THE RAISING OF THE SIEGE
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
King Ninus sat his war horse, gazing sadly out across the walls of Zariaspa. His cheek was bronzed by the brush of many winds, his muscles hardened by the toil of battle in a hundred lands; the blood of dauntless youth ran riot in his veins, yet it whispered at his heart that the King had failed.
Behind him the mountains of Hindu-Kush towered, dull and purple, in the morning light, their peaks obscured in coils of snake-like mist. Southward they ran, a ragged line of hills, till they reached the height of Hindu-Koh and claimed a brotherhood with the mighty Himalayas. To right and left the hill-steeps lay, a barren waste of rock and stunted shrubbery, while at the feet of Assyria’s King stretched fertile valleys, and the plains of Bactria reaching away to the banks of the River Oxus.
In the centre of the plain stood Zariaspa, the city which defied Assyria’s might, a fortress whose walls rose thirty cubits above the earth, grim, battle-scarred, but still unconquered. Within, the defenders feasted from a never-ending store of food which seemed to drop by magic from the brazen skies, while without, a hungry host of besieging foes sat, cursing, in the sand.
So Ninus sat upon his horse in troubled thought, a monarch cheated of his heart’s desire—cheated by craft and prowess more subtle than his own. To his side rode Menon down a mountain trail, a Prince of the house of Naïri, now travel-stained from a baffled hunt for the secret of Zariaspa’s store of food. He made report, and Ninus listened, silent, nodding slowly, frowning at the distant walls.
In feature and form these two were as oddly matched as the sons of a kindred race might be. The King was of massive frame and corded thews, a leader of men who ruled by the right of might, who offered to those he loved an open hand—to his enemies a hard-clenched fist. Haughty of mien was he, with the eyes of a restless hawk burning beneath the shadow of his brow; his strong, square chin lay hidden in his beard, while from his helm swept a mass of hair, resting in thick, oiled curls upon his shoulders.
The Prince beside him was but a boy in years, with a beardless face of beauty to look upon, a slender, nimble frame, yet hardened in the school of hunting and of war. Where Fate was pleased to mark his path, there Menon1 rode with a loose, free rein, mocking at danger as he played at love, yet scorning not discretion’s padded shield.
Where Ninus smashed his way through the bristling ranks of opposing force, Menon skimmed in crafty circles till he found the weakest point, then cut it cleanly, as the swallow cuts the wind. Where Ninus frowned and crushed obedience to his will, there Menon bought devotion’s merchandise with the price of a joyous laugh; yet the boy, withal, had need to lean upon the arm of power, while the King was a king from helm to heel, a lord to whom his mighty armies gave idolatry and the tribute of their blood.
“Menon,” spoke the King at length, as he pointed across the plain to Zariaspa, “I have sworn by Bel and Ramân to lay yon city low, to sack it to the dust of its whitest ash. Thinkest thou we may some day cease to squat in the manner of toads outside its walls?”
“Aye, my lord,” the Prince returned, with a fleeting smile, “some day—when the toads have learned to fly.”
King Ninus nodded thoughtfully, and with his fingers combed at his thick, black beard.
“True,” he answered, “true; and yet we soon will be upon the wing. Look thou and listen.” Again he pointed, not at the city’s walls, but to the monster camp which circled Zariaspa as a girdle rests about a woman’s waist. “See, Menon, thy King hath learned to fly.”
Now even as he spoke, the besieging army woke as from a heavy sleep. On the gentle wind came a clank and clatter of swiftly gathered arms, the squeak of wheels and the harsh, shrill cries of captains to their men. At first the sound was faint and far, a whispered echo through the morning mists; yet anon it multiplied and swelled into a busy roar, as the vanguard of Assyria’s hosts turned tail upon their enemies and crawled toward the southern mountain-pass.
Menon, like the King, gazed out across the plain, but in wonder and amaze, then raised his eyes to his master’s frowning face. Twice he strove to speak, and twice fell silent, turning again to the marvel of Assyria’s army in retreat.
“My lord—” he began at last, but Ninus checked him with a lifted hand.
“Nay, Menon,” the master sighed, “thy soul is troubled because of the strangeness of this thing; yet heed me and know the cause. My heart is still for battle, yet the heart hath taken council of the mind, and wisdom soundeth my retreat.”
The King dismounted from his steed, leading the Prince to a seat upon a stone which overlooked a wider view of the breaking camp. He placed his arm in fatherly caress on Menon’s shoulder, and spoke once more:
“My warriors have called their chief a god.” He paused to smile behind his beard, and for an instant sat in reverie. “Now godhood hath its virtues so long as it leadeth unto victory and beds of ease; yet this have I learned, and to my woe, that a pot of boiling grease poured down from a city’s wall will scald a god as it scaldeth a naked slave. Defeat is mortal; gods bring victory alone, and my faithful followers begin to mutter among themselves.”
Again King Ninus paused in reverie, then stretched his knotted arm toward the stubborn city.
“Three years have we girded Zariaspa’s walls and battered at its masonry. Three years! and what hath been compassed in these weary days? We scrape an hundred-weight of scales from off the stones, and sacrifice a third of an army’s strength to the sport of our laughing enemies. Our shafts are as swarms of harmless gnats, our lances reeds in the hands of girls; our mightiest engines toys at which the foemen crow and chuckle in their merriment. From the Oxus to the hills we harry the land in search of food, while the Bactrians fatten as they loll upon their battlements. Aye, meat have they, the which they devour in lazy arrogance, tossing the bones thereof at our hungry men below! Whence cometh this vast supply? From Bel or Gibil, it matters not; they gorge themselves, and laugh! Five score spies have I sent by craft into the city, and five score spies have they hanged upon the walls! By the breath of Shamashi-Ramân, it rouseth me to wrath!”
The King arose and set to striding in fury to and fro, while Menon forbore to question him, knowing that if his master willed he would speak in time.
“And so,” sighed Ninus, pausing at last beside the boy, “and so will we journey westward for a space, to conquer other and weaker lands, to fatten my army with the fruits of spoil, to help them forget that a god hath failed. When this be compassed, then will I rest from war beside the Tigris where my city shall be builded in the sand—a city, Menon, the like of which no eye hath yet beheld—a fortress beside whose strength this little Zariaspa is but a nut to crack beneath thy heel. And there will I set my court and hold dominion over all the world—hold it, till men and the children of men shall wear my footstool smooth with the pressure of their knees!”
The monarch’s bosom heaved in wrapt desire; his dark eyes kindled with a flame inspired, as he raised them toward the clouds. As a prophet he saw this pearl of glory rise from out the wilderness. He saw its monster walls, surmounted by a thousand and a half a thousand soaring towers. In fancy he fashioned gleaming palaces and sumptuous banquet halls. He dreamed of gardens drowsing in the cool of spreading palms, where a king might rest from the toil of his lion-hunt; he heard the splash of fountains murmuring through the long blue night, till the torch of morning lit his terraces, and the grapes of Syria ripened to his hand. He watched in triumph from his palace roof the vast brown city stretching at his feet, while the echoed roar of its busy din climbed upward in waves of melody. He heard the clang of its mighty gates of bronze that opened to the commerce of the earth—that opened again to the outrush of his war-armed hosts, a thousand nations melted into one grand hammer-head that rose and fell in obedience to his lightest nod.
“And because of this city,” King Ninus cried aloud, “the peoples of every land shall hold my memory till the passing ages rot, for I swear to mount it on a deathless throne and crown it with the splendour of my name! Up, Menon, and journey with thy King to NINEVEH!”
And thus was born that Nineveh which rode astride the world, to fall at last, as falls the pride of power, and find its grave in the dust from whence it sprung—to lie forgotten in a mouldy crypt of dreams, till the peoples who slipped from the womb of another age swarmed forth to dig again—to spell out a kingdom’s vanished glories from the symbols of a vanished tongue.
Menon and the King rode down into the valley and across the plain to where the great war-serpent of Assyria began to uncoil itself and crawl toward the west. For the space of a moon the joyless work went on. The camps of horse and foot were struck, the rude utensils and heavier arms being strapped to the backs of beasts of burden, while an hundred thousand chariots were hitched and deployed across the plains. Cumberous engines for the hurling of heavy stones were dragged from beneath the city walls, to be burned and destroyed, or hauled through gaps in the distant mountain range by lowing oxen and toiling, sweating slaves. The warriors set torches to the huts and houses behind their trenches, and a roar of flames was added to the bustling din of moving men-at-arms. Great columns of spark-shot smoke arose, to roll above the city in a suffocating cloud—to choke the defenders who coughed and crowded along the battlements. As each dense mass of besiegers passed, the Bactrianas set up shouts and songs of victory, while they hurled their taunts, together with flights of shafts and stones, at the growling, cursing enemy below.
From day to day the scene was one of turbulence and haste, a jumble of groaning carts and provision trains, of swiftly formed battalions passing westward on the run, to join the vanguard and be lost in a cloud of thick, low-hanging dust. And thus an hundred nations trickled into order through the teeming ruck, each yelling in its native tongue as it flung defiance back at Zariaspa; while above the rumbling tramp of myriads of feet rose the blare of countless signal horns.
When the last day dawned, King Ninus marshalled an array to bid farewell to his jeering foes. Where he faced the city gates, a thousand chariots were formed in a curving, triple line, with steeds whose polished trappings glittered in the sun, their drivers giants picked from the flower of his force. The wings were shaped by cavalry, dark-visaged riders from the south, in turbans and flowing robes, while a horde of footmen were massed behind. Here were seen the harnessed tribes that bowed to Assyria’s rule; Indian bowmen, with weapons fashioned from bones of saurians; spearsmen from Babylonia, archers from the north; grim swordsmen from the Upper and Lower Nile, bearing their shields of painted bronze; wild slingers from the Syrian hills, half clothed in the skins of beasts; Afghans, sullen Khatti, proud Armenians in solid, bristling ranks—the warriors of the world who had swept all Asia as with a flame, yet failed to drag the walls of Zariaspa down.
In the centre of the curving front King Ninus sat his war horse silently; on his right rode Menon, while on his left a mounted herald waited for command. The monarch gave a sign; the stern battalia advanced, to halt within an arrow-shot of the city gates; then the herald raised his voice, demanding audience with Oxyartes, King of Bactria.
Now the Bactrians on the walls, suspecting some deceitful snare, answered the summons with hoots and laughter, with the mimic howls of animals and the mocking crow of cocks. A cloud of arrows fell like drops of rain, galling the restive chariot steeds, while a captain on the wall released the beam of a catapult. A monster rock came hurtling through the air, to strike the earth within a spear’s length of the King and crash through the triple line of chariots; whereat a mighty roar of rage went up, the clamour growing into fury, till Ninus wheeled his horse and gave a sharp command. At his word, the centre of the line began to bend in a deeper curve, divided at last, and two great columns of horse and foot streamed westward toward the hills, while the rumbling chariots, twelve abreast, brought up the rear.
With Menon alone King Ninus sat motionless upon his steed till his warriors left the space of a thousand paces clear; then he rode to the gate and struck it sharply with the hilt of his heavy sword.
“Come forth, King Oxyartes!” he cried aloud. “Come forth!”
Now the people of Bactria loved a fearless man, be he enemy or friend, so they cheered him till the city rocked with the thunder of their shouts, and Oxyartes stood out upon the battlements.
“What would Ninus of the King of Bactria?” he called; and Ninus answered, albeit he lifted not his eyes:
“It is not meet that the lord of Assyria hold speech with fowls who roost in trees. Come down and parley, King to King.”
A bowman from above took umbrage at the haughty tone, and loosed a shaft which broke upon the monarch’s metal helm, yet because of this deed King Oxyartes seized the miscreant and flung him from the wall. Then he called for a rope which, being brought, was looped beneath his arms, and his warriors lowered him to the earth, for the city gates were sealed. In his hand he held a naked sword, and Ninus noting this laughed scornfully, dismounted and cast his weapon on the ground, awaiting his enemy with folded arms. The Bactrian flushed in shame, flung his own blade aside, and advanced with outstretched hands.
“Pardon, my lord,” he begged. “With one so strange to fear, I might have brought my trust as I brought my sword.”
“Nay,” smiled Ninus; “where the sword is wisdom, there caution is a shield.”
Oxyartes was of that mould of warrior which Ninus loved; the straight, lean form, the kingly head beneath whose brow the eyes looked out with a level gaze, while the hands he offered were firm in the strength of youth—a fitting shield for the heart of his sturdy land.
“And why,” he asked, “am I honoured by a parley with Assyria’s lord, when his army marcheth westward in retreat?”
King Ninus laid his hand upon the Bactrian’s shoulder, looked into his eyes, and spoke:
“I come to bid farewell to a worthy foe, ere I turn toward the Tigris where my city shall be builded on its shore. There will I rest and plan my coming wars. There will I raise another and a mightier force, to return when three short years have passed and blot thy city from the plains. Ah, smile if thou wilt, friend Oxyartes, but I come again, and at my coming, look well to Zariaspa’s walls!”
So Oxyartes ceased to smile, casting his gaze upon the earth, for he knew his foe spoke truth and would come again.
“My lord,” he asked at length, “wherefore should our races be at war? In the country round about I may not match thy multitude of men-at-arms; yet behind my battlements I defy thy proudest strength. Wisdom crieth out for truce, a compact wherein I weld my force with thine and share all conquests and a portion of the spoil thereof. Speak, Ninus, for the compact seemeth just.”
“True,” the monarch nodded gravely, “true; and yet I may not do this thing. When Bactria is conquered and thy citadel laid low, then will I make a treaty with thy nation’s chiefs. They shall join their strength to mine and share a goodly part of my captives and my spoils.” He paused to smile, and once more laid his hand on the shoulder of Oxyartes. “Their warrior King will I set among my best beloved, for I hold him as a brother in the arts of war; yet heed me, friend, I have sworn by Bel and Ramân to rake the ashes of thy Zariaspa into sacks and with them feed the waters of the sea! And this will I do, or leave my bones to bleach beneath the brow of Hindu-Kush! Till I come again—farewell.”
Then Oxyartes embraced the Assyrian king, begging him to tarry for a day as an honored guest, to feast and receive the richest gifts his kingdom might afford; but Ninus smiled and shook his head.
“Nay, suffer me to treasure up the thought,” he answered with a laugh, “yet keep thy gifts till I come to take them for myself.”
“So be it,” smiled the Bactrian in return. “Three years of peace thou givest me, and in them will I dig the grave of Assyria’s lord in the shadow of frowning Kush! Farewell!”
He stooped and gave the sword of Ninus into the monarch’s hand, stroked the charger’s neck till its master mounted, then watched the King and Menon ride away across the sunlit plains.
Not once did Ninus give a backward glance, yet Menon wheeled his steed and kissed his hand to a gathering of maidens watching from the battlements.