1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 11
“I will thank him upon my arrival in Agra and tell him how faithful his brother is to the promises he has made. Further, I will be sure to repay what is given.”
“Repayment is not necessary,” Dhanji grinned, “and be careful how much you offer a man before learning how things stand: horses cost very dear this season. We have had much of famine and disease since you were sent to accompany Baram Khan. Trade continues, but food and fodder are scarce.”
“The city did seem quiet.”
“The pestilence took a great many people, especially those weakened by hunger, of which there were far too many. Many of the Europeans died, unprepared for the sickness here. Nearly all of the English, in fact.”
“Of the twenty-one who were here when you left, four remain among the living.”
Salim shook his head in shocked sympathy. “Such mortality?”
“Indeed! And yet, every month sees more English, Dutch, and Portuguese arrive on our shores, each certain they will make their fortune.”
“And do they?”
“While the court remains fascinated with their baubles, the Europeans make excellent profit.”
“The bribes they offer are hardly worthy of the name, but it seems the residents of the emperor’s harem are endlessly fascinated with seeing themselves in mirrors.”
Salim snorted. “With the great beauties it is said that Shah Jahan surrounds himself with, I understand the appeal of such entertainments.” He thought a moment, asked for confirmation: “Which of the Europeans are prospering most?”
“The English and Dutch do best, though the Portuguese are recently returned to the good graces of the Court.”
God is Good! That is good news! I doubted anyone at court would even see me after being associated with Baram Khan’s stink. Aloud, he asked, “How did they manage that?”
Shah Jahan had, as one of his first acts after ascending the throne, ordered the Portuguese punished for failing to render him aid during his earlier rebellion.
“It seems even Shah Jahan’s anger has an end.” Dhanji shrugged. “I do not know what was agreed to, or how, but everyone knows the Jesuits were involved.”
“Interestingâ€¦” Salim said, running fingers through his beard.
“I doubt my news is as interesting as the adventures you’ve had, and the tales you might tell,” Dhanji prompted.
Salim grinned. “I am a horrible guest, to ask so many questions without offering news, as you invited me here to do. I suppose it is best to start at the beginningâ€¦”
Route from Surat to Agra
The stream, swollen with monsoon rain, presented less of a challenge than climbing the far bank, an unstable slope of dark, wet earth. Salim stood in the stirrups as his recently-purchased and exceedingly expensive Arab warmblood slipped sideways half-way up the bank.
Something pointed made a dangerous whistling as it hummed through the space he’d just left, cutting off all thought of cursing his as-yet-unnamed horse.
Salim heard the snap of more bowstrings as he heeled his mount up the bank. Powerful hindquarters bunched, released, sending mount and rider surging over the lip of the ravine and out of the path of the arrows.
Two men rushed from the tree line with spears, another emerging from the wood behind, urging them to the attack.
His horse’s scrambling leap had landed them perpendicular to the charging men. He added their position to the tally of the many things he would have to thank the Almighty for when next he had opportunity to face Mecca.
For now, though, the sword. It hissed from sheath and to hand.
His horse, shying from the shouting men, curvetted. Samir leaned sideways, using the mount’s momentum to bring his curved Persian steel sweeping across in a cut that connected with one of the spear-shafts. The crude iron head flew free and over Salim’s shoulder, surprising Salim almost as much as the wielder, who stood staring at the cloven wood stump just above his hand. From the youth’s open-mouthed expression, he was clearly imagining what might have been had the sword struck below where he held it.
The other spear-bearer bored in and stabbed. The blade swept past Salim’s nose by a hand’s breadth.
While the first man stared at his severed spear, Salim’s still-spinning horse clipped his companion with a hoof, folding him with a grunt that ended in a roll down the riverbank.
Mindful of the target he now presented to the archers on the opposite bank, Salim spurred the Arab into flight. He angled away from the track and any additional brigands who might be lying in wait.
He heard the horseman pound into pursuit behind him.
An arrow flew past from the far shore, then another. A third traced a hot red line across his forearm, making him drop the reins. Thanks be to the Almighty, the horse had drawn his own conclusions about where safety lay and ran flat out through the narrow opening among the trees.
Out of sight of the archers, Salim spared a glance for his wound. It would keep. Leaning low over the horse’s neck, he retrieved the dropped rein and glanced behind.
On an inferior mount, the horseman had fallen behind in Salim’s short gallop to cover. Now, however, the tight confines of the trail favored the shorter horse and the rider with more intimate knowledge of the land.
At least the other wouldn’t be able to ride up alongside to strike.
There being nothing for it but to ride, Salim did just that. Long moments passed, the blowing of his horse and the pounding of hoofbeats beneath and behind his only company.
With a suddenness that hurt the eyes, the pursuit exploded from the wood and into bright sunlight. He felt his mount lengthen stride and gain speed, hoping it could see better than he could. Knowing he was gaining distance, Salim kept his face in the mane, hoping to present as small a target as possible in case his pursuer had a horse-bow.
Eyes adjusted, he looked back and saw the other rider was letting his horse slow, giving up the pursuit in a storm of curses.
Good. For a moment he’d worried that — despite all the measures he’d taken to avoid it — that someone knew of his return and sought to kill him before what he carried could be explained.
Salim let his mount slow to a walk once he was certain the chase was ended. Remaining in the saddle, he spent some time dressing his wound and eating some of the food he’d purchased at the last caravanserai.
Many kos remained between him and his destination. Checking the straps of his saddlebags, Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz rode on, contemplating suitable names for the horse.