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Authors: Sam Barone

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

Quest for Honour (9 page)

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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I
n the morning, Razrek was up before the dawn, inspecting his men and making sure they were ready for battle. He, too, had doubled his guards for the night, spreading them out around his forces and making sure his horses were protected. The Akkadians knew he was close by, and Razrek didn’t intend to be surprised by a night attack, especially after warning Eridu to beware the same possibility. The first rays of the sun had just lifted above the horizon when Mattaki galloped up, his horse snorting and throwing clods of dirt in the air as its rider pulled it to a halt.

“Razrek! They’re gone, all of them! The Akkadians have broken camp!”

A feeling of dread washed over Razrek. The Akkadians might be flanking him. They could attack at any moment. “Which way did they go?”

“South, damn them,” Mattaki said. “I said they’re gone. I watched the last of them ride off at first light, traveling fast.”

“And the archers?”

“Gone as well. I rode to the top of the hill, but saw no sign of them. They must have left well before dawn.”

Razrek clenched the hilt of his sword until his hand began to hurt. “What were our sentries doing? Sleeping again. You were supposed to keep . . .”

“No, I checked the guards twice last night, and watched the Akkadians myself. They settled in for the night. Damn the gods, they were all sleeping when the camp fires burned out.”

“Then they can’t be far ahead.” Razrek took a deep breath. No sense appearing worried in front of his men. He hadn’t survived so many years by panicking at the unexpected, and his wits told him to think the situation through. Eskkar was a cunning bastard who always had a trick or two ready to spring on his opponents. Razrek realized it didn’t make much sense for the foot soldiers to leave an hour or two earlier. The Akkadian cavalry would overtake them soon enough, so what was to be gained by such a maneuver? Unless . . . unless the archers had left long before the dawn. Could they have slipped away without his men seeing them go?

“Demons below,” Razrek said. “They’re going back to attack Eridu’s men. He thinks he’s pursuing the Akkadians. Instead he’ll be walking into a trap.”

“Impossible,” Mattaki said. “The Sumerians are at least twenty, maybe twenty-five miles behind.”

“Not any more. If Eridu marched north yesterday, even his ragged band of cut-throats would have covered at least ten miles. If Eskkar’s men can cover twelve or fifteen miles during the night, they can meet Eridu at daybreak.”

Mattaki looked dubious. “Could foot soldiers travel that far in the dark? There wasn’t much of a moon last night.”

Razrek wanted to believe they couldn’t. He knew Eridu’s men couldn’t manage such a thing, but Eskkar’s soldiers . . .

“Marduk’s bones, these Akkadians might.” Razrek spat on the ground in anger. “Eridu had better hope to the gods Eskkar’s men can’t reach his Sumerians before dawn. If he doesn’t have a strong guard posted, the fool might wake up with an arrow in his belly.”

“Eridu’s men outnumber the Akkadians by at least three to one, more if their cavalry won’t be there.”

“Numbers won’t matter to Eskkar. Even if he can’t destroy Eridu’s soldiers, he’ll maul them so bad they’ll be ready to run home.” Razrek looked up at the sky. By now Eskkar’s archers might be closing on Eridu’s men. “Get the men mounted, all of them. Call in the scouts. We’ll have to ride hard to save whatever’s left of Eridu’s soldiers. I just hope they can hold out until we arrive.”

“Which route will we take, to the east or west?”

“The shortest, which means we’ll have to follow the path the Akkadians took.”

“We’re going to chase them? Are you mad? They’ll expect us to
follow, they’ll set up an ambush for sure. We should swing around them, take a different route.”

“No time. We’ll have to take the chance.” Razrek shook his head in anger. “Besides, it’s the Sumerians Eskkar wants to smash, not us. By now he’s figured out who his real enemy is. If Eskkar leaves a strong enough force behind to ambush us, he won’t have enough to break Eridu’s forces. We only have to get to Eridu before he’s overrun, and that means we’ll need to take the shortest path.”

“You’re going to get us all killed.”

“No, at the first sign of an ambush, we’ll just pull back, swing around them. If their cavalry tries to follow, we’ll finish them off. Now get moving.”

Mattaki took only moments to get the men ready to ride. Razrek waited, frowning at every delay. He felt his own doubts rising. Suddenly, he was dependent on Eridu’s men holding their ground, and he felt certain Eskkar wouldn’t gamble his forces like this if he weren’t confident of winning. Or would he? King Eskkar believed in luck, that much was certain. Still, even the Akkadian might not be able to cover all that distance during the night. He might be counting on engaging whatever force he encountered before Razrek could arrive.

“Damn all the demons to the fires.” Razrek swung onto his horse. “Let’s ride!”

M
itrac figured he had more than enough time to prepare his position. Even if the Sumerian horsemen began their pursuit at first light, the sun would be nearly halfway to its zenith before they reached this valley. In fact, they might not even come at all, if they took another route to reach the enemy’s camp ground. That would be the best solution, Mitrac knew, because it would delay the horsemen even more, and he wouldn’t have to risk his men. Nevertheless, he hoped the enemy would take the most direct route. If the Sumerian horsemen followed Hathor’s trail, then they would have to ride past Mitrac and his archers.

Eskkar and Mitrac had marked this position yesterday, on the march north. They’d been searching for a place where a few archers might hold off Eridu’s cavalry. This gentle valley seemed a perfect place for the archers. The dale’s walls were not particularly high or steep, but the slope
was long and would be tiring for any horse and rider. At the valley’s center, the walls pinched in, and a small hill jutted up a few dozen paces from the floor, leaving only one narrow path that circled the base of the hill.

Mitrac knew his archers could sweep the approach, and then follow the horsemen as they rode past. The hilltop might not be that imposing, but it would slow down any horsemen foolish enough to try attacking uphill and overrunning the archers’ position. Unless, Mitrac corrected himself, the enemy was willing to risk taking plenty of casualties. Best of all, if the horsemen decided to avoid the killing zone and bypass Mitrac’s archers, the enemy would have to turn around and ride back more than a mile, then find another trail south. That would waste even more time.

His mission wasn’t to defeat or even stop the Sumerian horsemen, only to slow them down and give Eskkar enough time to finish off the foot soldiers. If the enemy didn’t take this route, then Mitrac would have to find a way to join up with Eskkar’s archers. Mitrac and his band would be needed, too, especially if Eskkar arrived too late to take Eridu’s men by surprise.

All that mattered little now, Mitrac decided. “Let’s get to work.” He posted two guards on the top of the hill, and the others descended to the base and started digging.

The Akkadians had brought one bronze-tipped shovel with them on the march south, and Mitrac had requested it. He wanted to dig as many small holes as possible, to help block the expanse between the foot of the hill and the other side of the valley wall. The holes didn’t need to be deep or wide. Half a sword-length deep would be more than enough to break a horse’s leg.

The men took turns with the shovel. Mitrac didn’t want any of them getting their hands blistered and impairing their archery. After Eskkar and the commanders had worked out the plan, Mitrac had picked his own men. He’d selected those who could draw and loose a shaft as fast as humanly possible.

Soon they were all sweating with the effort of digging. At least they’d gotten some rest waiting for dawn to arrive. Mitrac took his turn, like any of the men. They passed the shovel from man to man, while others dug with sticks or anything else they could lay their hands on. Soon the ground beside the hill was pock-marked with dozens of irregular holes scattered about. His men had just a few more paces of open ground to dig when one of the guards gave a shout.

“Riders coming!”

Everyone scrambled back up the hill, gathered their bows, and strung them. The quivers had already been laid out, so that the shafts would draw easily. By now Mitrac could feel the earth shaking as the horsemen appeared at the far end of the valley. As soon as the riders saw the hill, they halted. A few moments later, one of them waved his arms.

“It’s Hathor!” Mitrac shouted. He gestured them to ride in. “Guide them past.”

Hathor’s tall and lean figure was almost as recognizable at a distance as Eskkar’s. The Egyptian and his men cantered toward Mitrac’s position, stopping when they reached the base of the hill. Mitrac and his men formed a line that forced Hathor to funnel his men close to the valley wall, in order to avoid the holes.

Hathor waited until his men had passed through. “They won’t be far behind me, Mitrac.”

“We’ve just another dozen holes to dig, and we’ll be ready.”

“If we get a chance, I’ll send men back to guide you in.”

Not likely, Mitrac thought. He’d recognized the same look in Eskkar’s eyes. Both men thought there was a good chance Mitrac and his men would all be dead by noon. “Good hunting, Hathor.”

The Egyptian nodded respectfully, then kicked his horse and galloped off, riding hard to catch up with his men. Mitrac knew that the Akkadian horsemen had as dangerous an assignment as his own. They needed to ride south at top speed, to link up with Eskkar’s archers at the Sumerian camp. Hathor’s warriors would be the final blow on the Sumerians, the stroke that Eskkar hoped would finish them as a fighting force. With luck, they might even get ahead of the Sumerians. Otherwise, they would follow their trail and try to hunt them down. Hathor would be facing plenty of danger of his own today. If anything went wrong, they’d be caught on tired horses in open ground.

The archers completed digging the last of the holes. Then, on their hands and knees, they spread grass over and around them, trying to erase all signs of their work. When Mitrac felt satisfied that any oncoming riders wouldn’t see the deadly holes until they were right on top of them, he gathered his men atop the hill. They formed a rough half-circle that encompassed the hilltop. Swords were withdrawn from their sheaths and stuck into the earth.

Mitrac gazed at each of his archers. They looked nervous, excited, a
few of the untested even looked scared. But all them appeared ready to gamble their skill against those of the Sumerians. Thirteen men would try to stop between seventy or eighty horsemen. On open ground, Mitrac knew it couldn’t be done, not against a determined enemy, and these Sumerian horse fighters clearly knew their trade.

But the little hilltop might provide the archers with enough of an edge, and all of his bowmen could loose four aimed shafts in the time it took a man to count to ten. When the horsemen arrived, they would have to decide their course of action. Either attack at once and in full force, or turn aside and take the longer route south.

The waiting began. Mitrac realized he should have kept the men busy, even if it meant digging more holes than needed. The longer they waited, the more time they had to worry, and the more tense they got. He tried to talk to them, but quickly realized he was only making them more nervous. With a shake of his head, Mitrac suddenly understood why Eskkar always remained so grim and silent right before a battle. Better to say nothing, he decided, and just try to look confident.

This time they all heard the horsemen coming, and the ground shook even harder than from Hathor’s passage. Mitrac no longer cared, and without realizing it, he let out a sigh of relief. Two advance riders came into view. They halted at the same place where Hathor stopped as soon as they saw Mitrac’s archers, getting to their feet and readying their weapons. In moments the main force joined the scouts, and the troop halted at the top of the valley, just out of range. A heated discussion soon began, as evidenced by the gestures of the riders.

Mitrac smiled at their hesitation. They didn’t know how many men might be hiding just behind the hill. For all they could tell, all of Eskkar’s archers could be here, just waiting for the chance to slaughter their enemies.

That risk was too great to take. The two scouts turned their horses and began climbing up the valley wall, scrambling their way to the valley rim. Halfway up, the horses stopped, refusing to go any further, and the men dismounted and made their way up the last hundred paces on foot. From there they trotted along the valley rim until they could see behind the hill.

“They’re afraid of our bows,” Mitrac said, as much to reassure his men as himself.

The two scouts continued along the crest, until they could see well up into the valley beyond. They were within range now, and Mitrac
considered loosing a few arrows at them, but decided not to waste shafts at such a long distance.

The two men turned suddenly and retraced their steps at a run. Soon they were slipping and sliding down the slope to where their horses waited.

BOOK: Quest for Honour
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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