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Authors: Sam Barone

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

Quest for Honour (7 page)

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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The first few hundred paces would be the most dangerous. If the enemy saw or heard them, and sounded the alarm, Eskkar would have to call the whole plan off and return to Hathor and his horsemen. Then they would have no choice but to fight their way north. Alexar, Drakis, Grond, and the other commanders would have warned the men over and over about the need to keep silent, watch where they stepped, and keep the proper distance. Nevertheless, Eskkar kept glancing behind him. Finally, he realized that the more he fretted about his men, the more he stumbled himself. Swearing under his breath, he concentrated on the ground before him.

That first part of the long night march moved with maddening slowness. Eskkar worried that the enemy had detected them, might even now be gathering strength to attack. Still, as the Akkadians moved farther away from the camp, their chances of being seen lessened. All that mattered now was maintaining his place behind Waradi, and keeping silent. In that way, step by step, the column crept through the darkness and, despite the occasional stumbles, no alarm was given.

Waradi moved back beside Eskkar. “I think we’re safe enough. We’ve traveled at least a mile from the camp.”

“No sign of Grond?”

“No, not yet. He might be far ahead.”

Eskkar, who tended to worry over every thing that might go wrong, had little concern for Grond’s safety. The man was made of bronze, and it would take more than a few men to subdue him. If Grond encountered any of the enemy, the noise would carry over a great distance in the still night air.

“Speed up the pace, Waradi.”

“Yes, Captain,” Waradi said, risking the familiarity usually reserved for Eskkar’s closest friends and commanders.

Eskkar grunted. He turned to the man behind him. “Pass the word, we’re picking up the pace.”

Each man whispered the order to the man behind him. Soon eighty-five men and the horse boys were stretching their legs at a fast walk, risking the occasional stumble over a rock or patch of high grass. A broken leg or even a sprained ankle would mean a man out of the fight, and Eskkar needed every archer he had. Thankfully the moon had risen, shedding a bit more light to mark both the hills around them as well as the ground beneath their feet.

They kept moving, covering the dark ground as fast as they could. Only when Eskkar’s own legs protested did he halt for a brief rest. Every man sank to the ground, glad to be off his feet. Nevertheless, Eskkar paused only long enough to let the men catch their breath. The archers’ legs would just have to suffer.

They resumed the grueling march. All too soon the moon rose to its highest point and began its descent. Eskkar estimated that they needed to cover at least fifteen or sixteen miles to reach the Sumerian camp. And, of course, that assumed that a Sumerian force existed, and that this unseen enemy had moved north to pursue the retreating Akkadians. If that held true, Eskkar was still gambling his enemy would camp at the most likely place, where the small stream would provide plenty of water. Still, for all Eskkar knew, they could have marched ten or twenty miles in the opposite direction, back toward Sumer.

Walking through the blackness, Eskkar wondered if his march was anything more than a fool’s errand. The plan that had seemed so reasonable yesterday now seemed more like a dangerous gamble that would put
the Akkadians in harm’s way. If dawn arose without their encountering the enemy, he would have wasted more than just a long and dangerous night’s march. Hathor and the horsemen would be miles away, possibly in as much danger as Eskkar’s archers. And some of his men would gaze at him before looking away, wondering about their leader’s ability. The thought of looking foolish in their eyes always bothered him.

“Look into the mind of your enemy,” Trella had often advised him, “and try to think as he does.” That single piece of advice from his beautiful wife had accounted for more of Eskkar’s good fortune in battle than anything else. So he placed himself in the enemy’s mind, and tried to think like the leader of the Sumerian force behind him. If the Sumerians wanted a fight, they would follow his trail, chasing after him as fast as they could, and counting on their large force of horse fighters to slow the Akkadians down until they could be caught from behind. Now the long string of assumptions seemed tenuous. Eskkar forced such thoughts out of his head. It was too late now to have qualms about appearing foolish.

More thoughts of Trella jumped into his mind. He always worried when he left her behind, though he knew she was safe enough. Akkad now had sufficient soldiers to man the extended walls, more than enough to repel any attacker and to defend Trella and their son, Sargon from any assault from within. With old Gatus guarding the city, and Bantor protecting Trella, Eskkar felt certain he had little to concern himself about in that regard. Those two were his most trusted and loyal followers, and both would defend Trella and her son while they had breath in their bodies.

He shook his head, angry at himself for letting his mind wander. Now was not the time to be wasting thoughts on Trella. Instead, Eskkar turned his mind toward the coming fight. He still didn’t know for certain who or how many he would be facing.

Sumer, deep in the Sumerian south, had yielded little information to Trella’s few informants in the last six months. They had gathered some rumors of war and of men training to fight. Loose talk provided only a rough count of their numbers, and Eskkar estimated that Eridu could have as many as two hundred men under his command. If supported by a strong force of horsemen, King Eridu might be tempted to attack the border.

Whatever enemy Eskkar faced in the morning, he guessed he would be outnumbered at least two or three to one, but that fact didn’t trouble
him. If he could achieve the surprise he intended, it wouldn’t matter how many men his unknown opponent had.

But if Eskkar didn’t come to grips with the enemy, if the campsite by the stream lay empty, Eskkar’s split forces would be in deadly danger. Hathor would be lucky to rejoin the bowmen without a fight. Again and again Eskkar forced the ever-returning doubts from his mind. Dawn would answer all these questions.

As he strode along, he remembered another night march from almost ten years ago. That time Eskkar and a band of fighters led their horses, guiding the nervous animals through another long night of darkness. Luck had favored him then, and he closed with his enemy just in time for a daybreak raid through their camp. Now Eskkar had to hope tonight’s march turned out as fruitful as the one long ago.

Waradi stopped short, raising his hand to halt the column. Behind Eskkar, the line of men stumbled and muttered at the sudden cessation of movement. To Eskkar’s ears, the noise sounded loud enough to wake the demons below.

“Captain, it’s Grond.” Waradi’s voice carried just enough to be heard a few dozen paces away.

Eskkar breathed a sigh of relief. “Pass the word for the men to halt.”

Grond reached Eskkar’s side, giving his captain a hug of delight. “We’re making good time. Mitrac’s hill is just ahead. My two scouts are on the far side, watching. But so far, we’ve seen nothing.”

Eskkar digested the news. His archers had covered nearly two-thirds the distance to the stream. Best of all, they weren’t lost, or marching in the wrong direction. “Good. Then we can increase our pace again.” He moved back down the column, until he reached Mitrac and his group of hand-picked archers. “Mitrac. We’re here. Gather your men.”

The young archer had only nineteen seasons, but had more experience killing men than anyone in Akkad, including his captain. His bow had brought down countless numbers of barbarians, bandits and invaders, and even Eskkar stood in awe of Mitrac’s skill with his chosen weapon.

Soon twelve of the archers stood behind Mitrac, all of them facing Eskkar.

“At least you don’t have to walk any more,” Eskkar said, in a feeble attempt at humor. Mitrac and his men would be left behind, to act as a rearguard and slow down any pursuit.

“Good luck to you, Captain,” Mitrac answered.

“Is there anything else you need?” Eskkar wanted to say more, but there was nothing more to say. Everything had been discussed yesterday on the march up.

“No, Captain,” Mitrac said. “You should keep moving. We’ll catch up to you later in the day.”

“Good hunting to you, then.” He turned to Waradi. “Get the men moving. They’ve rested long enough.”

With muted groans the column started off once again. Eskkar had time for a glance behind him at Mitrac and his men. The young archer had risked his life a dozen times, but always at Eskkar’s side. Now Mitrac might have to face an unknown number of enemies, and Eskkar hoped he hadn’t sacrificed one of his most loyal followers. Still, another dozen archers probably wouldn’t make much difference in the morning, but here, if they could slow the enemy horsemen, they would strike a hard blow of their own.

The column of soldiers, now reduced to seventy-nine men and boys, pressed on. Once again Grond went on ahead to rejoin his two scouts. Their station would be at least a quarter mile in advance, alert for any signs of the enemy. Eskkar couldn’t be sure, but estimated his men had no more than four or five miles to go to reach the camp site.

He glanced up at the heavens. The moon seemed to move faster now across the cloudless sky dotted with uncountable numbers of stars. The march continued, and the ground grew rougher, and more men stumbled or tripped as they tired. Eskkar’s legs ached from the strain, and he heard the labored breathing of the soldiers behind him. They had covered several miles since their last stopping place. Better to halt now and let the men rest for a few moments.

“Waradi, we’ll stop and rest. Pass the word to halt, then see if there’s anything up ahead.”

Alexar moved up from his post at the rear of the column. He joined his leader and sat down on the grass with a grunt of pleasure. Everyone was feeling the strain. “I left Drakis in charge of the rear, Captain.” He glanced up at the sky. “Not much longer to sunrise,” Alexar offered.

Eskkar’s temper flared at the innocent words, but he caught himself. Alexar meant no criticism of his leader’s plan. “Well, if we can’t reach the camp by dawn, then all the men can enjoy a good rest.”

“I meant . . .”

“I know what you meant, Alexar,” Eskkar said, softening his tone. “We’ll give it one more push. If we don’t find anything, we’ll build a camp of our own and wait for Hathor to join us.”

That was the plan in the event of failure, or as much of it as they’d worked out. They would need food and water, and only the horsemen could bring that, and then only if they could avoid the enemy horsemen. In fact, Eskkar and his men would be trapped wherever they were, weary and helpless with scarcely any food.

“We’ve still got time,” Alexar said. “Though I thought we’d have reached the stream by now.”

Eskkar glanced up at the moon. It was fading, about to dip below the horizon. Not long after that, dawn would come. “We’ve rested long enough. Let’s get the men moving.” With a long sigh of soft murmurs, the column climbed back on its feet and started moving. By now Eskkar had no idea of how far they’d come, or how much farther they had to go.

“Captain! Captain!” Waradi rushed back to the head of the column. “One of the scouts, Myandro, he came back. He says he thinks they saw a glow in the night up ahead.”

That might mean a single campfire, but Eskkar doubted any scouting party would burn a fire all night long. Only a large camp full of men would do that, to keep some fire available during the night should an emergency arise.

“Lead the way, Waradi,” Eskkar said. “Alexar, get back to the rear and keep the men moving. Tell every one of them not to make a sound or I’ll cut their tongues out myself.”

In moments, and despite his orders, whispers of the sighting swept down the length of the column. Waradi and Eskkar pushed the pace even harder. The race against dawn continued, but now at least the Akkadians had some hope. It would be crushing to reach the enemy camp and find them awake and preparing for battle.

The archers moved quicker now, covering the next half mile almost at a trot. Then Waradi halted the column. Myandro, one of Grond’s advance scouts, loomed up out of the shadows.

“Captain, there are campfires up ahead, at least three of them,” Myandro said. “Less than a mile from here. As soon as we saw that, Grond sent me to find you. He and Ishme are waiting there, watching the camp.”

A fire’s light could be seen for miles at night. “You saw none of their sentries?” Eskkar bit his lip as soon as the words were uttered. Myandro, a
Hawk Clan warrior, had proven himself as one of the finest night hunters in Akkad. If the scout had seen anything of importance he would have spoken.

“No, nothing. If they have sentries posted, they’re staying close to the camp.”

“Let’s keep moving, men,” Eskkar said, speaking just loud enough to reach the archers now clustering around him. “Their camp is just ahead.” Without waiting for a reply, Eskkar started jogging south. Myandro flashed by and raced ahead into the darkness with scarcely a sound coming from the thick grass beneath his sandals, while Waradi retook the lead position, stretching his own legs to keep pace with Eskkar’s longer limbs.

Eskkar didn’t stop jogging until he saw the glow of the fires up ahead. Then he slowed to a fast walk, breathing hard. A horseman born and bred, he hated walking, let alone running. Even after all those years living as an outcast among villagers and farmers, Eskkar still believed the farthest a warrior should walk was the distance from his tent to his horse. Villagers, who possessed few horses, had grown accustomed to walking great distances. Nor did they need many horses, living as they did jammed together in villages, with every man and animal within touching distance.

He glanced up at the sky. The moon had faded to a mere speck. But there should be just enough time to reach the enemy’s camp. Myandro’s figure again appeared out of the darkness.

“We’ll need to be silent, Captain,” he warned. “Every sound carries farther at night. We’re close enough now that they might hear us coming.”

“Just get us into position before the sun comes up,” Eskkar whispered.

BOOK: Quest for Honour
7.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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