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Authors: Sam Barone

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

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BOOK: Quest for Honour
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“I agree,” Eskkar said. He let his eyes reach each man, and saw that all of them, even the dour Egyptian, had smiles on their faces. They knew their commander well enough to know that he had something planned. The idea that Eskkar had mulled in the back of his head all morning had taken shape. The gamble would be great, and if his plan failed, his entire Akkadian force would be at risk. Nevertheless, he couldn’t come up with anything better. He would put forth his plan. His commanders would add their suggestions and improvements, and when they were finished, their confidence would unite them once again into a deadly fighting force.

Eskkar returned their smiles. “Here’s what we’re going to do. The first step is to convince our enemy that their plan is working.”

Every head leaned closer. Eskkar began scratching in the dirt with his knife. Soon stones and more knives marked the earth, each signifying places where forces could be arrayed. They talked and argued, offered suggestions and criticisms. Their voices rose and fell with the heat of their emotions. By the time the sun sank toward the western horizon, the plan had grown complete. As Eskkar expected, his experienced fighting men had expanded and improved his idea.

From a distance, the rest of Akkad’s soldiers watched in silence. A few of the veterans had seen such a war council before, and knew that a difficult and dangerous plan would soon put them in harm’s way. But those same veterans looked unworried. In battle after battle, Eskkar had always outwitted his enemies. At least, until now.

W
hen the war council ended, the Akkadians camped for the night, grateful and all the more relaxed after they learned they would not be marching tomorrow. Eskkar and his commanders huddled about the campfire, reviewing and refining their plans. When yawning slowed the conversation, Eskkar told everyone to get some sleep. He took one last turn around the camp to make sure every man had prepared himself to fight in case of a surprise attack. Respectful of his adversaries, he’d readied his men for the possibility of a night or dawn raid. Finally satisfied, Eskkar rolled himself in his horse blanket and, for the first time in five days, slept as well as any of his men.

A strong guard kept watch over the camp and its horse herd. Whatever happened, the horses had to be protected. A night raid to stampede them would be ruinous.

In the morning, Eskkar’s commanders woke everyone well before dawn. When the sun rose without any signs of enemies approaching, he let his men break their fast, though weapons remained close at hand.

Afterwards, Eskkar and Grond studied the land surrounding them.

“Those low hills over there,” Grond said. “I think I saw movement along the crest.”

Eskkar grunted. He’d studied those same hills, and hadn’t seen
anything. “I remember when I had eyes as keen as a hawk. Now I need others to search out any signs of life.”

Grond had five less seasons than Eskkar, though most people thought they were of the same age. “Less than a mile away. Close enough to keep an eye on our camp and count our numbers.”

“Swordplay will carry that far,” Eskkar decided. “Maybe you can swing a blade with Klexor. He’s big enough to make plenty of noise.”

Grond laughed. “Who gets to win?”

Klexor’s stocky body was the largest in Eskkar’s mounted force. Hathor stood a bit taller, almost as tall as Eskkar, but lacked the bulk to his body.

“Decide for yourself. Then you won’t complain afterwards. But let’s start with the men. And send out scouts to the north and west first. That will give you and Klexor time to prepare for battle.”

The hilltops that probably contained the closest enemy scouts lay to the south and east, and Eskkar didn’t want to disturb their vigil by sending outriders in that direction.

Not long afterwards, a fight broke out in the Akkadian camp. A dozen men began pushing and shoving, fists swung, and men staggered to the ground, only to rise again and rejoin the fray. The commanders quickly broke up the quarrel, and the grinning men fell back on the ground, trying to look properly subdued.

Eskkar and Grond looked on with satisfaction at the performance.

“Now you can try your hand with a sword. I’m betting on Klexor.”

“It would be close,” Grond agreed. “But we’ll put on a fight that should send the Sumerians a message.”

“Let’s hope it’s the one we want them to hear.”

3

O
n the day the Akkadians took their rest, Razrek, the leader of the Sumerian horse fighters, arrived at King Eridu’s camp well after midday. Barrel-chested, with thick arms and muscled thighs, Razrek’s very appearance struck fear into most men. His powerful jaw was half-concealed by a dark beard, and he wore his thick hair in a dozen bristling strands, each one tied with a bit of leather, that reached past his shoulders. For those who heard stories or rumors about his past, Razrek’s deeds frightened them even more than his intimidating presence. He’d fought and killed his way across the length and breadth of Sumeria. Not a rogue in his murderous band dared challenge him to a fight.

Long before Eridu proclaimed himself king of Sumer, Razrek had murdered many of Eridu’s enemies, and Razrek’s killings, aided the ambitious trader in his rise to power. Two years ago, at the height of the battle against the barbarians in the north, Eridu provided Razrek with secret information about a valuable caravan returning from the Indus. Razrek and his band of marauders attacked and robbed the caravan, leaving no survivors. The loot from that one raid had doubled Eridu’s wealth and soon enabled him to dominate every other powerful merchant in Sumer. Many suspected what had happened, though only a handful of men knew the true story, and none of them dared say anything.

Today Razrek rode into camp bringing with him a dozen veteran riders, all heavily armed and wearing leather helmets and vests. He guided his horse carefully toward King Eridu’s tent, his eyes studying the large
force of foot soldiers taking their ease. The king had made camp just north of the River Sippar, but well to the east of the usual crossings. Though early in the day, at least a dozen cooking fires sent smoke trails into the sky, and the smell of roasting meat permeated the air. That brought a grimace to Razrek’s face. If they were his men, he’d have them working up a sweat training with their weapons, instead of worrying about their suppers.

Glancing around, Razrek saw more than three hundred men, most sitting or stretched out on the ground. As would be expected, those who could still afford to do so occupied themselves by gambling for whatever coins or belongings they possessed.

A strong force remained on guard, ready to repel any surprise attack from the Akkadians, and Razrek grunted in satisfaction at seeing that. He’d warned Eridu often enough to keep his men prepared and to continue at every moment with their training, but as the Sumerian king extended his sway over the land, he tended to bristle at his troop commander’s suggestions.

Not that Razrek cared what Eridu thought of him or his ideas. Razrek cared only for the gold that Eridu paid him, with the promise of much more to come after the Akkadians were driven back north and the borderlands seized. For as much as Eridu was paying him, Razrek could ignore some of the man’s pride and foolishness.

A large tent, the only one in the camp, sat near the edge of the encampment, close to a bubbling stream. Half a dozen soldiers guarded the tent’s billowy walls and four horses picketed nearby. Razrek dismounted and tossed the halter to one of his men.

“I won’t be long.” He strode toward the tent flap, where two soldiers stood guard, one on each side. For a moment Razrek thought they might try to stop him, but one look at his brutal face and powerful frame convinced them otherwise. Razrek was, after all, the second in command. He shoved the tent flap aside.

Inside, King Eridu of Sumer rested on a cushion, two naked girls kneeling beside him offering him food and wine, among other things. A pleasant scent lingered in the air, some perfume that must have come from the distant eastern lands. Tall and thin, with a prominent nose, Eridu looked more like the merchant he once was rather than a warrior king. His reddish brown tunic, edged with an intricate design stitched on the collar, was bunched up around his waist. One of the girls held Eridu’s rod in both
hands, brushing her breasts against its tip. The second offered up a small platter containing dates and grapes for her master’s consideration. Eridu spit out some grape seeds and glanced up in annoyance at Razrek’s interruption.

“You should not enter my tent without permission.”

“We’re not in Sumer, my king. On the war trail such rules are best left behind.”

“We will return to Sumer soon enough, Razrek.”

The veiled threat was plain enough, but Razrek ignored it. “If I offend you, my king, I can take my leave. I’m sure my horsemen and I can find another leader to serve. Perhaps we could offer our services to King Eskkar. It’s said that he, too, possesses much gold.”

Eridu bit his lip. Razrek’s horsemen were Eridu’s most efficient force, not to mention the threat that had convinced the other cities to cooperate with the king of Sumer or have their lands ravaged. He took but a moment to swallow his pride.

“Leave us,” Eridu commanded, shoving the girl away from his penis. She snatched up her clothing and ran from the tent, the other girl following. He pushed his tunic down over his still swollen member.

“What brings you here, Razrek? Aren’t you supposed to be readying your attack on the Akkadians? Or have they turned back already?”

As soon as both girls were gone, Razrek sat down facing Eridu, hitching his sword across his lap as he settled himself.

“That’s why I’ve come, to tell you what’s happening, and to make sure you’re ready to move against them.”

Razrek had sent a rider to Eridu’s camp this morning with word that Eskkar and his soldiers had ceased their march south. That inactivity continued to bother Razrek all morning, and he decided to report to Eridu himself, to make sure that the king of Sumer understood the import of Eskkar’s action, or lack thereof.

“The Akkadians show no intention of breaking camp. They’re resting their men, and the few scouts they sent out all rode to the north and west. That might mean they intend to move out to the north-west. This morning, a quarrel broke out among the soldiers. Not long after, another fight started, with two men hacking at each other with swords. The commanders had to break it up. My scouts could hear the shouting and clash of swords.”

Eridu shrugged. “They could have been training. But all the better for
us if they argue amongst themselves,” he said with satisfaction. “That will make my victory even easier.”

Razrek didn’t bother to point out that it was his horsemen that kept Eskkar’s forces from smashing Eridu’s foot soldiers, more than half recruited or conscripted in the last few months. The Sumerian king still didn’t fully understand the importance of trained and experienced fighting men in a battle. A merchant first and last, he believed that numbers were more important than skill and discipline, despite all of Razrek’s efforts to convince him otherwise.

“Yes, my king,” Razrek said, trying to be patient. “But this staying in one place is not what I expected from Eskkar. He’s a barbarian who believes in closing with his enemy or giving way. That is the way the Steppes horsemen fight. They attack when they have the advantage in numbers, or retreat when the situation is unfavorable to them. When Eskkar does neither, then I worry.”

Eridu selected a plump date from the platter beside him. He didn’t bother to offer any to his visitor. “Eskkar’s men are tired. Perhaps he is just resting them before he decides to retreat. We can wait one more day. Without food, he can’t stay where he is, while we have plenty of supplies. And if he comes south, he falls into our trap. The chosen battleground is but a half day’s march from here. By midday tomorrow, I’ll be there waiting for him. Once he enters that valley, we will destroy him.”

Razrek hesitated. Eridu’s words made sense, but still Razrek felt uneasy. “It may be as you say. But I came to warn you to stay vigilant. Keep your men ready for anything. Eskkar is cunning, and by now he may even know about your presence. Still, if the Akkadian doesn’t start moving tomorrow morning, I will try and engage his horsemen, to see if I can lure them away from the archers.”

“My men are keeping a close watch to the north. I’ll double the men on watch tonight. We won’t be surprised, Razrek, you can be certain of that. And I’ve trained them hard enough these last few days.”

While you took your ease with your women, Razrek thought. “Then my doubts are resolved, my king. I’ll send word in the morning as soon as I see which way he’s moving.”

“Good. If Eskkar continues to come south, we’ll meet him at the ambush site. If he decides to return to Akkad, you will have to slow Eskkar down until my soldiers can fall on him from behind. By then his men will
be growing weak from hunger. The sooner we finish the barbarian off, the quicker I can claim these lands and get back to Sumer.”

Razrek rose. “Of course, my king. I’ll return to my men, and leave you to your pleasures.”

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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