The Tiger and the Cauldron(35)

Chapter 35

TALAQAN

Ghazan had launched everything into the attack. His archers in two pincer waves strove to cut into Baidu’s flanks while five thousand heavy cavalrymen from the Khorasan tumen mounted two charges against the enemy’s front ranks.

Rashid watched apprehensively from the hilltop. The last hour had been one of inactivity for him and he stamped his feet against the encroaching cool of evening. The sun was sinking. The opposing armies were battling north west to south east and, until now, he had been unable to tell if either was gaining an advantage.

A week and a day had passed and there had been no word from General Sabbah. Rashid had wanted the Prince to be reassured, though he himself had almost given up hope. It had been long enough for the General to reach Alamut and return, or to send a message. During that week, Ghazan had sent out a few of his own despatch riders, then a scouting party, bearing south west to avoid the enemy lookouts. However he had not confided to Rashid their destinations or the nature of their missions. In that same time, Baidu had launched a few half-hearted sorties that had been beaten off. Though casualties had been slight, the Prince seemed to be wavering. Rashid supposed he could expect no more help while Baidu could be reinforced at any moment. Surely Taghachar, with a whole division at his back, was moving in from the west. Perhaps Ghazan would have to risk everything to break the Il-khan’’s lines.

Other despatches had arrived. Rashid was not made aware of their contents but they seemed to raise Ghazan’s flagging spirits and boost his hope of victory. Generals Nauruz and Akhtar had been given orders to advance.

Only then had Sabbah’s messenger arrived. Rashid had been unable to believe his eyes, or his ears. Not just any messenger, but his very own son, Kamal. Rashid could not remember when he had last seen the boy, or whether he was second- or third-born, but he had not changed much – a little older and thinner in the face perhaps but that was all. When had any of his family been adventurous or taken risks, Rashid asked himself, yet in the space of a year or two this one son had been a cook, a steward, a rebel no less, and now a courier with vital intelligence for the war effort – enough adventure to fill a whole new History. Unfortunately, Kamal had been delayed by the presence of two of Baidu’s scouting parties and had had to make a detour to avoid them. By now, General Sabbah’s assault on Baidu’s rearguard would have begun.

Most of the afternoon the fighting had raged. No riders had reached the non-combatants with news and they could only watch nervously from a distance. Rashid’s vision, efficient enough when poring over a manuscript, was less than adequate from half a parasang away. Kamal, whose young eyes might have assisted him, had left, Rashid thought, to rejoin his rebel friends at Qazvin. He did not find it easy to distinguish standards, plumed helmets and shields through the haze of the plain. Standards could fall. Not only that, but not all combatants wore a plume or carried a painted shield, and some squadrons of archers did not wear headgear of any description. The numbers of free horses further confused the issue by greatly exaggerating the strengths of both armies.

Rashid placed both hands above his eyes and peered into the middle distance. He recognised Ghazan by his green and gold standard, swaying left and right and sometimes disappearing altogether as the Prince cut another wedge in the enemy’s centre. He was more than holding his own, Rashid fancied, and the enemy swordsmen were giving way.

But what of Baidu? Rashid wondered if he too was immersed somewhere in this melee or whether he remained with his elite troops, driving the unwilling from behind – using scouts to relay his orders to his generals.

Behind the hill, out of sight of the enemy, was Ghazan’s support camp, including his womenfolk and some wounded whom Rashid himself had helped to treat. Had the Il-khan’ too brought his household with him on campaign like his ancestor of old, or had he left them in the relative safety of some town along the way? Did he have physicians among his non-combatants, removing the arrow heads, sucking blood from the wounds, sewing and cauterising the flesh, or did he remain true to his reputation and leave the fallen to die where they lay?

There were still two or three hours of daylight left but Rashid felt the cold creep into his muscles. He rubbed his arms and again turned his attention towards the battle. He wished he understood the tactics better. On the left flank, a regiment of Nauruz’s light archers appeared to be pulling back, with them a thousand of his green- and gold-plumed swordsmen and lancers. Half a division of the black and red of the enemy were following. Surely this was a ruse; despite seventy years of immersion in Persian culture and ways, these were still mainly Mongol armies, and the false retreat was the Mongol master-stroke. However, it depended on luring the unwary pursuer into an ambush – another two or three regiments of archers hidden in a furrow or wood who would initiate a charge at the critical moment. Only there were no furrows or woods in sight, just the flat of the plain stretching towards the nearest ridges more than two parasangs away.

No, wait. The haze was clearing and Rashid fancied he saw movement on the plain, a dark mass from which came an occasional small point of brightness as of glass or polished metal being caught by the sun’s rays. What else could it be but a body of men riding out of the south west. Rashid watched with screwed-up eyes until he was no longer in doubt. They were much too far away to estimate their numbers, however it was another army, a large force, riding and marching in columns.

They drew closer. From his superior position on the hill, Rashid had a clear view of them and what he saw caused him a deep sense of foreboding. The approaching force carried a black and red standard. It could only be Taghachar, and if so the battle could be lost.

Both the green and gold of Nauruz’s breakaway group and the black and red of their pursuers seemed to be aware of the newcomers. Baidu’s half division formed themselves for an attack, a half circle three rows deep that threatened to surround  and crush Nauruz and his men. Nauruz appeared unconcerned by his danger. He halted. A small party of lightly armoured swordsmen left his ranks and headed with all speed towards the approaching columns. The General, though outnumbered by almost three to one already, turned his archers and heavy cavalry to face their recent pursuers, duplicating the latter’s half circle formation though lacking its depth.

For a while the two forces, the greater and the lesser, stood still as if awaiting their command from heaven. Meantime, Taghachar, if it was indeed he, had ordered his regiments to increase pace. The front columns of horsemen broke and fanned out to permit the rearmost warriors to come through. These were on foot, pushing what Rashid identified as hand carts mounted with giant crossbows. There were four men to a cart. Rashid could scarcely believe his eyes for with the sun’s light against him it seemed that each bow was fitted with a huge flaming arrow.

They continued on their way until they were within two hundred paces of Nauruz’s followers. Nauruz did not move. The newcomers’ black and red standards were lowered; green and gold pennons were raised in their stead.

The giant crossbows were drawn back. Their arrows were aloft. Now Rashid saw that he was not mistaken and that the missiles from these machines were indeed on fire. He turned away so as not to see them fall.

When he looked again, panic had seized Baidu’s ranks. The blazing arrows had soared over the heads of Nauruz’s archers and descended on the ordered half circle of the enemy. A second volley, aimed higher, reached the right, western flank of Baidu’s front lines. Men were running in all directions, their clothing on fire and their skin scorched. Panicked mounts pitched their riders to the ground and onto the points of Ghazan’s sabres and lances.

Ghazan withdrew from the melee and marshalled his forces for another charge. The regiments of Baidu were pushed westwards; the war was being won.

*****

To be continued soon

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