AN ARMY ON THE MARCH
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Sad at heart Semiramis stood on the palace roof at dawn and watched the army, like a mighty serpent, wriggling away toward the east.
Her parting with Menon had been strange indeed, for while his lips spoke bravely of the days to come, in his eyes lurked shadows of a troubled soul. Some secret preyed upon him which he dare not share with her, and the eagle glance of Ninus rested on him ceaselessly, even while the husband’s kiss was pressed upon her lips; and Menon stumbled as he left the hall. What danger to her lord lay hidden behind the master’s smile, and why should he hold her here, a prisoner, at Nineveh? Menon, too, had bade her stay behind, though since her coming, in the one sweet night when she rested at his side, he had sworn to part from her no more till Ishtar snapped the thread. What now? Was his change of heart a mandate of the King, whereby her lord should suffer in secret for his disobedience, when open forgiveness was but a close-masked lie? By Gibil, if he dared—!
Semiramis leaned across the parapet, shaking her hard-clenched fist toward the lines of marching men which had swallowed up the purple litter of the wounded King. Hour by hour she watched the armies move, like restless waves on the breast of a shoreless sea, the sunlight flashing on their polished gear. Line on line of footmen swung in measured stride, archers, slingers, pikemen, and those who fought with axes and with staves; vast clouds of riders skirting the Khusur river’s edge where the way was cleared for the monster catapults now knocked apart and bound upon carts with wooden wheels. As far as the eye could reach great lines of lowing oxen drew these machines of war, their drivers goading them with whips and the points of swords, while as a rear-guard came a rumbling host of chariots clanging through the city’s eastern gate.
A brazen sun climbed upward on its arch, hung like a keystone over Nineveh, then dipped toward the west; and still Assyria’s forces stretched in sight of the high brown walls, a tangle of an hundred nations pressing on at the will of a wounded King. A ball of dull red fire hung low behind the hills; a purple mist came creeping down on Nineveh, and the tail of an army disappeared beyond the river bend. Then Semiramis cast herself upon the palace roof and wept, for in the sob of a rising breeze she seemed to hear the sigh of Dagon and the rush of a carp that dragged her beetle down. It were better far that she should rot in Ascalon than dwell a prisoner at Nineveh, watching, listening, through the dull eternities of night for the footstep of a loved one who came not back to her.
The Assyrian host crawled eastward through the dust and heat, skirting the mountain spurs, and marching through the plains of Media, where an infant nation gave but weak resistance to the progress of the King. For four long moons they journeyed slowly, with many halts, for the ponderous machines of war retarded speed because of their weight and the breaking of axles and of wheels. Up mountain sides they were dragged by ropes attached to cattle and to slaves who held them back from running down the slopes beyond, though anon some heavier cart would sway, careen, and tumble with a rending crash among the stones.
In the van, and guarded by wings of flying horse, went an army of workmen who smoothed the way, hewing wide roads through forestlands, bridging the smaller streams, or constructing barges where rivers needs be crossed. Through desert wastes they laid a track of wood, whereon the wheels of catapults might roll and sink not deeply into the sands; and thus Assyria moved, by force of slow, brute strength, till the slopes of Hindu-Kush were reached and the toil of gods began.
King Ninus might have fretted at the slowness of his pace, yet his wound had healed and his strength came back again; so while his engines and his baggage carts crept slowly along their way, he foraged through the lands, subduing strangers, adding them to his mighty host, or collecting tribute and a store of food against the hungry days of siege. Where peoples were peaceful or stricken with fear before his might, then would he hunt from dawn till the shades of evening fell, though since the day of his going out from Nineveh, Menon joined not in his master’s sports, nor dipped his hand in the fleshpots at the royal board; and in the eyes of men this thing was strange.
To the warriors in Menon’s charge, their chieftain had passed from boyhood to sterner age, for his laugh no more resounded through the camp as in days of old, and a frown of gloom sat always upon his brow. Where the followers of Ninus feasted by night and day, laying great rolls of fat upon their bones, Menon’s men were held to the toil of war, to the practice of arms and a temperate use of wine and food, till slender and gaunt they grew, yet clear of sight and as hard as the rocky roads up which they climbed.
When half of the mountain’s side was scaled and the army rested in the valley’s lap, King Ninus proclaimed a council of his chiefs wherein he set forth plans to take the enemy unawares. That Oxyartes smelled their coming, was clear because of his many spies who dodged like mountain goats among the crags; yet weary days must pass ere the great machines of war could be dragged into the plains beyond, and this the Bactrians likewise knew full well. Therefore Ninus planned a sudden dash of chariots and horse through the highest mountain pass and a swift descent on Zariaspa, thereby cutting off a mass of Bactrians ere they found a safe retreat behind their walls.
This strategy seemed wise, and the chiefs as with one voice agreed thereto save Menon only, who sat apart and spoke no word. King Ninus, noting this, grew vexed and gave command that Menon stay behind in charge of the footmen and the baggage trains, a flout which hurt the youthful warrior to the marrow of his pride. For a moment he looked upon his master, then shrugged and left the council tent in silence, striding down the rocky path to his camp below. He yearned to reach the walls of Zariaspa, yet he knew full well that Ninus might accomplish naught without the aid of his ladders and his catapults; and these must be watched with a sleepless eye, for in them lay the hope of a breach in the city’s walls or a path which led to the summit of the citadel. One man would stand upon that lofty goal and claim the prize—Semiramis—and Menon swore by his every god of light and gloom to be that man!
When the cloak of evening fell King Ninus with his horsemen and his chariots moved stealthily up the winding trail which led to the mountain’s top, while Menon brooded by his camp fire far into the night. In the valley about him his soldiers lay asleep, wrapped in their cloaks, for the mountain air was chill; on the cliffs above his ghostly sentinels could be seen against the stars, watchful lest marauding bands swoop down to pillage the baggage trains or scatter the beasts of burden through intersecting glades. Many and bold were the Bactrian mountaineers who spared no pains to harass the Assyrians’ march, though far too weak to battle openly; therefore they clung to the army’s flanks, as insects gall a steed; and because of them Assyria itched by night and day.
The hours dragged on and on, till Menon with a sigh arose at last and entered his tent where he flung himself upon his couch of skins for an hour of sleep; but sleep came not, for his heart was heavy, and his thoughts trailed ever back to Nineveh and to her who lay in peril of a fate unknown. Then, presently, his eyelids drooped with a restless drowsiness wherein came tangled, half wakeful dreams through which he clambered up the walls of Zariaspa, while Ninus pushed him downward, laughing to see him fall. In the far, dim distance the voice of a woman stormed, sobbing because she might not reach his side; then, suddenly, Menon sat upright, listening, at the call of a sentry outside his tent. The flap was thrust aside, and Huzim entered, bearing a heavy burden in his arms.
When a torch was kindled, its light revealed a Bactrian spy whom Huzim had captured on the outskirts of the camp and whose limbs were bound with leathern thongs, for the Indian found less labor in bearing this spy upon his mighty back than in leading him, struggling, down a tedious defile.
The prisoner was questioned concerning his master, Oxyartes, but refused to speak. They scourged him, yet he bore the lash in silence, scowling at his enemies, till Huzim procured a torture iron, clamped it on the Bactrian’s bare foot and turned the screws; then the wretch’s spirit broke; he shrieked for mercy, promising to reveal all secrets which the Assyrians wished to learn. Menon nodded, and by a sign directed Huzim to keep the iron about the prisoner’s foot, then he turned to the sufferer sternly:
“Speak,” he commanded; “yet remember, fellow, that much is known to us, and for each false word that slips your tongue, this screw shall sink a hair’s breadth into your ankle bone.”
The threat proved potent; Menon learned, by swift, adroit questionings, that Oxyartes lay in wait for Ninus at the outlet of a deep defile on the ridge of the highest mountain pass, where, aided by rising ground and the towering cliffs on either side, he could crush the Assyrians, even as this devil’s iron bit into a captive’s foot.
Menon pondered thoughtfully, for the case was evil, demanding all his craft. Mayhap the captive lied, seeking to draw away another force from the baggage trains, when hidden mountaineers might pour into the valley, wrecking the machines of war and dealing a fatal blow to the plans of siege. On the other hand, should Ninus, in his overconfidence of strength, become entangled in the narrow gorge, then of a certainty Assyria’s fate was sealed.
Menon faltered. A haunting whisper worried at his ears:
“Let Ninus die! Wherefore should a mortal shield an enemy who houndeth him in a cause of cruelty? Leave him to his fate! Race back to Nineveh and the goal of a heart’s desire!”
’Twas sweet, this haunting whisper, yet another voice within him cried aloud—cried for the glory of Assyria and the lives of those who rode into a snare. Should he soil a warrior’s after-memory with the murder of his friends—those who had charged with him in Syria against the Kurds? By the breath of Ishtar, no! Semiramis would scorn him as the weakness of a craven merited!
In a moment Menon’s tent was thronged with officers and under-chiefs to whom he issued swift commands. The camp in the valley woke to sudden life. Slumbering warriors roused to cast their cloaks aside and form in silent, eager bands, their heavier armor left behind, their backs untrammeled by any weight save their arms alone, their pouches for food, and leathern flasks for water and for wine.
In the valley, carts and wagons were set in one vast oval barricade, while oxen and the burden-beasts were roped within. Beneath the wheels lay a force of men who slept upon their arms, and treble sentries paced the outposts and lined the cliffs above. The baggage train was a fortress now which well might hold its own till Menon could reach his threatened King, strike at the enemy, and hasten back again.
And now the force was on the move, Menon in the van, while at his side strode the faithful Kedah, he who had served in Syria, and at his master’s lightest nod would charge across the lip of a precipice. Three spears’ lengths in advance went the Bactrian spy who, choosing between the torture-iron and a sack of gold, had promised to lead the Assyrians by a shorter route to where King Oxyartes lay concealed; yet, lest he betray his trust, a noose was knotted about his neck and Huzim followed close upon his heels.
To those who raced with the coming dawn on slippery mountain paths, circling deep chasms, leaping from stone to stone where torrents cut their way, the ceaseless trainings of Menon’s camp now stood them in good stead. The chill of the altitude was felt no more, for the soldiers’ blood ran bubbling through their veins as their limbs grew damp with the sweat of toil. Upward they clambered, swinging westward in a wide detour, in the hope of taking Oxyartes in his rear, now running swiftly down some gentle slope, now clinging like flies to the face of a dizzy cliff, then up again on narrow, tortuous ways.
They came at last upon the point where Ninus and his force had passed when they entered the gorge which notched the summit of the mountain range; and as Menon paused, his ear could faintly catch a distant rumble of the chariot wheels where the rearguard dragged its way on the stony trail.
Well might Menon pause. To dash into that gulf of gloom, meant only to become a part of Assyria’s slaughter when the battle joined; nor might a single spy press on with warning, for the march of Ninus, beyond a peradventure, was followed up by a force of Bactrians who would balk retreat. To advise the King of impending fate was beyond the powers of Menon’s strength or strategy; yet, what if after all his journey bore no fruit save the knowledge of a fool who was lured by phantoms to forsake a trust? In fancy he fashioned swarms of hairy mountaineers who tumbled down the cliff sides to the valley’s lap, charging his wagons, stabbing at his men beneath the wheels. He heard their howls of triumph—smelled the smoke, as great red flames leaped, roaring, at his priceless machines of war, while maddened cattle-beasts surged round and round, trampling his men beneath their frenzied hoofs.
Well might Menon cast his eyes along the backward trail, for if judgment served him ill, what hope of her who watched upon the walls of Nineveh, listening for the footsteps of a loved-one coming in the night? He faltered, yet, as he stood, irresolute, there came a memory of Semiramis admonishing a foolish serving-maid in their home at Azapah:
“Thou child!” she chided. “When once the mind be set upon a thing, go straightway and do that thing, leaving the broken threads of consequence to be gathered up in afterdays.”
So Menon wiped the beads of sweat from off his brow and gave the word to move. He divided his men-at-arms, commanding Kedah to mount the heights on the gorge’s right, while he, with an equal force, would take the left; thus the two long files diverged from the central point and soon were hidden among the beetling crags.
For an hour they stole along uncertain paths, hugging the edge of a slit-like mountain pass which marked the march of Ninus in the depths below. They moved with speed, yet cautiously, lest the rattling of a weapon or a stone displaced give warning to the enemy, while beneath their very feet could be heard the clattering hoof-falls of three score thousand war steeds plodding sleepily—and Menon and his men raced on to reach the van.
At length the gloom of night began to fade. A smear of grey crept up from out the east. Then, of a sudden, the hills awoke, resounding with the crash of arms, the thunder of descending stones, the cries of men, and the shriek of stricken steeds.
“Too late!” sighed Menon, gazing down into the shadowy gulf whence the tongues of tumult roared. “Too late! Yet, perchance, the hand of Ishtar stayed my speed!”