Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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Summer, 531 a.d.
The first sign of trouble came just a few hours after the army bypassed Anatha. The town, located directly on the Euphrates, was one of the chain of fortified strongholds which the Sassanid emperors had erected, over the centuries, to guard Persia from Roman invasion.Baresmanas and Kurush had offered to billet the Roman troops in the town itself, along with their own soldiers, but Belisarius had declined.There was always the risk of incidents with the local inhabitants, whenever a passing army was billeted in a town. That was especially true with an army of foreigners. Had Belisarius' forces consisted of nothing but his Thracians and the Syrian units, he would not have been concerned. His bucellarii were long accustomed to his discipline, and the soldiers from the Army of Syria were only technically foreigners.The Syrians were closely akin, racially and linguistically, with the people of western Mesopotamia. And the Arabs who constituted a large portion of the Syrian army were identical. Arabs—on both sides of the border—tended to view the political boundaries between Rome and Persia as figments of imperial imagination. Those soldiers were familiar with Persian ways and customs, and most of them spoke at least passable Pahlavi. Many of those men had relatives scattered all across the western provinces of the Persian empire.The same was not true—most definitely not true—with his Greek and Illyrian troops.The problem was that Anatha was not large enough to hold his entire army. He would not trust the Greek and Illyrian soldiers, without his Thracian and Syrian troops to help keep order. On the other hand, if he allowed the Syrians and Thracians to enjoy the comforts of the town, while the Constantinople and Illyrian troops camped outside—He would rekindle the resentments which he had finally managed, for the most part, to overcome.So he ordered the army to bypass the town altogether.The command, of course, caused hard feelings among his troops—all of it aimed at him. But the general was not concerned. To the contrary—he accepted the collective glare of his soldiers quite cheerfully. The animosity expressed in those glowering eyes would cement his army, not undermine it. Not so long as all of his soldiers were equally resentful and could enjoy the mutual bond of grumbling at the lunacies of high command: Sour Thracian grousing to disgruntled Illyrian, sullen Greek cataphract to surly Arab cavalryman.Fucking jackass. Whoever made this clown a general, anyway? By the time we get wherever we're going—the moon, seems like—we'll be too worn out to spank a brat. Fucking jackass. Whoever made this clown a general, anyway?  Three hours after the walls of Anatha fell below the horizon, Belisarius saw a contigent of the Arab light cavalry he was using as scouts come galloping up.Maurice trotted his horse forward to meet them, while Belisarius ordered a halt in the march. After a brief consultation with the scouts, the chiliarch hastened back to Belisarius. By the time he arrived, Baresmanas and Kurush were already at the general's side, along with Bouzes and Coutzes."There's a mob of refugees pouring up the road from the east," reported Maurice. "The scouts interviewed some of them. They say that a large Malwa cavalry force—" He shrugged. "You know how it is—according to the refugees, there's probably a million Malwa. But it's a large enough force, apparently, to have sacked a town called Thilutha.""Thilutha?" exclaimed Kurush. The young sahr-daran stared to the east."Thilutha's not as big as Anatha," he announced, "but it's still a fortified garrison town. There's no way a pure cavalry force should have been able to capture it.""They've got gunpowder," Belisarius pointed out.Maurice nodded. "The refugees are babbling tales about witchcraft used to shatter the town's gates."Belisarius squinted into the distance. "What's your guess, Maurice? And how far away are they?"The chiliarch stroked his beard thoughtfully. "It's a big force, general. Even allowing for refugee exaggeration, the Arab scouts think there must be at least ten thousand soldiers. Probably more.""A raiding party," stated Bouzes. His snub-nosed face twisted into a rueful grimace. "A reconnaissance-in-force, probably."Belisarius nodded. "It's good news, actually. It means Emperor Khusrau is still holding them at Babylon. So the Malwa have sent a large cavalry force around him, to ravage his rear and disrupt his supplies and communications."He paused for a moment, thinking. "I'm not sure Khusrau can hold Babylon forever, but the longer he does the better it is. We need to buy time. Time for Persia, time for Rome. Best way to do that, right now, is to teach the Malwa they can't raid Mesopotamia with impunity."His tone hardened. "I want to destroy that force. Hammer them into splinters." He stood in his stirrups, scanning the area around them. "We need a place to trap them."Kurush frowned. "Anatha is only a few hours behind us. We could return and—"Belisarius shook his head. "Anatha's much too strong, with us there to aid in the defense. The Malwa will take one look and go elsewhere. Then we'll have to chase them, and fight a battle on ground of their choosing."A little smile came to Baresmanas' face. "You want something feeble," he announced. "Some pathetic little fortification that looks like nothing much, but has places to conceal your troops." The smile widened. "Something like that wretched infantry camp you built at Mindouos."Belisarius' lips twisted. "Yes, Baresmanas. That's exactly what I want."Comprehension came to Kurush. The young Persian nobleman's face grew pinched, for an instant. Then, suddenly, he laughed."You are a cold-blooded man, Belisarius!" he e

claimed. With a sad shake of his head:"You'd never make a proper Aryan, I'm afraid. Rustam, dehgan of dehgans, would not approve."Belisarius shrugged. "With all due respect to the legendary national hero of the Aryans, and the fearsome power of his bull-headed maceRustam died, in the end.""Trapped in a pit by his enemies, while hunting," agreed Kurush cheerfully. "Speaking of which—"The sahrdaran looked to his uncle. "Isn't there an imperial hunting park somewhere in this vicinity?"Baresmanas pointed across the river, toward a large patch of greenery a few miles away."There," he announced.All the officers in the little group followed his pointing finger. At that moment, Agathius rode up, along with his chief tribune Cyril. Seconds later, the Illyrian commanders arrived also. The top leadership of the Allied army was now assembled. Quickly, the newcomers were informed of the situation and Belisarius' plan."We'll need to cross the Euphrates," remarked Coutzes. "Is there a ford nearby?""Has to be," replied Maurice. "The refugees are on that side of the river. Since the scouts talked to them, they must have found a way across."The chiliarch gestured toward the Arab cavalrymen, who had been waiting a short distance away. They trotted up to him and he began a quick consultation."It makes sense," commented Kurush. "Thilutha is on the left bank. At this time of year, the river can be forded any number of places. The Malwa have probably been crossing back and forth, ravaging both sides."Maurice returned."The fork's not far, according to the scouts." He gauged the sun. "We can have the whole army across the river by nightfall, if we press the matter.""Press it," commanded the general.Belisarius scanned his group of officers. The gaze was not cold, but it was stern. His eyes lingered for a moment on Agathius.The commander of the garrison troops broke into a grin. "Don't worry, general. My boys won't drag their feet. Not with the prospect of something besides another fucking day's march to look for-ward to."His eyes grew a bit unfocussed. "Imperial hunting park," he mused. "Be a royal villa and everything there, I imagine."He took up his reins, shaking his head. "Terri-ble, terrible," he murmured, spurring his horse. "Such damage the wondrous thing'll suffer, in a battle and all."After Agathius was gone, along with all the other subordinate officers except Maurice, Kurush gave Belisarius a cold stare."There is always a villa in an imperial hunting park," he stated. "Accoutered in a manner fit for the King of Kings. Filled with precious objects."The general returned the gaze unflinchingly. "He's right, Kurush. I'm afraid the Emperor's possessions are going to take a terrible beating.""Especially with gunpowder weapons," added Maurice. The Thracian chiliarch did not seem particularly distressed at the thought."I'm not concerned about the destruction caused by the enemy," snapped the young Persian nobleman."Be silent, nephew!" commanded Baresmanas. The sahrdaran's tone was harsh, and his own icy gaze was directed entirely at Kurush."I know the Emperor much better than you," he growled. "I have known him since he was a child. Khusrau Anushirvan, he is called—Khusrau 'of the immortal soul.' It is the proper name for that man, believe me. No finer soul has sat the Aryan throne since Cyrus. Do you think such an emperor would begrudge a few tokens to the brave men who come to his aid, when his people are ravaged by demons?"Kurush shrank back in his saddle. Then, sighing, he reined his horse around and trotted toward his troops. A moment later, Maurice left, heading toward his own soldiers.Once they were alone, Baresmanas smiled rue-fully. "Quite a few tokens, of course. And such tokens they are!"Belisarius felt a sudden, deep friendship for the man beside him. And then, an instant later, was seized by a powerful impulse."You are quite right, you know."Baresmanas eyed him."About Khusrau, I mean. He will rule the Aryans for fifty years, and will be remembered for as long as Iran exists. 'Khusrau the Just,' they will call him, over the centuries."Baresmanas' face seemed to pale, a bit, under the desert-darkened complexion."I had heard—" he whispered. He took a breath, shakily. "There are rumors that you can foretell the future, Belisarius. Is it true?"Belisarius could sense Aide's agitation, swirling in his mind. He sent a quick thought toward the flashing facets.No, Aide. There are times when secrecy defeats its purpose. He returned the sahrdaran's piercing stare with his own steady gaze."No, Baresmanas. Not in the sense that you mean the term."The army was beginning to resume the march. Belisarius clucked his own horse into forward motion, as did Baresmanas.The general leaned toward the sahrdaran. "The future is not fixed, Baresmanas. This much I know. Though, it is true, I have received visions of the possible ways that future river might flow."He paused. Then said, "We worship different gods, my friend. Or, perhaps, it is the same God seen in different ways. But neither of us believes that darkness rules."He gestured ahead, as if to indicate the still-unseen enemy."The Malwa are guided by a demon. That demon brought them the secret of gunpowder, and filled them with their foul ambition. Do you really think such a demon could come into the world—unanswered by divinity?"Baresmanas thought upon his words, for a time, as they rode along. Then, he said softly, "So. As always, God gives us the choice."Belisarius nodded. The sahrdaran's pallor faded. He smiled, then, rather slyly."Tell me one more thing, Belisarius. I will ask nothing else on this matter, I promise. Did a divine spirit guide you at Mindouos?"The general shook his head. "No. At least— No. I believe such a spirit kept me from harm in the battle. Personally, I mean. But the tactics were mine."The sahrdaran's sly smile broadened, became a cheerful grin. "For some reason, that makes me feel better. Odd, really. You'd think it would be the opposite—that I would take comfort from knowing we were defeated by a superhuman force."Belisarius shook his head. "I don't think it's strange at all, Baresmanas. There is—"He fell silent. There was no way to explain, simply, the titanic struggle in the far distant future of which their own battles were a product. Belisarius himself understood that struggle only dimly, from glimpses. But—"It is what we are fighting about, I think, in the end. Whether the course of human history is to be shaped by those who make it, or be imposed upon them by others."He spoke no further words on the subject.Nor did Baresmanas—then, or ever. In this, the sahrdaran was true to his Aryan myths and legends. He had given his word; he would keep it.The skeptical scholar in him, of course, found his own stiff honor amusing. Just as he found it amusing that the cunning, low-born Roman would never have revealed his secret, had he not understood that Aryan rigor.Most amusing, of course, was another thought.To have picked such a man for an enemy! Demons, when all is said and done, are stupid.  Aide, however, was not amused at all. In the hours that followed, while the army found the ford scouted by the Arab cavalrymen and crossed to the left bank of the Euphrates, and then encamped for the night, Belisarius could sense the facets shimmering in their thoughts. The thoughts themselves he could not grasp, but he knew that Aide was pondering something of great importance to him.The crystal did not speak to him directly until the camp had settled down, the soldiers all asleep except for the posted sentinels. And a general, who had patiently stayed awake himself, waiting in the darkness for his friend to speak.Do you really think that is what it is about? Our struggle with the new gods? Yes. Pause. Then, plaintively:And what of us? Do we play no role? Or is it only humans that matter? Belisarius smiled.Of course not. You are part of us. You, too, are human. We are not! shrieked the crystal. We are different! That is why you created us, because—because— Aide was in a frenzy such as Belisarius had not seen since the earliest days of his encounter with the jewel. Despair—frustration—loneliness—confusion—most of all, a frantic need to communicate.But it was not the early days. The differences between two mentalities had eased, over the years. Eased far more than either had known.Finally, finally, the barrier was ruptured completely. A shattering vision swept Belisarius away, as if he were cast into the heavens by a tidal wave.  Chapter 15Worlds upon worlds upon worlds, circling an incomprehensible number of suns. People on those worlds, everywhere—but people changed and transformed. Misshapen and distorted, most of them. So, at least, most men would say, flinching. Death comes, striking many of those worlds. The very Earth itself, scoured clean by a plague which spared no form of life. Nothing left—except, slowly, here and there, an advancing network of crystals. Aide's folk, Belisarius realized, come to replace those who had destroyed their own worlds. Created, by those who had slain themselves, to be their heirs.Belisarius hung in the darkness. Around him, below him, above him—in all directions—spun great whirling spirals of light and beauty. Galaxies.He sensed a new presence, and immediately understood its meaning. A great sigh of relief swept through him. Finally, finally— He saw a point of light in the void. A point, nothing more, which seemed infinitely distant. But he knew, even in the seeing, that the distance was one of time not space. Time opened, and the future came.The point of light erupted, surged forward. A moment later, floating before Belisarius, was one of the Great Ones. The general had seen glimpses of them, before. Now, for the first time, he saw a Great One clearly. As clearly, at least, as he ever could. He understood, now, that he would never see them fully. Too much of their structure lay in mysterious forces which would never be seen by earthly eyes. A new voice came to him. Like Aide's, in a way, but different. force fields. energy matrices. there is little in us left of our earthly origins. and no flesh at all. Like a winged whale, vaguely, in its broad appearance. If ever a whale could swim the heavens, glowing from an inner light. But much, much larger. The Great One dwarfed any animal that had ever lived.OUR DIMENSIONS MEASURE EIGHT BY THREE BY TWO, APPROXIMATELY, IN THE VISIBLE SPECTRUM. WHAT YOU CALL MILES. OUR MASS IS—DIFFICULT TO CALCULATE. IT DEPENDS ON VELOCITY. WE CAN ATTAIN 93% LIGHT SPEED, AT OUR UTMOST—CALL IT EXERTION. WE MUST BE VERY CAREFUL, APPROACHING A SOLAR SYSTEM. SHOULD ONE OF US IMPACT A PLANET, AT THAT VEL-OCITY, WE WOULD DESTROY IT. AND POSSIBLY OURSELVES AS WELL. The being had no eyes, no mouth, no apparent sense organs of any kind. Yet the general knew that the Great One could detect everything that any human could, and much else besides.He saw into the being, now. Saw the glittering network of crystals which formed the Great One's—heart? Soul?THEY ARE OUR HERITAGE NOW. OUR CRE-ATORS, AS MUCH AS OUR CREATIONS. THEY DO FOR US WHAT SOMETHING CALLED DNA ONCE DID FOR OUR ANCIENT ANCESTORS. ALLOW THE FUTURE TO EXIST. Belisarius studied the crystalline network more closely. The crystals, he thought, seemed much like Aide. Yet, somehow different.AIDE IS MUCH DIFFERENT. IT—NO, FOR YOU IT WILL ALWAYS BE "HE"—BEARS THE SAME RELATIONSHIP TO THESE AS YOU DO TO A BACTERIUM. AKIN, BUT GREATER. The Great One sensed the general's incomprehension. What is a "bacterium"? AS YOU DO TO AN EARTHWORM. OR, BETTER, A MUSHROOM. WE DESIGNED THESE CRYSTALS FOR OUR OWN SURVIVAL. BUT THEN DISCOVERED WE COULD NOT MAKE THEM, OR USE THEM, UNLESS WE CREATED A CRYSTAL INTELLIGENCE TO GUIDE AND ASSIST US. THOSE BECAME AIDE'S PEOPLE. They were your slaves, then. As I have heard the "new gods" say. NEVER. There came a sense of mirth; vast, yet whimsical. And the general knew, then—finally—that these almost inconceivable beings were truly his own folk. He had but to look in a mirror, to see the crooked smile that would, someday, become that universe-encompassing irony—and that delight in irony.THE PEASANT WHO TILLS THE FIELD BRINGS CHILDREN INTO THE WORLD—TO HELP IN THE LABOR, AMONG OTHER THINGS. ARE THOSE CHILDREN SLAVES? They can be, replied the general. I have seen it, more often than I like to remember. The sense of wry humor never faded.NOT IN YOUR HOUSE. NOT IN YOUR FIELD. NOT IN YOUR SMITHY. No, but— The Great One swelled, swirled. Looped the heavens, prancing on wings of light and shadow.AND WHOSE CHILD AM I—CRAFTSMAN? There was a soundless peal, that might be called joyful laughter. The Great One swept off, dwindling.Wait! called out Belisarius.NO. YOU HAVE ENOUGH. I MUST BE OFF TO JOIN MY BRETHREN AND SEE THE UNI-VERSE. OUR FAMILY—YOUR DESCENDANTS—HAVE FILLED THAT UNIVERSE. FILLED IT WITH WONDER THAT WE WOULD SHARE AND BUILD UPON. WE DO NOT HAVE MUCH TIME, IN OUR SHORT LIVES, TO DELVE THAT SPLENDOR. A MILLION YEARS, PERHAPS—NOT COUNTING TIME DILATION. Nothing but a tiny dot of light, now.Wait! cried Belisarius again. There is so much I need to know! The faint dot paused; then, swirled back. A moment later, Belisarius was staring awe-struck at a towering wall of blazing glory.THERE IS NOTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW, THAT YOU DO NOT ALREADY. WE ARE YOUR CREATION, AS AIDE'S FOLK ARE OURS. AND NOW YOUR GRANDCHILDREN HAVE COME TO YOU FOR HELP, IN THEIR TIME OF TROUBLE. SO WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW—OLD MAN? YOU ARE THE ELDER OF THAT VILLAGE WHICH NOW SPANS GALAXIES. YOU ARE THE BLACKSMITH WHO FORGED HUMANITY ON ITS OWN ANVIL. Belisarius laughed himself then, and it seemed that the galaxies shivered with his mirth. The Great One before him rippled; waves of humor matching his own.IT IS OUR MOST ANCIENT RELIGION, GRANDFATHER. AND WITH GOOD REASON. Swoop—away, away. Gone now, almost. A faint dot, no more.A faint voice; laughing voice:CALL IT—ANCESTOR WORSHIP.  When Belisarius returned to the world, he simply stared for a time. Looking beyond the hanging canopy to the great band of stars girdling the night sky. The outposts of that great village of the future.Then, as he had not done in weeks, he withdrew Aide from his pouch.There was no need, really. He had long since learned to communicate with the "jewel" without holding it. But he needed to see Aide with his own eyes. Much as he often needed to hold Photius with his own hands. To rejoice in love; and to find comfort in eternity.Aide spoke.You did not answer me. Belisarius:Weren't you there—when I met the Great One? Uncertainly:Yes, but— I do not think I understood. I am not sure. Plaintively, like a child complaining of the difficulty of its lessons:We are not like you. We are not like the Great Ones. We are not human. We are not— Be quiet, Aide. And stop whining. How do you expect to grow up if you whimper at every task? Silence. Then: We will grow up? Of course. I am your ancestor. One of them, at least. How do you think you got into the world in the first place? Everything that is made of us grows up. Certainly my offspring! A long, long silence. Then: We never dreamed. That we, too, could grow. * * *Aide spoke no more. Belisarius could sense the facets withdrawing into themselves, flashing internal dialogue.After a time, he replaced the "jewel" in the pouch and lay down on his pallet. He needed to sleep. A battle would erupt soon, possibly even the next day.But, just as he was drifting into slumber, he was awakened by Aide's voice.Very faint; very indistinct.What are you saying? he mumbled sleepily. I can't hear you. That's because I'm muttering. Proudly:It's good you can't hear me. That means I'm doing it right, even though I'm just starting. Very proudly:I'll get better, I know I will. Practice makes perfect. Valentinian always says that. The general's eyes popped open. "Sweet Jesus," he whispered.I thought I'd start with Valentinian. Growing up, I mean. He's pretty easy. Not the swordplay, of course. But the muttering's not so hard. And— A string of profanity followed.Belisarius bolted upright."Don't use that sort of language!" he commanded. Much as he had often instructed his son Photius. And with approximately the same result.Mutter, mutter, mutter.   Chapter 16By the time Belisarius arrived at the hunting park, the Arab scouts had already had one brief skirmish with the advance units of the oncoming Malwa army. When they returned, the scouts repor-ted that the Malwa main force was less than ten miles away. They had been able to get close enough to examine that force before the Malwa drove them off.There was good news and bad news.The good news, as the scout leader put it:"Shit-pot soldiers. Keep no decent skirmishers. Didn't even see us until we were pissing on their heads. Good thing they didn't bring women. We seduce all of them. Have three bastards each, prob-ably, before shit-pot Malwa notice their new children too smart and good-looking."The bad news:"Shit-pot lot of them. Big shit-pot."Belisarius looked to the west. There was only an hour of daylight left, he estimated.He turned to Maurice. "Take all the bucellarii and the katyushas. When the Persians arrive, I'll have them join you." He pondered, a moment. "And take the Illyrians, too."A quick look at Timasius, the Illyrian commander. "You'll be under Maurice's command. Any problem with that?"Timasius shook his head—without hesitation, to Belisarius' relief. His opinion of the Illyrian rose. Smart, the man might not be. But at least he was well-disciplined and cooperative.The general studied the woods to the northeast."Judging from what I saw as we rode in, I think there'll be plenty of good cover over there. I want all the men well hidden, Maurice. No fires, tonight, when you make camp. You'll be my surprise, when I need it, and I don't want the Malwa alerted."Belisarius did not elaborate any further. With Maurice, there was no need. "You've got signal rockets?"The Thracian chiliarch nodded."Remember, green means—""Green means we attack the enemy directly. Red means start the attack with a rocket volley. Yellow—come to your assistance. White—run for our lives."Maurice glared at Belisarius. "Any instructions on how to lace up my boots?" He glanced at the horizon. "If you're going to tell me which direction the sun goes down, you'd better make it quick. It's already setting. North, I think."Belisarius chuckled. "Be off, Maurice."Once the chiliarch trotted off—still glowering—Belisarius spoke to Bouzes and Coutzes."One of you—either one, I don't care—take the Syrian infantrymen and start fortifying the royal villa. Take the Callinicum garrison also. The men will probably have to work through the night."The brothers grimaced. Belisarius smiled."Tell them to look on the bright side. They'll have to dismantle the interior of the villa. Be all sorts of loose odds and ends lying around. Have to be picked up, of course, so nobody gets hurt falling all over them."Bouzes and Coutzes cheered up immediately. Belisarius continued."Don't make the fortifications look too solid, but make sure you have the grenade screens ready to be erected at a moment's notice. And make sure there's plenty of portals for a quick sally."The brothers nodded, then looked at each other. After a moment's unspoken discussion—using facial gestures that meant nothing to anyone else—Bouzes reined his horse around and trotted off."All right, then," said Belisarius. "Coutzes, I want you to take the Syrian cavalry—and all of the Arab skirmishers except the few we need for scouts—and get them ready for a sally first thing tomorrow morning. It'll be a Hunnish sort of sally, you understand?"Coutzes nodded. A moment later, he too was trotting away. Only Agathius was left, of the command group, along with his chief tribune Cyril.Belisarius studied them for a moment."I want you and your Constantinople unit to get well rested, tonight. Set a regular camp, not far from the villa. Make sure it's on the eastern grounds of the park, where the terrain is open. I want you between the Malwa and the villa itself. You understand?"Agathius nodded. Belisarius continued:"Build campfires—big ones. Allow the men a double ration of wine, and let them enjoy themselves loudly. Encourage them to sing, if they've a taste for it. Just don't let them get drunk."Cyril frowned. "You're not worried the enemy will see—""I'm hoping the enemy will scout you out."Agathius chuckled. "So they won't go snooping through the woods on the north, where they might stumble on the Thracians and Illyrians. Or sniff around the villa itself, where they could see how the Syrians are fortifying it."The burly officer stroked his beard."It'll probably work," he mused. "If their skirmishers are as bad as Abbu says, they'll be satisfied with spotting us. Easy, that'll be. They can get back to their army without spending all night creeping through a forest that might have God knows what lurking in it."Belisarius nodded. Agathius eyed him. His gaze was shrewd—and a bit cold."You're going to hammer the shit out of us, aren't you?"Again, Belisarius nodded."Yes, Agathius. Your men are probably going to have the worst of it. In the beginning, at least. I'm hoping the Syrian cavalrymen can draw them into a running battle, lead them back here. If they do—""You want us to sally. A big, straight-up, heavy cavalry lance charge. Kind of thing minstrels like to sing about.""Yes. But you've got to be disciplined about it. That charge has to be solid, but I want you to disengage before you get cut to pieces. Can you do that? I want an honest answer. In my experience, cataphracts tend to think they're invincible. They get so caught up in the—"Agathius barked a harsh laugh. "For the sake of Christ, general! Do we look like a bunch of aristocrats to you?""Right good at disengaging, we are," added Cyril, chuckling. "If you'll forgive me saying so, sir."Belisarius grinned. "If it'll make you feel any better, I'll be joining you in the charge. I'm rather good at disengaging myself. If you'll forgive me saying so."The two Greeks laughed—and gaily now. But when their humor died away, there was still a residue of coldness lurking in the back of their eyes.Belisarius understood immediately. "You've had no experience under my command," he said softly. "I ask you to trust me in this matter. Don't worry about the booty. Tell your men they'll get their fair share—after the battle's won."Cyril glanced toward the villa. The Syrian infantrymen were already pouring into the lavish structure. Even at the distance—a hundred yards—the glee in their voices was evident.Agathius' eyes remained on the general. The suspicion in those eyes was open, now.Belisarius smiled crookedly. "Those Syrians do have experience under my command. They know the penalty for private looting. Don't forget, Agathius, my bucellarii won't be anywhere near that villa, either. You didn't see Maurice complain, did you? That's because he's not worried about it. Anybody holds out on my Thracians, there'll be hell to pay."Agathius couldn't help wincing.All whimsy left Belisarius' face. When he spoke, his tone was low and earnest."In my army, we all share in the spoils. Fairly apportioned after the battle. Except for what we set aside to care for the disabled and the families of the men who died, each soldier will get his share. Regardless of where he was or what he was doing."Agathius and Cyril stared at him. Then Agathius nodded his head. It was not a gesture of assent. It was more in the nature of a bow of fealty. A moment later, Cyril copied him.When their heads lifted, the familiar crooked smile was back on the general's face."And now, if you don't mind, I'd like to discuss the tactics of this—what'd you call it, Agathius—minstrel charge?" He chuckled. "I like the sound of that! Especially if the minstrel can sing a cheerful tune—every hero survived, after all."Agathius grinned. "I've always preferred cheerful tunes, myself.""Me too," added Cyril. "Loathe dirges. Detest the damn things."* * *An hour after sunset, the Persian cavalry showed up at the hunting park. Belisarius met them a mile away from the villa, and explained his plans for the coming battle.To his relief, Kurush immediately agreed. The young nobleman did cast a sour glance in the direction of the villa, but he made no inquiry as to its condition.Belisarius himself, with the aid of several Thracian cataphracts sent by Maurice, guided the Persians to the spot in the northeast woods where his bucellarii and the Illyrians had made their camp.Their progress was slow. The woods were dense—no local woodcutter would dare hew down an imperial tree—and the only illumination came from the last glimmer of twilight. Belisarius took advantage of the time to explain his plans in great detail. He was particularly concerned with impressing upon Kurush the need to let his katyushas open the attack. The rocket chariots had never been used in a battle before. Belisarius wanted to find out how effective they would be.In the course of their conversation, Kurush filled in some further information on the enemy. The Persians had spent the day scouting the left flank of the approaching Malwa army. Like his own scouts, they had found the enemy's skirmish line to be ragged and ineffective. But—unlike his small group of lightly-armed Arabs—the heavy Persian cavalrymen had been willing to hammer the advance guards and press very close to the Malwa main army before disengaging.They had seen more of that army, thus, and Kurush was able to add further speficics to the information Belisarius had already obtained.The Malwa army was large—very large, for what was in essence a cavalry raid. Kurush estimated the main body of regular troops numbered twelve thousand. They were not as heavily armed as Persian lancers or Roman cataphracts, but they were not light cavalry either. There was a force of light cavalry serving the Malwa—about five hundred Arabs wearing the colors of the Lakhmid dynasty.Interspersed among the regular troops were battalions of Ye-tai horsemen. Their exact numbers had been difficult to determine, but Kurush thought there were two thousand of the barbarians. Possibly more.In addition, riding at the center of the Malwa army, the Persians had seen hundreds of Malwa kshatriya and several dozen Mahaveda priests. The priests, unlike the kshatriya, were not on horseback. They were riding in large wagons drawn by mules. The contents of those wagons were hidden under canvas, but Kurush assumed that the wagons contained their gunpowder weapons and devices.None of this information caused the Roman general any particular distress. The force structure was about what he had guessed, and he was not disturbed by the size of the Malwa army. True, the odds were at least 3-to-2 against him, so far as the numbers were concerned. Still, he would be fighting the battle on the tactical defensive, on ground of his choosing.But the last item of information which Kurush imparted made him wince."Describe them again," he commanded."They number perhaps two thousand, Belisarius. They form the Malwa rear guard—which is quite odd, in my opinion. If I were leading that army, I would have those troops in the vanguard. They keep formation as well as any parade ground troops I've ever seen, but I don't think—"Belisarius shook his head. "They are most definitely not parade troops, Kurush."He sighed. "And the reason they're bringing up the rear is because the Malwa don't trust them much. The problem, however, is not military. It's political.""Damn," he grumbled. "There were two things I didn't want to run into. One of them are Rajputs, and the other—you're sure about the topknots?"Kurush nodded. "It's quite a distinctive hairstyle. Their helmets are even designed for it.""Yes, I know. I've seen them. Kushan helmets."The Persian winced himself, now. "Kushans? You're sure?""Yes. No other enemy troops look like that. To the best of my knowledge, anyway—and remember, I spent over a year in India. I got a very close look at the Malwa army."Kurush started to say something, but broke off in order to dodge a low-hanging branch in the trail. When he straightened, he muttered: "We did defeat them, you know. We Aryans. Centuries ago. Conquered half the Kushan empire, in fact."Belisarius smiled. "No doubt your minstrels sing about it to this day.""They sing about it, all right," replied Kurush glumly. "Dirges, mostly, about glorious victories with maybe three survivors. The casualties were very heavy." At midnight, after his return, Belisarius took a tour of the villa. Baresmanas came with him. The Persian ambassador had been a warrior, in his day—a renowned one, in fact—but the combination of his advancing years and the terrible injury he had suffered at Mindouos made it impossible for him to participate in thundering lance charges. So he had cheerfully offered his services to the infantry who would be standing on the defensive at the villa.Bouzes and three of his officers guided Belisarius and Baresmanas through the villa, holding torches aloft, proudly pointing out the cunning of the fortifications. They were especially swell-chested with regard to the grenade screens. The screens were doubled linen, strengthened by slender iron rods sewn lengthwise into the sheets. The design allowed for easy transportation, since the screens could be folded up into pleats and carried on mule back. The screens were now mounted onto bronze frameworks. These had been hastily brazed together out of the multitude of railings which had once adorned the balconies surrounding the villa's interior gardens. The frameworks had then been attached to every entryway or opening in the villa's outer walls with rawhide strips, looped through regularly spaced holes in the former railings."We didn't make the holes," admitted Bouzes. "They'd already been drilled, as fittings for the uprights. But we realized they'd allow for leather hinges. You see? Each one of the screens can be moved into place just like a door. Takes less than five seconds. Until then, there's no way to see them from outside the villa."Belisarius was not surprised, actually, by the shrewdness of the design. He already knew that his Syrian infantrymen, with the jack-of-all-trades attitude of typical borderers, were past masters at the art of jury-rigging fortifications out of whatever materials were available. But he complimented them, nonetheless, quite lavishly.Baresmanas was even more effusive in his praise. And he made no mention of the pearls which had once adorned the Emperor's railings, nestled in each one of the holes which now held simple rawhide lashings.Nor did the sahrdaran comment on the peculiar appearance of the great bronze plaques which the Roman infantry had used to bulwark some of the flimsier portions of the outer wall. Those plaques had once hung suspended in the Emperor's huge dining hall, where his noble guests, feasting after a day's hunting, could gaze up at the marvelously etched figures. The etchwork was still there. But the hunting scenes they depicted seemed pallid. The lions wan, without their emerald eyes; the antelopes plebeian, without their silver antlers; the panthers drab, without their jade and ruby spots; and the elephants positively absurd—like big-nosed sheep!—without their ivory tusks.Baresmanas said nothing in the dining room itself, either, when he and Belisarius joined the infantrymen in a late meal, other than to exchange pleasantries with the troops on the subject of the excellence of the food. Fine fare it was, the Syrians allowed—marvelous, marvelous. Truly fit for an Emperor! And if Baresmanas thought it odd that the splendid meal was served on wooden platters and eaten with peasant daggers, he held his tongue. He did not inquire as to the whereabouts of the gold plates and utensils which would, by all reasonable standards, have made much more sensible dining ware for such a regal feast.Only once, in that entire tour, did Baresmanas momentarily lose his composure. Hearing Bouzes laud the metalworking skills of his troops, which could finally be put to full use by virtue of the extraordinarily well-equipped smithy located in the rear of the imperial compound, Baresmanas expressed a desire to observe the soldiers at their work.Bouzes coughed. "Uh, well—it's very hot back there, lord. Terrible! And dirty? You wouldn't believe it! Oh, no, you wouldn't—with those fine clothes? No, you wouldn't—""I insist," said Baresmanas. Politely, but firmly. He brushed the silk sleeve of his tunic in a gesture which combined whimsy and unconcern."There's going to be a battle tomorrow. I doubt these garments will be usable afterward, anyway. And I am fascinated by the skills of your soldiers. There's nothing comparable in the Persian army. Our dehgan lancers and their mounted retainers wouldn't stoop to this kind of work. And our peasant levees don't know how to do anything beside till the soil."Bouzes swallowed. "But—"Belisarius intervened."Do as the sahrdaran asks, Bouzes. I'd like to see the workshop myself. I've always loved watching skilled smiths at their trade."Bouzes sighed. With a little shrug, he turned and led the way toward the rear of the compound. Out of the royal chambers, through the servant quarters, and into the cluster of adjoining buildings where the practical needs of Persia's emperors were met, far from the fastidious eyes of Aryan royalty.When they entered the smithy, all work ceased immediately. The dozen or so Syrian infantrymen in the workshop froze at their labors, staring goggle-eyed at the newcomers.Baresmanas stared himself. Goggle-eyed.The center of the shop was occupied by a gigantic cauldron, designed to smelt metal. The cauldron was being put to use. It was almost brim-full with molten substance. At that very moment, two infantrymen were standing paralyzed, staring at the sahrdaran, stooped from the effort of carrying a large two-handled ladle over to the ingot-molds ranged against a far wall.The mystery of the imperial dining ware was solved at once. Only a small number of the gold plates—and not more than a basket's worth, perhaps, of gold utensils—still remained on a shelf next to the cauldron. That small number immediately shrank, as a handful of gold plate slipped out of the loose fingers of the Roman soldier gaping at Baresmanas. Plop, plop, plop, into the brew.But it was not the plates which held the Persian nobleman transfixed. It was the sight of the much larger objects which were slowly joining the melt.Baresmanas' gaze settled on a winged horse which perched atop a heavy post. The post was softening rapidly. Within a few seconds, the horse sank below the cauldron's rim."That was the Emperor's bed," he choked. "It's made out of solid gold."The soldiers in the smithy paled. Bouzes glanced appealingly at Belisarius.The general cleared his throat. "Excellent work, men!" he boomed. "I'm delighted to see how well you've carried out my instructions." He placed a firm hand on Baresmanas' shoulder. "It's terrible, what military necessity drives us to."The sahrdaran tore his eyes away from the cauldron and stared at Belisarius."I believe I mentioned, Baresmanas, that I hope to capture Malwa cannons in the course of the campaign. The problem, of course, is with the shot." The general scowled fiercely. "You wouldn't believe the crap the Malwa use! Stone balls, for siege work. And the same—broken stones, for the sake of God!—do for their cannister." He pursed his lips, as if to spit. Restrained himself. "I won't have it! Proper cannister can make all the difference, breaking a charge. But for that, you need good lead."He fixed the soldiers with an eagle eye. "You found no lead, I take it?"The soldiers stared at him, for a moment. Then one of them squeaked: "No, sir! No, sir!"Another, bobbing his head: "We looked, sir. Indeed we did. Scoured the place! But—"A third: "Only lead's in the water pipes." His face grew lugubrious. "Have to tear the walls apart to get at 'em."A fourth, shaking his head solemnly: "Didn't want to do that, of course. A royal palace, and all."Every infantryman's face assumed a grave expression. Well-nigh funereal. Heads bobbed in unison."Be a terrible desecration," muttered one."'Orrible," groaned another.Belisarius stepped forward and looked down into the cauldron, hands clasped behind his back. The general's gaze was stern, fastidious, determined—much like that of a farmer examining night-soil."Gold!" he snorted. Then, shrugging heavily: "Well, I suppose it'll have to do."He turned away, took Baresmanas by the arm—the sahrdaran was still standing stiff and rigid—and began leading him toward the entrance."A cruel business, war," he muttered.Baresmanas moved with him, but the Persian's head swiveled, staring back over his shoulder. His eyes never left the cauldron until they were out of the smithy altogether.Then, suddenly, he burst into laughter. No light-hearted chuckling, either. No, this was shoulder-shaking, belly-heaving, convulsive laughter. He leaned weakly against a nearby wall."This was Emperor Kavad's favorite hunting park," he choked. "Spent half his time here, before age overcame him."Another round of uproarious laughter. Then:"He told me once—ho! ho!—that he was quite sure his son Khusrau was conceived on that bed! Ho! Ho! So proud he was! He had slain a lion, that day, and thought it was an omen for his son's future."Belisarius grinned at him. "Poetic justice, then! A thing for legend! Even at his conception, Khusrau Anushirvan was destined to rend the Malwa!"Baresmanas pushed himself away from the wall. Now it was he who took Belisarius by the arm, and began leading the way back to the central villa.Still laughing, he murmured: "Perhaps we should keep that legend to ourselves, my friend. Myths are so easy to misinterpret."They walked a few steps. The sahrdaran gave Belisarius a sly glance. "What will you tell Emperor Khusrau about his hunting villa—if there's no battle, I mean?"Belisarius smiled crookedly."I was just wondering that myself."He blew out his cheeks."Pray for an earthquake, I suppose."  
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