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EVIL FROM BEYOND TIME
RULES THE GREATEST
EMPIRE ON EARTH!
Link, the supercomputer from a future that should not exist, has used terror and gunpowder weapons to forge the Malwa Empire: harnessing the vast manpower of the Indian subcontinent and using the barbarian races of the periphery to bind the whole together. No power on Earth in the 6th century could stand against Link's evil.
Aide, a human soul embodied in a jewel, has come back to halt evil's progress. Aide has no power but that of truth, but truth is the only power that could move the greatest general of the age, Belisarius.
With his sword, his paladins, and his genius, Belisarius has turned the armies of Byzantium into a weapon capable of blunting the first assault of the Malwa hordes. Now, supported by allies from all the world yet free, Belisarius, with his wife and co-commander Antonia, faces overwhelming Malwa numbers in a ring that tightens about them.
There is no room for maneuver and no safety in defeat. The armies of Good and Evil gathered on the fertile plains of Mesopotamia will decide the fate of the world.
And the fate of all the future!
Cover art by Gary Ruddell
Interior maps by Randy Asplund
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
First printing, June 2000
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 0-671-57871-5
Copyright © 2000 by Eric Flint & David Drake
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Typeset by Windhaven Press
Electronic version by WebWrights
John & Becky
BOOKS IN THIS SERIES
An Oblique Approach
In the Heart of Darkness
BAEN BOOKS by DAVID DRAKE
The Tank Lords
Caught in the Crossfire
The Butcher's Bill
The Sharp End Independent Novels and Collections
The Dragon Lord
Birds of Prey
Mark II: The Military Dimension
All the Way to the Gallows The General Series: (with S.M. Stirling)
The Undesired Princess and The Enchanted Bunny
(with L. Sprague de Camp)
Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring the Light
(with L. Sprague de Camp)
Enemy of My Enemy:
(with Ben Ohlander)
(edited with Billie Sue Mosiman) BAEN BOOKS by ERIC FLINT
Mother of Demons
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The best steel in the world was made in India. That steel had saved his life.
He stared at a drop of blood working its way down the blade. Slowly, slowly. The blood which covered that fine steel was already drying in the sun. Even as he watched, the last still-liquid drop came to a halt and began hardening.
He had no idea how long he had been watching the blood dry. Hours, it seemed. Hours spent staring at a sword because he was too exhausted to do anything else.
But some quiet, lurking part of his battle-hardened mind told him it had only been minutes. Minutes only, and not so many of those.
He was exhausted. In mind, perhaps, even more than in body.
In a life filled with war since his boyhood, this battle had been the most bitter. Even his famous contest against one of India's legends, fought many years before, did not compare. That, too, had been a day filled with exhaustion, struggle, and fear. But it had been a single combat, not this tornado of mass melee. And there had been no rage in it, no murderous bile. Deadly purpose, yes—in his opponent as much as in himself. But there had been glory, too, and the exultation of knowing that—whichever of them triumphed—both their names would ring down through India's ages.
There had been no glory in this battle. His overlords would claim it glorious, and their bards and chroniclers give it the name. But they were liars. Untruth came as naturally to his masters as breathing. He thought that was perhaps the worst of their many crimes, for it covered all the rest.
His staring eyes moved away from the sword, and fixed on the body of his last opponent. The corpse was a horror, now, what with the mass of flies covering the entrails which spilled out from the great wound which the world's finest steel had created. A desperate slash, that had been, delivered by a man driven to his knees by his opponent's own powerful sword-stroke.
The staring eyes moved to the stub still held in the corpse's hand. The sword had broken at the hilt. The world's finest steel had saved his life. That and his own great strength, when he parried the strike.
Now, staring at the man's face. The features were a blur. Meaningless. The life which had once animated those features was gone. The man who stared saw only the beard clearly. A heavy beard, cut in the square Persian style.
He managed a slight nod, in place of the bow he was too tired to make. His opponent had been a brave man. Determined to exact a last vengeance out of a battle he must have already known to be lost. Determined to kill the man who led the invaders of his country.
The man who stared—the invader, he named himself, for he was not given to lies—would see to it that the Persian's body was exposed to the elements. It seemed a strange custom, to him, but that was the Aryan way of releasing the soul.
The man who stared had invaded, and murdered, and plundered, and conquered. But he would not dishonor. That low he would not stoop.
He heard the sound of approaching footsteps behind him. Several men. Among those steps he recognized those of his commander.
He summoned the energy to rise to his feet. For a moment, swaying dizzily, he stared across the battlefield. The Caspian Gates, that battlefield was called. The doorway to all of Persia. The man who stared had opened that doorway.
He cast a last glance at the disemboweled body at his feet.
Yes, he would see to it that the corpse was exposed, in the Persian way.
All of the enemy corpses, he thought, staring back at the battlefield. The stony, barren ground was littered with dead and dying men. Far beyond the grisly sight, rearing up on the northern horizon, was the immense mountain which Persians called Demavend. An extinct volcano, its pure and clean lines stood like some godly reproach to the foul chaos of mankind.
Yes. All of them.
His honor demanded it, and honor was all that was left to him.
That, and his name.
Finally, now, he was able to stand erect. He was very tall.
Rana Sanga was his name. The greatest of Rajputana's kings, and one of India's most legendary warriors.
Rana Sanga. He took some comfort in the name. A name of honor. But he did not take much comfort, and only for an instant. For he was not a man given to lies, and he knew what else the name signified. Malwa bards and chroniclers could sing and write what they would, but he knew the truth.
Rana Sanga. The man—the legend, the Rajput king—who led the final charge which broke the Persians at the Caspian Gates. The man who opened the door, so that the world's foulest evil could spill across another continent.
* * *
He felt a gentle touch on his arm. Sanga glanced down, recognizing the pudgy little hand of Lord Damodara.
"Are you badly injured?"
Damodara's voice seemed filled with genuine concern. For a moment, a bitter thought flitted through Sanga's mind. But he dismissed it almost instantly. Some of Damodara's concern, true, was simply fear of losing his best general. But any commander worthy of the name would share that concern. Sanga was himself a general—and a magnificent one—and knew full well that any general's mind required a capacity for calculating ruthlessness.
But most of Damodara's concern was personal. Staring down at his commander, Sanga was struck by the oddity of the friendship in that fat, round face. Of all the highest men in the vast Malwa Empire, Damodara was the only one Sanga had ever met for whom he felt a genuine respect. Other Malwa overlords could be capable, even brilliant—as was Damodara—but no others could claim to be free of evil.
Not that Damodara is a saint, he thought wryly. "Practical," he likes to call himself. Which is simply a polite way of saying "amoral." But at least he takes no pleasure in cruelty, and will avoid it when he can.
He shook off the thought and the question simultaneously.
"No, Lord Damodara. I am exhausted, but—" Sanga shrugged. "Very little of the blood is mine. Two gashes, only. I have already bound them up. One will require some stitches. Later."
Sanga made a small gesture at the battlefield. His voice grew harsh. "It is more important, this moment, to see to the needs of honor. I want all the Persians buried—exposed—in their own manner. With their weapons."
Sanga cast a cold, unyielding eye on a figure standing some few feet away. Mihirakula was the commander of Lord Damodara's Ye-tai contingents.
"The Ye-tai may loot the bodies of any coin, or jewelry. But the Persians must be exposed with their weapons. Honor demands it."
Mihirakula scowled, but made no verbal protest. He knew that the Malwa commander would accede to Sanga's wishes. The heart of Damodara's army was Rajput, unlike any other of the Malwa Empire's many armies.
"Of course," said Damodara. "If you so wish."
The Malwa commander turned toward one of his other lieutenants, but the man was already moving toward his horse. The man was Rajput himself. He would see to enforcing the order.
Damodara turned back. "There is news," he announced. He gestured toward another man in his little entourage. A small, wiry, elderly man.
"One of Narses' couriers arrived just before the battle ended. With news from Mesopotamia."
Sanga glanced at Narses. There was sourness in that glance. The Rajput king had no love for traitors, even those who had betrayed his enemies.
Still—Narses was immensely competent. Of that there was no question.
"What is the news?" he asked.
"Our main army in Mesopotamia has suffered reverses." Damodara took a deep breath. "Severe reverses. They have been forced to lift the siege of Babylon and retreat to Charax."
"Belisarius," stated Sanga. His voice rang iron with certainty.
Damodara nodded. "Yes. He defeated one army at a place called Anatha, diverted the Euphrates, and trapped another army which came to reopen the river. Shattered it. Terrible casualties. Apparently he destroyed the dam and drowned thousands of our soldiers."
The Malwa commander looked away. "Much as you predicted. Cunning as a mongoose." Damodara blew out his cheeks. "With barely ten thousand men, Belisarius managed to force our army all the way back to the sea."
"And now?" asked Sanga.
Damodara shrugged. "It is not certain. The Persian Emperor is marshalling his forces to defeat his brother Ormazd, who betra—who is now allied with us—while he leaves a large army to hold Babylon. Belisarius went to Peroz-Shapur to rest and refit his army over the winter. After that—"
Again, he blew out his cheeks.
"He marched out of Peroz-Shapur some weeks ago, and seems to have disappeared."
Sanga nodded. He turned toward the many Rajput soldiers who were now standing nearby, gathering about their leader.
"Does one of you have any wine?" He lifted the sword in his hand. "I must clean it. The blood has dried."
One of the Rajputs began digging in the pouch behind his saddle. Sanga turned back to Damodara.
"He will be coming for us, now."
The Malwa commander cocked a quizzical eyebrow.
"Be sure of it, Lord Damodara," stated Sanga. He cocked his own eye at the Roman traitor.
Narses nodded. "Yes," he agreed. "That is my assessment also."
Listening to Narses speak, Sanga was impressed, again, by the traitor's ability to learn Hindi so quickly. Narses' accent was pronounced, but his vocabulary seemed to grow by leaps and bounds daily. And his grammar was already almost impeccable.
But, as always, Sanga was mostly struck by the sound of Narses' voice. Such a deep voice, to come from an old eunuch. He reminded himself, again, not to let his distaste for Narses obscure the undoubted depths to the man. A traitor the eunuch might be. He was also fiendishly capable, and an excellent advisor and spymaster.
"Be sure of it, Lord Damodara," repeated Rana Sanga.
His soldier handed him a winesack. Rajputana's greatest king began cleaning the blade of his sword.
The finest steel in the world was made in India.
He would need that steel. Belisarius was coming.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
When they reached the crest of the trail, two hours after daybreak, Belisarius reined in his horse. The pass was narrow and rocky, obscuring the mountains around him. But his view of the sun-drenched scene below was quite breath-taking.
"What a magnificent country," he murmured.
Belisarius twisted slightly in the saddle, turning toward the man on his right. "Don't you think so, Maurice?"
Maurice scowled. His gray eyes glared down at the great plateau which stretched to the far-distant horizon. Their color was almost identical to his beard. Every one of the bristly strands, Maurice liked to say, had been turned gray over the years by his young commander's weird and crooked way of looking at things.
"You're a lunatic," he pronounced. "A gibbering idiot."
Smiling crookedly, Belisarius turned to the man on his left. "Is that your opinion also, Vasudeva?"
The commander of Belisarius' contingent of Kushan troops shrugged. "Difficult to say," he replied, in his thick, newly learned Greek. For a moment, Vasudeva's usually impassive face was twisted by a grimace.
"Impossible to make fair judgement," he growled. "This helmet—" A sudden fluency came upon him: "Ignorant stupid barbarian piece of shit helmet designed by ignorant stupid barbarians with shit for brains!"
A deep breath, then: "Stupid fucking barbarian helmet obscures all vision. Makes me blind as a bat." He squinted up at the sky. "It is daylight, yes?"
Belisarius' smile grew more crooked still. The Kushans had not stopped complaining about their helmets since they were first handed the things. Weeks ago, now. As soon as his army was three days' march from Peroz-Shapur, and Belisarius was satisfied there were no eyes to see, he had unloaded the Kushans' new uniforms and insisted they start wearing them.
The Kushans had howled for hours. Then, finally yielding to their master's stern commands—they were, after all, technically his slaves—they had stubbornly kept his army from resuming its march for another day. A full day, while they furiously cleaned and recleaned their new outfits. Insisting, all the while, that invented-by-a-philosopher-and-manufactured-by-a-poet-civilized-fucking caustics were no match for hordes of rampaging-murdering-raping-plundering-barbarian-fucking lice.
Glancing down at Vasudeva's gear, Belisarius privately admitted his sympathy.
He had obtained the Kushans' new armor and uniforms, through intermediaries, from the Ostrogoths. Ironically, although the workmanship—certainly the filth—of the outfits was barbarian, they were patterned on Roman uniforms of the previous century. As armor went, the outfits were quite substantial. They were sturdier, actually, than modern cataphract gear, in the way they combined a mail tunic with laminated arm and leg protection. That weight, of course, was the source of some of the grumbling. The Kushans favored lighter armor than Roman cataphracts to begin with—much less this great, gross, grotesque Ostrogoth gear.
But it was the helmets for which the Kushans reserved their chief complaint. They were accustomed to their own light and simple headgear, which consisted of nothing much more than a steel plate across the forehead held by a leather strap. Whereas these—these—these great, heavy, head-enclosing, silly-horse-tail-crested, idiot-segmented-steel-plate fucking barbarian fucking monstrosities—
They obscured their topknots! Covered them up completely!
"Which," Belisarius had patiently explained at the time, "is the point of the whole exercise. No one will realize you are Kushans. I must keep your existence in my army a secret from the enemy."
The Kushans had understood the military logic of the matter. Still—
Belisarius felt Vasudeva's glare, but he ignored it serenely. "Oh, surely you have some opinion," he stated.
Vasudeva transferred the glare onto the countryside below. "Maurice is correct," he pronounced. "You are a lunatic. A madman."
For a moment, Vasudeva and Maurice exchanged admiring glances. In the months since they had met, the leader of the Kushan "military slaves" and the commander of Belisarius' bucellarii—his personal contingent of mostly Thracian cataphracts who constituted the elite troops of his army—had developed a close working relationship. A friendship, actually, although neither of those grizzled veterans would have admitted the term into their grim lexicon.
Observing the silent exchange, Belisarius fought down a grin. Outrageous language, he thought wryly, from a slave!
He had captured the Kushans the previous summer, at what had come to be called the battle of Anatha. In the months thereafter, while Belisarius concentrated on relieving the Malwa siege of Babylon, the Kushans had served his army as a labor force. After Belisarius had driven the main Malwa army back to the seaport of Charax—through a stratagem in which their own labor had played a key role—the Kushans had switched allegiances. They had never had any love for their arrogant Malwa overlords to begin with. And once they concluded, from close scrutiny, that Belisarius was as shrewd and capable a commander as they had ever encountered, they decided to negotiate a new status.
"Slaves" they were still, technically. The Kushans felt strongly that proprieties had to be maintained, and they had, after all, been captured in fair battle. Their status had been proposed by Belisarius himself, based on a vision which Aide had given him of military slaves of the future called "Mamelukes."
Vasudeva's eyes were now resting on him, with none of the admiration those same eyes had bestowed on Maurice a moment earlier. Quite hard, those eyes were. Almost glaring, in fact.
Belisarius let the grin emerge.
Slaves, of a sort. But we have to make allowances. It's hard for a man to remember his servile status when he's riding an armored horse with weapons at his side.
"How disrespectful," he murmured.
Vasudeva ignored the quip. The Kushan pointed a finger at the landscape below. "You call this magnificent?" he demanded.
Snort. The glare was transferred back to the plateau. The rocky, ravine-filled landscape stretched from the base of the mountains as far as the eye could see.
"If there is a single drop of water in that miserable country," growled Vasudeva, "it is being hoarded by a family of field mice. A small family, at that."
He remembered his grievance.
"So, at least," he added sourly, "it appears to me. But I am blind as a bat because of this fucking stupid barbarian helmet. Perhaps there's a river—even a huge lake!—somewhere below."
He cocked his head. "Maurice?"
The Thracian cataphract shook his head gloomily. "Not a drop, just as you said." He pointed his own accusing finger. "There's not hardly any vegetation at all down there, except for a handful of oak trees here and there."
Maurice glanced for a moment at the mountains which surrounded them. A thin layer of snow covered the slopes, but the scene was still warmer than the one below. As throughout the Zagros range, the terrain was heavily covered with oak and juniper. The rainfall which the Zagros received even produced a certain lushness in its multitude of little valleys. There, aided by irrigation, the Persian inhabitants were able to grow wheat, barley, grapes, apricots, peaches and pistachios.
He sighed, turning his eyes back to the arid plateau. "All the rain stays in the mountains," he muttered. "Down there—" Another sigh. "Nothing but—"
He finally spotted it.
Belisarius smiled. He, with his vision enhanced by Aide, had seen the thing as soon as they reached the pass. "I do believe that's an oasis!" he exclaimed cheerfully.
Vasudeva's gaze tracked that of his companions. When he spotted the small patch of greenery, his eyes widened. "That?" he choked. "You call that an `oasis'?"
Belisarius shrugged. "It's not an oasis, actually. I think it's one of the places where the Persians dug a vertical well to their underground canals. What they call their qanat system."
The clatter of horses behind caused him to turn. His two bodyguards, Anastasius and Valentinian, had finally arrived at the mountain pass. They had lagged behind while Valentinian pried a rock from one of his mount's hooves.
Belisarius turned back and pointed to the "oasis." "I want to investigate," he announced. "I think we can make it there by noon."
Protest immediately erupted.
"That's a bad idea," stated Maurice.
"Idiot lunatic idea," agreed Vasudeva.
"There's only the five of us," concurred Valentinian.
"Rest of the army's still a day's march behind," added Anastasius. The giant cataphract, usually placid and philosophical, added his own glare to those of his companions.
"This so-called `personal reconnaissance' of yours," rumbled Anastasius, "is pushing it already." A huge hand swept the surrounding mountains. A finger the size of a sausage pointed accusingly at the plateau below. "Who the hell knows what's lurking about?" he demanded. "That so-called `plateau' is almost as broken as these mountains. Could be an entire Malwa cavalry troop hidden anywhere."
"An entire army," hissed Valentinian. "I think we should get out of here. I certainly don't think we should go down—"
Belisarius cleared his throat. "I don't recall summoning a council," he remarked mildly.
His companions scowled, but fell instantly silent.
After a moment, Maurice spoke quietly. "Are you determined on this, lad?"
Belisarius nodded. "Yes, Maurice, I am. I've been thinking about these qanats ever since Baresmanas and Kurush described them to me. They've been figuring rather heavily in my calculations, in fact." He pointed to the distant patch of greenery. "But it's all speculation until I actually get to inspect one. This is my first chance, and I don't intend to pass it up."
Having established his authority, Belisarius relented a moment. His veterans were entitled to an explanation, not simply a command.
"Besides, I don't think we need to worry about encountering Damodara's forces yet. The battle where they took the Caspian Gates was bloody and bitter. By all accounts, Damodara simply left a holding force at the Gates while he retired his main army to Damghan for the winter. By now, they'll have refitted and recuperated—they're probably back through the Gates, maybe even as far into Mah province as Ahmadan—but that's still almost fifty miles from here."
Vasudeva cleared his throat. "Is your assessment based on reports from spies, or is it—"
Belisarius smiled. "Good Greek logic, Vasudeva."
Nothing was said. But the expression on the faces of his Thracian and Kushan companions spoke volumes concerning their opinion of "good Greek logic." Even Anastasius, normally devoted to Greek philosophy, was glowering fiercely.
Belisarius spurred his horse into motion and began picking his way down the trail. Silently, his men followed.
More or less silently, that is. Valentinian, of course, was muttering. Belisarius did not ask for a translation. He was quite sure that every phrase was purely obscene.
* * *
Halfway down the slope, a new voice entered its protest.
This is a bad idea, came the thought from Aide.
Et tu, Brute? responded Belisarius.
Very bad idea. I have been thinking it over, and Maurice is correct. And Vasudeva and Valentinian and Anastasius. This is too much guesswork. There are only five of you. You should leave this off and rejoin your army. You can investigate that oasis later, with a much larger force.
Belisarius was a bit startled by the vehemence in Aide's tone. The crystalline being from the future had been with him for years now, ever since it was brought to him by the monk, Michael of Macedonia. Over the course of that time, in fits and starts, Belisarius and Aide had worked out their relationship. Aide advised him, and guided him, and often educated him, on matters pertaining to history and broad human affairs. And the "jewel" was also an almost inexhaustible fount of information. But, from experience, Aide had learned not to outguess Belisarius when it came to problems of strategy and tactics. In that realm, the crystalline being had learned, Belisarius was supreme. Which was why it had come here from the future, after all. To save itself and its crystal race from slavery or outright destruction, Aide had come back to the past searching for the great Roman general who might thwart the attempt of the "new gods" to change all of human history.
But, though Belisarius was startled, he was not swayed. If anything, Aide's echo of his companions' protests simply heightened his resolve.
And so it was, as Belisarius and his little troop worked their way down the slopes of the Zagros mountains onto the plateau of Persia, that another voice was added to Valentinian's muttering.
Stubborn Thracian oaf was the only one of those half-sensed thoughts which was not, technically, obscene.
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The trap was sprung when the Romans were less than three hundred yards from their destination. That was the only mistake the Rajputs made.
But they could hardly, in good conscience, be faulted for that error. Sanga had warned them of Belisarius' quickness and sagacity. But Sanga knew nothing of Aide, and of the way in which Aide enhanced Belisarius' hearing as well his eyesight. So his men sprang the trap at the moment when, logically, they had the Romans isolated from any retreat or shelter.
Belisarius heard the clattering of horses set into sudden motion before any of his comrades—before, even, the lurking enemy appeared out of the ravines in which they were hidden.
"It's an ambush!" he hissed.
Valentinian reacted first. He began reining his horse around.
"No!" shouted Belisarius. He pointed, with both hands, to their side and rear. "They waited until they could cut us off from the mountains!"
He spurred his horse forward, now pointing ahead. "Our only chance is to fort up!"
His comrades, from long experience, did not argue the matter. They simply followed Belisarius' galloping horse, as their commander charged forward.
Belisarius scanned the terrain ahead of him. The small "oasis" toward which they were heading was not much more than a grove of trees. Spindly fruit trees—apricots, mostly, with a handful of peaches.
But, a moment later, his uncanny eyesight spotted what he was hoping for.
"There's a building! In the grove!" Belisarius cast a quick glance over his left shoulder. He could see the enemy now.
Perhaps a dozen. A glance over his right shoulder. Same.
His quick mind flashed back over his experiences in India. The standard for a Rajput cavalry platoon is thirty. Which means—
He turned his head back around, scanning the grove ahead. In less than two seconds, he saw what he was expecting.
"There are Rajputs in the grove, too!" he shouted. "Probably half a dozen!"
Belisarius made no attempt to draw his bow. He was not a good enough archer to handle it at a full gallop. None of his companions were, except— Valentinian already had his bow out. In less time than Belisarius would have imagined possible, the cataphract had fired an arrow. The missile sped ahead of the galloping cluster of Romans and plunged into the trees. Instantly, a cry of pain went up. Almost as instantly, five Rajputs drove their horses out of the grove, pounding toward the oncoming Romans. Belisarius could see a sixth Rajput, but the man was sliding off his horse, clutching at an arrow in his shoulder.
This was lance work, now. All of the Romans except Valentinian already had their heavy lances in position. So did Valentinian, by the time the Rajputs arrived. With his weasel-quick reflexes, the cataphract even managed to slide his bow back in its sheath before taking up his lance. Almost any other man in the world would have been forced to simply drop the weapon.
The contest, under the circumstances—a head-on collision between an equal number of Roman cataphracts and Rajput lancers—was no match at all. Even without stirrups, the heavier Roman cavalry would have triumphed. With them, and the much heavier and longer lances the stirrups made possible, Belisarius and his men almost literally rode right over their opponents. For a few seconds, the general's world was a cacophony of shouts. The clangor of lance against shield covered but could not disguise the more hideous sounds of splitting flesh and bone. Battle cries became shrieks, fading into hissing death.
Three of the Rajputs were killed almost instantly, their bodies torn by the great spears. A fourth would die within minutes, from the blood pouring out of a half-severed thigh.
The only one who survived, suffering nothing worse than bruises, was the Rajput who faced Vasudeva. Though the Kushan was a skilled warrior, he had little experience with stirrups and lanceplay. But he was a veteran, and had the sense not to try matching the prowess of his companions. Instead of finding the gaps between armor, he simply drove his lance into his opponent's shield. The impact knocked the man right off his horse.
The Romans rode on. Belisarius could now see more of the building through the trees. It was a farmhouse, typical of the sort erected by large Persian families. Square in design, the structure was single-storied and measured approximately thirty feet on a side. The walls were heavy and solid, constructed out of dry stone. He couldn't see the roof clearly, but he knew it would be made of wooden beams covered with soil.
There was something odd about the shape of the farmhouse. The trees obscured his vision, but it seemed as if the building sloped on one side.
A thought came from Aide. This is earthquake country. That building is half-collapsed.
Belisarius nodded. They were entering the small grove which surrounded the farmhouse, and he could see that the fruit trees were poorly tended. The place had all the signs of an abandoned farm.
Earthquake, probably, just like Aide says. Then—war comes. The survivors would have fled.
Belisarius cast a last glance over his shoulder. Their pursuers, he saw, were spreading out. Realizing that they had missed their chance at an immediate ambush, the Rajputs intended to surround the grove and trap the Romans in the farmhouse.
Grimly, he turned away. Five men against most of a Rajput cavalry platoon was bad odds. Very bad. But at least they'd have the advantage of being forted up rather than caught in the open.
A moment later they were through the grove and reining up next to the farmhouse.
If you can call this a "fort," he thought ruefully, examining the structure.
"There's only the one door," pointed out Maurice. "Maybe one in back, but I doubt it. Not if this is like most Persian farmhouses."
"You call that a `door'?" demanded Valentinian. His expression was that of a man who had just eaten a basket of lemons.
Maurice managed the feat of shrugging while he climbed off his horse. "It'll do, it'll do. We can probably shore it up with beams." He glanced up at the half-collapsed roof. "Be plenty of them lying around, I should think."
Valentinian left off further comment, although his continued sour expression made clear his opinion of "forts" with collapsed roofs.
Once all five Romans were dismounted, they pried open the door and led their mounts into the farmhouse. The half-dark interior of the farmhouse was filled, for a minute or so, with the noise and dust thrown up by skittish horses, still blowing from exertion and prancing nervously. Vasudeva occupied himself with calming and tying up the mounts while his four companions spread out and investigated the place.
The investigation was quick, but thorough.
Maurice summed it up. "Could be worse. Walls are thick. The stones were well placed. Roof'll be a problem, but at least"—he pointed to the rubble filling the northern third of the farmhouse—"when it collapsed it brought down the adjoining walls. One or two Rajputs could squeeze in there, but there's no way they could do a concerted rush."
Hands on hips, he made a last survey of their fort.
"Not bad, actually. Once we brace the door—"
He smiled thinly, watching Anastasius match deed to word. The giant simply picked up a beam and jammed it against the door. Then, as casually as it were but a twig, he did the same with another.
Maurice finished: "—we'll be able to hold them off for quite a bit."
Valentinian's expression was still sour. Sour, sour, sour. "That's great," he snarled. "You have noticed there's no way out of here? You have noticed there's no food in the place?"
Gloomily, he watched Belisarius pry the cover off what appeared to be a well in the southeast corner.
"At least we've got water," he grumbled. "Maybe. If that well isn't dry."
Belisarius spoke, then, with astonishing good cheer. "Better than that, Valentinian. Better than that. I do believe this leads to a qanat." He pointed down into the well. "See for yourself."
Valentinian and Maurice hurried over.
"Make it quick," commanded Vasudeva. The Kushan was peering through a small chink in the western wall. "The Rajputs are into the grove."
"Same on this side," added Anastasius, peering through a similar chink in the opposite wall. "They've got us surrounded." A moment later: "They're dismounting, now, going to charge us on foot." His tone grew aggrieved. "I thought Rajputs never got off their horses, even rode them into the damned latrines."
"Not Sanga's Rajputs," commented Belisarius idly, still staring down into the well. "He's just as stiff-necked as any Rajput when it comes to his honor, but that doesn't extend to any silliness when it comes to military tactics."
Suddenly, Vasudeva hissed. "They've got grenades!" he exclaimed.
Belisarius' head jerked up from his examination of the well.
"You're certain?" he demanded. But he didn't wait for a reply before reconsidering his plans. Vasudeva was not the man to make such a mistake.
"I thought the Malwa never let anyone but their kshatriyas handle gunpowder weapons," complained Valentinian.
"So did I," mused Belisarius, scratching his chin. "Looks like Damodara decided to relax the rules."
He resumed studying the well. "Not surprising, I suppose. He's rumored to be far and away their best field commander, and his army's based on Rajputs. Sanga's Rajputs, to boot."
As he continued his scrutiny of the well, his voice grew thoughtful. "That explains this ambush, I think. I forgot how good Sanga is. Got too accustomed to those arrogant Malwa in Mesopotamia. He knows me. He probably figured I'd do my own reconnaissance, and set traps all along the foothills."
Belisarius looked up, finished with his examination. When he spoke, the iron tone in his voice indicated that he had reached a decision.
"No point in forting up, now," he announced. "They won't waste lives trying to force their way through the door. They'll just blow out the walls of the farmhouse."
"They're already moving in," agreed Vasudeva. "Three men, on this side, carrying grenades. I can't even fire on them. Chink's big enough to peek through, but not for an arrow."
"I've got two on my side," said Anastasius. "Same thing."
Belisarius pointed down the well. "We'll make our escape through here. Strip off your armor. It's a long, narrow climb, and I've no idea how much room we'll have below."
"What about the horses?" demanded Valentinian.
Belisarius shook his head. "No way to get them down. We'll use them for a diversion. But first—" He strode over to the horses. "Pull out our own grenades. I want to set them against all the walls. We'll do the Rajputs' work for them. Bring the whole place down. It might cover our escape."
He began digging grenades out of his saddlebags. An instant later, Maurice and Valentinian were doing the same.
"I've got fuse-cord," announced Maurice. "We can tie together all the grenades. Set them off at once."
Belisarius nodded. He carried a handful of grenades over to the west wall and began placing them, while Valentinian did the same on the east. Maurice followed, quickly tying the fuses to a length of fuse-cord.
Suddenly, Vasudeva shouted. "Get down! Now!"
All five Romans flopped onto the dirt floor of the farmhouse. An instant later, a series of explosions rocked the building. On the west wall, not far from Vasudeva, a small hole was blown out. Everywhere else the walls stood, although they were noticeably shakier.
"God bless good stonework," muttered Anastasius. "Always admired masons. A saintly lot, the bunch."
The horses reared up, whinnying with fear, fighting the reins which tied them to a fallen beam. Maurice, the best horse handler among them, rushed to quiet them down.
"Are they preparing a charge?" demanded Belisarius.
Vasudeva, back at his chink, shook his head. "No. They're too canny. They're putting together another batch of grenades. They won't charge until the place is a pile of rubble. Let the falling stones do their work for them." He grunted approvingly. "Good soldiers. Smart."
Belisarius nodded. "That gives us a couple of minutes." He pointed to the door. "Anastasius—pull those braces away. Then get ready to knock down the door. Maurice, as soon as the door goes, drive the horses through. That'll stop the Rajputs for a moment. They'll think we're trying a rush, and besides"—he smiled cheerfully—"Rajputs love good horses. They won't be able to resist taking the time to catch these."
He turned. Seeing that Valentinian had quietly gone about finishing the task of tying together all the grenades, he nodded with satisfaction.
"That's it, then. Vasudeva, you go first. Then Valentinian. Maurice and Anastasius, as soon as you drive the horses out, you follow. I'll go last."
Belisarius seized the heavy well cover and lifted it back onto the low stone wall which surrounded the well. Then, using a short beam, he propped it open. When the time came, he would be able to drop the cover back onto the well by knocking aside the beam.
He began stripping off his armor. Before he was half finished, Vasudeva was out of his own armor and already clambering into the well. The Kushan grabbed a wooden peg fixed into the stonework of the shaft—the first of many which served as a ladder—and began lowering himself.
"At least I've got rid of that miserable stupid ignorant barbarian helmet and that—" The rest of his words were lost as he vanished into the darkness.
Valentinian handed Belisarius the end of the fuse cord as he began his own descent into the well. He had nothing to say. Nothing coherent, at least. He was muttering fiercely.
Belisarius looked up. Maurice and Anastasius were in place. They, too, had already stripped off their armor.
"Do it," he commanded. Then, remembering an undone task, shouted: "Wait! I need a striker!"
Maurice scowled, and hastily dug into one of the saddlebags. A moment later, he came up with the device and pitched it to Belisarius. As soon as Anastasius saw that Belisarius had caught the striker, the huge Thracian heaved one of the beams aside. A moment later, the other followed. And then, a moment later, Anastasius kicked open the door. One powerful blow was enough to send the half-splintered thing flying into the farmyard beyond.
That done, Anastasius lumbered toward the well while Maurice, shouting and cursing, began driving the horses through the door.
The well was a tight fit for Anastasius, but he took the problem philosophically. "There's much to be said for the Cynic school," he commented, as he began the awkward task of lowering his great form down the narrow stone shaft. "Unfairly maligned, they are."
An instant later, Maurice practically leapt into the well. "Make it quick, lad," he hissed. "None of your fancy perfect timing crap. The Rajputs are already coming." He began dropping down the shaft. "Just blow it. Now."
Well said, chimed in Aide.
Belisarius was not inclined to argue the point. He just waited long enough to be certain that Maurice was far enough ahead that he wouldn't be climbing down onto his head before he struck flame to the fuse. He took a second to make sure the fuse was burning properly before tossing it onto the floor. Then, after climbing into the well and lowering himself a few feet, he reached up and knocked aside the beam. The heavy wooden cover slammed back down over the shaft opening. Belisarius barely managed to jerk his hand out of the way, saving himself from broken fingers.
The interior of the well was completely dark, now. Hastily, feeling for the wooden pegs, Belisarius began lowering himself.
He was twenty feet down when the charges went off. The force of the explosion shook the walls of the shaft. For a moment, Belisarius froze, listening intently. He could hear the slamming of stones and heavy beams on the well cover above him, and he feared that it might give way. An avalanche of rubble would sweep him off the peg ladder. He had no idea how far he would fall.
Far enough, said Aide gloomily. Too far.
* * *
In the event, it would have been forty feet.
When he finally reached the end of the well-shaft, his feet flailed about for a moment, searching for pegs which weren't there. A hand grabbed his ankle.
"That's it, General," came Valentinian's voice out of the darkness. "Anastasius, get him down."
Huge hands seized Belisarius' thighs. The general relinquished his grip on the pegs, and Anastasius lowered him easily onto a floor. A gravel floor, Belisarius thought, from the feel of it.
He began to stand up straight, then flinched. He couldn't see the roof, and feared crashing his head.
That brought to mind a new problem. "Damn," he growled. "I forgot it would be pitch-black down here."
"I didn't," came Maurice's self-satisfied reply. "Neither did Vasudeva. But I hope you had the sense to bring that striker down with you. It's the only one we've got."
Belisarius dug into his tunic and withdrew the striker. His hand, groping in the darkness, encountered that of Maurice. The Thracian chiliarch took the device and struck it. A moment later, Maurice had a taper burning. It was a short length of tallow-soaked cord, one of the field torches which Roman soldiers carried with them on campaign.
The smoky, flickering light was enough to illuminate the area. Belisarius began a quick examination, while Maurice lit the taper which Vasudeva was carrying.
Valentinian, staring around, whistled softly. "Damn! I'm impressed."
So was Belisarius. The underground aqueduct they found themselves in was splendidly constructed—easily up to the best standards of Roman engineering. The aqueduct—the qanat, as the Persians called it, using the Arabic term—was square in cross section, roughly eight feet wide by eight feet tall. The central area of the tunnel, about four feet in width, was sunk two feet below the ledges on either side. That central area, where the water would normally flow except during the heavy runoff in mid-spring, was covered with gravel. The ledges were crudely paved with stone blocks, and were just wide enough for a man to walk along.
Except for a small trickle of water seeping down the very center, the qanat was dry. It was still too early in the season for most of the snow to begin melting.
"What do you think the slope is, Maurice?" asked Belisarius. "One in three hundred? That's the Roman standard."
"Do I look like an engineer?" groused the chiliarch. "I haven't got the faintest—"
"One in two hundred," interrupted Vasudeva. "Maybe even one in a hundred and fifty."
The Kushan smiled seraphically. In the flickering torchlight, he looked like a leering gargoyle. "This is mountain country, much like my own homeland. No room here for any leisurely Roman slopes." He pointed with his torch. "That way. The steep slope makes it easy to see the direction of the mountains. But we've a long way to go."
He set off, pacing along the ledge on the right. Cheerfully, over his back: "Long way. Tiring. Especially for Romans, accustomed to philosopher slopes and poet-type gradients." He barked a laugh. "One in three hundred!" Another laugh. "Ha!"
* * *
An hour later, Valentinian began complaining.
"There would have been room for the horses," he whined. "Plenty of room."
"How would you have lowered them down?" demanded Anastasius. "And what good would it have done, anyway?"
The giant glanced up at the stone ceiling. Unlike his companions, Anastasius had chosen to walk on the gravel in the central trough of the qanat. On the ledges, he would have had to stoop.
"Eight feet, at the most," he pronounced. "You couldn't possibly ride a horse down here. You'd still be walking, and have to lead the surly brutes by the reins."
Mutter, mutter, mutter.
"So stop whining, Valentinian. There's worse things in life than a long, uphill hike."
"Like what?" snarled Valentinian.
"Like being dead," came the serene reply.
* * *
They passed a multitude of vertical shafts along the way, identical to the one down which they had lowered themselves. But Belisarius ignored them. He wanted to make sure they had reached the mountains before emerging.
Three hours after beginning their trek, they reached the first of the sloping entryways which provided easier access to the qanat. Belisarius fought off the temptation. He wanted to be well into the mountains before they emerged, away from any possible discovery or pursuit.
Onward. Valentinian started muttering again.
Two hours later—the slope was much steeper now—they reached another entryway. This one was almost level, which indicated how high up into the mountains they had reached.
Again, Belisarius was tempted. Again, he fought it down.
Valentinian's muttering was nonstop, now.
* * *
An hour or so later, they reached another entryway, and Belisarius decided it was safe to take it. When they emerged, they found themselves in the very same pass in the mountains from which they had begun their descent to the plateau. Night had fallen, but there was a full moon to illuminate the area.
It was very cold. And they were very hungry.
"We'll camp here," announced Belisarius. "Start our march tomorrow at first light. Hopefully, some of Coutzes' cavalry will find us before too long. I told him to keep plenty of reconnaissance platoons out in the field."
"Which could have done what we just did," grumbled Maurice. "A commanding general's got no business doing this kind of work."
Quite right, came Aide's vigorous thought.
"Quite right," came the echo from Valentinian, Anastasius and Vasudeva.
Seeing the four men glaring at him in the moonlight, and sensing the crystalline glare coming from within his own mind, Belisarius sighed.
It's going to be a long night. And a longer day tomorrow—if I'm lucky, and Coutzes is on the job. If not—
Days! Days of this! Slogging through the mountains is bad enough, without having every footstep dogged by reproaches and "I-told-you-so's."
"I told you so," came the inevitable words from Maurice.
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"I told you so," murmured Rana Sanga. The Rajput king strode over to the well and peered down into the shaft.
Pratap, the commander of the cavalry troop, suppressed a sigh of relief. Sanga, on occasion, possessed an absolutely ferocious temper. But his words of reproach had been more philosophical than condemnatory.
He joined the king at the well.
"You followed?" asked Sanga.
Pratap hesitated, then squared his shoulders. "I sent several men to investigate. But—it's pitch-black down there, and we had no good torches. Nothing that would have lasted more than a few minutes. By the time we finally cleared away the rubble and figured out what had happened, the Romans had at least an hour's head start. It didn't seem to me—"
Sanga waved him down. "You don't have to justify yourself, Pratap. As it happens, I agree with you. You almost certainly wouldn't have caught up with them and, even if you had—"
He straightened, finished with his examination of the well. In truth, there wasn't much to see. Just a stone-lined hole descending into darkness.
"From your description of the giant Roman, I'm sure that was one of Belisarius' two personal bodyguards. I've forgotten his name. But the other one is called Valentinian, and—"
From the corner of his eye, he saw Udai wince. Udai was one of his chief lieutenants. Like Sanga himself, Udai had been present at the Malwa emperor's pavilion after the capture of Ranapur. The emperor, testing Belisarius' pretense at treason, had ordered him to execute Ranapur's lord and his family. The Roman general had not hesitated, ordering Valentinian to do the work.
For a moment, remembering, Sanga almost winced himself. Valentinian had drawn his sword and decapitated six people in less time than it would have taken most soldiers to gather their wits. Sanga was himself accounted one of India's greatest swordsmen. Valentinian was one of the few men he had ever encountered—the very few men—who he thought might be his equal. To meet such a man down there—
"Just as well," he stated firmly. "In the qanat, with no way to surround them, the advantage would have been all theirs." He turned away from the well, and began picking his way across the mound of rubble.
"The ambush failed, that's all. It happens—especially against an opponent as quick and shrewd as Belisarius."
Seeing Ajatasutra standing before him, at the edge of the stone pile which had once been a farmhouse, Sanga stopped and drew himself up.
"I will not have my men criticized." The Rajput's statement was flat, hard, unyielding. His brows lowered over glaring eyes.
Ajatasutra smiled, and spread his hands in a placating gesture. "I didn't say a word." The assassin chuckled dryly. "As it happens, I agree with you. The only thing that surprises me is that you came as close as you did. I didn't really think this scheme of yours was more than a half-baked fancy. Generals, in my experience, don't conduct their own advance reconnaissance."
"I do," rasped Sanga.
"So you do," mused Ajatasutra. The assassin eyed the Rajput king. His lips twisted humorously. "You were right, and Narses was wrong," he stated. "You assessed Belisarius better than he did."
Again, Ajatasutra spread his hands. "I will simply report the facts, Sanga, that's all. The ambush was well laid, and almost succeeded. But it failed, as ambushes often do. There is no fault or failure imputed."
Sanga nodded. For a moment, he studied the man standing before him. Despite himself, and his normal fierce dislike for Malwa spies, Sanga found it impossible not to be impressed by Ajatasutra. Ajatasutra was one of the Malwa Empire's most accomplished assassins. A year earlier, he had been second in command of the mission to Rome which had engineered the attempted insurrection against the Roman Empire. Narses had been the Malwa's principal co-conspirator in that plot. The insurrection—the Nika revolt, as the Romans called it—had failed, in the end, due to Belisarius. But it had been a very close thing, and the Malwa Empire had not blamed Ajatasutra or Narses for its failure. The two men had warned Balban, the head of the Malwa mission, that Belisarius and his wife, Antonina, were playing a duplicitous game. That, at least, had been their claim—and the evidence seemed to support them.
So, held faultless for the defeat, Narses had been assigned by Emperor Skandagupta to serve Lord Damodara as an adviser. The eunuch, from his long experience as one of the Roman Empire's chief officials, possessed a wide knowledge of the intricate politics of the steppe barbarians and the semibarbarian feudal lords who ruled Persia's easternmost provinces. He had been a great help to the campaign, as Damodara and Sanga fought their way into the Persian plateau.
Ajatasutra had accompanied Narses. He served the Roman traitor as his chief lieutenant—and as his legs and eyes. The old eunuch was still spry and active—amazingly so, given his years. But for things like this sudden twenty-mile ride to investigate a failed ambush, Ajatasutra usually served in his stead. The assassin would observe, and assess, and report.
Sanga relaxed. In truth, he had found Ajatasutra guiltless of the self-serving "reports" for which Malwa spies were notorious among their Rajput vassals. He would never be fond of Ajatasutra—he had no more liking for assassins than he did for traitors, even ones on his side—but he could not honestly find any other fault in the man.
"You're lucky, in fact," remarked Ajatasutra, "that you didn't suffer worse casualties."
"Four of my men were killed!" snarled Pratap. "Two others wounded, and yet another half-crushed when the farmhouse blew up. He will lose both his legs."
Ajatasutra shrugged. The gesture was not callous so much as one of philosophical resignation. "Could have been a lot worse. Most of the stonework collapsed inward, when Belisarius blew the walls. Fortunately, he was just trying to cover his escape. If he'd been forced to make a last stand, I guarantee that half your men would be dead. And precious few of the survivors uninjured."
Pratap's eyes smoldered resentfully. "I didn't realize you were well acquainted with the man." Then, with a sneer: "Other than suffering a defeat at his hands in Constantinople."
Ajatasutra studied Pratap's angry face. His own expression was relaxed, almost bland.
"Actually, I'm not. My own contact with Belisarius came at a distance. But I am quite well-acquainted with his wife, Antonina. Balban set a trap for her, too, you know—in Constantinople, right at the end."
The anger faded from Pratap's features, replaced by curiosity.
"I never heard about that," he stated.
"Neither did I!" snapped Sanga. The Rajput king glared at the Malwa assassin. "You tried to take revenge on Belisarius by murdering his wife?"
Sanga's famous temper was surfacing, now. Again, Ajatasutra made the placating gesture with his hands. "Please, Rana Sanga! It was Balban's doing, not mine. And you can't even blame him—the orders came directly from Nanda Lal."
Far from placating Sanga, mention of Nanda Lal brought his outrage to the surface. But at least, Ajatasutra saw, the tall and fearsome Rajput's fury was no longer directed at him. There was no love lost, he knew, between Rana Sanga and the Malwa Empire's spymaster.
The assassin spread his hands wide. "I thought it was a bad idea, myself. And I warned Balban that he was underestimating the woman."
The hot glare in Sanga's eyes faded, as the implication registered. "The ambush failed," he stated. "Belisarius' wife survived."
Ajatasutra laughed harshly. " `Survived'? That's one way of putting it. It'd be more accurate to say that she set her own ambush and butchered most of Balban's thugs."
By now, all of the Rajputs at the scene were clustering about—Sanga's own contingent as well as Pratap's cavalry troop. Like warriors everywhere, they enjoyed a good tale. Ajatasutra, seeing his audience—and the easing fury in Sanga's face—relaxed. He held out his hand, perhaps five feet above the ground.
"She's quite small, you know. This tall, no more. Gorgeous woman. Beautiful, voluptuous—" He paused dramatically.
"But—" He grinned. "Her father was a charioteer. He was reputed to have taught her how to use a blade. And I'm quite certain her husband trained her also. Probably had that man of his—that killer Valentinian—polish her skills."
Ajatasutra paused, to make sure he had his audience's rapt attention. Then: "When she realized Balban had set a pack of street thugs after her, she forted herself up in the kitchen of a pastry shop. I wasn't there, myself—I watched from outside—but she apparently poured meat broth over the lot and began hacking them with a cleaver. Killed several herself, before one of Belisarius' cataphracts came to her rescue. After that—"
He shrugged. "One cataphract—against a handful of street toughs."
The Rajput cavalrymen surrounding him, veterans all, grunted deep satisfaction. Roman cataphracts were their enemy, of course, but—
Street toughs—against a soldier?
"A woman did all that?" queried one of the Rajputs. The air of satisfaction was absent, now. He seemed almost aggrieved. "A woman?"
Ajatasutra smiled. Nodded. Held out his hand again. "A little bitty woman," he said cheerfully. "No taller than this."
The assassin glanced at Rana Sanga. He saw that the anger in the Rajput king's face had completely faded. Replaced by something which almost seemed sadness, thought Ajatasutra.
Abruptly, Sanga turned away and began striding toward his horse. "Let's go," he commanded. "There's nothing more to be done here. I want to make it back to the army by nightfall."
Once astride his horse, he gave the scene a last quick survey. "The ambush failed," he announced. "That's all."
* * *
That night, standing before his tent in the giant camp of Damodara's army, Rana Sanga studied the mountains looming to the west. The full moon bathed them in a silvery beauty. But there was something ominous about that pale shimmer. Liquid, almost, those mountains seemed. As difficult to pin down as the man who lurked somewhere within them.
"I wish we had killed you," whispered Sanga. "It would have made things so much easier for us. And then again—"
He sighed, turned away, pulled back the flap to his tent. He gave a last glance at the moon, high and silvery, before stooping into the darkness. He remembered another night he had done the same, after the massacre of rebel Ranapur. Remembered his thoughts on that night. The same thoughts he had now.
I wish you were not my enemy. But—
I swore an oath.
* * *
That same moment, staring down onto the plateau from the mountain pass, Belisarius studied the flickering fires of the far-distant Malwa army camp. It was the day after the ambush, and his own army had arrived. The Roman troops were camped just half a mile below the crest of the mountains.
He was no longer estimating the size of the enemy army. He was done with that. He was simply contemplating one of the men he knew was among that huge host.
It was very nicely done, Sanga. Sorry to have disappointed you.
The thought was whimsical, not angry. Had he been in Sanga's place, he would have done the same. And he mused, once again, on the irony of the situation. There were few men in the world he dreaded as much as Rana Sanga. A tiger in human flesh.
He sighed and turned away. He would meet Sanga again.
Picking his way down the trail in the semidarkness, he remembered the message which the Great Ones had once given Aide and his race. The secret—part of it, at least—which those awesome beings of the future imparted to the crystals they had created, when those crystals found themselves threatened by the "new gods."
Guided by that message, the crystals had sent Aide back in time to find "the general who is not a warrior." But the Great Ones had understood the entirety of the thing. Descended from human flesh—though there was no trace of that flesh remaining in them—they understood all the secrets of the human soul, and its contradictions.
Aide, in a soft mental message, spoke the words: See the enemy in the mirror.
A sudden deep sadness engulfed Belisarius.
The friend across the field.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
Antonina shook her head, partly in awe, partly in disbelief. "Was anyone killed when it fell?" she asked.
Next to her, Eon lifted his massive shoulders in a small shrug.
"Nobody knows, Antonina." For a moment, the Prince of Axum's dark face was twisted into a grimace of embarrassment. "We were still pagans, at the time. And the workmen would have all been slaves. We Ethiopians kept many slaves, back then"—his next words came in a bit of a rush—"before we adopted the teachings of Jesus Christ."
Antonina fought down a smile. The semi-apology in Eon's response was quite unnecessary, after all. It was not as if Roman rulers—
"Please, Eon! You don't need to apologize for the barbarity of your pagan ancestors. At least your old kings didn't stage gladiatorial contests, or feed Christians to lions."
Alas. She could tell immediately, from Eon's expression, that her attempt at reassurance had failed of its mark.
"Not Christians, no," mumbled Eon. "But—" Another shrug of those incredible shoulders. "Well . . . There are a lot of big animals here in Africa. Lions, elephants. And it seems that the old kings—"
There came yet another shrug. But the gesture, this time, contained neither apology nor embarrassment. It was the movement of the powerful shoulders of a young prince who, when all was said and done, was not really given to self-effacement.
"It's over, now," he stated. "We instituted Christian principles of rule two hundred years ago." He pointed to the enormous thing in front of them. "We keep that here as a reminder to our kings. Of the pagan folly of royal grandiosity."
Antonina's eyes returned to the object in question. Eon had brought her here, from the royal compound a mile to the southwest—the Ta'akha Maryam, it was called—as part of his sight-seeing tour of Ethiopia's capital city. He had started off, in the morning, by showing her the magnificent churches which adorned the city. The churches, especially the cathedral which the Ethiopians had named the Maryam Tsion, were the pride of Axum. But then, in mid-afternoon, the prince had insisted on showing her this as well.
It was an obelisk, lying on its side, broken into several pieces. The huge sections were crumpled over the tombs of pre-Christian kings, leaving the obelisk a rippling monument to ancient folly. More than anything else, to Antonina, it resembled an enormous stone snake, making its serpentine way across the landscape of the Ethiopian highlands.
The obelisk had fallen, Eon explained, as it was being erected. Staring at it, Antonina could well believe the tale. It was difficult to judge, because of its position, but she thought the obelisk was far larger than any created even by the ancient Egyptians. Only a king possessed by delusions of grandeur could have thought of ordering mortal men to erect such a preposterous structure.
She shivered slightly, thinking of the men who must have been trapped by the obelisk in its ruin. When the thing fell, it crushed several of the tombs beneath it. The blood and mangled flesh of slaves, for a time, would have decorated the sepulchres where royal bones lay buried.
Eon misinterpreted the motion. "You are cold!" he exclaimed. "I have been thoughtless. I forgot that you are not accustomed—"
She waved down the apology. "No, no, Eon. I'm not really cold. I was just thinking—"
She stopped, shivering again. She was cold, she suddenly realized. She had always thought of Africa as the quintessential land of warmth. But the heartland of Axum lay in the Ethiopian highlands. True, the capital city was situated in the broad, fertile plain called Hatsebo, well below the mountains which towered all about in stark majesty. But it was still over a mile above sea level.
"Perhaps we should return to the Ta'akha Maryam," she admitted. A bit hurriedly, to stave off another apology: "Your father will be growing impatient with our long absence."
Actually, she knew, Eon's father—the negusa nagast, "King of Kings," as he was titled—would not be in the slightest bit impatient. She was quite certain that King Kaleb had welcomed her daylong absence from the royal compound. It gave him time to consult with his advisers, before making a response to the Roman Empire's proposals.
Antonina and her entourage had arrived in the Ethiopian city of Axum a week earlier. Axum—the capital had given its name to the Ethiopian kingdom, just as had Rome—had never received such a high-level delegation from the Roman Empire. Since Ethiopia's conversion to Christianity under the tutelage of the missionaries who were revered as the "Nine Saints," the Axumites had maintained cordial relations with the great empire to their north. But, except for trade matters, there had been very little in the way of official diplomatic exchange. Until Antonina came, at the head of a small army, armed not only with the strange new gunpowder weapons but with a barrage of proposals from the Emperor of Rome.
As they began picking their way through the broken stones of ancient kings, Antonina found herself, once again, fighting down a smile. She could well understand how King Kaleb would have wanted a day—at least!—to mull over the Roman Empire's proposals.
Those proposals were, after all, hardly what you'd call vague and meaningless diplomatic phrasery.
Rome accepts Axum's offer of an alliance against the Malwa Empire. To further our joint aim of crushing that monstrous realm, we propose:
Rome will supply Axum with gunpowder weapons, and the technicians to train you in their use and manufacture.
Axum will provide the fleet necessary to keep the rebellion in southern India alive. Axumite ships will run the Malwa blockade of the Majarashtra coast, carrying arms and supplies provided by Rome.
Axum will also provide the fleet necessary to—
Her thoughts broke off. She and Eon were almost out of the ruins. As they picked their way around yet another half-crumbled structure, she caught sight of the figure lounging against one of the tombs at the very edge of the field of monuments.
Ousanas, for once, was not grinning. Indeed, he looked positively disgruntled.
Antonina made no attempt to fight down her smile, now. "What's the matter, Ousanas?" she called out. "Has your philosophical composure abandoned you, for the moment? Shame, shame! What would the Stoics say?"
Ousanas shook his head. "The Stoics advocated serenity in the face of life's tragedies and great misfortunes." Scowling: "They did not intend their precious teachings to be wasted on petty annoyances. Such as having to waste half a day while a fool boy prince shows a frivolous woman with too much time on her hands the inevitable results of self-aggrandizement, a lesson which"—deep scowl—"any child learns the first time they sass their elders."
Antonina and Eon reached the edge of the field. Ousanas thrust himself erect from his semi-reclined posture. There was nothing of a lurch in that movement, as there would have been for most men. On one of his powerful forearms, Ousanas bore the scar left by a panther he had slain years earlier. The tall African had triumphed in that encounter, as he had in so many others, because he shared the sinuous grace and power of the great feline hunters of the continent. For all that Ousanas derided royalty—which, as Prince Eon's dawazz, was his duty and obligation—the man was a majestic figure in his own right.
Antonina's grin was still on her face. She pointed over her shoulder with a thumb to the great field of monuments behind her.
"I would have thought you'd approve of this display," she said. "An aid to your task, showing the results of excessive royal self-esteem."
Ousanas cast a sour look at the stone ruins in question. "Nonsense," he replied forcefully. "Maintaining this grotesque and useless field is itself a testament to royal idiocy. Who but cretin kings would need to waste so much good land for such a trivial purpose? A child requires no more than the memory of his last set of bruises."
He began stalking off, headed toward the Ta'akha Maryam. "We'd do better just to haul the negusa nagast out of his palace, once or twice a year, and thrash him soundly." He repeated Antonina's gesture, pointing with his thumb at the ruins over his shoulder. "Then we could turn this into good farmland. Raise crops for needy children. Feed poor dawazz, weak from his endless labor like Sisyphus."
Antonina glanced at Eon, walking alongside her. She was expecting to see the prince's face twisted into a scowl, hearing Ousanas' outrageous proposals. But, to her surprise, Eon's expression was one of sly amusement.
The dawazz, it seemed, had done his work well.
"And just who would do all that work, Ousanas?" asked the prince. "Hauling great stones, thousands of them, out of that field. Backbreaking work, day after day after day. Take years, probably. You?"
Ousanas' snort was answer enough.
"Thought not," mused Eon. "No sane man would. No free man, that is. So we'd have to reinstitute mass slavery. Give the King of Kings a whole army of slaves—again—just like in the old days."
Eon's grin did not quite match those which his dawazz usually employed, but it came close.
"So," he concluded cheerfully, "in order to accomplish your goal of abasing royalty, we'd have to elevate royalty to its grandiose status of old. Good thinking, Ousanas!" The prince shook his head in a gesture of exaggerated chagrin. "I'm ashamed of myself! All these years, I thought your obsession with philosophy was a waste of time. But now, I see—"
Ousanas interrupted: "Enough!" He stopped abruptly, and stared at the distant mountains which surrounded the Hatsebo plain. His expression, from a scowl of irritation, faded into one of thoughtfulness.
"You see those mountains?" he asked softly. "Impossible to reach, the greatest of them. Just so do men stare at justice and righteousness. An unattainable goal, but one which we must always keep in our sight. Or we will drown in the madness of the pit."
He puffed his cheeks, and then blew out the breath slowly. "It's a pity, all things considered, that democracy doesn't work," he mused. "But the Greeks proved that, along with so much else. Smartest people in the world, Greeks. Who else would be deluded enough to try running a country with no king?"
He shook his head sadly. "All they ever did was fight and bicker and squabble. Endless wars between petty states—never could run more than a city, at best!—and all for nothing. Ruin and destruction—just read Thucydides." Another shake of his head. "Finally, of course, sensible people like the great Philip of Macedon put an end to the silly business."
Still staring at the mountains, Ousanas sighed heavily. "Got to have kings, and emperors, and the whole lot of puffed-up pigeons. No way around it. Somebody's got to give the orders."
He turned to face the young prince who had been placed in his charge so many years before. Now, he smiled. A rare expression that was, for the dawazz. A beaming grin was often found on his face. But Antonina, watching, could not remember ever having seen such a simple, gentle smile on the face of the man named Ousanas.
"You are a good boy, Eon," said the hunter. "Tomorrow you will be proclaimed a man, and I will no longer be your dawazz. So I will say this now, and only this once."
Ousanas bowed his head, just slightly. "It has been a privilege to be your dawazz, and a pleasure. And I do not really think, when all is said and done, that my labor has been that of Sisyphus."
Eon stared up at the tall figure of the man who had guided him, and taught him, and—most of all—chastened and chastised him for all those years. There was a hint of moisture in his eyes.
"And I could not have found," he replied, "not anywhere in the world, a better man to be my dawazz."
Tentatively, almost timidly, Eon reached out his hand and placed it on Ousanas' arm. "You have nothing to fear tomorrow," he said softly.
The normal and proper relation between dawazz and prince returned. Ousanas immediately slapped Eon on his head. Very hard.
"Fool boy!" he cried. "Of course I have something to fear! Entire Dakuen sarwe—half of it, anyway, and that's more than enough to do for my poor bones!—will be standing in judgement. Of me, not you!"
He turned to Antonina, his face twisting into a grimace. His eyes were almost bulging. "Axumite sarwen most pitiless creatures in universe! Soldiers—cruel and brutal! And this—this—" He pointed an accusing finger at Eon. "This idiot prince says I have nothing to fear!"
He threw up his hands. "I am lost!" he cried. "Years of work—for nothing. Boy still as mindless as ever!" Again, he began stalking off. Over his shoulder: "Royalty stupid by nature, as I've always said. The Dakuen sarwe will do what it wills, cretin-maybe-someday-king! Pay no attention to you."
Antonina and Eon began following him. Faintly, they could hear Ousanas' grumbling.
"Idiot Ethiopians and their imbecile customs. Had any sense, they'd beat the prince instead of the poor dawazz." A low, heartfelt moan. "Why did I ever do this? Could have stayed in central Africa. Doing simple safe work. Hunting lions and elephants, and other sane endeavors."
Antonina leaned over and whispered: "Is he really worried, Eon? About the judgement, tomorrow?"
Eon smiled. "I do not think so, not really. But you know Ousanas. All that philosophy makes him gloomy." His expression changed, a bit. "And he is right about the one thing. Only the Dakuen sarwe's opinion will matter, come tomorrow morning. It is not a public ceremony. No one else will be there—not even the king himself. Only the soldiers of my regiment."
Antonina started with surprise. "But—why then was I invited? Wahsi asked me to come, just yesterday. He was quite insistent about it—and he's now the commander of the regiment."
Eon cocked his eye at her. "You are not a guest, Antonina. You will be there as a witness."
* * *
When the Ta'akha Maryam was looming before them, Antonina shook off her pensive thoughts and remembered her mission. With a few quick steps, she caught up with Ousanas.
"I really think we should go visit the Tomb of Bazen," she said, "before we return to the royal compound. And the rock-cut burial pits nearby! Eon's told me all about them."
Ousanas stopped dead in his tracks and stared down at her.
"What for?" he demanded, scowling. "They're just more graves, for ancient men possessed by ridiculous notions of their importance in the scheme of things." With a snort: "Besides, they're empty. Robbers—sane men!—plundered them long ago."
Patiently, Antonina explained.
"Because, Ousanas, I really think the negusa nagast would appreciate a full day to consult with his advisers, without the presence of the Roman Empire's ambassador. Two full days, actually—since I'll be tied up all day tomorrow at the Dakuen sarwe's ceremony."
Ousanas was not mollified. Rather the contrary, in fact.
"Marvelous," he growled. "I'd forgotten. One of the witnesses for the prince's sanity is a madwoman herself. Come to Axum to propose all-out war against the world's most powerful empire, for no good reason except that her husband has visions."
He resumed his stalking, headed now toward the Tomb of Bazen to the east. Antonina and Eon followed, a few steps behind.
After they had gone a few yards in their new direction, Antonina turned her head toward Eon. She was about to make some jocular remark about Ousanas, but a movement near the Ta'akha Maryam caught her eye.
Three men were racing away from the royal compound, as if being chased by a lion. Two of them were Ethiopian, but the third—
She stopped, hissed. Eon turned his head to follow her gaze.
The third of the three men fleeing the Ta'akha Maryam caught sight of them. He stumbled to a halt and stared. At the distance—perhaps fifty yards—Antonina couldn't make out his features clearly, but two things were obvious.
First, he was Indian. Second, he was cursing bitterly.
An instant later, the man resumed his flight.
"Ousanas!" called out Eon.
But the hunter had already spotted the men. And, quicker than either of his two companions, deduced the truth. Ousanas sprang on Eon and Antonina like a lion, swept them up, one in each arm, and tackled them to the ground.
The impact knocked the wind out of Antonina. The incredible explosion which followed stunned her half-senseless.
She watched, paralyzed, as the royal compound erupted. At first, because of shock, she didn't realize what she was seeing. A paralyzing noise—rapid series of noises, actually, blurring together—was followed by a huge cloud of billowing dust. Then, within a split second, she saw great stones moving. Some of the smaller pieces were flung high into the sky, but most of the massive slabs which made up the Ta'akha Maryam simply heaved up. Seconds later, the compound began to collapse. The building which held the throne room was the first to go, buckling like a broken bridge. That set off a chain reaction, in which the toppling walls of one room or building caused its neighbor to cave in as well. The sound of screams was buried beneath the uproar of collapsing masonry. By the time the process ground to a halt, perhaps a minute later, over a third of the Ta'akha Maryam was nothing but a heap of rubble. The noise of destruction faded into a chill silence—except for one faint shriek of agony, spilling across the dust-clouded landscape like a trail of blood.
Long before that time, Antonina realized what had happened. The first billowing gust had brought a sharp and familiar smell to her nostrils.
Gunpowder. Lots of gunpowder.
The Malwa Empire had struck. King Kaleb, the negusa nagast of Ethiopia, was lying somewhere under those stones. So was his older son, Wa'zeb, the heir. And so—if she hadn't insisted on a last-minute change of plans—would have been Antonina herself and Eon. She realized—dimly; still half-dazed—that the men who lit the fuse had waited until they were sure that she and Eon were about to enter the royal compound.
Painfully, Antonina levered herself up. They wouldn't know until the rubble was searched, but she strongly suspected that Eon was the sole survivor of the royal dynasty. And he was not even a man yet, by the customs of his people—not until the morrow's ceremony.
Eon Bisi Dakuen, Prince of Axum, was already on his feet. He was staring at the figure of Ousanas. The dawazz, his great spear in hand, was racing after the three men who had emerged from the Ta'akha Maryam. They had a two-hundred-yard lead on Ousanas, and were running as fast as they could, but it only took Antonina a moment to gauge the outcome.
Eon, apparently, reached the same conclusion. He took two steps in that direction, as if to follow, but stopped. "Ousanas is the greatest hunter anyone in Axum ever saw," he murmured. "Those are dead men."
He turned, stooped, and helped Antonina to her feet. His face seemed far older than his years. Bleak, and bitter.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "I must organize the search for my father and brother." A wince of pain came. "And Zaia, and our daughter Miriam, and Tarabai. And my adviser Garmat. All of them were in there."
She nodded. "I'll help. Some of my people were in the Ta'akha Maryam, too."
Eon's eyes scanned the rubble. "The Roman delegation should be safe. The section of the royal compound where you were housed is still standing."
They began making their way toward the shattered compound. Noise was returning, now, in the form of shouting commands and pleas for help. People were already moving about the ruin, beginning to pluck at the crumpled stones. One of those men, catching sight of them, cried out with joy and began sprinting in their direction.
His joy was no greater than Antonina's, or Eon's. That man was named Wahsi, and he was the commander of the Dakuen sarwe.
The prince's regiment, once. Now, in all likelihood, the royal regiment.
Wahsi reached them and swept the prince into his embrace. Other soldiers of the Dakuen sarwe were following, and their own joy was quite evident.
Antonina heard Eon's muffled voice: "Gather the regiment, Wahsi. And the Lazen and the Hadefan sarawit, if my father and brother are dead. They must sit on Ousanas' judgement also, if I am to be the negusa nagast."
He pried himself loose from Wahsi's clasp. Then, his face still cold and bleak, he issued his commands: "First, we must search the ruins. Then we will have the ceremony, as soon as possible. There is no time to waste. This will not be Malwa's only blow. We are at war, and I intend to give them no respite. And no quarter."
Wahsi nodded. His own expression was fierce. So were those on the faces of the soldiers standing around.
Antonina found herself seized by a sudden—and utterly inappropriate—urge to giggle. She fought it down savagely.
Bad move, Malwa. If you'd gotten Eon also—
But, you didn't. Bad move. Bad, bad, bad move.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
Nanda Lal, the Malwa Empire's chief spymaster, studied Deogiri. The walled city was two miles away from the hilltop where Nanda Lal was standing, just a few yards from Lord Venandakatra's pavilion. Venandakatra had placed his headquarters on the only hill in the area which approached Deogiri's elevation. The men who built Deogiri, centuries earlier, had designed the city for defense.
And designed it very well, he thought sourly.
Deogiri, upon whose ramparts Rao's rebels held Malwa at bay, was one of the best-fortified cities in India. The upper fortress, built on a conical rock at the top of a hill that rose almost perpendicularly from the surrounding plain a hundred fifty yards below. The outer wall of the city was nearly three miles in circumference, and three additional lines of fortification lay between it and the upper fortress. Throughout, the stonework was massive and well made.
Emperor Skandagupta had sent Nanda Lal here to determine why Lord Venandakatra was having so much difficulty subduing the Deccan rebellion. The task had not taken the spymaster long in the doing. An hour's study of Deogiri was enough, coming on top of the days which Nanda Lal had spent travelling here from Bharakuccha. Days, protected by a large escort of Rajputs, creeping through the hills of Majarashtra. Days, expecting a Maratha ambush—and fighting three of them off.
His gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a shrill scream, coming from somewhere behind him. Nanda Lal did not turn his head. He knew the source of that shriek of agony. The first of the Maratha guerrillas which his Rajput escort had captured during the last ambush was being fitted to the stake.
For a moment, the sound cheered him up. But only for a moment. Every town in Majarashtra had corpses fitted onto stakes. Still, the rebellion swelled in strength.
Silently, Nanda Lal cursed the Great Country. Silently, he cursed Raghunath Rao. Silently, he cursed the "Empress" Shakuntala. But, most of all—
Hearing the approaching footsteps, he cursed their cause.
But most of all—curse you, Venandakatra! If you hadn't let Belisarius maneuver you into giving Rao his chance, Shakuntala would never have become such a thorn in our side.
He sighed, and turned away from Deogiri. The thing was done. Much as he would have liked to curse Venandakatra aloud—fit him to a stake, in truth—the unity of the Malwa dynastic clan had to be maintained. That, above all, was the foundation of Malwa's success.
"You see?" demanded Venandakatra, when he reached Nanda Lal's side. The Goptri of the Deccan pointed at Deogiri. "You see? Is it not just as I said?"
Nanda Lal scowled. "Do not push the matter, cousin!" he snapped. "Deogiri was just as strong when you held it."
Venandakatra flushed. But the color in his flabby cheeks was due more to embarrassment than anger. His eyes fell away from Nanda Lal's level gaze.
Nanda Lal, as was his way, twisted the blade. "Before you—through your carelessness, Venandakatra—allowed Rao and his rebels to take Deogiri by surprise." The spymaster sneered. "No doubt you were preoccupied, raping another Maratha hill girl instead of attending to your duty."
Venandakatra clenched his jaws, but said nothing. His thin-boned, fat-sheathed frame was practically shaking from fury. But, still, he said nothing.
Nanda Lal allowed the silence to linger, for perhaps a minute. Then, with a little shrug, he let the tension ease from his own shoulders. Thick shoulders, those were. Heavy with muscle.
"Good," he murmured. "At least you have not lost your wits." Coldly: "Do not let your kin proximity to the emperor blind you to certain realities, Venandakatra. My bloodline is equal to your own, and I am second in power only to Skandagupta himself. Do not forget it."
Nanda Lal clapped a powerful hand on Venandakatra's shoulder. Under the fat, the thin bones felt like those of a chicken. The Goptri of the Deccan flinched, as much from the force of that "friendly" gesture as surprise.
"Enough said!" boomed Nanda Lal. With his hand still on Venandakatra's shoulder, he steered the Goptri toward the pavilion.
As they neared the pavilion's entrance, their progress was interrupted by another shriek of agony. The first Maratha captive had apparently expired, and the second was being fitted onto a stake.
Venandakatra found the courage to speak. "You should have used shorter stakes," he grumbled.
Nanda Lal chuckled. "Why bother?" He stopped, in order to examine the execution. The ground surrounding Venandakatra's pavilion had been packed down. Alongside the road which led north to Bharakuccha, six stakes had been erected. The first Maratha was dead, draped over his stake. The second was still screaming. The remaining four captives were bound and gagged. The gags would not be removed until the last moment, so that the Ye-tai conducting the execution would not be subject to curses.
"Why bother?" he repeated. "The terror campaign is necessary, Venandakatra, but do not put overmuch faith in it. The Great Country is littered with skeletons on stakes. How much good has it done?"
Venandakatra opened his mouth, as if to argue the point. But, again, discretion came to his rescue.
Nanda Lal took a deep breath, and blew it out slowly through his nose. "The emperor and I will tolerate your sadism, Venandakatra," he murmured softly. "Up to a point. That point ends when your lusts interfere with your duty."
Throughout, Nanda Lal's hand had never left Venandakatra's shoulder. Now, with a shove, he forced the Goptri into the pavilion.
The pavilion's interior was lavish with furnishings. Thick carpets covered every inch of the floor. The sloping cotton walls were lined with statuary, silk tapestries, and finely crafted side tables bearing an assortment of carvings and jewelry.
With another shove, Nanda Lal pushed Venandakatra toward the great pile of cushions at the center of the pavilion. A third shove sent the Goptri sprawling onto them. Venandakatra was now hissing with outrage but, still, he spoke no words of protest.
Satisfied that he had cowed the man sufficiently, Nanda Lal scanned the interior of the pavilion. His eyes fell on a cluster of Maratha girls in a corner. They ranged in age from ten to thirteen, he estimated. All of them were naked and chained. The current members of Venandakatra's harem. Judging from their scars and bruises, and the dull fear in their faces, they would not survive any longer than their many predecessors.
That should finish the work, thought Nanda Lal. He turned his head to the Rajput officer standing guard by the pavilion's entrance.
"Take them out"—he pointed to the girls—"and kill them. Do it now."
Seeing the rigidity in the Rajput's face, Nanda Lal snorted. "Behead them, that's enough." The Rajput nodded stiffly and advanced on the girls. A moment later, he was leading them out of the pavilion by their chains.
The girls did not protest, nor make any attempt to struggle. Nanda Lal was not surprised. Marathi-speaking peasant girls, from their look. They probably didn't understand Hindi and, even if they did—
His eyes fell on Venandakatra, gasping with outrage.
I probably did them a favor, and they know it.
Nanda Lal waited until the sound of a sword cleaving through a neck filtered into the pavilion.
"So, Venandakatra, let us deal with your duty. With no further distractions. Now that I have investigated the situation, I will recommend to the emperor that your request for siege guns be granted."
The spymaster nodded toward the north. "But you will have to be satisfied with the guns at Bharakuccha. Six of them—that should be enough. And there will be no other reinforcements. The war in Persia has proven more difficult than we foresaw, thanks to Belisarius."
He shrugged. "It would take too long to bring siege guns across the Vindhyas, anyway. As it is, hauling the great things here will take months, even from Bharakuccha."
Venandakatra's face lost its expression of outrage. Anger came, instead—anger and satisfaction.
"At last!" he exclaimed. "I will take Deogiri!" He clenched his bony fingers into a fist. "Rao will be mine! He and the Satavahana bitch! I will stake them side by side!"
Nanda Lal studied him for a moment. "Let us hope so, Venandakatra."
He turned away and strode to the pavilion entrance. There, the spymaster filled his nostrils with clean air.
Let us hope so, Venandakatra. For the sake of the Empire. Were it not for that, I would almost wish for your failure.
His eyes fell on the execution ground. The six Maratha rebels were all dead, now. Their bodies were draped over the stakes. Their heads lolled, as if they were mourning their sisters sprawled on the ground in front of them. Five heads, and five headless corpses, naked in a spreading lake of blood.
You would look good on a stake, Venandakatra. Splendid, in fact.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
Irene Macrembolitissa, the Roman Empire's ambassador to the rebels of south India, strode down one of the corridors in Empress Shakuntala's small palace, head deep in thought. The Empress of Andhra—it was a grandiose title, for a young girl leading a rebellion against Malwa, but one to which she was legitimately entitled—had requested Irene's presence in the imperial audience chamber. It seemed that Kungas had finally returned from his long journey to the rebel-held city of Deogiri. Shakuntala wanted Rome's envoy present, to hear his report.
Irene had never met Kungas. She knew of him, of course. Kungas was one of the top military commanders of Shakuntala's small army. He bore the resplendent titles of Mahadandanayaka and Bhatasvapati—"great commandant" and "lord of army and cavalry." He was also the head of Shakuntala's personal bodyguard, an elite body made up entirely of Kushans.
Before she left Constantinople, Belisarius had provided Irene with a full and thorough assessment of Kungas. He knew the Kushan from his trip to India, and was obviously taken by him. Without quite saying so, Belisarius had left Irene the impression that Kungas' advice and opinions should be given the utmost care and consideration.
Privately, Irene had her doubts. She was one of the Roman Empire's most accomplished spymasters—an unusual occupation for a woman, especially a Greek noblewoman—and she had generally found that male military leaders were too heavily influenced by the martial accomplishments of other men. That Kungas was shrewd and cunning on the battlefield, Irene did not doubt for a moment. That did not necessarily translate into the kind of skills which were necessary for an imperial adviser.
Head down, striding along in her usual brisk and long-legged style, Irene tightened her lips. The upcoming session, she thought, would be difficult.
The young empress doted on Kungas, so much was obvious. Knowing the history of Shakuntala and Kungas' relationship, Irene did not find the girl's attitude odd. Kushans were Malwa vassals, and Kungas had been the man assigned as Shakuntala's guard and captor after the Malwa had conquered her father's empire of Andhra. He had saved her from rape, at the sack of Amaravati. Had held her safe, until Belisarius and Rao rescued her—and had then, learning the secret of that rescue, held his tongue and kept the secret from his Malwa masters. In the end, he and his men had thrown off their loyalty to Malwa and smuggled Shakuntala to south India. Since then, they had saved her life more than once from Malwa assassination teams.
The fact remained, he was nothing more than a semibarbarian warlord. Not even literate, by all accounts.
Irene was not looking forward to the upcoming session. She would have to steer a delicate course between offending the empress and—
Paying no attention to anything but her thoughts, Irene swept into a junction with another corridor and crashed into an unseen obstacle.
For a moment, she almost lost her footing. Only a desperate hand, reaching out to clutch the object into which she had hurtled, kept her from an undignified landing on her backside.
Startled, she looked up and found herself gazing into the statue of a steppe warrior. Into the face of the statue, more precisely. A bronze and rigid mask, apparently part of a single casting. Stiff, still, unmoving. Extremely well done, she noted, all the way down to the lifelike armor and horsehair topknot.
But the artistry of the piece did not leave her mollified.
"What idiot left a statue in the middle of a corridor?" she hissed angrily. Then, after a brief second scrutiny: "Ugly damned thing, too."
The statue moved. Its lips, at least. Irene was so startled she actually jumped.
"Horses think I'm pretty," said the statue, in heavily accented but understandable Greek. "Why else do they give me such playful nips?"
Irene gasped, clasping a hand over her mouth. She stepped back a pace or two. "You're real!"
The statue gazed down at its body. "So I am told by my scholarly friend Dadaji," the thing rasped. "But I am not a student of philosophy, myself, so I can't vouch for it."
For all that she was startled, Irene's quick mind had not deserted her. "You must be Kungas," she stated. "You fit Belisarius' description."
At first, Irene thought she was several inches taller than he. But closer examination revealed that Kungas was not more than an inch below her own height. It was just that the man was so stocky, in a thick-chested and muscular fashion, that he looked shorter than he actually was. Beyond that, his whole body—especially his face—looked as if it were made of metal, or polished wood, rather than flesh. She did not think she had ever seen a human being in her life who seemed so utterly—hard.
His features were typically Kushan. Asiatic, steppe features: yellowish complexion, flat nose, eyes which seemed slanted due to the fold in the corners, a tight-lipped mouth. His beard was a wispy goatee, and the mustache adorning his upper lip was no more than a thin line of hair. Most of his scalp was shaved, except for a clot of coarse black hair gathered into a topknot.
Kungas returned Irene's scrutiny with one of his own. His next words startled her almost as much as the collision.
"You have beautiful eyes," he announced. "Very intelligent. And so I am puzzled."
Irene frowned. "Puzzled by what?"
"Why are you wearing such a stupid costume?" he asked, gesturing to the heavy Roman robes. "In this climate?"
Kungas' lips seemed to twitch. Irene thought that might be a smile. She wasn't sure.
"I grant you," he continued, "many of the Indian customs are ridiculous. But the women are quite sensible when it comes to their clothing. You would do much better to wear a sari, and leave your midriff bare."
Irene grinned. "I'm a diplomat," she explained. "Got to maintain my ambassadorial dignity. Especially since I'm a woman. Everybody looks at these absurd robes instead of me. So all they see is the Roman Empire, rather than the foreign female."
"Ah." Kungas nodded. "Good thinking."
"You must be on your way to the audience chamber yourself," said Irene. She cocked her head to the side. "The empress will be delighted to see you. She has missed you, I think. Although she says nothing."
Now, finally, Kungas did smile. "She never does. Lest people see the uncertain girl, instead of the ruler of Andhra."
He made a slight bow. "Envoy from Rome, I must give my report to the empress. May I escort you to the audience chamber?"
Irene bowed in return, and nodded graciously. Side by side, she and Kungas headed toward the great double doors at the end of the corridor.
From the corner of her eye, Irene studied Kungas. She was a bit fascinated by the way he moved. Silently, and surely—more like a cat than a thick, stocky man. But, mostly, she was fascinated by Kungas himself. Such a thick, hard, rigid statue, he seemed. But she had not missed the warm humor lurking inside the bronze casting, nor the intelligence.
Then, turning her eyes to the front, she gave her head a little shake.
You're the envoy from Rome, she reminded herself. For a moment, her fingers plucked at her heavy robes. So just forget it, woman. Besides, the man can't even read.
* * *
"How long does Rao think it will take Venandakatra to bring up the siege guns?" asked Shakuntala. The empress, seated on a plush cushion, leaned forward from her lotus position. Her brow was wrinkled, as if she were a schoolgirl straining to understand a lesson.
Irene was not fooled by Shakuntala's resemblance to a young student. That is one very worried monarch, she thought, watching from her vantage point against the east wall of the small audience chamber.
Irene's translator leaned over, whispering, but she stilled him with a gesture. Her Hindi had improved well enough that she was able to follow the discussion. Irene had an aptitude for languages—that skill was a necessity for a spymaster in Rome's polyglot empire—and she had been tutored by Belisarius before leaving Constantinople. In the months since her arrival at Suppara, she had been immersed in Hindi. And Marathi. As was true of most Indian monarchs, Shakuntala used Hindi as the court language, but Irene had begun learning the common tongue of Majarashtra as well.
"How long?" repeated the empress.
Seated easily in his own lotus position, Kungas shrugged. "It is difficult to say, Your Majesty. Many factors are involved. The siege guns were at Bharakuccha. Venandakatra has thus been forced to haul them across the Great Country. Very difficult terrain, as you know, through which to move huge war engines. And Rao has been harassing the Malwa column with his mountain fighters."
"Can he stop them?" demanded Shakuntala. "Before they can bring the guns to Deogiri?"
Kungas shook his head. As with all the man's gestures, the movement was slight—but emphatic, for all that.
"Not a chance, Your Majesty. He can slow it down, but he does not have the forces to stop it. Venandakatra has reinforced the column's escort with every spare military unit at his disposal. He cannot reduce Deogiri without those guns—and with them, he cannot fail. Any one of those cannons is big enough to shatter Deogiri's walls, and he has six of them."
Shakuntala winced. For a moment, Kungas' face seemed to soften. Just a tiny bit.
"There is this much, Your Majesty," he added. "The Vile One has been forced to end the punitive raids in the countryside. He cannot spare the men. Every cavalry troop he has, beyond the ones investing Deogiri, are assigned to guard the column bringing the cannons."
Shakuntala rubbed her face. For all her youth, it seemed an old, tired gesture. Venandakatra's atrocities in the Maratha countryside, Irene knew, had preyed heavily on her soul. Even by Malwa standards, Venandakatra was a beast. The man's official title was Goptri of the Deccan—the "Warden of the Marches," assigned by the Malwa emperor to subjugate his most unruly new province. But by Marathas themselves, the man was called nothing but the Vile One.
Shakuntala's face rubbing ended, within seconds. Her natural energy and assertiveness returned.
"It is up to us, then," she pronounced. "We must organize a relief column of our own."
The two Maratha cavalry officers seated next to Kungas stirred, and glanced at each other. The senior of them, a general by the name of Shahji, cleared his throat and spoke.
"I do not think that is wise, Empress. We have been able to hold Suppara, and the coast, but our forces are still not strong enough to relieve Rao at Deogiri."
"Unless we took our whole army," qualified Kondev, the other Maratha general. "But that would leave Suppara defenseless."
Shakuntala's face tightened. Kondev drove home the point:
"You have a responsibility here also, Your Majesty."
"I can't simply let Rao be destroyed!" snapped the empress. She glared angrily at the two Maratha cavalry generals.
Shakuntala's chief adviser, Dadaji Holkar, intervened. As always, the scholarly peshwa—"premier," Irene translated the term—spoke softly and calmly. And, as always, his tone calmed the empress.
Although, thought Irene, his words did not.
"There is the other alternative, Your Majesty."
Holkar's statement seemed to strike Shakuntala like a blow, or a reprimand. The young empress' face grew pinched, and Irene thought she almost recoiled.
Holkar's lips tightened, for a moment. To Irene, his eyes seemed sad.
Sad, but determined.
"If we insist, as a condition to the marriage," he continued, "I am quite certain that the Cholas will send an army. A large enough army to relieve Deogiri, without requiring us to abandon Suppara."
Holkar glanced quickly at Kungas. "At the time, I thought Kungas was unwise, to urge you to decline the offer of marriage from the Prince of Tamraparni. But his advice proved correct. The Cholas did make a better offer."
His gaze returned to the empress. Still sad, but still determined.
"As you know," he stated, gently but emphatically. "I read you the text of their offer last week. You said that you wanted to think about it. I suggest that the time for thinking is over."
Again, Holkar glanced at Kungas. More of a lingering look, actually. Irene, watching, was puzzled by Holkar's stare. It seemed more one of anger—irritation, perhaps, and apprehensiveness—than admiration and approval. And she noticed that the empress herself was staring at Kungas rather oddly. Almost as if she were beseeching him.
For his part, Kungas returned their gazes with nothing beyond masklike imperturbability.
Something's going on here, thought Irene.
As other advisers began speaking, also urging the marriage on the empress, Irene's quick mind flitted over the situation. She knew of the Chola king's offer of his oldest son in marriage to Shakuntala. Irene had learned about it almost as soon as Shakuntala herself. The Greek spymaster had begun creating her own network of informants from the moment she arrived in India. But Irene had simply filed the information away for later consideration.
Irene had realized, weeks ago, that the subject of Shakuntala's possible dynastic marriage was a source of considerable tension in the palace. Such a marriage would produce an immediate improvement in the position of the young empress. Yet, she was obviously unhappy at the prospect, and avoided the subject whenever her advisers raised it.
At first, Irene had ascribed Shakuntala's hesitation to the natural reluctance of a strong-willed female ruler to give up any portion of her power and independence. (An attitude which Irene, given her own temperament and personality, understood perfectly.) As the weeks passed, however, Irene had decided that more was involved.
The young empress never discussed the subject, except in political and military terms, but Irene suspected that her feelings on Deogiri were personal as well. Deogiri—and, more specifically, the man who was in command of the rebel forces there.
Irene had never met Raghunath Rao, no more than she had Kungas. But Belisarius had spoken about him many times, also—and at even greater length than on the subject of Kungas. To her astonishment, Irene had eventually realized that Belisarius was a bit in awe of the man—an attitude which she had never seen the Roman general take toward anyone else in the world.
Raghunath Rao. She rolled the glamorous, exotic-sounding name over a silent tongue, her mind only half-following the enthusiastic jabberings of the junior advisers. (Every one of whom, she noted, agreed with the peshwa Dadaji Holkar. But Kungas had not spoken yet.)
The Panther of Majarashtra. The Wind of the Great Country. The national hero of the Marathas, and a legend throughout all of India. The only man who ever fought the Rajput king Rana Sanga to a draw, after an entire day spent in single combat.
Raghunath Rao. One of India's greatest assassins, among other things. The man who slaughtered—single-handedly, no less—two dozen of her captors in the Vile One's palace in order to rescue Shakuntala from captivity, after Belisarius, through a ruse, saw to the removal of Kungas and her Kushan guards.
Rao, the supreme Andhra loyalist, did so in order to rescue the legitimate heir of the dynasty. Yes, of course. But he was also rescuing the girl whom he had raised since the age of seven, after her father, the Emperor of Andhra, had placed the child in the Maratha chieftain's care. The mutual devotion between Rao and Shakuntala was something of a legend itself, by now.
To all outward appearances, it was the attachment of a young woman and her older mentor. But Irene suspected that under the surface lay much more passionate sentiments. Sentiments which were perhaps all the fiercer, for never having been spoken or acted on by either person.
The junior advisers were still jabbering, so Irene continued her ruminations. Irene had her own opinion regarding the question of Shakuntala's possible dynastic marriage. That opinion was still tentative, but it seemed to her that Shakuntala's advisers were missing—
Her thoughts broke off. Kungas was finally speaking.
"I disagree. I think this is all quite premature." His words were all the more forceful for the quiet manner in which he spoke them. Kungas' voice exuded the same sense of iron certainty as his mask of a face. "The Chola offer, as I understand it, is filled with quibbles and reservations."
Holkar began to interrupt, but Kungas drove on.
"If the empress breaks the siege of Deogiri," he stated, "and thereby proves that she can hold southern Majarashtra, there will certainly be a better offer. From someone, if not the Cholas."
Holkar threw up his hands. "If! If!" He lowered his hands and, with an obvious effort, brought himself under control. Irene realized that—unusually, for the mild-mannered peshwa—the man was genuinely angry.
"If, Kungas," he repeated, through teeth that were almost clenched. "If." Holkar leaned forward, slapping the rug before him emphatically. "But that is precisely the point! We do not have the troops to simultaneously relieve Deogiri and hold Suppara and the coast."
Holkar sprang to his feet and strode over to a window in the west wall. He stared out at the ocean lying beyond. From her vantage point on the opposite side of the chamber, Irene could not see the ocean itself, but she knew what the peshwa was looking at.
Malwa warships, dozens of them. Holding position, as they had for weeks, just out of range of the three great cannons protecting Suppara's harbor. Each of those warships had a large contingent of marines, ready to land at a moment's notice.
The Malwa had made no attempt to storm Suppara for months now. But in the first few weeks after Irene was smuggled through the blockade on an Axumite vessel, she had watched while they made three furious assaults. Each of those attacks had been beaten off, but it had taken the efforts of all of Shakuntala's soldiers—as well as the four hundred Ethiopian sarwen under Ezana's command—to do so.
Holkar turned away from the window. He gave Kungas a hard, stony look, before turning his eyes to Shakuntala. "Shahji and Kondev are correct, Empress. We cannot relieve the siege of Deogiri without leaving Suppara defenseless. I do not therefore see—"
"We do not have to relieve Deogiri," interrupted Kungas. "We simply have to destroy the siege guns."
Holkar froze. Still standing, he frowned down at Kungas.
The Kushan warrior's shoulders seemed to twitch, just a bit. Irene, learning to interpret Kungas' economical gestures, decided that was a shrug. With just a hint of irony, she thought. Perhaps some amusement.
What an interesting man. Who would have expected so much subtlety, in such an ugly lump?
"Explain, Kungas," said Shahji.
Again, Kungas' shoulders made that tiny twitch.
"I discussed the situation with Rao. The problem is not the siege itself. Rao is quite certain that he can hold Deogiri from the Vile One's army. You are Maratha, Shahji. You know how strong those walls are. Deogiri is the most impregnable city in the Great Country."
Shahji nodded. So did Kondev.
"Water is not a problem," continued Kungas. "Deogiri has its own wells. Nor is Rao concerned about starvation. Venandakatra simply doesn't have enough troops to completely seal off Deogiri. The Panther's men are all Maratha. They know the countryside, and have the support of the people there. Since the beginning of the siege, Rao has been able to smuggle food and provisions through the Vile One's lines. And he long ago smuggled out all of the civilians of the city. He only has to feed his own troops."
Kungas lifted his right hand from his knee and turned it over. "So, you see, the only problem is the actual guns. We don't have to relieve the siege. We simply have to destroy those guns, or capture them."
"And how will we do that?" demanded Holkar.
Before Kungas could respond, Kondev threw in his own objection. "And even if we do, Venandakatra will simply bring in more."
Irene hesitated. Her most basic instinct as a spymaster—never let anyone know how much you know—was warring with her judgement.
I'm the envoy from Rome, she reminded her instinct firmly. She leaned forward in her chair—Shakuntala had thoughtfully provided them for the Romans, knowing they were unaccustomed to sitting on cushions—and cleared her throat.
"He can't," she said firmly. "He's stripped Bharakuccha of every siege gun he has. Those cannons—there are only five of them left, Kungas, by the way; one of them was destroyed recently, falling off a cliff—are the only ones the Malwa have in the Deccan. To get more, they'd have to bring them from the Gangetic plain, across the Vindhya mountains. That would take at least a year. And Emperor Skandagupta just informed Venandakatra, in a recent letter, that the Vile One will have to rely on his own resources for a while. It seems the war in Persia is proving more difficult than the Malwa had anticipated."
She leaned back, smiling. "He was quite irate, actually. Most of his anger was directed at Belisarius, but some of it is spilling over on Venandakatra. Emperor Skandagupta does not understand, as he puts it, why the `illustrious Goptri' is having so much difficulty subduing—as he puts it—`a handful of unruly rebels.' "
Everyone was staring at her, eyes wide open. Except Kungas, she saw. The Kushan was looking at her also, but his gaze seemed less one of surprise than—
Interest? Irene lowered her own eyes, plucking at her robes. For a moment, looking down, she caught sight of her nose.
Damn great ugly beak.
She brushed back her hair and raised her head. Envoy from Rome, she reminded herself firmly.
The wide-eyed stares were still there.
"Is your spy network really that good?" asked Holkar, a bit shakily. "Already? You've only been here for—"
He broke off, as if distracted by another thought.
Irene coughed. "Well . . . Yes, peshwa, it is that good."
She gave Shakuntala an apologetic little nod. "I was intending to give you this latest information at our next meeting, Your Majesty." The empress acknowledged the apology with a nod of her own.
Irene turned her gaze back to Kungas.
"So that objection to the Bhatasvapati's proposal is moot," she said. "But I confess that I have no idea how he intends to destroy the existing guns."
Kungas began to explain. Irene listened carefully to his plan. She was required to do so, not simply by her position as the envoy of Rome, but by the nature of the plan itself. At one point, in fact, the meeting was suspended while Irene sent for one of the Syrian gunners who had accompanied her to India, in order to clarify a technical problem.
So, throughout the long session, Irene was attentive to Kungas' proposal. But there was a part of her mind, lurking far back, which focused on the man himself.
When the session was over, and she was striding back to her rooms, she found it necessary to discipline that wayward part.
The envoy of Rome! Besides, it's absurd. I'm the world's most incorrigible bookworm, and he's an illiterate. Ugly, to boot.
* * *
Not long after arriving in her quarters, a servant announced the arrival of the peshwa.
Irene put down her book, a copy of the Periplus Maris Erythraei, and rose to greet her visitor. She had been expecting Dadaji Holkar, and she was quite certain why he had come.
The peshwa was ushered into her chamber. The middle-aged scholar seemed awkward, and ill at ease. He began to fumble for words, staring at the floor.
"Yes, Dadaji," said Irene. "I will instruct my spies to search for your family."
Holkar's head jerked up with surprise. Then, lowered.
"I should not ask," he muttered. "It is a private matter. Not something which—"
"You did not ask," pointed out Irene. "I volunteered."
The demands of her profession had trained Irene to maintain an aloof, calculating stance toward human suffering. But, for a moment, she felt a deep empathy for the man in front of her.
Dadaji Holkar, for all the prestige of his current status as the peshwa of India's most ancient and noble dynasty, was a low-caste scribe in his origins. After the Malwa had conquered Andhra, Dadaji—and his whole family—had been sold into slavery. Belisarius had purchased Holkar while he was in India, in order to use the man's literary skills to advance his plot against Venandakatra. In the end, Holkar had been instrumental in effecting Shakuntala's escape and had become her closest adviser.
But his family—his wife, son, and two daughters—were still in captivity. Somewhere in the vastness of Malwa India.
It was typical of Holkar, she thought, that he would even hesitate to ask for a personal favor. Most Indian officials—most officials of any country, in her experience—took personal favors as a matter of due course.
She smiled, brushing back her hair. "It's not a problem, Dadaji. It will be an opportunity, actually. To begin with, it'll give my spies a challenge. The Malwa run an excellent espionage service, but they have grown too confident and sure of themselves. Quite easy to penetrate, actually. Whereas finding a few Maratha slaves, scattered across India, will test their skills."
She pursed her lips, thinking for a moment, before adding: "And there's more. I've been thinking, anyway, that we should start probing the sentiments of the lower classes in Malwa India. A very good way to do that is to have my spies scouring India looking for some Maratha slaves."
"Can you find them?" he asked, in a whisper.
"I can promise you nothing, Dadaji. But I will try."
He nodded, and left. Irene returned to her chair. But she had not read more than a page of the Periplus when the servant announced another visitor.
The Bhatasvapati was here.
Irene rose again. She was interested—and a bit annoyed—to find that her emotions were unsettled. She was even more interested—and not annoyed at all—to realize that she had no idea why Kungas had come.
I like surprises. I get so few of them.
* * *
When Kungas came into her chamber, Irene got her first surprise. As soon as he entered, he glanced over his shoulder and said: "I saw Dadaji leaving, just a minute ago. I don't think he even noticed me, he seemed so preoccupied."
Kungas swiveled his head back to face her. "He came to speak to you about his family," he stated. "To ask you for your help in finding them."
Irene's eyes narrowed. "How did you know?"
Kungas made the little shoulder-twitch which served him for a shrug. "There are only two reasons he would come here, right after the session in the imperial audience chamber. That is one of them. Like everyone else, he was impressed by your spy network."
"And the other reason?"
Kungas seemed to be examining her carefully. "The other reason would be to discuss with you the question of Empress Shakuntala's marriage prospects. He is much concerned with that subject, and would want to enlist the support of the Roman envoy."
Kungas' looked away for a moment, in a quick scrutiny of the chamber. The furniture he gave no more than a glance, but his gaze lingered on a chest in the corner. The lid was open, and he could see that it was full of books.
When his eyes returned to Irene, she thought there was some impish humor lurking within them.
She got her second surprise.
"But I knew that couldn't be it. He would not have left so soon. You do not agree with him, I think, and so he would have stayed to argue."
"How do you know my opinion?" she demanded.
Again, the little shoulder-twitch. "It is—not obvious, no. Nothing about you is obvious. But I do not think you agree that the empress should make a dynastic marriage with one of the independent south Indian monarchies."
Irene studied Kungas for a moment, in silence.
"No, I don't," she said slowly. "I am not certain of my opinion yet, mind you. But I think . . . " She hesitated.
Kungas held up his hand. "Please! I am not prying, envoy from Rome. We can discuss this matter at a later time, when you think it more suitable. For the moment—"
A very faint smile came to his lips. "Let me just say that I suspect you look at the thing as I do. A monarch should marry the power which can uphold the throne. And so the thing is obvious—to any but these idiot Indians, with their absurd fetishes."
Irene suppressed her little start of surprise. But Kungas' eyes were knowing.
"So I thought," he murmured. "Very smart woman."
He turned away, heading for the door. "But that is not why I came," he said. "A moment, please. My servant is carrying something for me."
Irene watched while Kungas took something from the servant who appeared in the doorway. When he turned back, she got her third surprise. Kungas was carrying a stack of books.
He held them out to her. "Can you read these?"
Hesitantly, Irene took the top book and opened it. She began to scan the first page. Then stopped, frowning.
"This isn't Greek," she muttered. "I thought it was, but—"
"The lettering is Greek," explained Kungas. "When we Kushans conquered Bactria, long ago, we adopted the Greek alphabet. But the language is my own."
He fumbled with the stack of books, drawing out a slim volume buried in the middle.
"This might help," he said. "It is a bilingual translation of some of the Buddha's teachings. Half-Greek; half-Kushan." His lips twitched. "Or so my friend Dadaji tells me. He can read the Greek part. I can't read any of it. I am not literate."
Irene set the first book down on a nearby table and took the one in Kungas' outstretched hand. She began studying the volume. After a few seconds, without being conscious of the act, she moved over to her chair and sat down. As ever, with true bibliophiles, the act of reading had drawn her completely out of her immediate surroundings.
Two minutes later, she remembered Kungas. Looking up, she saw that the Kushan was still standing in the middle of the room, watching her.
"I'm sorry," she said. She waved her hand at a nearby chair.
Kungas shook his head. "I am quite comfortable, thank you." He pointed to the book. "What do you think?"
Irene looked down at the volume in her lap. "I could, yes." She looked up. "But why should I? It will be a considerable effort."
Kungas nodded. Then, slowly, he moved over to the one window in her room and stared out at the ocean. The window was open, letting in the cooling breeze.
"It is difficult to explain," he said, speaking as slowly as he had moved. He fell silent for a few seconds, before turning back to her rather abruptly.
"Do you believe there is such a thing as a soul?" he asked.
Somehow, the question did not surprise her. "Yes," she replied instantly. "I do."
Kungas fingered his wispy beard. "I am not so sure, myself." He stared back through the window. "But I have been listening to my friend Dadaji, this past year, and he has half convinced me that it exists."
Again, Kungas fell silent. Irene waited. She was not impatient. Not at all.
When Kungas spoke again, his voice was very low. "So I have decided to search for my soul, to see if I have one. But a man with a soul must look to the future, and not simply live in the present."
He turned his eyes back to her. He had attractive eyes, Irene thought. Almond colored, as they were almond shaped. Such a contrast, when you actually studied them, to the dull armor of his features. The eyes were very clear, and very bright. There was life dancing in those eyes, gaily, far in the background.
"I have never done that before," he explained. "Always, I lived simply in the present. But now—for some months, now—I have found myself thinking about the future."
His gaze drifted around the room, settling on a chair not far from Irene's own. He moved over and sat in it.
"I have been thinking about Peshawar," he mused. "That was the capital of our Kushan kingdom, long ago. It is nothing but ruins, today. But I have decided that I would like to see it restored, after Malwa is broken."
"You are so confident of breaking Malwa?" asked Irene. As soon as she spoke the words, she realized they were more of a question about Kungas than they were about the prospects of war.
Kungas nodded. "Oh, yes. Quite certain." His masklike face made that little cracking movement which did for a smile. "I am not so certain, of course, that I myself will live to see it. But there is no point in planning for one's own death. So I keep my thoughts on Peshawar."
He studied her carefully. "But to restore Peshawar, I would have to be a king myself. So I have decided to become one. After the fall of Malwa, Shakuntala will no longer need me. I will be free to attend to the needs of my own Kushan people."
Irene swallowed. Her throat seemed dry. "I think you would make a good king," she said, a bit huskily.
Kungas nodded. "I have come to the same conclusion." He leaned forward, pointing to the volume in her lap. "But a king should know how to read—certainly his own language!—and I am illiterate."
He leaned back, still-faced. "So now you understand."
Again, Irene swallowed. "You want me to learn Kushan, so that I can teach you how to read it."
Kungas smiled. "And some other languages. I should also, I think, know how to read Greek. And Hindi."
Abruptly, Irene stood up and went to a table against the wall. She poured some wine from an amphora into a cup, and took a swallow.
Without words, she offered a cup to Kungas. He shook his head. Irene poured herself another drink.
After finishing that second cup, she stared at the wall in front of her.
"Most men," she said harshly, "do not like to learn from a woman. And learning to read is not easy, Kungas, not for a grown man. You will make many mistakes. You will be frustrated. You will resent my instructions, and my corrections. You will resent—me."
She listened for the answer, not turning her head.
"Most men," said Kungas softly, "have a small soul. That, at least, is what my friend Dadaji tells me, and he is a scholar. So I have decided, since I want to be a king, that I must have a large soul. Perhaps even a great one."
Silence. Irene's eyes were fixed on the wall. It was a blank wall, with not so much as a tapestry on it.
"I will teach you to read," she said. "I will need a week, to begin learning your language. After that, we can begin."
She heard the faint sounds of a chair scraping. Kungas was getting up.
"We will have some time, then," came his voice from behind her. "Before I have to leave on the expedition to destroy the guns."
Silence. Irene did not move her eyes from the wall, not even after she heard Kungas going toward the door. He did not make much sound, as quietly as he moved. Odd, really, for such a thick-looking man.
From the doorway, she heard his voice.
"I thank you, envoy from Rome."
"My name is Irene," she said. Harshly. Coldly.
She did not miss the softness in Kungas' voice. Or the warmth. "Yes, I know. But I have decided it is a beautiful name, and so I did not wish to use it without your permission."
"You have my permission." Her voice was still harsh, and cold. The arrogant voice of a Greek noblewoman, bestowing a minor favor on an inferior. Silently, she cursed that voice.
"Thank you . . . Irene."
A few faint sounds of footsteps came. He was gone.
Irene finally managed to tear her eyes away from the wall. She started to pour herself another cup of wine, but stopped the motion midway. With a firm hand, she placed the cup back on the table and strode to the window.
Leaning on the ledge, she stared out at the ocean, breathing deeply. She remained there for some time, motionless, until the sunset.
Then, moving back to her chair, she took up the slim volume and began studying her new-found task. She spent the entire evening there, and got her final surprise of the day. For the first time in years, she was not able to concentrate on a book.
Back | Next
Back | Next
Spring, 532 A.D.
"You're right, Maurice," said Belisarius, lowering his telescope. "They're not going to make a frontal assault."
Maurice grunted. The sound combined satisfaction with regret. Satisfaction, that his assessment had proven correct. Regret, because he wished it were otherwise.
The chiliarch examined the fieldworks below them. From the rise where he and Belisarius were standing, the Roman entrenchments were completely bare to the eye. But from the slope below, where the Rajput cavalry was massed, they would have been almost invisible.
Almost, but not quite. Again, he grunted. This time, the noise conveyed nothing but regret. "Beautiful defenses," he growled. "Damn near perfect. Pure killing ground, once they got into it." His gaze scanned the mountainous terrain around them. "Doesn't look like too bad a slope, not from below. And this is the only decent pass within miles."
Belisarius' eyes followed those of Maurice. This stretch of the Zagros range was not high, measured in sheer altitude, but it was exceptionally rugged. There was little vegetation on the slopes, and those slopes themselves, for all their rocky nature, were slick and muddy from the spring runoff. Little rills and streams could be seen everywhere.
Impossible terrain, for cavalry—except for the one pass in which Belisarius had positioned his army. He had designed his defenses carefully, making sure that their real strength was not visible from the plateau below.
The temptation, for an enemy commander, would be almost overwhelming. A powerful, surging charge—clear the pass—the road to Mesopotamia and its riches would lie wide open. The only alternative would be to continue the grueling series of marches and countermarches which had occupied both the Roman and the Malwa armies for the past several weeks.
Almost overwhelming—for any but the best commanders. Like the ones who, unfortunately, commanded the Malwa forces ranged against them.
"You were right," Belisarius pronounced again. He cocked an eye at his chief subordinate, and smiled his crooked smile. "Think I've gotten sloppy, do you, from dealing with those Malwa thickheads in Mesopotamia?"
Maurice scowled. "I wasn't criticizing, General. It was a good plan. Worth a try. But I didn't think Sanga would fall for it. Lord Damodara might have, on his own. Maybe. But it's been obvious enough, the past month, that he listens to Sanga."
Belisarius nodded. For a moment, his eyes were drawn to a pavilion on the plateau below. The structure was visible to the naked eye. But, even through a telescope, it wasn't much to see.
For two days now, while the Malwa army gathered its forces below the pass, Belisarius had scrutinized that pavilion through his telescope. The distance was too great to discern individual features, but Belisarius had spotted Sanga almost immediately. The Rajput king was one of the tallest men Belisarius had ever met, and he had no doubt of the identity of the towering figure that regularly came and went from the pavilion. Nor of the identity of the short, pudgy man who often emerged from it in Sanga's company.
That would be Lord Damodara, the top commander of the Malwa army in the plateau. One of the anvaya-prapta sachivya, as the Malwa called the hereditary caste that dominated their empire. Blood kin to Emperor Skandagupta himself.
From the moment Belisarius had first seen that pavilion, he had been struck by it. It was nothing fancy, nothing elaborate, and, by Malwa standards, positively austere. The structure was completely unlike the grotesque cotton-and-silk palace which Emperor Skandagupta had erected at the siege of Ranapur. And Belisarius was quite certain that Lord Venandakatra, the anvaya-prapta sachivya whom the Roman general knew best, would have disdained to use it for anything other than a latrine.
Beyond the nature of the pavilion itself, Belisarius had been just as struck—more so, perhaps—by the use to which it was put. In his past experience, Malwa headquarters were the scenes of great pomp and ceremony. Such pavilions—or palaces, or luxury barges—were invariably surrounded by a host of elite bodyguards. Visitors who arrived were accompanied by their own resplendent entourages, and with great fanfare.
Great fanfare. Kettledrums, heralds, banners—even trained animals, prancing their way before the mighty Lords and Ladies of Malwa.
Not Damodara's pavilion. There had been a steady stream of visitors to that utilitarian structure, true enough. But they were obviously officers—Rajputs, in the main, with the occasional Ye-tai or kshatriya—and they invariably arrived either alone or in small groups. Not a bodyguard to be seen, except for the handful posted before the pavilion itself. And those—for a moment, Belisarius was tempted to use his telescope again, to study the soldiers standing guard before Damodara's pavilion. But there would be no point. He would simply see the same thing he had seen for the past two days. The thing which had impressed him most about that pavilion.
Rajput guards—always. Never Ye-tai. That single, simple fact had told him more than anything else.
The Ye-tai were barbarians. Half a century earlier, they had erupted into the plains of north India and begun conquering the region, as they had already done with the Kushan territories to the northwest. But when they came up against the newly rising Malwa realm, an offshoot of the collapsing Gupta Empire, their advance was brought to a halt. Already, Belisarius now knew, the being from the future called Link had armed the Malwa with gunpowder technology. With their rockets, cannons, and grenades, the Malwa had defeated the Ye-tai. But then, instead of simply subjugating the barbarians, the Malwa had incorporated them into their own power structure. Had, in fact, given them a prized and prestigious place—just below that of the anvaya-prapta sachivya themselves. Ye-tai clan chiefs had even been allowed to marry into the elite castes.
The move was extraordinarily shrewd, commented Aide, and quite beyond the capacity of normal Hindu rulers to even envision. The instructions must have come from Link itself. The Ye-tai are not part of the caste-and-class structure of Hindu society—what Indians themselves call the varna system. By giving such heathen barbarians a place in the elite, Link has provided a powerful and reliable Praetorian guard for the Malwa dynasty which is its creature.
Mentally, Belisarius nodded his agreement. That was how the Malwa invariably used their Ye-tai forces. The barbarians were ferocious warriors in their own right. But the Malwa, instead of using them as spearhead troops, used them as security and control battalions.
Again, Belisarius made that mental nod. Damodara had placed his Ye-tai contingents with his fighting forces, and relied solely on Rajputs for his own protection. The Rajputs were treasured by the Malwa for their military skills, just as was true of their Kushan vassals. But they were not trusted.
Except by Damodara, Aide, just as you say. The Rajputs form the bulk of his army, and he's obviously decided to weld them to himself by giving them his final trust.
Belisarius sighed, faintly. All of which tells me a great deal. None of which I'm happy to know.
This had been Belisarius' first opportunity to study his opponent at close hand. Roman and Malwa contingents had clashed several times in the weeks which had elapsed since his narrow escape from the ambush at the oasis, but the forces involved had been small. For the most part, the Romans and the Malwa had kept their distance, as each army tried to outmaneuver the other through the labyrinth of the Zagros range.
The Romans had had the best of it, in a narrow sense. Belisarius was simply trying to block the Malwa from passing through the Zagros onto the open plain of Mesopotamia. He had succeeded in doing so, true. But Damodara and Sanga handled their own forces extremely well. They had not dislodged the Romans blocking their way, but they had, slowly, succeeded in forcing them back.
The Zagros was a wide range, but it was not inexhaustible. Sooner or later, Belisarius would run out of room to maneuver. So he had decided to fight a battle on his own chosen terrain. If he could badly bloody the Malwa, he would gain more time—possibly even regain some lost ground.
Against the normal run of Malwa commanders, his plan would have worked. Against Damodara, and his Rajputs, it had failed. Just as Maurice had predicted.
Belisarius raised his telescope and studied Damodara's pavilion, trying to discern anything inside the dark interior. It was a vain enterprise, more born from habit than anything else.
But, suddenly and surprisingly, Aide spoke urgent words. There's a telescope in there! I can just barely make it out.
Belisarius focused his own eyesight, but even with Aide's help he could not see the telescope which was apparently hidden within the pavilion. He was not surprised, however. Aide could often detect things through Belisarius' eyes which the general himself could not.
Big, clumsy damned thing, came Aide's mental sniff.
Still—nothing. Belisarius knew that Aide was using his own crystalline version of what the "jewel" called computer image enhancement.
Is this important? asked Aide.
In and of itself—not especially. If that telescope's as big and awkward as you say, it's not going to be much of a help on the battlefield. But the fact that Damodara has one is interesting, nonetheless. It's a reminder to us not to underestimate the Malwa.
Belisarius folded up his telescope. As so often before, in doing so, he was struck by the clever design of John of Rhodes' device. But, for all that, his motion was sharp and decisive.
"That's it, then," he announced, turning away. "Pass the word, Maurice. We'll leave a unit here on guard, but get the army ready for another march." He gestured with his head toward the enemy below. "They'll be moving out themselves, sometime tonight. Make sure Abbu and his scouts are close enough to see which route they take."
"Won't be very close," replied Maurice grimly. "Not with Rajput flankers."
Belisarius began striding toward his own tent, some fifty yards down the trail. Over his shoulder, he said, "I'm well aware of that. Just close enough, Maurice, that's all. Just close enough. If that army ever breaks contact with us, we'll be in a sea of trouble."
A few steps away, hearing the exchange, Valentinian scowled.
"I was afraid this was going to happen. God, I'm sick of marching." He cast a half-hoping, half-skeptical eye at the Malwa army on the plateau below. "You think if I tried taunting them again—?"
Next to him, Anastasius snorted sarcastically. "And just what do you think that'll accomplish? Besides making you look like an idiot? Again."
* * *
Two miles away, at the entrance to his pavilion, Lord Damodara straightened up from his own telescope. Then, feeling the usual ache, the Malwa general grimaced. "Wish I had one of his telescopes," he grumbled.
Standing next to him, Rana Sanga cast a glance at the optical device in question. The Malwa telescope, quite unlike the slender, handheld artifact which he had seen in Belisarius' hands, was an ungainly thing. As in many areas—steelmaking was one outstanding exception—Indian craftsmanship was not the equal of Greek. The Malwa approach to optics was much like their approach to shipbuilding: Since we can't make it elegant, we'll make it big and sturdy.
Big and sturdy the Malwa telescope certainly was. So big, unfortunately, that it had to be supported on a rigid framework which could only be adjusted with great difficulty. The end result was that anyone who used the thing was forced to stoop in an awkward posture which, after a period of time, invariably resulted in back pain.
For a moment, Sanga was tempted to point out that Damodara, as short as he was, suffered less from the problem than did Sanga himself. But he restrained the impulse. Lord Damodara maintained an easy and informal bearing around his top subordinates, but he was anvaya-prapta sachivya. There were limits.
Instead, he opted for the bright side. "It's a better telescope than he has," he pointed out. "At least as far as its strength goes."
Judging from his snort, Damodara was not mollified.
"And so what?" he demanded. He gestured through the open flap of the pavilion. "So I can discern his features, where he can't mine. On the rare occasions when he happens to wander into my field of view, that is. While he, for his part, can look anywhere he wants. Without breaking his spine in the process."
Damodara rubbed his back, still grimacing. "I'd trade with him in a minute! And so would you, Rana Sanga—so stop trying to cheer me up."
Sanga said nothing. After a few seconds, Damodara stopped scowling. The young Malwa lord's innate good humor returned.
"There's this much," Damodara said cheerfully. "I'm quite sure he doesn't know we have a telescope. We didn't have them when he was in India, and I'm positive he hasn't spotted mine." He glanced around his headquarters. The telescope was positioned ten feet inside the entrance, well within the gloom of his pavilion's interior. Damodara had kept it there at all times, despite the limited field of view which the position provided, precisely in order to keep Belisarius from spotting the device.
For an instant, the scowl returned. "I'm not sure that makes any difference, of course. But—" He shrugged. "With Belisarius, I'll take any advantage I can get."
Damodara turned away from the telescope and moved toward the large table located at the very center of the pavilion. Sanga, without being asked, immediately followed.
At the edge of the table, Damodara planted his pudgy hands and leaned over, intently examining the huge vellum map which covered most of it. His gaze, now, was one of satisfaction rather than disgruntlement. Whatever they lacked in optical craftsmanship, no one could fault the skill of Malwa mapmakers. He was especially pleased with the topographical information which his chief cartographer managed to include.
Damodara peered into a corner of the dimly lit pavilion. As always, his cartographer was waiting patiently, seated on a small cushion. Narses was also in the corner, available in case Damodara needed his advice. The eunuch, following Roman custom, sat in a chair.
"It is up to date, Lord Damodara," said the mapmaker. "Just this morning, I incorporated the latest information brought in by the Pathans."
Damodara nodded, and turned back to the map. For a time, he was silent, examining the terrain shown thereon. At his side, Rana Sanga did the same. Then, Lord Damodara reached out and placed his finger on a location some fifteen miles to the south.
"There, perhaps?" he asked. "Judging from the map, it seems like an obscure pass. Very narrow, but it might be enough."
Sanga studied the pass in question for a moment, before shaking his head. The gesture was more one of slow consideration, however, than firm judgement. "I don't think so, Lord." He hesitated, tugging at his rich beard. "I am not sure of this, you understand, but it seems to me that Belisarius has been especially keen to thwart us from making any headway to the south. I suspect that he already has scouts watching the approaches to that pass."
Damodara looked up, his eyes widening. He seemed slightly startled.
"To the south—especially? I hadn't—" He frowned, thinking; then, chuckled ruefully. "It seemed more to me that he was thwarting us anywhere we went."
Sanga's shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "That is true, Lord. But I still think that he has been quickest of all to prevent us from going south."
Damodara spread his hands on the table, staring at the map. It was obvious to Sanga, watching the movement of his eyes, that Damodara was retracing every step of the past month's maneuvers.
"I think you're right," he murmured, after a minute or two. Damodara straightened up, staring now at the bare leather of the pavilion wall across from him.
"Why is that, do you think?" he mused thoughtfully. His gaze turned to Sanga. "It doesn't make any sense. What difference does it make, whether we bypass him to the north or the south? So long as he can keep us from making westward progress, he keeps us out of Mesopotamia. Tied up here, in these miserable mountains."
Damodara's eyes returned to the map. "If anything," he added slowly, "I would think he'd prefer to maneuver us south. That way he can keep us following the Zagros range—all the way to the Gulf." He pointed to the southern reaches of the mountains shown on the map. "In the end, we might find ourselves emerging into Mesopotamia down at the delta. Near Charax."
He laughed sarcastically. "Where he already has our main army bottled up! With Emperor Khusrau and his lancers to keep the cork in the bottle."
Sanga's beard-tugging grew more vigorous. "There is one possible explanation. Especially dealing with Belisarius."
Lord Damodara cocked his head, peering up at the tall Rajput next him. "A trap," he stated. Sanga nodded.
Damodara began pacing back and forth slowly. His hands, in one of the Malwa lord's characteristic gestures, were clasped in front of him as if he were in prayer. But the short, jabbing, back-and-forth motion of the hands conveyed concentration rather than piety.
"You could be right," he mused. A sudden bark—half-humorous, half-exasperated. "Subtle bait! But that is the way the man thinks."
Damodara suddenly stopped his pacing and turned to face Sanga squarely. "What do you advise?" he demanded.
Sanga stopped his beard-tugging, and took a deep breath.
"Go north," he said firmly. "It may be a trap, Lord Damodara. He may be laying an ambush for us. But traps can be turned against the trapper. A trap designed for a wolf will not necessarily hold a tiger. Our troops are excellent, and our army outnumbers his by two to one."
Damodara nodded. "Closer to three to one, I think." The Malwa lord's eyes grew a bit vacant. Again, his hands were clasped before him in the gesture of prayer. But there was no emphatic jabbing, this time. The hands were still, except for a slight flexing of the fingers.
Sanga, recognizing the signs, waited. As usual, Damodara did not take long to make his decision.
"I agree," the Lord said firmly. "We will go north." He barked another laugh. "With our eyes wide open! And—"
There was a sudden commotion at the entrance to the pavilion. Damodara and Sanga turned. They saw that two of the Lord's Rajput guards were barring the way of a Ye-tai who, for his part, was expressing his anger in no uncertain terms.
It was General Mihirakula, the commander of Damodara's Ye-tai troops.
"Let him in!" called out Damodara. The guards stepped aside, and Mihirakula stormed into the pavilion. He cast an angry glance at Rana Sanga before coming to a halt in front of Lord Damodara.
"What is this nonsense I hear?" demanded Mihirakula. "I was just informed by one of your"—another angry glance at Sanga—"Rajput dispatch riders that we are to make preparations for a march. Is this true?"
The question was obviously rhetorical. Mihirakula did not wait for an answer before gesturing angrily at the mountains visible through the open flap of the pavilion.
"Why are we not charging the stinking Romans?" he demanded. "We will brush them aside like flies!" Again, Mihirakula glared at Sanga. "If the Rajputs are too fearful, then my Ye-tai will lead the way!"
The Ye-tai general was a big man, heavy in the shoulders and thick in the chest, but Sanga was as much taller than he as Mihirakula was than Damodara. The Rajput drew himself up to his full towering height. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back, but it was obvious from the tension in Sanga's powerful arms that he was barely controlling his anger.
Damodara intervened quickly. He placed a slight, restraining hand on Sanga. To the Ye-tai general, he stated firmly: "The orders were mine, General Mihirakula." Damodara made his own gesture toward the mountains. "The Roman fieldworks here are too powerful. But," he added, overriding the Ye-tai's gathering splutter of protest, "my scouts tell me that we may find a way to the north."
Again, he overrode Mihirakula's protest. This time, saying with a cheerful smile: "The scouts think there will be opposition, of course. So I was thinking of using you and your men as my vanguard element in the next march."
The smile Damodara was bestowing on Mihirakula was positively a beam, now. "To clear the way for us, of course. So that we can finally be done with these damned mountains."
Mihirakula relaxed, a bit. He glanced at Sanga, once again, before replying to Damodara. But the glance had more of satisfaction in it than anger.
"Soon, do you think? My men are very restless."
Damodara shrugged. "Soon enough. Within a week, I imagine." He made a little, apologetic grimace. "Marching through these mountains, as you know, is not a quick business."
All apology and goodwill vanished. Damodara's next words were spoken in a tone of steel: "And now, General Mihirakula, you will carry out my commands. At once."
The Ye-tai commander knew that tone. For all his barbarous nature, Mihirakula was not a fool. He bowed his head, stiffly, and departed from the pavilion.
After he was gone, Sanga let out a short, angry grunt. "My Rajputs can lead—" he began, but Damodara waved him silent.
"I am well aware of that, Sanga. But the Ye-tai are getting restless." He gave Sanga a shrewd glance. "So are your Rajputs, for that matter, even if they control their impatience better."
Damodara pointed at the map. His finger made little wandering gestures, as if retracing the tortuous route of the past weeks. "Good soldiers grow impatient with this kind of endless maneuvering. Sooner or later, they will demand action. You know that as well as I do."
Grudgingly, Sanga nodded.
Damodara spread his hands. "So let the Ye-tai lead the way, for now. If there is a trap, they will spring it. To be frank, I'd rather see them bloodied than you."
It was plain enough, from the look on his face, that Sanga found his commander's cold-bloodedness distasteful. But Damodara took no offense. He simply chuckled.
"I am Malwa, Rana Sanga, not Rajput. Practical."
* * *
Two days later, Belisarius was studying a map spread across a table in his own field headquarters. All of his top commanders were joining him in the enterprise. Those included, in addition to Maurice and Vasudeva: Cyril, who had succeeded Agathius in command of the Greek cataphracts after Agathius had been crippled at the Battle of the Nehar Malka; and Bouzes and Coutzes, the two young Thracian brothers who commanded the Syrian contingents in Belisarius' army.
Abbu entered, pushing his way through the leather flaps which served as an entrance. The chief of Belisarius' Arab scouts did not wait for an invitation to speak before advancing to the center of the tent and giving his report.
The old bedouin did not give the map so much as a glance. Abbu was a stern traditionalist. Despite his deep (if unspoken) admiration for Belisarius, the Arab considered the map an alarming omen—either of the Roman general's early senility, or of his rapid descent into modern decadence.
"The Malwa are heading north," he announced, "toward that saddle pass I told you about. It is obvious they are expecting an ambush. They have their Ye-tai contingents leading the way." Abbu grunted approvingly. "He's no fool, that Malwa commander. He'll feed the barbarians into the fire—good riddance—before following through with his Rajputs."
"Before trying to follow through," said Cyril.
Abbu shook his head. The bedouin's countenance, always dour, grew positively gloomy. "They will succeed. The pass is too wide, and the slopes on either side not steep enough. The north slope is especially shallow. They will be able to use their numbers against us. It won't be easy, but they'll force their way through."
Cyril began to bridle at the Arab's easy assumption of defeat, but Belisarius intervened.
"That's just as well," he stated forcefully. "I want to steer them north. So we'll put up a stiff resistance at the pass itself, but withdraw before our men get mangled." He bent over, studying the map; then pointed with his finger.
"If this is accurate, once they get through the pass their easiest route will be to follow this small river to the northwest." He cocked an eye at Abbu. The Arab scowled fiercely, but said nothing—which was his way of admitting that the newfangled absurdity could not be faulted.
Belisarius kept his eye on Abbu. "And if I'm reading this map correctly," he added, "when we fall back and set our positions southwest of the pass, our fieldworks will be too strong for the Malwa to take any other direction."
Abbu's scowl deepened. But, again, he said nothing.
"If you don't want to hold the pass, general," asked Bouzes, frowning, "then why even put up a fight at all? Seems like a waste of good soldiers." The young Thracian did not bother to add: which is not your usual style. Like all of the men in that tent, he had become very familiar with Belisarius' tactical methods. One of those methods—a very important one—was to be sparing with his men's lives, whenever possible.
Belisarius shook his head. "I don't have any choice, Bouzes. I can't afford to make it too easy, not for commanders like Damodara and Sanga. If we fight like lions whenever they move south, but stand aside when they move north, they'll start to wonder why. Doesn't make sense. Strict military logic would be the other way around—I should be more than happy to steer them down the Zagros, toward Pars." He winced. "I do not want Sanga and Damodara spending much time contemplating my bad logic."
Maurice interrupted. His own expression did not exude any great happiness. "They're probably already doing that," he growled.
Belisarius heaved a sigh. "Yes, I'm sure they are. But as long as they don't think too much about the qanats, and don't know about the Kushans, I think we'll be all right."
He cast a quick glance at the helmet which Vasudeva had placed upon the table. As always, the Kushan had removed the detested monstrosity as soon as he entered the tent and was safe from spying eyes. Belisarius' expression resumed its usual calm serenity. He even managed a crooked smile.
"My plan is, after all," he said cheerfully, "a bit on the crazed side."
That announcement did not seem to bring any great cheer to the other men in the tent. But they did not protest—not, at least, beyond thinking private dark thoughts. Those men were all very familiar with Belisarius' tactical principles and methods. Many of those methods struck them as bizarre, but not the one which—always—stood at the very center.
Win the war. That's all that matters.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
Eon's regimental ceremony did not take place until days after the bombing of the Ta'akha Maryam. Initially, the prince had insisted on doing it at once. But calmer voices—older ones, at least—prevailed.
Foremost among those voices had been that of Wahsi, the commander of the regiment itself.
"There is no time now, King of Kings," he insisted.
"I am not the negusa nagast!" roared Eon. "I cannot be—not until I am accepted into the Dakuen sarwe!"
The prince—king, now; his father and brother's corpses had already been found—rose from his labors. Eon had worked through the night, along with his soldiers and most of Axum's populace, clearing away the rubble and debris. It was now mid-morning of the next day, and there was still much work to be done. The royal quarters themselves had been excavated, but the Malwa explosives had shattered well over a third of the great complex. Hundreds of corpses had been found, and as many survivors. The rescue workers could hear the faint moans of a few victims who were still alive, buried beneath the stones.
Wahsi placed a gentle hand on Eon's shoulder. "The Dakuen can wait, King."
The Dakuen commander gestured with his head, indicating the knot of soldiers standing just a few feet behind him. Those men were all of the officers of the regiment, other than the ones who were with Ezana in India. "None of us are concerned about the matter."
Hearing Wahsi's words, the regimental officers growled their agreement. Several of them glanced at the figure of Ousanas. The dawazz was just a few yards away, oblivious to the exchange. He was too busy pulling away stones.
Not even Eon failed to miss the obvious approval in those glances.
"There is no need," repeated Wahsi softly. Then, very softly, in words only Eon could hear: "No need, Eon. There is no question of the regiment's approval of Ousanas, and you."
Wahsi chuckled but, again, so softly that only Eon could hear. "They will have harsh words to say, of course, about the hunter's ridiculous philosophies, and will relish every detail of your childhood follies. But that is just tradition." He cast a glance at the distant figure of Antonina, who was directing her own soldiers in the rescue operation. All of the Roman troops had survived the explosion, and they had immediately pitched into the work. "They are especially looking forward to hearing about all the times Ousanas was forced to slap you silly, until you finally learned not to ogle the wife of Belisarius."
Eon managed a smile. It wasn't much of a smile, but Wahsi was still relieved to see it. For just a fleeting instant, Eon's was the face of a young man again. For hours, since the bodies of Zaia and Tarabai had been found, his face had been that of an old man broken with grief. Zaia had been his concubine since Eon was thirteen years old. If the passion had faded, some, from their relationship, he had still loved her deeply. And he had been almost besotted with Tarabai, since he met her in India.
"You lost everyone yesterday, Eon," said Wahsi gently. "Your women and your only child, along with your father and brother. No man in the world—prince or peasant, it matters not—can think clearly at such a time, or deal with anything beyond his grief. So let us simply concentrate on the work before us. There will be time, soon enough, for the ceremony."
He stepped back a pace, and raised his voice slightly.
"For the moment, you are the negusa nagast. That is the opinion of the Dakuen sarwe, as well as the Lazen and the Hadefan."
Wahsi gestured toward two of the officers in the cluster. They were named Aphilas and Saizana and were, respectively, the commanders of the Lazen and the Hadefan sarwe. The Lazen had been the regiment of Kaleb; the Hadefan, that of Wa'zeb. Along with the Dakuen, they constituted the current royal regiments of the Ethiopian army.
"That is correct, King," said Aphilas. Saizana nodded, adding: "And we have spoken to all of the other sarawit. The soldiers are of one mind on this matter. All of them."
Then, almost in a snarl: "We will have our vengeance on Malwa. And you are the King of Kings who will lead us to it."
Eon wiped his face with a hand, smearing dirt and rock dust. It was a weary, weary gesture. "How is Garmat?" he asked. "Will he survive?"
Wahsi broke into a smile of his own. And not a thin one, either.
"Be serious, King! If twenty great stones falling on that old Arab brigand couldn't kill him outright, do you really think he would die of lingering wounds?"
One of the officers—an older man, well into his fifties—laughed. "I remember when we were chasing that bandit through the desert, years ago. Never could catch him, no matter how many ambushes we laid."
Another officer, also middle-aged, grinned. "Personally, I think he's malingering. Lazy half-breed! Just doesn't want to haul stones."
A little laugh swept the small crowd. Even Eon joined in the humor, for a moment.
Finding Garmat had been the only brightness in a long, dark night. The adviser had apparently been standing some distance away from the throne, when the bombs went off. The Malwa saboteurs, of course, had set the main charges in the walls near the throne itself. When the explosion took place, King Kaleb and all of the people in his immediate vicinity—including his oldest son and heir, Wa'zeb—had been pulverized by the great blast. The rest of the people in the throne room, except for Garmat and a servant, had been crushed by the falling roof and walls. But, by a freak of fortune, some of the Ta'akha Maryam's great stones, in their collapse, had formed a sort of shelter for Garmat and the servant. The servant, in fact, had been almost unharmed, other than being frightened half out of her wits. Garmat's injuries had been severe—several broken bones, along with innumerable bruises and lacerations—but his life had been spared.
The news of Garmat's survival, as it spread, brought cheer to everyone—especially to the sarwen. Partly, that was due to fondness for the man himself. King Kaleb's rule had been good, so far as the people of Axum were concerned. Much of that they ascribed to the sage, and usually gentle, advice of Garmat.
But, mostly, the news brought cheer to the soldiers laboring in the wreckage because it stirred flame in their fierce hearts. The sarwen had not forgotten that Garmat was the same wily half-Arab bandit who had eluded the Ethiopian army for years—until, finally, he had accepted their offer to become Kaleb's own dawazz, when Eon's father was still a boy. After Kaleb succeeded to the throne, Garmat had been his chief adviser for years, until Kaleb assigned him to serve Eon in the same post.
Gentle, the man Garmat had often been, in his advice to Ethiopian royalty. But always shrewd, always cunning, and—when he felt it necessary—as savage and pitiless as the Arabian desert which had shaped him. More than one Axumite soldier, hearing the news that Garmat still lived, silently repeated Antonina's own thought.
Bad move, Malwa. Bad news, you bastards. You'd have done better to toy with a scorpion, after tweaking its tail.
* * *
Ten days after the explosion, the regimental ceremony was finally held. The fact that the Ta'akha Maryam was a ruin did not impede the proceedings. By tradition, the ceremony was never held in the royal compound. It was always held on the training fields where, Ethiopians never forgot, the real power of Axum was created. The army's training fields were located about half a mile west by northwest of the royal compound, at the base of one of the two great hills which overlooked the capital. This hill, which formed the eastern boundary of Axum, was called the Mai Qoho. The one on the north, the Bieta Giyorghis.
Standing to one side, in the group of witnesses who were not members of the regiments, Antonina surveyed the scene. She was impressed, more than anything, by the open—almost barren—nature of the grounds. Other than the row of open-air thrones on the north end of the field, butted against the slope of the Mai Qoho, the training grounds were completely bare except for a handful of wooden spear targets.
That was the Axumite way of looking at things, she realized. When she first arrived in Ethiopia, Antonina had not noticed the absence of fortifications until the officers of her army began pointing it out to her. They had been quite impressed. None of Axum's towns—not even the capital city of Axum itself, nor the great seaport of Adulis—were surrounded by walls. Not one of the many villages through which they passed, on their long trek upcountry, had so much as a small fortress to protect it.
The ancient Athenians had placed their faith in the wooden walls of their ships. The Axumites, in the spears of their regiments.
That was not from lack of ability. Axumites were quite capable of massive stonework. The Ta'akha Maryam and, especially, the glorious cathedral of Maryam Tsion, were testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of Ethiopian masons. But those edifices were for pomp, display, ceremony, and worship. They had nothing to do with power.
Power came from the regiments. They, and they alone.
She brought her eyes back to the thrones at the north end of the field. Those, too, she thought, testified to the same approach.
The structures were identical, and quite small—nothing like Kaleb's great throne in the Ta'akha Maryam had been. Each throne rested on a granite slab not more than eight feet square. A smaller slab atop the first provided the base for the throne itself, which was a solid but simple wooden chair. Four slender stone columns, rising from each corner of the upper slab, supported a canopy which sheltered the occupant from the sun. A gold cross—very finely made; Axumite metalsmiths were as skilled as their masons—surmounted the entire structure, but the canopy itself was made of nothing fancier than woven grass.
Those thrones were for the commanders of the Axumite sarawit, the regiments into which their army was organized. It was typical of Axumite notions of rule that those commanders, taken as a collective group, were called "nagast"—kings.
None of them, as individuals, enjoyed that title. Unlike the vassal states of the Ethiopian Empire, whose rulers retained their royal trappings (so long, of course, as they acknowledged the suzerainty of the King of Kings), the regimental commanders derived their authority entirely from the army itself. But, in the real world, the attitude of the regiments was considered far more important than the vagaries of sub-kings.
Only three of the thrones were occupied, this day. Even that was unusual. According to tradition, one man alone should be sitting on a throne today—the commander of the Dakuen sarwe. Even the king himself, though he was not present, was required to vacate his throne in the royal compound until his son's regiment had passed its judgement.
But Wahsi had bent the custom, today. With the murder of Kaleb and Wa'zeb, the Lazen and the Hadefan sarawit had lost their own royalty. Wahsi had offered, and they had accepted, to share the prince. For the first time in Axumite history, a man would ascend the throne with the approval—and the name—of three regiments.
The ceremony was beginning. Eon was taking his own place, standing alone to one side. At the very front, before the assembled regiments themselves, Ousanas was being brought forward.
Antonina struggled mightily against a giggle. The dawazz was positively festooned with chains and manacles. The servile devices looked about as appropriate on him as ribbons on a lion.
And probably, she thought, eyeing Ousanas' tall and heavily muscled figure, just about as effective, if he decides he's tired of the rigmarole. Belisarius had told her once, after returning from India, that Ousanas was probably the strongest man he had ever met in his life. Even stronger, he suspected, than the giant Anastasius.
But Antonina's humor faded quickly enough. The chains and manacles might seem absurd, but there was nothing absurd-looking about the squad of soldiers who surrounded Ousanas. There were eight of them, and all were holding weapons in their hands. These were not the usual stabbing spears and heavy, cleaverlike swords with which Axumites went into battle, however. The soldiers were holding clubs, inlaid with iron studs.
Weapons to beat a slave who had failed in his duty. Beat him to death, easily enough, if he had failed badly.
Antonina, staring at those cruel implements, had no trouble with giggles. Not any longer. She knew the clubs were not ornaments. It had happened, over the past two centuries, that a regiment had beaten a dawazz savagely—fatally, on two occasions—because they judged that he had failed in his duty to educate his prince.
She tore her eyes away, and looked at Eon. The sight of the young royal's upright and square-shouldered stance reassured her. The calmness in his face, even more so.
Not today. Not that prince.
* * *
A minute later, the ceremony itself got underway.
Five minutes later, Antonina was fighting giggles again.
Ten minutes later, she stopped trying altogether, and joined in the general hilarity. She spent most of the day, in fact, laughing along with everyone else.
Antonina had forgotten. There was a serious core—deadly serious—at the heart of that ceremony. But Axumites, when all was said and done, did not hold solemnity in any great esteem. The best armor against self-aggrandizement and pomposity, after all, is always humor.
By and large, the ceremony proceeded chronologically. Eon's prepubescent follies were dismissed quickly enough. Everyone wanted to get to the next stage.
Antonina learned, then, the reason for the other women standing in her group. All of them, it seemed—except for three old crones whose testimony had to do with Eon's pranks in the royal kitchen—had been seduced by the young prince at one time or another.
It was quite a crowd. Antonina was rather impressed.
But she was more impressed, much more, by what followed. Most of the women were—or had been—servants in the royal compound, while Eon was in his teens. The kind of women, in every land, who were the natural prey of young male nobles feeling the first urges of budding sexuality.
But they were not there, it developed, to press any grievances against the prince. They simply recounted—either volunteering the information, or responding to one of the many questions shouted out by soldiers in the ranks—the ways in which Eon had finagled his way into their beds. Their statements were frank, open, usually jocular—and often at the expense of Eon himself. It became clear soon enough that, especially in his earlier years, the prince's skill at working his way into their beds had not been matched by any great skill once he got there.
Several of the tales were downright hilarious. Antonina was especially entertained by the account of a plump, older woman who had once been a cook in the royal compound. The woman—she must have been a good twenty years older than Eon—recounted in lavish detail her patient, frustrated attempts to instruct a headstrong fifteen-year-old prince in the basic principles of female anatomy. Not with any great success, it seemed, until she discovered the secret: slap the fool boy on his head!
That produced a gale of laughter, sweeping across the entire training field. The soldiers guarding Ousanas grinned at him with approval.
Unfortunately, Antonina could not follow all of the woman's tale. Her own knowledge of Ge'ez, the Axumite language, was still very poor. Menander, one of the cataphracts who had accompanied Belisarius on his trip to India, was serving as her translator. He had become good friends with Wahsi and Ezana during that long journey, and was quite fluent in the language.
Alas, Menander was also young, and he still bore the imprint of his conservative village upbringing. So, whenever the story got especially juicy, he fumbled and stumbled and—Antonina had no doubt—was guilty of excessive abridgement.
"And what was that about?" Antonina demanded, once the roaring laughter had subsided a bit.
Menander fumbled and stumbled. Abridged.
"Ah," said Antonina, nodding her head wisely. "Yes, of course. It is difficult to teach a thick-headed male how to use his tongue for something more useful than boasting."
But, for all its salacious humor, there was still a deadly serious purpose to the business. As she listened to the questions which the soldiers asked of the women, Antonina understood that they were probing for something quite important.
The soldiers were not concerned—not in the least—with Eon's amatory habits. Young lads, of any rank in society, are always randy. A prince, because of his prestigious position and the self-confidence which that position gives him, will be much more successful than most teenage boys in the art of seduction. That much was inevitable, natural, and no concern of the soldiers. Rather the contrary, in fact—no one wanted a shy, self-effacing king in charge of a country, especially one who might have difficulty perpetuating the royal line.
And if a particular prince proved to be particularly adept at the skill—as Eon obviously was—so much the better. A glib tongue was a useful attribute for a good monarch.
What the soldiers were concerned about were Eon's methods. Charm is one thing; bullying is another. If Eon could use his prestige as a prince to sweet-talk his way into a hundred servant girls' beds, that was a source for nothing beyond amusement. But if he used that royal position in order to threaten his way to the goal, that was regimental business. A prince who would rape his servants would not hesitate, as a king, to rape his country.
But there was no trace of that in Eon's past. The questioning of the women went on as long as it did, Antonina decided, simply because everyone was enjoying the affair. Everyone except Eon, at least, although Antonina noticed that the prince himself was not reluctant to join in the laughter, even when he was the butt of the joke.
Soon enough, it was Antonina's turn to be a witness. Wahsi led the questioning, as he had since the beginning of the ceremony.
It did not take him more than a minute to clarify the issue involving Antonina. A randy prince was fine, so long as he could keep it under control. But a prince who would jeopardize important political affairs because of his unbridled lust would make a disastrous ruler.
Here, Wahsi glowered fiercely, leaning forward in his throne.
Isn't it true that during his trip to Constantinople, the fool boy prince could not stop ogling the wife of Rome's greatest general?
Antonina was not even tempted to deny the charge. Wahsi himself, along with Ezana, had been Eon's bodyguards during that time. But she managed to toss the thing off easily enough.
Well, yes, I suppose, for the first few days. But I was not offended. It's not as if I'm unaccustomed to it, after all—
Here, she drew herself erect, swelling her chest a bit. Antonina had deliberately worn the most revealing costume she had brought with her on this expedition. The outfit was not really very provocative, in all truth—nothing like the costumes she had worn in her days as a courtesan—but it didn't need to be. With her figure, she could attract men wearing a sackcloth.
An appreciative murmur rose from the ranks of the watching soldiers.
—and Eon was perfectly courteous in his actual conduct. A most proper young prince.
So much for that.
Menander was summoned next. The questioning here had no sexual overtone, but the issue was the same. Wasn't it true, during Eon's trip, that he behaved overbearingly toward Roman soldiers? Mention was made, in particular, of an arm-wrestling match in which the arrogant prince could not resist showing off his grotesque musculature.
Menander did not handle the thing as smoothly as Antonina. But, in its own way, his stubborn and vehement—almost resentful—defense of Eon was even more effective. No one watching the young foreign soldier, stammering his admiration for the prince, could fail to be impressed with the way in which Eon had obviously won over his allies, whatever might have been his initial blunders. And, again, laughter swept the field when Menander described Ousanas' methods of correcting Eon's behavior.
The rest of the ceremony was much of a piece. Every aspect of Eon's character was probed—with humor, more often than not, but relentlessly nonetheless. The dawazz was on trial, not the prince. But the real issue was Eon's suitability to assume the throne.
By mid-afternoon, the question was settled. In truth, Antonina realized, it had never really been at issue. The soldiers in the gathered regiments had followed the tradition scrupulously, but they had long since made their own private judgements. And it was not difficult for her, watching those soldiers, to come to the conclusion that they would not only accept Eon as their monarch, but were fiercely looking forward to his rule.
Bad move, Malwa.
The ceremony ended. The shackles were removed from Ousanas. Following custom, Wahsi offered the former dawazz a choice. He could return to his homeland, laden with riches; or he could choose to stay in Axum, where the new king would doubtless find a suitable post for his talents.
Ousanas' answer brought the last roar of laughter to the field—and a roar of fury with it.
"I shall stay here," he announced. "My own folk are too practical. Here, I will have great opportunity to contemplate philosophy. Especially the dialectic, which teaches us that all things are a contradiction."
He gave Eon a stony look. "As the fool boy king will prove soon enough."
When the laughter faded, he said: "But the dialectic also teaches us that all things change. As the Malwa are about to discover—even quicker!"
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The following day, Eon began his duties as negusa nagast. By tradition, he would have spent the evening carousing with his soldiers and the townsfolk of Axum. But Eon had been in no mood for festivity. His personal losses were too recent, and too deeply felt. His soldiers understood, and did not begrudge their new King of Kings spending the night in the cathedral of Maryam Tsion, praying for the souls of his family.
But by the morning, Eon had assumed his post. Whatever grief he still felt—and no one doubted it was there—he kept it locked away. The struggle against Malwa took center stage.
As it must. Just as Eon had predicted, the Malwa had struck again.
* * *
"Abreha is leading the rebellion," stated Wahsi. Sitting on his little stool, the Dakuen commander planted his hands on his knees. "And apparently the entire Metin sarwe has decided to accept their commander's claim to being the new King of Kings."
"The Falha sarwe has done the same," chimed in Saizana. The commander of the Hadefan leaned forward on his own stool, adding: "But they will only support Abreha as the king of Yemen. According to our spy, at least, they will not support Abreha if he tries to cross the Red Sea and invade Ethiopia itself."
Garmat, lying on an elevated pallet near Eon, raised his head. "What of the Halen?" he whispered. The old adviser was on his way to recovery, but he was still very weak. "And do we know what happened to Sumyafa Ashwa?"
"The Halen regiment," replied Saizana, "is apparently torn by dissension. They are forted up in Marib, and—so far—seem to be adopting a neutral stance." He shrugged. "As for Sumyafa Ashwa, his fate is unknown at the moment. But I think we must assume he was murdered. The viceroy was resident in Sana, after all, which is the hotbed of the rebellion."
Garmat lowered his head. For a few seconds, his eyes closed. There was no visible expression on his face, but Antonina, seated next to him, thought that Garmat was allowing himself a moment of sorrow. She knew that Sumyafa Ashwa had been a close friend of Garmat's for many years. It had been at Garmat's recommendation, after Axum conquered southern Arabia, that King Kaleb had appointed the Christian Arab as viceroy of Yemen.
Others in the room apparently shared her assessment. No one spoke, allowing Garmat to grieve in peace.
Antonina used that moment to inspect the room, and its occupants. Eon had begun the session by asking her to present the Roman Empire's proposals. Preoccupied with that task, and with the discussion which had immediately followed concerning the rebellion in Arabia, she had not had the opportunity to assess the new circle of royal advisers.
It was a small circle. Except for Garmat, none of the Ethiopian kingdom's top advisers had survived the bombing. The royal council was being held in the only audience chamber of the Ta'akha Maryam which had escaped unscathed. The room was quite large. Even the heavy wooden columns which were scattered throughout, supporting the stone ceiling, could not disguise the fact that most of the chamber was empty.
Antonina's eyes, scanning the room, fell on one of the windows which were situated along the eastern wall. The window was sturdily built, in the square stone-and-timber style favored by Axumites. There was no glass in that window. The cool highland breeze came into the chamber through the stone crosses which were the window's structure and decoration. Antonina's view of the Mai Qoho and the mountains looming beyond was filtered through the symbol of the Christian faith.
She found strength in that symbol, even more than the majesty of the mountains, and turned her eyes back to the circle of advisers.
Small, yes. But rich otherwise.
Garmat was there, after all. And all of the regimental commanders except the three who had been stationed in Yemen. And—most important of all, Antonina suspected—Ousanas was there.
Her gaze came to rest on Ousanas. In times past, the former dawazz would have squatted on a stool behind the prince. Ready to chastise him, when necessary, but otherwise keeping his place.
Ousanas was no longer a slave, however. He had no title, now. But Antonina did not miss the significance of his position in the circle. Axumites, like Romans, reserved the place by a monarch's right hand as the place of ultimate respect. And there Ousanas sat—on a cushion, not a stool, in that peculiar cross-legged position which he had learned in India. "The lotus," he called it, claiming that it was an aid to meditation.
A bizarre man, in so many ways, given to fancies and philosophies. But Antonina was reassured by his presence.
Eon cleared his throat, indicating a resumption of the discussion. The young king squared his shoulders against the wooden back of the massive chair which was serving him as a throne, and turned to Antonina.
"We will have to deal with this rebellion first," he stated. "You know I agree with Rome's proposals, but I cannot—"
Eon spoke in Ge'ez, but Antonina did not wait for Menander's interpretation. She understood enough of the words, and she had been expecting the sense of them anyway.
Waving her hand in a gesture of agreement, she said: "Of course, Your Majesty. Axum must set its own house in order, before it can even think of striking at Malwa. Besides, this rebellion was certainly inspired and organized by the Malwa espionage service. It is no accident that the rebellion broke out the very same day that the Ta'akha Maryam was destroyed. There is no way the rebels in Yemen could have known about the bombing, unless they had been told in advance. It takes at least a week to travel from Axum to Sana, using the fastest horses and ships."
After Menander interpreted, she continued. "I do not think the Malwa suspect my husband's strategy. But they had good reason to strike at Axum, anyway. Ethiopians played a key role in rescuing the Empress Shakuntala and setting in motion the rebellion in the Deccan. The Malwa obviously decided to pay Axum back in the same coin—and throw in regicide for good measure."
She nodded at Eon. "So far as I am concerned, crushing the rebellion in Yemen is part of the war against Malwa. My own army is therefore at your disposal, for that purpose."
One of the officers—Gabra, commander of the Damawa regiment—began to protest. "This is an internal affair. I am not sure that using foreign troops wouldn't make the problem worse. The Halen regiment has stayed neutral, this far. If we use—"
Ousanas interrupted him. "Be damned to all that! Abreha and his rebels are using foreign troops, aren't they? According to our spy"—he glanced to a corner of the room, where the man recently arrived from Sana was standing—"Abreha is surrounded by half a dozen Malwa agents, everywhere he goes. He is publicly boasting that Malwa military units will soon be arriving in Yemen."
The hunter slapped the floor. "And most of his forces now are not Axumite! Abreha's regiment and the Falha—put together—are less than two thousand men." His eyes swept the room, scanning the row of regimental commanders seated before the negusa nagast. "On their own, they would stand no chance. So—according to our spy—most of Abreha's forces consist of Arabs. Bedouin tribesmen from the interior."
Again, he looked in the corner. The regimental commanders twisted their heads, following his gaze. Seeing all eyes upon him, the spy stepped forward a few paces.
"Most of them," the man stated. "Some of the Arabs of the towns have declared for Abreha. But most of his support comes from the bedouin."
Garmat levered himself up. "What about the Quraysh?" he asked.
The spy made a fluttering motion with his hand. "So far, Mecca has remained loyal. That could change, of course—will change, soon enough—if the rebellion is not crushed."
Hearing this news, several of the commanders grunted. The sounds were inarticulate, but full of import.
Antonina understood the meaning. The great Arab tribes centered in Mecca and the other towns of western Arabia—among which the Quraysh were dominant—were traders, not bedouin. It was they, not the nomads of the interior, who chafed most under Ethiopian rule. The bedouin of the interior did not really care who ruled fertile Yemen. Those nomads who had given their allegiance to Abreha would have done so for immediate bribes—and the hope of possible loot, if Abreha set out to conquer Ethiopia.
But the commercial interests of the tribes in Mecca often clashed with those of Axum. Axum's control of the great trading route which passed through the Red Sea rested on its navy's ability to suppress piracy. The Quraysh, on the other hand, depended on piracy. It was not that they themselves were pirates—although the accusation was often made—so much as the simple fact that no one used their more expensive camel caravans unless the sea route was infested by pirates.
For years now, since Axum under King Kaleb had conquered southern Arabia and clamped the iron grip of its navy on the Red Sea, the traders of Mecca had suffered greatly. By all logic, it should have been they—not bedouin nomads—who were flocking to Abreha's banner. The fact that they weren't—
"They've always been smart," said Garmat, now sitting erect. For the first time since the session began, the old adviser's face was animated and eager. He seemed like the Garmat of old, and Antonina was not the only one in the room who felt their spirits rise.
"Mecca is the key," said Garmat emphatically. "Mecca and Yathrib, and the whole of the Hijaz. I have said this before, and I will say it now again: control of Yemen depends on our control of the western coast."
Garmat stuck out his thumb. "We will always have the allegiance of the Arab townsmen of Yemen. Most of them, at least. Those people are farmers. They want stability and order, and no power in this region can provide it as well as Axum. True, they chafe a bit, because we are foreign. But not much, because Ethiopians are not very foreign, and—" He made a quick little flip of his hands, indicating himself. A small laugh rose in the chamber. Garmat was the product of a liaison between an Arab woman and an Ethiopian trader.
The adviser grinned. "I am by no means the only half-breed in Arabia—or in Axum." The assembled commanders grinned back. From their appearance, at least two of them had obvious Arab ancestry. Antonina, knowing of the long and intimate contact between Ethiopia and Arabia, suspected that most Axumites had Arabs perched in their family trees. Whole flocks of Arabs, more often than not.
Garmat continued. "The towns of Yemen will support us, given a choice. The bedouin mean nothing. They will bow to whoever has the power, and will not rebel so long as their customs are not meddled with." He shrugged. "Of course, their allegiance is casual. If there is unrest, they will look to take advantage. But so long as Axum is firmly in control of Yemen—and the Hijaz, the western coast—the bedouin will tend to their own affairs."
He leaned forward, looking intently at Eon.
"I said this to your father, and I will say it to you. Mecca is the key. Weld the Hijaz to Ethiopian rule, and you will hold all of southern Arabia in a solid grip. But so long as the Quraysh are discontent, your rule is based on sand."
For a moment, his eyes closed. "I was never quite able to convince Kaleb. He did not disagree, exactly, but—" The eyes reopened. "He was never willing to pay the price."
Garmat's tone hardened. "The price must be paid. Now."
A murmur of protest began to rise from the military officers. Garmat eyed them stonily.
Antonina hesitated. She agreed with Garmat, but was unsure if she was in position to intervene in what was a delicate matter for Ethiopians.
Her hesitation was made moot, almost at once.
"What is your advice, Ousanas?" asked Eon.
The former dawazz spoke forcefully. "Pay the price. Immediately—and in full. I agree completely with Garmat."
The murmur of protest was swelling. Ousanas fixed the assembled regimental commanders with his eyes. If the gaze of Garmat was stony, his was that of a basilisk.
"These sounds of protest you hear, King of Kings," said Ousanas, indicating the officers with an accusing finger, "are the sounds of petty greed. Nothing more."
The officers—most of them, at least; not Wahsi—glared at Ousanas. The former dawazz glared back. And made instantly clear, whatever his official status was now, that a former slave was not hesitant to clash with army commanders.
"Stupid boys," he sneered, "coveting their stupid little marbles, and unwilling to share them with the other boys on the playground."
Antonina took a deep breath. She understood what lay beneath this quarrel. She had been well-briefed by her own excellent advisers, one of whom—the Armenian cataphract Ashot—was very familiar with Ethiopia and the complexities of Red Sea trade and politics.
Unlike Rome, Axum made no distinction between its army and its navy. Each of the regiments had its own fleet of ships, which were manned by its soldiers. For all that they were highland-born-and-bred, Ethiopia's soldiers were as much seamen as they were infantry. Seamen—and traders. Whenever the navy was not at war, or not on patrol, the regiments' ships carried trade goods. And took a percentage of the profits from civilian ships, on the grounds that their suppression of piracy was all that enabled civilian merchants to prosper.
Ethiopia's army, in short, had an immediate and vested interest in maintaining the supremacy of seaborne trade in the Red Sea—which was precisely the condition that squeezed the camel caravans of the Quraysh and the other trading tribes of Mecca and the Hijaz.
Antonina realized that she was holding her breath. This quarrel had the potential to erupt into a bitter brawl which could be disastrous for her plans. Belisarius' strategy depended on the support of a strong—and united—Axum.
When Eon spoke, his voice was low. Like a lion, growling at cubs.
Startled by the majesty in that voice, the eyes of the officers left Ousanas and settled on the negusa nagast.
Eon sat in his throne, almost unmoving. In the time which followed, he used no grand gestures to give emphasis to his words. It was quite unnecessary. The words themselves seemed carved in stone.
"Do not forget, commanders of the sarawit, why Ethiopia is ruled by me—and not you. You are the nagast, but I am the negusa nagast. King of Kings. Our ancestors realized that kings are prone to folly, and thus they instituted the dawazz and required the approval of the regiments before a prince could become a king. But they also realized that officers—nobles of all stripes—are prone to a different folly. They forget to think of the kingdom, and think only of their own little piece of the realm. And thus the negusa nagast was set above you."
He stared down at them, like a sphinx. "You think only of your profits, as if they were the sum of things. But I was at Ranapur, where Malwa butchered two hundred thousand people. Flayed them, fed them to animals, trampled them under elephants, tore them apart with oxen."
He was stone, stone: "Two hundred thousand. Can you comprehend that number—you coin-counters? All the towns in Ethiopia and Arabia, put together, do not contain half so many people. You think Malwa will not do the same to Axum and Sana? Do you?"
Finally, he moved. A finger lifted from the arm of the throne and pointed to Ousanas.
"My dawazz, at my command, took the Talisman of God in his own hand and saw Axum's future, if Malwa is not crushed. By the time of his death in battle, we were nothing but refugees fleeing into central Africa—and with no great hope of finding a haven there."
He leaned forward, just a bit. "What use will your treasure be in central Africa, merchants? Do you plan to buy the finest grass huts, and sleep on the best dirt?"
Eon stared at his commanders. After a moment, they lowered their heads.
All but Wahsi, who growled: "I was at Ranapur, also. I did not try to count Malwa's murders. I could not even count the rivers of blood."
Eon let the silence last for a full minute, before he spoke again. Stone became iron.
"There will be no quarrel over this matter. I will tolerate no dispute. I will order the immediate execution of any officer who so much as utters a word of protest in private conversation with his soldiers. I will perch the heads of every commander of every regiment on the crosses of their thrones in the training field. If you doubt me—if you think the sarwen will follow you rather than the negusa nagast—then test me now. Before I smash rebellion in Arabia, I will smash it here."
Silence. Eon let it stand, for two full minutes.
Iron became steel.
"My commands are as follows. We will send a delegation to Mecca immediately, riding the fastest horses in Axum and taking the fastest ship in Adulis. If Garmat is strong enough for the journey, he will lead the expedition. If he is not—"
"I am well enough, King of Kings," said Garmat.
Eon nodded; continued: "Our delegation will meet with the leaders of the Quraysh and all the other tribes of the Hijaz. They will offer the following. Henceforth, the tribes will be entitled to a share of the profits from the seaborne trade. They will also be granted access to all caravan trade anywhere in the realm of Axum—here in Ethiopia as well as in Arabia. And finally—"
The young king took a little breath of his own. For just a second, a shadow seemed to cross his face.
"The delegation will offer marriage to the negusa nagast—to me—for one of their princesses. Whichever one they select. The blood of Arabia will henceforth flow into Axum's ruling dynasty."
Eon smiled, finally. It was a small, wan smile. "Legally, and officially. It has already flowed into it often enough otherwise."
Antonina was not fooled by that smile. She understood how little Eon cared, so soon after the death of Tarabai and Zaia, to even think of marriage. But the young king, here also, was showing that he could put the needs of his kingdom first.
"Negusa nagast," she murmured, under her breath.
Or so she thought. Perhaps she spoke louder than she intended, because the words were almost instantly echoed by others in the room. By all in the room, within seconds.
"Negusa nagast," repeated the regimental commanders. The two words, alone, were the token of their submission.
Ethiopia's new King of Kings had established his rule. In what mattered, now, not in the formalities of ritual and custom. The regiments had raised him to the throne, but he had shown that he could break them to his will.
At first, as she carefully studied the faces of the commanders of the sarawit, Antonina was surprised that she could see no signs of resentment. To the contrary—for all their impassivity, she was sure she detected an underlying sense of satisfaction in those hard, black faces.
But, after a time, she realized that she had misunderstood those men. Traders and merchants they might be, in some part of their lives. But at the heart of those lives lay spears, not coins. When all was said and done, those warriors counted victory as the greatest treasure of all. And, like all such men, they knew that triumph was impossible without sureness of command.
Sureness of which they had just been given evidence. With their own heads offered, if need be, as the proof.
There was no need. In the hours which followed, as the session relaxed and delved into the specifics of war, and campaigns, and negotiations, and trade privileges, Antonina witnessed the forging of Ethiopia's new leadership. It centered on Eon, of course; but Ousanas was there also, and Garmat and Wahsi, and, by the end of the day, every single commander of the sarawit except those in rebellion in Arabia.
Watching the easy confidence with which those men planned their next campaign—participating in it fully, in fact, for her own forces were integral to the plans—Antonina found herself, again and again, forced to suppress an urge to giggle.
Bad move, Malwa. Oh—bad, bad move.
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Spring, 532 A.D.
Raghunath Rao finished his bowl of rice and set it down on the stone floor of the rampart. Still squatting on his heels, he leaned back against the outer wall. His head, resting against the rough stones, was only inches from one of the open embrasures in the crenellated fortification. The breeze coming through the gap in the wall helped to ease the heat. It was the middle of garam, India's dry season, and the land was like an oven.
Rao exuded satisfaction. "It's nice to get rice for a change," he commented. "I get sick of millet."
Squatting next to him, Maloji nodded cheerfully. "We should have enough for several days, too. That was a big shipment smuggled in from the coast."
Rao turned his head, peering through the embrasure at the distant lines of the Malwa besieging Deogiri. "Was there any trouble?"
Maloji grinned. "Not the least." He jerked his head toward the Malwa. "Half of those wretches, by now, are simply trying to stay alive. The Vile One isn't sending out many patrols any longer, and most of those keep their eyes closed. We let them pass unmolested, they don't see anything. That's the unspoken agreement."
Rao smiled. His eyes scanned the enemy trenches and fieldworks. That was simply habit. The Malwa besiegers were not trying to advance their lines any longer. They were simply waiting for the siege guns to arrive and break Deogiri's huge walls.
The walls of Deogiri had shrugged off Venandakatra's light field artillery, and they had been the doom of thousands of Malwa soldiers. The enemy had not tried to assault the city for weeks, now. Not even Venandakatra, who cared as much for the lives of common soldiers as he did for insects, would order any more charges.
Maloji continued. "If the Rajputs were still here, of course, we'd have a problem. But they've all been sent north. Our spies in Bharakuccha say the Malwa are having nothing but grief with the Romans in Persia." He spit on the floor. "Not even the Vile One's Ye-tai can force the regular rabble to conduct serious patrols any longer."
Both men fell silent, for several minutes. Then, clearing his throat, Maloji spoke again.
"Have you received word from the empress?"
Rao nodded. "Yes. A letter arrived yesterday. But she said nothing concerning the siege guns. I didn't expect her to. If Kungas was able to convince her of our plan, she would not send any message to us. For fear of interception. The plan can only succeed if absolute secrecy is maintained."
Maloji hesitated, then scowled. "I still don't like it. How can you trust that man so much? He betrayed Malwa once. Why would he not betray us? Everything depends on him, and his fellow traitors."
Rao's eyes left the enemy and settled on Maloji. His expression was utterly serene.
"Words, Maloji. Those are just words. The veil of illusion. How can the man be accused of betraying Malwa, when he never gave his loyalty to them in the first place? He was born into their world, he did not choose it freely."
"He worked for them," countered Maloji stubbornly. "All the Kushans did."
Rao smiled. "Tell me, Maloji. Did you ever catch wild animals—cubs—when you were a boy, and keep them in a pen?" His friend and subordinate nodded. "Did they escape?"
Maloji chuckled. "The mongoose did."
Rao nodded. "And then? Did you denounce the mongoose for a traitor?"
Maloji laughed. After a moment, he made a little gesture with his hand, opening the palm. It was not the first time in his life he had made that gesture, nor, he knew, would it be the last. The student, acknowledging the master.
Rao's eyes grew slightly unfocused. "I know that man, Maloji. Better, perhaps, than I know any other man alive. I spent weeks studying him, outside the walls of the Vile One's palace, while he was still Shakuntala's captor. My enemy, he was then. I hated him with a pure fury. But I never misunderstood him."
Rao rolled his shoulders against the stone wall, pointing to the south.
"I will never forget the day I saw Kungas coming through that gate, bringing word from the empress that she had taken Suppara. I fell to my knees, I was so stunned. I knew Belisarius must have found Indian allies, to smuggle Shakuntala out of captivity, but I had no idea it was him."
Rao's eyes closed, as he savored the memory.
"On my knees. He came up to me and extended his hand, but I refused the offer. I stayed on my knees for several minutes, not because I was still shocked, but because I was praying."
He opened his eyes and stared at the blinding sky of India. "I understood, then—I knew—that God has not forsaken us. I knew the asura was doomed."
He brought down his eyes to meet those of his friend. "Trust me in this, Maloji. If the thing can be done, Kungas will do it."
* * *
Silence reigned for several minutes. Then, with a little shake of his head, Rao spoke again. His voice was perhaps a bit harsh.
"The empress wrote the letter to ask for my advice. The Cholas have offered marriage to her. The eldest son of the dynasty."
Maloji studied Rao intently. "And what did you say?"
Rao flexed his hands. He spent a few seconds examining the opening and closing fingers, as if they were objects of great fascination.
"I urged her to accept," he said forcefully. "The Cholas are the most powerful independent kingdom of south India. Their proposal was full of quibbles, of course, but they are still offering a genuine alliance. A marriage between Shakuntala and the Cholas would strengthen us like no other. I am in full agreement with Dadaji Holkar on that matter, and I told her so very clearly."
Maloji looked away. "That must have been a difficult letter for you to write," he said softly.
Rao's eyes widened. "Why?"
Maloji snorted. A moment later, he brought his gaze back to Rao. It was a sad gaze.
"Old friend, you cannot fool me. Others, perhaps. But not me."
He said nothing else. For a moment, Rao tried to meet Maloji's level gaze with one of his own. But only for a moment.
"It is dharma, Maloji," he murmured, studying his flexing fingers. "I have lived my life by duty, and discipline. And so has—"
He took a deep, almost shuddering breath. A faint sheen of moisture came to his eyes.
"And so has she." Another breath—he made no attempt to control the shudder, now—and he finally, to another man, spoke the words. "She is the treasure of my soul, Maloji. But I have my duty, and she has hers. We will both be faithful to our dharma."
His fingers became fists. "That is the way it must be. Will be."
Maloji hesitated. He was perhaps Rao's closest friend, but this was a subject they had never discussed. With a little shrug, he decided to widen the crack.
"Have you ever spoken to her?"
Rao's back stiffened. "Never!" he exclaimed. "That, alone, would be a betrayal of my trust. She was given into my care by the Emperor of Andhra himself, to safeguard the dynasty. It would be the foulest treason for me to betray that trust."
Maloji shook his head. "You are not her father, Rao. Much older than she, true. So what? If I remember right, the oldest son of Chola is no younger than you."
Rao made a short, chopping motion. "That has nothing to do with anything. She is the purest blood of India. The heir of ancient Satavahana. I am a Maratha chieftain." For a moment, he managed a grin. "It is true, I am considered kshatriya—by Marathas, at least. But my mother's father was a peasant, and no one even knows the name of my paternal grandfather, although he is reputed to have been a tinker."
His powerful hands relaxed. A great sigh loosened his muscular body. "The world is what it is, Maloji. We must be true to our dharma, or we lose our souls."
His whole body seemed to ooze against the stones of the wall, as if he were seeking to find oneness with the universe.
"We must accept, that is all." Rao turned his eyes to his friend. The moisture was gone, along with any outward sign of pain. Suddenly, he grinned.
"It has been difficult, I admit. I remember, the first time—" He chuckled wryly. "She was thirteen, perhaps fourteen years old. She had done especially well in one of the exercises I set her to, and I praised her. She laughed and embraced me, pressing herself close. Suddenly—it struck me like a bolt of lighting, I will never forget the moment—I realized she was a woman now. And not just any woman, but—"
He groped for words. Maloji provided them: "She has been called the Black-Eyed Pearl of the Satavahanas since she was twelve. There is a reason for it, which goes far beyond her eyes. I have not seen her since Amaravati, but even then she was beautiful."
Rao closed his eyes again. "I try not to think about it," he whispered. "It is difficult, but I manage. Since that day, years ago, I have kept myself from looking at the beauty of her body. Other men may do so, but not I." His eyes reopened. "But I cannot blind myself to the real beauty. I have tried—so very hard—but I cannot. I simply try not to think about it." He smiled. "Perhaps that is why I meditate so often."
Abruptly, he rose. "Enough. We will not speak of this again, Maloji, though I thank you for your words." He stared at the Malwa enemy over the battlements. "We have a war to fight and win. A dynasty to return to its rightful place. An empress to shield and protect—and cherish. That is our dharma."
He pushed himself away from the stones and turned toward the stairs leading to the city below. "And now, I must be about my tasks. I have my duty, she has hers. She will marry Chola, and I will dance at her wedding. The best dance I ever danced."
Seconds later, he was gone. Maloji, watching him go, bowed his head. "Not even you, Raghunath Rao," he whispered. "Not even you—the Great Country's best dancer as well as its soul—can dance that well."
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Spring, 532 A.D.
The first Malwa barrage came as an unpleasant surprise to the Roman troops dug in on the crest of the saddle pass. Instead of sailing all over the landscape, a majority of the Malwa rockets landed uncomfortably near their entrenchments. And the fire from the small battery of field guns which Damodara had placed on a nearby hilltop was fiendishly accurate. The Roman fieldworks were partially obscured by small clouds of dust and flying dirt.
There was not much actual damage, however. Two cannon balls landed in trenches, but they caused only one fatality. Solid cannon shot was designed for field battles, where a ball could bounce through the packed ranks of advancing infantry. Even when such a solid shot struck a trench directly, it usually did nothing more than bury itself in the loosened dirt. The man killed just had the misfortune of standing on the wrong patch of soil. His death was almost silent, marked only by a sodden thud; and then, by the soft and awful sounds of blood and intestines spilling from a corpse severed at the waist.
Worse casualties were created by the single rocket which hit directly in a trench. Rocket warheads were packed with gunpowder and iron pellets. When such a warhead exploded in a crowded trench, the result was horrendous.
"Damn," hissed Maurice, watching the survivors in the trench frantically trying to save the wounded. The shouts of the rescuers were drowned beneath the shrieks of dying and injured men. "They've got impact fuses."
Belisarius nodded. "And they've refitted their rockets with proper venturi," he added. "You can tell the difference in the sound alone, leaving aside the fact they're ten times more accurate."
Frowning, he swiveled his telescope to point at Damodara's pavilion, erected just a few hundred yards behind the front lines of the Ye-tai who were massing for a charge.
Through the telescope, Belisarius could see Damodara standing on a platform which had been erected in front of the pavilion. The platform was just a sturdy framework of small logs, but it was enough to give the Malwa commander a good field of view. It was typical of Damodara, thought Belisarius, that he had not even bothered to have the logs planed. Most anvaya-prapta sachivya would have insisted on polished planks, covered with rugs.
"How did he do it?" the Roman general muttered. "I knew the Malwa would come up with impact fuses and venturi soon enough. But I didn't expect to see them appear in Damodara's army, as isolated as they are from the manufactories in India."
Belisarius lowered the telescope, still frowning.
"They must have hauled them here," said Maurice. The gray-haired veteran frowned as well. "Hell of a logistics route! I'd hate to be relying on supplies that have to be moved through the Hindu Kush and—all that."
The last two words were accompanied by a vague little wave of Maurice's hand, indicating the entire broken and arid terrain between the lush plains of north India and the Zagros range. Mountains, hills, deserts—some of the roughest country in the world, that was. More suited for mountain goats than supply trains.
"It could be done," mused Belisarius. "Trade caravans have made it all the way to China, when you think about it. But not often, and not carrying anything more cumbersome than luxury goods."
Aide amplified. Gold coins, crystal and red coral from the Roman Empire, in exchange for silk from China. Some jewelry, both ways.
Belisarius scratched his chin, as he invariably did when deep in thought. "Damodara would have one advantage," he added slowly. "He wouldn't have to worry about brigands. No hill bandit in his right mind would attack a Malwa military caravan."
"Pathans would," countered Maurice, referring to the fiercest of the mountain tribes. "Those bastards—down!"
He and Belisarius hastily crouched in their trench. Nearby, Anastasius and Valentinian did the same. A volley of Malwa rockets sailed overhead, passing no more than ten feet above them. A few seconds later, they heard the explosive sounds of the rockets landing somewhere on the back slope of the saddle pass.
As soon as Belisarius was certain that the volley had ended, he rose and peered behind him. He had taken position in a trench at the very crest of the pass, allowing him as good a view of the back slope as the foreground. Leaning over the log parapet, he studied the scene intently.
His brow was creased with worry. Belisarius had positioned his handcannon troops just behind the crest of the pass. They would—he thought—be out of danger there until he needed them. And out of sight of the enemy. The handcannons were Belisarius' own little surprise for the Malwa. He had not used them yet, in this campaign, and he hoped that Damodara and Sanga were still unaware of their existence.
Maurice joined him. The chiliarch, after one quick look, verbalized Belisarius' own thoughts.
"No damage. The rockets passed over them too." Maurice's face broke into a grin. That was a rare expression, on his face. Belisarius was amused to see that it was probably the least humorous grin in the world. Wintry, you might call it.
"But I'll bet they're not whining anymore about all the digging you make them do," chuckled Maurice. He and Belisarius could see the first heads of the handcannon troops popping up from their trenches. Those soldiers were not more than fifty yards away, and their expressions caused Belisarius to break into his own grin. Worry, fear—combined with more than a dose of outrage.
What the hell is this? Here we were, enjoying a pleasant moment of relaxation, engrossed in cursing that damn fool General Pick-and-Shovel who makes us dig trenches every time we take two steps, and—
What the hell's going on? It's not fair!
Still grinning, Belisarius turned around and resumed his study of the enemy. After a moment, he picked up the broken thread of their conversation.
"Pathans wouldn't attack Damodara's supply trains. Don't forget, Maurice, those caravans would be protected by Rajput troops. Sanga's Rajputs, to boot. And I'm sure Sanga would see to it that the information was passed on to the tribesmen. He has his own Pathan trackers, you know."
Belisarius looked at the large body of Rajput cavalry that formed the right wing of the enemy's formation. There were a smaller number of Rajputs on the Malwa left wing, but Belisarius had spotted Sanga earlier through his telescope. In this coming battle, the Rajput king had been assigned to the right. With his naked eyes, Belisarius couldn't distinguish Sanga any longer from the thousands of other Rajputs massed on that side of the battlefield. But he was certain that Sanga was still there.
"Sanga led the last punitive expedition which the Rajputs sent against the Pathans," he said, speaking softly. "That was years ago. There haven't been any since because Sanga ravaged them so badly—" Belisarius broke off, with a little grimace. "Bloody business, that is."
Maurice gave his commander a quick, shrewd glance. Belisarius, in the past, had led his own punitive expeditions against barbarians. In the trans-Danube, several times; and, once, against the Isaurians in Asia Minor. Even as young as he'd been then—and Belisarius was still shy of thirty—his campaigns had already been marked by sagacity and cunning.
They'd also been brutal and savage, as campaigns against barbarians always were. Belisarius had a detestation of cruelty which was unusual in soldiers of the time. Some of that aversion, thought Maurice, was simply due to the man's nature. But that natural inclination had been hardened and tempered by the sight of Goth and Isaurian villages visited by his own troops.
Seeing beneath Belisarius' now-expressionless face, Maurice turned his eyes away. He was quite sure, in that moment, that he knew what Belisarius was thinking. An image came to Maurice, as vividly as if it had just happened yesterday. He remembered seeing Belisarius standing over the body of a child in one of those villages. The young commander—still in his teens, he'd been—had just arrived, with Maurice and some of his Thracian cataphracts. The village was in flames, but the main body of the army had already passed through, rampaging on ahead.
Judging by the size of the pitiful little corpse, the Goth had been not more than five years old. Belisarius' soldiers had set a sharpened stake in the ground, impaled the boy, castrated him—and cut off his penis for good measure—amputated his arms, and then, mercifully, cut his throat. But neither Belisarius nor Maurice, surveying the scene, doubted the sequence in which the soldiers had committed their atrocities. For minutes which must have seemed an eternity to their victim, Roman troops had subjected a helpless child to the cruelest tortures imaginable.
The naked and disemboweled body of a girl had been lying nearby. The boy's mother, perhaps, but more likely his sister. The corpse's face was nothing but a pulp, covered with half-dried, crusted blood. It was impossible to discern her features, but the body itself seemed not far past puberty. The girl had obviously been gang-raped before she was murdered.
Remembering, Maurice could still hear Belisarius' quiet and anguished words. "And these men call themselves Christians?"
Prior to that day, Belisarius had simply tried to restrain his army. Thereafter, he instituted the draconian policy regarding atrocities for which he was famous—notorious, from the viewpoint of some soldiers and all mercenary troops. As it happened, by good fortune, the men responsible for that particular atrocity had been identified and arrested within a week. Belisarius immediately ordered their execution. The army had almost mutinied, but Belisarius already had his corps of hand-picked Thracian bucellarii to enforce his orders.
Still, the atrocities continued, if not as often. It was almost impossible to restrain troops completely in war against barbarians, since so many of the soldiers in the campaigns were borderers. Barbarians were guilty of their own brutal practices, and the soldiers burned for vengeance. In the dispersed nature of such combat, troops soon learned to keep their savageries hidden.
Maurice banished the memory. Again, he glanced at Belisarius. The general's gaze was still on the Rajput troops, where Sanga commanded, and his lips were moving. Maurice could not hear the words he spoke, but he thought he knew what they were. Belisarius had told him of the message which the Great Ones of the future had given to Aide, to guide the crystal in its search for help in the ancient past of humanity.
Find the general who is not a warrior, had been part of that message. But there had also been: See the enemy in the mirror, the friend across the field.
Belisarius emitted a little sigh, and shook his head. The motion was quick and abrupt, as if he were tossing something off. When the general turned back to Maurice, there was no sign of anything in his brown eyes but the calm self-control of an experienced commander on a battlefield.
"We've got some time," Belisarius pronounced. As if to verify his words, the distant Malwa batteries erupted in new salvos. After a quick glance, Maurice ignored them. From their trajectories, none of the missiles would strike in their vicinity. He gave his attention back to the general.
"At least an hour," continued Belisarius, "before they start their first assault." He began walking toward the cross-trench which gave access to the back slope. From habit, Belisarius stayed in a semicrouch, but it was obvious from the casual way he looked back at Maurice that he had come to the same assessment of the current barrage's accuracy.
"Kurush should still be in the field headquarters. I want to talk to him." Belisarius pointed to the enemy. "There's a bit of a mystery here that I'd like to clear up, if we can. I don't like bad news of any kind, but I especially don't like surprises."
* * *
As Belisarius had hoped, Kurush was in the field headquarters. The young Persian nobleman had arrived just the day before, accompanied by three subordinate officers. He had been sent by Emperor Khusrau to reestablish liaison with the Romans. Since Belisarius had led his army into the Zagros, in hopes of delaying Damodara's advance while Khusrau set Mesopotamia in order, the Persian emperor had had no contact with his Roman allies.
Khusrau Anushirvan—Khusrau of the Immortal Soul, as the Aryans called him—had not chosen Kurush for the assignment by accident. Partly, of course, his choice had been dictated by the prickly class sensitivities of Aryan society. Kurush was a sahrdaran, the highest-ranked layer of the Persian aristocracy. To have sent a lesser figure would have been insulting—not to Belisarius, who didn't care—but to other members of the sahrdaran. Faced with his half-brother Ormazd's treasonous rebellion, Khusrau could not afford to lose the loyalty of any more Persian aristocrats.
But, for the most part, the Emperor of Persia had sent Kurush because of the man's own qualities. For all his youth, Kurush was an excellent military commander in his own right. And, best of all, he was familiar to Belisarius. The two men had worked together the year before, during Belisarius' campaign in northern Mesopotamia.
When Belisarius strode through the open flaps of the field headquarters' entrance, he saw that the four Persian officers were bent over the table in the center of the tent, admiring the huge map.
"This is marvelous!" exclaimed Kurush, seeing Belisarius. The nobleman strode forward, gesticulating, with the nervous energy that was always a part of him.
"Where did you get the idea?" he demanded. He shook his head vigorously. "Not the map itself. I mean the—" Kurush snapped his head around, looking toward the Syrian craftsman whom Belisarius had trained as a cartographer. "What did you call it? Tapo—something."
"Topography," said the mapmaker.
"Yes, that's it!" Kurush's head snapped back to Belisarius. "Where did you get the idea? I've never seen any other maps or charts which show elevation and terrain features. Except maybe one or two prominent mountains. And rivers, of course."
Belisarius shrugged. "It just came to me, one day." His words were abrupt, even a little curt.
Typical, groused Aide. I never get any credit. Glory hound!
Belisarius pursed his lips, trying not to smile. This was a subject he did not want broached. Belisarius had once told Kurush's uncle, the sahrdaran Baresmanas, the secret of Aide's existence. But he didn't think Kurush knew, and he saw no reason to change that state of affairs. The fact was that Aide had given him the idea, just as he had so many others that Belisarius had implemented.
Toil, toil, toil, that's all I do. A slave in the gold mines, while you get to prance around in all the finery. Good thing for you trade unions haven't been invented yet, or I'd go out on strike.
Wanting to change the subject—as much to keep from laughing as anything else—
The eight-hour day! For a start. Wages, of course. Not better wages, either—any wages. I'm not getting paid at all, now that I think about it. Exploiter! Then—
—Belisarius drove over Aide's witticisms—
—there's the whole matter of benefits. I'll let the medical slide, seeing as how the current state of medical practice makes me shudder, but—
—along with Kurush's onrushing stream of questions.
I demand a pension. Thirty-and-out, nothing less!
"Are any Persian towns in your eastern provinces centers of artisanship?" asked Belisarius. "Especially metalworking?"
Kurush's mouth snapped shut. For a moment, the Persian nobleman stared at Belisarius as if he were a madman. Then he burst into laughter.
"In the east?" he cried. Kurush's laughter was echoed by all three of his officers. One of them snorted. "Those hicks can barely manage to rim a cartwheel."
"Do they even have carts?" demanded another.
Kurush was back to vigorous headshaking. "The eastern provinces are inhabited by nothing besides peasants and petty noblemen. They know how to grow crops. And how to fight, of course—but even that, they do poorly."
He rocked his head back and forth, once, twice, thrice. The quick little gesture was by way of qualification. "I should be fair. The eastern dehgans are as good as any, in single combat. But their tactics—"
"Charge," sneered one of his officers. "If that doesn't work—charge again." His two fellows chortled agreement. "And if that doesn't work?" queried one. He shrugged. "Charge again. And keep doing it until your horse has the good sense to run away."
Kurush grinned. "If you want Persian artisans, Belisarius, you have to go to Mesopotamia or Persarmenia for them. Except in Fars province. There are some metalsmiths—armorers, mostly—in Persepolis and Pasargadae."
He cocked his head quizzically. "Why do you ask?"
Belisarius walked over to the table and stared down at the map, scratching his chin. "I ask because the gunpowder weapons Damodara's army is using are quite a bit more sophisticated than anything I expected them to have." He gestured with his head toward the east. The sound of the Malwa barrages carried clearly through the leather walls of the tent.
Still scratching his chin, he added: "I thought it might be possible that Damodara established a manufacturing center somewhere in Hyrcania or Khorasan. But that's not likely, if there are no native craftsmen to draw on. I doubt he would have brought an entire labor force with him all the way from the Gangetic plain. A few experts, maybe. But not the hundreds of skilled workers it would take to manufacture—"
Again, he gestured toward the east wall of the tent. Again, the sound of Malwa rocketry and cannon fire pierced the leather.
A new voice entered the discussion. "It is possible, General Belisarius. He could have set one up at Marv." Vasudeva rose from a chair in a corner of the tent and ambled toward the table. "Marv is a big enough town, and it's well located for the purpose."
Vasudeva reached the table and leaned over, pointing to Marv's location on the map. His finger then moved east to the river Oxus, and then, following the river's course, southeast to a spot on the map which bore no markings.
"Right about there is the city of Begram," said the Kushan general. "The largest Kushan city, after Peshawar. Our kings, in the old days, had their summer palaces at Begram." A bitter tinge entered his voice. "Peshawar is nothing but ruins, today. But Begram still stands. The Ye-tai did not destroy it, except for the stupas."
For all the calm in Vasudeva's voice, Belisarius did not miss the underlying anger—even hatred. When the Ye-tai conquered the Kushan kingdom, a century earlier, they had singled out Buddhism for particularly savage repression. All the monks had been murdered, and the stupas razed to the ground. Like most Kushans Belisarius knew, Vasudeva still considered himself a Buddhist. But it was a faith he practiced in fumbling secret, with no monks or learned scrolls to guide him.
Vasudeva's finger retraced the route he had indicated a few seconds earlier. "As you can see, travel from Begram to Marv is not difficult. Most of it can be done by river craft."
"And what's in Begram?" asked Kurush.
Vasudeva smiled thinly. "Kushans. What else?" The smile faded. "More precisely, Kushan craftsmen. Even in the old days, Begram was the center of artisanship in the Kushan realm. Peshawar was bigger, but it was the royal city. Full of soldiers, courtiers, that sort of thing." With a chuckle, as dry as the smile: "And a horde of bureaucrats, of course."
Vasudeva fingered his wispy goatee. "If Damodara had the good sense—if, General Belisarius; the Malwa, as a rule, don't think of Kushans as anything other than vassal soldiers—he could have easily transplanted hundreds of Kushan craftsmen to Marv. There, he could have built up an armament center. Close enough, as you can see from the map, to supply his army once it passed the Caspian Gates. But far enough away, in a sheltered oasis, to keep it safe from Persian raiders."
He's right! said Aide to Belisarius. Marv would be perfect. The Seleucids walled the city eight hundred years ago. The whole oasis, actually. The Sassanids made it a provincial capital and a military center after they conquered the western part of the Kushan Empire. And Marv will become—would have become—the capital of Khorasan province after the Islamic conquest.
The Persian officers were staring at Vasudeva as if he were babbling in an unknown tongue. One of them turned his head and muttered to another: "I've never thought of Kushans as anything but soldiers."
Vasudeva heard the remark. His smile returned. It was a very thin smile.
"Nobody does," he said. "The fact remains that Kushans have been skilled artisans for centuries. Appearances to the contrary, we aren't barbarian nomads." He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers. "My father was a very good jeweler. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. But the Malwa had other plans for me."
Belisarius felt a sudden rush of empathy for the stocky Kushan mercenary. He, as a boy, had wanted to be a blacksmith rather than a soldier. Until the demands of his class, and Rome, decreed otherwise.
"Damodara is smart enough," he mused. He leaned back from the table. "More than smart enough."
Belisarius began slowly pacing around. His softly spoken words were those of a man thinking aloud. "If he had good enough intelligence, that is. The Malwa spymaster, Nanda Lal, is a capable man—very capable—but I never got the sense, in the many days I spent in his company, that he thought much about manufacturing and artisanry. His orientation seemed entirely political and military. So where would Damodara have learned—?"
"Narses," snarled Maurice. "He's got that stinking traitor working for him."
Belisarius stopped his pacing and stared at the Thracian chiliarch. His own eyes held nothing of Maurice's angry glare. They were simply calm. Calm, and thoughtful.
"That's possible," he said, after a few seconds. "I've never spotted him, through the telescope. But if he's with Damodara's army, Narses would be sure to stay out of sight."
Belisarius scratched his chin. "Possible, possible," he mused. "Narses was an expert on central Asia." He gave Kurush a half-rueful, half-apologetic glance. "We always let him handle that side of our affairs with the Aryans. He was—well, I've got to be honest: superb—when it came to bribing and maneuvering barbarians into harassing Persia's eastern provinces."
For a moment, Kurush began to glower. But, within a couple of seconds, the glower turned into a little laugh.
"I know!" he exclaimed. "The grief that man caused us! It wasn't just barbarians, either. He was also a master at keeping those damned eastern noblemen stirred up against imperial authority."
Kurush took four quick strides to the entrance. He stared out and up, toward the crest of the pass. To all appearance, he was listening to the sound of the Malwa barrage. But Belisarius knew that the man's thoughts were really directed elsewhere, both in time and space.
Kurush turned his head. "Assuming that you're right, Belisarius, what's the significance of it?"
"The significance, Kurush, is that it means this Malwa army is even more dangerous that we thought." The Roman general moved toward the entrance, stopping a few feet behind Kurush. "What it means is that this army could ravage Mesopotamia on its own, regardless of what happens to the main Malwa army in the delta."
Startled, Kurush spun around.
"They're not big enough!" he exclaimed. "If Emperor Khusrau wasn't tied up keeping the Malwa in Charax—" He stumbled to a halt; then, glumly: "And if we didn't have the traitor Ormazd to deal with in upper Mesopotamia—" His words trailed off again. Stubbornly, Kurush shook his head.
"They're still not big enough," he insisted.
"They are, Kurush," countered Belisarius. "If they have their own armament center—and I'm now convinced they do—then they are more than big enough."
He stepped up to the entrance, standing right next to Kurush. His next words the general pitched very low, so that only the Persian nobleman could hear.
"That's as good an army as any in the world, sahrdaran. Trust me. I've been fighting them for weeks, now." He hesitated, knowing Kurush's touchy Aryan pride, but pushed on. "And they've defeated every Persian army that was sent against them."
Kurush tightened his jaws. But, touchy or not, the Persian was also honest. He nodded his head curtly.
Belisarius continued. "I thought they'd be limited by the fact that Emperor Skandagupta sent Damodara and Sanga into eastern Persia with very little in the way of gunpowder weapons. But if that's not true—if they've created their own weapons industry along the way—then we are looking at a very different kind of animal. A tiger instead of a leopard."
Kurush frowned. "Would Skandagupta permit Damodara such freedom? I always got the impression, from what you told me of your trip to India, that the Malwa gunpowder industry was kept exclusively in their capital city of Kausambi—right under the emperor's nose."
Belisarius stared at the pass above them, as if he were trying to peer through the rock of the mountains and study the enemy on the other side.
"Interesting question," he murmured. "Offhand, I'd say—no. But what does Skandagupta know of things in far-off Marv?" Belisarius smiled himself, now—a smile every bit as thin as Vasudeva's had been.
"Narses," he said softly, almost lingering over the name. "If Damodara does have Narses working for him, then he's got one of the world's supreme politicians—and spymasters—helping to plan his moves. Narses is not famous, to put it mildly, for his slavish respect for established authority. And he worships no god but Ambition."
Kurush stared at Belisarius, wide-eyed. "You think—"
Belisarius' shoulders moved in a tiny shrug. "Who knows? Except this: if Narses is on the other side of that pass, then I can guarantee that he is spinning plans within plans. Never underestimate that old eunuch, Kurush. He doesn't think simply of the next two steps. He always thinks of the twenty steps beyond those."
Kurush's smile was not thin. "That description reminds me of someone else I know."
Belisarius did not smile in return. He simply nodded, once. "Well, yes. It does."
For a few seconds, the two men were silent. Then, after a quick glance into the interior of the tent to make sure no one could overhear, Kurush whispered: "What does this mean—in terms of your strategy?"
Again, Belisarius made that tiny shrug. "I don't know. At the moment, I don't see where it changes anything." He thrust out his chin, pointing at the enemy hidden from their sight by the pass above. "I can delay that army, Kurush, but I can't stop it. So I don't see that I have any choice but to continue with the plan we are already agreed on."
Belisarius gave his own quick glance backward, to make sure no one was within hearing range. Kurush was familiar with his plans, as were Belisarius' own chief subordinates, but he knew that none of the other Persian officers were privy to them. So far as they knew, Belisarius and his Roman army were in the Zagros simply to fend off Damodara's advance. He wanted to keep them in that happy state of ignorance.
"I do know this much," he continued, turning his eyes back to Kurush. "The rebellion in south India is now more important than ever. If our strategy works, here, and we drive the main Malwa army out of the delta—and if the rebellion in Majarashtra swells to gigantic proportions—then the Malwa will have no choice." Again, he pointed with his chin to the pass. "They will have to pull that magnificent army out of Persia. And use it, instead of Venandakatra's torturers, to crush the Deccan."
Kurush eyed him. He knew how much Belisarius liked and admired the Marathas and their Empress Shakuntala. "That'll be very tough on the rebels."
Belisarius winced, but only briefly. "Yes—and then again, maybe not."
He paused, staring at the mountains. "Those men are far better soldiers than anything Venandakatra has. And there's no comparison at all between their leaders and the Vile One. But that army is Rajput, now, at its core. And Damodara has welded himself to them. Rajputs have their own hard sense of honor, which fits their Malwa masters about as well as a glove fits a fish tail. I'm not sure how good they'll be, when the time comes for murder instead of war."
Kurush scowled. The expression made clear his own opinion. Malwa was Malwa.
Belisarius did not argue the point. He was not at all sure that Kurush was wrong. But, inwardly, he made another shrug. As much as Belisarius prided himself on his ability to plan ahead, he had never forgotten that the heart of war is chaos and confusion. Between the moment—now—and the future, lay the maelstrom. Who could foresee what combinations, and what contradictions, that vortex would produce? In the months—years—ahead?
Now intervened, breaking his train of thought. The sounds of the Malwa barrage abruptly ceased. Looking up the slope, Belisarius saw a courier racing toward the field headquarters. One of Bouzes' Syrians, he thought.
Belisarius did not wait for the man to arrive. He turned back into the tent and announced, to the Roman and Persian officers who had remained by the table: "Gentlemen, there's a battle to be fought."
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On his way back up the slope, Belisarius stopped when he came to the trenches where the handcannon soldiers were dug in. He turned to Maurice, waving his hand.
"Go on ahead, and see to the rest of the army. I want to go over our plans one last time with Mark and Gregory."
Maurice nodded, and continued plodding toward the crest of the pass. His progress was slow. The trench through which he was moving had been recently dug. The soil was still loose, making for unfirm footing. His biggest difficulty, however, came from the sheer weight of his weapons and armor. Cataphract gear was heavy enough, sitting on a horse. For a man on foot, climbing uphill, the armor seemed made of lead ingots instead of steel scale. The weapons weighed more than Nero's sins.
Belisarius felt a moment's sympathy for Maurice—but only a moment. He was wearing his own cataphract gear, and would be making that trek himself soon enough. If the war against Malwa dragged on for years, Belisarius thought the day would come when Roman soldiers could finally be rid of that damned armor. In visions which Aide had given him of gunpowder armies of the future, soldiers had worn nothing but a plate cuirass and a helmet. Just enough to stop a bullet, except at close range.
He sighed. That day was still far off. Belisarius had spent hours—and hours and hours—studying the great generals of the future, especially those of the first centuries of gunpowder warfare. Aide knew all of human history, and the crystal had shown Belisarius the methods and tactics of those men. Jan Zizka; Gonzalo de Cordoba and the Duke of Parma; Maurice of Nassau; Henry IV of France; Tilly and Wallenstein, and Gustavus Adolphus; Turenne and Frederick the Great; Marlborough; Napoleon and Wellington; and many others.
Of all those men, the only one Belisarius truly admired was Gustavus Adolphus. To some degree, his admiration was professional. Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden, had reintroduced mobility and fluid tactics into a style of war which had become nothing more than brutal hammering. Massive squares of musket and pike slamming into other such squares, like the old Greek phalanxes.
But, for the most part, Belisarius was attracted by the man himself. Gustavus Adolphus had been a king—a very self-confident and ambitious king, in point of fact—who was by no mean immune from monarchy's vices. Still, he had been scrupulous about consulting the various estates of his kingdom, as he was required to do by Swedish law. He had managed to win the firm loyalty of his officers and soldiers by his fair and consistent conduct. He was as good a king as he was a general—Sweden was, by far, the best administered realm of his time. He had been the only king of his day who cared a fig for the needs of common folk. And his troops, when they entered the Thirty Years War under his command, had been the only soldiers who did not ravage the German countryside.
I would have liked to meet that man, he mused.
Aide's voice came into his mind. The crystal's thoughts were hesitant, almost apologetic.
He will never exist, now. Whatever happens. If Malwa wins this war, and Link establishes its domination over mankind, there will be no kings like that. Not ever.
Belisarius' face tightened. Link, the secret master of the Malwa dynasty, was an artificial intelligence sent back in time by the "new gods" of the future. Belisarius had met the creature, once, when he was in India. It had taken the form of Great Lady Holi, the aunt of the Malwa emperor. Aide called it a cybernetic organism.
Belisarius' eyes drifted across the landscape of the Zagros, as if that rugged mountain range was a metaphor for human destiny. The slopes of those mountains were rocky, treacherous, and at least half-hidden by spurs and crests. Belisarius had learned much, over the past four years, about mankind's future—it would be better to say, futures, because the "new gods" had their own plans for shaping human destiny. But he still did not know much about the "new gods" themselves. Aide, he was sure, was not withholding information from him. The crystal was simply incapable of understanding such mentalities.
Belisarius thought he understood them. They reminded him of religious fanatics he had met. Orthodox or Monophysite, it mattered not. All such men were imbued with the certainty that they—and they alone—understood the Will of God. Those who opposed them were not simply in error, they were the minions of Satan. To be scourged, that others might be cleansed.
That was the vision, he thought, which animated the "new gods" of the future. Outraged by the chaotic kaleidoscope of humanity, as it spread through the stars, they were seized by a determination to purify the race.
There had been no conceivable way to accomplish that goal, in their future time. Humanity had settled throughout the galaxy, and all the galaxies nearby. Isolated by incredible distances and the speed of light, each human planet went its own way. The human species was evolving in a million different directions, like the branches of a great tree, with nothing to bind it but a common heritage and the slender threads of the Great Ones in their travels.
So, the "new gods" had sent Link back in time, to alter history when humanity was still living on a single planet. To crush the mongrel empire called Rome, and to build a world state centered in north India. The "new gods" intended to use the Hindu caste system as the germ for what they called a "eugenics program." They would purify the race—and if, in the doing, they slaughtered millions, they cared not the least. Those were cattle, at best, if not outright vermin. Only the "new gods," and those they would shape in their image, were truly human.
Aide was right. If Malwa won, there would be no kings in the future like Gustavus Adolphus.
And if we win? he asked. But he knew the answer, before Aide even gave it.
Then you will have changed history also. The course of it will remain, like a broad river, but the banks will be altered. There may not even be a country called Sweden, in that future. There certainly won't be a man named Gustavus Adolphus. Or, if there is, he's as likely to be a peasant or a glassmaker as a king.
For a moment, the thought saddened Belisarius. The Roman general had no doubt of the righteousness of his cause. None at all. But even the most just war causes destruction. Saving that great, flowering tree of humanity's future, Belisarius would crush many of its buds. There would be no Gustavus Adolphus. No Shakespeare; no Cervantes; no Spinoza and Kant; no Sir Isaac Newton.
The moment passed. But there will be others, like them.
Yes, came Aide's reply. Quietly: And there will be a place, too, for others like me. We are also people, with our own rightful place in that great tree.
* * *
Belisarius' musings were interrupted by a voice.
"How soon do you want us ready, general?"
Belisarius snapped out of his reverie and focused his eyes on the speaker. It was Mark of Edessa, the commander of Belisarius' new unit of handcannon soldiers.
An idle thought crossed Belisarius' mind. I have got to come up with a new name for them. "Handcannon soldiers" is just too much of a mouthful.
Belisarius took a moment to examine the man. Mark was in his early twenties. He was a Syrian, of predominantly Arab ancestry. That was useful, given that most of his men were of similar stock. Like all Roman soldiers, the men spoke Greek—or learned to, at least, shortly after enlisting. But Mark's fluency in Arabic and several of the Aramaic dialects had proven valuable many times.
But that was not the principal reason Mark had been given this new command. The young officer, during the course of the previous year's campaign in Mesopotamia, had shown himself to be resourceful and reliable. He also—this was quite unusual for a cavalryman—had no objection to fighting on foot, and had proven to have a knack for the new gunpowder weapons.
Belisarius remembered the first time he met Mark, almost four years earlier. The general had just taken command of the army at Mindouos. His predecessor had let that army rot, and Belisarius had found it necessary to purge many of the existing officers. A number of men had been promoted from the ranks. Mark had been one of them, recommended by Belisarius' cataphract, Gregory.
He saw two more figures scuttling up the trench.
"Speak of the devil," he murmured. Gregory himself was arriving. He and Mark had become good friends, and had shown they could work together well in combat. That was one of the reasons that Belisarius had put Gregory in command of another new unit, the pikemen who served as a bulwark for the handcannon soldiers.
Call them "musketeers," came Aide's thought. Technically, it would be more accurate to call them arquebusiers, but—
"Arquebusiers" is ridiculous. Musketeers it is!
Belisarius broke into a smile. The new name was a minor triumph, true. Picayune, perhaps. But he was a firm believer in the axiom that large victories grow out of a multitude of small ones.
Gregory had arrived, now. He and Mark were eyeing their general quizzically, wondering why he was smiling. Almost grinning, in fact.
"I've got a new name for your men, Mark," he announced. "From now on, we'll call you musketeers."
Mark and Gregory looked at each other. It was almost comical the way each began mouthing the word.
"I like it," pronounced Gregory, after a moment's experimentation. Mark nodded his head. "So do I!"
The third man came up, and now Belisarius did break into a grin.
"And what have we here?" he asked. "The three musketeers?"
Oh, that's gross! There followed a mental, crystalline version of a raspberry. Low, low.
Gregory gave the new man, whose name was Felix Chalcenterus, an unkind look. The same little glare was transferred to Mark of Edessa.
"Give me a break, general," he growled. "You won't find me fighting with these new-fangled gadgets. Cold steel, that's still my business."
Mark and Felix matched Belisarius' grin. "He's hopeless, General," stated Mark. "Set in his ways, like an old village woman."
Belisarius chuckled at the quip, even though it was quite unfair. For the past year, Gregory had served as Belisarius' chief artillery officer. In this campaign of fluid maneuver, Belisarius had left his cumbersome artillery behind, so Gregory had been free to take on another assignment. The main reason Belisarius had put the man in charge of the new unit of pikemen was that Gregory was one of those officers who seemed almost infinitely flexible. He was one of the very few Thracian cataphracts who didn't squeal like a stuck pig when asked to fight on foot, with a pike instead of a lance. The pikemen were an elite unit, true, but Gregory had still been hard-pressed to find enough Thracians to volunteer. In the end, he had relied heavily on the new Isaurians who were enlisting into the general's corps of bucellarii.
Belisarius got down to business. "Are you ready?" he asked. The question was directed at all three men simultaneously. Felix Chalcenterus served Mark as his executive officer.
"We're set, general," came Mark's reply. Gregory and Felix nodded their agreement.
"Good. Remember—don't start up the slope until I signal for you." Belisarius made a little head toss toward the east. "You can be damned sure that Sanga will have some of his Pathan scouts perched on the nearby hilltops, watching everything we do. They'll have some means of signaling Damodara—mirrors, if the sun's right. If not, they'll have something else. Banners, maybe smoke. It's essential that they can't see you until the time comes for your countercharge."
Belisarius gave the three men a quick scrutiny. Satisfied that they understood the point, he added: "You'll have to come up the hill in a hurry, mind. I won't give the signal until the last minute. In a hurry—and in good formation. Can you do it?"
There was no verbal reply. Just three self-confident smiles and nodding heads.
"All right," said Belisarius. He gave out a little sigh. "The moment's come, then. It's my turn to climb that damned hill."
He turned and set off, slogging his way. Every step forward was marked by half a step backward, sliding in the loose soil. Progress was marked by the soft, crunching sounds of semifutility. Within a few yards, his armor and weapons felt like the burden of Atlas.
"Some day," he muttered. "If this war goes on long enough. I'll be skipping through the meadows with nothing but a helmet and a linen uniform. Not a care in the world."
Except frying in napalm, or being shredded by high explosive shells, came Aide's unkind thought. Not to mention being picked off at five hundred yards by a sniper armed with a high-velocity rifle. And while we're at it, let's not forget—
Not a care in the world! insisted Belisarius. His thought was perhaps a bit surly. Death is a feather. Cataphract gear is the torment of Prometheus.
Then, very surly: Spoilsport.
* * *
By the time he reached the trench at the crest of the pass, Belisarius was exhausted. He half-collapsed next to Maurice. Valentinian and Anastasius were still in the trench, a few feet to his right.
Maurice gave him no more than a cursory glance before resuming his study of the enemy troops on the slope below. "You'll get over it soon enough," he said. The words were unkind but the tone was sympathetic. "You'd better," added Maurice grimly. "The Ye-tai aren't wasting any time."
Wearily, Belisarius nodded. Fortunately, his exhaustion was simply due to heavy, but brief, exertion. It was not the kind of fatigue produced by hours of relentless labor. He knew from experience that his well-toned muscles would recover in a few minutes—even if, at the moment, he didn't feel as if he could ever walk again.
The general's head was below the parapet, resting against the sloped wall of the trench. He was too tired to lift it. He could hear the faint sounds of orders being shouted in Hindi, coming from far down the slope.
"What are they doing, Maurice?" he asked.
"The Ye-tai will be making the main assault. Nothing fancy, just a straight charge up the slope. On foot. They've just about finished dressing their lines." He gave a little half-incredulous grunt. "Good lines, too. Way better than I've ever seen barbarians do before."
"They're not exactly barbarians," said Belisarius. He made a brief attempt at raising his head, but gave it up almost instantly. "They act like it, sure enough. The Malwa encourage them to behave barbarously, not that the Ye-tai need much encouragement. But they've been an integral part of the Malwa ruling class for three generations, now. All of their sub-officers, to give you an idea, are literate. Down to a rank equivalent to our pentarchs."
Maurice emitted another grunt. From Belisarius' other side came Valentinian's half-incredulous (and half-disgruntled) exclamation: "You've got to be kidding!"
Belisarius smiled. Valentinian's attitude was understandable. Even in the Roman army, with its comparatively democratic traditions, not more than half of the sub-officers below the rank of hecatontarch could read and write.
Valentinian himself carried the rank of a hecatontarch. That was the modern Greek equivalent of the old Latin "centurion"—commander of a hundred. But in his case, the rank was a formal honor more than anything else. Valentinian didn't command anyone. His job, along with Anastasius, was to keep Belisarius alive on the battlefield.
Valentinian was literate, just barely. He could sign his name without help, and he could pick his way through simple written messages. But he had never even thought of trying to read a book. If someone had ever suggested it to him—
"You should read a book sometime," commented Anastasius mildly. "Be good for you, Valentinian."
"You've got to be kidding," came the instant, hissing response.
He's got to be kidding, echoed Aide.
Listening to the exchange, Belisarius' smile widened. Anastasius was literate—and not barely. The giant Thracian cataphract read any book he could get his hands on, especially if it dealt with philosophy. But his attitude, for a Roman soldier, was unusual—it might be better to say, extraordinary.
Anastasius himself ascribed his peculiarity to the fact that he had a Greek father. But Belisarius thought otherwise. There were plenty of Greek soldiers in the Roman army who were as illiterate—and as uninterested in literacy—as any Hun. Belisarius suspected that Anastasius' obsession with philosophy was more in the nature of a personal rebellion. The man was so huge, and so strong, and so brutal in his appearance, that Belisarius thought he had turned to reading as a way of assuring himself that he was a man and not an ogre.
The thought of ogres brought his mind back to the moment. Literate they might be, but the Ye-tai were the closest human equivalents to ogres that Belisarius had ever met.
Speaking of which, muttered Aide, you'd better gird your loins, grandpa. The ogres are coming.
Belisarius heard the sound of kettledrums. "They're coming," said Maurice. He spoke softly, as he usually did, but his tone was as grim as a glacier. "Fierce bastards, too. Nobody's got to drive them forward. They're coming on like starving wolves after a crippled antelope."
Belisarius had recovered enough. With a little grunt of effort, he heaved himself half-erect and looked over the parapet.
He gave the Ye-tai charging up the mountain pass no more than a quick, almost perfunctory, study. He had seen Ye-tai in action before, and was not surprised by anything he saw—neither the vigor of their charge, nor the way they still managed to keep their lines reasonably well dressed even while storming up a rock-strewn slope. It was impressive, to be sure. But there was nothing in the world as sheerly impressive as a charge of Persian heavy cavalry. Belisarius had faced Persian charges, in the past, and broken the armies who made them.
He spent a little more time gauging the kshatriyas who were accompanying the Ye-tai. In the Malwa Empire, unlike other Hindu realms, the warrior caste was devoted almost exclusively to gunpowder weapons and tactics. Except in Damodara's army, in fact, they had a monopoly on such weapons.
There were a number of kshatriyas dispersed through the ranks of the oncoming Ye-tai. All of them were carrying grenades—one in the hand, with several more slung from bandoliers. Their free hands held the strikers to light the fuses.
None of the kshatriyas, of course, were in the first few ranks. As lightly armored as they were, the grenadiers could not hope to match Roman soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. But Belisarius was impressed to see that the kshatriyas were not, as he had observed in other Malwa armies, hanging far back in the rear.
Here, too, Damodara's style of leadership was evident. Over time, Malwa's pampered kshatriyas had lost much of the martial rigor which that warrior caste possessed in other Hindu societies. They were held in open scorn by Rajput kshatriyas. Damodara, it seemed, had reinstituted the old traditions. Those grenadiers storming up the hill alongside the sword-wielding Ye-tai bore no resemblance to the arrogant idlers whom Belisarius had seen while he was in India.
But there were still not many of them, he was relieved to see. Not enough to change the equation in the immediate battle. No more than one in twenty of the enemy soldiers in the oncoming charge were carrying grenades. That was an even smaller percentage than usual. Whatever armaments complex Damodara had succeeded in creating, it was apparently still small. Belisarius suspected that Damodara was doing what he would have done himself—had done, in fact, when Belisarius created his own weapons industry. Concentrate on quality, not quantity. Build a few good cannons, and improve the rocketry, rather than try to churn out simple grenades.
So, the general's eyes were soon drawn to the enemy's flanks, where the Rajput cavalry were massed. That was the real threat. Belisarius was confident that he could handle the Ye-tai charge. He had his own surprise waiting, on the back side of the slope. But, no more than Damodara, had Belisarius been able to produce gunpowder weapons in great quantity. His one thousand musketeers could break the Ye-tai but—
Aide's voice interrupted his train of thought. There was a tinge of annoyance in the crystal's words. A tinge of annoyance—and more than a tinge of worry.
They're not musketeers. Not really. Eighteenth-century musketeers could fire three volleys a minute. But they had flintlocks. You don't even have arquebusses as good as Gustavus Adolphus' soldiers, and they couldn't fire more often than—
Aide broke off, with the mental equivalent of a sigh of exasperation. He and Belisarius had already had this argument. As always, when the dispute involved purely military affairs, Belisarius' opinion had carried the day.
The general did not bother with a reply. He was too preoccupied with studying the Rajputs.
Not to his surprise, Belisarius saw that most of the Rajput cavalry—two out of three, he gauged—were now concentrated on the enemy's right flank, under Sanga's command. The pass in which Belisarius was making a stand was saddle-shaped. The flanks of the pass were not sheer cliffs, but rounded slopes. The slope on Belisarius' left was almost gentle. If the Ye-tai could pin the Roman center, Sanga would have no real difficulty leading a mass cavalry charge against the Roman left.
Belisarius, of course, had read the terrain the same way as Damodara and Sanga. And so he had positioned his heaviest troops, the Greek cataphracts under Cyril's command, on his left. He would hold the center and the right with the lighter Syrian forces, and the new units of musketeers and pikemen.
The fact remained that he was badly outnumbered, and the ground was open enough that the Malwa could bring all their forces to bear. Not easily; not quickly—but surely, for all that.
Belisarius shook his head a little, reminding himself that he was not trying to win this battle. He just needed to put up enough of a fight so that his retreat to the south, when the time came, would not seem too puzzling to his opponents. Belisarius could afford the tactical setback involved in giving up this battlefield, as long as his troops weren't badly mauled. He could not afford the strategic defeat which would be certain, if Damodara or Sanga—or Narses, if the canny eunuch was with them—ever figured out what Belisarius was planning for, months from now.
Maurice verbalized Belisarius' own thoughts.
"It's going to be a bit touch-and-go," growled the chiliarch. "More than a bit, if your little surprise doesn't work as well as you think it will. Which it probably won't," he added sourly. "Nothing ever works the way it's supposed to, on a battlefield."
Belisarius started to respond, but fell silent. The Ye-tai were almost close enough—
Time. Belisarius gave the hand signal, and the small group of cornicenes just a few yards away immediately began blowing on their horns.
The peal of the cornicens immediately brought thousands of Greek cataphracts and Syrian archers to their feet, standing hip-high in their trenches with bows already nocked. A volley of arrows swept down the slope.
Like a scythe, came the simile to Belisarius' mind, but he knew it was inappropriate. Plunging fire was difficult. He was not surprised to see many of the arrows sail right over the approaching mass of Ye-tai. And it was often ineffective even when it struck, against experienced troops.
The Ye-tai were veterans, and had been expecting the volley. As soon as they saw the cataphracts rearing up, the Ye-tai crouched and sheltered behind their shields. The shouted orders of their officers were quite unnecessary. Because of the angle, they presented smaller targets to begin with, and each Ye-tai was experienced enough to keep his shield properly slanted.
Those were good shields, as good as Roman ones. Laminated wood reinforced with iron—nothing like the flimsy wicker shields with which the Malwa Empire armed its common soldiers. Most of the Roman arrows which hit their targets glanced off harmlessly.
The Ye-tai immediately resumed their charge, bellowing their battle cries. Another volley; another shielded crouch; another upward surge. They lost men, of course—plenty of them—but not enough. Not for those warriors. Ye-tai had many vices; cowardice was not one of them.
"Not a chance," grunted Maurice. There was no amazement in those words. Not even a trace of surprise. Maurice sounded like a man remarking that there was no way a sand castle was going to hold back the tide.
The chiliarch glanced at Belisarius. "You'd better see to your gunmen. We're going to need them."
Belisarius was already turning. As he began giving the new signal, he heard Maurice mutter: "Oh, marvelous. The Rajputs are already starting their charge. God, I hate competent enemies." A few seconds later, hissing: "Shit. I can't believe it!"
Belisarius had been watching the musketeers climbing up the slope. Hearing the alarm in Maurice's voice, he immediately turned around.
Seeing the speed with which the Rajput cavalry was charging up that side of the saddle, Belisarius understood Maurice's shock. Belisarius himself had never seen cavalry move that quickly in mountainous terrain.
Silently, he cursed himself for an idiot. He had forgotten—it might be better to say, never understood in the first place. Belisarius was accustomed to Roman and Persian heavy cavalry, whose gear and tactics had been shaped by centuries of war on the flat plains of Mesopotamia. But the Rajputs were not heavy cavalry—not, at least, by Roman and Persian standards—and they were unfazed by rough terrain.
Rajputana is a land of hills, chimed in Aide. The Rajput military tradition was forged in expeditions against Pathan mountaineers, and battles fought against Marathas in the volcanic badlands of the Great Country.
"Like a bunch of damned mountain goats," growled Maurice. He cocked his head. "You do realize, young man, that your fancy battle plan just flew south for the winter." For all the grimness of the words, there was a trace of satisfaction in the voice. Maurice was one of those natural-born pessimists who took a strange pleasure in seeing the world live down to their expectations.
Belisarius had already reached the same conclusion. The weakest part of his tactical plan had been its reliance on close timing. The Rajputs had just kicked over the hourglass. Shattered it to pieces, in fact. Sanga's forces would strike the Roman left long before Belisarius had expected them to.
"Get over there quick, Maurice," he commanded. "Work with Cyril to get the Greeks reoriented. They'll have to hold off Sanga now, as long as they can. Forget about any countercharge against the Ye-tai." He pointed to the large force of Thracian cataphracts positioned halfway down the back slope, as a reserve. "And send a dispatch rider to the bucellarii, telling them to move left. We're going to need them."
"What about the Mamelukes?" asked Maurice. He looked southwest, to where the Kushans were holding the fords at the river half a mile below. "Do you want them up here, with you?"
Belisarius shook his head. "Not unless I'm desperate. I can't risk having any of them captured. Even a dead Kushan body could give the game away."
Maurice gave a skeptical glance at the musketeers who were nearing the crest.
"Do you really you think you can hold—" he started to say, but broke off. A second later, the chiliarch was scuttling down the trench, toward the Roman left. For all Maurice's frequent sarcasms on the subject of Belisarius' "fancy damned battle plans," the Thracian veteran was not given to arguing with him in the midst of actual combat. A general's willingness to command—instantly and surely—was more important in a battle than whether the command itself was wise. Maurice had seen battles won, more than once, simply because the commander had stood his ground and given clear and definite orders. Any orders, just so long as the troops felt that a steady hand was in control.
Belisarius peered over the parapet. The Ye-tai were very close, now. Their battle cries filled the air, thick with confidence, heavy with impending triumph. They had been bloodied by the Roman archery, but not badly enough. Several thousand would still reach the crest, where outnumbered and lightly armed Syrian infantry would be no match for them.
He rose, half-standing, and looked over the other parapet. The musketeers and the pikemen were almost at the crest, just a few yards down the slope. They had stopped, actually, to make a final dress of their lines. Belisarius saw Mark of Edessa watching him, calmly waiting for the general's order.
Here goes, thought Belisarius.
He gave the signal. Again, the cornicens blew. As he turned back to face the enemy, Belisarius saw small figures on nearby hilltops frantically waving banners. The Pathan scouts had caught sight of the new Roman unit surging forward, and were signaling Damodara.
Belisarius took a deep breath, and gave a small prayer for the soul of a man he had never met, and never would. A general of a future that would never be. A man he didn't much care for, as a human being, but who had been one of history's greatest generals.
May your soul rest in peace, wherever it is, Iron Duke. I hope this works as well for me as it did for you at Busaco.
Aide's words, when they came, surprised Belisarius. He had been half-expecting some muttered reproaches. Something to the effect that Wellington's men could fire three volleys a minute; or that Wellington had the massive fortifications of the Lines of Torres Vedras to fall back on; or even—Aide had a bit of the pedant in him—that the title "Iron Duke" was an anachronism, in this context. The nickname was political, not military. It had been given to Prime Minister Wellington by English commoners, years after the fall of Napoleon, when he responded to a mob breaking his windows by installing iron shutters on his mansion in London.
But all that came, instead, was reassurance.
It will. The reverse-slope tactic was Wellington's signature. It worked at Salamanca, too. And even against Napoleon at Waterloo.
Belisarius was grateful for that quiet voice of confidence. He needed it. This battle was shaping up to be the worst fight of his life, rather than the simple cut-and-run he had anticipated. Once again, he had underestimated the Rajputs.
The musketeers reached the crest of the pass, and leveled their handcannons at the Ye-tai storming forward. Belisarius rose to join in his world's first use of a musket volley in battle, but not before giving himself a small curse.
Don't ever do that again, you jackass. Just because you've got brains, and a friend who can show you the future, don't ever forget that other men have brains too. And damned good ones, with the will to match.
The muskets roared, all across the line. Instantly, the crest of the pass was shrouded in gunsmoke. It was impossible to see more than a few feet through those acrid billows. Impatiently, while his musketeers went through the practiced drill with their clumsy muzzle loaders, Belisarius waited for the smoke to clear.
There was a good breeze coming through the pass. The clouds of gunsmoke were swept away within seconds. And Belisarius, seeing the havoc wreaked by a thousand .80-caliber smoothbores firing at close range, felt himself relax. Just a bit. The Ye-tai army was like a bull, half-stunned by a hammer blow between the eyes.
He raised his eyes, staring across the mounded heaps of Ye-tai corpses to his opponent's distant pavilion. Belisarius had just sent his own message—to himself, as well as Damodara. Reminding them both that if Belisarius had no monopoly on intelligence, neither did he have a monopoly on overconfidence.
And don't underestimate me again, Lord of Malwa, he thought. Better yet—do underestimate me again.
The Ye-tai, stubborn and courageous, were pushing forward. They clambered up and over the corpses and hideously shattered bodies of their wounded comrades, roaring with rage and hefting their swords. The Ye-tai were no longer trying to maintain formation. They were just a mob of enraged berserks, burning to reach their tormentors. The bull was half-stunned, but it was still a bull.
The second line of musketeers stepped forward and fired. While the smoke cleared, the third line took their place. Behind, the first line had already finished reloading and was preparing for a second volley.
It was true that Belisarius' musketeers, with their awkward matchlocks, could not match Wellington's three volleys a minute. The guns themselves were not much better than sixteenth-century arquebusses. John of Rhodes, working with sixth-century technology, couldn't possibly match the precision of nineteenth-century gunmaking. But Belisarius had all of Aide's encyclopedic knowledge to draw upon, so he had been able to leap over centuries of military experimentation in other ways. It was within the capacity of the Roman Empire to manufacture the prepared cartridges which Gustavus Adolphus had introduced. The muzzle loaders themselves were clumsy things, but there was nothing clumsy about the way they were being used.
His musketeers couldn't manage more than one volley a minute, but Belisarius could rely on that rate. And, as the smoke cleared, and he saw the carnage which the second volley had created, Belisarius knew that would be enough.
Wellington's reverse-slope tactic depended as much on the shock of surprise as it did on rates of fire, said Aide.
Belisarius nodded. An enemy storming forward in expectation of furious victory had its spirits shattered, along with its bodies, when it was struck down by a hail of bullets. Not even warriors like the Ye-tai could withstand such a blow.
No more than Napoleon's Imperial Guard at Waterloo.
The third line stepped forward, their weapons ready. There was no need for plunging fire, now. The vanguard elements of the Ye-tai had reached the crest and were not more than ten yards from the trenches. Felix Chalcenterus, the executive officer, was in charge of fire control. He called out the orders, in sure sequence.
Level! The guns came up like so many blunt lances.
There was no command to aim. Belisarius' musketeers, like Wellington's, were simply trained to fire in the general direction of the enemy. The weapons were so inaccurate, beyond fifty yards, that marksmanship was pointless.
Fire! The handcannons erupted. Another cloud of smoke obscured everything.
Obscured sight, that is, not sound. Belisarius could hear the bullets slamming into the struggling mass of Ye-tai. The sounds had a metallic edge, where bullets impacted armor, but he knew the armor was irrelevant. At that range, the murderous lead pellets punched through the finest plate armor as if it were mere cloth. The muzzle velocity of a matchlock arquebus was extremely high—supersonic, more often than not. The high-velocity rifles which would replace them in the future would do no more than double that, even after centuries of arms development and refinement. An arquebus' round shot lost its muzzle velocity very quickly, of course—far sooner than the spinning bullets of rifles. But at this range, the heavy-caliber arquebusses were probably even more effective than rifles.
The shrieks of wounded Ye-tai began to fill the pass, like the wail of a giant banshee. The Ye-tai were tough—as tough as any soldiers Belisarius had ever seen. But no soldiers are that tough.
The bull was on its knees, now. Bellowing, still, but dying for all that.
Their bloody work done, the third line retired. Even with the breeze, the pass was still half-obscured with smoke. But Belisarius could hear Felix commanding the first line back to the front. Chalcenterus' voice still had the timbre of his youth, but the voice itself was relaxed and confident.
I didn't make any mistake there, at least, Belisarius consoled himself. Felix had first caught the general's eye at the battle of the villa near Anatha, the previous year. Belisarius had been impressed by the Syrian soldier's alert calmness when the Roman army was subjected to its first experience with rocket fire. He had kept an eye on the youth, and seen to his rapid promotion.
The first line, back in position, went through the sequence. Another roar of handcannon fire. The pass was completely shrouded in smoke. Even with their clumsy weapons, the men could still keep up a rate of fire that outmatched the breeze.
The sound of bullets slamming into the enemy had a sodden quality, now. Belisarius was thankful that he couldn't actually see the results. This was sheer slaughter. He knew that the rear elements of the Ye-tai would already be staggering back in defeat. But the barbarian soldiers trapped at the front were helpless. Immobile targets. The bull was no longer even bellowing. It was just a dying beast, dumbly waiting for another blow of the hammer.
The second line returned, and the blow came. Belisarius heard Gregory calling out an order. His pikemen had been in position since the first line of musketeers stepped forward, ready to fend off any Ye-tai who made it through the gunfire. But they had not even been needed. Gregory had obviously come to the conclusion that they wouldn't be, and so he had called on his men to use their grenades.
The pikemen lowered their twelve-foot spears and plucked grenades from their bandoliers. Each pikeman carried only two of the devices. More would have impeded them in performing their principal duty. But these were special grenades. The pikemen had been equipped with the new grenades which John of Rhodes had developed—the ones with impact fuses.
The grenades had a simple "potato-masher" design. A strip of cloth was attached to the butt of the wooden handle. Like the cloth strips often attached to javelins, it would stabilize the grenade in flight and ensure that the weapon would strike in the proper orientation to set off the fuse. There was no need to fumble with a striker, or cut a fuse to proper length. Each pikeman simply yanked out the pin which armed the device, and sent it sailing down the slope.
The grenades disappeared into the clouds of smoke which were wafting down the pass. Before they hit, Felix had ordered another round of gunfire. Not more than a second after that roaring lightning, Belisarius heard the sharp claps of the grenades exploding down the slope. The sounds harmonized like music composed by a maniac. A homicidal maniac. Those Ye-tai at the rear, trying to retreat, were being savaged by the grenades even while their comrades at the front were being hammered into pulp by the guns.
For an instant, Belisarius was seized by a savage urge to order a countercharge. That had been his plan from the beginning. The Ye-tai were already broken—as badly as any army could be, driven back from an assault. A rush of pikemen now would complete their destruction. The fierce army which had charged up the slope not minutes earlier would be as thoroughly beaten as any army in human history.
Mark and Gregory were at his side now, awaiting the order. Their faces were tense and eager. They knew as well as Belisarius that they were on the verge of total victory.
Fiercely, Belisarius restrained himself. Yes, the enemy was beaten here. But—
Distantly, he could hear wails from another direction. To his left. Wails of pain, and the steel clash of weapons. He couldn't see anything through the wafting clouds of gunsmoke, but he knew the Rajputs were already hammering his left flank.
All ferocity and sense of satisfaction fled. His counterstroke at the saddle had worked, just as it had worked in another future for a man named Arthur Wellesley. But battles are rarely neat and tidy affairs which go according to plan. Not against well-led enemies, at least.
This battle could still wind up a disaster, came Aide's forceful thought.
Belisarius had won the struggle at the center, true. But if he didn't withdraw his army quickly, and in good order—which was the most difficult maneuver of all, in the face of the enemy—Sanga and the Rajputs would roll up his flank.
"No," he commanded, pointing toward the slope of the saddle to their left. Only the crest of the pass was still visible, due to the gunsmoke, but they could see hundreds of Rajput cavalry pouring across the terrain. Ten times that number would be hidden in the clouds below, on the lower part of the slope. Twenty times, more likely. There had been at least ten thousand Rajputs massed on the Malwa right, under Sanga's command.
Mark began to argue—respectfully, but still vehemently, but Gregory restrained him with a firm shake of the shoulder. The Thracian cataphract was older than the Syrian, more of a veteran—and more familiar with Belisarius.
"Shut up, youngster," he growled. "The general's right. If we charge down that slope, we'll be completely out of position when the Rajputs hit us. They'll turn us into sausage."
Belisarius didn't pick his officers for reticence and timidity. The young Syrian flushed, a bit, from Gregory's rebuke, but plowed on. "The Greeks'll hold them! Those are Cyril's men—and Agathius', before him. The same cataphracts who broke the Malwa at Anatha, and then at—"
"There are only three thousand of them, Mark," said Belisarius mildly. He wasn't going to spend more than a few seconds, arguing with a subordinate in the middle of a battle. But he was prepared to spend those seconds. There was no other way to train good officers.
"They're facing four times their number—probably five," he continued. "They're splendid troops, yes. But they don't have as good a position as we did here in the center. There's no one protecting their flank. Sanga will just send enough men to keep them pinned while he sweeps around them. He won't even try to crush the Greeks, not now. He'll bypass them and fall on us."
He pointed to the line of musketeers. The men had ceased firing now, and the pikemen had used up all their grenades. The center of the battlefield was almost quiet, except for the cries of wounded Ye-tai.
"How do you expect to form a defensive line against that charge—here? Straddling a mountain pass, with the enemy coming down the slope?"
Mark fell silent. His face still had a stubborn look to it, but Belisarius knew that the young Syrian was—not convinced, perhaps, but ready to obey.
Satisfied with that, Belisarius turned to Gregory and said: "Fall back southwest, toward the river. Upstream." He pointed to a location where the narrow river below the pass broadened a bit. "Where Vasudeva's guarding the fords. Set your men, and the musketeers, to hold the river after I get the rest of the army across."
Gregory nodded. A moment later, he and Mark were shouting commands to their men.
And now, thought Belisarius, looking toward his left flank, I've got to try to get those men out of here. Which is not going to be easy. Sanga will be like a tiger, with me trying to pry meat from his jaws.
Belisarius heard Valentinian and Anastasius stirring behind him. As the general's personal bodyguards, they hadn't been expecting to do much in this current battle beyond looking grim and fearsome. But they were veterans, and could recognize a battle plan in tatters when they saw one.
"Looks like we're going to have to work, after all," groused Valentinian. Anastasius was silent. "What's the matter, large one?" came Valentinian's sarcastic voice. "No philosophical motto for the occasion? No words of wisdom?"
"Don't need 'em," rumbled Anastasius in reply. "Even a witless weasel can see when he's in a fight for his life."
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By the time Belisarius reached his left flank, where the Greeks were holding back the Rajputs, his bucellarii were already arriving. He was deeply thankful for their speed in responding to his orders, but he took a moment to give himself a mental pat on the back.
His tactics for this battle were at least half ruined, but Belisarius thought he could still pull his army out before disaster struck. If he did, it would be because of his past foresight. His Thracian cataphracts rode the finest heavy chargers in the world. Half the money for those magnificent and expensive warhorses was provided by Belisarius out of his own purse. Only the best steeds in the world, coming from halfway down the slope and carrying their own armor and armored cataphracts, could have reached the crest so quickly.
And they would be needed. It took only the sight of Cyril's exhausted face for Belisarius to know that his Greek cataphracts were on the verge of collapse. They'd held off the Rajput charges, so far. But they would break under the next one, or the one after that. Sanga had taken full advantage of his numerical superiority on the Roman left. His Rajputs outnumbered the Greeks five or six to one, and Sanga had sent them up in swirling waves—one after another, with hardly a moment's pause.
The Rajput king had not made the mistake of trying to hammer the Greeks under. The cataphracts were more heavily armed and armored than Rajputs, and they were fighting dismounted from behind fieldworks. If the Rajputs had tried a simple and direct assault, their numbers would have been nullified by the inevitable jamming up at the fieldworks. Instead, Sanga had used his own variation of "Parthian tactics," except that his sallies were as much lance-and-sword work as archery. Cut, slash, and whirl away. Repeat; repeat; repeat; repeat; repeat.
With his advantage in numbers, Sanga had been able to rotate his units. His cavalrymen had had time to rest and tend to their wounded. But for the Greeks defending, there had been no respite at all. It was like holding back waves from the ocean. As soon as one ebbed, another came.
The best soldiers in the world are only flesh and blood, and muscle. The Greeks were so weary that it was an effort to even lift a sword—much less swing it properly. Men at that stage of exhaustion are almost helpless against a good opponent. Lance thrusts strike home, that could have been parried by fresh arms. Sword strokes kill, that should have been easily deflected with a shield.
Half the Greeks had dropped their shields, by now. They needed both hands to hold their weapons. And the hands themselves, often enough, were trembling with fatigue.
"Get them out, Cyril!" called Belisarius. "Pull them out of the fieldworks—now." He twisted in his saddle and pointed to the river below. Vasudeva and his Kushans were clearly visible, in well-ordered formations, guarding the fords.
"Get them across the river," he commanded. "Don't even try for an orderly retreat. Just get them mounted and down there, as fast as you can. The Syrians will cover your flank and the musketeers will hold the river against any Malwa pursuit."
Cyril reached between the flanges of his helmet with a thumb and two fingers, wringing the sweat off his brow and down his nose. He staggered half a pace.
"The Rajputs'll be coming again," he started to protest. "In a minute, no more. You'll need us—"
"I'll take care of the Rajputs with my Thracians," snapped Belisarius. "Do as I say, Cyril. Get your men out of here!"
The Greek commander stopped arguing. As Cyril began calling out orders to his men, Belisarius took the time for a quick study of the enemy.
The Rajputs massed on the northern flank of the pass had paused in their attacks, he saw. They had seen the Thracians coming, and were taking the time themselves to gauge the new situation. The reinforcements would strengthen the Roman left, but—
Not enough. That would be Sanga's conclusion, Belisarius knew, within less than five minutes. He was certain the Rajput king was already organizing a new wave of attacks. Sanga was not one to waste time at the climactic moment of a battle.
Neither was Belisarius. Five minutes would be enough. More than enough—and less. Before that time was up, Sanga would realize the truth. Belisarius had no intention of shoring up his left flank. He was going to use his Thracians to cover a general retreat.
Once Sanga understood what Belisarius was doing, all hell would break loose. There would be no careful, calculated sallies. Just a great smash of armies, as Sanga tried to shatter the Roman army's last shield—using fifteen thousand Rajputs against less than three thousand Thracian cataphracts.
The bucellarii were pouring up onto the crest, now. Maurice was already organizing the charge, without waiting for Belisarius' command.
Belisarius took another moment to study the rest of the battlefield. The gunsmoke had all cleared away, and he could see the center. For one of the few times in his bloody life, Belisarius saw a battleground that was literally covered with bodies. The Ye-tai had been shattered. Hundreds of them—perhaps even as many as two thousand—were staggering away down the slope toward their own camp. But those men were out of the battle. Satan himself couldn't have rallied them, not after that butchery.
The Roman right wing, and the enemy facing them—not more than five thousand Rajputs, now—had hardly fought at all. A few probes and skirmishes, nothing more. The southern flank of the pass was much steeper than the northern one. Sanga—or Damodara—had not made the mistake of trying to duplicate the Malwa charges which had been so successful on their right. The Rajput left wing had been there simply to keep the Romans from counterattacking.
Not that Belisarius had ever intended to send his lightly armed Syrians in a counterattack, unless by wild fortune the entire battle had turned into a Malwa rout. He had stationed them there to do the same thing as their opponents—keep them from reinforcing the other flank.
That was another part of Belisarius' tactics which had not worked as well as he had planned. Judging from what he could see, Belisarius thought Damodara had steadily drawn troops from his left in order to reinforce Sanga's hammer blows on the right. The Malwa lord had judged Belisarius' Syrians correctly. They would be fearsome opponents, defending a steep slope against cavalry. But almost useless, in a sally. So he had moved thousands of his Rajput cavalrymen from one end of the battlefield to the other. Belisarius could see large contingents of them cantering across the small valley below the pass, going to reinforce Sanga. And even as he watched, another unit of five hundred Rajputs broke away from their lines on his right and did the same.
Belisarius almost laughed, then. He had never seen a better illustration of Maurice's conviction that battles are by nature an unholy, contradictory mess, in which nothing ever works the way it's supposed to. This time, however—and thank God for that!—it was his enemy who had fallen into the quagmire.
Ironically, Damodara's best move was also his worst. If Belisarius had been planning to make a stand, Damodara's transfer of forces would have been a masterstroke. But the Roman general had no intention of doing so. Instead, he was going to pivot his army in a retreat to the southwest, using his right flank as the hinge. His biggest fear had been that Damodara would break the hinge. But now, having depleted his left wing, Damodara had not a chance of storming the Syrians on the southern slope of the pass. Bouzes and Coutzes would be able to withdraw their men in an orderly manner, after covering the retreat of the rest of the army.
Marvelous, marvelous—assuming, of course, that Belisarius could blunt Sanga's coming charge with his Thracians. And that—
He eyed the huge mass of Rajput cavalry on the northern slope.
That's going to be—
"This is going to be fucking dicey," growled Maurice. Belisarius turned in his saddle. Unnoticed, Maurice had already brought his horse alongside.
"It's still a mountain pass, broad and shallow as it is, Maurice," pointed out Belisarius. "It's not a level plain. Sanga won't be able to send more than five thousand at a time. Six at the most."
Peering between the cheekplates of his helmet, Maurice's eyes did not seemed filled with great cheer at this news. He could count just as well as Belisarius. The Thracians were still facing two-to-one odds, against an enemy with plenty of reserves.
"If we didn't have stirrups," said the chiliarch bleakly, "this'd be pure suicide." He frowned. "Now that I think about it—why don't the Malwa have stirrups? You'd think they would, by now." Maurice glanced at Belisarius' chest plate, below which Aide nestled in a leather pouch. "They've got their own visions of the future, don't they?"
Belisarius shrugged. "Link's mind doesn't work like Aide's. Aide is a—an aide. Link is the Supreme Commander of the Universe. I suspect the thing is so bound up with its great plans for future weapons that it didn't think to build on the little possibilities which are already here. It certainly wouldn't have thought to consult with its human tools—any more than you'd ask a hammer's opinion if you were wielding it properly."
Not likely, remarked Aide. For Link, people barely even qualify as tools. Just so much raw material.
Belisarius began to add something, but broke off. He could see the Greeks were ready to mount. And all of his Thracians were here, and in formation.
"May as well do it," said Maurice, anticipating his general's thought. Belisarius nodded. A moment later, Maurice passed on the command. The cornicens began to wail.
The Greeks surged out of the trenches and began clambering aboard their horses. They were tired, tired, but they found the strength regardless. They were getting out of here, and only had to make it down to the river below.
The Thracians began moving forward, toward the Rajputs. They were slowed a bit, making their way through the narrow spaces between the fieldworks which had been left open for sallies. By the time the bucellarii made it onto the open and relatively flat northern part of the saddle, Sanga had realized the truth. His own horns began blowing. The sound was different, in pitch and timbre, from that made by Roman cornicens. But Belisarius did not mistake their meaning.
Attack! Now! Everyone!
The huge mass of Rajput cavalry surged toward them. Belisarius ordered his own charge. There was no room here for the usual Roman tactic of preceding a lance charge with a murderous volley of arrows. No room—and no time. The Thracians were so badly outnumbered that Belisarius could only try to use their greater weight in a single blow of the hammer. The saddle was wide and shallow, for a mountain pass, but it was still not a level plain. If his cataphracts, with their heavier armor and lances—and stirrups—could smash the front ranks of the Rajputs into a pulp, that would stymie the rest. Long enough, hopefully, for the Thracians to be able to beat their own retreat.
The distance between the two armies vanished in seconds. The hammer fell.
* * *
The Rajputs did not break—quite.
Belisarius had shattered a Malwa army once before, with such a charge, on the first day of the battle at Anatha. But that Malwa army had been arrogant, and unfamiliar with Roman heavy cavalry tactics.
For the Rajputs, too, this was their first time facing Roman cataphracts in a lance charge. But this Malwa army had fought its way across the entire Persian plateau, against Aryan dehgans. They had faced heavy cavalry before, and won. Every time.
Still . . . The Persians had not been equipped with stirrups, and that was the deciding difference. A long, heavy lance braced by feet in stirrups is simply a far more effective weapon than the shorter, much lighter spear used by cavalrymen without stirrups. In the relatively narrow confines of the saddle pass, the Rajputs could not avoid those lances. And the lances ripped them apart.
But not completely. Not enough to allow the Romans to simply turn and break away. Hundreds of Rajputs in the front ranks survived the first clash, and were immediately tying up the cataphracts with their swordplay. Within seconds, the saddle pass was filled with the sounds of steel meeting steel.
We can't afford this, thought Belisarius, as he jerked his lance out of the belly of a Rajput cavalryman. For a moment, he was able to survey the battle scene in reasonable safety. Anastasius and Valentinian were keeping most of the enemy in his vicinity from getting near him.
It took less than five seconds for Belisarius to make his decision. Enough. It's more ragged than I would have liked, but—enough.
He shouted new orders to the small unit of cornicenes who were trailing him. The horns began blowing the call for retreat. The Thracians obeyed immediately, even though—for the moment—they were winning the battle. Maurice had long since purged the ranks of Belisarius' bucellarii of any arrogant hotheads. If the general says you retreat, then you retreat. Forget about the guy in front of you, and the fact that you're beating him into a pulp. The general sees the whole battle. You do what he says. At once.
Belisarius himself began moving away from the front line. He swept his eyes back and forth, gauging the progress of his troops. It was uneven—there were still knots of Romans and Rajputs flailing at each other with swords—but most of the cataphracts were falling back well enough. The Rajputs were trying to pursue, of course, but the piled-up bodies of the men and horses driven under in the hammersmash were delaying them badly. Badly enough, Belisarius thought, for most of his men to make their escape.
Within seconds, in fact, Belisarius realized that he and his little cluster of soldiers were almost at the very rear of the Roman retreat. A bit isolated, actually. He had been so preoccupied with watching the rest of the army that he hadn't paid attention to his own situation.
Valentinian brought the point home. "We're sticking out like a thumb, general. Everyone's ahead of us. We ought to pick up the pace a little or—"
A swirl of motion caught the corner of Belisarius' eye. He turned his head and saw that a small group of Rajputs had forced their way over the barricade of bodies. The enemy was charging toward them, now, with not more than thirty yards to cover.
Belisarius didn't even think of fleeing. Against enemies like these, running was sure death. He reined his horse around and set his lance. Alongside him, he sensed Valentinian and Anastasius doing the same.
The Rajput in the lead was very tall. As he reared up, holding his spear in the overhead position of stirrupless lancers, he loomed like a giant.
Belisarius looked up—and up—at the man's face. Rajput helmets were visorless, beyond a narrow noseguard.
The face was Rana Sanga's.
Belisarius' own helmet was a German Spangenhelm. The heavy, curving cheekplates covered much of his face, but there was no noseguard. And so, in that instant, he knew that Sanga recognized him as well.
The friend across the field. But the friend had crossed the field, now, and was no friend here. Belisarius was about to fight a man who was counted one of the greatest warriors of India.
He braced his feet, set the lance, and spurred his charger forward. Valentinian rode alongside, perhaps a pace behind. Anastasius tried to do the same, but was intercepted by two other Rajputs.
Two seconds later, Belisarius learned why Sanga was a legend.
* * *
Since he first discovered stirrups, Belisarius had never failed to defeat an enemy lancer without them. Until Sanga. The Rajput king avoided the longer and heavier Roman lance by a quick twist in the saddle, and then plunged his own lance downward with all the power of his mighty arm.
Into the neck of Valentinian's horse. The spear tip penetrated unerringly between two plates in the armor and ruptured arteries. The horse coughed blood and collapsed, spilling Valentinian to the ground.
As always in battle, Aide was augmenting Belisarius' senses and reflexes. The general's mind seemed to move as quickly as lightning. But it was ice, not fire, which coursed through his nerves now. Sanga's stroke, he realized, had been completely purposeful. The Rajput king had seen Valentinian in action, and had obviously made his own estimate of which enemy needed to be taken out first.
Which does not, thought Belisarius grimly, speak well for my prospects.
The Roman general reined his horse around. In the corner of his eye, he saw that Anastasius was now facing three Rajputs. The giant was hammering one of them down, but he would be no immediate help to Belisarius.
Sanga was also wheeling around, ready to charge. He was too close for the heavy lance to be more than a hindrance. Belisarius dropped the weapon and drew his long cavalry saber. He spurred his mount forward.
An instant later, his sword stroke was deflected by Sanga's shield. Belisarius barely managed to get his own shield up in time to meet Sanga's counterstrike.
The power of that blow was shocking, especially coming from a man riding a horse without stirrups. Unlike Belisarius, Sanga could only grip his horse with his knees. That incredible sword stroke had been delivered with upper-body strength alone.
Belisarius was a strong man himself, but he knew at once that he was hopelessly outmatched. Fortunately, most very powerful men are slow, and Belisarius hoped—
The next stroke came so quickly that even Belisarius' Aide-augmented senses could barely react in time to block it. The third blow—Belisarius was not even trying to strike back—was aimed at his thigh. Only Aide's help allowed Belisarius to interpose his shield quickly enough to keep from having his leg amputated. But the leg went numb. Sanga's sword had driven the shield into his thigh like a sledge. And had also, judging by the sound, cracked the shield itself.
The next sword cut broke his shield in half. Only the iron outer rim was still holding it together.
Finally, Belisarius swung his own blade. Sanga blocked the cut with his shield and then, with a flashing sweep, hammered the sword right out of Belisarius' hand. In the backstroke, the Rajput king drove Belisarius half out of the saddle. The Roman's shield was practically in tatters, now.
Never in his life had Belisarius faced such an incredible opponent. He saw another stroke of that terrible sword coming, and knew he was a dead man. Off balance, with a shredded shield, he had no hope of blocking it.
His mind, Aide-augmented, was still racing. His body could not react in time, but everything seemed to move as slowly as blood in winter. He even had time to find it odd, that his last thought should be:
I can't believe Raghunath Rao faced this man—for an entire day!
The sword descended. But, at the last instant, veered aside. Not much, but enough to simply knock Belisarius off his horse instead of cutting him in half. The shield absorbed most of the blow, splintering completely, but Belisarius knew his arm was broken. He was half-stunned before he even hit the ground, and that impact dazed him completely.
His eyes were still open. But his mind, for a few seconds, was blank.
He saw Sanga's horse buckle. Saw the lance jutting into the mount's throat. Saw Valentinian, on foot, holding the lance and bringing the beast down. Saw Sanga leap free before the horse could pin him, sword still in hand. Saw Valentinian's first sword stroke, quick as lightning. Saw Sanga parry it, just in time. Saw—
Nothing more, but a horse's flank. A huge hand seized him by the collar of his tunic and hauled him up. Hercules plucking a fruit. He was hanging across a saddle like a sack of flour.
His brain began to work again. Anastasius' saddle, he realized. He realized, too—dimly—that he could hear Maurice's shouting voice. And the voices of other Thracians. He could hear the sound of pounding hooves, and feel the horse beneath him break into a gallop.
"Valentinian," he croaked.
"Valentinian will have to do for himself," rumbled Anastasius. "I'm your bodyguard, not his."
"Valentinian," he croaked again.
The giant's sigh was audible even over the sound of thundering horses. Then: "I'm sorry, general. I'll miss the bastard. I surely will, not that I'd ever say it to him."
Then, only: "Not that I'll ever have the chance. He's on his own now, against that demon Sanga and twenty thousand of his Rajputs."
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Valentinian did not have to face twenty thousand Rajputs. Only their greatest king.
By the time the battle between Rana Sanga and Valentinian ended, every one of the Rajputs in Damodara's army was on the crest of the saddle, watching. All except the men too badly injured to be moved—and many of those, in later years, counted that loss worse than their scars and severed limbs.
In the annals of Rome, it would be named the Battle of the Pass. But for the Rajputs, it would always be known as the Battle of the Mongoose.
In part, the name was given in Belisarius' honor. The Rajputs had won the battle, insofar as possession of the field counts as victory. (Which it does, in every land.) But even on their day of triumph, they knew that the Roman general had yielded little but the blood-soaked ground itself. A pittance, really, when the disparity in numbers was counted—and the butcher's bill paid.
True, they had driven him off, and seized the pass, and cleared their way to yet another range within the Zagros. But there were many more passes to come, before they finally broke through to Mesopotamia. And the Roman general had shown them, in rack and ruin, just how steep a price he would charge for that passage.
* * *
For the most part, however, the name was given in honor of Valentinian.
Indians have their own way of looking at animals, and incorporating their spirits into legend. Western folk, seeing Valentinian, were often reminded of a weasel. But there are no weasels in India. There are mongoose, instead. As quick; as deadly—but admired rather, for their cunning, than feared for their bloodlust.
Like Westerners, Indians are familiar with snakes. But they do not share the occidental detestation for serpents. Rather the opposite. There are few of God's creatures, in their eyes, as majestic as the king cobra.
It was those eyes which watched the battle, and gave it the name. Valentinian, much smaller and less powerful than the great king, was the quickest and most agile swordsman any of those Rajputs had ever seen. A battle which most of them expected to last for three minutes—if that long—lasted instead for three hours.
* * *
The Roman army watched also, from a much greater distance. By the time the battle was well underway, every surviving Roman soldier had forded the river. On the relative safety of the far bank, Belisarius' officers drew the army into formation while the general himself had his broken arm tended to.
At first, the Roman troops were tense. They were half expecting the enemy to launch a new attack. There was still time, after all—it was no later than mid-afternoon—and this Malwa army had proven its mettle.
Tense, but not worried. The Roman soldiers, in fact, were almost hoping their enemies would try to force their way across the river. They were quite confident of their ability to beat back the assault, and with heavy losses.
But, soon enough, it became obvious that the Rajputs had no intention of making any such foolish gesture. They were too battlewise, first of all. And, secondly, they were completely preoccupied with watching the single combat on the crest between Sanga and Valentinian.
By the time Belisarius emerged from his tent, his arm splinted and bound to his chest, the Roman troops themselves had settled into the relaxation of watching the match. More accurately, they listened to the news brought by dispatch riders. Only Maurice, using Belisarius' telescope, was actually able to see much.
When Belisarius came up to Maurice, the chiliarch lowered the telescope.
"You heard?" he asked. Belisarius nodded.
"Craziest damned thing I've ever seen," muttered Maurice.
His attitude did not surprise Belisarius. Nor Aide:
The custom of single combat between champions is no longer part of Graeco-Roman culture. Hasn't been, for over a millennium—not since the days of Homer. But it's still a living part of India's traditions, at least among Rajputs. Not even two decades of Malwa rule has broken that romantic notion of chivalry.
Belisarius' eyes studied the pass above. There seemed to be Rajputs covering every inch of the slopes which provided a view of the battle. Even the Rajput units standing guard, assigned to watch for a possible enemy counterattack, had their heads turned away from the Roman army.
If anything, added Aide, their time in the Malwa yoke is making them treasure this moment even more. There has been nothing like this in years, for Rajputana's warriors. Just the butchery of Ranapur, and Amaravati before that.
Maurice extended the telescope to its rightful owner.
Belisarius shook his head. "One of two men I treasure is going to die, today. I have no desire to watch it."
Aide's voice, soft: I am sorry for it, too.
Maurice brought the telescope back to his eye and resumed observing the battle. He had expected Belisarius' response. His offer of the telescope had been more in the way of a formality than anything else.
But he was still astonished by the Malwa commander.
"Craziest thing I've ever seen," he repeated. "What the hell is Damodara thinking?" He pulled the telescope a few inches from his eye and used it to point at the huge force of Rajputs covering the entire pass. "All he has to do is give the order, and Valentinian is a pincushion. You couldn't see him, for all the arrows sticking out of his body."
Belisarius shook his head. "No Rajput would obey that order, and Damodara knows it. If he sent anyone else, the Rajputs would kill them. And Damodara himself, most likely, if they thought he'd given the command. Besides—"
Belisarius stared across the river, and up the slope. He was not trying to watch the battle between Sanga and Valentinian. He was simply searching, in his mind's eye, for Damodara.
Aide verbalized his thoughts. A man who rides a tiger long enough begins to think like a tiger himself.
* * *
"This is utter madness!" snarled the Malwa spymaster. He glared down at Damodara, and pointed to the enemy army across the river half a mile distant. "While you waste time in this frivolity, the Romans are making their escape!"
The Malwa commander, squatting comfortably on a cushion, did not respond for a few seconds. His eyes remained fixed on the two men battling fiercely a few dozen yards away. When he did reply, his tone was mild.
"It's a moot point, Isanavarman." Damodara glanced down the slope. "Under no circumstances would I order my army to force the river against that opponent." His tone hardened. "I certainly have no intention of giving such an order today. Not after the losses we've taken, from those infernal handcannons."
His eyes moved to the spymaster. They were hard, cold eyes. "Of whose existence I was not informed, by men whose duty it is to know such things."
The spymaster did not flush. But he looked away. Behind him, his three top subordinates tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
"The best spies in the world," muttered Isanavarman, "cannot discover everything."
The spymaster gave Narses a sour look. The eunuch was squatting on his own cushion next to Damodara. At Damodara's left hand—the position allotted, by Indian custom, to a lord's chief civilian adviser. "Did your Roman pet warn you?" demanded Isanavarman, almost snarling. "He has his own spies."
"Not more than a few," responded Damodara. The Malwa commander was back to watching the battle. "Nothing like the horde of spies which Nanda Lal placed at your disposal."
The spymaster gritted his teeth, but said nothing. What was there to say?
Nanda Lal was the chief spymaster for the entire Malwa Empire, and considered Isanavarman his best agent. Nanda Lal had assigned him to be the spymaster for Damodara's army for that very reason. By the simple nature of geography, Damodara was operating an independent command. His was the only army not under the immediate and watchful eye of Malwa's rulers. So Nanda Lal had sent Isanavarman—with many spies, if not quite a horde—as much to keep an eye on Damodara as his enemies.
So what was there to say?
Damodara found words. "Make yourself useful for a change, Isanavarman. Interview the surviving Ye-tai. Find out as much as you can about the handcannons."
Isanavarman began to say something, but Damodara cut him short. "Do it. I am the commander of this army, spymaster, not you."
The Malwa lord lifted his finger in a little gesture at the troops surrounding them. Rajputs, all of them, except a few hundred kshatriyas—those whose proven valor had made them welcome. Most of the kshatriyas were in the camp, knowing full well the Rajputs would not permit their presence.
Isanavarman scanned the mass of soldiers. There were perhaps a thousand Ye-tai there also. But the spymaster did not fail to notice that the Ye-tai were scattered through the mass of Rajputs in small groups. Individuals, often enough, chatting amiably with their Rajput companions. Rajputs had a certain scorn for Ye-tai barbarity. But this was a day of manliness, and no one questioned Ye-tai courage.
"Do it," repeated Damodara. Again, cold eyes went to the spymaster. "Leave now, Isanavarman. This is not a place for you."
The spymaster left, then, trailed by his three subordinates. Nanda Lal's agents did not flee, exactly, but neither did they amble. They were not oblivious to other hard, cold eyes upon them. The eyes of thousands of Rajput warriors, who had no love for Malwa spies at any time or place—and certainly not here, on this day of glory.
* * *
When they were gone, Damodara leaned toward Narses. The commander's eyes were still fixed on the combat between Valentinian and Rana Sanga, but his gaze seemed a bit unfocused. As if Damodara's thoughts were elsewhere.
"I trust he no longer has a horde of spies," he murmured.
Narses' sneer, as always, was magnificent. "He's got the three who came with him, and two others. The rest are on my payroll."
Damodara nodded. "Tonight, then. I think that would be best."
"It'll be perfect," agreed Narses. "A pitched battle was fought today. A great victory for Malwa, of course, but not without its cost. The cunning Roman general sent a cavalry troop raiding into our camp. Terrible carnage. Great losses."
Narses crooked his finger. Ajatasutra, squatting ten feet away, rose and came over.
"Tonight," whispered Narses. "Do it yourself, if possible."
Ajatasutra did not sneer. He never did. That was one of the reasons, oddly, why Narses had grown so fond of him. But the assassin's thin smile had not a trace of humor in it.
"Those arrogant snobs haven't used a dagger in years," he said softly. "Years spent lounging in Kausambi, reading reports, while poor downtrodden agents like me were having hair-raising adventures with tired old eunuchs."
Narses had a fine grin, to match his sneer. It was not an expression often seen on his reptilian face—and no more reassuring, come to it, that a cobra's yawning gape. But the grin stayed on his face, for minutes thereafter.
He was amused, thinking not of serpents but of different animals. Tigers, and men who choose to ride them.
He glanced at Damodara. The Malwa commander's eyes were riveted on the combat, now, and there was nothing unfocused in the gaze.
He might as well have stripes himself, thought Narses.
* * *
In the tales of bards, and the lays of poets, truth takes on a rosy tinge. More than a tinge, actually. The reality of a single combat between two great warriors becomes something purely legendary.
There is little place, in legends, for sweat. Even less for thirst and exhaustion. And none at all for urination.
But the fact remains that two men do not battle each other, for hours, without rest. Not even if they were fighting half-naked, with bare hands—much less encumbered by heavy armor and wielding swords. Single combat between champions, other than a glancing encounter in the midst of battle, is by nature a formal affair. And, like most formalities, has a practical core at the center of its rituals.
After the first five minutes, Sanga and Valentinian broke off, gasping for breath. By then, the area was surrounded by Rajputs. Sanga's cavalrymen were still astride their mounts, holding their weapons. One of them, seeing the first open space between the two combatants, began edging his horse toward Valentinian. The man's lance was half-raised.
Sanga bellowed inarticulate fury. The Rajput shied away.
Sanga planted his sword tip in the ground—carefully, making sure there were no stones to dull the blade—and leaned upon it. After gasping a few more breaths, he pointed at Valentinian.
"Give the man water," he commanded. "Wine, if he prefers." The Rajput king studied his opponent, for a few seconds. Valentinian was still breathing deeply, and leaning on his own sword, but Sanga saw that he was no longer gasping.
"And bring us food and cushions," added Sanga. He smiled, quite cheerfully. "I think we're going to need them."
For the next few minutes, while Sanga and Valentinian rested, the Rajputs organized the necessities. A dozen Rajputs clustered around Sanga. Four began moving toward Valentinian, after lowering their weapons. One of them carried a winesack; another, a skin full of water; the third, a rolled-up blanket to serve Valentinian as a cushion whenever he rested; the fourth, some dry bread and cheese.
Sanga nodded toward them, while keeping his eyes on Valentinian. "They will assist you," he called out to the Roman. "Anything you need."
Sanga straightened. "You may surrender, of course. At any time."
For a moment, Valentinian almost gave his natural response—fuck you, asshole!—but restrained the impulse. He simply shook his head. A gesture which, at the end, turned into a little bow. Even Valentinian, hardbitten and cynical as he was, could sense the gathering glory.
* * *
In the hours which followed, as a lowborn Roman cataphract fought his way into India's legends, the man's mind wondered at his actions.
Why are you doing this, you damned fool?
All his life, Valentinian had been feared by other men. Feared for his astonishing quickness, his reflexes, his uncanny eye—most of all, for his instant capacity to murder. Precious few men, in truth, can kill at the drop of a hat. Valentinian, since the age of ten, could do it before the hat was touched.
And so men feared him. And found, in his whipcord shape and narrow face, the human image of a vicious predator.
Because I'm tired of being called a weasel, came the soul's reply.
* * *
The end came suddenly, awkwardly, unexpectedly—almost casually. As it usually does, in the real world. The bards and poets, of course, would have centuries to clean it up.
Sanga's foot slipped, skidding on a loose pebble. For a moment, catching his balance, his shield swung aside. Valentinian, seeing his opening, swung for the Rajput's exposed leg. No Herculean stroke, just Valentinian's usual economic slice. The quick blade cut deeply into Sanga's thigh.
The Rajput fell to one knee, crying out in pain. Pain—and despair. His leg was already covered with blood. It was not the bright, crimson spurting of arterial blood, true, but it was enough. That wound would slay him within half an hour, from blood loss alone. Sooner, really. Within minutes, pain and weakness would cripple him enough for his enemy to make the kill.
All other men, watching or hearing of that battle in years to come, would always assume that Valentinian made his only mistake.
But the truth was quite otherwise. For hours, Valentinian had avoided matching strength with Sanga. He had countered the king's astonishing power with speed, instead. Speed, cunning, and experience. He could have—should have—ended the battle so. Circling the Rajput, probing, slashing, bleeding him further, staying away from that incredible strength, until his opponent was so weak that the quick death thrust could be driven home. Killing a king, like a wolf brings down a crippled bull. Like a weasel kills.
Something inside the man, buried deep, rebelled. For the first time since the battle began—for the first time in his life, truth be told—Valentinian swung a heroic blow. A mighty overhand strike at the Rajput's head.
Sanga threw up his sword, crosswise, to block the cut. Valentinian's sword, descending with the power of his own great strength, met a blade held in Rajputana's mightiest hand.
The finest steel in the world was made in India. The impact snapped the Roman sword in half, leaving not more than a six-inch stub in Valentinian's fist.
Six inches can still be enough, in a knife fight. Valentinian never hesitated. Weasel-quick, he flung himself to his own knee and drove the sword stub at Sanga's throat.
The Rajput king managed to lower his helmet in time. The blade glanced off the noseguard and ripped a great tear in Sanga's cheek. More blood gushed forth.
It was not enough. No cry of despair escaped his lips, but Valentinian knew he was finished. Facing each other at close distance, both on their knees, the advantage now was all Sanga's.
Sanga was never one for hesitation himself. Instantly, the Rajput king swung a blow. Valentinian interposed his shield. The shield cracked. Another blow. The shield broke. Another blow, to the head, knocked the Roman's helmet askew. The final blow, again to the helmet, split the segmented steel and sent Valentinian sprawling to the ground. Senseless, at the very least. Probably dead, judging from the blood which began pouring through the sundered pieces of the Spangenhelm.
Sanga raised his arm, to sever Valentinian's neck. But he stopped the motion, even before the sword finished its ascent.
He had won a glorious victory, this day. He would not stain it with an executioner's stroke.
Sanga sagged back on his heels. In a daze, he stared up at the sky. It was sunset, and the mountains were bathed in purple majesty. Around him, vaguely, he heard thunderous cheers coming from thousands of Rajput throats. And, seconds later, felt hands laying him down and beginning to bind his wounds.
A glorious victory. He had not felt this clean—this Rajput pure—for many years. Not since the day he fought Raghunath Rao, and first entered himself into Indian legend.
* * *
In the river valley below, the Romans also heard the cheer. The mountains seemed to ring with the sound.
Maurice lowered the telescope. "That's it," he said softly.
Belisarius took a deep breath. Then, turning to Coutzes: "Send a courier, under banner of truce. I want to know if Valentinian's dead, so that the priests can do the rites."
"And if he's alive?" asked Coutzes.
"See if they'll accept a ransom." Belisarius' crooked smile made a brief appearance. "Not that I think I could afford it, even as rich as I am. Not unless Damodara's truly lost his mind."
* * *
"Not for all the gold in Rome," was Damodara's instant reply. "Do I look like a madman?"
* * *
When Coutzes brought back the news, Belisarius lowered his head. But his heart, for the first time in hours, soared to the heavens.
"He might still die," cautioned Coutzes. "They say he's lost a lot of blood. And his skull's broken."
Anastasius snorted. So did Maurice.
"Not Valentinian," said Belisarius. He lifted his head, smiling as broadly as he ever had in his life. "Not my champion. Not that great, roaring, lion of a man."
* * *
The following morning, the Malwa army began moving along the river. To the northwest, away from the Romans. Belisarius' army, still holding the fords, made no effort to block them.
Not a single soldier, on either side, thought the matter odd.
"Let's hear it for maneuvers," said a Rajput to a Ye-tai. The barbarian nodded quick agreement.
"God, I love to march," announced a Greek cataphract. His eyes swept the mountains. "Gives us a chance to admire the scenery. For weeks, if we're lucky. Maybe even months."
"Beats staring at your own guts," came a Syrian's response. "Even for a minute."
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Spring, 532 A.D.
"It'll be tonight, for sure," stated Menander.
Ashot wobbled his hand back and forth, in a gesture which indicated less certainty. "Maybe. Maybe not."
Menander stood his ground. "It'll be tonight," he repeated confidently. The young cataphract took two steps to the entrance of the field headquarters and pulled back the flap. The Roman army's camp had been set up half a mile east of a small oasis. Menander was staring in that direction, but his eyes were on the horizon rather than the oasis itself.
A moment later, Euphronius joined him. The young Syrian—he was Menander's age, in his early twenties—took one look at the sky and nodded.
"Sundown in less than an hour," he said. "Moonshine, after that, until midnight. The Arabs will wait until the moon goes down. Then they'll attack."
Antonina, seated in a chair near the center of the tent, found herself smiling. As soon as she realized what she was doing, she removed the expression. But not soon enough for it to have escaped Ashot's attention.
Ashot grinned at her. She returned the grin with a look of stern admonition, like a prim schoolteacher reproving an older boy in a classroom when he mocked the youngsters.
With about the same success. True, Ashot had the grace to press his lips together. But he still looked like the proverbial cat who swallowed a canary.
Ashot commanded the five hundred cataphracts whom Belisarius had sent along with Antonina on her expedition. Her husband had selected the Armenian officer for the assignment because Belisarius thought Ashot—after Maurice, of course—was the best field commander among his bucellarii. For the most part, Belisarius' decision had been due to Ashot's innate ability. But he had also been influenced by the man's experience. Even though Ashot was only in his mid-thirties, the Armenian was a veteran of more battles and campaigns than any other officer in Belisarius' household troops. (Again, of course, leaving aside Maurice.)
From her own experience over the past year, Antonina had come to understand why Belisarius had counted that so heavily in his decision. She was still herself something of a novice in the art of war. Time and again, Ashot's steadying hand had been there, when Antonina's assumptions proved incorrect.
The enemy didn't do what you expected them to do? Yeah, well, they usually don't. No problem. We'll deal with it.
Euphronius and Menander turned away from the entrance. With the absolute surety possessed only by young men, they made their pronouncements.
"Tonight," predicted Menander.
"Right after the moon goes down," decreed Euphronius.
"The main attack will come from the east," ruled Menander.
Euphronius nodded his head. Solon approving a judgement by Hammurabi. "Only possible direction. They'll be able to use the setting moon to guide them in the approach. And they won't get tangled up in the oasis."
Antonina squared her shoulders. "Very well, then. See to the preparations."
The two young officers swept out of the tent, brushing aside the flap as if they were the trade winds. When they were gone, Antonina eyed Ashot. The Armenian's grin was back in full force.
"All right," she growled, "now tell me what you think."
Still grinning, the Armenian shrugged. "I don't know. And for that matter, I don't care. The attack might come tonight—although I'm skeptical—so we need to be prepared anyway. It'll be good drill, if nothing else."
Ashot pulled up a chair and lounged in it. His grin faded into a smile of approval. "I like cocky young officers," he said. "As long as they're men of substance—which those two certainly are." He shrugged again. "They'll get the silly crap knocked out of them soon enough. In the meantime, I can count on them to stand straight in the storm. Whenever it comes, from whatever direction."
Antonina lifted a cup from the table next to her chair and took a sip. The vessel was filled with water from the nearby oasis, flavored with just a dash of wine.
"Why don't you think it'll be tonight?" she asked.
Ashot stroked his cheek, running fingers through his stiff and bristly beard. "It just doesn't seem likely to me, that's all. We'll be facing bedouin nomads. They're quite capable of moving fast, once they've made their decision. Fast enough, even through the desert, that they could be in position by tonight."
He leaned forward, planting elbows on knees. "But I know that breed. I can almost guarantee that they'll spend two or three days quarreling and bickering before they decide what to do." He chuckled. "That's the whole point of this exercise. That's why we landed north of Sana, instead of right at the coast with Eon and his sarawit."
Antonina nodded. The tactics of this campaign had been primarily worked out by Ashot and Wahsi. Antonina and Eon, of course, had approved the plan. But neither had felt themselves qualified to develop it in the first place.
And if they had, she knew, they wouldn't have thought to come up with this plan. Ashot and Wahsi, veterans of campaigns and not just battles, had immediately seen the weakness in the traitor Abreha's strategic position. His problem was political, more than purely military.
Abreha was holding Yemen with only two rebel regiments from the Ethiopian army. Those two regiments, the Metin and the Falha, were forted up in the provincial capital of Sana. The third regiment stationed in Arabia, the Halen at Marib, was still maintaining neutrality in the civil war.
The bulk of Abreha's forces, therefore—well over three-fourths of them—consisted of Arab irregulars. Warriors from the various bedouin tribes in southern Arabia, under the shaky command of an unstable cluster of war chiefs. As individuals, the Arab nomads were ferocious fighters. But their discipline was almost nonexistent, and their concept of war was essentially that of brigands and pirates. They had flocked to Abreha's banner, not because they cared which faction of Axum ruled southern Arabia, but because they saw a chance for loot.
So, Antonina was offering them a juicy plum—her small army of Romans, detached and isolated from the main body of Ethiopian sarwen who had landed on the coast near Sana. Rome was the land of wealth, in that part of the world. What few gold coins the Arabs possessed were solidii minted in Constantinople. The streets of the fabled city, capital of the Roman Empire, were reputed among those tribesmen to be paved with gold. (There were a few skeptics in their midst, of course, who thought the tales unlikely. Silver, certainly, but not gold.)
Now, this day, ready to be plucked, was a force of rich Romans not more than two thousand strong. Less than that, really, in the eyes of the bedouin. At least five hundred of those Romans were women.
And that, of course, was another inducement to attack. The tribesmen would capture concubines along with treasure. Roman women, to boot, who were reputed to be the most beautiful women in the world. (Again, of course, there were skeptics. But they were all women themselves, driven by spite and jealousy.)
It was a cunning plan. Even if Abreha tried to restrain them, his Arab irregulars would ignore his orders. But Ashot and Wahsi thought that Abreha, in all likelihood, would not object. From a purely military standpoint, attacking the Romans would seem to be a good move. By approaching Sana from the north, in a separate column, the Romans were isolated from the Axumite army under Eon. Abreha would see the chance to defeat his enemy in detail.
A cunning plan—and risky. There were at least five thousand bedouin under Abreha's banner. They would outnumber the Roman forces by a factor of almost three to one.
Antonina's eyes drifted to a corner of the tent. There, resting on a small table, was her own handcannon. Much as she detested the thing, the sight of the weapon helped to restore her confidence.
The handcannon was smaller than the heavy smoothbores carried by her Cohort, and much more finely crafted. John of Rhodes had made it for her personally. It was the prototype of a line of weapons he planned to develop for cavalrymen. He called it a pistol.
"An over-and-under double-barreled caplock, to be precise," he'd told her, when he handed her the weapon a week before her departure from Alexandria. "It's the first gun made using the new percussion caps. Beautiful piece, isn't it?"
Antonina, handling the device, had privately thought the term "beautiful" was absurd. To her, the grotesque-looking weapon was ugly, awkward—and God-awful heavy. Her small hand could barely hold the grip.
"No, no, Antonina!" John exclaimed. "You've got to hold it with both hands. Here—put your left hand under the stock. That's why the wood's there." His expression shaded from pride to half-apology. "It's not really a true handgun, yet, except for a big man. But it's the best I could come up with this soon."
Despite her private reservations, Antonina had thanked John for the gift. Quite profusely, at the time he gave it to her. Two days later, after spending several hours on the practice range—John had been adamant on the point—her thanks were less heartfelt. She had no doubt the damned thing would do its lethal duty, if and when the time came. But her hands ached and her butt was bruised from the times she had been knocked off her feet by the recoil. She darkly suspected, moreover—damn what the doctors said—that at least one of her shoulders was dislocated. Permanently, from the feel of it.
Ashot's eyes followed hers.
"Ugly damned thing," he grunted. "Glad I don't have to shoot a handcannon. Even that one, much less the bonebreakers the Cohort uses."
For all the sourness of the words, however, his expression was cheerful enough. He leaned back in his chair and planted his hands on his hips.
"Relax, Antonina. The plan'll work. It looks a lot riskier than it really is, unless we screw up."
Antonina blew out her cheeks. "You're that confident in the handcannons?" she asked.
Ashot snorted. "Antonina, I don't have any confidence in any weapons. Weapons are just tools, I don't care how newfangled and fancy they are. No better than the men who use them."
He waved his hand. "I do have confidence in those Syrian boys out there. And their wives. But most of all, I've got confidence in the general."
"The general," to Ashot, meant Belisarius. Like most of the bucellarii, it was a title which Ashot bestowed on no one else. So Antonina was surprised, when Ashot added: "Both generals."
She gazed at him quizzically. Ashot chuckled.
"Didn't your husband ever mention him to you? I'm sure he must have."
Antonina understood the reference, then. Belisarius had done much more than "mention" that other general to her, in point of fact. In the weeks leading up to his departure for Persia, the year before, Belisarius had spent half his time preparing his wife for her own expedition. He had drilled her for hours, day after day, in that other general's tactics. He had even insisted—the only time he ever did so—that she take Aide in her hand and enter the crystal's world of visions.
She almost shuddered, remembering those scenes of ghastly slaughter. But she took heart, as well, remembering the battle of Waterloo. Where the French cavalry broke—again and again—against Wellington's infantry at the ridge of La Haye Sainte.
"Maybe tonight," she heard Ashot murmur. "And maybe not. Doesn't matter. We'll break the bastards, whenever they come."
He barked a harsh laugh. "The only thing I know for sure is this, Antonina. A month from now, those bedouin hotheads will be sulking in their tents. Calling you the Iron Dyke."
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The attack came two nights later, long before the moon went down, and from the south. Menander and Euphronius were both exceedingly disgruntled. The tactics of their enemies made no sense at all!
They got over it, quickly enough. Very quickly. Whatever the Arabs lacked in the way of tactical acumen, they made up for in other ways.
Ashot was not surprised—neither by the Arabs' tactics nor by the vigor of their attack. The timing was about what he had guessed, so far as the day was concerned. He had not really expected bedouin irregulars to be patient enough to wait until midnight. South was the direction from which they had come, and they had the advantage of moonlight to guide them. True, the same moonlight made them easier targets, but the desert warriors sneered at such unmanly concerns. There was a hill to the south, moreover, almost next to the Roman camp. The hill would disguise the Arabs' approach, and give them the advantage of charging downhill.
None of it, as Ashot had foreseen, made any difference. The Theodoran Cohort was prepared, as they had been for three days. As soon as the sun went down, the troops were on full alert. The matchlocks were loaded and the matches themselves were lit. The musketeers buckled on their short swords. The wives laid out the grenades, cut the fuses, prepared the cartridges. Sharpened stakes were set in the ground at eighteen-inch intervals, making for additional protection for the musketeers. The Thracian cataphracts, dismounted, took up their pikes.
The smell of smoldering slow match blew across the camp on the ceaseless breeze. The cataphracts and the Cohort waited. Ashot waited. Menander and Euphronius polished their certainties. Antonina mouthed a silent prayer for the soul of a general she had never met and never would, wherever that soul might be.
* * *
Two hours after sundown, the attack started. With a sudden whoop, several thousand Arabs on camelback surged over the hilltop and began charging down onto the camp. Most of them were holding swords, but many brandished torches.
"What the hell?" demanded Menander.
"What's wrong with those stupid—" began Euphronius. But the young commander of the Cohort broke off. He had immediate duties to attend to.
"Sling-staffs!" he shouted. "To the south! As soon as the enemy's in range!" He raced off, seeing to the disposition of the musketeers.
Menander stayed behind, standing next to Antonina and Ashot. He was in direct charge of the cataphract pikemen, but he really had nothing to do. The cataphracts, veterans all, were no more surprised by the illogic of the enemy's attack than Ashot. And, unlike the musketeers, they did not have cumbersome supplies and equipment to move around. The units, without waiting for orders, simply shifted their positions slightly.
They didn't have far to go. Ashot had set the camp in such a way that the Roman troops formed a tightly packed square. The musketeers formed the front line, on all four sides, protected by the palisade of sharpened stakes. The pikemen took position just a few yards behind, ready to form an additional bulwark where needed. The grenadiers, along with the hundred cataphracts whom Ashot was keeping as a mounted reserve, were positioned in the center of the camp.
"Range," for grenadiers wielding sling-staffs, meant a hundred and fifty yards. By the time the first wave of Arabs reached that distance, the wives had cut and lit the fuses. The grenades were sent on their way.
Ashot mounted up. He managed the task unassisted, and with relative ease. Like the rest of the cataphracts, he was wearing half-armor instead of full gear. He had felt that would be enough, against lightly armed irregulars. Mobility would be more important than protection and weight of charge, in this battle.
Ashot was not planning any thunderous sallies, in any case. His relative handful of cavalrymen would be swallowed up in a sea of swirling bedouin, if they ever left the safety of the camp. Their role was to provide a sharp, quick counterpunch wherever the enemy might threaten to break through the front lines.
* * *
Menander and Euphronius, of course, had argued with him.
"Can't destroy an enemy without cavalry pursuit," Menander had sagely pointed out. Euphronius nodded firm agreement.
"Don't need to," had been Ashot's sanguine reply. "We're not facing disciplined regulars, who'll regroup after a defeat. The bedouin haven't got any staying power. They'll attack like maniacs, but if they bounce off, good and bloodied, they'll decide the whole business is not favored by the gods. They'll melt into the desert and go back to tending their flocks. That's good enough, for our purposes. Abreha won't have them, at his side, when Eon and Wahsi storm into Sana."
Menander and Euphronius, of course, had not been convinced. But the youngsters had satisfied themselves, in the days thereafter, with lengthy exchanges on the subject of senility.
* * *
Antonina did less than anyone, waiting for the charge. She simply followed Ashot's advice—say better, instructions—and stood firmly in her place. Right at the center of the camp, where everyone could see and hear her.
"Your job," Ashot had explained cheerfully, "is simply to give the troops confidence. That's it, Antonina. Just stand there, looking as resolute as Athena, and shout encouragement. And make sure you wear that obscene breastplate."
Antonina donned the cuirass, with the help of her maid, Koutina. Looking down at her immense brass mammaries, she had her usual reaction.
Ashot's good cheer faded. "And try not to giggle," he grumbled. "That looks bad, in a commander, during desperate battle."
* * *
Now, as she waited for the charge, Antonina had no trouble restraining her giggle. She maintained her outward composure, but she was quite scared. Terrified, if truth be told.
Ashot could make his veteran pronouncements, and her young officers could decree the certain future. But all Antonina could see, staring at the horde of shrieking nomads coming down the hill like an irresistible force of nature, was a wave of rape and murder.
Cursing at the weight of her awkward firearm, she shifted the strap which held the thing over her shoulder. Her hand groped for the hilt of her "sword." Once her fingers curled around the plain wood of the blade's utilitarian handle, she felt her confidence return. She had used that cleaver before—and used it successfully—to defend herself against rape and murder, when Malwa-paid thugs attacked her in Constantinople. Maurice had purchased the cleaver, afterward, and given it to her for her personal weapon in the battle at the stadium.
Ask any veteran, Antonina, he'd told her at the time. They'll all tell you there's nothing as important in a battle as having a trusty, tested blade.
The cleaver brought confidence. And so, even more, did Ashot's whispered words: "It's just another knife fight in a kitchen, Antonina. Like you've done before."
* * *
The grenades began landing among the Arabs. Few of them missed. The Syrian slingers were combat veterans themselves, now. The confidence which that gave them, added to their own skill, made for a murderous volley.
As before, against cavalry, the main effect of the exploding bombs was moral. Not many of the Arabs themselves were killed, or even seriously injured, by the crude devices. Most of the casualties were sustained by their mounts, and even the camels did not suffer greatly. The year before, when used against Ambrose's rebel cataphracts on the paved streets of Alexandria, shrapnel from exploding grenades had wreaked havoc on the unarmored legs of their horses. But here, on desert sand, there were no ricochets to multiply the damage.
The camels did not suffer greatly from physical damage, that is. But the beasts were completely unaccustomed to artillery fire, and immediately began to panic. The sound and fury of the explosions caused most of that terror. But even the sputtering flare of a burning fuse caused camels to stumble and shy away.
Camels are large animals, heavier than horses. Once started on a charge down a hill, they were impossible to stop. But the charge, as hundreds of camels either collapsed from wounds or simply stumbled from fear, turned into something more in the nature of an avalanche. An avalanche is a fearsome thing, true. But it has no brains at all. By the time thousands of bedouin piled up at the foot of the hill, not fifty yards from the Roman front lines, they had about as much coordination and conscious purpose as a snowdrift blown by the wind.
Euphronius gave the order. Level! Antonina held her breath. Fire!
Fifty yards was within range of the smoothbore arquebusses. Some of the bullets went wide, and many simply buried themselves in the sand. But of the hundreds of rounds fired in that first volley, almost a fourth found a human target.
It mattered hardly at all whether the bullets struck a head, a torso, or a limb. Round shot loses muzzle velocity quickly. But, within fifty yards, the loss was not enough to offset the weight of the .80-caliber lead drop shot. The heavy projectiles, at that range, caused terrible wounds—and struck with incredible force. Arms were blown off, not simply wounded. Thigh bones were pulverized. Men died from shock alone.
The first line of musketeers stepped back, replaced by the second. Antonina expected Euphronius to give the order to fire immediately, but the Syrian waited for the dense cloud of gunsmoke to clear away. She began dancing impatiently, until she realized what she was doing and forced herself to stand still.
Restraint was difficult, even though Antonina understood Euphronius' inaction. It was impossible to see more than a few yards from the front line—and would have been, even in broad daylight. Even the crest of the hill was obscured by the gunsmoke. Until the smoke cleared, the musketeers would be guessing at their target.
A few gaps began appearing in the clouds. Enough, apparently. Euphronius gave the order, and the arquebusses roared again.
The second line stepped back, and the third line came forward. By now, Antonina saw, the first line was already reloaded and ready to fire again.
She felt a certain female smugness. Her troops could manage a much better rate of fire, she knew, than those of her husband. Despite the fact that they were using the same type of firearms, her troops had wives, standing with the men. The Theodoran Cohort carried twice as many handcannons as they had gunners. The women kept the spares ready and loaded. As soon as the men stepped back, a freshly loaded gun was in their hands, while their wives set to work reloading the fired pieces.
With that advantage, Antonina's cohort could manage a rate of fire which approached that of Wellington's men. As a battle wore on, of course, the rate would drop quickly. After a few rounds had been fired through the crude arquebusses, gunpowder residues fouled the bores. The weapons had to be cleaned before they could be reloaded, and even efficient Syrian wives could not do that instantly.
Fire! she heard Euphronius shout. The third line discharged their pieces.
The only reason her troops were not maintaining a faster rate of fire was simply to let the clouds of gunsmoke clear away sufficiently to aim. Had there been a strong wind blowing, they could have been hammering the Arabs almost ceaselessly.
Antonina cursed the light desert breeze. The curse seemed to be effective. A sudden gust blew a great hole in the clouds.
The gap was closed, within seconds, by the first rank's second round of fire. But in those seconds, Antonina saw the carnage.
By now, just as she had experienced in her fight in the kitchen, Antonina was feeling nothing beyond controlled fury. But even with battle-lust burning in her veins, she was glad that the scene was filtered through dim moonlight. The shrieks coming out of that murky mass of struggling men were bloodcurdling enough.
That's got to be pure horror.
The thought was at the edge of her mind, however. At the forefront came recognition that the enemy had recovered enough to change tactics. Wails of agony were overridden by frantic shouts and commands. Murky movement blurred, poured to the sides.
"They're going to the flanks!" bellowed Ashot, loud enough to be heard all through the Roman camp. On the heels of that baritone shout, Antonina heard Menander's high tenor. The young cataphract was shifting his pikemen, shoring up all four sides of the camp.
Seconds later, Euphronius did the same. The commander of the Cohort had concentrated half his musketeers on the southern flank of the camp, facing the hill. Now, he began moving units to the other three sides.
Within two minutes, the Roman formation was that of a classic infantry square, bristling like a hedgehog with muskets and pikes. The Arabs were swirling all around the camp, attacking on every side in small lunges and sallies.
For the first time, the pikemen went to work. Euphronius, for all his youth, was too canny to waste entire salvoes on small clots of enemy cavalry. The threat of those shattering salvoes, in the long run, was all that was holding the enemy at bay. If the Roman musketeers fired too often, their weapons would become hopelessly fouled.
So he waited, patiently, until he saw a large enough cluster gathering. Then, and only then, did the gunsmoke clouds fill the air. In the meantime, the pikes were busy, keeping at bay the small groups of Arabs—sometimes one man alone—who tried to rush the Roman lines.
"Keeping busy" meant, for the most part, simply standing their ground. Not often were the blades of the pikes actually needed.
That was not due to cowardice on the part of the men facing those pikes. No one doubted the courage of the bedouin, or their willingness to hurl themselves onto the Roman lines. But it is a simple fact, often glossed over by historians and always by poets and bards, that horses and camels—level-headed, sensible, sane, rational creatures—can not be forced onto a wall of spears. Any number of camels, either from accident or from being half-crazed by wounds, did stumble against the pikes. The pikes brought them down, and their riders with them. But the great mass of the beasts shied away, despite the shrieking commands of their supposed masters.
Antonina, after a few minutes, felt her tension easing. She had been told—assured—by her husband, and by Maurice and Ashot, that this would be true. Still, seeing is believing.
Stand your ground, love, her husband had told her. Just stand your ground, with pike and handcannon. No cavalry in the world will be able to break you, unless they break your will. Artillery could, but you won't be facing that where you're going.
Many things about herself Antonina had doubted, over the years. Never her will. She was a small woman, but she had a spine to match Atlas.
So, as the battle raged, Antonina found herself doing exactly what Ashot—and her husband and Maurice before him—had told her to do. Just stand there, looking calm and confident. Shout the occasional words of encouragement; whistle a tune; whatever—as long as it's not a giggle.
She only had to fight down a giggle once. Her maid, Koutina, having no duties of her own in battle, had still insisted on staying at Antonina's side. The time came when Koutina nodded sagely, as if some inner suspicion had been confirmed.
"I knew it," she said. The young Egyptian maid glanced at the wall of pikes and muskets, dismissing them serenely. "They're scared of your giant tits, is what it is. That's why they won't come any closer.
* * *
At the very end, Antonina learned another lesson. Her husband—and Maurice, and Ashot—had told her of this one, too. But she had forgotten, or never quite believed.
Battles are unpredictable things. Chaos incarnate.
The bedouin finally broke, screaming their frustration. Thousands of Arabs pounded away from the camp, fleeing into the desert. But, by some strange eddy, a large cluster of enemy cavalrymen suddenly hammered into the southern flank of the Roman square.
Since the first few moments of the battle, when the soldiers facing the hill had borne the brunt of the attack, their fight had been easy. If nothing else, the great mound of human and camel bodies in front of them kept most of the Arabs at bay. Now, coming from God-knows-where-or-how, a knot of some twenty bedouin thundered at the line.
The line had been thinned, too far. The Roman flank did not break, but it did crack. Three bedouin made it into the camp itself. Ashot's cataphracts, mounted and held in reserve, started moving toward them.
Before the cataphracts could reach them, two of the Arabs were felled by gunshots. The third Arab's mount was brought down by a pike. The bedouin warrior sprang off the collapsing camel, like a nimble acrobat, and rolled to his feet.