Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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I agree. Excellent fellow. And Anastasius! Try to be philosophical about the whole thing, Belisarius. Perhaps you could ask Anastasius to quote some appropriate words from Marcus Aurelius, or— What was that? You muttered something in your mind.  Chapter 26 THE EUPHRATES"And the charges are laid?" asked Belisarius. "All of them?"Seeing the hesitation on Basil's face, the general sighed."Don't tell me. You laid as many as you could, using the captured Malwa gunpowder. But you didn't use any of our own."Basil nodded. His eyes avoided the general's.Belisarius restrained his angry outburst. He reminded himself, firmly, that he had chosen Basil to command the katyusha rocket force because the man was one of the few Thracian cataphracts who had a liking and affinity for the new weapons. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that he would be unwilling to dismantle them."Finish the job, Basil," he rasped. "I don't care if you have to use every single pound of gunpowder in our supply train—even if that includes emptying the katyusha rockets themselves. Finish the job."Basil opened his mouth; closed it."Yes, sir," he said glumly.Belisarius resumed his study of the work which Basil had overseen in his absence. After a minute or so, he found that his ill-temper with the man had quite vanished. In truth—except for his understandable reluctance to disarm his cherished rockets—Basil had done an excellent job.There was not much left, now, of the great dam which had formerly sealed off the Nehar Malka from the Euphrates. With the exception of a thin wall barely strong enough to withstand the river's pressure, the vast pile of stones had been removed and mounded up on the north bank of the canal. Already, a thin trickle of water was seeping through, creating a small creek in what had been the dry bed of the former Royal Canal.Back-breaking work, that must have been, he thought. Most of it, of course, was done by the Kushan captives. He cocked his head at Basil."Did they complain? The Kushans, I mean."Basil shook his head. "Never the once. They didn't even try to shirk the work. Not much, anyway—no more than our own boys did."Belisarius grunted with satisfaction. Here, at least, Basil had apparently followed his instructions to the letter."What rotation did you use? Three and one?""For the first week," was Basil's reply. "After that I went to one and one."Belisarius' eyes widened."Wasn't that a bit—""Risky? I don't think so, general."The katyusha commander glanced at Belisarius, gauging his temper, before adding:"I thought about the way you handled their surrender, sir. Then, after the first week, I talked to Vasudeva. He gave me his oath that the Kushans would not try an uprising." The cataphract smiled. "Actually, it was he who insisted that we maintain half our troops on guard duty while the other half pitched into the work. After he gave me his oath, I was going to just keep a token force on patrol. But Vasudeva—"Belisarius laughed, and clapped his hands. "He said it would be too insulting!"Basil nodded.Belisarius' usual good humor had completely returned. He placed an approving hand on the cataphract's shoulder. "Nice work, Basil."Again, Basil eyed the general, gauging his mood. He opened his mouth to speak, but Belisarius cut him off with a shake of the head. Not an angry headshake; but a firm one, nonetheless."No, Basil. I won't reconsider. It may well be that the Malwa gunpowder alone would do the trick, but I'm not going to take the chance. I want that dam to rupture instantly—and completely."He turned to face his subordinate squarely."Think it through, Basil. If the charges are insufficient, and we wind up with a half-demolished dam—what then? You know as well as I do that it would be a nightmare to set new charges, with half the river pouring through. Take days, probably—not to mention the lives it would cost. In the meantime, the Malwa down at Babylon would have those same days to try and salvage their fleet. If the Euphrates drops slowly, they could probably get most of their ships downriver to safety before they ground. They could certainly get the ships far enough from Babylon that Khusrau couldn't strike at them."He didn't raise his voice, not in the least, but his tone was like iron:"I want that fleet grounded instantly, Basil. I want the Euphrates to drop so fast that the Malwa are caught completely off-guard."Basil took a deep breath. Nodded.Again, Belisarius clapped him on the shoulder."Besides, man—cheer up. We should be getting a new supply of gunpowder and rockets from Callinicum. Good Roman powder and rockets, too, not that Malwa crap. A big supply. I sent orders calling for every pound of gunpowder available. We've got more demolition work ahead of us. Lots more."Basil grimaced.Belisarius, understanding that grimace, made a little mental wince of his own.I hope. If the usual screw-ups with logistics aren't worse than normal. But there was no point in brooding on that matter, so he changed the subject."What's your opinion on security?" he asked.Basil's face cleared up instantly."It's beautiful, sir. Between Abbu and our scouts, and Kurush and his Persians, I don't think a lizard could get within ten miles of here without being spotted."From their vantage point on top of what remained of the ancient dam, the cataphract pointed down at the Nehar Malka. "The Malwa have no idea what we're doing here. I'm sure of it. The one thing I was worried about was that the Kushans might try to sneak out a few of their men to warn the Malwa down at Babylon. No way to do that in the daytime, of course, but I had Abbu maintain full patrols at night and he swears—swears—that no Kushan ever tried to—""No," interrupted Belisarius, shaking his head firmly. "That wouldn't—how can I say it?—that wouldn't be something the Kushans would do."Basil's brow creased in a frown. "Why not? Vasu-deva's oath was that they wouldn't try a rebellion—or a mass breakout. He never swore that he wouldn't send a few men to report back."Belisarius looked away. It was his turn to hesitate, now. He was as certain of his understanding of the Kushans as he was of anything in the world, but to explain it to Basil would require—Aide broke through the quandary.Tell him. Belisarius almost started.You are sure of this, Aide? Tell him. As much, at least, as you need to. It will not matter, Belisarius. Even if he talks, so what? By now, Link will have deduced my presence in this world. At the very least, it will do so very soon. Much sooner than any loose talk among Roman troops could ever find its way to the ears of Malwa spies. Secrecy about me is not so important, anymore. Not as important, certainly, as the trust of your subordinate officers. Belisarius sighed—with immense relief. He had always believed that his success as a general, as much as anything, rested on his ability to build a team around him. The need to keep Aide's presence a secret had cut across his most basic nature and instincts as a leader.He was glad to be done with it.Of course, came the firm thought, that doesn't mean you have to turn into a babbling babe. Belisarius, smiling, turned back to the cataphract standing next to him. "I am—sometimes—blessed with visions of the future, Basil."The Thracian soldier's eyes widened. But not much, Belisarius noted."You are not surprised?"Basil shrugged. "No, sir. Not really. Nobody talks, mind you. But I'm not stupid. I've noticed how Maurice—and Valentinian and Anastasius, for that matter—get very close-mouthed about certain things. Like exactly how you got the secret of gunpowder from the Malwa—and somehow managed to get it to Antonina in time for her to build a whole secret little army in Syria before you even got back. And exactly what happened—or didn't happen—in India. And exactly how it was that you were so sure that the Malwa would be our enemy, when nobody else ever gave India more than two thoughts. And why did Michael of Macedonia—Michael of Macedonia?—wind up such a close friend of a general? And just exactly—"Belisarius held up his hand, laughing. "Enough!"He glanced around. He and Basil were quite alone on top of the dam. The nearest Roman soldiers were the small cavalry escort waiting patiently at its base. No Persians could be seen in the vicinity—and there was nowhere to hide, anyway, except in the reeds which lined the Euphrates. The nearest clump of such reeds was thirty yards away. Much too distant for any eyes to see the small thing which Belisarius drew out of a pouch handing from his neck.He cupped Aide in his hands, sheltered from sight. Basil leaned over, awestruck."Michael of Macedonia brought this to me," said Belisarius softly. "Over three years ago, now. He calls it the Talisman of God.""It is so beautiful," whispered Basil. "I've never seen anything so wondrous.""It is a marvel. It is a messenger from the future, who came to warn us of the Malwa danger. It did so by giving me a vision of the future which Malwa would bring to the world."He paused, letting Basil absorb the shimmering glory of the facets. "Later, I will tell you all of what I saw, in that future. Indeed—"He hesitated. Aide spoke.Yes. It is time. "I will tell all of you. All of the army commanders. It is time, now. But, for the moment—"He spoke gently, then, for a few minutes. Telling the cataphract Basil of the vision he had received, once, of a princess held in captivity by the Malwa. Held for them, by a Kushan vassal named Kungas. And he told how, in that future, the Kushan named Kungas had held his tongue when a Malwa lord had entered his chamber to take possession of his new concubine. Had not warned the great lord that his new concubine was an assassin. And how that lord had died, in that future, because a Kushan had his own harsh concept of honor.And then he told of how, in the future which Belisarius had created, that same Kushan had held his tongue, once again. Held it, and said nothing to his Malwa masters, when he realized that the Romans were smuggling the girl out of captivity."And where is he today, this Kungas?" asked Basil.Belisarius slipped Aide back into his pouch."Today, the Kushan named Kungas—along with all of his men—are the personal bodyguard of the Empress Shakuntala. The heir of Satavahana. Rightful ruler of great Andhra."Basil looked up, startled. His eyes flashed south, looking toward the distant encampment of the Kushan captives."You think—?"Belisarius shrugged."Who knows? Kungas is an unusual man. But in some things, I believe all Kushans are much alike. They have their own notions of loyalty, and duty. They are Malwa vassals, and have served them faithfully. But I do not think they bear any great love for their masters. None at all, in fact."He turned away, and began climbing down the dam."Most of all," he added, over his shoulder, "they have their own peculiar sense of humor. Very wry. Rather on the grim side, too. But they cherish it quite deeply."At the bottom of the slope, he waited for Basil to join him. Once he had done so, Belisarius grinned."I'm counting on that sense of humor, you see. The Kushans wouldn't warn the Malwa of what we're doing. God, no—it would spoil a great joke." That night, in the gloom of his little tent, Vasudeva leaned over and filled Belisarius' cup."Good wine," he said. "Not enough, of course. The Persians are stingy. But—good. Good."He and Belisarius drained their cups. Vasudeva smiled."We like to gamble, you know. So we have a great bet going. All the Kushans have taken sides." He shrugged modestly. "We have not much to wager, of course, being war captives. But it is always the spirit of a wager which is exciting, not the stakes."He refilled Belisarius' cup. Again, he and the general drained their wine. When they lowered their cups, Belisarius stated:"You are wagering over whether I will succeed. In my plan to drain the Euphrates dry and leave the Malwa stranded at Babylon without supplies."Vasudeva sneered. Waved his hand in a curt, dismissive little gesture. "Bah! What Kushan would be so stupid as to bet on that?"He refilled the cups, again. Brought his own to his lips; but, before, drinking, added with a little smile: "No, no, Belisarius. We are betting on what you will do afterward."Belisarius managed to drain his cup without choking. Vasudeva's smile became a grin."Oh, yes," murmured the Kushan commander. "That's the real question."He drained his own cup.Vasudeva held up the amphora, in a questioning gesture. Belisarius shook his head, placing his hand over his cup."No, thank you. I've had enough. Tomorrow will be a busy day."As he stoppered the wine jug, Vasudeva grimaced. "Please! We will be doing most of the busy-ness. And in that miserable sun!"Belisarius rose, stooping in the low shelter provided by the simple tent. Vasudeva rose with him. Much shorter, he did not need to stoop.The Kushan's little smile returned. "Still—that's the way it is. Really good jokes always take a lot of work." Outside the tent, in the quiet air of the Kushan encampment, Valentinian and Anastasius were waiting with the horses. Quickly, Belisarius mounted.Vasudeva had come out of his tent to see the Roman general off. From other tents nearby, Belisarius could see other Kushans watching. For a moment, he and the Kushan commander stared at each other."Why did you come tonight, Belisarius?" asked Vasudeva suddenly. "You asked me nothing."The general smiled, very crookedly. "There was no need, Vasudeva. I simply wanted to know if Kushans still had their sense of humor."Vasudeva did not match that smile with one of his own. In the moonlit darkness, his hard face grew harder still."It is all that is left to us, Roman. When men have little, they keep what they have in a tight fist."Belisarius nodded. He clucked his horse into motion. Valentinian and Anastasius followed on their own mounts, trailing a few yards behind."Yes, they do," he murmured softly to himself. "Yes, they do. Until finally, when they have nothing left, they realize—" His words trailed into a mutter."What did he say?" whispered Anastasius, leaning over his saddle.Valentinian's face was sour. "He said that damned stupid business about only the soul mattering, in the end.""Quite right," said Anastasius approvingly. Then, spotting Valentinian's expression, the giant added:"You know, if you ever get tired of being a soldier, I'm sure you could make a good living as a miracle worker. Turning wine into vinegar."Valentinian began muttering, now, but Anastasius ignored him blithely."I thought it was a good joke," he said.Mutter, mutter, mutter."A sense of humor's very important, Valentinian."Mutter, mutter, mutter."Wine into vinegar. Yes, yes. And then—! The possibilities are endless! Turn fresh milk sour. Make puppies grim. Kittens, indolent. Oh, yes! Valentinian of Thrace, they'll be calling you. The miracle worker! Everybody'll avoid you like the plague, of course. Probably be entire villages chasing you with stones, even. But you'll be famous! I'll be able to say: 'I knew him when he was just a simple nasty ill-tempered disgruntled soldier.' Oh, yes! I'll be able—"Mutter, mutter, mutter. Early the next morning, construction began on the second phase of Belisarius' plan. The Roman soldiers played more of a role, now, than they had earlier. Undermining the old canal, except for the work of laying the charges, had been simple and uncomplicated work. Brutal work, of course—hauling an enormous quantity of stones out of a canal bed. But simple.This new project was not.Belisarius oversaw the work from a tower which his troops erected on the left bank of the Euphrates, just below the place where the Nehar Malka branched off to the east. The tower was sturdy, but otherwise crude—nothing more than a twenty-foot-high wooden framework, which supported a small platform at the top. The platform was six feet square, surrounded by a low railing, and sheltered from the sun by a canopy. Access to it was by means of a ladder built directly onto the framework.There was only room on that platform to fit three or four men comfortably. Belisarius and Baresmanas, who occupied the platform alone that first day, had ample room.The Roman general drew the sahrdaran's attention to the work below."They're about to place the first pontoon."Baresmanas leaned over the rail. Below, he could see Roman soldiers guiding a small barge down the Euphrates. The barge was the standard type of rivercraft used in Mesopotamia and throughout the region—what Egyptians called a skaphe. It was fifty feet long by sixteen feet wide, with a prow so blunt it was almost shaped like the stern. The craft could be either rowed or sailed. The only thing unusual about this barge was that the mast had been braced and the sails were made of wicker—useless for catching the wind, but excellent for securing the baskets of stones which would eventually be laid against them.A squad of soldiers were on the barge itself, shouting orders to the mass of soldiers who were doing the actual work of placing the barge. Many of those soldiers were on the riverbank, holding onto the barge by means of long ropes. Others were on the two barges which were serving as tugs—one directly behind, helping to hold the barge against the sluggish current; the other in mid-river, counteracting with its own ropes the pull of the soldiers on land.Surprisingly quickly, the barge was brought into location about thirty yards from the riverbank. The barge was facing upstream, its bow heading into the current. The craft was riding very low in the water. From their vantage point, Belisarius and Baresmanas could see the stones in the hull which weighted down the craft to the point where it was almost already submerged.The soldier in charge looked up at Belisarius. The general waved his hand, indicating that he was satisfied with the positioning. Immediately, two of the soldiers on the barge clambered down into the hull. Belisarius and Baresmanas could hear the hammering sounds as the soldiers knocked loose the scuttling pins.A minute or so later the soldiers reappeared. The entire squad, except for their commander, clambered aboard a small boat tied alongside the barge. They attached the boat to a rope from the tub directly astern, and then released the rest of the ropes coming from that tug. The barge was now settling below the river's surface.The squad commander quickly climbed up a ladder to the top of the barge's mast. There he remained, watching carefully as the barge sank into the river, ready to issue commands if the current moved it out of location. Not until the water was lapping at his feet did the squad commander climb into the small boat alongside. A moment later, the only thing visible was the upper three feet of the mast. The barge was securely grounded on the riverbed."That's the first one," announced Belisarius. "Well done, that was."Already, another barge was being jockeyed into position next to the first. Baresmanas, watching, was struck by the speed with which the Romans scuttled that craft next to the first, further into the river's main course. And the next. And the next.The sahrdaran said nothing, but he was deeply impressed. Persians had often matched Roman armies on the battlefield—outmatched them, as often as not. But no people on the face of the earth had that uncanny Roman skill with field fortifications and combat engineering."Will you have enough barges?" he asked, toward the end of the day. By then, eleven pontoons had been sunk.Belisarius shrugged."I think so. The supplies are coming from Callinicum steadily now. Since there's nothing to send back on those barges, I can use almost all of them for pontoons."He smiled, remembering the look of relief on Basil's face when the supply barges which had arrived the day before proved to be carrying an ample supply of gunpowder to refurbish his rocket force. Refurbish it—and more. New stocks of rockets had also arrived, along with three more katyushas and the crews to man them.Belisarius glanced toward the west. The sun was almost touching the horizon. He decided there wouldn't be enough daylight to position another pontoon, and he didn't want to risk his men's lives in a night operation unless it was critical. For all the relaxed ease with which his soldiers went about their task, it was dangerous work.So he leaned over the rail and shouted the order to quit for the day. His squad commanders, familiar with their general's attitudes, were obviously anticipating the order. The oncoming barge was gently grounded on the riverbank, where it could be easily pushed off the next morning. On the third day, Belisarius shifted his operations to the other side of the river, where a similar command tower had been erected. While Maurice oversaw the work on the left bank, Belisarius started the process of extending a line of pontoons from the west.By the fifth day, the operation was in full swing. The Euphrates, at that point, was a shallow but very broad river—almost a mile wide. Sinking twenty to twenty-five pontoons a day, the Roman engineers were building their dam at the rate which would, theoretically, bridge the river within a fortnight.Of course, the rate at which the pontoons were sunk began slowing. As the dam took shape, the current became faster. And, what was worse, turbulent.Two men were killed on the eighth day. After knocking loose the scuttling pins, they failed to emerge from the hold quickly enough. What happened? No-one knew, or ever would. Probably one of them had slipped, and the other had gone to his aid. But there was no time, now, for anything but haste. The river which poured into the settling hull was not the sluggish stream it had been. The water hammered into the barge and drove it down like a pile driver. Days later, one of the bodies floated loose and was salvaged downstream.By the end of the second week, the Euphrates was a snarling beast. As the Roman engineers extended the two lines of pontoons closer and closer to each other, the center of the river became a thundering torrent of water. The rest was not much better. As the water level rose behind the dam, the entire Euphrates became a cataract, pouring over the line of pontoons all across its width.Casualties were now occurring daily—a matter of broken limbs and crushed fingers, for the most part, but there were fatalities also. On the twelfth day, the entire crew of a pontoon perished when they lost control of the barge just at the point when they were preparing to scuttle it. The heavily weighted craft was swept into the narrow channel in the center of the river. Before it was halfway through, the barge disintegrated, spilling its men into the torrent. Most of them were dead by the time their bodies were recovered. One man survived for half a day, his skull shattered and pulpy, before he finally expired.The Roman troops had the worst of it, since they were doing the most dangerous part of the job, but those were not happy days for the Kushans either. Behind the Roman engineers extending the pontoons, the Kushans were set to work building the dam higher. Using their own barges, the captives hauled baskets full of stones and dropped them onto the submerged pontoons. The current piled the heavy baskets up against the wicker "sails." The strain on those sunken masts and spars would probably have broken some of them, except that the Romans had lashed the masts together as they extended the line of pontoons.Most of the Kushans, however, were engaged elsewhere. The stones used to bolster the dam had to be hauled out of the surrounding landscape. Fortunately, there were many stones to be found within a mile of the river. Mesopotamia had been farmed for millennia, but the topsoil was constantly being blown away and annual plowing brought up another layer of stones. These stones, as the centuries passed, were piled at the center or edges of fields. So there was no lack of stones, and none of them had to be dug up out of the soil. But it was still hard work for the Kushans, loading sledges and dragging them to the river.At first, the Kushans were disgruntled.Crazy Roman! Why doesn't the stupid bastard use the stones we already dug out of the Nehar Malka? Look! There's a giant pile of the things—not three hundred yards away! Who ever made this idiot a general, anyway? As the days passed, however, the Kushans began to realize that the cretin Roman general apparently had other plans for those stones. What those plans were, the Kushans did not know. They were no longer permitted in the vicinity of the Nehar Malka. But, from a distance, they could catch glimpses of Roman engineers working around the enormous mound of rocks which the Kushans had piled on the north bank of the Nehar Malka. Digging tunnels, so it appeared. And they noted that the men involved in that work were the same Romans who manned the rocket chariots. Gunpowder experts.The betting among the Kushan captives intensified.Kurush and his Persian soldiers were not involved in any of this work. Theirs was the task of ensuring the work-site's security. Every day, Kurush and his ten thousand Persian cavalrymen patrolled the region, extending their skirmishers to a distance of thirty miles in every direction. Abbu and the Arab scouts accompanied them in this work, as did a small number of the Roman troops. On a rotating basis, two battalions of Belisarius' soldiers—one cavalry, one infantry—were assigned each day to assist the Persians. In truth, the assignment was more in the way of a relief than anything else. After the back-breaking and risky work of building the dam, every Roman soldier looked forward to a day spent in a leisurely march. Finally, on the nineteenth day, the last pontoon was maneuvered into place and scuttled. The Romans took four days well-deserved rest, while the Kushans finished the job of bolstering the pontoons with baskets of stones.It was done. Twenty-three days' work had turned that strip of the Euphrates into a waterfall. A low waterfall, to be sure. But it was impressive, nonetheless.The Roman troops and the Kushan captives spent the twenty-fourth day in a cheerful celebration, lining the banks and getting drunk while they admired the raging cataract which they had built. At Belisarius' order, the wine ration was very generous—as much for the Kushans as the Romans. A Malwa officer, had there been one present to notice, would have been outraged at the free and easy fraternization between captives and captors. Belisarius and his top officers, however, did not join in the revelry. They spent that entire day in the general's command tent. The first two hours of that day were taken up with Belisarius' immediate plans.The rest was given to awe, and mystery, and wonder.As he had promised Basil, Belisarius brought his entire command into the secret. He told them the secret, first, using his own words. Then, when he was done, brought forth the Talisman of God.Aide was prepared. The coruscating colors which filled the command tent were so dazzling that they caused the leather walls to glow.Roman soldiers who saw, from outside the tent, whispered among themselves. Witchcraft, muttered a few. But most simply shrugged the thing off. Belisarius was—unique. A blessed man. Hadn't Michael of Macedonia himself said so?So why shouldn't his tent glow in daylight?Kushans also noticed, and discussed the matter. Here, the opinion was unanimous.Sorcery. The Roman general was a witch. It was obvious. Obvious. The wagering became feverish. When evening fell, Belisarius' officers filed quietly out of his tent. None of them said a word, except Agathias. As the commander of the Greek cataphracts passed by Belisarius, he whispered: "We will not fail you, general. This I swear."Belisarius inclined his head. A moment later, only Maurice was left in the tent."When?" asked the Thracian chiliarch."How soon can you reach Babylon? A week?""Be serious," growled Maurice. "Do I look like a pewling babe?"Belisarius smiled."Four days," grunted Maurice. "Three to get there, and a day for Khusrau to make ready.""Five days," countered Belisarius. "Khusrau should be ready, but an extra day may help. Besides, you never know—you might fall off your horse."Maurice disdained any reply. Early the next morning, Maurice left. He was accompanied by a hundred of his Thracian cataphracts as well as a squad of Arab scouts.At the same time, one of Kurush's top officers—Merena himself, in fact—led a similar expedition to Ctesiphon. Their purpose was to bring warning to the residents of the capital.The next four days, Belisarius spent overseeing the final preparations at the Nehar Malka. None of the Roman troops except Basil and his men were engaged in this work, however, so they spent those days resting.By late afternoon of the fifth day, the entire allied force was thronging the banks of the Euphrates. Over twenty thousand men—Romans, Persians, Kushan captives—were jostling each other for a vantage point. Belisarius had to use his bucellarii to keep the onlookers from piling too close to the Nehar Malka.The general himself was standing atop the command tower. He was joined there by Baresmanas and Kurush."You should not have made the announcement," fretted Kurush. "It was impossible to keep the security patrols out beyond noon."Belisarius shrugged."And so? By the time a spy reaches the Malwa with the news, they will know already."He leaned over the rail. Below him, standing at the base of the tower, Basil looked up. The katyusha commander held a burning slowmatch in his hand.Belisarius began to give the order to light the fuse. Then, hesitated."New times," he murmured. "New times need new traditions. 'Light the fuse' just won't do."He sent a thought inward.Aide? The reply came instantly.
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