Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



Download 1.21 Mb.
Page11/27
Date conversion16.05.2016
Size1.21 Mb.
1   ...   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   ...   27
Chapter 19Two and a half hours later, the enemy began taking positions for the assault on the villa. The Malwa forces lined up on the open ground east of the royal compound, at a distance of half a mile. The front lines were composed of cavalry regulars, backed by Ye-tai. The rocket wagons, guarded by the Kushans, were brought to a halt fifty yards behind the front ranks. The kshatriya, overseen by Mahaveda priests, removed the tarpaulins covering the wagons and began unloading rockets and firing troughs. Within a few minutes, they had the artillery devices set up. There were eighteen of the rocket troughs, erected in a single line, spaced thirty feet apart.From a room on the second floor of the villa, Belisarius studied the Malwa formation with his telescope. Standing just behind him were the top officers of the Syrian and Constantinople troops forted up in the imperial compound—Bouzes and Coutzes, Agathius and Cyril. They were listening intently as Belisarius passed on his assessment of the situation.The general began by examining the rockets, but spent little time on that problem. Once the first two or three had been erected, he was satisfied that he understood them perfectly. The rockets were the same type he had seen—at much closer range—during the sea battle he had fought against pirates while traveling to India on a Malwa embassy ship. In that battle, the rockets had wreaked havoc on the Arab ships. But, he told his officers, he did not think they would have that effect here."Most of the damage done by the rockets in the pirate battle," he explained, lowering the telescope for a moment, "was incendiary. The pirate galleys, like all wooden boats, were bonfires waiting to happen."Seeing the puzzlement on the faces of Bouzes and Coutzes, the two Constantinople officers chuckled."Farm boys!" snorted Cyril. "You think 'cause a boat's floating on water that she won't burn? Shit. The planks are made of the driest wood anyone can find, and what's worse—""—they're caulked with pitch," concluded Agathius. Like his fellow Greek, the chiliarch was smirking—that particular, unmistakable, insufferable smirk which seafarers the world over bestow upon landlubbers."Not to mention the cordage and the sails," added Cyril.Bouzes and Coutzes, Thracian leaders of a Syrian army, took no offense at the Greeks' sarcasm. On some other day, they might. But not on the day when those same Greeks had given the enemy such a thorough pounding. They simply grinned, shrugged at their ignorance, and studied the interior of the villa with new and enlightened eyes."A different matter altogether, isn't it?" commented Belisarius.Under the fancy trappings and elaborate decorations, the royal compound was about as fireproof as a granite tor. The walls were made of kiln-fired brick, and the sloping roof was covered with tiles. Neither would burn—those bricks and tiles had been made in ovens—and he was quite sure the thick walls could withstand the explosive power of the rockets' relatively small warheads.True, the roof tiles would probably shatter under a direct hit by a rocket. Belisarius did not think there would be many such hits, if any. He knew from experience that the Malwa rockets were not only erratic in their trajectories, but erratic in their destruction as well. They had no contact fuses. They simply exploded whenever the burning fuel reached the warhead. In order to shatter the roof, a rocket would have to hit directly—not at a glancing angle—and explode at just the right time.The likelihood of that happening, in his estimation, was not much greater than being hit by lightning. And if, against all odds, a rocket should score a direct hit—"Might break in the roof tiles," commented Bouzes.Belisarius shrugged. "The tiles are supported by heavy beams. Wooden beams, yes. But these beams aren't anything like the thin planks of pirate galleys. They're much thicker, and, what's more important, not saturated with inflammable pitch."He began studying the positions of the Malwa cavalry, now. Again, passing on his conclusions."They'll start with a rocket barrage, and then follow it up with a direct assault." A moment's silence, then:"I thought so. They're dismounting, now. It'll be an infantry attack.""Those are cavalry!" protested Coutzes.Belisarius pressed his lips together to keep from smiling. He remembered, from three years before, that Coutzes and Bouzes had been trained in the cavalry tradition. The young Thracian commander, it was obvious, had still not quite abandoned his contempt for foot-fighting.His brother, however, had."Don't be stupid. We've been training our own men to be dragoons. Why shouldn't the Malwa?""Well said," murmured Belisarius. For a moment, he took his eye from the telescope and glanced at Coutzes."You're about to see why I insisted on training our cavalry to fight on foot. I know you think that was a waste of time—"He drove over Coutzes' little protest. "—but the reason I did so was because I knew the time would come when we'd be able to arm those dragoons with grenades. And handcannons, I'm hoping."He nodded toward the enemy, visible through the window."They already have grenades. The kshatriya are starting to pass them out to the regulars."He took up the telescope again, and continued his scrutiny."They'll come in waves. Probably be one grenadier for every ten soldiers. The Ye-tai will be scattered through the lines in small squads, driving the regulars forward and pressing the assault. Some of the kshatriya will be in those lines, too, but most of them will stay at the center with the priests, manning the rockets. They'll also help the Kushans guard the wagons. They might—damn!"He stiffened, staring through the telescope intently."Damn," he repeated. "They're bringing up the Kushans. All two thousand of them.""On foot?" asked Agathius.Belisarius lowered the telescope, nodded. Then, with a bit of a rueful smile:"Kushans, in my experience, don't have any fetishes when it comes to fighting. On foot, on horse, on boats—it doesn't matter to them. Whatever, they'll do it well. Very well."He turned away from the window. It was obvious from his stance and expression that he had reached a decision. His officers gathered closer."This changes things," Belisarius announced. "As you know, I'd wanted to wait until tomorrow before bringing in Maurice and his boys."He tapped the palm of his hand with the telescope, emphasizing his words."We're going to beat these bastards, one way or the other. But I want more than that—I want to pulverize them. The best way to do that is to rout them early in the morning, so we've got a full day for pursuit."The officers nodded. All of them—even the two young brothers—were experienced combatants. They knew that a battle won at the end of day was a battle half-won. The kind of relentless, driving pursuit which could utterly destroy a retreating enemy was simply impossible once daylight was gone.Agathius glanced out the window. "It's still before noon," he mused. "If the battle starts soon enough—"Belisarius shook his head. "I'd wanted to let the Malwa spend all day hammering their heads against us here. Bleed them dry, exhaust them—then hit them at dawn with a massive flank attack by Maurice and Kurush. The attack would break their army, and then we'd sally out of the villa and drive over them."He saw that his officers still didn't understand. He didn't blame them. Their brief experience with Malwa soldiers had not prepared them for the Kushans."The Kushans are a different breed. They won't come at us in a mass, chivvied by Ye-tai, depending on their grenades to do the work. They'll come at us like the best kind of Roman infantry would attack this place."Of the officers standing around him, Bouzes was the most familiar with Belisarius' infantry tactics. The general saw dawning comprehension in his face."Shit," muttered the young Thracian. He glanced around the room. "The villa's not a fortress, when you come down to it. The fortifications we jury-rigged were designed to fend off grenades, not—"Belisarius finished the thought."Not two thousand of the finest foot soldiers anywhere in the world, charging in squads, aiming to push into every door and portal so they can use their swords and spears."Cyril scowled. "Let 'em! I don't care how good they are. We're not lambs ourselves, general. Our cataphracts can fight on foot—just watch! With us to back up the Syrians, we'll chop those—"Belisarius waved his hand."That's not the point, Cyril. I don't doubt that we'll beat back the Kushans. But I can guarantee that we won't be doing it without suffering lots of casualties and without being exhausted ourselves, when the day's over. I don't think we'll be in any shape to be pursuing anybody, tomorrow."He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "I wonder . . ."Belisarius stepped back to the window and looked through the telescope again. For a minute, he studied the Kushans taking up their position. Then, pressing himself against the wall to the left of the window, he aimed the telescope at a sharp angle, studying something to the southwest."We've got no troops stationed at the corrals." He cast a quick, inquisitive glance at Bouzes. The young Thracian shook his head."No, sir." His tone grew a bit defensive: "I thought about it, but it's at least half a mile away. There didn't seem any point to—"Belisarius smiled crookedly."No, there wasn't. I'm not criticizing your decision, Bouzes. I just wanted to make sure."Again, Bouzes shook his head. "We've got nobody there, general.""Good," stated Belisarius. He stared through the telescope for another minute, before turning away from the window."We're going to turn everything inside out. Instead of waiting until tomorrow, I'll have Maurice start the counter-attack at the beginning of the battle."He hesitated. "Well, not quite. I don't think the Kushans will lead the first assault. Unless that Malwa commander's dumber than a chicken, he won't want to use his best troops until he's softened this place up a bit. He'll let regulars and Ye-tai hammer us with grenades. See what happens. If that doesn't work, then he'll send in the Kushans. They'll head up the second attack. And that's when I'll order Maurice to make his charge."The look of incomprehension was back on the faces of the general's subordinates. Belisarius' own face broke into a cheerful grin. "The trick to dealing with Kushans, I've learned, is to exploit their talents.""Begging your pardon, sir," spoke up Cyril, "but I don't understand what you're getting at. If Maurice attacks when the Kushans are still fresh—""What will the Kushans do?" demanded Belisarius. "Think, Cyril. And remember—they'll be excellent troops, with good commanders, on foot, suddenly finding themselves caught between a fortified villa and a heavy cavalry charge on their right flank."Cyril was still frowning. Belisarius drove on."The rest of the Malwa army will be shattering, under that charge. Not to mention—"He turned to Agathius. "Are your boys up for another bit of lance work? A sally, straight out of the villa?"Agathius grinned. "After that promenade this morning? Hell, yes. It'll be a bitch, mind you, getting the horses through all those little gates."Belisarius waved the matter off. "I don't care if the sally's ragged. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that while Maurice and Kurush are breaking the Malwa in half from the flank, the front lines of their army see a new threat coming at them straight ahead. The Ye-tai'll go berserk, trying to force the regulars to stand and fight. But the Kushans—""Sweet Jesus, yes," whispered Bouzes. He strode to the window and stared through it at a sharp angle. "They'll break for the corrals, and the barns and horse pens. Only place around where infantry could fort up and have a chance against heavy cavalry."He stared back at Belisarius. "They'll have to react instantly, general. Are they really that good?""I'm counting on it," came the firm reply. "It's a gamble, I know. If they don't—if they stand their ground—then we'll be in one bloody mess of a brawl. It'll last all day."He shrugged. "We'll still win, but half the Malwa army will make their escape."Cyril and Agathius looked at each other. Then, at Belisarius."Glad I'm not a general," muttered Cyril. "I'd die from headache."Agathius tugged at his beard. "If I understand correctly, general, you're planning to wreck the Malwa by isolating their best troops while we concentrate on chewing the rest of them to pieces."Belisarius nodded. Agathius' beard-tugging grew intense."What's to stop the Kushans from sallying themselves? Coming to the aid of—"Bouzes grinned. "Of what? The same stupid fucking Malwa jackasses who got them treed in the first place?"Belisarius shook his head. "They won't, Agathius. The Malwa don't trust the Kushans for the good and simple reason that they can't. The Kushans will fight, in a battle. But they've got no love for their overlords. When the hammer falls, the Kushans will look out for themselves."He turned to Bouzes. "After the initial sally—after we break them—move your Syrian troops to cover the Kushans. The infantry can't play any useful role, anyway, in a pursuit. But don't attack the Kushans—be a bloodbath if you do—just hold them there."He grinned himself, now."Until tomorrow morning.""We'll finish the Kushans then?" asked Coutzes.Belisarius' grin faded to a crooked smile. He made a little fluttering motion with his hands."We'll see," he said. "Maybe. Maybe not. They're tough, Kushans. But I saw a girl work wonders with them, once, using the right words." Half an hour later, the attack began. With a rocket barrage, as Belisarius had predicted.As he watched the rockets soaring all over the sky, exploding haphazardly and landing hither and yon, Belisarius realized that the Malwa were actually doing him a large favor. Although his troops had always maintained a soldierly sangfroid on the subject, he knew that they had been quite apprehensive about the enemy's mysterious gunpowder weapons. Except for Valentinian and Anastasius, who had accompanied him to India, none of Belisarius' men had any real experience with gunpowder weapons. True, most of the soldiers had seen grenades used—some of them had even practiced with the devices. But even his katyusha rocket-men had never seen gunpowder weapons used in the fury and chaos of an actual battle.Now, the men were getting their first taste of Malwa gunpowder weapons. And the main result, after the first five minutes of that barrage, was—"They'd do better to use scorpions and onagers," commented a Syrian infantryman, crouched behind a plaque-strengthened window not far from the general.A Greek cataphract pressed against a nearby wall barked a laugh. "They'd do better to build an assault tower and piss on us," he sneered.The Syrian watched a skittering rocket sail overhead and burst in midair. The man, Belisarius noted, did not even flinch. In the first moments of the barrage, the Roman soldiers had been shaken by the sound and fury which the rockets produced. But now, with experience, they were taking the matter in stride.The same Syrian, catching a glimpse of Belisarius, cocked his head and asked:"What's the point of this, sir, if you don't mind my asking?" The infantryman made a little gesture toward the window. "I don't think more than a dozen of these things have exploded anywhere in the compound. And only a few of them's done any real damage—the ones that blew up over the gardens.""Don't get too overconfident, men," said Belisarius. He spoke loudly, knowing that all the soldiers crammed into the large room were listening."In the proper circumstances, these rockets can be effective. But you're right, in this situation they'd do a lot better to use old-style catapults. Rockets are an area-effect weapon—especially their rockets, which aren't anywhere near as accurate as ours."He paused, allowing the happy thought of Roman rockets to boost morale, before continuing:"They're almost useless used against a protected fixed position like this one. The reason the Malwa are using them"—he grinned—"is because the arrogant bastards are so sure of themselves that they didn't bother to bring any catapults. Like we did."The general's grin was answered by a little cheer. When the cheer died down, the Syrian who had spoken up earlier asked another question."How would they be doing if they had those siege guns you've talked about?"Belisarius grimaced. It was more of a whimsical expression than a rueful one, however."If they'd had siege guns, I never would have forted us up here in the first place." He waved his hand, casually. "Big siege guns would flatten a place like this inside of five minutes. In ten minutes, there'd be nothing but rubble."Carefully—gauging—he watched the cheer fade from his soldiers' faces. Then, just before solemnity turned grim, he boomed:"On the other hand, siege guns are so big and awkward that they're sitting ducks on a battleground."Again, he waved his hand. The gesture, this time, was not casual in the least. It was the motion of a master craftsman, demonstrating an aspect of his skill."If they'd brought siege guns, we'd have ripped them with open-field maneuvers."The grin returned."Either way, either way—it doesn't matter, men. We'll thrash the Malwa anyway it takes!"Outside, two rockets burst in unison. But the sound, loud as it was, completely failed to drown the cheers which erupted through the crowded room.Belisarius! Belisarius! One soldier only, in that festive outburst, did not participate in the acclaim—the same Syrian, still crouched by the window, still watching everything outside with a keen and vigilant gaze."I think that's it, general," he remarked. "I'm pretty sure they're getting ready to charge."Belisarius moved to the window, and crouched down next to the soldier. He drew out his telescope and peered through it. For a few seconds, no longer."You're right," he announced. The general leaned over and placed a hand on the Syrian's shoulder."What's your name?" he asked softly.The man looked a bit startled. "Felix, sir. Felix Chalcenterus."Belisarius nodded, rose, and strode out of the room. In the hallway beyond, he turned right and headed toward the villa's central gardens. The Greek cataphracts massed in the hallway squeezed to the sides, allowing him a narrow passageway through which to move. A very narrow passageway—crooked, cramped, and lined with scale armor.By the time he emerged into the gardens—a bit the way a seed bursts out of a crushed grape—he felt like he had been through a grape-press himself. For all its imperial size, the villa was far too small a structure to hold thousands of troops packed within its walls. Still, Belisarius had insisted on crowding as many men as possible into the buildings. The villa was not a fortress. But its solidly-built walls and roofs provided far more protection from rockets and arrows than the leather screens and canopies which provided the only missile shelter for the troops resting in the villa's open grounds.When he finally emerged into the central gardens, he saw that even here the casualties from the barrage had been very light. This, despite the fact that the area was packed as tightly as the buildings were.The horticultural splendor which had once reigned here was nothing but a memory, now. Every plant and shrub had been obliterated by the heavily-armored men who were jammed into every nook and cranny of the gardens. But few of those men seemed the slightest bit injured.Belisarius was relieved, even though he was not surprised. Belisarius had been almost certain that the rockets' trajectories would be too flat to plunge into the gardens.Obviously, his estimate had been correct. What few injuries had occured had resulted from the handful of rockets which, by bad luck, had exploded directly overhead. And even those had done little damage, due to the leather shrapnel screens stretched across much of the garden areas.Again, Belisarius forced his way forward. Once he was through the gardens, he plunged into the jam-packed hallways of the buildings on the opposite side. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. By the time he finally staggered into the open grounds in the rear of the villa, he felt almost as if he had been through another lance charge.The expedition had taken much longer than he had expected. No sooner did he emerge into the open than he heard a cacophony of distant shouting behind him. Malwa battle cries. The enemy had launched their ground assault.Belisarius did not even think of turning back. The thought of undergoing that gauntlet again almost made him shudder. There would be no point, anyway. Bouzes was in command of the three thousand infantrymen manning the villa, with five hundred Constantinople cataphracts to back him up. Belisarius was quite confident of their ability to fight off the first attack.Coutzes and Agathius, seeing the general emerge, hurried to meet him. Their own pace was not quick. The area to the rear of the villa held the rest of the Greek cataphracts and the Syrian cavalry—over four thousand men, along with their horses. But the population density was not as extreme as it had been in the villa itself. The imperial compound's wall-enclosed western grounds were many acres in extent. Open areas, for the most part, interspersed with bridle paths, hedges, patios and scattered trees.Within a few seconds, Belisarius was consulting with his cavalry commanders. All three of them spoke loudly, due to the rapidly escalating noise coming from the other side of the villa. Malwa and Roman battle cries were mingled with the sound of grenade explosions.Belisarius' first words were, "How many casualties?""They'd have done better to use catapults," snorted Agathius. He looked at Coutzes. "What would you say? Twenty, maybe—overall?"Coutzes shrugged. "If that many. Only three fatal-ities, that I know of.""What about the horses?" asked the general.Agathius rocked his head back and forth. "They're a little skittish, general. But we were able to keep them pretty much under control. Don't think we lost more than a dozen. Most of those'll be back, in a few hours, except a couple who broke their fool necks jumping the rear wall."Coutzes laughed. "I don't think Abbu's precious horse will be coming back! I swear, general, the fucking thing almost jumped over the trees as well as the wall!"Agathius grinned. Belisarius' eyes widened."Abbu's—you mean that gelding he dotes on?"" 'Dotes on'?" demanded Coutzes. "That gelding's the apple of the old brigand's eye! He practically sleeps with the damn beast.""Not any more," chuckled Agathius. "He's fit to be tied, he is. Last I saw he was standing on the wall shooting arrows at the creature. Didn't come close, of course—the gelding was already halfway to Antioch."Belisarius shook his head. He was smiling, but the smile was overlaid with concern. "Did he manage—"Coutzes cut him off."Don't worry, general. Abbu sent the Arab couriers off as soon as we gave him the word. Half an hour ago, at least. Maurice'll have plenty of warning that the plans have changed."Belisarius' smile grew very crooked. "I'm glad I won't be there to hear him, cursing me for a fussbudget." He did a fair imitation of Maurice's rasping voice: "What am I? A babe in swaddling clothes—a toddler—has to be told to pay attention because plans are changing? Of course the plan's changing! Aren't I the one who taught that—that—that general—that plans always change when the enemy arrives?"Coutzes grinned. Agathius' expression was serious."You think he'll be ready, then?" he asked. "I'll admit, I'm a bit worried about it. They weren't expecting to be called on this soon."Belisarius clapped a hand on Agathius' heavy shoulder."Don't," he said softly. "If there's one thing in this world you can be sure of, it's that Maurice won't ever be caught napping in a battle. The only reason I sent the couriers was to make sure he'd move out the second we fired the signal rockets, instead of fifteen seconds later."He turned to Coutzes. "Speaking of which . . ."Coutzes pointed to a small copse of trees fifty yards distant."In there, general. Aimed and ready to fire as soon as you give the word. One red; followed by a green. And we've got three back-up rockets of each color in case one of them misfires."Belisarius nodded. He turned his head back toward the villa, listening to the sound of the battle. Even buffered by the villa, the noise was intense. Intense, and growing more so by the second. The grenade explosions were almost continuous, now.The general and his two officers listened for perhaps a minute, without speaking. Then Coutzes stated, very firmly, "Not a chance."Agathius immediately nodded. So did Belisarius. All three men had reached the same assessment, just from the sound of the battle. For all the evident fury with which the Malwa were pressing the attack, their efforts would be futile. There had been not a trace of the unmistakable sounds of defenders losing heart. Not one cry of despair, not one desperate shriek—only a steady roar of Roman battle cries and shouts of confident triumph.The assault would break, recoil; the Malwa stagger away, trailing small rivers of blood.Belisarius turned away from the villa and quickly scanned the area."You're ready." It was a statement, not a question. Agathius and Bouzes didn't even bother to speak their affirmation.The general sighed."Nothing for it, then." He looked back at the villa, wincing."Back into the vise, for me." He began walking toward the buildings, saying, over his shoulder: "I'll have the message relayed. Watch for it. Fire off the rockets at once." To his relief, the crowd had thinned out a bit—in the rear buildings, at least. All of the soldiers who could had forced themselves into the buildings directly facing the Malwa, fired with determination to help beat off the attack. It only took Belisarius a couple of minutes to thread his way back to the central gardens.There, however, he was stopped cold. Cursed himself for a fool.He had forgotten that he had given orders, the day before, to use the gardens as a field hospital. The grounds were completely impassable, now. The casualties were not particularly severe, given the situation. But wounded men, along with their attendants, take up more space than men standing.As he scrutinized the scene, a part of Belisarius was grimly pleased with what he saw. Outside of the terrible losses suffered by a routed army being pursued, there was no kind of battle which produced casualties as quickly as a close assault on fieldworks. Most of those casualties, of course, would be inflicted on the attackers. But the defenders would take their share also.Yet, what he now saw in the gardens were light casualties, given the circumstances. And—even better—a much higher proportion of men wounded rather than killed, compared to the usual.The screens worked, by God!He had thought they would. Malwa grenades, like Roman ones, were ignited by hand-lit fuses. It was almost inevitable that the man lighting that fuse would cut it a bit too long, from fear of having the bomb blow up in his hand. The Malwa would have concentrated their grenades on the many doors and portals which lined the villa's walls and buildings. With the screens in place—put up almost instantly, without warning—the Malwa grenades would have bounced off and exploded too far away to do any concussive damage. True, shrapnel would pierce the leather—would eventually shred the screens entirely. But the screens had served to blunt the fury of the first assault, and almost all the Roman casualties had been the relatively minor wounds caused by leather-deflected shrapnel.Pleased as he was, however, Belisarius did not spend much time examining the scene. He was too preoccupied with the unexpected problem of getting himself to a position where he could assess the next Malwa attack—the attack he was certain would be spearheaded by the Kushans. Timing would be all important, then, and he could not possibly order Maurice's attack when he had no idea what was happening.For a moment, he considered working his way to the front by circumnavigating the interconnected buildings which made up the compound. But he dismissed the idea almost immediately. Every one of those buildings would be so jampacked with soldiers as to make forward progress all but impossible.He had just about come to the grotesque but inescapable conclusion that he was going to have to make his way through the gardens by walking on the bodies of wounded men, when he heard his name called."General Belisarius! General Belisarius! Over here!"He looked across the gardens. Standing in a doorway on the opposite side was the same infantryman he had spoken with earlier. Felix—Felix Chalcenterus."You won't be able to get across, sir!" shouted the Syrian soldier. "The chiliarch sent me back here to watch for you! Wait a minute! Just a minute!"The man disappeared. He returned about a minute later, preceded by Bouzes. As soon as he stepped into the doorway, Bouzes cupped his hands around his mouth, forming an impromptu megaphone, and hollered:"Let's set up a relay! With your permission, sir!"Belisarius thought the problem over. For a second or two, no more. He nodded, and waved his hand. Then, copying Bouzes' handcupping, shouted back:"Good idea! Leave Felix in the door! If the Kushans lead the next charge, let me know!" He paused, taking a deep breath, before continuing:"If they do—tell me the moment they start their charge!"Bouzes waved back, acknowledging. The chiliarch spoke a few words to Felix and disappeared. The Syrian soldier remained in the doorway. His stance was erect and alert. Even from the distance, Belisarius could see the stern expression on the man's face. A young face, it was—almost a boy's face. But it was also the face of a man determined to do his duty, come what may.Belisarius smiled. "You're in for a promotion, lad," he whispered. "As soon as the battle's over, I think."The general now concentrated on listening. The sounds of battle had died away, in the last few minutes. Clearly enough, the Malwa had been beaten back and were regrouping.He decided he had enough time to make his own preparations.Again, he made his way back through the rear building and onto the western grounds. Agathius was waiting, not twenty feet from the doorway. The Constantinople cataphract was already mounted on his horse.Quickly, Belisarius explained the signal relay. Then:"It'll be a few minutes. Get me a horse, will you? I won't be relaying the message. I'll just come straight back and join you."He pointed to the doorway."As soon as you see me coming through that door, have the cornicens order the sally. That'll give me just enough time to mount up."Agathius nodded. Then, with a frown:"Where are your bodyguards?"Belisarius shrugged, smiling whimsically."We got separated, it seems. They must be lost in the crowd."The Greek chiliarch's frown deepened."I'm not sure I like that, general. The idea of you leading a sally without your bodyguards, I mean."Belisarius scowled."I assure you, Agathius, I was taking care of myself long before—""Still—" "Enough."Agathius opened his mouth, closed it. "Yes, sir. It'll be as you say."Belisarius nodded and strode back toward the gardens. This time, as he made his way through the building, he ordered the men inside to clear a lane for him."I'll be coming through here, soon enough, running as fast as I can. I warn you, boys—I'll trample right over the man standing in my way. And I'm wearing spurs, I hope you notice."The soldiers grinned, pressed aside, cheered.Belisarius! Belisarius! His only acknowledgement:That sorry bastard will be fucked. * * *Ten minutes later, Felix called out the news across the gardens. "The Kushans are lining up! They'll be leading the attack!"Five minutes after he shouted, "They're coming!"Then:"Now! Now! Now!" For a man wearing full cataphract armor, Belisarius thought he did quite well, racing—so to speak—through the building. The men who formed the flesh-and-steel walls on both sides certainly thought so, judging from their encouragement.Belisarius! Belisarius! Go, general! Go! Go! And, one enthusiast:"Goddam, that man can waddle!" As soon as he burst out of the doorway onto the grounds, the cornicens started blowing. From the corner of his eye, Belisarius caught the red and green bursts of the signal rockets. But the sole focus of his eyes was the saddled and readied horse ahead of him.Belisarius almost stumbled, then, from sheer surprise. Standing by the horse, ready to hoist the general aboard, was Anastasius. The giant's own charger was not far away, with a mounting stool at its side."How'd you get here?" demanded the general."Don't ask," grunted Anastasius, heaving Belisarius onto the horse by sheer brute strength. The huge cataphract headed for his own horse.Belisarius gathered up the reins. He could see the mass of Greek cataphracts and Syrian light cavalry starting their sally. The horsemen were already dividing into columns, splitting around the villa, heading for the portals in the opposite walls.A part of his mind noticed that their formations were good—reasonably orderly, and, best of all, well organized. The rest of his mind, briefly, wrestled with a mystery."How did you get here?" he asked again. This time, to the man already mounted and ready at his side."Don't ask," hissed Valentinian. The cataphract gave Anastasius a weasel glare. "His doing. 'Impossible,' I told him. 'Even Moses couldn't part that mob.' "Anastasius, trotting up on his horse, caught the last words. A grin split his rock-hewn face."Moses wasn't as big as I am," he said. He extended his enormous hand, like an usher."After you, sir. Victory is waiting.""So it is!" cried Belisarius. "So it is!"He spurred his mount into a gallop. He was not worried about exhausting his horse, now. They didn't have far to go. He was only concerned with getting to the front of the charge, and leading it to victory.By the time he pounded around the villa, and saw the nearest portal, he had achieved that immediate goal. The Syrian infantrymen who were hastily opening the gates—tossing aside the splintered wreckage of the gates, more precisely—barely had time to dodge aside before Belisarius drove past. Valentinian and Anastasius came right behind, followed by droves of cataphracts.The infantrymen were cheering wildly; the cata-phracts were bellowing their battle cries. But Belisarius only had ears for an expected mutter.It never came. He glanced over his shoulder, cocking a quizzical eye.A weasel's glare met his gaze. A weasel's hiss:"Ah, what's the fucking use?" 
1   ...   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   ...   27


The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2016
send message

    Main page