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Chapter 32 THE EUPHRATES


Autumn, 531 a.d.
"This is ridiculous!" snarled Belisarius. "This isn't 'safe'—it's absurd!""We gave our oath, general," said Anastasius solemnly."To the Persian Emperor himself," added Valen-tinian, trying—and failing quite miserably—to look suitably lugubrious.Belisarius glared at both of them. Then, transferred the glare onto the enemy, some distance away.Quite some distance away. Belisarius, along with Anastasius and Valentinian, were standing on top of the huge pile of stones which the Kushans had dug out of the Nehar Malka. The Syrian infan-trymen who defended that man-made hill had constructed an observation platform from which Belisarius could watch the progress of the battle. They had also built a narrow, winding road—more of a path, really—which led up to the summit from the protected northern side of the rockpile.As a vantage point from which to observe the battle, Belisarius could find no fault with the thing. Even without his telescope, the rock-hill's elevation gave him an excellent view of the enemy's dispositions on the south side of the Euphrates and the Nehar Malka. The telescope enabled him to pick out even small details of the enemy's formations.But—"God damn it," he growled, "I'm too far away. By the time a courier gets up here and back again—no way to ride a horse up that so-called road—I might as well have given orders for yesterday's breakfast."It's safe, insisted Aide.Before Belisarius could make a reply, one of the Malwa rockets fired at the Roman troops defending the dam below veered wildly off course. For a moment, it seemed as if the missile was heading directly for the rockpile. Close enough, at least, that Valentinian and Anastasius began to take cover behind the low wall surrounding the platform.Growling with satisfaction, Belisarius stood as erect as possible.Get down! Get down! Belisarius, sarcastically:"Safe," remember? "Safe," you said. And, in truth, safe it was. With typical unpre-dictability, the rocket suddenly swerved to the east. A few seconds later, it exploded harmlessly over the middle of the Nehar Malka.Wisely, Aide refrained from comment.Belisarius took a deep breath, controlling his temper. There was no point in trying to force the issue, at the moment. Valentinian and Anastasius were obviously ready and willing to enforce a strict compliance with their vow to Emperor Khusrau. For that matter, all of Belisarius' officers had made clear their own agreement with Khusrau's position. Belisarius had been shocked, actually, when he realized how adamant his commanders were that he stay out of the direct line of fire in the coming battle."There's no need for you in the front line, sir," Agathius had argued, at the command meeting on the eve of the battle. "No need—and a lot to be lost if you're killed or injured. This is just going to be a slugging match, at least in the beginning."On that point, Agathius had been correct.It was late afternoon, and the battle had been raging for hours. The Malwa had made their first probes at dawn, on both sides of the Euphrates. Encountering the large body of Persians guarding Ormazd's camp on the south bank, the Malwa had early on decided to take a purely defensive stance there. They were obviously more than happy to let Ormazd and his twenty thousand heavy cavalry sit on the sidelines while they concentrated their attack on the Roman forces.Those Roman forces would have been their principal target, in any event. It was the Romans, not Ormazd's Persians, who were forted up on the dam across the Euphrates. It was the Romans, also, who were positioned to guard the dam from any attack coming up the Nehar Malka.A slugging match, the first day—with the Romans in position to outslug the Malwa.The defensive position of Belisarius' army was excellent. With the desert to the west and Ormazd's twenty thousand lancers encamped on the south bank of the Euphrates, the Malwa had no choice but to advance up the riverbed and along the narrow strip of land between the Euphrates and the Nehar Malka. As that strip of land approached the point where the Royal Canal branched directly east from the east-by-southeast-flowing Euphrates, it narrowed down to a mere spit. The tip of that triangle was guarded by well-built Roman fieldworks—complete with timber brought all the way down the Euphrates by barges. Buttressed with rocks and tamped earth, the walls of that palisade were guarded by Syrian dragoons. When needed, the dragoons were backed up by all of the Constantinople cataphracts, ready to sally at a moment's notice. Which they had, over and again, as the day wore on, waiting until the Syrians had worn out another Malwa assault before driving them back in defeat.Nor could the enemy outflank the fieldworks to the east. To do so would require crossing the rapid flow of the Nehar Malka, in the face of another Roman barrier. The giant pile of rocks on the north bank of the Royal Canal which the Kushans had excavated had been turned into an impromptu fortress, anchoring the Roman left flank. More Syrian troops were stationed on that rockpile, under the command of Coutzes, along with the Callinicum garrison. So far, those soldiers had had an easy day. The Malwa had not yet made any attempt to cross the Nehar Malka and attack the dam from the north bank of the Royal Canal. They had concentrated their efforts on the dam itself, especially its eastern anchor, trying to hammer their way to victory.Yes, on that point, Belisarius could not argue. The first day was a slugging match, nothing else, just as Agathius had predicted. And, it was true, the general would have been able to play no particularly useful role on those front lines.But Belisarius knew that would not last. The Romans were not facing the normal run of Malwa generals here. He had seen, with his telescope, the arrival of a howdah-bearing elephant with the enemy's army. A small mob of servants had been splashing that howdah with pails of water drawn from the river—a crude but effective way of cooling the howdah's interior.Link itself was here. He was as certain of it as he was of his own name.I must get closer, he thought to himself. Soon enough, this simple slugging match of Agathius' is going to start unraveling. I must be closer. Suddenly, hearing a change in the distant shouts of the enemy's forces, Belisarius cocked his head. The battle was so far away that he found himself forced to rely on his hearing as much as his eyesight."We're beating off the attack," he said.Anastasius and Valentinian copied his stance. Listening with the trained ear of veterans."I think you're right," agreed Valentinian.Anastasius nodded. Then asked: "What's that make? Five assaults?""Four," replied Belisarius. "That first one, just after dawn, was more in the way of a reconnaissance. There've only been four mass charges.""Crazy bastards," sneered Valentinian. "Do they really think they can hammer their way onto that dam—without siege guns? Jesus, that must be a slaughter down there. The onagers and scorpions would be bad enough, backed up by Bouzes and his dragoons. But they've got to face Maurice and the Illyrians, too."He gave his general an approving glance. "That was a great idea, that road you had the Kushans build."Belisarius smiled crookedly. "I can't take credit for it, I'm afraid. I stole the idea from Nebuchadrezzar."Inspired by the design of Babylon's fortifications, Belisarius had ordered a road built just behind the crest of the dam. A stone wall had then been hastily erected on the very crest. The road and the wall were jury-rigged, to be sure. The road was just wide enough and sturdy enough to allow the Thracian and Illyrian cataphracts to rush to any part of the dam which was under heavy attack. The wall was just thick enough, and just high enough, to shelter them from most missile fire. At the same time, it allowed the mounted archers to shoot their own bows over the wall at the Malwa soldiers trying to slog their way forward.Combined with the torsion artillery mounted all along the dam, and the dismounted Syrians' archery and grenades, the result had been murderous. Most of the enemy troops had been forced to charge the dam up the riverbed of the Euphrates. Not only did that muddy terrain slow them down, but it also broke up the cohesion of their formations. The Euphrates had not dried up completely. The dam had diverted most of its water into the Nehar Malka, but there was still enough seeping through to produce a network of small streams and pools. Eventually, those streams converged and produced a small river—but not for several miles. Below the dam itself, the riverbed was an attacker's nightmare—mud, reeds, sinkholes, pools, creeks.As far as possible, the Malwa had concentrated their efforts against the eastern end of the dam. There, the enemy troops could advance along the dry land which had once been the left bank of the Euphrates. But Belisarius had expected that, which was why he'd positioned the Constantinople troops on that end of the dam, backed up by the katyusha rockets. He had spent the night before the battle with Agathius and his men, exhorting them to stand fast. The Greeks, he explained, were the anchor of the entire defensive line. They would take the heaviest blows, but—so long as they held—the enemy could not prevail. When Belisarius finished, they gave him a cheer and vowed to hold the line.Hold it they had, through four savage assaults. But they had driven back each charge, and added their own heavy charges onto the enemy's butcher bill.The sounds of battle were fading rapidly now. It was obvious that the Malwa were retreating. Within a minute, Belisarius could see streams of enemy soldiers retreating from the dam. They were bearing large numbers of wounded with them, chased on their way by rocket volleys fired from the katyushas.Belisarius glanced up at the sky. The sun was beginning to set."There'll be a night attack," he predicted. "A mass assault all across the line." He pointed to the eastern anchor. "The crunch will come there. Count on it.""Agathius'll hold them," said Anastasius confidently. "Come what may, Agathius will hold."Valentinian grunted his agreement.Belisarius glared at the distant enemy. Then, glared at his bodyguards. If he could have turned his eyes inside out, he would have glared at Aide."I'm too far away!" he roared. The attack began two hours after dusk, and it lasted halfway through the night. The worst of it, as Belisarius had predicted, came on the eastern anchor of the dam.Hour after hour, the general spent, perched on his cursed observation platform. Leaning over the wall, straining to hear what he could.Cursing Khusrau. Cursing Valentinian and Anas-tasius. Cursing Aide. He got a little sleep in the early hours of the dawn, after the enemy assault had been clearly beaten off. At daybreak, Valentinian awakened him."A courier's coming," announced the cataphract.Belisarius scrambled to his feet and went over to the side of the platform where the path came up from below. Peering down, he could see an armored man making his laborious way up that narrow, twisting trail through the rocks."I think that's Maurice," said Anastasius.Startled, Belisarius looked closer. He had been expecting one of the young cataphracts whom Maurice had been using to keep the general informed of the battle's progress—not the chiliarch himself.But it was Maurice, sure enough. Belisarius stiffened, feeling a chill in his heart.Valentinian verbalized his thought. "Bad news," he announced. "Sure as taxes. Only reason Maurice would come himself."As soon as Maurice made his way to the crest, Belisarius reached down and hauled him over the wall."What's wrong?" he asked immediately. "From the sound, I thought they'd been beaten off again.""They were," grunted Maurice. He took off his heavy helmet and heaved a sigh of relief."God, it's like being in a furnace. Forgotten what fresh air tastes like.""God damn it, Maurice! What's wrong?"The chiliarch's gray eyes met Belisarius' brown ones. Squarely, unflinchingly. Sternly."The same thing that's usually wrong in a battle, whether it's going well or not. We're hammering the bloody shit out of them, sure, but they get to hammer back. We've taken heavy casualties—especially the Greeks."Maurice drew in a long, deep breath."Timasius is dead. He led the Illyrians in a charge against some Malwa—Kushans, worse luck—who made it over the wall. Horse got hamstrung and gutted, and—" Maurice shrugged, not bothering to elaborate. There were few things in a battle as certain as the fate of an armored cavalryman brought down by infantry. Timasius wouldn't have survived ten seconds after hitting the ground."Liberius?" asked Belisarius."He's taken command of the Illyrians," replied Maurice. "He's doing a good job, too. He organized the counter-attack that drove the Kushans back down the dam."Belisarius studied Maurice's grim face. He felt his chill deepen. Maurice hadn't climbed all the way up that hill just to tell him that a dull, dimwitted commander had been succeeded by a more capable subordinate."I'm sorry about Timasius," he said softly. "He was a reliable man, if nothing else. His family'll get his full pension—I'll see to it. But that's not what you came here to tell me. So spit it out."The grizzled Thracian wiped his face wearily. "It's Agathius.""Damn," hissed Belisarius. There was a real anguish in that hiss, and the three cataphracts who heard it understood that it was the pain of a man losing a treasured friend, not a general losing an excellent officer."Damn," he repeated, very softly.Maurice shook his head. "He's not dead, general." Grimacing: "Not quite, anyway. But he's lost one leg, for sure, and I don't know as how he'll still be alive tomorrow.""What happened?"Maurice swiveled, staring back at the dam. "They really pushed hard this time, especially at the eastern anchor. Solid Ye-tai, that was—fighting on their own, not just chivvying Malwa regulars."Still looking to the southwest, the chiliarch muttered an incoherent curse. "They're mean, tough, gutsy bastards—I'll give 'em that. I don't even want to think how many casualties they took before they finally broke through."He turned back to Belisarius. "The Syrian dragoons couldn't hold them, so Agathius led a lance charge. In pitch dark, can you believe it? Man's got brass balls, I swear he does. That broke the Ye-tai—crushed 'em—but he got hit by a grenade blast. Took off his right leg, clean, just above the knee. Mangled his left foot, too. It'll have to be amputated, I think. Beyond that—" He shrugged. "Shrapnel tore him up pretty fierce. He's lost a lot of blood.""Get him off the dam," commanded Belisarius. He turned and pointed to the small fleet of barges anchored in the middle of the Euphrates about a mile to the north."Get him to one of the ambulance barges."Maurice rubbed his face. "That's not going to be easy. He's still conscious, believe it or not." A half-wondering, half-admiring chuckle. "Still wants to fight, even! When I left the dam, he was yelling at the doctor to tie up the one leg and cut off the fucking useless foot on the other so he could get back on a horse."Valentinian and Anastasius laughed. Belisarius couldn't help smiling himself."Hit him over the head, if you have to, Maurice. But I want him out of there."Again, he pointed to the barges. "There's better medical care available in the ambulance barges. And his wife's on one of those boats, too. I don't know which one, but I'll find out. She'll probably be more help keeping him alive than anyone else."Maurice's eyes widened. "His wife? Sudaba's here? What in the world is that young girl doing on a battlefield? That's the craziest—"He broke off, remembering. Belisarius' own wife, Antonina, had had the habit of accompanying her husband on campaign also. All the way to the battlefield.Belisarius clasped Maurice's shoulder firmly."I want him alive, Maurice. Get him out of there. Now. Put Cyril in command of—""Already done it," gruffed Maurice.Belisarius nodded, took a deep breath. "All right. What else?"The chiliarch scowled. Strangely, the expression cheered Belisarius up. Maurice—scowling morosely—meant a problem. Which was not the same thing as bad news."They're going to change tactics," Maurice announced. "Even the Malwa won't keep throwing troops away like this forever.""They might," countered Belisarius mildly, "if they think they're wearing us down fast enough."Maurice shook his head. "They're not. We're taking pretty heavy casualties, sure, but we're giving out four or five to every one we take. At that rate, attrition will chew them up before it does us." His scowl darkened. "And I'm sure they know it, too. I'll tell you something, general. Whoever's running the show on their side is no fool. The frontal attacks have been beaten off, but that's because the terrain favors us and we're on the defensive. The attacks themselves have been organized and direc-ted as good as you could ask, given that Godawful riverbed they have to plow through. There's been none of their usual cocksure stupidity, thinking they can roll over everybody just with their numbers. Ye-tai and Kushans have been leading every attack, and the Malwa regulars have been backing them up the way they should."A thought came instantly from Aide:Link. Link itself is here. I know, replied Belisarius.Maurice was shaking his head again."They tried the straight-up tactic, to see if it would work. Pressed it home, hard. But now that we've proven to them that they can't just roll over us, they'll try a flank attack. I'm sure of it."Belisarius scratched his chin, nodded. "I'm not arguing the point, Maurice. As it happens, I agree with you."He glanced across the river. Upstream of the dam, just before the river diverted into the narrower channel of the Nehar Malka, the Euphrates was still a mile wide. But he could see the Persian camp where Ormazd's army had forted up throughout the day's battle."Any signs of movement over there?" he asked.Maurice snorted. "About as much as a crocodile, waiting in the reeds. The only thing moving over there is Ormazd's nostrils, taking in the sweet air of opportunity."Belisarius smiled. "Well, unless they want to hammer away at twenty thousand dehgans, that only leaves the Malwa one other option."Maurice grimaced skeptically. He turned and pointed down the slope, to the Nehar Malka. "Do you have any idea how hard it would be for them to get across? The Nehar Malka's no shallow, placid river like the Euphrates was, general. It's narrower and deeper. The water's moving through there fast, and there aren't any fords within four days' march. They'll have to build a pontoon bridge, using those little barges they've got a few miles downriver."He turned back, shaking his head. "While Coutzes and his boys on this rockpile piss pain all over them, and the katyushas come up to the riverbank and fire rockets at point-blank range, and me and Cyril and Liberius bring up all the cataphracts to hammer whichever poor bastards do manage to stagger across a rickety little pontoon bridge."He jerked his head, pointing with his face at Ormazd's camp. "Personally, I'd rather take on the dehgans. If the Malwa can clear the right bank of the Euphrates, they can move upstream and cross back over damn near anywhere. We'd be trapped here. Have to abandon the dam and race back to Peroz-Shapur. Join forces with Kurush and try to hold out a siege."Belisarius' smile was very crooked.Maurice glared at him. "Are you really that sure of yourself?" he demanded.Belisarius made a mollifying gesture with his hands. A gentle little patting motion.Maurice was not mollified. "What's that?" he demanded. "Soothing the savage beast? Or just petting the dog?"Belisarius left off the motion. Then, grinning:"Yes, Maurice—I am that sure of myself. So sure, in fact, that I'm going to predict exactly how this next attack is going to happen."He pointed down the slope of the rockpile to the Nehar Malka below. "I predict they'll start building their pontoon bridge today, in the late afternoon. The attack will begin after dark. You know why?""So they might have a chance of getting across the bridge," snorted Maurice. "Never do it in daylight."Belisarius shook his head. "No. That's not why."He gave Maurice a hard stare. "You say they've had Ye-tai and Kushans leading every attack?"Maurice nodded."Not this next one, Maurice. You watch. Malwa regulars is all you'll see crossing that pontoon bridge—or would see, if it weren't dark. The reason they're going to attack at night is so that we can't see that none of their Ye-tai or Kushans are participating in the assault. Those troops—"He turned his head, nodding toward the river."—will be crossing over to the right bank of the Euphrates, about a mile downstream from the dam. Out of our sight, especially since we'll be preoccupied with the attack on the Nehar Malka. By dawn, just when we think we've beaten off another assault, the Malwa army's best troops will come at us from behind. Like you said, they can find any number of places to ford the Euphrates upstream."Maurice's scowl was ferocious, now. "You can't be positive that Ormazd will pull out and give them that opening," he protested.Belisarius shrugged."Positive, no. But I'll bet long odds on it, Maurice. Ormazd knows that the only loyal Persian troops Khusrau has up here are Baresmanas and Kurush's ten thousand. They're forted up in Peroz-Shapur—""I wish they were here," grumbled the chiliarch. "We could use them.""Don't be stupid! If they were here, Peroz-Shapur would be a pile of ashes. As it is, the Malwa expedition had to skirt the town and leave troops to guard against a sally. Just sitting in Peroz-Shapur, Kurush is a threat to them."He waved his hand. "But let's not change the subject. To go back to Ormazd—this is his best chance to move against Khusrau. If the Malwa destroy us here, they'll return to Babylon. Keep Khusrau penned up while Ormazd takes over all of northern Mesopotamia. The only thing that kept him from doing that before was our intervention—that, and our victory at Anatha. If we're gone, he's got a clear hand.""How's he going to explain that to his dehgans?" demanded Maurice.Belisarius laughed. "How else? Blame it on us. Stupid idiot Romans insisted on a hopeless stand. Fortunately, he was too wise to waste his men's lives defending a canal which was obviously just a Roman scheme to reinvade Persia like they did in Julian's day.""That's pretty tortuous reasoning," muttered Maur-ice, shaking his head.Again, Belisarius barked a laugh. "Of course it is! So what? It'll serve the purpose."Maurice was still shaking his head. "What if you're wrong?" Maurice growled, "Dammit, I hate tricky battle plans."Belisarius smiled. "If I'm wrong, Maurice—so what? In that case, Ormazd will have to fight the Malwa who cross the Euphrates. They may defeat him, but after fighting twenty thousand dehgans I don't think they'll be in any shape to hit us on the flank. Do you?"Maurice said nothing. Then, sighed heavily. "All right. We'll see how it goes."The chiliarch started to turn away. Belisarius restrained him with a hand on his shoulder."Wait a moment. I'm coming with you."Maurice gave him a startled look. Valentinian and Anastasius started to squawk. Aide began to make some mental protest.Belisarius rode them all down."Things have changed!" he announced gaily. "The battle's reaching its turning point. I have to be down there, now. Ready—at a moment's notice—to fulfill my vow to Emperor Khusrau."Maurice smiled. Valentinian and Anastasius choked down their squawks. Aide sulked."Safe," sneered Belisarius. He took a moment to don his armor."Safe," he sneered again, as he began the long trek down the hill.Behind him, Maurice said, "Do be a little careful, will you? Going down that miserable path, I mean. Be a bit absurd, it would, you breaking your fool neck climbing down a pile of rocks.""Safe," sneered Belisarius.Two eager steps later, he tripped and rolled some fifty feet down the hill. When he finally came to a halt, piling up against a boulder, it took him a minute or so to clear his head.The first thing he saw, dizzily, was Maurice leaning over him."Safe," muttered the gray-bearded veteran mor-osely. "It's like asking a toad not to hop."He reached down a hand and hauled Belisarius back onto his feet. "Will you mind your step, from here on?" he asked, very sweetly. "Or must we have Anastasius carry you down like a babe in swaddling clothes?""Safe," Belisarius assured one and all. None of whom believed him for a moment. 
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