Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 20The general's first thought, as he came around the villa onto its eastern grounds, was to make a quick assessment of the tactical situation. He had seen nothing of the battle directly, since his return to the villa after the first cavalry charge.That urgent purpose almost led him to an immediate and humiliating downfall.Downfall, in the literal sense. Dead, dying and badly wounded Malwa soldiers were scattered all across the grounds in front of the villa. In places, the bodies were piled two and three deep. Belisarius was concentrating so intently on the live Malwa troops that he was oblivious to the obstacles posed by the dead ones. His mount stumbled on a corpse and almost spilled his rider. Only the superhuman reflexes which Aide gave him enabled Belisarius to keep himself in the saddle and his horse on its feet.First things first! he snarled at himself. For the next few seconds, until he was through the carnage on the villa's eastern grounds, he ignored everything but leading his horse forward. Only a cold, distant, and detached part of his mind took note of the terrible losses the enemy had suffered in their first assault. Arrow wounds, in the main, although a number of the Malwa casualties had apparently been caused by their own grenades, bouncing off the screens.Finally, he was through the mounded bodies and could concentrate on the active enemy.His first concern was with the katyushas. He could already hear the hissing shriek of the rockets—unmistakably different from the sound produced by Malwa rockets. The Roman missiles, following Belisarius' instructions, had been fitted with machined bronze venturi. The evenly-distributed thrust provided by those exhaust nozzles made his katyusha rockets far more accurate than their Malwa counterparts. They also made a distinctively different noise.He could not see the rocket-chariots themselves. The katyushas would be charging at the Malwa from their hiding place in the northeast woods, followed by the Thracian and Illyrian cataphracts. A screen of trees blocked Belisarius' view in that direction. But he could see the rockets themselves. The first volley was even now impacting on the enemy. He watched a line of explosions stitching its way across the Malwa army's right flank, knocking cavalrymen out of saddles and their horses to the ground.He held his breath. That first volley had come perilously close to landing in the very center of the enemy formation, where the Mahaveda priests were perched atop the gunpowder wagons. It was no part of his plan to have that ammunition—His held-in breath exploded. The second and third volleys did land in the center of the enemy—several of them right among the wagons. Many of the priests standing on those wagons were swept off as if by a broom. One of the wagons was tipped over by a rocket exploding almost directly beneath it. The ammunition cart teetered on two wheels. Teetered, teetered, before finally slamming back down. One of the wheels collapsed under the shock.Belisarius hunched low, waiting for the whole ammunition supply to blow up. He turned his head and began yelling at the men behind him to brace themselves for the eruption.Then, abruptly, stopped. There had been no explo-sion.Astonished, he turned his head back and saw that, for all the destruction strewn by the katyushas, the Malwa ammunition had not caught fire.An arrow sailing past his head reminded him that there were other dangers. The first ranks of dismounted Malwa regulars were less than a hundred and fifty yards away. The enemy soldiers were obviously confused by the sudden and unexpected attack on their flank. But many of them still had enough presence of mind to fire arrows at the Romans sallying from the villa.Their arrows were neither well-aimed nor fired in coordination, however. Belisarius was about to congratulate himself for surprising his enemy—again—when another flight of arrows erased all sense of self-satisfaction.Those arrows were well-aimed, and had been fired in a coordinated volley from a hundred yards away. The volley looked like a flight of homing pigeons, coming toward him unerringly from his right front. The general raised his shield, crouching in the saddle as best he could.No less than three glanced off his shield; another, off the armor guarding his mount's withers; and a fifth, painfully, on his heavily armored right arm. Fortunately, the bow which had launched that arrow lacked the power of a cataphract bow. The arrowhead failed to penetrate the scale armor, although Belisarius was quite sure he would be sporting a bad bruise by morning.The rest of the volley landed amidst the cataphracts following him. From the cries of pain and surprise, he knew that many had hit their targets.When the general peeked over the rim of his shield, looking forward and to his right, he saw what he expected to see. The Kushans were already forming a square—shields interlocked, spears bristling, with a line of archers standing right behind the shield wall. The Kushan commander had instantly assessed the new situation and was doing the best thing he could under the circumstances—hunker down, snarl, and bristle like a porcupine surrounded by wolves.Smart wolves hunt easier prey. So did Belisarius. He angled his horse to the left, guiding his men away from the Kushan formation. He would ride in a shallow arc around the Kushans and fall on the disorganized mass of Malwa regulars who had been following the Kushan vanguard.His cataphracts—no fools, themselves—immediately followed his lead. None of them, in Belisarius' column, even fired back at the Kushans. The general had led the sally erupting from the northern portals and gates of the villa. The Kushans, therefore, were to their right as they galloped past—the worst location for a mounted archer to fire at without exposing his whole body.So Belisarius and his men simply grit their teeth, sheltered as best they could behind angled shields, and endured the Kushans' raking fire.The other Roman sally, on the other hand—the one which Agathius was leading from the southern portals—was in the ideal position for mounted archers. As they came charging out, the Kushans were on their left front. Every one of those thousand cataphracts who pounded past the Kushan hedgehog, fired at least one arrow into the enemy mass. At a range of fifty yards, full-drawn cataphract bows could send arrows through any kind of armor—even through iron-reinforced laminated wood shields, unless the shields were properly angled.The Kushan shield wall crumpled under that withering missile fire. Belisarius and his men on the opposite side were the immediate beneficiaries. The Kushans on the north left off their raking fire and hastened to shore up their bleeding ranks on the south.Now, the Kushan vanguard was behind the Roman cavalry sally. Belisarius and his cataphracts were within fifty yards of the Malwa regulars who had been advancing behind the Kushans.Those troops—thousands of dismounted cavalrymen—suddenly broke into headlong flight. Caught between a completely unexpected flank attack and the mass sally of the Romans in the villa, their nerve collapsed. The still-mounted Ye-tai security squads tried to rally the fleeing soldiers—viciously sabring dozens of them as they ran past—but to no avail.Belisarius gave a quick glance over his shoulder. The Syrian cavalry, following the heavily-armored Greeks, were already spreading wide and beginning to pull ahead of the slower cataphracts. They were staying well away from the Kushans. Their purpose was to ravage the flanks of the rapidly-disintegrating main force of the enemy. Behind them, trotting out of the villa and taking up positions, came the Syrian infantry. They were concentrating in front of the villa itself and to the north—leaving the now-isolated Kushans with a clear line of retreat toward the corrals.Satisfied, the general turned back. The Malwa soldier nearest to him, racing away, stumbled and fell. Belisarius did not waste a lance thrust. He simply trampled the man under and kept going.A Ye-tai horsemen came charging, his own lance held high. Belisarius braced in the stirrups and swept the Ye-tai off his saddle with a lance thrust which spilled open his intestines.Another Malwa regular ran away, his feet flashing like an antelope's. The general's lance took him between the shoulder blades.Belisarius killed three more soldiers in the same manner before he lost his lance, stuck in a Malwa spine. He drew his long cavalry sword and continued the slaughter.The front ranks of the enemy were completely routed, now. Even the Ye-tai had given up their efforts to rally the troops. The barbarians, still mounted, were outpacing all others in the retreat.The Malwa regulars had no thought in their minds but to outrun the Roman cavalry. They were not the first men, in a battle, to be seized by that panicky, hopeless notion. And they were not the first to suffer the penalty.The general never ceased from his ruthless work, leaving a trail of slashed corpses behind him. But the inner man almost flinched away from the horror, until he found refuge—as he had so often before—in the cold workings of his intellect.It's the worst mistake infantry ever makes, he thought. If they stood their ground against a cavalry charge, like the Kushans did, they'd have a chance. Now—nothing. Nothing. A sudden line of explosions nearby—almost directly to his left—broke through his grim thoughts. He saw, out of the corner of an eye, one of his cataphracts clutch his face with both hands and fall off his saddle. Another cataphract's horse tumbled, spilling his rider.Those were katyusha rockets! God damn it, hold your fire! No luck. Belisarius could see another volley of rockets sailing toward them.The rockets, of course, had been intended for the Malwa—part of the plan to cave in the enemy's right flank. That was little comfort, when several of those rockets overshot the enemy and wreaked havoc in his own ranks. Loudly and profanely, the general cursed Maurice for a fool—and Basil, the katyusha commander, for a moron sired by an imbecile.But—Belisarius himself had instructed Maurice to lead the charge with katyushas. Knowing full well that even Roman rockets were not very accurate, the general had given the orders nonetheless. He had simply not expected the Malwa to cave in so quickly. He had assumed that the rocket volleys would be over and done with by the time the cataphracts arrived.So he cursed himself, for an idiot.Rockets are an area-effect weapon, you fucking jackass! Don't ever do this again! He pushed self-recrimination aside. He had almost reached the center of the Malwa army. Ahead of him, he could see kshatriya and priests frantically trying to turn the wagons around. The mules hauling those wagons, true to their stubborn nature, were obeying their masters' shrieking commands with mute recalcitrance.The sight almost made him laugh. What did the priests hope to accomplish? Mule-drawn wagons had no more chance of escaping a cavalry pursuit than did men on foot.One of the Mahaveda standing atop the nearest wagon apparently reached the same conclusion. Belisarius was only twenty yards away when he saw the priest's face stiffen with resolve. The man stooped, seized a small barrel of gunpowder, and spilled its contents over the barrel-stacks.The priest was just drawing a lighting device out of his tunic when Belisarius' saber cut the legs out from under him. The priest sprawled across the barrels, still holding the striker. Belisarius' next slash removed that hand; his next, the Mahaveda's head.The general reined in his horse and clambered onto the wagon. From that perch, he began bellowing orders in his thunderous battlefield voice.The orders were pungent, profane, simple—and quite unnecessary. Anastasius and Valentinian had already secured the two closest wagons. The Greek cataphracts, within ten seconds, had done the same with the rest.All of the kshatriya still on the wagons—perhaps fifty—tried to surrender, along with the remaining two dozen priests. The cataphracts would have none of it. Many of those men had seen the first priest's suicidal attempt to blow up the ammunition cart. The Greeks slaughtered any Malwa among the wagons without mercy.Belisarius left off his bellowing. The deed was done. The Malwa wagons, with their great load of gunpowder, were safely in Roman hands.He clambered onto the highest-placed barrel. From that precarious perch, he strained to see what he could of the battle.Battle, no longer. The rout was complete.Maurice's hammer blow had completely shattered the Malwa right. The Ye-tai who had guarded that flank had taken frightful casualties before breaking. Whatever their other characteristics, no one had ever accused Ye-tai of cowardice. So they had stood their ground—almost to a man, Belisarius judged, estimating the mound of corpses.Their courage had been useless, of course. Not even the best troops, in Belisarius' experience, could put up an effective defense against a surprise mass attack coming on their flank. Not on an open field of battle, at any rate, with no place to shelter and regroup. Such troops could fight—fight bravely—but they would fight as confused individuals against a well-organized, steady and determined attacker. The conclusion was foregone.It was equally obvious that the Malwa regulars had not come to the assistance of the barbarians. The Malwa regulars clustered with the main force had still been mounted, unlike their luckless comrades who had been advancing on foot behind the Kushan attack. They had seen no reason to abandon that good fortune, and had immediately taken flight away from the Roman flank attack.Good fortune—fleeting fortune. In their natural desire to make the quickest escape from that frightening mass of oncoming Thracians, Illyrians and Persians—heavy cavalry, all of them, shaking the very earth in their charge out of the northeast woods—the Malwa regulars had broken to the south.A mass rout, thousands of horsemen galloping frantically around the edge of the forest—into the Euphrates. As soon as they realized their error, of course, the fleeing Malwa began racing east down the riverbank, toward the far-distant refuge of the Malwa forces besieging Babylon.Few of those men would ever find that refuge, two hundred miles away. Very few.The men pursuing them were veterans, led by experienced and capable commanders. Maurice and Kurush, seeing the direction of the Malwa retreat, had sent their cataphracts and dehgans angling southeast. They would cut off the Malwa escape, trap them against the river.Belisarius watched his katyusha rocket-chariots wheel into a line, some three hundred yards away. A small figure—their commander Basil, he assumed, although he could not recognize any faces at the distance—was prancing back and forth on his horse issuing commands. A moment later, a volley of hissing rockets sailed toward the Euphrates.Belisarius watched their flight. It was his first opportunity to observe the rockets without the distraction of immediate battle. The missiles flew in a shallow trajectory, with little of the erratic serpentine motion of Malwa rockets. Seconds later, the general saw the warheads erupt, scattering shrapnel through the milling mob of Malwa packed on the riverbank.The carnage was impressive. Belisarius had seen to it that Roman rockets carried well-designed shrapnel in their warheads. Lead drop-shot, rather than the pebbles and other odds-and-ends which Malwa rockets used.Belisarius now looked toward the villa. Here too, he saw, the situation was progressing nicely. Those Malwa infantrymen who had managed to escape the sally were also pouring toward the river. The Syrian cavalry had peeled off from the captured powder wagons and were driving the Malwa toward the north bank of the Euphrates.Behind them, the Syrian infantry had taken formations opposite the Kushans. The Kushans were already withdrawing toward the corrals. The Syrians followed, at a respectful distance, content to let them go.He heard Agathius' voice, raised in a cheerful hail. Turning, Belisarius saw Agathius and several of his cataphracts trotting toward him. "I sent most of my men to help the Syrians," he announced, "after I saw you doing the same."Belisarius had not actually given that order. There had been no need, since Cyril had done so without any prompting, and the general had wanted to concentrate his attention on watching Maurice's half of the battle. But now, looking around, he saw that there were only a hundred or so cataphracts left, guarding th

wagons.Belisarius was immensely pleased. Immensely. There were few things the general treasured more than quick-thinking and self-reliant subordinates. He was firmly convinced that at least half his success as a commander was due to his ability to gather such men around him. Men like Maurice, Ashot, Hermogenes, John of Rhodes—even Bouzes and Coutzes, once he'd knocked the crap out of them.And now, men like Agathius and Cyril.Something of his delight must have shown. A moment later, he and his two new Greek officers were beaming at each other. There was nothing at all crooked in the general's grin, now; and not a trace of veteran sardonicism, in those of Agathius and Cyril."Jesus, general," exclaimed Agathius, "this is the sweetest damn battle I ever saw!""Beautiful, beautiful," agreed Cyril. "Only fuck-up was that one rocket volley."Belisarius grimaced. "My fault, that. I should have remembered the damn things still aren't that accurate. And I wasn't expecting we'd get so close this quickly."Cyril did not seem in the slightest aggrieved, even though it was his men who had suffered from that friendly fire. The Greek cataphract simply shrugged and pronounced the oldest of all veteran wisdom:"Shit happens."Agathius nodded his agreement. "Live and learn, that's all you can do. Besides—" He twisted in his saddle, studying the effect of the current rocket volleys on the Malwa massed by the river."—they're doing fine work now. Save a lot of Roman boys, the katyushas will, by the time they're done. Those Malwa shits'll be like stunned sheep."Belisarius heard another hail. Turning, he saw that Maurice was approaching from the north. The chil-iarch was accompanied by one of his hecantontarchs, Gregory, and a half-dozen cataphracts.When Maurice drew up alongside the wagon, his first words were to Cyril and Agathius."Sorry about the rockets," he stated. His voice was firm and level. Very courteous in tone, although the expression on his face seemed more one of embar-assment than remorse.Maurice now looked to Belisarius."Don't even bother asking," he growled. "The answer's no. My boys'd probably be willing enough, even if those raggedy-ass Malwa fucks couldn't come up with two solidus ransom amongst them. But the Persians are completely berserk and there's no way to stop them without—"Belisarius shook his head. "I know. I can hear their battle cries."He cocked his ear, listening. Even at the distance, the Persian voices were quite distinct.Charax! Charax! Death to Malwa! No quarter! Seeing the look of confusion on the faces of Agathius and Cyril, Maurice chuckled."The young general here"—he pointed a thumb at Belisarius—"has a soft and tender heart. Likes to avoid atrocities, when he can."The two Greek officers eyed the general uncertainly, much as men gaze upon someone pronounced to be a living saint. Possible, possible—but, more likely, just a babbling madman.Then, remembering his savage punishment of the eight cataphracts at Callinicum, uncertainty fled.Agathius winced. "Mother of God, general, Maurice is right. There's no way—"Again, Belisarius shook his head, smiling crookedly. "I'm not asking, Agathius. The Persians won't be stopped, not after Charax. I'm quite aware of that."The smile faded, replaced by a look of scrutiny. "But I'll ask you to remember this day, in the future. The very near future, in fact. When the Persians demand the heads of two thousand Kushans, and I refuse."He pointed toward the river."Atrocities produce this kind of massacre. That's one of the reasons I try to avoid them. You might be on the other end, the next time. Pleading for mercy, and not getting it, because you showed none yourself.""Wouldn't get it from the Malwa, anyway," pointed out Maurice. He spoke mildly—as usual, when he was contradicting Belisarius in public—but firmly."From Malwa, no," replied the general. "But what is Malwa, Maurice?"He nodded toward the river. "You think those men are all Malwa? Or Ye-tai? Precious few of them, in truth. The priests and kshatriyas, most of the officers. Perhaps a thousand of the regulars. The rest? Biharis, Bengalis, Orissans—every subject nation of India is spilling its life blood into that river."He transferred his scrutiny to Agathius and Cyril. "In the end," Belisarius told them, his voice as hard as steel, "we will not defeat Malwa on a great field of battle, somewhere here in Persia. Or in Anatolia, or Bactria, or the Indus plain. We will shatter them in the heart of India itself, when their subjects finally throw off the yoke."Uncertainty returned to the faces of the two Greeks. Now, however, it was not the bemused skepticism of men regarding a proclaimed saint. It was the simple doubt—the veteran questioning—of fighting men who were beginning to wonder if their commander might, after all, be that rarest of generals. A supreme strategist, as well as a wizard on the battlefield."I would spare all of them who tried to surrender, if I could," mused Belisarius. "All, at least, except the Mahaveda priests. For the sake of the future, if nothing else."He shrugged heavily. "But—I can't risk an idiot brawl with the Persians. Not today, when their blood's a-boil."He clambered off the barrel. A moment later, he was back astride his horse. "Today, I can only deal with the Kushans."He pointed to the river. "Agathius—Cyril—I want you to give full support to the Persians. Back them to the hilt. As maddened as they are, they won't be thinking clearly. There are still thousands of live and armed enemy troops packed against the river. They'll fight like cornered rats, once they realize surrender's not being offered. The Persians are likely to wade into them without thinking, get surrounded."Agathius and Cyril nodded."Take all your men," Belisarius added, "except a hundred or so to guard over the wagons. Have those men bring the wagons back to the villa. But be careful—in fact, better wait until you have some of the katyusha men to help. They're more familiar with handling gunpowder."The two Greek officers nodded again. They turned their horses and trotted off, shouting commands. Within a few seconds, two thousand Constantinople cataphracts were thundering toward the river, preparing to throw their weight into the butchery on the Euphrates.Belisarius turned to Maurice and Gregory."You do the same, Maurice, with the Thracians and the Illyrians. Gregory, I want you to find Coutzes—and Abbu," he added, chuckling—"if he managed to find a new horse. Get the Arab skirmishers and half the light cavalry across the river. Leave me the other half, to keep the Kushans cornered.""They'll have to use the ford we found a few miles upstream," remarked Gregory. "That'll lose us several hours.""Yes, I know. It doesn't matter. They'll still be in time to harry whatever Malwa make their way across the Euphrates."His face and voice were cold, grim, ruthless."Harry them, Gregory. I want them pursued without mercy. For days, if that's what it takes. I want this Malwa army destroyed. Not more than a handful of survivors, trickling back to their lines in Babylon. Let the enemy know he can't hope to go around Emperor Khusrau."Gregory's face twisted into his own crooked smile. "Might not even be a handful, general. Those few that get away from us will still have two hundred miles to go. With the desert on one side, and on the other—every peasant in the flood plain ready to hack them down. Whole villages will turn out, to join the pursuit. They've heard about Charax, too, you can bet on it."Belisarius nodded. Gregory spurred his horse, heading south. A moment later, going in the opposite direction, Maurice did the same.Only Valentinian and Anastasius were left, in the immediate vicinity."What now, general?" asked Anastasius.Belisarius clucked his horse into motion, trotting back toward the villa. "We'll make sure the Kushans are completely boxed in. After that—" He looked up, gauging the sun. "That'll probably take the rest of the day. Till late afternoon, for sure. The Kushans may try to break out. We've probably still got some fighting ahead of us.""Not much," rumbled Anastasius. "The Kushans are no fools. They won't waste much effort trying to find an escape route. Not on foot, knowing we've got cavalry." The giant sighed. "Not Kushans. They'll be working like beavers, instead, doing what they can to turn the barns and corrals into a fortress. Ready to bleed us when we come in after them tomorrow.""I hope to avoid that problem," said Belisarius."You think you can talk them into surrendering?" asked Valentinian skeptically. "After they'll have spent half a day listening to the rest of their army being massacred?""That's my plan." Oddly, the general's voice lost none of its confident good cheer.Neither did Valentinian's its skepticism. "Be like walking into a lion's den, trying to talk them out of their meat.""Not so hard, that," replied Belisarius. "Not, at least, if you can speak lion."He eyed Valentinian. Smiled crookedly. "I speak Kushan fluently, you know."The smile grew very crooked. Anastasius scowled. Valentinian hissed."Now that I think about it, both of you speak Kushan too. Not as well as I do, perhaps. But—well enough. Well enough."He cocked his ear toward Valentinian."What? No muttering?"The cataphract eyed Belisarius with a weasel's glare."Words fail me," he muttered. That evening, just as the sun was setting on the horizon, Belisarius approached the forted Kushans for a parley. He was unarmed, accompanied only by Valentinian and Anastasius.Anastasius, also, was unarmed.Valentinian—well, he swore the same. Swore it on all the saints and his mother's grave. Belisarius didn't believe him, not for a minute, but he didn't push the matter. Whatever weapons Valentinian carried would be well-hidden. And besides—He'd rather try to talk lions into surrendering than talk a weasel out of its teeth. An entirely safer proposition.In the end, talking the Kushan lions out of their determination to fight to the last man proved to be one of the easiest things the general had ever done. And the doing of it brought him great satisfaction.Once again, a reputation proved worth its weight in gold.Not a reputation for mercy, this time. Kushans had seen precious little of mercy, in their harsh lives, and would have disbelieved any such tales of a foreign general.But, as it turned out, they were quite familiar with the name of Belisarius. It was a name of honor, their commander had been told, by one of the few men not of Kushan blood that he trusted."Rana Sanga told me himself," the man stated. He drew himself up proudly. "I visited Rajputana's greatest king in his palace, at his own invitation, before he left with Lord Damodara for the Hindu Kush."The man leaned over, pouring a small libation into Belisarius' drinking cup before doing the same in the one before him. The vessels were plain, utilitarian pieces of pottery, like the bottle from which the wine was poured. After Belisarius had taken his seat, sitting cross-legged like his Kushan counterpart on a thin layer of straw spread in a corner of the stable, the Kushan soldiers gathered around had produced the jug and two cups out of a field kit.Belisarius took advantage of the momentary pause to study the Kushan commander more closely. The man's name, he had already learned, was Vasudeva.In appearance, Vasudeva was much like any other Kushan soldier. Short, stocky, thick-chested. Sturdy legs and shoulders. His complexion had a yellowish Asiatic cast, as did his flat nose and narrow eyes. Like most Kushans, the man's hair was drawn up into a topknot. His beard was more in the way of a goatee than the thicker cut favored by Romans or Persians.And, like most Kushans, his face seemed carved from stone. His expression, almost impossible to read. The Kushan Belisarius knew best—the former Malwa vassal named Kungas, who was now commander of Empress Shakuntala's personal bodyguard—had had a face so hard it had been like a mask.An iron mask—but a mask, nonetheless, disguising a very different soul.Remembering Kungas, Belisarius felt his confidence growing."And how was Rana Sanga, when you saw him?" he asked politely.The Kushan shrugged. "Who is to know what that man feels? His wife, perhaps his children. No others.""Do you know why he asked you to visit him?"Vasudeva gave Belisarius a long, lingering look. A cold look, at first. Then—The look did not warm, so much as it grew merry. In a wintry sort of way."Yes. We had met before, during the war against Andhra. Worked well together. When he heard that I had been selected one of the Kushan commanders for the Mesopotamian campaign, he called me to visit before his own departure." The Kushan barked a laugh. "He wanted to warn me about a Roman general named Belisarius!"Vasudeva's eyes lost their focus for a moment, as he remembered the conversation." 'Persians you know, of course,' Lord Sanga told me. 'But you have never encountered Romans. Certainly not such a Roman as Belisarius.' "The Kushan commander's eyes refocussed, fixed on Belisarius."He told me you were as tricky and quick as a mongoose." Another barking laugh. " 'Expect only the unexpected, from that man,' he said. 'He adores feints and traps. If he makes an obvious threat, look for the blow to come from elsewhere. If he seems weak, be sure he is strong. Most of all—remember the fate of the arrogant cobra, faced with a mongoose.' "He laughed again. All the Kushan soldiers standing around shared in that bitter laugh."I tried to tell Lord Kumara, when I realized we were facing Roman troops. I was almost sure you would be in command. Lord Kumara is—was—the commander of this expedition.""Lord Fishbait, now," snarled one of the other Kushans. "And good riddance."Vasudeva scowled. "Of course, he refused to listen. Fell right into the trap."Belisarius took a sip from his cup. "And what else did Rana Sanga say about me?"Again, Vasudeva gave Belisarius that long, lingering look. Still cold. Gauging, assessing. "He said that one thing only is predictable about the man Belisarius. He will be a man of honor. He, too, knows the meaning of vows."Belisarius waited. Vasudeva tugged the point of his goatee with his fingers. Looked away."It's difficult, difficult," he murmured.Belisarius waited.Vasudeva sighed. "We will not be broken up, sold as slaves to whichever bidder. We must be kept together."Belisarius nodded. "Agreed.""Any labor will be acceptable, except the work of menials. Kushan soldiers are not domestic dogs."Belisarius nodded. "Agreed.""No whippings. No beatings of any kind. Execution will be acceptable, in cases of disobedience. But it must be by the sword, or the ax. We are not criminals, to be hung or impaled."Belisarius nodded. "Agreed.""Decent food. A bit of wine, now and again."Belisarius shook his head. "That I cannot promise. I am on campaign, myself, and will be using you for a labor force. My own men may eat poorly, at times, and go without wine. I can only promise that you will eat no worse than they do. And enjoy some wine, if there is any to spare."From the little murmur which came from the surrounding soldiers, the general knew that his forthright answer had pleased them. He suspected, although he was not sure, that the last question had been Vasudeva's own little trap. The Kushan commander was obviously a seasoned veteran. He would have known, full well, that any other answer would be either a lie or the words of a cocksure and foolhardy man."Agreed," said Vasudeva.Belisarius waited.Finally, the word came: "Swear."Belisarius gave his oath. Gave it twice, in fact. Once in the name of his own Christian god. And then, to the Kushans' great surprise, on the name of the Buddha to whom they swore in private, when there were no Mahaveda priests to hear the heresy. That evening, late at night, Belisarius began his negotiations with the Persians—seated, now, amidst the splendid wreckage of what had once been an emperor's favorite hunting villa.Here, too, he found the task much easier than anticipated.Kurush, in the event, was not baying for Kushan blood. After the young sahrdaran heard what Belisarius had to say, he simply poured himself some wine. A noble vintage, this, poured from a sahrdaran's jug into a sahrdaran's gorgeous goblet.He drank half the goblet in one gulp. Then said, "All right."Belisarius eyed him. Kurush scowled."I'm not saying I like it," he grumbled, "but you gave your word. We Aryans, you know, understand the meaning of vows."He emptied the goblet in another single gulp. Then, he gestured toward his blood-soaked garments and armor. "Charax has been well enough avenged, for one day."Growl: "I suppose."Belisarius let it be. He saw no reason to press Kurush for anything beyond his grudging acceptance.He did cast a questioning glance at Baresmanas. The older sahrdaran had said nothing, thus far, and it was obvious that he intended to maintain his silence. He simply returned Belisarius' gaze with his own fair imitation of a mask.No, Baresmanas would say nothing. But Belisarius suspected that the Persian nobleman had already had his say—earlier, to his young and vigorous nephew. Reminding him of a Roman general's mercy at a place called Mindouos. And teaching him—or trying, at least—that mercy can have its own sharp point. Keener than any lance or blade, and even deadlier to the foe.  
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