggested this. You brought me here. What
the hell is this for? I could have returned to Agra, or even stayed
with the hunt."

"You're a perceptive man, Ambassador." Nadir Sharif smiled and looked
up at the moon. "But as far as I know, you're here entirely by
coincidence. I cannot be responsible for anything that happens to you,
or anyone you see. This is merely the hand of chance. Please try to

"What do you mean?"

"I will see you in two days, Ambassador. Enjoy your rest."

Nadir Sharif bowed, and in moments he and the Rajputs had melted into
the moonlight.

Hawksworth watched them leave with a mounting sense of disquiet. Then
he turned and peered past the hooded figure, who stood waiting. The
mosque looked empty, a cavern of flickering shadows against intricate
plaster calligraphy. He unbuckled the sheath of his sword and passed it
to the man as he kicked away his loose slippers. The man took the sword
without a word, examined it for a moment as though evaluating its
workmanship, then turned to lead the way.

They moved silently across the polished stone floor, past enormous
columns that disappeared into the darkness of the vaulted space above
them. Hawksworth relished the coolness of the stones against his bare
feet, then ducked barely in time to avoid a hanging lamp, extinguished
now, its polished metalwork almost invisible against the gloom.

Ahead a lamp flickered through the dark. They passed beneath it, then

Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 34 of 52)