It seemed like they were walking through a sandstorm. In fact, it was the two thousand captured soldiers and a hundred of the sultan’s guards marching with them who were kicking up all the dust. The sun was beginning to set and it gave the clouds of dust an eerie, infernal glow. Perhaps, he thought, it’s just preparation for what hell will truly be like: blistering heat, pain, a demoralised soul and heart-wrenching loss.

“Keep moving!” It was the bellicose voice of one of the Turkish or Afghani soldiers of fortune that the sultan of the North hired in droves for his expeditions of plunder. He spoke some more gibberish in an alien tongue, and Bukka could not care less what he said. Better to get put down now rather than face the wretched prospects awaiting him and his wounded brother (whom he was supporting on his shoulder), and the two thousand defeated soldiers ahead of them. Dragging his feet, he kept moving.

Bukka had that rancid taste of defeat in his mouth along with the grit from the dust they were inhaling. It struck him that the taste was becoming familiar. The man riding on the horse to his right was Abu Ibn Faraj. He had been put in charge of getting the prisoners to Daulatabad, a five-hundred-mile journey to the sultan Muhammad-binTughlaq’s new capital. Bukka glanced sideways and noticed the finely tooled saddle and beautiful sword. He surmised Faraj must be from a prominent family at court: relatively young, arrogant, and completely absorbed by the responsibility. Surviving the next few days would depend completely on how this apparently clueless young man could be managed.

It felt like they were walking aimlessly. No direction, no plan, just monotonous marching. His own body hurt, and halfcarrying his older brother Hakka was getting to be virtually impossible. Hakka had a broken arm, a few bad gashes where he had been sliced by a sword in battle and a raging fever. Just as Bukka was about to slip into the monotony of dragging both himself and his brother along, Faraj’s horse suddenly and violently reared up. It threw the young man off the saddle, but his leg was caught up in one stirrup. The horse, sensing she had not lost her rider, started to buck viciously to get loose. Bukka shoved his brother onto the soldier to his left, lurched over and caught the horse by the bridle. Faraj barely missed getting kicked in the head. Bukka held the bridle firmly and calmed the horse down at the same time. He’d always had the ability to manage a horse and understand it. It was clear to Bukka that the horse was hurt.

Faraj was still lying on the ground in a daze, having hit his head hard on the fall. Bukka disentangled his leg from the stirrup and helped him up. A few of the sultan’s soldiers just ahead thought he was the aggressor and pulled their swords. Faraj, fortunately, was coming out of his daze and waved them away. One of the soldiers helped him up and he looked at Bukka with grudging gratitude. It was not good for a soldier to get thrown off his horse, much less in front of a horde of prisoners and his own men. He motioned for Bukka to go back and the soldiers were only too happy to push him back into the line.

Faraj then decided to take matters into his own hands and whip the horse. The poor animal tried to back off but then decided to rear up and run up towards him. Bukka raised his hand and shouted “Don’t!”. One of the three soldiers shoved him, and another asked him why. “The horse is injured. If you don’t take care of her right now, you’ll lose her, just the way you are going to lose all these prisoners and treasure as you try and transport them to the sultan.”

“You idol-worshipping shit!” Faraj bellowed as he threw the reins and the whip to one of three soldiers and walked away. The soldier holding the horse could speak some Hindi and asked what was wrong with the horse. “Someone with a semblance of an ability to think,” Bukka observed. He pointed to the horse’s left foreleg below the knee, but the man did not notice at first. Then Bukka went over, knelt, rubbed the horse’s leg and gently pressed down on the swollen part. The horse pulled her leg away and whinnied. “It’s either sprained or cracked,” he said.

“What do we do?” the soldier asked, this time with a bit more respect in his voice. “First, you cannot ride her for a while,” Bukka replied. “Next, the leg needs to be massaged a few times a day. Finally, if you can bandage it with some camphor, she will heal.”

“But where will I get some camphor?” the soldier wondered aloud. “If we continue to go north, we should be in a small village in an hour or so. You can get some in the village for one or two silver tankas.” The soldier asked if he would lead the horse for him. This was a first. Bukka was a general and here was a sipahi (soldier) asking him to do his job. Now he had two lame charges: his brother and the horse. He took off his shirt, tore off both sleeves and used them to bind the horse’s leg up after vigorously rubbing it, and she snorted with satisfaction.

Bukka had Hakka placed between himself and another Kampili soldier, arms round their shoulders for support. He gathered the mare’s reins in his free hand and they set off. It would not be long before the sun set, and as they dragged along, Bukka recognized the landscape: they were approaching a small village in hilly terrain right by Gunderi Lake and halfway to Holakere. Bukka’s mind was whirling with possibilities. Should he get word out to the troops to make a break for it once they got to the hills?

The risk in fleeing was that Malik Zada, the sultan’s general, was to their south. Once he knew they’d escaped, he was likely to inflict a harsh reprisal. And the Hoysalas still further south, even if they made it that far, would be less than welcoming. The only likely alternative was to somehow get Faraj to think about the risks he might face. It could be the one way to save this situation.

Excerpted with permission from Ārambha: A Story of the Vijayanagara Empire’s Birth, Buchi Ramagopal, HarperCollins India.