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Authors: Sam Barone

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

Quest for Honour (8 page)

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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The Akkadians resumed their march, moving slower now and exercising caution with every step. They all followed Myandro, who led the way toward the base of a low hill. When Eskkar and the men started to climb, Myandro gave the order to halt.

“Keep the men here, Captain,” he said. “You come to the top of the hill.”

Soon Eskkar, Waradi, Alexar, Drakis, and Myandro lay at the top of the hill, facing south. Grond and Ishme were already there waiting for them, but one look over the crest told Eskkar everything he needed to know.

The enemy camp lay less than a quarter mile away, outlined by the fading glow from three watch fires. Eskkar could even make out the dozen or so trees that lined the tiny stream.

At this late hour, the guards hadn’t bothered to replenish the flames,
with dawn so near, even assuming they had any firewood left. The size of the encampment surprised Eskkar. He could even make out the hulking shadow of a large tent on one side of the camp. After one quick look, Eskkar raised his estimate of the enemy facing him to at least three hundred. No wonder the enemy felt confident enough to challenge Akkad.

“We won’t be able to get a good count until dawn,” Alexar said, thinking along the same lines.

“It doesn’t matter,” Eskkar said. “A hundred or a thousand, we have to attack. If nothing else, we need the food and water.”

“Do you think they have any guards this far from camp?” Alexar had lifted himself up on one elbow to better scan the landscape.

“I haven’t seen any,” Grond whispered. “I’ve been watching, but the only sentries I see are those pacing the camp’s perimeter. But there’s at least ten of them guarding this approach.”

“Let’s see how close we can get before they spot us,” Eskkar said. “It’s the end of a long nightwatch, and their sentries will be tired. Alexar, you and Grond go back and tell the men what is up ahead. I don’t want any of them falling down the hill because they’re gawking at the campfires.”

“Come on, Grond,” Alexar said, excitement in his voice. “We’ll bring them up a dozen at a time.”

Eskkar rose and crested the hill. The sentries would be unable to see this far into the blackness, and every glance toward the campfires would reduce their night vision. He moved across the grass, feeling his way, until he reached a point about two hundred paces from the camp, as close as he dared go without risking detection. He stopped and waited until Grond crept up with the first group of men.

“Spread out along this line,” Eskkar ordered, extending his arms. He kept his voice low, so that he couldn’t be heard a dozen paces away. “We’ll wait here until dawn.”

Time seemed to race by, and the eastern sky began to lighten. Little by little, the Akkadian line extended as each group of men joined them. When all of them were in place, his line of seventy bowmen stretched more than a hundred paces. Eskkar walked up and down the rank of men, whispering to each one, telling them one last time what they were to do and what to expect. No one showed the slightest fear at the prospect of attacking an unknown force more than three or four times their size. These archers knew their trade, and knew what devastation they could wreak on unprepared men.

With everything ready, Eskkar found he had time for one more set of orders. He gathered the seven horse boys around him.

“Boys, remember what I told you. Spread out and stay a dozen paces behind the archers. Your task is to kill any of the enemy wounded. Use your knives, until you can pick up a sword. Just stay behind the line, and keep silent. I don’t want the archers to hear you shouting behind them. You might frighten them.”

A few giggled softly at the thought. The boys, ranging in age from twelve to fifteen, were nearly wild with excitement and fear. “Yes, Lord,” they whispered.

“And just as important, I want you to keep an eye on our rear. If anything comes up behind us, you must let me know at once. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Lord, we’ll watch the rear.”

“Good. Then good hunting to you. If you do well, you’ll have a full share in any loot we capture.”

“Captain.” Grond approached. “It’s almost light.”

Eskkar strode back to the center of the line. “Drakis, take the right side, Alexar the left. Grond and I will take the center. Keep the men moving forward, and keep the line as even as you can.” He drew his long sword from his sheath and raised it in the air. It wouldn’t be needed for some time, but it would do to mark his place in the line, so that every man would know where their captain stood, and could look to his position for orders if need be.

The men had already strung their great war bows, each one almost as tall as the archer holding it. Arrows were loosened in the quivers, and swords made ready. For well-trained soldiers, these preparations took only moments, so often had they practiced them. Then the men had a chance for one final rest. Most sank to one knee, but a few squatted down while they waited for the order to advance.

The enemy camp was awakening now, the sleepy sounds of men knowing that dawn approached, the cooks already up, the leaders of ten and twenty starting to move about, yawning as they shook the sleep from their own eyes. The first rays of the sun crossed the hill behind Eskkar, illuminating the land before him with a soft glow. The sun wouldn’t be directly behind his men, but at least his archers wouldn’t be staring into a rising sun. The time had come.

“Start the men moving,” Eskkar said, extending his blade straight
toward the enemy camp. Up and down the line, seventy-two men stood, nocked an arrow to the string, and started walking forward, long strides that covered plenty of ground. The fatigue from the long night march had vanished. The prospect of closing with their enemy gave every man renewed strength.

From his position at the center, Eskkar glanced to either side. The line remained as even as could be expected, rippling in places for a few steps before the men regained their position. The archers paced forward in silence, still in the deep shadow cast by the hill behind them. Fifty paces, then one hundred. Someone in the camp gave a shout, but Eskkar knew it didn’t matter now. Another thirty steps and he gave the order. “Halt! Shoot!”

Seventy-two arrows flew through the air. The sentries went down, some struck three or four times. Another volley was already on the way, as the archers loosed their shafts as fast as they could. At this range, less than seventy paces from the edge of the camp, it was almost impossible to miss. And even when they did fail to hit the intended target, the shafts were just as likely to strike some other Sumerian stumbling to his feet in the rear.

Confusion swept over the camp. Men still half-asleep stumbled to their feet to find arrows hissing through their ranks. Wounded men screamed in pain as the heavy shafts pierced arms and legs. Everyone seemed to be shouting orders, and Eskkar knew that would only add to his opponents’ panic. Any enemy who picked up a bow was targeted at once, the distinctive silhouette easily noticeable even in the half-light of dawn. The twang of the bowstrings and the buzzing of the shafts tearing through the air could be heard even above the din coming from the camp.

Eskkar used Waradi’s bow to keep the arrow count. As soon as the archer had launched his tenth shaft, Eskkar gave the order to advance, while he kept moving up and down the line, encouraging the men to take their time and aim their shafts.

The line surged forward another thirty paces, the archers shooting as they walked, before Eskkar halted them. He wanted the Sumerians to fall back, but he also wanted to keep them in a close killing range, just far enough away so that the Akkadians couldn’t be rushed by a desperate counter-attack. Another dozen volleys swept into the milling crowd, all discipline gone with the arrival of the deadly arrows that struck a man down with savage force at such close range.

“Forward, another thirty paces,” he shouted. “On the run!”

With a shout the men jogged forward, the line still fairly straight. They reached the dead sentries and crossed into the camp itself, the scent of blood and worse already thick in the air.

“Akkad! Akkad!” The archers shouted their battle cry as they drove the enemy back. By now most of the bowmen had emptied their first quiver and began drawing shafts from the second.

“Select your targets!” Eskkar bellowed, his voice carrying up and down the line. “Don’t waste arrows!” He didn’t want the men to run out of shafts until the Sumerians broke completely. “Forward! Another thirty paces forward!”

The line surged again. This time his men had to watch their step, as the dead and wounded littered the blood-slicked ground. Behind him, Eskkar heard the horse boys’ high-pitched voices crying out with glee as they hacked away at any wounded enemy that still moved. Horses bolted from behind the tent, and Eskkar saw four men riding away, clinging to their mounts. Damn, that would be the leader of the enemy escaping. Eskkar cursed himself for not telling a few of the archers to target the tent’s occupants or the tethered horses.

By now the Akkadians had swept through half the camp, and the Sumerians gave up any attempt at defending themselves. Screams of the wounded rose up, adding to the survivors’ confusion. Their leaders had abandoned them, and now every man thought only about how to save himself. Everywhere Eskkar looked, he saw men throwing weapons to the ground and bolting to the rear. He knew broken men when he saw them. They would run and run until they fell exhausted to the ground.

The archers reached the far edge of the camp, leaving only dead and wounded behind them. They continued shooting their arrows, angling the shafts higher into the air, until everyone had emptied his quivers. On the plain stretching to the south, Eskkar watched the surviving Sumerians run for their lives, escape from the deadly Akkadian arrows their only thought.

!” There was nothing else he could do. His men were too tired to chase after the fleeing men.

Eskkar turned to face the camp. The sun had just cleared the top of the low hills, and he realized the entire battle had taken only moments. Each of his archers had loosed close to sixty arrows, and it didn’t take long for his Akkadian bowmen to launch that many shafts. Bodies littered the ground, most with arrows protruding from them. Wounded men shrieked
out for mercy or water. The smell of blood now mixed with the more powerful odor of vomit and human waste. Stores of food and piles of water skins, weapons, blankets, cooking pots, clothing, helmets, sandals and tunics lay scattered about, kicked over and trampled in the confusion. Even if the enemy managed to regroup, the survivors would have nothing to fight with and no food to sustain them.

Drakis joined his captain and Grond. “Well done, Captain. We caught them completely by surprise.”

“We were lucky,” Eskkar said, sliding his sword into its scabbard. Another battle fought without his needing to use it. The few enemy who had offered any resistance had been cut down at once, and he doubted if he’d ever been in any danger.

“Well, I for one hope that your luck doesn’t run out.”

“I’m sure it will.” Eskkar laughed and clapped Drakis on the shoulder. “But not today. At least you survived this fight without a wound.”

In the last battle, Drakis had fought like a lion, taken half a dozen wounds, and nearly died. He spent months recovering, while healers hovered over him.

Alexar arrived at almost the same time, a big smile on his face. “Another great victory, Captain.”

“We’ve only won half the battle,” he reminded them. “Now let’s get busy. There’s plenty of work to be done. Have the men collect their arrows first. We don’t want to be standing here with empty quivers if the Sumerian horsemen arrive.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Myandro, put out pickets to guard the camp. Drakis, have some of the men collect the weapons, then count and drag off the dead. Gather the food and anything of value in one place. Grond, come with me.”

Eskkar led the way toward the tent, picking his steps through the bodies and waving off the already gathering flies. He swept aside the opening flap. Grond ducked in first, and Eskkar followed.

Big enough to hold seven or eight people, and almost high enough for Eskkar to stand erect, the tent contained cushions, a small chest, two wineskins, and scattered clothing. A sword hung from the central post, still in its scabbard.

“Our enemy travels well,” Grond said, kicking a cushion aside. “All the comforts of home.”

“Must be some soft merchant who . . .” Eskkar reached out his arm and
pointed to the far corner of the tent. Something had moved under a pile of blankets.

Grond drew his sword, the blade rasping as it came out of the sheath. “Come out! Now! Or I’ll gut you where you hide!”

Eskkar saw the top of a head, then another. He laughed again, and let himself relax.

Two women appeared, clinging to each other, eyes wide with fear. Young girls, with probably less than thirteen seasons. One covered her mouth with her hands, and both trembled as they stood. They looked like terrified children.

“Please don’t hurt us, master,” one said, dropping to her knees, while tears streamed down her face.

The other girl, her eyes wide with fright, couldn’t mouth a word.

At least they could answer one question.

“Who is your master?”

One girl swallowed. “Our master is King Eridu of Sumer.”

Eskkar had to lean forward to hear the words. He grunted in disgust at the name of the former trader turned king. No wonder it had been such an easy victory.

“Get them outside. You’d better assign someone to guard them.” If they’d been a few seasons older, Eskkar would have turned them over to his archers as a reward. Now he’d have to waste time and men to keep two useless pleasure slaves from harm.

The thought surprised him. A few years ago, he would have taken both girls himself. Even now, if he’d done any fighting, the thought of burying himself in a woman’s flesh would have tempted him. Now he regarded them as just another problem to be dealt with. Living with Trella more than satisfied his urges.

“Maybe they’ll tell us something useful,” Grond said, when he returned.

“Yes, I’m sure they’ll know plenty about Eridu’s rod and what wines he favors,” Eskkar said. “I doubt if they have the wits to remember what he dined on last night.” Remembering Trella’s advice, he took a deep breath. Women, even ones as young as these, still heard everything their master said. “But you’re right. They may be helpful. We’ll get back to them later. Now there’s work to do. I want to be ready if the Sumerian horsemen arrive.”

BOOK: Quest for Honour
11.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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