Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 35 THE EUPHRATES
Autumn, 531 a.d.
"So where's your flank attack?" demanded Maurice. "You remember—the one you predicted was going to happen that very night. About a week ago."Belisarius shrugged. Reclining comfortably against the crude rock wall of one of the artillery towers on the dam, he returned Maurice's glower with a look of complacence."I forgot about the negotiations," he explained."What negotiations?"Belisarius stuck his thumb over his shoulder, pointing southwest."The ones that Ormazd has been having with the Malwa, these past few days." He reached down and brought a goblet to his lips, sipping from its contents.Maurice eyed the goblet with disfavor."How can you drink that stuff? You're starting to go native on me, I can tell. A Roman—sure as hell a Thracian—should be drinking wine, not that—that—that Persian—"Belisarius smiled crookedly. "I find fresh water flavored with lemon and pomegranate juice to be quite refreshing, Maurice. I thank Baresmanas for introducing me to it."He levered himself into an upright position. "Besides," he added, "if I drank wine all day—day after day, stuck on this misbegotten dam—I'd be a complete sot by now.""Anastasius and Valentinian drink wine," came the immediate riposte. "Haven't noticed them stumbling about."Belisarius cast a cold eye on his two bodyguards, not four yards away. Like Belisarius, Anastasius and Valentinian were lounging in the shade provided by the artillery tower."With his body weight," growled the general, "Anastasius could drink a tun of wine a day and never notice." Anastasius, hearing, looked down at his immense frame with philosophical serenity. "And as for Valentinian—ha! The man not only looks like a weasel, he can eat and drink like one, too." Valen-tinian, hearing, looked down at his whipcord body with his own version of philosophical serenity. Which, more than anything, resembled a weasel after gorging itself in a chickencoop.Suddenly, Belisarius thrust himself to his feet. The motion was pointless, really. It simply expressed the general's frustration at the past week of immobility. Stuck on a dam with his army while they fought it out, day after day, with an endless series of Malwa probes and attacks.For all practical purposes, the battle had become a siege. Belisarius was a master of siegecraft—whether on offense or defense—but it was a type of warfare that he personally detested. His temperament led him to favor maneuver rather than simple mayhem.He had not even had the—so to speak—relief of personal combat. On the first day after joining his army on the dam itself, Belisarius had started to participate directly in repelling one of the Malwa attacks. Even before Anastasius and Valentinian had corraled him and dragged him away, the Syrian soldiers manning that section of the wall had fiercely driven him off. Liberius and Maurice, riding up with their cataphracts to bolster the Syrians, had even cursed him for a damned fool.The general's cold and calculating brain recognized the phenomenon, of course, and took satisfaction in it. Only commanders who were genuinely treasured by an army had their personal safety so jealously guarded by their own soldiers. But the man inside the general had chafed, and cursed, and stormed, and railed.The general bridled the man. And so, for a week, Belisarius had reconciled himself to the inevitable. He had never again attempted to directly participate in the fight at the wall, but he had spent each and every day riding up and down the Roman line of fortifications. Encouraging his soldiers, consulting with his officers, organizing the logistics, and—especially—spending time with the wounded.Valentinian and Anastasius had grumbled, Aide had chafed—rockets! very dangerous!—but Belisarius had been adamant. His soldiers, he knew, might take conscious satisfaction in the knowledge that their commander was out of the direct fray. But they would—at a much, much deeper human level—take heart and courage from his immediate presence.In that, he had been proven right. As the week wore on, his army's battle cry underwent a transformation.Rome! Rome! it had been, in the first two days.By the third day, as he rode up and down the fortifications, his own name had been cheered. That was still true, even more so, a week after the battle started. But his name was no longer being used as a simple cheer. It had become a taunt of defiance hurled at the enemy. The entire Roman army using that single word to let the Malwa know:You sorry bastards are fucked. Fucked. Belisarius! Belisarius!  Belisarius drained his goblet and set it down on the wall with enough force to crack the crude pottery.He ignored the sound, swiveling his head to the west.His eyes glared. It being late afternoon, the sun promptly glared back. He raised a hand to shield his face."Come on, Ormazd," he growled. "Make up your mind. Not even a God-be-damned Aryan prince should need a week to decide on treason."Maurice turned his own head to follow Belisarius' gaze."You think that's what's been going on?""Count on it, Maurice," said Belisarius softly. "I can guarantee you that every night, for the past week, Malwa emissaries have been shuttling back and forth between Ormazd's pavilion and—"For a moment, he began to turn his head to the south. Squinting fiercely, as if by sheer forth of will he could peer into the great pavilion which the Malwa had erected on the left bank of the Euphrates, well over a mile away. The pavilion where, he was certain, Link exercised its demonic command.Maurice grunted sourly. "Maybe you're right. I sure as hell hope so. If this damned siege goes on much longer, we'll—ah." He made a vague gesture with his hand, as if brushing dung off his tunic.Belisarius said nothing. He knew Maurice was not worried that the Malwa could take the dam by frontal assault. Nor was the chiliarch really concerned that the Malwa could wear out the Romans. The steady stream of barges coming down from Callinicum kept the defenders better supplied than the attackers. The Romans could withstand this kind of semi-siege almost indefinitely.But—it was wearing. Wearing on the body, wearing on the nerves. Since the ferocious Malwa assaults of the first day and night, which they had suspended in favor of constant probes and quick pinprick attacks, casualties had been relatively light. But "light" casualties are still casualties. Men you know, dead, crippled, wounded. Day after day, with no end in sight."I hope you're right," he repeated. Sourly.Belisarius decided a change of subject was in order. "Agathius is going to live," he announced. "I'm quite confident of it, now. I saw him just yesterday."Maurice glanced upriver, at the ambulance barges moored just beyond range of the Malwa rockets. "Glad to hear it. I thought sure—" He lapsed into another little grunt. Not sour, this one. The inarticulate sound combined admiration with disbelief."Never thought he'd make it," he admitted. "Especially after he refused to go to Callinicum."Belisarius nodded. Most of the Roman casualties, after triage, had been shipped back to Callinicum. But Agathius had flat refused—had even threatened violence when Belisarius tried to insist. So, he had stayed—as had his young wife. Sudaba had been just as stubborn toward Agathius' demands that she leave as he had been toward Belisarius. Including the threats of violence.In truth, Belisarius was grateful. Cyril had succeeded to the command of the Constantinople troops, and had done very well in the post. But Agathius' stance had done wonders for the army's morale, and by no means simply among the Greeks. For the past week, a steady stream of soldiers—Thracians, Syrians, Illyrians and Arabs as much as Greeks—had visited the maimed officer on his barge. Agathius was very weak from tremendous loss of blood, and in great pain, what with one leg amputated at the knee and the other at the ankle. But the man had borne it all with a stoicism which would have shamed Marcus Aurelius, and had never failed to take the occasion to reinforce his visitors' determination to resist the Malwa.A quiet thought came from Aide: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends And say my glory was I had such friends."  "Yes," whispered Belisarius. "Yes."It's from a poet whose name will be Yeats. Many centuries from now. Belisarius took a deep breath.Let us give mankind those centuries, then. And all the millions of centuries which will come after.   Chapter 36In its pavilion, at the very moment when Belisarius made that silent vow, the thing from the future which called itself Link made its catastrophic mistake.It had calculated the possibilities. Analyzed the odds. Gauged the options. Most of all, it had assessed the capabilities of the enemy commander so accurately, and so correctly, and in so many ways, that Belisarius would have been stunned had he ever known how well he had been measured.Measured, however, only as a general—for that was all that Link understood. The being from the future, with its superhuman intelligence, had burrowed to the depths of the crooked mind of Belisarius. Down to the very tips of the roots.And had missed the man completely. "ORMAZD HAS AGREED, THEN?"Link's top subordinates, four officers squatting on cushions before the chair which held the shape of an old woman, nodded in unison."Yes, Great Lady Holi," said one. "He will pull his troops out of position three hours after sundown."Link pondered, gauged, calculated, analyzed.Assessed the crooked, cunning brain of the great General Belisarius.From long experience, the four officers sat silently throughout. It never occurred to them to offer any advice. The advice would not have been welcome. And, if Link had none of the explosive temper of the late Lord Jivita, the being was utterly merciless. The officers weren't especially afraid of the huge tulwar-bearing men who squatted between them and Great Lady Holi. Those were simply guards. But they had only to turn their heads to see the line of silent assassins who waited, as motionless as statues, in the rear of the pavilion. Link—Great Lady Holi—had used those assassins three times since the expedition began. To punish failure, twice. But there had also been an officer who couldn't learn to restrain his counsel.Finally, Link spoke."THERE IS A POSSIBILITY. IT IS NOT LIKELY. WERE THE ENEMY LED BY ANY OTHER COMMANDER I WOULD DISMISS IT OUT OF HAND. BUT I CANNOT. NOT WITH BELISARIUS."Silence followed again, for well over a minute. The Malwa officers did not ask for an explanation of those cryptic words. None would have been given if they had.Gauged, analyzed, assessed. Made its decision."SEND THE KUSHANS FIRST. ALL OF THEM. ON FOOT."The officers were visibly startled, now. After a moment, one of them ventured to ask:"On foot?"Silence. The officer cleared his throat."But—Great Lady Holi, it is essential that the maneuver be made with great speed. Belisarius will realize what we are doing by sunrise at the latest. Quite possibly earlier. It is almost impossible—even with the harshest orders—to keep such a large body of men from making some noise. And we have no control over the Persians, in any event."Another interjected, "We must get the flanking column upriver as fast as possible. So that they can ford the Euphrates before Belisarius can block their way. That requires cavalry, Great Lady Holi.""BE SILENT. I UNDERSTAND YOUR ARGU-MENT. BUT THERE IS A POSSIBILITY, IF BELISARIUS IS CUNNING ENOUGH. I CANNOT TAKE THE CHANCE. THE YE-TAI, AFTER THEY CROSS, CAN RACE UPRIVER TO SEIZE A BRIDGEHEAD. THE REGULAR CAVALRY, FOLLOWING, CAN BRING THE KUSHANS' HORSES WITH THEM. THEY SHOULD STILL BE ABLE TO REACH THE YE-TAI IN TIME TO HOLD THE CROSSING."The officers submitted, of course. But one of them, bolder than the rest, made a last protest:"It will take the Kushans so much time, if they cross the river on foot.""THAT IS PRECISELY THE POINT."NOW, DO AS I COMMAND."All opposition fled. The officers hastened from the pavilion, spreading the command throughout the great army encamped below the dam.Alone in its pavilion, Link continued to calculate. Gauge. Analyze.Its thoughts were confident. Link was guided not simply by its own incredible intellect, but also by intelligence—in the military sense of the term. Roman prisoners had been taken, here and there, in the days of fighting. Interrogated. Those of them with personal knowledge of Belisarius had been questioned under torture, until Link was satisfied that it had squeezed every last item necessary to fully assess the capabilities of its enemy.It would have done better, had it been in Link's power, to have interrogated a Persian survivor of the battle of Mindouos. The man named Baresmanas.But, perhaps not. Link would not have asked the right questions. And Baresmanas would certainly not have volunteered the information, not even under the knife.But he could have. He could have. He could have warned the Malwa superbeing that mercy can have its own sharp point. Keener than any lance or blade; and even deadlier to the foe.  Chapter 37"Finally," hissed Belisarius.The general was practically dancing with impatience, waiting for his horse to be brought up to the artillery tower where he had made his headquarters for the past week.He was already in full armor. He had begun donning the gear the moment he heard the first katyusha volleys. As he had predicted, the Malwa were attempting to cross the Nehar Malka on a pontoon bridge. He was convinced that the maneuver was a feint, but, like all well-executed diversions, it carried real substance behind it. Thousands of Malwa troops were involved in the crossing, supported by most of their rocket troughs. By now, an hour into the battle, the scene to the east was a flashing cacophony. Katyusha rockets crossed trails with Malwa missiles. The Syrian soldiers on the rockpile added their own volleys of fire-arrows, aimed at the boats on the canal. The Nehar Malka was lit up by those flaming ships.In the darkness ahead, he could make out the looming shape of his horse. Maurice, he realized, was the man holding it."How long ago?" were his first words.He could barely make out Maurice's shrug."Who's to know? The Persians are being damned quiet. Much quieter than I would have expected, from a lot of headstrong dehgans. But Abbu's scouts report that they've already moved out at least half of their forces. Due west, into the desert."Sourly: "Just as you predicted."Belisarius nodded. "We've some time, then. Is Abbu—"Maurice snorted. "Be serious! Of course he's in pos-ition. The old Arab goat's even twitchier than you are."As Anastasius heaved him into the saddle, Belisarius grunted. "I am not twitchy. Simply eager to close with the foe."" 'Close with the foe,' " mimicked Maurice, clambering onto his own mount. "My, aren't we flowery tonight?"Securely in his saddle, Belisarius grinned. It was obvious that the prospect of action—finally!—had completely restored his spirits."Let's to it, Maurice. I do believe the time has come to reacquaint the Malwa with the First Law of Battle."He tugged on the reins, turning his horse."The enemy has arrived. And I intend to fuck them up completely." "What?" he demanded.Maurice took a breath. "You heard me. Abbu's courier reports that they're sending the Kushans across first. On foot, all of them. They even dismounted the Kushan cavalry. They've got their Ye-tai battalions massed on the bank, mounted, but they aren't crossing yet. Behind them, Abbu thinks they're forming up kshatriya and Malwa regulars, but he's not sure. He can't get close enough."Belisarius turned and stared into the darkness, raising himself up in the stirrups in order to peer over the wall. He was on the road at the eastern end of the dam, just behind the front fortifications. For a moment, he plucked at his telescope, but left off the motion almost as soon as it started. He already knew that the device was no help. It was a moonless night, and the Malwa crossing the almost-empty riverbed were a mile south of the dam. He could see nothing, not even with his Aide-enhanced vision."Kushans first, and without horses," he murmured. "That makes no sense at all."He scratched his chin. "Unless—""Unless what?" hissed Maurice.Scratched his chin. "Unless that thing is even smarter than I thought."Maurice shook his head. "Stop being so damn clever! Maybe they want to make sure they don't make any noise crossing the Euphrates. Kushans on foot will be as silent as any army could be."Belisarius nodded, slowly."That's possible. It's even possible that they made arrangements with Ormazd to have horses left for them. Still—"A little noise drew their attention. An Arab courier was trotting toward them from the western end of the dam."Abbu says now!" the scout exclaimed, as soon as he drew up. "Almost all the Kushans are in the riverbed. At least eight thousand of them. Probably all of them, by now. Their first skirmishers will have already reached the opposite bank."Belisarius scratched his chin."God damn it to hell!" snarled Maurice. "What are you waiting for? We can't let those men cross, general! After all our casualties, we don't have much better than eight thousand left ourselves. Once they get on dry land—on the south bank—they can ford upstream any one of a dozen places. We'll have to face them on—""Enough, Maurice." The chiliarch clamped shut his jaws.Scratched the chin.The general thought; gauged; calculated; assessed.The man decided.His crooked smile came. He said, very firmly:"Let the Kushans cross. All of them."To the scout:"Tell Abbu to send up the rocket when the Ye-tai are almost across. And tell that old maniac to make sure he's clear first. Do you understand? I want him clear!"The Arab grinned. "He will be clear, general. By a hair, of course. But he will be clear."An instant later, the man was gone.Belisarius turned back to Maurice. The grizzled veteran was glaring at him."Look at it this way," Belisarius said pleasantly. "I've just given you what you treasure most. Something else to be morose about."Glaring furiously. To one side, Valentinian muttered: "Oh, great. Just what we needed. Eight thousand Kushans to deal with."Belisarius ignored both the glare and the mutter. He began to scratch his chin, but stopped. He had made his decision, and would stick with it.It was a bad decision, perhaps. It might even, in the end, prove to be disastrous. But he thought of men who liked to gamble, when they had nothing to gamble with except humor. And he remembered, most of all, a man with an iron face. A hard man who had, in two lives and two futures, made the same soft decision. A decision which, Belisarius knew, that man would always make, in every life and every future.He relaxed, then. Confident, not in his decision, but in his soul."Let them pass," he murmured. "Let them pass."He cocked his head, slightly. "Basil's ready?""Be serious," growled Maurice.Belisarius smiled. A minute later, he cocked his head again. "Everyone's clear?" he asked."Be serious," growled Maurice."Everybody except us," hissed Valentinian. "We're the only ones left. The last Syrians cleared off five minutes ago.""Let's be off, then," said Belisarius cheerfully.As he and his three cataphracts walked their horses off the dam—moving carefully, in the dark—Belisarius began softly reciting verses.The men with him did not recognize the poem. There was no way they could have. Aide had just given it to him, from the future. That future which Belisarius would shield, from men who thought themselves gods.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.   Chapter 38The moment the signal rocket exploded, Link knew.Its four top officers, standing nearby on the platform of the command tower overlooking the river, were simply puzzled. The rocket, after bursting, continued to burn like a flare as it sailed down onto the mass of soldiers struggling their way across the bed of the Euphrates. Ye-tai, in the main, swearing softly as they tried to guide their horses in the darkness through a morass of streamlets and mucky sinkholes. But there were at least five thousand Malwa regulars, also, including a train of rocket-carts and the kshatriya to man them.The flare burned. The officers stared, and puzzled.But Link knew at once. Understood how completely it had been outwitted, although it did not—then or ever—understand how Belisarius had done it.But the being from the future was not given to cursing or useless self-reproach. It recognized only necessity. It did not even wait for the first thundering sound of the explosions to give the order to its assassins.Across the entire length of the dam blocking the Euphrates, the charges erupted. Almost in slow motion, the boulder-laden ships which formed the base of the dam heaved up. The sound of the eruption was huge, but muffled. And there was almost no flash given off. The charges, for all their immensity, had been deeply buried. Even Link, with its superhuman vision, could barely see the disaster, in the faint light still thrown off by the signal flare.The officers saw nothing. Then, or ever. The first assassin's knife plunged into the back of the first officer, severing his spinal cord. A split second later, the other three died with him. Still staring at the rocket. Still puzzled.Link had failed, but its failure would remain hidden. Its reputation was essential to the Malwa cause, and the cause of the new gods who had created Malwa. The officers would take the blame.The mass of soldiers in the bed of the Euphrates—perhaps fourteen thousand, in all—froze at the sound. Turned, stared into the darkness. Puzzled. The night was dark, and the dam was a mile away. They, too, could see nothing. But the noise was ominous.Then the first breeze came, and the smartest of the trapped soldiers understood. Shrieking, cursing—even sabring the slower-witted men who barred their way—they made a desperate attempt to scramble their horses out of the riverbed.The rest—The wall of water which smote the Malwa army came like a mace, wielded by a god. Untold tons of hurtling water, carrying great boulders as if they were chips of wood. Smashing in the sides of the old riverbed, gouging channels as it came, ripping new stones to join the old.By the time the torrent struck, all of the doomed men in that riverbed understood. The sound was no longer a distant thunder. It was a howling banshee. Shiva's shriek. Kali's scream of triumph.All of them, now, were fighting to get out. Their horses, panicked as much by the terror in their riders' voices as the thunder coming from the north, were scuttling through the mud, skittering past the reeds, falling into sinkholes, trampling each other under.But it was hopeless. Some of the Malwa soldiers—less than a thousand—were far enough from the riverbed's center to reach the banks. Others, caught by the edges of the tidal wave, were able to save their lives by clinging to reeds, or boulders, or ropes thrown by their comrades ashore.A few—a very, very small few—even survived the flood. A gigantic, turbulent mass of water such as the one which hammered its way down the riverbed is an odd thing. Fickle, at times. Weird, in its workings.The Euphrates, restored to its rightful place, raged and raged and raged. But, here and there, it took pity. One soldier, to his everlasting amazement, found himself carried—gently, gently—to the riverbank. Another, too terrified to be amazed, was simply tossed ashore.And one Malwa soldier, hours later and fifty miles downriver, waded out of the reeds. The Euphrates had nestled him in a bizarre and permanent little eddy—like a chick cupped in a man's hand—and carried him through the night. A simple man, he was—simple-minded, his unkind former comrades had often called him—but no fool. It was noted, thereafter, that the previously profane fellow had become deeply religious. Particularly devoted, it seemed, to river gods.But for the overwhelming majority of the Ye-tai and Malwa regulars caught in Belisarius' trap, death came almost instantly. They did not even drown, most of them. They were simply battered to death.Twelve thousand, one hundred and forty-three men. Dead within a minute. Another nine hundred and six, crippled and badly wounded. Most of those would die within a week.Ten thousand and eighty-nine horses, dead. Two thousand, two hundred and seventy-eight camels, dead. Thirty-four rocket carts, pulverized. Almost half of the expedition's gunpowder weapons, destroyed.It was the worst military disaster in Malwa's history.And Link knew it. The superbeing was already examining its options, before the wall of water had taken a single life. Throughout the horror which followed, the creature named Great Lady Holi sat motionless upon its throne. Utterly indifferent to the carnage—those dying men and animals were simply facts—it went about its business.Calculating. Gauging. Assessing.The officers would take the blame. Link would take the credit for salvaging what could be salvaged.Calculating. Gauging. Assessing.Which was not much.By the time the next rank of officers crept their timid way onto the command tower, Link had already made its decisions."WE MUST RETREAT. BEAT THE DRUMS."ORGANIZE RATIONING. WE WILL BE FORCED TO RETREAT THROUGH THE DES-ERT, WITH FEW CAMELS. WE CANNOT RISK A BATTLE ON THIS SIDE OF THE RIVER. BELISARIUS WILL HAVE ALSO COLLAPSED THE STONES INTO THE NEHAR MALKA, RESTOR-ING THE OLD DAM. HE WILL BE ABLE TO CROSS EASILY. AND THERE ARE STILL TEN THOUSAND PERSIANS IN PEROZ-SHAPUR. OUR FORCES THERE MUST KEEP THOSE PER-SIANS PENNED IN WHILE WE MAKE OUR RETREAT."Even with the grim reminder of the slaughtered officers lying on the platform, some of Link's new top subordinates dared to protest.Through the desert? Many will die, in such a retreat. "AT LEAST FOUR THOUSAND, BY MY ESTIMATE. THEY CAN BE REPLACED."And what about the Kushans? There are eight thousand of them in position to attack! "POINTLESS. THEY HAVE NO HORSES. NO SUPPLIES. AND WE HAVE NO MEANS OF SUPPLYING THEM. OUR OWN SUPPLIES ARE LIMITED."BELISARIUS WILL NOT FIGHT, HE WILL SIMPLY ELUDE THE KUSHANS AND WAIT FOR THEM TO DIE OF HUNGER. A WASTE OF EXCELLENT TROOPS—WHOM WE NEED OURSELVES. WE MUST BEGIN THE RETREAT IMMEDIATELY. SEND COURIERS TO THE KUSHANS. THEY MUST GUARD OUR REAR AS WE MARCH BACK TO BABYLON."The officers bowed their heads. They began to scurry out, but Link commanded them to remain. There were still some calculations to be made.The officers waited, silently, while Link gauged and assessed.It did not take the superbeing more than five minutes to reach another conclusion. A human commander, faced with that bitter logic, would have screamed fury and frustration. Link simply gave commands."SEND WORD TO OUR FORCES IN BABY-LON. TELL THE COMMANDERS TO AWAIT OUR ARRIVAL, BUT THEY MUST BEGIN THE PREPARATIONS FOR LIFTING THE SIEGE OF BABYLON."A last protest:Lift the siege of Babylon? But— "WE HAVE NO CHOICE. BELISARIUS HAS SAVAGED US THIS YEAR, DUE TO THE INCOM-PETENCE OF MALWA'S GENERALS. OUR SUP-PLY FLEET WAS ALREADY STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT. THIS NEW DISASTER WILL DES- TROY MORE SHIPS. WE HAVE LOST TOO MANY MEN, TOO MANY SUPPLIES, TOO MUCH EQUIPMENT. WE CANNOT MAINTAIN THE SIEGE. WE MUST RETREAT TO CHARAX, AND BEGIN AGAIN NEXT YEAR."DO IT." When the wall of water reached Peroz-Shapur, in the middle of the night, more Malwa lives were lost. Not many—simply those unlucky men among the forces guarding against a sally who had chosen the wrong moment to relieve themselves in the riverbed, away from the foul latrines of a siege camp.Above, on the walls of the fortified town, Baresmanas and Kurush listened to the river. The Euphrates was back, and with it, hope."He has done it," whispered Kurush. "Just as he promised." He turned away, moving with his quick and nervous stride. "I must ready the troops. We may be able to sally, come dawn."After he was gone, Baresmanas shook his head. "How can such a warm and merciful man be so ruthless?" he whispered. "So cold, so cruel, so pitiless?"There was no accusation in those words. Neither condemnation, nor reproach. Simply wonder, at the complexity and contradiction that is the human soul. Elsewhere within the walls of Peroz-Shapur, in the slave quarters where war captives were held, two thousand Kushans also listened to the sound of Malwa's destruction.Friendly guards were questioned. Soon enough, answers were given.The Kushans settled their bets.Those who had won the wager—all but one—celebrated through the night. They had the means with which to celebrate, too. Their guards were in a fine mood, that night. Wine was given out freely, even by stingy Persians.Only Vasudeva refrained from the festivity. When questioned, the Kushan commander simply smiled and said, "You forget. I made another bet. Enjoy yourselves, men."Grinning, now, and pointing at the amphorae clutched in his soldiers' hands. "Soon, everything you own will be mine." By the end of the next day, the Malwa guarding Peroz-Shapur began their retreat. Kurush—against Baresmanas' advice—tried a sally. His dehgans bloodied the enemy, but they were driven off with heavy casualties. The Malwa lion was wounded, and limping badly, but it still had its teeth.The day after that, the Kushans were sent out to clear the riverbanks of the multitude of corpses which had washed ashore. Bury them quickly—no sanctified exposure to the elements for those foul souls—so that the stench would not sicken the entire city.The Kushans did their work uncomplainingly. They had another bet to settle.By the end of the day, the count had been made to every Kushan's satisfaction. And Vasudeva won his bet.Many bodies had been buried, and their identities noted. There was not a single Kushan among them.Vasudeva was rich, now, for he had been the only Kushan to dare that gamble. Rich, not so much in material wealth—his soldiers had had little to wager, after all—but in the awe and esteem of his men. Kushans admire a great gambler."How did you know?" asked one of his lieutenants.Vasudeva smiled."He promised me. When we gave our oath to him, he swore in return that he would treat Kushans as men. Executed, if necessary. But executed as men. Not hanged like criminals, or beaten like dogs."He pointed to the river below Peroz-Shapur. "Or drowned, like rats."The lieutenant frowned. "He made that vow to us, not—" A gesture with his head upriver. "—to those Kushans."Vasudeva's smile was quite like that of a Buddha, now."Belisarius is not one to make petty distinctions."The commander of the Kushan captives turned away."Your mistake was that you bet on the general. I bet on the man." Two days later, at Babylon, Khusrau Anushirvan also basked in the admiration of his subordinates. Many of them—many—had questioned his wisdom in placing so much trust in a Roman general. Some of them had even been bold enough, and honest enough, to express those reservations to the Emperor's face.None questioned his wisdom now. They had but to stand on the walls of Babylon to see how wise their Emperor had been. The Malwa fleet had been savaged when Belisarius lowered the river. It had been savaged again, when he restored it. A full quarter of the enemy's remaining ships had been destroyed in the first few minutes. Tethered to jury-rigged docks, or simply grounded in the mud, they had been lifted up by the surging Euphrates and carried to their destruction. Some were battered to splinters; others grounded anew; still others, capsized.And Khusrau had sallied again. Not, this time, with dehgans across a pontoon bridge—no-one could have built a bridge across the roaring Euphrates on that day—but with sailors aboard the handful of swift galleys in his possession. The galleys had been kept ashore until the river's initial fury passed. As soon as the waters subsided to mere turbulence, the galleys set forth. Down the Euphrates they rowed, adding their own speed to the current, and destroying every Malwa ship they encountered which had managed to survive the Euphrates' rebirth.There was almost no resistance. The galleys passed too swiftly for the enemy's cannons to be brought to bear. And the Malwa soldiers on the ships themselves were too dazed to put up any effective resistance.Down the Euphrates the galleys went, mile after mile, until the rowers were too weak to pull their oars. They left a trail of burning ships thirty miles behind them, before they finally beached their craft and began the long march back to Babylon. On the west bank of the river, where the Malwa could no longer reach them.Between the river and the Persian galleys, over half of the remaining Malwa fleet was destroyed. Not more than two dozen ships eventually found their way back to Charax, of the mighty armada which had set forth so proudly at the beginning of the year. Other than sending forth the galleys, Khusrau made no attempt to sally against the Malwa encamped before Babylon. He was too canny to repeat Kurush's mistake at Peroz-Shapur. The Malwa lion had been lamed, true. It had not been declawed. There were still a hundred thousand men in that enemy army, with their siege guns loaded with cannister.The Emperor simply waited. Let them starve.The siege of Babylon had been broken, like a tree gutted by a lightning bolt. It had simply not fallen yet, much like a great tree will stand for a time after it is dead. Until a wind blows the hollow thing over. That wind arrived twelve days later. Emperor Khusrau and his entourage, from the roof of Esagila, watched the survivors of the Malwa expedition drag their mangled army back into the camps at Babylon. That army was much smaller than the one which had set out a few weeks since. Smaller in numbers of men, and horses, and camels, positively miniscule in its remaining gunpowder weapons.Two days later, the entire Malwa army began its long retreat south. By nightfall, the camps which had besieged Babylon for months were empty.Khusrau spent all of that day, also, on top of Esagila. Surrounded by his officers, his advisers, his officials, a small horde of sahrdaran and vurzurgan, and a young girl named Tahmina.Khusrau's more hot-headed officers called for a sally. Again, the Emperor refused.Malwa was lamed, but still a lion.And besides, the Persian Monarch had other business to attend to."Ormazd," he hissed. "Ormazd, first. I want his head brought to me on a pike, by year's end. Do it."His officers hastened to obey. Surrounded by the rest of his huge entourage, the Emperor remained on Esagila. For a time, he stared at the retreating Malwa. With satisfaction, hatred, and anticipation."Next year," he murmured. "Next year, Malwa."Then, he turned and began striding to the opposite wall of the great, ancient temple. His entourage began to follow, like a giant millipede, but Khusrau waved them back."I want only Tahmina," he commanded.Disgruntled, but obedient, his officials and nobles and advisers obeyed. Timidly, hesitantly, the girl did likewise.Once they were standing alone on the north wall of the temple, Khusrau's gaze was fixed on the northwest horizon. There was nothing to see, there, beyond a river and a desert. But the Emperor was looking beyond—in time, even more than in space.His emotions now, as he stared northwest, were more complex. Satisfaction also, of course. As well as admiration, respect—even, if the truth be told, love. But there was also fear, and dread, and anxiety."Next year, Malwa," he murmured again. "But the year after that, and after that, and after that, there will be Rome. Always Rome."He turned his head, and lowered his eyes to the girl standing at his side. Under her Emperor's gaze, the girl's own eyes shied away."Look at me, Tahmina."When the girl's face rose, Khusrau smiled. "I will not command you in this, child. But I do need you. The Aryans need you."Tahmina smiled herself, now. Timidly and uncertainly, true, but a smile it was. Quite a genuine one, Khusrau saw, and he was not a man easily fooled."I will, Emperor."Khusrau nodded, and placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. Thereafter, and for the rest of the day, he said nothing.Nor did he leave his post on the northern wall of Esagila, watching the northwest. The Malwa enemy could limp away behind his contemptuous back. Khusrau of the Immortal Soul was the Emperor of Iran and non-Iran. His duty was to face the future. Chapter 39Days later, Belisarius and Maurice surveyed the Nehar Malka from what was left of the rockpile on its north bank. Most of those rocks, so laboriously hauled out by the Kushans, were back where they came from. Once again, the Royal Canal was dry—or almost so, at least. The crude and explosive manner in which Belisarius had rebuilt the dam did not stop all the flow.The Roman army was already halfway across what was left of the Nehar Malka. On their way back to Peroz-Shapur, now. After destroying the dam, Belisarius had retreated north, in case the Malwa made an attempt to pursue his still-outnumbered army. He had not expected them to make that mistake—not with Link in command—but had been prepared to deal with the possibility.Once it became clear that the enemy was retreating back to Babylon, Belisarius had followed. They had reached the site of the battleground just two hours before."Enough," he said softly. "The Nehar Malka's dry enough. I don't think Khusrau will complain.""Shouldn't think so," muttered Maurice. The chiliarch was not even looking at the Nehar Malka, however. He was staring at the Euphrates.Not at the river, actually. The Euphrates, to all appearances, was back to its usual self—a wide, shallow, sluggishly moving mass of muddy water.No, Maurice was staring at the banks of the river. W
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