Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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Chapter 17"It's a good thing you sent the Persian troops to us last night," remarked Maurice, after dismounting from his horse. "We're not the only ones who figured out that those woods are the best hiding place in the area. All the servants fled the villa when they saw the Syrians coming and they wound up with us. If it hadn't been for Kurush and his men, who settled them down, they'd be scampering all over the landscape squawking like chickens. The Malwa would have been bound to capture a few."Belisarius winced."I hadn't thought of that," he muttered. The general glanced back at the villa behind him. "When we arrived, the place was empty. I should have realized there must have been a little army of servants living here, even when the Emperor's not in residence.""Little army? You should see that mob!"Belisarius cocked an eye. "Will it be a problem?"Maurice shook his head. "I don't imagine. The Persians quieted them down and then moved them farther back into the woods. They instructed the servants to remain there, but Kurush told me he made sure to explain which direction was what. He thinks at least half the servants will start running as soon as the Persians take their battle positions, but at least they'll be running deeper into the woods, away from the Malwa. If the enemy catches any of them, it'll be too late for the information to do them any good."Maurice looked toward the villa."What's the situation here?" he asked. The chiliarch examined the villa and the area surrounding it.The imperial villa was not a single structure, but an interconnected series of buildings. The buildings formed an oblong whose long axis was oriented north-to-south. The center of the oblong was open, forming an interior garden. The buildings were enclosed within a brick wall which formed the outer grounds of the villa. The outer wall was low, and not massive. The buildings were nestled near the northeast corner of the wall. To the west, the wall extended outward for hundreds of yards before looping back around. The western grounds of the villa were well-tended and open, except for small copses of trees scattered about.North and west of the villa, just beyond the wall, began the small forest which formed the actual hunting park. Those woods were dense, and covered many square miles of territory. Maurice's troops were hidden away in a part of that forest, about two miles northeast of the villa. To the south, the villa was separated from the Euphrates by a much thinner stretch of woods. The river was less than a mile away.Examining the scene, Maurice could see that the forest and the river would act as a funnel, channeling the Malwa directly toward the villa. The area to the east of the villa was the only terrain on which a large army could move. No general would even consider trying to maneuver through the forest. Maurice had been able to get his cataphracts into those woods, true. But he was just setting an ambush, hiding his troops behind the first screen of trees. Even then, the task had been difficult.He studied the open terrain east of the villa more closely. That would be the battleground. Units of the Constantinople garrison were visible, here and there, eating their morning meal. To the southwest, nestled on the edge of the woods lining the river, Maurice could see portions of the barns, horsepens, and corrals where the imperial livestock were fed and sheltered.Then, more carefully, Maurice examined the wall which enclosed the compound itself—the villa proper, with its adjoining buildings and the gardens. Finally, very closely, he studied the gateway in which he and Belisarius were standing.He did not seem exactly thrilled by what he saw."A lame mule could kick that wall apart," he grumbled. "And as for this ridiculous so-called gate—I'd pit a half-grown puppy against it. Give three-to-one odds on the mutt."Belisarius glanced at the objects of Maurice's disfavor. The general smiled. "Pretty though, aren't they?"He patted Maurice on the shoulder."Relax, you morose old bastard. This is a hunting villa, not a fortress. The outer wall's purely decorative, I admit. But the villa itself was built for an Emperor. It's solid enough, even where the separate buildings connect with each other. Besides, Bouzes' boys did wonders last night, beefing it up. They'll hold—long enough, at least."Maurice said nothing, but the sour expression on his face never faded.The general's smile broadened. "Like I said—morose old bastard.""I'm not morose," countered Maurice. "I'm a pessimist. What if your trap doesn't work?"Belisarius shrugged. "If it doesn't work, we'll just have to fight it out, that's all." He waved at the villa. "Sure, it isn't much—but it's better than anything the Malwa have."Before Maurice could reply, a cheery hail cut him off. Turning, he and Belisarius saw that Coutzes had arrived. The commander of the Syrian light cavalry was trotting up the road leading to the villa. With him were all three of the cavalry's tribunes as well as Abbu, his chief scout.Maurice glanced up at the sky. The sun was just beginning to peek over the eastern horizon. "If he's got news already, they either did a hell of a good job themselves, last night—or the enemy's breathing down our necks."Belisarius chuckled. "Like I said—morose." He gestured with his head. "Look at those insouciant fellows, Maurice! Do those smiling faces look like men running for their lives?"Maurice scowled. "Don't call soldiers 'insouciant.' It's ridiculous. Especially when it comes to Abbu."The chiliarch studied the approaching figure of the scout leader. His somber mien lightened, somewhat. Maurice approved of Abbu. The Arab had a world-view which closely approximated his own. Every silver lining has a cloud; into each life a deluge must fall.Abbu's first words, upon reining in his horse: "The enemy is laying a terrible trap for us, general. I foresee disaster."Coutzes laughed. "The old grouch is just pissed because he had to work so hard last night.""No enemy is that stupid!" Abbu snarled. "We practically had to lead them by the hand!" The Arab's close-set eyes were almost crossed with outrage. Belisarius had to restrain his own laugh.Abbu's face was long and lean, dominated by heavy brows and a sheer hook of a nose. His hair was salt and pepper, but his beard was pure white. There was no air of the benign grandfather about him, however—the scar running from his temple down into the lush beard gave the man a purely piratical appearance.Yet, at the moment, the fierce old desert warrior reminded the general of nothing so much as a rustic matron, her proprieties offended beyond measure by the latest escapade of the village idiot."No army has skirmishers so incompetent!" Abbu insisted. "It is not possible. They would have drowned by now, marching all of them into a well."With gloomy assurance:"The only explanation—obvious, obvious!—is that the enemy is perpetrating a cunning ruse upon our trusting, babe-innocent selves. You have finally met your match, general Belisarius. The fox, trapped by the wilier wolf."Maurice grunted sourly, much as the Cassandra of legend, seeing all her forebodings realized.Belisarius, on the other hand, did not seem noticeably chagrined. Rather the contrary, in fact. The general was practically beaming."I take it you had to chivvy the Malwa vanguard, to get them to follow you to our camps?"Abbu snorted. "For a while, we thought we were going to have to dismount and explain it to them. 'See this, Malwa so-called scout? This is a campfire. That—over there—is known as a tent. These fellows you see lounging about are called Roman troops. Can you say: Ro-man? Can you find your way back in the dark? Do you need us to make the report to your commanders? Or have you already mastered speech?' "His lips pursed, as if he had eaten a lemon. "No enemy is so—""Yes, they are," interrupted Belisarius. The humor was still apparent on the general's face, but when he spoke, his tone was utterly serious. He addressed his words not to Abbu alone, but to all the commanders."Understand this enemy. They are immensely powerful, because of their weapons and the great weight of forces they can bring to bear on the field of war. But the same methods which created that gigantic empire are also their Achilles heel. They trust no-one but Malwa. Not even the Ye-tai. And with good reason! All other peoples are nothing but their beasts."He scanned the faces staring at him, ending with Abbu's."They have scouts as good as any in the world, Abbu. The Kushans, for instance, are excellent. And the Pathan trackers who serve the Rajputs are even better. But where are the Kushans? At the rear. Where are the Rajputs?" He gestured to the northeast. "Being bled dry in the mountains, that's where. Here, in Mesopotamia, they are using common cavalrymen for skirmishers." He shrugged. "Without Ye-tai to shepherd them, those soldiers will shirk their duty at every opportunity.""They're arrogant bastards, all right," chimed in Coutzes. "It's not just that their vanguard elements are sloppy—they've got almost no flankers at all."Belisarius glanced at the rising sun. "How soon?" he asked.Coutzes' reply was immediate. "An hour and a half, general. Two, at the most." The young Thracian gave Abbu an approving look."Despite all his grumbling, Abbu and his men did a beautiful job last night. The Malwa are headed directly for us, and they've assumed a new marching order. A battle formation, it looks like to me—although it's like none I've ever seen.""Describe it," commanded Belisarius."They've got their regular cavalry massed along the front. It's a deep formation. They're still in columns, but the columns are so wide they might as well be advancing in a line.""Slower than honey, they're moving," chipped in one of Coutzes' tribunes. Coutzes nodded. "Then, most of their barbarians—Ye-tai—are on the flanks. But they're not moving out like flankers should be. Instead, they're pressed right against—""They're not flankers," interrupted Belisarius, shaking his head. "The Ye-tai are used mainly as security battalions. The Malwa commander has them on the flanks in order to make sure that his regular troops don't break and run when the battle starts."Coutzes snorted. "I can believe that. They're some tough-looking bastards, that's for sure.""Yes, they are," agreed Belisarius. "That's their other function. The Malwa commander will be counting on them to beat off any flank attack."One of the other tribunes sneered. "They're not that tough. Not against Thracian and Illyrian cataphracts, when the hammer comes down."Belisarius grinned. "My opinion—exactly." To Coutzes:"The Kushans are still in the rear? Pressed up close, I imagine, against the formation in the center—the war wagons with the priests and the kshatriya?"Coutzes nodded. Belisarius copied the gesture."It all makes sense," he stated. "The key to that formation—the reason it looks odd to you, Coutzes—is that the Malwa approach battle like a blacksmith approaches an anvil. Their only thought is to use a hammer, which, in this case, is a mass of cavalry backed up by rocket platforms. If the hammer doesn't work"—he shrugged—"get a bigger hammer.""What about the Lakhmids?" asked Maurice.Coutzes and the tribunes burst into laughter. Even Abbu, for the first time, allowed a smile to creep into his face."They're no fools," chuckled the scout leader. Approvingly: "Proper good Arabs, even if they are a lot of stinking Lakhmites. They're—" Coutzes interrupted, still laughing."They are assuming a true flank position—way out on the flank. The left flank, of course, as near to the desert as they can get without fighting an actual pitched battle with the Ye-tai.""Who are not happy with the Lakhmids," added one of the tribunes. Another chimed in, "They'll break in a minute, general. It's as obvious as udders on a cow. You know how those Arabs think."Abbu snorted. "Like any sane man thinks! What's the point of riding a horse if you're not going to run the damn beast? Especially with an idiot commander who maneuvers his troops like—" the scout nodded at Belisarius "—just like the general says. Like a musclebound, pot-bellied blacksmith, waddling up to his anvil."Belisarius clapped his hands, once."Enough," he said. "Coutzes, start the attack as soon as you can. By now, the Constantinople men will be up and ready. I'll be with them, when the time comes."Coutzes peered at him. The look combined hesitation and concern. "Are you sure about that, general? The casualties are going to be—""I'll be with them," repeated Belisarius.Coutzes made a little motion with his shoulders, like an abandoned shrug. He turned his horse and trotted off. His tribunes and Abbu immediately followed.Once they were gone, Maurice glanced at Belisarius."Odd," he remarked. "Hearing you make such sarcastic remarks about blacksmiths, I mean. I always thought you admired the fellows.""I do," came the vigorous response. "Spent half my time, as a kid, hanging around the smithy. Wanted to be a blacksmith myself, when I grew up."The general turned and began walking through the gate back to the villa, Maurice at his side."I wasn't poking fun at blacksmiths, Maurice. I was ridiculing generals who think they're blacksmiths."He shook his head. "Smithing's a craft. And, like any craft, it has its own special rules. Fine rules—as long as you don't confuse them with the rules of another trade. The thing about an anvil, you see, is that it's just a big lump of metal. Anvils don't fight back." A half hour later, after parting company with Maur-ice, Belisarius rode his horse into the Constantinople encampment. Valentinian and Anastasius accompanied him, as always, trailing just a few yards behind.The Greek troops were already up and about. Fed, watered, fully armed and armored—and champing at the bit. The soldiers greeted him enthusiastically when he rode up. Belisarius listened to their cheers carefully. There was nothing feigned in those salutations, he decided. Word had already spread, obviously, that Belisarius would be fighting with them in the upcoming battle. As he had estimated, the news that their general would be sharing the risks of a cavalry charge had completed the work of cementing the cataphracts' allegiance.I've got an army, finally, he thought with relief. Then, a bit sardonically: Now, I've only got to worry about surviving the charge. Aide spoke in his mind:I think you should not do this. It is very dangerous. They will have rockets. Belisarius scratched his chin before making his reply.I don't think that will be a problem, Aide. The Syrians should have the enemy cavalry confused and disorganized by the time we charge. If we move in fast they'll have no clear targets for their rockets. Aide was not mollified.It is very dangerous. You should not do this. You are irreplaceable. Belisarius sighed. Aide's fears, he realized, had nothing to do with his estimation of the tactical odds. They were far more deeply rooted.No man is irreplaceable, Aide. That is not true. You are. Without you, the Malwa will win. Link will win. We will be lost. The general spoke, very firmly. If I am irreplaceable, Aide, it is because of my ability as a general. True? Silence.Belisarius demanded: True? Yes, came Aide's grudging reply.Then you must accept this. The risk is part of the generalship. He could sense the uncertainty of the facets. He pressed home the lesson.I have a small army. The enemy is huge. If I am to win—the war, not just this battle—I must have an army which is supple and quick to act. Only a united, welded army can do that. He paused, thinking how best to explain. Aide's knowledge and understanding of humanity was vast, in many ways—much greater than his own. But the crystalline being's own nature made some aspects of human reality obscure to him, even opaque. Aide often astonished Belisarius with his uncanny understanding of the great forces which moved the human race. And then, astonished him as much with his ignorance of the people who made up that race.Humanity, as a tapestry, Aide understood. But he groped, dimly, at the human threads themselves.We are much like Malwa, we Romans. We, too, have built a great empire out of many different peoples and nations. They organize their empire by rigid hierarchical rules—purity separated from pollution, by carefully delineated stages. We do it otherwise. Their methods give them great power, but little flexibility. And, most important, nothing in the way of genuine loyalty. We will only defeat them with cunning—and loyalty. He closed in on his point, almost ruthlessly. He could feel Aide resisting the logic.It is true, Aide. I am the premier general of Rome because of my victories over Persians and barbarians. I won those victories with border troops—Thracians, of course, but also Syrians and Illyrians. The Greek soldiers who form the heart of the Roman army know little of me beyond my reputation. That is too abstract. For the war against Malwa, those men are key. I must have their unswerving loyalty and trust. Not just these men, today, but all the others who will follow. Firmly, finally:There is no other way. A general can only gain the loyalty of troops who know he is loyal to them, also. I have already shown the garrison troops that I cannot be trifled with. Now I must show them that I will not trifle with them. Their charge is the key to the battle. If it is pressed home savagely, it will fix the enemy's attention on the Greeks. They will not dream that there might be others—even more dangerous—hidden in the woods. Silence. Then, plaintively:It will be very dangerous. You might be killed. Belisarius made no answer. By now, he was approaching the center of the Constantinople encampment. He could see Agathius astride his armored charger, fifty yards away, surrounded by his tribunes and hecatontarchs. The young chiliarch was issuing last-minute instructions. He was not bellowing or roaring those commands histrionically, however, as Belisarius had seen many Roman officers do on the morning of a battle. Even at a distance, the relaxed camaraderie of the Con-stantinople command group was obvious.Aide's voice cut through the general's satisfaction.I would miss you. Very much. Belisarius focussed all his attention on the facets. He was dazzled, as so many times before, by the kaleidoscopic beauty of that strangest of God's creations. That wondrous soul which called itself Aide.I would miss you, also. Very much. A small part of his mind heard Agathius' welcoming hail. A small part of his mind raised a hand in acknowledgement. For the rest—Whimsy returned.Let's try to avoid the problem, shall we? The facets flashed and spun, assuming a new configuration. A shape—a form—Belisarius had never sensed in them, before, began to crystallize.I will help, came the thought. Firm, solid—lean and sinewy.Almost weaselish.Those sorry bastards are fucked. Fucked! Belisarius started with surprise. Aide's next words caused him to twist in his saddle, to make sure that he had not heard Valentinian himself.Mutter, mutter, mutter. "I didn't say a thing," protested Valentinian, seeing the general's accusing eyes. With an air of aggrieved injury, he pointed a thumb at the huge cataphract riding next to him. "Ask him.""Man's been as silent as a tomb, general," averred Anastasius. "Although I doubt he's been thinking philosophical thoughts, as I have. I always contemplate before a battle, you know. I find the words of Marcus Aurelius particularly—"Valentinian muttered. Anastasius cocked an eye."What was that? I didn't catch it."Belisarius grinned."I think he said 'sodomize philosophy.' But, maybe not. Maybe he said 'sod of my patrimony.' Praying to the ancestral spirits of Thrace, you understand, for their protection in the coming fray."Mutter, mutter, mutter.Mutter, mutter, mutter.  Chapter 18Belisarius ordered the charge as soon as he saw the first units of the Syrian light cavalry pouring back from the battlefield.The battlefield itself, directly to the east, was too distant to make out clearly. From a mile away, it was just a cloud of dust on a level plain—fertile fields, once—further obscured by the little copses of trees which were the outposts of the imperial hunting park. But the general, from experience, had been able to gauge the tempo of the battle by sound alone.Based on what he had heard, he thought the situation was progressing very nicely. He was particularly pleased—if he had interpreted the sounds correctly—by the situation on his right. There, Abbu and his men had concentrated their attentions on their Arab counterparts.Abbu's scouts were bedouin tribesmen, pledged to the service of the Ghassanid dynasty. The Ghassanids were Rome's traditional allies in northwest Arabia. More in the way of vassals, actually, but Rome had always been careful to tread lightly on their prickly Arab sensibilities. The Lakhmids had served Persia in the same capacity, in northeast Arabia, until switching their allegiance to the Malwa.The Malwa were a new enemy, for Rome and its Ghassanid allies. But their Arab skirmishers were same Lakhmids that Abbu and his men—and their ancestors—had been fighting for centuries. That conflict had ancient, bitter roots.Both sides in that fray ululated in the Arab manner, but there were subtleties which were quite distinct to the general's educated ear. For a time, the ululations had swelled and swayed, back and forth. Now, there was a different pattern to the chanting rhythm of that battle.Unless Belisarius missed his guess badly, Abbu and his men had fairly routed the Lakhmids—and with them, the only competent scouts in the enemy's army besides the Kushans.He was pleased—no, delighted. Many things Maurice had taught him until the general, finally, outstripped his tutor, but one of the earliest lessons had been simple and brutal:First thing you do, you blind the bastards.  The "charge" which Belisarius ordered was more in the nature of a vigorous trot. The enemy was still almost a mile away, even if, as he expected, they were advancing toward him. A mile, especially in the heat of a Syrian summer, was much too far to race a warhorse carrying its own armor and an armored man.So he simply trotted forward. At first, he kept a vigilant eye on the garrison troopers, making sure that the hotheads among them didn't spur the rest into a faster pace. His vigilance eased, after a bit, once it became obvious that Agathius' sub-officers were a steady and capable lot. Veterans all, they did an excellent job of restraining the overeager.Even in a trot, two thousand cataphracts—along with Persian dehgans, the heaviest cavalry in the world—sounded like distant thunder. The Syrian light horsemen, scampering away from the enemy they had goaded into a furious charge, heard that sound and knew its meaning. Knew that their mightier brothers were coming to their aid. Knew, most of all, that their general—once again—had not failed them.The first Syrians who galloped through the gaps left for them by the oncoming cataphracts were whooping and grinning ear to ear. Shouting their cheerful cries.Belisarius! Belisarius! Some—then more and more, as the battlecry gained favor: Constantinople! Constantinople! Throughout, as the retreating Syrians poured through their ranks, chanting and hollering, the capital troopers maintained a dignified silence. But Belisarius could sense the hidden satisfaction lurking beneath those helmeted faces. All memories of town brawls and executed comrades vanished; all resentments of sharp-tongued borderers fled; all bitterness at aristocratic units lounging in Constantinople while they sweated in the desert were forgotten.There was nothing, now, but the fierce pride of the toughest fighters the world had ever known.Greeks.Latin armies had outfought them, centuries before, with superior organization and tactics. Beaten them so thoroughly, in fact, that they had even adopted the name of their conquerors. The Empire was Greek, now, at its core. But they called it the Roman Empire, still, and took pride in the name.Persian armies, in modern cavalry battles, had outmaneuvered and outshot them, time after time. Until the proud Greeks, who called themselves Romans, had finally imitated their ancient Medean foe. The cataphracts were nothing but a copy of the Persian dehgans, at bottom.In war, others had been better than the Greeks, many times. But no-one had ever been better in a fight. The Greek hoplite had been the most terrible of foes, on the ancient battlefield. They had introduced into warfare a style of bloody, smashing, in-your-face combat that had shocked all their opponents.Achilles come to life; Ajax reborn. The same blood flowed in the veins of the grim men riding alongside Belisarius that day. The armor was different. The weapons had changed. They rode forward on horseback rather than striding on phalanx feet. But they were still the same tough, tough, tough Greeks. A half mile, now. Syrian cavalrymen were still swirling in the ground between Belisarius and the oncoming Malwa. "A Hunnish kind of sally," the general had asked for—and Huns couldn't have done it better. Advance. Volley. Retreat—but with the "Parthian shot," firing arrows over the shoulder. Counter-attack. Volley. Retreat. Swirl forward; swirl away. Kill; cripple; wound—and evade retaliation.Belisarius could finally see a few of the advancing Malwa. He could sense their frenzied rage at the Syrian tactics. Full of their own arrogance, the Malwa thought only of closing with this infuriating army of skirmishers. Their lead units were pushing ahead, maintaining no battle order. The Ye-tai "enforcers" scattered among them were not driving the troopers forward. There was no need. The Ye-tai themselves were seized up in that same heedless fury.The Malwa troops knew little of Mesopotamia, and the Ye-tai even less. Knew nothing of the crumbled bones which littered that soil—the bones of Roman soldiers, often enough, who had made their same mistake. Crassus and his legions had been slaughtered by the Parthians, half a millennium before, not so very far away.Belisarius' main concern had been that the Malwa might precede their troops with rocket volleys. He had not been particularly worried about casualties, as such. The Malwa rockets were much too erratic and inaccurate to fire genuine barrages. But he had been worried that the noise might panic some of his garrison troopers' horses. The mounts which his Constantinople soldiers rode were the steadiest available, true. But they had little of the training with gunpowder weapons which his Syrian and Thracian cavalry had enjoyed.It was obvious, however, that there would be no barrages. As he had hoped, the Syrians' light cavalry tactics had been too agile and confusing to give the Malwa kshatriya a clear target. Now, it was too late. The dust thrown up by thousands of horsemen—friend and foe alike—had completely obscured the front of the battlefield from the Malwa commanders in the center. They would not even be able to see the charge of his Constantinople heavy cavalry. They would hear it, certainly. Even in the din of battle, a full charge by two thousand cataphracts would shake the very earth. But the sound of thunder is not a suitable target for rockets, and the sound would be s

ort-lived in any event. Once the cataphracts closed, rockets would kill more Malwa troops than Roman.Belisarius spurred his horse forward. No gallop, simply an easy canter. To either side, the garrison troopers matched the pace. There was no need, any longer, for the hecatontarchs and decarchs to maintain a steady formation. The cataphracts' lines were as steady as if they had been drawn in ink. Battle was very near, and these were the same Greeks whose forefathers had marched in step at Marathon.Five hundred yards. Though they were closer, the enemy had disappeared completely—swallowed by the dust which hovered over the battlefield, unstirred by even a gentle breeze.Four hundred yards.Out of the dust galloped a small body of Arab cavalrymen. They headed straight for the oncoming Greeks. As they approached, Belisarius recognized the figure of Abbu.The scout leader swept past the general, ululating fiercely. Blood dripped from a small gash on his cheek, but the old warrior seemed otherwise unharmed.A moment later, Abbu drew his horse alongside Belisarius. His mount's flanks were heaving and sheened with sweat, but the horse seemed not in the least exhausted.Abbu certainly wasn't."The Lakhmids are done!" he cried gaily. "Beaten like dogs! We whipped the curs into the river!"Belisarius met that savage grin with his own smile."All of them?"Abbu sneered."Lakhmids. Stinking Lakhmids are not bedouin, general Belisarius. River-rats. Oasis-huddlers. Die of fright in the good desert. I'm sure most of them are scurrying down this bank of the Euphrates. Doesn't matter. You won't see them again. Not for days, if ever. Nothing else, they'll get lost."An exquisite sneer."Camel-fuckers, the lot. Don't even have the excuse of being perverts. Lakhmids are just too stupid to know the difference between a woman and a camel."A royal sneer."Hard to blame them, of course. Lakhmid women are uglier than camels. Meaner, too."Three hundred yards. There was a sudden rush of Syrians—the last die-hards, finally breaking off with the enemy. Then, a second or two later, the first ranks of the Malwa cavalry appeared in the dust. Galloping forward in a full and furious charge.Belisarius caught a glimpse of Abbu's gleaming eyes. At that moment, the old man truly seemed a pirate, ogling a chest of gold.The general laughed. "Let them be, Abbu. Our job, now." He jerked his head backward. "Be off. Regroup your men. Rejoin Coutzes and the Syrians. I want to be sure you're there to cover us—especially on the left—when we make our own retreat. I don't want any Malwa—not one—to get into those woods and find my surprise."Abbu snorted."Worry about something else, general. Worry about anything else. No Malwa will get into those woods."He began reining his horse around, taking a last glance at the Malwa. Two hundred and fifty yards away."God be with you, General Belisarius."* * *Hundreds of Malwa cavalry were visible now. Perhaps a thousand. It was hard to gauge, since they were so disorganized.The enemy troopers finally caught sight of the heavily armored cataphracts approaching them. Some, apparently, began to have second thoughts about the reckless advance—judging from their attempts to rein in their mounts. But those doubters were instantly quelled by the Ye-tai. The Malwa army—more of a mob, really—continued its headlong charge.Two hundred yards. The cataphracts drew their bows; notched their arrows.Time.  Belisarius gave the order. The cornicens blew wild and loud.The Roman cataphracts brought their mounts to a halt. As soon as the horses had steadied, all two thousand cavalrymen raised up in their stirrups. With the full power of their chests and shoulders, they drew back their bows and fired in unison.The cataphracts were four ranks deep. The ranks were staggered in a checkerboard pattern to allow each rank a clear line of fire. With the gaps between the regiments, which provided escape routes for the retreating Syrians, the Constantinople mounted archers covered well over a mile of battlefront. Firing in a coordinated volley, at that short range, their arrows swept the front ranks of the oncoming Malwa like a giant scythe.At least half of the arrows missed, burying their cruel warheads in the soft soil. But hundreds didn't, and most of those hundreds brought death and horrible injury. No bows in the world were as powerful as cataphract bows, few arrowheads as sharp, and none as heavy.The Malwa staggered. Many shouted and screamed—some with shock and agony, others with fear and disbelief. Their light armor had been like so much tissue against those incredible arrows.Belisarius motioned. Again, the cornicens blew.The cataphracts sheathed their bows, reached back and drew their lances. Within seconds, they sent their horses back into motion. Not more than a hundred yards separated the two armies when the Romans began their charge. Those yards shrank like magic.Ironically, it was the Malwa—the bleeding, battered, mangled Malwa—who closed most of that distance. Those Malwa in the front ranks who had survived the volley were driving their horses forward at a furious gallop, desperate to close before more arrows could be brought to bear on them.It was a natural reaction—an inevitable reaction, actually, as Belisarius had known it would be—but it was disastrous nonetheless. A man on a galloping horse must concentrate most of his attention on staying in the saddle. That is especially true for men like the Malwa cavalry, who did not possess the stirrups of their Roman enemies. Men in that position, for all the dramatic furor of their charge, are simply not in position to wield their weapons effectively.For their part, the Roman cataphracts did not advance at a gallop. They spurred their horses forward in a canter—a pace easy to ride, while they concentrated on their murderous work. They set their feet in the stirrups, leaned into the charge, positioned their heavy lances securely, and aimed the spearpoints.When the two cavalry forces met, seconds later, the result was sheer slaughter.Malwa horsemen were better armed and armored than Malwa infantry. But, by Roman or Persian standards, they were not much more than light cavalry. Their armor was mail—flimsy at that—and simply covered their torsos; the cataphract armor was heavy scale, covering not only the torso but the left arm and the body down to mid-thigh. Malwa helmets were leather caps, reinforced with scale; the cataphracts wore German-style Spangenhelm, their heads pro-tected by segmented steel plate. The Malwa lances—in the tradition of stirrupless cavalry—were simply long and slender spears; the Greeks were wielding lances twice as heavy and half again as long.The Ye-tai were better equipped than the common Malwa cavalrymen. Yet they, also, were hopelessly outclassed as lancers—and would have been, even had Belisarius not refitted his cavalry with the stirrups which Aide had shown him in a vision.The Romans shattered the Malwa charge, across the entire line. Some Malwa in the first ranks, on both edges of the battlefront, were able to veer aside. The majority were simply hammered under. Over five hundred Malwa cavalrymen died or were seriously injured in that brutal collision. Half of them were spitted on lances. The other half, within seconds, were being butchered by cataphract swords and axes. And here, too, history showed—Malwa handweapons had none of the weight of Roman swords and axes. The Malwa had only months of experience fighting Persian dehgans; the Romans, centuries.There were perhaps six thousand Malwa cavalrymen directly involved in this first major clash of the two armies. In less than two minutes, between the volley and the lance charge, they had suffered casualties in excess of fifteen percent—a horrendous rate, measured by the standards of any human army in history.Then, the bloodletting worsened. The front ranks of the Malwa had been brought to a complete halt. Many of them, along with their horses, were spilled to the ground. Those still in the saddle were off-balance, bewildered, shocked.The Malwa charging from behind had seen little of the battle due to the dust and the noise. Still driving their horses, they slammed into the immobil-ized mass at the front. Thousands of Malwa horsemen were now hopelessly tangled up and being driven willy-nilly against the Roman line.Belisarius had been planning to call the retreat as soon as the initial clash was done. But now, seeing the confusion in the Malwa ranks, he ordered a standing fight. The cornicens blew again. The rear ranks of the cataphracts moved up, filling out the front line. The gaps were closed; the horsemen were almost shoulder to shoulder.Flanked by Valentinian and Anastasius, Belisarius took a place in the center of the line. His lance had already been discarded. The Ye-tai that lance had spitted in the first clash had taken it with him, as he fell to the ground. The general drew his sword—not the spatha he generally favored, but the long Persian-style cavalry sword which he carried in a baldric. He rose in the stirrups and struck down a Malwa before him. The heavy sword cut through the man's helmet and split his skull.Belisarius jerked loose the sword, struck another foe. Another. Another.As before in battle, Aide was assisting him, giving the general almost superhuman reflexes and an uncanny ability to perceive everything sharply and clearly. But the assistance was almost moot. This battle—this brawl—called for strength and endurance, not speed and agility.No matter. Belisarius was a big man, and a powerful one. His endurance had been shaped by the teachings and training of Maurice—who considered stamina the soldier's best friend—and his skill with a sword, by Valentinian. At no time in the ensuing fray did he fail to cut down his opponent, and at no time was he in danger of being struck down himself. That would have been true even if Valentinian had not been there to protect him on the left, just as the giant Anastasius did on his right.That battle was as savage as any Belisarius had ever seen—on that scale, at least—and he was no stranger to mayhem. It was more like butchers chopping meat than anything else. The Malwa at the front could barely wield their weapons, so great was the press. The Romans hammered them down; hammered the ones who were pushed atop the corpses; hammered the ones who came after them.At many places along the line, after a few minutes, the battle effectively ended. The Greeks could no longer reach live enemies, due to the obstruction of the dead ones.The Malwa at the front began to recoil. The ones pressing from the rear had finally sensed the tide and eased away, allowing the men before them to stagger back. Belisarius, sensing the break in the battle, left off his merciless swordwork. Quickly, he scanned the front. He was in the very middle of the Roman ranks, and could no longer see either end of the battle line. But he knew the danger. For all their losses, the Malwa greatly outnumbered his Constantinople troops. Whether from conscious direction by their commanders, or the simple flow of individuals, they would soon be curling around his flanks.He gave two quick orders. The cornicens blew, then blew again.The first order was for the retrieval of casualties. The cataphracts, hearing that call, shouted their fury and contempt at the Malwa. It was as if the entire Constantinople unit was sneering, as one man.We whipped your fucking worthless butts. Now, we'll take the time to gather up our own, before we amble on our way. Fuck you. You don't like it? Try and do something about it! For all their braggadocio, the Greeks did not linger at the task. They were veterans, and knew as well as their general the danger of being outflanked before they could make their retreat. So, one cataphract aiding another, they quickly gathered up their casualties and draped them across their horses.It did not take long, even though the Greeks took the time to collect the dead as well as the wounded. Their casualties had been incredibly light—much lighter than they had expected. Much lighter. They were almost shocked, once they realized how few bodies there were to retrieve.The retreat started. Belisarius had been concerned about that retreat, before the battle. It is always difficult to keep soldiers, even the best of soldiers, under control at such times. There is an powerful tendency for men to speed up, anxious to gain distance from a pursuing enemy. Whether quickly, or almost imperceptibly, a retreat can easily turn into a chaotic rout.Not this time. Within seconds, Belisarius knew he had nothing to fear. The Constantinople men, it was obvious, did not even consider themselves to be retreating. They were simply leaving, because there was nothing more to be done at the moment.An easy canter, no more. The ranks reformed, even dressed their lines.Belisarius took his place at the rear, during that retreat, just as he had taken a place at the front during the charge. The Greeks noticed—again—and a great cheer surged through their ranks. Belisarius! Belisarius! He smiled—he even waved—but he took no other notice of the acclaim. He spent most of the time, during that almost-leisurely retreat, staring over his shoulder. Watching the enemy. Gauging. Assessing.He caught sight of Syrian and Arab units charging forward, ready to provide covering fire for the cataphracts. He waved them off. There was no need. The Malwa were pursuing, true. But it was not a furious, frenzied charge led by eager warriors. It was a sodden, leaden, sullen movement, driven forward by screaming Ye-tai.The Malwa cavalrymen had had enough of Romans, for the moment.Belisarius turned back, satisfied, and glanced at the sun. It was not yet noontime. He thought the Malwa commanders would not be able to drive their army back into battle for at least two hours. Possibly three.Plenty of time. He had taken no pleasure in the killing. He never had, in any battle he had ever fought. But he did take satisfaction in a job well done, and he intended to do the same again. In two hours. Possibly three.Plenty of time, for a craftsman at his trade.  
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