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Thomas Hoover.

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only hours before, was devastated, an inferno of shredded cloth and
billowing flame.

A harsh chant began to drift upward from the valley, swelling as voices
joined in unison.

"Allah-o-Akbar! Allah-o-Akbar!" God is Great. It was the battle cry of
Inayat Latifs Muslim infantry.

The plain below had grown tinged with light now, as dawn approached and
the fires from Jadar's camp spread. As Hawksworth watched, nervously
gripping the handle of his sword, a force of steel-armored war
elephants advanced on the eastern perimeter of the camp, their polished
armor plate glowing red in the firelight. Those in the vanguard bore
steel-shrouded _howdahs_, through which a single heavy cannon protruded
. . . probably a ten-pounder, Hawksworth told himself. The steel
_howdahs_ on the next rows of elephants were almost three feet high and
perforated to allow their archers to shoot without rising above the
open top. Sporadic cannon and matchlock fire from the few hundred men
left in the camp pelted the elephants but did nothing to impede their
advance. Directly behind them the Imperial infantry swept in dense,
martialed ranks.

Jadar knew exactly what he was doing when he picked this terrain for
the camp, Hawksworth told himself. He used it to set the terms for the
battle. There's no room to maneuver. When they discover the camp is
abandoned, the elephants can't retreat and regroup without crushing
their own infantry.

He slipped his arm around Shirin's waist and held her next to him. They
watched as the Imperial war elephants crashed through the camp's outer
edge, scarcely slowing at the ditch. When the elephants were at point-
blank range, the specially loaded cannon along the perimeter opened
fire, spraying a rain of steel barbs among them. Even from the hilltop
he could hear the clang of steel as the barbs ricocheted off their
armor.

"We'll soon know if Jadar's plan has a chance. Can he contain the
elephants there, or will they obliterate the camp, then regroup, and .
. ."

The first row of elephants suddenly reared chaotically, lashing out
with their armored trunks and dismounting some of the gunners. As barbs
caught in their feet, they trumpeted in pain and started to mill
randomly in angry confusion, crushing several of the men they had
thrown.

Just as Jadar predicted, the deadly carpet of barbs had temporarily
disrupted their advance. Their ranks were broken and their guns in
disarray. Behind the elephants the infantry still marched unaware,
until the confusion in the elephant ranks began to disrupt their front
lines. Gradually the order in the infantry ranks completely
disintegrated, as the men stopped to eye the milling war elephants
ahead of them in growing fear and confusion. By a single cannon salvo
Jadar's men had robbed the attack of its momentum.

"Now's Jadar's moment." Hawksworth watched in growing admiration. "Will
he use it?"

As though in answer, a blare of trumpets from the hills on both sides
of the plain suddenly electrified the morning air. As they died away,
the woods opened wide with a single chorus, deep and throaty and
unforgiving.

RAM RAM. RAM RAM. RAM RAM.

It was the ancient Rajput war cry.

A blaze of fire from Jadar's camouflaged cannon shredded away the leafy
blinds erected along the foot of the hills, sending a rain of forty-
pound lead shot into the Imperial war elephants. Their disordered ranks
erupted in tangled steel and blood. Seconds later, a volley by Jadar's
small artillery ripped into the unsuspecting infantry massed behind the
elephants, hurtling fragmented bodies and orphaned weapons spinning
through the ranks. Finally came the fiery streaks of rockets, thin
foot-long iron tubes filled with gunpowder and set with a lighted fuse,
many with a sword blade attached to the end, which cut in a deadly wave
through the Imperial troops, slashing and exploding as they flew.

A dense roll of Jadar's war drums sounded from both hillsides, and the
first wave of Rajput cavalry, still bellowing their war cry, charged
down on the disrupted Imperial forces, discharging volleys of arrows
with mechanical precision. They wore steel-net cloaks and helmet
guards, and their horses were armored with woven steel netting encased
in heavy quilting - with a wide frontlet over the chest, a neck-length
collar secured to the top of the bridle, and a body shroud over their
sides and hindquarters emblazoned with each man's family crest. The
startled infantry turned to meet them, and in moments the air darkened
with opposing arrows. From the hill above came the din of supporting
matchlock fire from Jadar's own infantry.

The Rajput cavalry plowed into the first rows of Imperial infantry with
their long _nezah _lances held at arm's length high above their heads,
thrusting downward as they rode. Veins fueled with opium, the Rajputs
had forgotten all fear. They brushed aside Imperial spears and swords
and slaughtered with undisguised pleasure, as though each death endowed
more honor to their _dharma_. Hawksworth's stomach knotted as he
watched a thousand men fall in less than a minute.

While the Rajputs attacked, the prince's division of armored war
elephants had emerged from their camouflage and begun advancing across
the western edge of the plain, isolating the ragged remainder of the
Imperial elephants from the battlefield. Although Jadar had far fewer
war elephants, they now were easily able to contain the shattered
Imperial forces.

Hawksworth turned to watch as yet another wave of Jadar's cavalry bore
down on the plain. These rode through the tangle of Imperial infantry
wielding long curved swords, killing any the first wave had missed.

"I'm not sure I believe what I'm seeing." Hawksworth peered through the
dust and smoke boiling across the plain below. "Jadar has already
seized the advantage. He's immobilized their war elephants, their major
advantage, and he timed the counterattack perfectly."

"The battle has only just begun." Shirin took his hand for no reason at
all and gripped it. "And their major advantage was not elephants, but
numbers. I fear for him. Look, there." She pointed toward the east,
where the red sky now illuminated a vast sea of infantry, poised as
reinforcements. "The prince's Rajputs cannot stop them all. Prince
Jadar does not have the forces to meet them. I think he will be
defeated today, badly."

"And if he dies, do we die with him?"

"Perhaps not you. But they will surely kill me. And probably Mumtaz.
Most certainly they have orders to kill his son."

On the field below Jadar's cavalry fought as though possessed. Rajputs
with one, two, even three arrows in their back continued to sound their
war cry and take head after bearded head, until they finally slumped
unconscious from the saddle. Riderless horses, many with their stomachs
slashed open, could be seen running wildly through the Imperial ranks,
unused arrows still rattling in their saddle quivers.

Waves of Jadar's infantry had begun pouring down from the hills,
following the cavalry. The men wore heavy leather helmets and a skirt
of woven steel. A hood of steel netting hung down from each man's
helmet, protecting his face and neck. They advanced firing volley after
volley of arrows into the Imperial infantry. When they reached the
plain, they drew their long curved swords and, waving them above their
heads, threw themselves into the forces of Inayat Latif. The field
quickly became a vast arena of hand-to-hand combat, as inevitably
happened when two Indian armies met, with Jadar's forces badly
outnumbered.

Shirin watched the slaughter in silence for a time, as though tallying
the dead and dying on both sides, and then she turned her face away.

"Allah preserve us. Prince Jadar's Rajputs have eaten so much affion I
think they can fight even after they die, but their numbers are already
shrinking. How long can they protect the prince?"

"Where's he now?"

She turned back and peered through the dust on the field for a long
moment. Then she pointed. "He's on the field now. There, in the center.
Do you see him?" She paused. "He's very courageous to take the field so
early. It will inspire his men, but it's a very bad omen."

Hawksworth squinted toward the east. He could barely make out a phalanx
of elephants moving across the plains, into the middle of the fiercest
fighting. Several of the elephants had clusters of two-pound swivel
guns mounted on their backs, a few had rocket launchers, but most
carried howdahs filled with Rajput archers. In the center moved a large
black elephant, heavily armored and bearing a steel _howdah _decorated
with ornate gilding. Standing erect in the howdah, beneath a huge
embroidered umbrella, was the figure of Prince Jadar, loosing arrows in
rhythmic succession as the Imperial infantry closed around him.

"Why is it a bad sign?"

"It's unwise for the supreme commander of an army to expose himself so
early in the battle." Shirin was watching Jadar, transfixed. "If he's
killed, the battle will be over. All his troops will flee."

"Even his fearless Rajputs?"

"That's the way in India. If he's lost, what do they have left to fight
for? They will melt into the forest. In India a commander must always
be visible to his men, standing above the armor of his howdah, so
they'll know for certain he's alive."

As the circle of elephants surrounding Jadar advanced through the
field, a triple line of his Rajput infantry moved into place around
him. He quickly became the focus of the battle, and the Imperial
infantry massed to encircle him, like the king in a game of chess. His
protective buffer of elephants was coming under increasingly heavy
attack. The advantage of surprise enjoyed by his original offensive was
gone. Now he was clearly on the defensive.

"I think Jadar's starting to be in serious trouble. You were right. I
don't know how much longer his circle of elephants can protect him."

In the silence he slowly turned to Shirin and their eyes met. Nothing
more was said because no more words were needed. She reached out and
touched his lips and a lifetime seemed to flow between them. Then he
drew his sword and leaned over the edge of the howdah.

"Yes."

With a single stroke he severed the tether rope tying their elephant.
Their startled mahout turned and stared in disbelief. When Hawksworth
shouted at him to start, he hesitated for a moment, then flung his
barbed iron _ankus _into their _howdah _and plunged for the grass.

Hawksworth grabbed the _ankus_, but before he could move, the elephant
lifted its trunk into the morning air and emitted a long, defiant
trumpet. Then he plunged past the tethered _zenana _elephants and broke
into a gallop, eastward down the hill and directly toward the battle.

Hawksworth staggered backward and grasped the side of the swaying
_howdah_.

"How . . . how did he know?"

"Prince Jadar didn't give us a baggage elephant. He gave us one of his
personal war elephants. To protect you. He knows where he should be
now."

In only minutes their elephant reached the edge of the plain and began
advancing like a dreadnought through the swarm of Imperial infantry,
headed directly for Jadar. Any luckless infantryman caught in his path
would be seized in his trunk and flung viciously aside, or simply
crushed beneath his feet.

"But how could he know Jadar's threatened?"

"He knows. His whole life is to protect the prince."

A steel arrowhead sang off the side of the howdah. Then another thudded
into one of the wooden beams supporting the armor. Hawksworth grabbed
Shirin and shoved her down, below the steel rim. She fell sprawling and
turned to grab their bows. As Hawksworth took them and began to notch
the string on each one, he noticed for the first time that Jadar had
given them one of his combat _howdahs_, with firing holes all around
the sides.

War cries and sounds of steel on steel ranged around them as they
advanced, but their elephant seemed oblivious, only beginning to slow
when they approached the dense lines of Imperial infantry encircling
Jadar.

Hawksworth found his bow ring and slipped it awkwardly over his right
thumb. Then he strung an arrow and took aim through one of the firing
holes in the side of the howdah. The arrow sang off his thumb and
glanced harmlessly against the steel net cloak of an Imperial
infantryman. The man looked up, then paused to aim an arrow at the
howdah. It was a lethal decision. Their elephant turned and seized him
as he took aim, flinging him down and crushing him under its foot with
a single motion. At once the Imperial infantry again started to clear a
path in front of them.

"Jesus, I see why elephants are so feared on a battlefield."

"Yes, but they cannot fight the entire battle . . ." Shirin's voice
trailed off as she stared through a hole in the side of the _howdah_.
Suddenly her eyes flooded with fear. "Oh, Allah! Merciful Allah! Look!"

A close-ranked formation of Imperial horsemen, perhaps fifty in number,
was advancing toward them from the eastern perimeter of the plain. They
wore body armor of black steel and they ignored the infantry battling
around them as they charged directly for the circle of Jadar's
elephants.

"Who are they?"

"I think they're Latifs special Bundella guards. I've only heard about
them. His elephant must be near and he's ordered them to attack. He
must realize the prince is vulnerable now. He hopes to kill Prince
Jadar in a quick action and so end the battle." She stared over the
side of the steel _howdah _again. "If they fail, then he will send his
regular Rajput cavalry."

"What's so special about Bundellas?"

"They're from the region of Bundelkhand, and their horses are said to
be specially trained against elephants. The native Bundellas . . ." She
ducked down and stared wildly around the howdah as an arrow grazed by.
"Where ... the matchlocks!"

Hawksworth quickly pulled up one of the muskets and checked the prime.
He passed it to Shirin and took a second for himself. As he looked
again over the top of the _howdah_, he saw the elephants guarding Jadar
start turning to face the approaching horsemen. Their own elephant had
now reached the defense lines and it immediately assumed its normal
place in the protective circle.

Many of the approaching Bundellas were already being cut down by the
spears of the Rajput infantry, but over half managed to penetrate the
outer defense perimeter and reach the circle of elephants. The horsemen
immediately began firing rockets into Jadar's elephants from long
bamboo tubes they carried, intending to frighten them and disrupt their
ranks.

As Hawksworth watched, three of Jadar's encircling war elephants shied
skittishly away from the fireworks, creating a momentary opening in the
line. Before the opening could be secured, two of the Bundella cavalry
dashed through the space. Once inside the defense perimeter, they
parted, one riding toward either side of Jadar's elephant. One of the
horsemen took careful aim with his bow and shot a barbed arrow
connected to a line deep into the steel-net armor of the mahout seated
on the neck of Jadar's elephant. The horseman quickly whipped the
arrow's line around his saddle horn and reined his mount. The horse
seemed to know exactly what was expected, as it instantly reared
backward, unseating Jadar's mahout and toppling him into the dust.

As the mahout fell, his steel _ankus _clanged against Jadar's _howdah_,
momentarily distracting the prince. When he whirled to look for his
mahout, the other Bundella spurred his stallion alongside the
elephant's rump, lifting a heavy spear above his head. But instead of
hurtling the spear toward Jadar he turned and plunged it deep into the
ground beside the elephant.

"Shirin, what's he doing? How can . . . ?"

The horseman twirled his long reins around the shaft in a quick motion,
tethering the horse. Then he balanced himself atop the saddle,
unsheathed his sword, and with an agile leap landed on the armored rump
of Jadar's elephant.

He secured his balance in less than a second, then grabbed the side of
Jadar's gilded _howdah_. Hawksworth stared spellbound as a rain of
Rajput arrows glanced harmlessly off his black steel body armor.

"Now!" Shirin's voice was almost a scream.

As though in a dream, Hawksworth leveled the long barrel of his
matchlock against the rim of the _howdah _and took aim. The stock felt
alien and bulky in his grip, and its lacquer inlay smooth and cold. He
saw Shirin thrust her own musket alongside his own, struggling to keep
its heavy barrel balanced. As the horseman raised his sword to plunge
it into Jadar's exposed back, Hawksworth squeezed the gun's inlaid
trigger.

The stock kicked into his face and a burst of black smoke momentarily
blinded him. Shirin's matchlock had discharged at the same moment, and
he looked down as she tumbled backward against the padded side of the
howdah, still grasping the gun's heavy stock.

Then he heard a cheer from the Rajputs and turned in time to see the
Bundella spin in a half circle. Hawksworth realized one musket ball had
caught him directly in the face, the other in the groin. He vainly
reached to seize the side of Jadar's _howdah _to regain his balance,
but his foot skidded and he slipped backward . . . into a forest of
Rajput spears. The flash of a sword took his head. Jadar had never seen
him.

That settles one debt, you cocky bastard.

There were shouts from the other attackers still outside the defense
perimeter and two horsemen reined their mounts and charged toward
Hawksworth and Shirin. As they approached, the elephant began revolving
to meet them.

Hawksworth reached down and grabbed the last remaining musket and rose
to fire.

As he looked up, he stopped in astonishment, for a second refusing to
believe what he saw.

Both Bundelkhand horses were advancing on their hind legs, rearing and
bounding toward them in high leaps. He watched transfixed as one of the
Bundellas discharged his bow past the neck of his horse, directly at
the _howdah_. The arrow missed Shirin's dust-covered hair by only
inches.

Hawksworth lifted his matchlock and leveled it against the rim,
wondering for an instant whether to aim for the man or the horse. Then
the matchlock blazed and he watched the horseman buckle backward in the
saddle, toppling into a circle of waiting Rajput swords.

Suddenly the howdah shuddered, throwing him sprawling against the side.
As he pulled himself up, he realized the other horse had secured its
front feet against the side of their elephant. The Bundella was staring
directly in his face, pulling an arrow from his saddle quiver.

The horseman's bow was already half drawn when Hawksworth heard the
sing of a bowstring beside him. As he watched, the end of a shaft
suddenly appeared in the right

cheek of the Bundella, buried to the feathers. The horseman's own arrow
slammed into the side of the _howdah_, and he reached to claw at his
face with his saddle hand, forfeiting his grip. As he slipped backward
off the rearing horse, the Rajput infantrymen beheaded him in midair.

Hawksworth turned to see Shirin drop her bow onto the floor of the
_howdah_. She slumped against the steel side, her eyes glazed with
incredulity at what she had done.

They watched wordlessly as the perimeter of Jadar's elephants was again
drawn together and secured. As the other horsemen were driven back, a
coherent defense barricade of concentric circles was gradually
established around the prince. The outer perimeter was a line of Rajput
infantry armed with long spears. Inside their line were Rajput
swordsmen, who now had linked together the skirts of their long, steel-
mesh cloaks to form a solid barrier. And inside these was the last
defense line, the circle of armored war elephants.

As their own elephant instinctively rejoined the line protecting Jadar,
Hawksworth reached to touch Shirin's hand. As he did, he noticed her
thumb was bleeding and realized for the first time she had not been
supplied a bow ring.

"I think we can hold off the infantry with the elephants. But I don't
know how long . . ." Her voice trailed off as he looked up at her face.
She was leaning against the side of the _howdah_, pointing wordlessly
toward the east.

He turned to see a vast wave of the Imperial Rajput horsemen bearing
down on their position. They numbered in the thousands.

"God Almighty." He reached weakly for another arrow, trying to count
those remaining in the quiver and asking if he would live long enough
to shoot them all. "It's over."

Their battle cry lifted above the plain as the approaching cavalry
neared the edge of the massed Imperial infantry engulfing Jadar. They
began advancing directly through the infantry, not slowing, heading
straight for Jadar.

Hawksworth notched an arrow and rose up in the _howdah_

to take aim. He drew back the string and picked the man in the lead for
the first arrow.

As he sighted the Rajput's bearded face down the shaft, he suddenly
froze.

The Rajput had just driven the long point of his spear into an Imperial
infantryman.

Hawksworth lowered his bow in disbelief and stared as the approaching
Imperial cavalry began cutting down their own infantry, taking heads as
they rode toward Jadar, leaving a carpet of death in their bloody wake.

"Holy Jesus, what's happening? They're attacking their own troops! Are
they sotted with opium too?"

Suddenly their chant of "Ram Ram" was taken up by the Rajputs
surrounding Jadar, and they turned on the Imperial infantry nearest
them with the ferocity of a wounded tiger.

"Today Allah took on the armor of a Rajput." Shirin slumped against the
side of the howdah and dropped her bow. "I had prayed they would all
one day join with the prince, but I never really believed it would
happen."

Jadar's circle of war elephants began to cut their way through the
remaining infantry to join the Rajput forces, swivel guns blazing from
their backs. In what seemed only minutes his entourage merged with the
vanguard of Rajput cavalry, and together they moved like a steel
phalanx against the Imperial infantry reserves waiting in the east.

Hawksworth watched as the Imperial lines were cut, separating the
infantry fighting on the plain from their reserves. Next a corps of
Rajput horsemen wielding long spears overran the Imperial gun
emplacements, then grouped to assault the Imperial command post. When
the elephant bearing the banner of Inayat Latif started for higher
ground, discipline in the Imperial ranks evaporated.

By late afternoon the outcome was no longer in question. A final
attempt by the Imperial forces to regroup disintegrated into a rout,
with thousands of fleeing Imperial infantry falling before the swords
and spears of the Rajput cavalry. Only the merciful descent of dark
enabled Inayat Latif and his Imperial commanders to escape death at the
hands of pursuing Rajput archers.

As Hawksworth rode with Jadar's entourage through the dusty, smoke-
shrouded battlefield, headed back for the camp, he felt he was
witnessing the gaping mouth of hell. The plain was littered with the
bodies of almost forty thousand men and over ten thousand horses. The
proud war cries were forgotten. Through the dusky twilight came the
plaintive moans of dying men and the shrill neighing of shattered
horses. Rajputs moved among the bodies, plundering the dead enemy,
searching for fallen comrades, dispatching with their long swords any
lingering men or horses who could not be saved.

All because of Jadar, Hawksworth thought, and his stomach sickened. Now
what will happen? Jadar won the day in this valley, in the middle of
nowhere, but the Moghul is still in Agra, and tonight he still rules
India. And I think he'll still rule India, if only in name, till the
day he dies. Jadar can't march against the Red Fort in Agra, not with
this ragtag army. Even his division of Rajput defectors couldn't storm
that fortress. I'm not sure God himself could take the Red Fort. So
what now, noble Prince Jadar? So far you've merely brought death to
half the fighting men in India.

The torchbearers marching four abreast at the front of their elephants
were now approaching the remains of the camp. Through the flickering
light emerged the vision of a burned-out ruin. Scorched furrows from
the first Imperial cannonade trailed between, among, through the few
remaining tents. Small clusters of wounded men, some begging for water
and some for death, were being fed opium and their wounds wrapped with
the shreds of ripped-apart tents.

Jadar moved through the camp, acknowledging the triumphant cheers of



Online LibraryThomas HooverThe Moghul → online text (page 48 of 52)