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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

July-September, Year 9 A.E.

Ian Arnstein watched King Shuriash's white-knuckled grip on the hilt of his sword as they walked toward the landing field in the cool dimness of predawn. The ruler's face might have been cast in bronze, but there were beads of sweat on his forehead. The councilor for foreign affairs wasn't all that certain about riding in this wooden balloon himself. In fact, he was probably more worried about it than the Babylonian was; Shuriash knew that the magic of the Eagle People worked. He wasn't burdened with memories of the Hindenburg newsreel, or the knowledge that hydrogen was highly flammable.

And I know that Ron Leaton isn't infallible, Ian thought. He'd spent several exquisitely uncomfortable weeks bending over a sickle, back in the Year 1, because Seahaven Engineering's first attempt at a reaping machine had failed. And he'd seen Marian Alston's fury when it turned out that the first percussion primers decayed in humid conditions.

RNAS Emancipator looked formidably large, sitting here on the flat clay of the landing field outside the walls of Ur Base. Arnstein swallowed and bowed the king and his attendants up the ramp at the rear of the gondola.

"In only a few hours, we will be outside Asshur," he said.

Even then there was a little jostling over precedence in the seating. When it was over, he clipped on his seat belt, a retread from one of the commuter airlines that had flown into Nantucket. The seats were wicker, broader and far more comfortable than those in the deregulated buses-with-wings he'd had to ride in up in the twentieth.

They were seated just behind the working quarter at the head of the gondola and forward of the first of the engine control stations. Lieutenant Vicki Cofflin-captain of the vessel by function-was in her seat at the forward edge of the floor, with an intercom set on her head, checking instruments.

"Three hundred pounds heavy at ground level," she said, snapping a switch. "Feather props."

"Feathered."

"On with engines!"

A coughing roar started up; Arnstein saw the Babylonians flinch. Good ol' internal-combustion noise and stink, he thought-the six motors were burning kerosene, distilled right here at Ur Base, but it was burnt hydrocarbon nonetheless. Outside he could see a crowd of spectators, many of them surged back at the unfamiliar blatting.

"All engines at forty-five positive."

The six crewfolk spaced on either side of the gondola heaved at the wheels that faced them. Through the big, slanting window Arnstein could see the sections of wing and the cowled pods of the engines tilt, pointing the propellers away from the long axis of the dirigible and toward the ground.

"On superheat!"

A clicking, hissing roar as hot air rushed into the central gasbag, inflating it. And a soft, mushy feeling under his backside, as if the dirigible were sliding on a surface of smooth, oiled metal.

"Positive buoyancy! Prepare to cast off."

"Ready to cast off, Captain."

"Stand by engines. Horizontal controls, forty-five degrees." The man at the attitude helm spun his ship-style wheel. "Prepare to release Release mooring!"

There was a series of heavy chunk sounds as the line-grabs along the keel of the gondola let go, and the Emancipator bounced upward, pushed by the air that outweighed the volume she displaced.

"Engage props, all engines ahead full!"

The six converted Cessna engines roared, pushing the lighter-than-air craft northward and up, into the wind. Acceleration shoved Arnstein back into his seat as the nose rose above the horizon, a sensation he hadn't felt in nearly a decade. King Shuriash swore by the private parts of Ishtar, then exclaimed again in delight, pointing with one calloused swordsman's finger.

"Look! We fly, Ian Arens'hein! We fly like the birds of the air, like the gods themselves!"

Shuriash had four attendants with him-a great concession, considering how important the king's dignity was-and three of them shared the king's childlike enjoyment; they were young noblemen, followers of his son. The fourth was Samsu-Indash, and the elderly priest was sitting rigid in his chair with his eyes clamped shut, lips moving in silent prayer. Ian suspected that the command to attend the king was something of a royal joke. Shuriash was not a cruel man, for an ancient Oriental despot, but he was an absolute ruler, and men forgot that at their peril.

The figures below shrank to the size of dolls, then ants. It's like riding a bicycle, Ian thought. You don't forget. At the same time it wasn't like taking off in an airliner, either. There was a surging lightness to it, sort of like riding Pegasus-if you could imagine Pegasus as one of the Clydesdales that pulled the Budweiser wagon.

"Neutral buoyancy at twenty-two hundred feet," the second-in-command of the Emancipator reported. "Wind is from the north-northwest at three miles per hour."

"Engines at zero inclination," Lieutenant Cofflin commanded. The wheels spun, and Ian could feel the airship move forward more rapidly as the propellers came level with the keel.

"All ahead three-quarters." Vicki glanced down at the instruments. "Airspeed is sixty-seven miles per hour."

Wow! Ian thought, half ironically. Fast! Considerably faster than he'd traveled since the Event, at least. He translated for Shuriash and saw the king's well-hidden amazement.

"Navigator, lay me a course for Asshur," Vicki went on.

King Shuriash was looking down in fascination as the city of Ur slid beneath them, the great ziggurat reduced to model size. The rising sun silvered it, and for a moment canals great and small flashed metallic.

"I see now the excellence of your Nantukhtar maps," the Babylonian ruler murmured. "Strange to see the lands so there are no boundaries to mark the realm of one king from the next."

His glance sharpened on Arnstein, and his smile grew sharkish. "Not that there would be, now, between Kar-Duniash and the lands of Asshur."

Ian nodded. "Together, our armies have been victorious," he said piously.

To himself: Meaning, we shot the Assyrians up until they ran, and then your boy Kashtiliash chased them until his troops got tired.

Of course, from what Hollard and Hollard said, it worked both ways. The Islanders could shatter the Assyrian armies in pitched battle, but there weren't enough of them to hold ground-without Babylonian manpower, they wouldn't have controlled more than the land they stood on. Less at night.

"Yes," Shuriash said. "And I admit it, we could not have conquered without you Nantukhtar. Certainly not without paying more in blood and treasure. We are much in your debt, and the debt shall be repaid. For now I rule from the northern mountains to the Sea-Land, and the way is clear to the Hittite country."

"Indeed, all these lands are now yours to rule as you would," Arnstein said.

The Babylonian looked up from beneath shaggy brows. "When a man says that, he is about to tell me how I should rule as he would have me do," he said sardonically.

Ian spread his hands. "I would offer advice. Whether the king hearkens to it shall be as the king thinks best." Shuriash nodded, and the Islander went on: "It is one thing to conquer a land, and another to hold it."

Shuriash nodded again. "True. Hammurabi ruled widely, but his sons soon found their thrones rocking beneath them-and if the stories are true, the same held for Gilgamesh! What is your thought, councilor of my brother Jaered-Cofflin?"

"First, O King, that your enemies are the king and nobles of Assyria, not the people of the land, or their gods."

That was enough to bring Samsu-Indash out of his stupor. "As the men of Asshur bow to our King, so must their gods to ours-to Marduk, King of the Universe!"

Ian made a soothing gesture. "Oh, none could doubt it. Yet the great gods of the land bow to Marduk in their own temples, where their own priests serve them, as men were created to serve the gods."

"Ah, I see," Shuriash said. "You think that the temples of Asshur should remain unplundered, and we should not carry off the images to Babylon."

"Unplundered, but subject to the control of the king," Ian confirmed.

That meant a 20 percent tax on temple revenues, and the temples were the largest landowners and bankers in any Mesopotamian kingdom.

Shuriash had been polite but wary at the start, then increasingly ready to consider his allies' suggestions and since Dr. Clemens saved his favorite, downright friendly. Mind you, he's still damned shrewd and nobody's fool. Leaving the conquered temples standing is in his own interests, even in the short term. The Babylonians might not know the negative elenchos, but they were fully aware that you couldn't skin the cow and milk it too.

"So the hearts of the people will not be filled with hatred against the king of Kar-Duniash," Arnstein finished. "Likewise, if the land is not laid waste, it will pay much more in taxes than it would if it were plundered."

"True-although to tell soldiers not to plunder is to offend against the nature of men. You have other such advice?"

"Yes, Oh King. I think that it would be very useful to you if you were to summon the men of Asshur's lands and make known to them the laws by which you will govern them."

Shuriash frowned. "How might that be? Proclamations in each city?"

"Better than that. Let a royal decree be sent forth, that in every district all the heads of households-all the men of consequence- should gather together and select one to be their delegate. Let these delegates come before the throne, to hear the word of the king and take it back to their homes. You could do that at regular intervals, so that all the land would know the decrees of the king and hear of his deeds."

"Hmmmm." A tug at the grizzled beard. "Much as the puhrum- the assembly of a city-does. Hmmmm, that might well be useful useful enough that I might summon these delegates also from my own ancestral lands. And if such men. were gathered before me, I could consult with one here, another there-learn the mind of the land and what could be safely demanded of it."

He clapped a hand on Arnstein's shoulder. "You are a councilor indeed, and my brother Jaered-Cofflin is fortunate to have your wisdom!"

Well, the British history course had something to do with it, Arnstein thought as he inclined his head. The English parliament had started that way, with magnates called together to hear what the king had in mind. Arnstein smiled to himself.

Eventually, though, it started working the other way 'round.

The camel complained, a groan tapering off into a moaning sigh.

That's what they're best at, Kenneth Hollard thought, and pulled on the rein. Complaining. I'm getting used to the way they smell, though, and that worries me.

The rein was fastened to a bronze ring in the beast's nose, and it turned with a fair show of obedience. Hollard wiped a forearm across his face to get rid of some of the grit-laden sweat and stood in the stirrups to take a slow scan from east to west. Hmmm. Something there.

It was getting on toward noon, anyway, bleaching the landscape to shades of fierce white and umber. In this land you stopped for at least four hours in the heat of day and then traveled on into the night.

Not quite desert, he thought; it sort of reminded him of parts of northern New Mexico he'd seen on vacations with his family, back before the Event. Hotter, though-there was a sparse covering of grass, an occasional thicket of low, waxy-green tamarisk in an arroyo, the odd water hole. The vegetation had been getting thicker as they came closer to the jagged blue line of the Jebel Sinjar on the northern horizon, too. Beyond them was the heart of the old kingdom of Mitanni, the district the Semites called Naharim, "the Rivers," in the plain between the Taurus range and the Jebel. An Assyrian province now, although they'd received vague reports that it was rising in revolt. Or, from the sound of things, just dissolving into a chaotic war of all against all.

Three thousand years in a future that had bred him and wasn't going to happen-he tried to avoid thinking about that; it made his head hurt-these steppes would be part of the northern borderland between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Right now it was called, variously, Mitanni, Hanigalibat, the River Country, and God-knew-what, and it had been a marchland between Assyria and the Hittite Empire. Mostly it seemed to be empty except for wandering bands of sheep-herding nomads. Hollard smiled grimly to himself. Empty except for the remnants of the fleeing Assyrian army, the part that wasn't holed up in Asshur over to the east on the Tigris. The camel-mounted recon company had been traveling through the detritus for days; dead men and donkeys, their corpses seething with maggots, foundered horses, broken chariots, bits of gear-everything from bedrolls to weapons and armor.

He waited for the Babylonian liaison officer to come up. Ibi-Addad had learned to handle his camel fairly well, and like all his countrymen he'd gotten more and more cheerful as the campaign went on, which was understandable. He was even prepared to put up with traveling in the desert, among the wandering Aramaeans-truffle-eating savages, to a man from the settled lands between the rivers. And he could speak Hittite, which might be useful in a little while.

"What do you make of that?" the Islander asked, pointing to what looked like a set of low adobe buildings at the foot of a rocky ridge.

Ibi-Addad stroked his beard, which had gone from neat black curls to a tangled thicket over the past couple of weeks, and raised his own binoculars-that gift would have made him willing to come along even without King Shuriash's orders.

"I think it is the " he began, and trailed off into terms Hollard couldn't follow.

The Nantucketer sighed. Just when I thought my Akkadian was getting really fluent.

"The manor of a Mitannian mariannu," Ibi-Addad clarified. "They were the ruling folk of Mitanni, before the Assyrians and the Hittites broke that kingdom a hundred years ago. A fragment of it lived on as a vassal state until my father's time, when they revolted and King Shulmanu-asharidu of Asshur destroyed them. I do not suppose many of that breed are left."

"Let's go see," Hollard said. "I think the Assyrians are paying a visit." He grimaced; they'd seen the results of that, in villages and nomad camps. "I thought this was part of their kingdom? They're acting like they were in enemy territory, though."

Ibi-Addad shrugged eloquently; he was in Marine khakis, but the gesture was purely Babylonian. "They are broken men fleeing defeat, and these are conquered provinces. The people here hate them. Except for the Assyrian colonists, and those are in the cities."

Hollard nodded and turned in the saddle. "Spread out and look alive!" he called.

The complex of buildings came into view as the camels paced northward in a long double line; a hundred mounted riflemen, and a mortar team with the pack animals. Another thing the Assyrians were having trouble adjusting to was how far a camel-borne outfit could swing into the desert and how fast it could move. The locals used donkeys for carrying cargo, and those had to be watered every day or so.

Oooops. Assyrians, all right-a couple of hundred of them, with half a dozen chariots. That meant some fairly high-ranking officers, given the shape of what remained of their field army. The men were milling around the adobes; those looked like they'd seen better days, with more than half of what had been a substantial village in tumbledown ruins. One or two of the large buildings seemed to have been occupied until recently; they were shedding mud plaster but still largely intact. There must be a spring of good water here, then, and the stubble fields indicated a hundred acres or so of grain, enough to sustain a big household if not a town, together with the grazing.

Hollard flung up a hand as the Assyrians broke into shouts and pointing, and the company came to a halt. Careless bastards-should have seen us long before now.

"Captain O'Rourke!"

The commander of the recon company whacked his camel on the rump and sped up to the commander's side.

"Business, sir?"

"Enemy up ahead. They've spotted us, and any minute now"

Oooops again. A racket of harsh trumpet sounds and cries came from the cluster of beige-colored mud-brick buildings half a mile away.

"We'll be seeing them off, then, sir?"

"That we will, Paddy," Hollard said. "Six hundred yards, and set up the mortar. Open order. Let's not get sloppy."

The Assyrians were pouring out of the open ground, into the protection of the stout two-story building and its courtyard. The house was windowless on the ground floor, with narrow slits suitable for archers above, and from the looks of it the courtyard wall had a proper fighting platform on the inside. A short, thick tower rose from the rear of it, giving another story over the flat rooftop.

"Looks like a fortress," he said in Akkadian. Ibi-Addad had picked up a little functional English, but not enough for a real conversation.

"How not, Lord Hollard?" he said. "This is the edge of cultivation- the Aramaeans would be all over anyone not ready to fight like flies on a fresh donkey turd."

Hollard nodded; they'd seen that, too-small bands of Assyrian stragglers overrun by nomads out for loot and payback. They seemed to have a knack for skinning a man alive, from the feet up. He put the image out of his mind with an effort; the Assyrian had still been alive when they found him, one huge scab with eyes staring out of it, and moving.

"Looks like they've learned better than trying to rush us." O' Rourke chuckled. "Damned alarmin' it was, a few times."

Hollard nodded again. Whatever you could say about the Assyrians, they didn't lack for guts.

"Let's do it by the numbers, then," he said.

A thousand yards from the settlement the Islanders came across the first bodies. Hollard's brows rose; they looked like standard Mesopotamian peasants, men in loincloths or short tunics and women in long ones and shawlike headdresses. These had obviously been caught fleeing. One had a broken arrow stub in the back of his head, probably too tightly wedged to be worth recovering. Several others showed gaping wounds where shafts had been cut out for reuse, and the great pools of black blood were still a little tacky and swarming with flies.

"This morning," he said, not looking at a few very small bodies. Those had been tossed on spears.

"Sunrise, or a little after, I'd say," O'Rourke said, crossing himself.

Hollard looked eastward. The chariots had probably come in first and caught the workers out in the fields. A good place to halt, about a thousand years from the big flat-roofed house, and barley straw could be sharp enough to hurt a camel's footpads.

The camels halted and knelt, chewing and spitting, glad enough of a rest; some lifted their long necks and flared the flaps over their nostrils in interest at the scent of water and green growing things from the courtyard ahead. Marines dismounted, unslinging their rifles and exchanging floppy canvas hats for the helmets strapped to their packs. Others hammered iron stakes into the ground and tethered the beasts to them. The mortar team lifted the four-foot barrel of their weapon off a pack camel's back with a grunt, and there was a series of clicks and clunks as the weapon was clipped into its base and clamped onto the steel bipod that supported the business end. The sergeant in charge of the weapon was whistling tunelessly between her teeth as she unbuckled the leather strapping on the strong wicker boxes that held the finned bombs.

"Three up, one back?" O'Rourke asked.

Ken nodded; he wasn't going to second-guess the man on the spot unless he needed it. Patrick Joseph O'Rourke was possibly a little too ready to lean on higher authority-one reason he didn't have Hollard's job. Nothing wrong with his aggressiveness at the company level, though, and he had the saving grace of a wicked sense of humor.

The company commander turned and barked: "D Platoon in reserve, A through C in skirmish order. Prepare to advance on the word of command-and fix bayonets!"

The long blades came out and clattered home, their edges throwing painfully bright reflections in the hot Asian sun. Kenneth Hollard hid a slight grimace of distaste at the sight. He knew what it felt like to run edged metal into a man, the soft, heavy resistance. And the look in his eyes as he realized he was going to die, and the sounds he made, and the smell

"Dirty job," O'Rourke said, catching his thought without the irrelevance of words.

"But somebody's got to do it."

Some of the Sun People rankers were grinning at the prospect of a fight. But then, they're all maniacs, anyway. Good soldiers but weird. Sometimes he worried a little about the impact they would have when they mustered out and got their citizenship. Up to now most of the immigrants had been Fiernan. Who were weird too, but less aggressive about it.

He raised his binoculars again. Plenty of the distinctive ruddy glitter of bronze along the edges of walls

"Sir?"

That was Sergeant Winnifred Smith of the mortar team-Immigration Office name, she was obviously Alban by origin-Sun People, from the accent.

No questions asked, Hollard reminded himself. Your record started the day you took the oath, in the Guard or the Corps.

O'Rourke lowered his own glasses. "Let's start by knocking down the big gateway into the courtyards," he said. "With a little luck, they'll rush us."

"Yessir," the sergeant replied.

A broad grin showed as she worked the elevation and traverse screws; the muzzle of the mortar moved up a bit, and to the right.

"Nine hundred yards one ring," she called over her shoulder.

"One ring, aye," the man with the mortar bomb in his hands said.

That was an elongated iron teardrop with fins at its base. A section above the fins was perforated, and around that his assistant clipped a linen donut of gunpowder. Then he slipped the friction primer into the base of the bomb, turned the wooden-ring safety and pulled it out.

Now when the round was dropped down the muzzle it would drive the primer in on itself, striking a light in exactly the same way as a matchbox and match. Seahaven swore that they'd have percussion caps available in quantity soon, but in the meantime this worked and they could make more in the field at need. Leaton swore he'd have a brass-cartridge rifle available next year too, but Hollard would believe that when it arrived.

"Fire in the hole!" the sergeant barked, and dropped the bomb into the waiting maw of the mortar. The team turned away, mouths open and ears plugged with their thumbs.

Thuddump!

A jet of dirty-gray smoke shot out of the muzzle. The bomb followed it, landing in the dirt about fifteen feet in front of the weathered wooden gates.

Whuddump! The bursting-charge exploded, throwing up a black shape of dirt that stood erect for a moment before drifting westward and falling in a patter of dust and clods. A small crater gaped in the packed earth of the trackway. Shouts and screams could be heard from the men within; the Assyrians had some experience of being under fire from the Islander artillery by now, and they didn't like it at all. A few stood up over the parapet, shaking fists or weapons.

Not enough experience, though, Hollard thought coldly, remembering the dead peasants and their children.

"Marksmen may fire on movement!" O'Rourke called out. "No need to let the insolence of them go unrequited."

Here and there along the line Marines with the sniper star began to fire, slow and deliberate. An Assyrian pitched forward off the parapet over the gates, landing with a limp thump on the ground. Several others toppled backward, some screaming. The others ducked down, and ducked further when a bullet clipped the top of a bronze helmet barely showing over the crenelations of the defense. The helmet went spinning, ringing like a cracked bell. Fragments of the skull and brain beneath probably followed it.

"Lost his head completely, poor fellow," O'Rourke said.

Sergeant Smith gave the elevating screw a three-quarter turn. "Fire in the hole!" she called again and dropped in the second bomb.

Thuddump!

Another malignant whistle overhead, dropping away and this time it crashed precisely into the arch over the gateway. When the smoke cleared the arch had a bite taken out of its apex-more dropped away as Hollard watched-and the wood of the gates was splintered, torn and burning.

"Lord Kenneth-Hollard," Ibi-Addad said, a frown of worry on his sun-browned face. "What if some of them drop off the wall on the northern side and run?"

"I hope they do," Hollard said. At the Babylonian's inquiring look: "All I can do is kill them."

"Ah," Ibi-Addad chuckled. "But if the Aramaeans catch them"

"Exactly."

"And the tribes will be hanging about like vultures on a tamarisk above a sick sheep," King Shuriash's man said happily. Then he frowned. "More and more of the sand-thieves roam in these lands every year, though, and they press into the settled country whenever they get a chance."

Hollard nodded; according to the Arnsteins' briefings the Aramaeans were slated to overrun most of the Middle East in the dark age that the pre-Event histories said was coming, and their tongue and ways would stamp themselves on the region for millennia. Aramaic would be the state language of the Persian Empire, and the native tongue of Jesus. Or would have been

Thuddump! Thuddump! Thuddump!

Hollard blinked and coughed as the harsh sulfur-smelling black powder smoke blew past. The mortar was firing for effect now, and the thick, soft adobe walls of the manor house and courtyard wall went up in gouts of dust. Smoke began to trickle skyward as the timbers supporting the roof caught fire. One round landed with spectacular- if accidental-accuracy square on top of the tower, sending a shower of wood, mud brick, and bodies in every direction.

"Roast, run into the wilderness, or come out and get shot," Ibi-Addad laughed.

Hollard nodded. True enough, although he still didn't like to hear laughter as men died. None of the choices available to the Assyrians were good.

"Heads up!" one of the snipers called. "Here they come!"

The rest of the line thumbed back the hammers of their rifles, a long multiple-clicking sound, as the enemy swarmed forward over the rubble of courtyard wall and gate.

So, they decided to die fighting, Hollard thought. Or trying to fight, anyway.

"Independent fire!" O'Rourke called.

The platoon commanders echoed it; Hollard heard "make it count" and "Aim low." Spray-and-pray was bad enough with automatic weapons; with a single-shot like the Westley-Richards, you really needed to take some trouble.

The rifles began to speak their sharp, spiteful cracks. Hollard estimated the Assyrians at a hundred and fifty or so, and they began dying as soon as they left cover, men falling limp or crawling, screams as faint with distance as the war cries. Other bullets kicked up puffs of dust around them; he saw one Assyrian stop and slam his spear at one, probably thinking it was some sort of invisible devil.

More fell as they drew closer, but none of the enemy turned back toward the shattered, burning buildings. The last one to fall carried a standard with a sun disk in gold on the end of a long pole; his face was set and calm, and by some fluke of ballistics he came within fifty yards of the Islander line before three of the heavy bullets struck him simultaneously. Hollard saw his face go from a set, almost hieratic peace to brief agony and then blankness as he toppled forward. The standard fell in the dirt and lay with the steppe wind flapping the bright cloth against the ground and raising tiny puffs of dust as it struck.

Silence fell, broken by a few moans and whimpers and men calling for their mothers-Holland had noted how that always happened on a battlefield, and he always hated it. Then there was a shout from the ruined buildings; another man emerged, this one waving a green branch torn from one of the trees within.

"Cease fire!" Hollard called.

He walked out in front of the Islander line and waited, one hand resting on the butt of his pistol. "That's far enough," he said, when the Assyrian was about six feet away. No sense taking chances with a possible berserker.

The man was obviously not a soldier; he was dressed in the long gown and fringed, embroidered wraparound upper garment that was a mark of high rank, and his curled beard was more gray than black. His face was a pasty gray with recent hardship and with fear, although you could see that before that he'd been well fed.

"Mercy!" he called. He went down on his knees and raised a clod of dirt to his lips; then down on his belly and crawled forward, kissing Hollard's boot and trying to put it on his neck.

"Mercy!" he bleated.

Kenneth Hollard restrained an impulse to kick the Assyrian nobleman in the face. "Surrender, and live," he said.

Ibi-Addad sighed and rolled his eyes as the crawling man began to babble thanks and call down benedictions from his gods, his teeth bared in an unconsciously doglike grin of submission.

"You Eagle People," he said. "Fierce as lions one minute, then like lambs. It makes no sense."

"Get up, get up," the Marine colonel said. "Go back there. Tell your countrymen that if they're not all outside in five minutes, we'll kill you all. We'll also kill you all if we find anyone hiding within, or if there's any resistance. Go! Now!"

O'Rourke was frowning at the enemy dead. "Notice something, sir?" he said.

Hollard did, and heard Ibi-Addad's surprised grunt follow. "They're all armed like a noble's retainers," he said.

Corselets of bronze scales, or bronze studs in thick bull hide; good metal-bossed shields, and nearly every man had a sword as well. His eye picked out other details: embroidered rosettes along the edge of a tunic, gold and silver inlay on a belt buckle or hilt, silver buckles on a sandal, a tooled-leather baldric. Some of the Marines were eyeing the same things with interest. Albans weren't squeamish about picking up valuables; he'd have to tell off a working party, when things were settled.

"Bind not the mouths of the oxen that tread out the grain, " as the Bible said. Would say. Whatever.

The remaining Assyrians were scrambling out of the wrecked building, a score or so of them, including some badly wounded enough to require carrying or dragging. They went to their knees as the Nantucketers approached, touching clods of earth to their lips or holding out their hands to touch feet or thighs in token of submission, babbling in their rough northern dialect of Akkadian.

"Shut up!" Hollard barked. "Captain O'Rourke, give me a squad; we'll check the building."

"Ah wouldn't it be better if I did that, sir?"

Hollard smiled for the first time in several hours. "No, it wouldn't, Paddy." Leading from the front went with the job in the Republic's forces. "Keep an eye on the prisoners and have the medic patch those that need it. And be careful: smoke draws more than vultures, here."

Hollard made sure that the katana slung over his back was loose in its sheath. Then he drew his pistol and used the weapon to wave the eight-bayonet section forward with him. The house wasn't exactly burning, but wood was smoldering and sending up black smoke here and there. If there's enough left for shelter, we can put it out, he thought. The shattered adobe was loose and treacherous beneath his feet as he climbed through.

The courtyard enclosed by the L shape of the main building and its own wall was substantial and had been handsome before it was shelled. A spring bubbled up in a stone-lined basin in the center; that would be priceless here. There were the remains of grapevines trained up trellises along the walls, and rows of fruit trees as well as banks of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. What attracted his attention was the six men and women impaled on tree trunks that had been cut down and sharpened in lieu of stakes. One of the privates behind him swore softly in Fiernan, another in English.

Well, he thought, swallowing hard himself and looking away from the contorted features of those who'd died in agony, at least it makes you feel better about the job. He was glad the heavy fog of dust and burnt powder was enough to cover most of the stink.

There weren't any living Assyrians in the courtyard, although the iron scythe of shell fragments from the mortar had left plenty of dead ones; he forced down a chilly satisfaction at that and walked through toward the building. There were two big doors standing open, leading into a sort of hallway. It had been a handsome space once, with painted frescoes on the plastered wall, and stone benches around the all-around, but the paint was faded and patched with plain mud, and the tile floor was cracked and worn.

The Assyrians had made modifications of their own. A table was draped in an expensive-looking knotted rug, and on it was a very dead man in armor of gilded scales, a purple-crimson cloak spread over him. His eyes were wide, and someone had slashed diagonally across his neck, a deep, ugly wound. A young man, with the heavy hooked nose, dense curled beard, and full lips common in these lands; deep chested as well, and judging from the muscular forearms and legs, very strong in life. The tanned skin was pale with blood loss, but seamed white scars were still visible.

And at the foot of the improvised bier, a woman was hanging from the ceiling, dangling by a rope looped around her wrists and secured to a notch in one of the exposed rafters. Her ankles were bound as well, and below her feet was a neatly prepared tepee of kindling and sticks ready to light. She wore the diaperlike undergarment universal here, and dried blood marked a scattering of whip marks on her back.

"Catch her!" Hollard barked, tossing the pistol into his left hand and reaching over that shoulder with his right. "And then get the corpsman."

The katana came out with a long shinnnng of steel on leather and wood. Two of the Marines slung their rifles and obeyed; the rope was plaited leather, and it took two strokes before the tough hide parted. The woman gave a hoarse grunt as she fell back into their arms and opened her eyes as they lowered her to the ground. Her arms stirred only slightly as Hollard went to one knee and held his canteen to her lips; she drank eagerly, water spilling down her face.

Young, he decided. Not more than her late teens. Not quite like the physical type usual here, either. Her long black hair was feathery-fine and straight; it had russet highlights, while the eyes were a dark gray rimmed with amber-green. Her skin was a clear olive, features straight-nosed and regular, and her build more slender than the rather stocky local norm. On Nantucket he'd have said she had Italian in her background, or maybe Spanish. A memory teased at him

Back before the Event. Who was it yeah, she looks a little like that woman who was prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, yeah.

The medic came running in, her red-cross-marked satchel in hand. "Diawas Pithair!" she blurted, in the Keyaltwar dialect, calling on the sky father who was overgod of the Sun People tribes.

The young woman's head came up, her eyes losing the glaze of pain. She looked at Hollard, then at the medic and a few others who were crowding around, and spoke.

"Dyaush Pitar?" she said, and then an eager string of sentences.

The medic looked baffled and replied in her own tongue as she began her work, which consisted mainly of ointment and bandages for wrists and ankles and whip marks. She shook her head and looked up at Hollard as she finished.

"Sir, it's real funny-I sort of feel I should be able to understand what she's saying, but I can't. Uh, she's okay-the shoulder joints are stressed, but they'll do fine if she rests 'em for a few days."

The woman spoke again in another language, throaty and agglutinative-sounding, and then in Akkadian; the Babylonian version of it, he noticed.

"Who are you?" she said.

Hollard sat back on his heel, resting his weight on an elbow across his thigh. "Colonel Kenneth Hollard, Republic of Nantucket Marine Corps," he said and then translated: "Kenneth Hollard, commander of a thousand in the host of the Eagle People."

"Ahhh! I heard the pigs of Asshur speak of you-an army of demons with weapons that spat fire and smashed walls like the fist of Teshub. I thought they lied, but I am glad that they spoke the truth."

Yet another non-admirer of the Assyrians, Hollard thought. They have a positive gift for negative PR.

"And who are you, young gentlewoman?" Hollard said.

Someone with a lot of guts, anyway, he thought. From the looks of things she'd been about to be tortured to death, and now she was surrounded by weirdly armed strangers, yet she looked cool as a cucumber, working her shoulders without even a wince at what must be considerable pain. Probably near collapse underneath, though, he thought-he could sense the quivering intensity of her control.

"I am Raupasha daughter of Shuttarna." The girl's chin lifted. "Who would have been rightful king of Mitanni, if the gods had not thrown the realm down in the dust."

Well, shit, Hollard thought. That may complicate things.

"Ah if your father was here"

A bleak expression; she turned her head aside for an instant and drew a deep breath. "No. He died while I was yet in the womb; the Assyrians killed him when they destroyed the last of the kingdom, and my mother died bearing me. I saw what they did out there; they made me watch. That was the lord Tushratta, the mariannu-the warrior-retainer-who bore me southward to this last estate of his and raised me as his own."

"Er what happened here?"

A shrug, and she turned her face away, blinking rapidly.

"The Assyrians came last night, fleeing defeat. My foster father greeted them as guests. What could he do, with twenty men only and they peasants, against more than a hundred in full armor? Then they demanded that I dance for their leader-meaning that he would rape me at his pleasure."

Her smile grew even bleaker. "And dance I did, and when he seized me-breaking the law of hospitality that all the gods hold sacred-I opened his neck with the knife in my sleeve. Then they slaughtered all here, save me-they gave over thought of ravishing me and after much argument decided that to flog me to death would be too merciful. Instead they hung me up as you saw. Not long after, I heard the thunder of your weapons. So my life was spared-Teshub, and Hepat, and Shaushga, and Indara, and Mitra, and Auruna, and the other gods and goddesses must favor me greatly."

Remind me not to get this chick mad at me, Hollard thought.

She struggled to her feet and made an imperious gesture; one of the Marines hastily picked up a long shawl, and she wrapped it around herself. Then she walked stiffly to the side of the bier and spat in the dead man's face.

"May dust be his food and salt his drink in the House of Arabu. My foster father and mother are avenged, at least."

"Who was he, anyway?" Hollard asked. Time to get back to business.

The girl smiled. It looked as if it hurt her face. "You do not know, Lord Kenn'et? That is-was-Tukulti-Ninurta. King of the Universe of Swine, King of the Four Corners of the Pigpen, King of Assyria, last of the seed of Shulmanu-asharidu, who slew my father and my people. Thus are all my kin avenged."

"Oh, shit." It was time to call the Arnsteins and pass the buck. In the meantime

"You will be safe with us, Lady Raupasha," he said. In English: "Sergeant, see to the young lady's needs." He dropped back into Akkadian: "Your pardon. I must see to my troops."

He turned and strode out, blinking in the bright sunlight. O'Rourke had taken down the impaled bodies, and working parties were hauling bucketfuls of water to splash and sizzle on charring timbers.

"So, Colonel, I hear it's a princess we rescued," he said. "A young, beautiful princess at that."

"Paddy, for once rumor does not lie-and there's all sorts of political implications involved."

"Better you than me, sir. You'd best take a look at this, too, though."

They went up a mud-brick staircase to a section of the house roof still strong enough to bear their weight. "Over there, southwest."

The figures he pointed to were ant-tiny in the distance. Hollard raised his binoculars and turned the focusing screw; the ants became men, leaping close in the dry, clear air.

Uh-oh.

A gray-bearded man on a donkey, in a long striped robe with a fringe, a flowing headdress, and a sword belted at his waist. Several men talking to him, arguing with broad, quick gestures. More donkeys with packsaddles, and men on foot-fifty or sixty, scattered over the bare steppeland. He studied them; a few in plainer robes than the chief, many in simple goatskin kilts. None of them had swords-most of them didn't even have sandals-but they all had long knives tucked through their belts. Bows, slings, and spears were in evidence too, and a few had hide and wicker shields.

They were lean men with vast black beards, their bodies looking as if they were made out of sun-dried rawhide. Leaning on their spears, or laying them across their shoulders and resting their arms on them, or squatting at their ease. He could see one spitting thoughtfully on a rock and honing a curved bronze dagger that would do quite well as a skinning knife.

Aramaeans, right enough, he thought. Aloud: "No sheep, no goats, and no women."

"War party," O'Rourke agreed.

"Well, that solves one problem," Hollard replied and drew his pistol again as he trotted downstairs.

When he stood in front of the prisoners he gestured with it; they'd learned enough to know that it was one of the fire-weapons that had broken their kingdom, and they eyed it fearfully.

"All right, you're free to go," he said.

The spokesman who'd kissed his foot looked up from giving a dipper of water to a bandaged countryman. "Free, lord? No ransom?"

"Free and clear." He pointed to the south. "Now get going."

"Go?"

"What part of go don't you understand, you son of a bitch?" he roared, the control that had kept his voice level suddenly cracking. The Assyrian flinched as if from a blow. "Go! Thataway! Or by God, I'll shoot you down like a dog here and now. All of you-go!"

"But, lord! We have no food or water or weapons or-"

"Go!"

"But we will die!"

Hollard smiled; it felt a little like a smile, though the Assyrian flinched again. When he spoke, his voice was calm.

"We have an old saying-as a man sows, so shall he reap."

He fired into the dirt next to the Assyrian's foot. "March!"

Ibi-Addad came out and watched the departing Assyrians with a moment's mild curiosity. Then he waved a leather sack.

"Look, Lord Hollard! Packed with salt, this will be perfect for keeping the head until you lay it before King Shuriash. That all men may know your victory!"

"Oh, shit."


CHAPTER FOURTEEN | Against the Tide of Years | CHAPTER SIXTEEN







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