IN THE SHADOW OF ZARIASPA
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
From the walls of Zariaspa the Bactrians watched a besieging host descend into the plains. First came mounted warriors who paused at the mountain’s foot, one half to pitch their camp and guard the road which swarms of workmen delved to smooth, while the other half made shift to sweep the country round about, to seize on points of vantage or to beat back hostile bands of horse and foot that sought to enter the city and aid its strength. Then followed long lines of chariots, till the eyes of the Bactrians ached with the glitter of the proud array. This second army, when it reached the plains, began likewise to divide, stretching away to east and west in the manner of two huge, creeping arms that girt the city in a close embrace. Day after day went by, till the war-cars stood at rest in a circle six hundred cubits distant from the walls; then came the footmen.
As a locust pest descends upon a land, so swarmed this horde from out the hills, till the earth was hidden and the grass blades died beneath their tread. As the forces of horse and chariots had split, so split the footmen, swinging to east and west, then sitting down behind the besieging circle’s outer rim.
The Assyrians offered no assault upon the walls, for their engines of war must first be guided down the mountainside and their catapults and towers be set in place; yet the army lay not in idleness. Detachments were sent to forage through the land, laying up stores among the foot-hills where the camp of supplies was set. Here the cattle were put to fatten on fertile slopes where water abounded in the valleys near at hand. Here grass was plucked and borne away as feed for the chariot steeds. Here, also, the pack trains were brought to camp under guard of a strong reserve, for the feeding of the army proved a mighty task. Below this camp ten thousand slaves toiled ceaselessly among the rocky wastes, piling huge stones upon wooden sledges, dragging them away and piling them up again for use of the waiting catapults. Still other slaves filled water-skins which they strapped on the backs of asses and drove the braying beasts to distant points where springs and streams were not; so the labors of men went on.
On an eminence among the hills, where three long years agone the King had sat his horse and watched an army break its camp, Ninus now sat before his tent, commanding the order of his force below. Even as he builded Nineveh, that splendid city of defense, he now laid out a thousand cities of assault. Like the tire of a chariot wheel his army encompassed the hub of Zariaspa, the spokes thereof being long, wide avenues, converging toward the city walls and affording unhampered ground for the moving of his men, or for bearing food to his hungry hosts. Each spoke was a sharp dividing line between the outposts of a separate camp, each camp in command of a leader accounting to an over-chief who in turn accounted to the King.
This plan of war seemed good to Ninus, and in his joy he forgot all else save the fire of a mighty conqueror; yet when his engines were dragged into the plains and set at vantage points within his lines, he remembered Menon, and his heart grew cold again.
This man had saved Assyria’s vanguard from defeat, aye, even the life of Ninus he had saved, and thereby won the love of a multitude who were witness to the deed. Justice cried out for the King’s forgiveness, yet it cried in vain, for justice is ever a feather-weight in the scale of jealousy.
“Nay,” the monarch muttered, sullenly, “him may I not forgive; yet, lest these foolish chieftains murmur among themselves, I will keep my covenants.”
Therefore he summoned Menon to his tent, dismissing the guard so that none might overhear his words, and spoke:
“In Syria I set thee to a task and bade thee wed Sozana when all things were accomplished in that land. A servant thou art, and the price of disobedience is the heaviest debt a servant needs must pay. If, therefore, thou judgest me because I withhold my love, think then of the trust I placed in thee and the manner in which my faith hath been deceived.”
“My lord,” replied the Prince, “I pray thee suffer me to speak as in other days thine ear was turned in patience to my words.” Ninus nodded, and the youth went on: “In all things, save one alone, I have set the King’s desires above the yearnings of my will. In childhood I bore his wine cup, obedient to his lightest nod. From him I learned the arts of war, and served him through conquests of four score lands, sparing neither strength nor blood to bring him victory. When Nineveh was rising from the earth I journeyed down into Arabia, measured my sword with the Prince Boabdul, and sealed a treaty which gave Assyria peace along the border lands. It bringeth thee stallions from the plains of Barbary, and an army of mounted Bedouins; it bringeth thee peace of heart, for thine enemies are now thy friends. In Syria I ruled till summer for the third time came, nor grudged the ceaseless labor of my hands. For my master’s needs at Nineveh I sapped the wealth of every Syrian tribe, save the Sons of Israel alone, whose grip on treasure no mortal man hath yet been born to loose with profit unto himself.”
“Ah, good my lord, I have no will to wag a boastful tongue, yet man to man I give thee simple truth, urging that a life’s devotion outcount the grave displeasure of my King.”
Ninus was moved. In his heart he loved this youth as he loved no other throughout the kingdom of Assyria, and now he sat in reverie, his chin upon his hand, with eyes that gazed upon the armies at his feet and saw them not. Full well he knew the value of a servant’s deeds; full well he knew the power of Menon’s sway among the soldiery, who, since the battle in the mountain pass, had set him upon a perch of fame. In the siege of the city Menon’s sword would rise as a tower of strength, yet might it not outshine the King’s? What profited the fall of Zariaspa if the name of Menon rolled on the tongue of victory? Could a single chariot hold two gods of war? Nay, not so; for one must drive while the other smote the enemy. Who, then, should ply the whip and who the spear? By Gibil, it were better far that the grapes of triumph hung unplucked than to watch a rival make merry on their juice! Yet Ninus was Ninus, and what had he to fear from a beardless under-chief?
“Harken!” said the King. “Thy prayer is granted, and my anger, together with thy one misdeed, shall be forgotten, even as we cleanse our blades with moistened sand. To the glory of Asshur must Zariaspa fall, and Menon shall follow Ninus through its broken shell.”
In the eyes of the Prince rose tears of gratitude, as he sought to kiss his master’s robe; but the master in haste withdrew it, for a woman peeped through memory’s veil, and her smile was a smile of mockery.
“Nay, not so fast,” King Ninus growled. “The trader’s pack is lightened ere his purse may swallow up the gain. To enjoy the fruits of a monarch’s love, first, then, must the cause of sorrow be dispelled.”
“What meanest thou, my lord?” asked Menon, rising from his knees; and the King smiled grimly, combing at his beard.
“Put by Shammuramat—dream of her no more—and take the daughter of Ramân-Nirari to thy bed and board.”
At the words of the King a flame of anger lit the young Assyrian’s eyes; yet he curbed his tongue and stood, in silence, beneath the tyrant’s gaze. Long thus he stood, but made reply at last:
“My lord, did Shammuramat bid me tear the memory of Ninus from my heart, I would answer as I answer now—it may not be. Thy servant is one whom Sozana loveth not, and to me she is naught save a friend and the daughter of my King. Shammuramat is mine—by the will of Ishtar and the word of my master given in the halls of Nineveh. With her, her only, will I share my bed and board, till it pleaseth the gods to rend our vows apart.”
“So be it,” Ninus answered, and pointed across the valleys to the sun-lit plains beyond. “Mark yon road which runneth from the foot-hills to the city’s southern gate! Beyond it on the east lieth half my army. Go forth and take command. The west is mine. Since Menon setteth his will against the King’s, so shall he set his strength against my strength, and in the fall of Zariaspa prove the better man.”
For a space Prince Menon made no answer, but scanned the distant road which cut the besieging host in twain as a knife divides a loaf. To the east lay sun-baked plains where water was scarce and stones were few, while on the west lay fertile valleys where the fattening oxen browsed, and hillsides abounding in stones wherewith to feed the catapults. Again, on the west were set the heaviest engines of assault, while to Menon’s lot fell the lighter towers and weaker catapults of clumsy and old design.
It was easy to perceive why Ninus chose the west, for every resource lay ready at his hand. His outposts commanded all mountain roads, and the camp of supply was set within his lines, whence food and water must be borne to the eastern army over parching Bands. In event of a counter-siege, attack must come from the border lands along the river Oxus, thus causing the east to bear the brunt of each assault—and the Scythian riders were wont to strike in hours of sleep.
Menon was quick to mark the wisdom of the monarch’s choice, yet he hid his rage and spoke with a mocking smile:
“My lord, the master’s generosity is here made manifest, for on the eastern camp the sun is first to rise, thus giving me a longer day wherein to wrestle with mine enemies. I yield my gratitude, O Lord of Earth and Heaven, and may Ishtar smile on him who first shall stand upon the citadel.”
Then Menon made obeisance, mounted his good steed Scimitar and rode toward the east, while the King gazed after him, combing at his beard.
When Menon reached his camp, he entered his tent and straightway summoned Huzim to his side. To the Indian he recounted all which had come to pass, and laid a trust upon him which to another might not be given.
“Huzim,” he began, “of all who have served me, there is none the like of you in faith and love; yet now must I add to my weight of debt in a task of peril and of toil. Go you in secret unto Nineveh and there gain speech with my wife Shammuramat. Tell her of all these things which I breathe into your ear alone, then contrive her escape and together journey to the land of Prince Boabdul who will give you both retreat. When this be compassed, send me a trusted messenger, when I, myself, will follow after you.”
Menon ceased to speak, and for a space the Indian looked thoughtfully upon the earth.
“My lord,” he answered, “this thing will I do, as in all things else I serve my master, even with my life; yet would it not be better far that I lay in wait for Ninus when he hunteth among the hills? An arrow in his throat—”
“Nay,” smiled Menon; “we may not harbor murder against Assyria’s King, even though we live because of it. Go you to the furthest outposts of our camp, and when night is fallen creep away among the hills. Cross them, avoiding all roads and passes held by our men-at-arms, then make such speed to Nineveh as wisdom and your craft have taught. If it please the gods that Shammuramat shall reach Arabia, there guard her, Huzim, till I come to prove my gratitude.”
To the Indian Menon gave a pouch of precious metal for his needs on the road to Nineveh and for his flight therefrom; then Huzim embraced his master’s knees and disappeared toward the south.
In the three long years of peace which had come to Bactria since Assyria’s first attack, the people had not lain down in idleness, but labored diligently against the second coming of the King. If Ninus marched against their smaller towns, he found their walls unmanned, their streets deserted save for forgotten dogs, the houses empty of inhabitants or stores. Beyond the river Oxus an army of mounted Bactrians lay encamped, but far too fleet and numerous to be followed ere their chief of cities be destroyed; so Ninus pursued them not.
The years of peace had likewise wrought a change in Zariaspa, for its walls were heightened and capped by jutting battlements, whereon the besieged could laugh at ladders which their foes set up; and its many gates were sealed with masonry. Save at a single point on the north-west side, where the plain sloped downward into a deep and dry ravine, the Bactrians had digged a mighty ditch about their walls, though whence came the water which ever filled this trench, was a mystery as dark as the city’s source of food. None might drink this water, lest they sicken and die, with swollen bodies and discolored flesh; for in truth the trench was poisoned by reason of offal flung therein.
By day the Bactrians thronged their battlements, gibing at their foes, while at night the walls were lighted by flaring braziers clamped beneath the jut-stones and fed with pitch through slits which pierced the masonry. Thus the parapets were shrouded in uncertain gloom, while beneath, the walls were bathed in light; and woe unto him who sought to swim the trench and clamber up.
On every side the Assyrians began to fill this trench, and labored to that end by hurling stones and the waste of camp materials by means of their catapults. Likewise, by night, a myriad of slaves took up the tasks, and of a sudden a horde of naked men would rush from out the darkness, each bearing on his head a sack of sand, each flinging his burden into the trench and beating swift retreat; though many were slain, and weary days went by ere the grievous work was done.
On the city’s western side King Ninus straightway urged a fierce assault, and from dawn till dusk the battlements resounded with the crash of mighty stones. Great creaking towers of metal-plated wood were pushed against the wall, while from their swaying tops the Assyrians flung out bridges, battling with the Bactrians hand to hand. Anon they would win a foothold among their enemies who repelled them with swords and spears, or destroyed their towers by means of engines of strange and devilish design. These engines, set on wheels and dragged to given points along the parapet, were fashioned in the form of a mighty bow whose missiles were trunks of trees with sharpened points. These shafts were soaked in oil and smeared with pitch or resinous gum, and before discharge they were set on fire, then crashed into the clumsy towers, to stick and wrap the whole in flames, while the choked Assyrians leaped down to death or roasted in the wreck. So, thus, for the space of a moon King Ninus toiled, compassing naught save the bitterness of defeat, grave loss of his men-at-arms, and destruction to his engines of assault.
On Zariaspa’s eastern walls Assyria made no attack. Menon foresaw that the city must be won by strategy rather than by might; therefore he put his camps in order, looking to the health and comfort of his men ere he sacrificed their lives in a fruitless siege.
To lessen the toil of bearing water from the distant hills, he commanded that wells be dug in every camp; and having sunk these wells—many to the depth of thirty cubits—his wisdom was rewarded by the bounty of Mother Earth. Now toward the north the digging was in vain, while southward the shallower wells gave forth a cool, sweet flow of water; and the reason thereof was a sore perplexity, albeit, in after-days the solving of the riddle was, to Semiramis, a simple task.
Next, Menon caused his chariots to be set in double lines and tilted upon their tails. From their upright harness-poles he stretched wide canopies of cloth and matted grass; thus, in the noon-day heat, which ever increased in fierceness as the summer grew, his men might rest beneath a grateful shade. This joyed the Assyrians mightily, and where chariots there were none, they planted their spears and devised a roof of vines and the boughs of trees. ’Twas a little thing, this thought for the common soldiery, yet it bought an army utterly, and the Prince was looked upon with pride.
Then to Menon came the thought that if he alone could see beyond the city walls, a marked advantage might be scored against the King; and for many days he rolled the problem in his brain, till suddenly he laughed aloud and summoned a messenger to his side. This messenger, presently, rode southward, skirting the city wall, till he crossed the dividing road and came to the western camp, where he found King Ninus in a fretful mood.
“O King,” spoke the messenger, falling upon his knees, “my master sendeth greeting to the lord of Earth and Heaven, and speaketh through the mouth of his humble slave. Because of the height of Zariaspa’s walls, the lord of Assyria knoweth naught of what the Bactrians do within; therefore my master urgeth that a mighty mound of earth be raised to the reach of forty cubits above the plains.”
“How now!” cried Ninus, angrily. “Wherefore should I do this foolish thing?”
“Nay, lord,” the messenger made reply, “I do but recount my master’s words. From the summit of this mound the King might dispose his armies with a wider view; and, likewise, mark the weakest points within the foemen’s walls. This, my lord, is all, save thy royal answer which my master chargeth me to bear.”
Now had Ninus himself devised the plan, it might have seemed good to him; yet, coming from Menon in the form of fatherly advice and spoken in the presence of a score of chiefs, it roused the monarch’s ire. His brow grew black with rage; he rose and spurned the messenger with his foot.
“Go back,” he thundered, “and say that Ninus fighteth upon the earth, and not in the manner of kites above the clouds. Urge, also, that the meddler hold his tongue, lest Asshur tempt me and I cut it out. Begone!”
So the messenger returned to Menon, who smiled at the anger of his King and straightway began to raise a mound upon the east, while Ninus, from the west, still battered at the walls with ponderous stones.
For many days and nights the eastern camp was given o’er to sweating toil, as cubit by cubit rose the monster mound which even unto this day may be seen on the plains of Bactria. And while this labor grew apace, another and more irksome task was laid upon the soldiery, for stones must be gathered from the distant hills wherewith to serve the catapults, and loud rose the mutterings of those who journeyed back and forth beneath the sun.
“My lord,” spoke Kedah, one day dismounting at Menon’s side, “our chiefs are murmuring amongst themselves and the men wax petulant.”
“Wherefore?” asked Menon, laying a gentle hand on the shoulder of his friend.
“Because,” answered Kedah, “they yearn to fly at Zariaspa’s throat, yet weapons rust, and my lord employeth men in the tasks of slaves. It is not meet that warriors strain their thews in dragging stones across the sands, nor in digging earth wherewith to build a mountain on a plain.”
“Patience, good Kedah,” Menon urged, “for the mountain is well-nigh done; and as for the gathering of stones, I bethink me of another plan.”
He leaned and whispered into Kedah’s ear, and as he spoke the soldier grinned, then laughed aloud and smote himself upon the thigh. So Kedah, chuckling, rode away; and, as Menon had whispered into his ear, in turn he whispered into the ear of the chief of every camp, who grinned and rubbed his palms.
That night the Bactrians heard a mighty hammering outside their walls, and when morning dawned they marvelled at a line of scaffolding of strange design which had risen in the darkness. On upright spears were bits of rag, fluttering like banners in the breeze, while at intervals were set huge effigies of Oxyartes and the chiefs of Zariaspa, in attitudes which caused a wound to their stately pride.
The Assyrians came forth with shoutings and mysterious signs. They danced in circles, while pointing scoffing fingers at their enemies upon the walls, and bowed in obeisance before their ugly effigies.
Now the Bactrians knew not what manner of strategy lay concealed behind this scaffolding, so they set their catapults and battered it down with a storm of stones; thereat the Assyrians sent up wailings, shrieks of rage—and the noise of their mouths was great. With bitter curses they shook their fists, attacking their foes with arrows and with slings: yet after a space they retreated sullenly beyond the danger line. When night was come the Bactrians again heard hammerings, and morning found the scaffolds once more set in place, though a pace or two more distant from the walls. This time the Zariaspians laughed, and reduced the work to splinters with stones from their hurling-beams, while Assyria’s children cursed them till the deed was done.
For seven nights the scaffolds were rebuilt, each night a pace or two more distant from the catapults, yet the enemy each day would find the range and fling them to the earth. On the seventh day the effigies of Oxyartes and his chiefs were hung by their necks with ropes, and were placed at the furthest scope of the Bactrian machines. On the scaffolds were crowded a swarm of soldiery who bellowed songs of praise, or flung vile insults at their foes, goading them to fury by names of a foulness hitherto unknown. In vain the Bactrians strove to smite their mockers, striving till the mid-day hour, yet their missiles fell short, and Menon perched upon the summit of his mound, jeering at Oxyartes.
Now the spies of Ninus brought him word of the strangeness of Menon’s deeds, and, divining not the reason of these things, the King waxed warm with curiosity. In his chariot he drove to the eastern camp, a slave behind him who held a feathered screen above his head, for the heat of the day was such that many died.
From afar the monarch spied the mound on which sat Menon, and it came to Ninus that his general lolled at rest where grateful breezes blew, while he, the lord of all Assyria, must sweat on a baking plain—and it vexed him mightily. Likewise he perceived a half a league of scaffolding, whereon clung a multitude of idle men. Wherefore should Menon waste the hours of day when Zariaspa lay unconquered before his eyes? Must Ninus toil to feed this lazy horde who swapped the work of war for childish sports? By the glory of Asshur, this shameful thing should cease!
“Come down!” he cried to Menon, as he leaped from his brazen chariot; and Menon came down and bowed before the King.
“What foolery is this which has come to pass?” the king demanded, pointing to the hideous effigies, and he spoke with scorn: “Must Assyria set up new and hateful gods, to worship them before the eyes of Bactria?”
“Nay, lord,” answered Menon, humbly, “we worship none save Assyria’s gods and Assyria’s King.”
A murmur rose from the circling chiefs, and the wrath of Ninus cooled beneath the salve of flattery; yet still he scowled, and the tone of his speech was harsh:
“If it be not worship, why then should ye toil for seven nights, and watch each day while yonder Bactrians beat your temples to the ground?”
“My lord,” replied Prince Menon, “our eastern camp is far removed from the rock-strewn hills; and to lighten the labor of dragging stones across the sands, we borrow from our good friend Oxyartes.”
“Borrow!” cried the King. “What meanest thou?”
For answer Menon pointed to the ground outside the walls, now sown with missiles which the Bactriana had cast from catapults.
“See, my lord, what the generous foemen give in payment for our gibes. To gather such a store of stones would fill the space of two weary moons; yet Oxyartes flingeth them out to me in seven days. Therefore we hold them as a passing loan, till, presently, we shall hurl them back again.”
For a moment King Ninus spoke no word, yet his frown departed and his features lit with a ghostly smile; then he mounted his chariot and drove toward the west.
A shout went up from Menon’s merry warriors, and when night was come they gathered great piles of borrowed stones, with the which, in time, they would storm the walls of Zariaspa.