THE PASS OF THE WEDGE
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
With the army of Ninus the night had passed without alarm, for in the lead crept a force of spies who watched the way and made report by signals that the road was clear of enemies. Following the spies came a mass of mounted spearsmen, armed also with swords and shields, a vanguard for the King who reposed in his royal litter borne by slaves. Then came another horde of close-ranked horsemen, nodding on the backs of their toiling steeds, or cursing at the steeps of their tedious ascent. Behind rolled a host of heavy chariots, their horses well-nigh spent by the labor of their climb and the need of water for their thirsty throats.
Slowly and more slowly still this mighty monster crawled upward on its way, through gloom more dense than night because of towering rock-walls which shut it in, deflecting icy winds that searched the crevices of armor-plate or the seams of leathern coats. Then the road became more difficult, for, as dawn approached, the mountain pass grew narrower in its cleft, till far above the riders’ heads the cliffs leaned inward, leaving but a ribbon’s width of star-stabbed sky between.
And now the gorge came suddenly to an end, as though rent apart by giants of some forgotten age. The ground still sloped toward the ridge of Hindu-Kush, but the hillsides sheared away on either hand, their faces scarred by black ravines, by twisting ridges, tangled root-dried shrubbery, and wastes of splintered rock.
This place was known to travellers as the Pass of the Wedge, because of its strange formation, resembling in shape some splitting instrument which forced two soaring mountain-backs apart. In its neck, at the narrowest point, six chariots might drive abreast, yet it broadened till its widest reach might hold a thousand horsemen standing flank to flank; and here the Assyrian vanguard spread as spreads a fan, rejoicing to be free at last from the gloomy gorge which had closed about their heads.
Here, too, the crafty Oxyartes laid his snare, for as each Assyrian spy came through the pass, a shadowy form rose up behind him, and in a moment more a noose would grip his neck, and his shout of warning died with his strangled breath. Then the Bactrians, themselves, stole backward down the trail with signals that the road was clear, luring a drowsy army on to a swift awakening of woe.
Thus, in the haze of dawn, the foremost Assyrian riders came against a barrier of high-piled stones whose crevices were filled with a hedge of planted spears. Too late the horsemen checked their steeds, wheeling to warn their followers. A torch flared out from the rocks above, and at the sign the battle broke with a deep, tumultuous roar, wherein the screams of men were intermingled with a rushing avalanche of stones, the hiss of shafts and the whine of leaden pellets hurled from slings. Great boulders, hurtling down the steep declivities, would strike the bottom, rending bloody lines through the mass of close-packed horsemen, or, bursting into fragments, hurl a score of riders from their steeds.
The last of the horses had passed the gorge’s neck, and at the signal of alarm, long files of chariots came streaming out, to meet a heaving, backward wave of terror-stricken men, each seeking safety from the missiles of their unseen enemies, and finding death in a rush of wheels. The chariot horses reared and plunged beneath a galling hail of darts, fell and became entangled with their harness, while other chariots crashed into them and piled upon the wreck.
Another signal torch flared up, and blood-mad Bactria seemed to tear the very hills apart. A storm of stones was poured into the gorge’s neck, till a mound of splintered chariots and dying warriors arose, choking egress, cutting off retreat, and locking Ninus with the flower of his force in a trap of death.
Beyond, in the centre of the press, the King, aroused from sleep, sprang from his litter and seized a passing steed; half clad, unarmored and unhelmed, he rose to Assyria’s stress. Here was no weakling, cowering at a grave mischance of war, but a King who conquered nations, teaching them, like dogs, to lick his hand; and when they snarled he walked among them with a whip. What recked it though his foes were hidden among the heights, his army writhing in a pit of gloom? A King was a King, and peril ran as mothers-milk on the lips of the lord of men.
In the half light Ninus towered above his followers, his bare arms raised aloft, his great voice rolling forth commands, till those who had lost their wits in the sudden fury of attack, plucked courage from their master’s fearless front. Where tossing, disordered troops ran riot among themselves, balking defense and fanning the torch of panic into flame, they now pressed backward from the valley’s sides and the zone of plunging rocks, raising their shields to protect their heads from showers of arrows and smaller stones. Where horsemen proved a hindrance, the riders dismounted, and while one force was sent ahead to tear away the spear-set barrier, still others charged the hillsides, scrambling up by the aid of projecting roots, in a valiant effort to dislodge their foes; but the Bactrians beat them back with savage thrusts of javelins and of spears. So soon as an Assyrian head arose above some ledge, a wild-haired mountaineer would cleave it with an axe and laugh aloud as the corpse went tumbling down, itself a missile, thwarting the progress of its scuffling friends.
Again and again the assault was checked, till the climbers faltered and then went reeling down the slope, while the Bactrians shrieked their triumph from above, and the wrath of Ninus knew no bounds. He raged about him, striking with his sword at every flying warrior within his reach, cursing their cowardice and leaping from his steed to lead one last mad onslaught on his enemies.
There were those who fain would save their King, so they flung themselves upon him and clung in the manner of wriggling eels; yet even as they struggled a louder shouting rose among the rocks, and the strugglers paused in awe. Commingled with the shouts came cries of sharp alarm, while the Bactrian shafts were aimed no longer in the valley’s bed, but upward at the crags. King Ninus looked and marveled. The gloom of dawn was thinning rapidly; great coils of mist, that swam among the peaks, unwound and disappeared, scattered by shifting winds, or sucked into thirsty, deep defiles. The red sun shot above a ragged spur, flinging his torch of hope into the death-strewn pass, for upon the heights on either hand the warm light lit the arms of Menon and Kedah as they led their men.
As Bactria had pressed upon Assyria’s force below, so now Prince Menon galled the Bactrians from his vantage point above, destroying them with arrows and with slings, with down-flung stones and the trunks of fallen trees. With Kedah came the Syrian hillsmen, silent, pitiless, while Menon led the loose-limbed mountaineers from the land of Naïri, to whom a fray was as a feast of wine. They sang as they swept the cliffs, jeering, mocking while they slew, seizing their fallen foes where other missiles failed and flinging their bodies on the heads of those beneath.
In the gorge the King’s men once more scrambled up the slopes, snatching at the foemen’s legs and feet, dragging them from rifts and crevices. Anon two foes would grapple on some narrow ledge, totter, and plunge, still fighting with nails and teeth, till the shock of death released them from the fierce embrace. The Bactrians who sought to fly were caught below on the points of spears with shouts of vengeful joy, while those who held their ground in the courage of despair, were slain where they stood, for mercy they begged not nor received.
A breach had now been torn through the barrier of stones which stretched across the gorge, and the King, to relieve the press within, led three score thousand horsemen out and breasted the gentle slope beyond; yet scarce had he cleared the opening when Oxyartes, with a cloud of riders, swept into view and came thundering down the hill. They far outnumbered the Assyrian horse and held a marked advantage by reason of their whirlwind rush; yet the heart of the King arose. Here was no unseen enemy hurling stones from shrouded heights, but a foe to charge on even ground, sword to sword and shield to shield—a foe to conquer in the glory of his strength, or to free a royal saddle of its weight.
“At them!” he cried and loosed his bridle rein, while his followers with a shout of joy came streaming after him. With a clangorous roar the riders met, their horses rearing to the shock, battling with hoofs or toppling backward upon those who pressed behind. For an instant Bactrian and Assyrian both recoiled, then drew their breath and fell to the work of war—a struggle, deadly, fraught with fate, for victory gave the whip-hand unto Ninus or the brave King Oxyartes; and so the leaders vied in their deeds of arms. They met at last, the sword of Ninus clanging on the Bactrian’s blade; and for a space they glared across their shield-rims silently, then rose in their saddles for a scepter-stroke that would mark a kingdom’s fall.
Yet fate had written that this stroke was not to be, for the chiefs were swept apart by a surging rush of men, and each was forced to steep his blade in the blood of meaner foes, while the tangled, battling mass was moving once again, downward, when the weight of Oxyartes’s force began to tell. Slowly, foot by foot, the Assyrians gave ground, in spite of Ninus and his mighty arm, till the rearward riders backed into the barrier of stones, or struggled vainly, in its narrow breach.
Of a certainty the King was in a grievous case, yet now from the hillsides Menon and Kedah stung the Bactrians’ flanks, taking them with flights of shafts that pierced their armpits, sank into their necks or unprotected backs, while the Syrian slingers marked their own and grunted in their toil. A leaden pellet smote King Oxyartes full upon the helm. He reeled and would have plunged beneath his horse’s hoofs, but a warrior leaped behind him, clutching the drooping form and guiding the good steed rearward on the run.
Shorn of their chief, the fury of the Bactrians ceased, and, fearing the day was lost, they wheeled and sought for safety in retreat. The mountaineers of Naïri barred their path, but were ridden down as an east wind sweeps a lake, though many a horse and rider fell before their spears. Upward the Bactrians toiled, with Ninus and his riders hacking at their heels, till the mountain top was reached, and a beaten army fled like foxes to the plains below. Their King had made a valiant cast for victory, yet Ninus stood, a conqueror, on the spine of Hindu-Kush.
And now came a swarm of fighting-men from out the bloody pass—exulting horsemen, shouting charioteers, Menon and his men-at-arms who had run throughout the night to shield the glory of Assyria and the glory of Assyria’s King.
The eyes of the monarch fell upon the Prince of Naïri who strode toward him through the throng, and his heart grew warm with the old, strong love that slumbered, but had not died. He was fain to forget the follies of this youth, to take the hands of Menon into his own and lay them against his breast; yet the smile of a sudden faded from his lips, his brow grew clouded, and his outstretched arms sank slowly to his sides. On the tongues of the multitudes a shout arose—a shout that rolled across the trembling hills till its echoes bounded back from a thousand crags; and the name it roared was not the name of Assyria’s lord, but Menon! MENON!—and the King grew cold in wrath. A serpent of jealousy had coiled about his heart, and, striking, stung it to its core.
“How now!” he demanded. “What manner of craft be this which bringeth thee upon my heels? Perchance, when silent in our council tent, thou knewest of this peril in our path, yet spoke no word, in the hope of profit to thyself.”
“Nay, lord,” answered Menon, humbly, while he looked into his master eyes; “too late to warn thee I learned from a captured spy of this trap beyond the pass, so I hastened by a shorter path across the hills, with as great a force as I dare detach from the army left on guard.”
“A likely tale!” the angry monarch scoffed, though he knew in his heart that Menon spoke the truth. “Go back to my wagon-trains which are left as a tempting bait to our watchful foes! And mark thou this,” he cried as he clenched his fist, “bring down my stores and my engines of war unharmed before the walls of Zariaspa, or account to Ninus for a trust betrayed!”
Prince Menon flushed, then paled again as he strove to hold an eager tongue in bounds.
“So be it,” he answered, haughtily, and turned upon his heel; but Ninus called him back, for it came to him that his words were hasty and hurtful to the minds of those who heard.
“What wilt thou,” he asked, “in payment of thy deed? Where Assyria oweth, there Assyria will pay, nor boggle at the price. What, then, wilt thou have at the hands of Assyria’s King?”
“Naught,” said Menon, looking on his master with a level gaze. “There are mongers of fish who hawk their wares in the open market-place. A warrior may buy; but a warrior selleth not—even to Assyria’s lord.”
Once more he turned upon his heel, and, commanding Kedah to collect his men-at-arms, strode down the mountainside on the backward trail, while the King gazed grimly after him and spoke no word.
A failure Ninus might forgive, but Menon’s triumph galled him, even as an ill-set bandage chafes a wound.