Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
“Ho, Huzim!” called Semiramis, as she gained a footing on the river mud and splashed through the shallows where the lilies grew; and Huzim, with a cry of greeting, stretched forth his hands to draw her up upon the bank.
“Art safe?” he asked. “No hurt hath come to thee? Of a truth I rejoiced at the voice of Habal, yet close upon it came a sound of tumult, and my strength forsook me utterly. See, mistress, I tremble still, for the night hath brought a terror to my heart.”
In his joy the faithful servant, who would have dared the anger of the gods themselves to shield Semiramis, sank down and clasped her knees, to weep as a child might weep.
“Nay,” laughed the woman, with a gentle hand upon his straight black locks, “’twas naught indeed save a plunge and a joyous swim, for the waters thronged about me with the kisses of old, remembered friends. Up, Huzim! Bear Habal in your arms, for his leg hath received a hurt, poor beast. And hasten! Yon apish eunuch whirling down the stream may arise an outcry, bringing a troop of horse upon our trail.”
The Indian arose, and raising Habal as his mistress bade him, strode forward through the darkness, while she, in the joy of freedom, walked happily at his side, wringing the water from her wet simar and whispering of all which had come to pass. For a league they journeyed westward till they came to a hillock crowned by trees, and here the Indian bade his mistress wait, while he, himself, went onward to secure their steeds which waited in a secret place in the wooded lands beyond.
“Keep watch,” he urged, then filled his lungs with a hopeful breath and vanished in the gloom.
Alone, the Syrian raised her eyes toward the sky and once more listened to the voices of the night. The river’s hymn was hushed; no sentry’s call rang out from distant Nineveh, and across the plains came only a foolish wind that murmured among the trees. Yet other voices rose in the heart of Semiramis, to cry aloud with every quickened beat. Menon! Menon! they shouted, till the echo mounted to the burning stars, to catch their flame and tumble back to the heart which sent it forth. Thus cried Derketo, that mother whose passion stirred in the daughter’s blood, till her eyes grew dim in yearning tenderness. As a song it sounded in her ears—a song of fire and love; yet with it rose a strain more harsh, the voice of her unknown sire—perchance a war-god from the Southern Seas. It rose in a stern command and was taken up on the tongues of marching multitudes, in the snarl of the battle-horn, and the rumble of charging chariots.
To the south lay far Arabia, whence peace might follow in the thread of love; yet Semiramis stretched her arms toward the east where Zariaspa sat, unconquered, on the plains.
From the darkness came Huzim on the back of a goodly steed, leading another by its bridle rein. To the saddle-skin of each was bound a food-sack, arms, and a woolen cloak to shield the body from the chill of night. Likewise, for Semiramis, he had brought a brave attire, for henceforth she must travel, not as a woman, but as a man; so, from a screen of the hillock’s trees, she discarded her wet simar and soon stepped forth in the guise of a youthful warrior. From her shoulders hung a linen tunic, belted and falling to the knee, while her limbs were encased in heavier cloth, bound round with thongs. Her arms were bare, and on her head sat a brazen helm, of a pattern worn by fighting chiefs on the Syrian coast, its stiff rim lined with a veil of many folds.
With a laugh Semiramis leaped astride her steed, causing her dog to be set before her on the saddle-skin, for their pace would be swift, and Habal might not follow with his broken foot.
“See, mistress,” whispered Huzim, coming to her side and stretching forth his arm toward the south; “there lieth our road which leadeth by devious ways to the desert home of Prince Boabdul, whence we journey at my lord’s command.”
“Aye,” the Syrian nodded, “’twas even so two moons agone, yet now the world hath somehow gone awry, till Arabia no longer lieth in the south. Come, hasten! that we catch this wandering land ere it shift again.”
With another laugh she wheeled her steed and raced toward the north, while for an instant Huzim gazed after her, his jaws agape in wonderment; then he cursed, and spurred upon her track. For a space she held the lead, till the Indian cut it down and at last stretched forth his hand which closed on her bridle-rein.
“How now,” he cried, when the steeds had come to a fretful stand, “what madness wouldst thou do? Come, turn southward, for to Arabia we journey, else Huzim must first be slain.”
For the first time since the battle with the Kurds she marked a frown of anger upon the servant’s brow, yet little she reckoned of the wrath of any man.
“Huzim,” she answered, and her teeth shone white in the light of a riding moon, “I know not what path is best for fools to take, nor if you would hide in idleness beneath the desert’s sands; but as for me, as Ishtar hears my oath, I go to Bactria.”
“But why?” he demanded, in a tone of keen despair. “Why tempt the gods when wisdom pointeth out the way?”
Once more Semiramis raised her arms toward the stars, and her fists were clenched.
“To join my lord and share the perils which are his; to wrest a loved one from the toils which hedge him round about, or drive my hunting spear through the body of Assyria’s King!”
In vain the Indian pleaded; in vain he besought her with prayers and tears to discard a plan so mad, but she paid no heed.
“What!” she demanded, “am I born of coward’s blood? Nay; what man may do, that also will I, a woman, compass; and, failing, the fault is mine alone. Think,” she argued, “if hiding seemeth good to you, then will we lie concealed among the crags which overtop the plains of Bactria, whence you, good Huzim, may creep by night into Menon’s camp and guide him safely to my side. Once joined with him, we journey where he wills, though it be to Gibil or to Ramân’s thunder-halls.”
Thus in the end the reluctant Indian gave in, and they rode toward the north, though for a space he lagged behind in troubled silence, his chin upon his breast. As he rode it came to him that his mistress had never held a thought of flying to Arabia, but had curbed her tongue lest wisdom move him to prevent escape from Nineveh. It was now too late to husband wine when the skin was rent, so Huzim shook the anger from him, and, with one last sigh of doubt, came up to the side of Semiramis.
For a league they held to the river bank, then forded at a shallow point and travelled eastward swiftly till the night was gone. And thus they fared for many days, boldly by night, and resting throughout the day in close retreats, for they knew not if Kishra had perchance survived to send out hunters on their trail. Poor Habal’s paw healed quickly, and soon he rode no more on the saddle-skin, albeit a moon went by ere he ran upon four sound legs again; yet, even with a bandaged limb, the dog served faithfully, and many a lurking danger came to naught by reason of his warning growls.
And now they came into Media, and the fear of pursuit was lost; so onward they pushed, avoiding the open roads. They passed through trackless forest-lands, through verdant valleys and up again to the crests of wooded hills, where at their feet the lands of foreign peoples stretched far and wide, their dwelling places marked by coils of smoke. Anon they skirted woodland villages, and, peering through a screen of leaves, saw naked children sporting in the sun, their naked mothers pounding grain with stones, while uncouth warriors drowsed at ease beneath the shade. Once, on a hillside, they came full face upon a hunter, bearing a forest pig upon his back, in his hand a spear. For a space the man stared stupidly, then dropped his burden, cast his spear at Huzim, and went shrieking down the slope. From stone to stone he leaped, as leaps a mountain goat, the while he cried out shrilly to his friends beneath; yet in his final plunge he bore no message save a shaft between his shoulder blades.
“Of a truth,” sighed Huzim, “’twas pity to slay the fool, yet wise, perchance, for his tribesmen know not if we be an army or a single man. Come, hasten, mistress, lest his friends be cursed with curious minds.”
They hastened on, and for a space no other mischief came to trouble them, though many evils stalked abroad by night and day; yet these were passed because of Huzim’s cunning woodcraft, and Habal’s wit in scenting peril from afar. Then, when the skin of Semiramis was tanned to a ruddy brown, and the steeds were lean and weary from their toil, the travellers neared the foothills of Hindu-Kush, to fall upon a grave mischance. They had come to a forest’s edge, where a sloping plain of a league in width stretched out before them, ascending to the mountain steeps beyond; and here the Indian counseled that they lie concealed till the shades of night should fall, but Semiramis would have none of it.
“Nay,” she urged; “I burn to reach the mountain top for a peep into the land of Bactria, and to know, perchance, if my lord still battleth there. Come, Huzim, lest I leave a faithful friend behind.”
The servant shook his head and galloped after her, yet his hope came back again when the middle of the plain was reached and naught was seen save a watchful kite that swung in the blue above. Then Habal wheeled on the backward trail, and barked. From the forest left behind came a score of riders who spread to right and left, then lashed their mounts and advanced in a ragged line.
“’Tis even as I feared,” growled Huzim beneath his breath. “Speed thee, mistress! We yet may win to the hills in time.”
But ere they had ridden twenty paces he was fain to draw his rein, for out from a fringe of woods ahead another band appeared, to spread as the first had spread, with an aim of closing in upon the fugitives. The Indian unslung his bow, casting about him for a spot wherein to halt and hold his foes at bay, but Semiramis smiled upon him and took command.
“Be not a child,” she whispered. “Your shafts are useless, for these our enemies outnumber us, and our steeds are spent. Obey me and speak no word.”
She drew her bridle, shielded her eyes from the sunlight’s glare, then waved her hand and dashed full speed toward the Bactrian troop.
“In the name of the gods—!” gasped Huzim, spurring after her; but she laughed and, once more waved her hand.
Now the horsemen, marveling at the strangeness of this move, drew rein upon the slope and waited till their quarry came to them. Outposts they were whom Oxyartes set beyond the mountains, to watch all roads, to cut off messengers, and to bring report of armies or of food-trains coming out from Nineveh.
“Ho, friends!” laughed Semiramis, pausing in their midst and speaking in the Bactrian tongue, a deal of which she had learned from Menon while in Syria. “For the moment I feared ye were a herd of Assyrian swine. Who leadeth here?”
A Bactrian youth dismounted and stepped before her, his fellows gathering in a close-packed ring.
“How art thou called?” she questioned, looking straight into his eye.
“Dagas,” he answered, with a bow and a smile of merriment.
The woman was fair to look upon and easy in her speech, yet spies were ever prone to claim a friendship with their foes in a hope of deceiving them; so the Bactrian smiled, and was not to be deceived.
“Ah!” sighed Semiramis, stretching her hand to him. “Then bear me wine, good Dagas—the best—for to-day I have journeyed far and am athirst. See, likewise, to our steeds and to my servant here, who—”
She paused, for now the chieftain laughed aloud because of her impudence, while those about him joined in a roar of mirth; yet mirth was turned to wonderment, when a gust of fury lit her eyes, and she struck at the head of Dagas with a haft of her hunting spear.
“Fool!” she stormed, “is the sister of Oxyartes to be mocked by a brainless dog?”
The shaft went home. The laughter died upon their lips; yet, ere their startled senses woke again, Semiramis swept on:
“What! Know ye not that Babylon is in revolt? That Tyre and Sidon fling aside the yoke? That Syria flies to arms and sends her armies forth to crush King Ninus as a grain of corn? Does Bactria sleep, as sleeps Assyria’s lord, when Nineveh hath tumbled to the earth—a blotch of mud upon the plains? Does Dagas know not that the hosts advance, with horsemen countless as the forest leaves, with slingers, axemen, hordes of Hittite charioteers, and a swarm of riders from the desert lands?” She flung back her head and laughed. “O worms of ignorance! O sons of fishes, knowing naught beyond their slimy pool! Go out and guard each road—each mountain pass—lest fugitives slip by and cry disaster to the King!”
She paused for lack of breath, and a buzz of confusion rose among the men-at-arms; then, at their chieftain’s questioning glance, Semiramis spoke again:
“Five days must pass ere the vanguard cometh, yet I and my servant hasten on to warn the King of Zariaspa; for when our warriors pour down the mountain sides, then must Oxyartes sally forth and take King Ninus in his rear.”
Dagas knit his brows in troubled thought, then raised his eyes and asked:
“What surety have I that thy words are the words of truth—that thy tidings be not a trick to befool mine ears?”
“None,” she answered, in majestic pride. “None save my word alone. If thou doubtest, then hold me prisoner.” Again she paused, to look upon the youth in scorn. “Yet I warn thee, Dagas, that should a mischief come of it, or I suffer by delay—by every god in heaven, thy flesh shall puff in one great blister from the lash!”
Once more the Bactrian pondered, torn ’twixt duty and a fear of some bold deceit, then he asked, as a final test:
“And how wilt thou reach the city when Ninus encompasseth it about in a deep, unbroken ring? How scale the walls and bear thy message in?”
It was now the Syrian’s turn to ponder, for on her wit hung fortune, good and evil, balanced to a hair. To blunder meant captivity, death perchance; to answer rightly was beyond her power; yet she faltered not, and staked her all upon a single cast. She smiled upon Dagas, leaned down, and whispered into his ear:
“Why scale a wall when a message may go to Zariaspa by the secret way?”
The Bactrian started, glanced swiftly toward the north, and back to her dancing eyes.
“What meanest thou?” he asked, and hung upon her words as one who waits on death.
Once more Semiramis smiled upon him, stooping till her breath played warm upon his cheek.
“Thou comely child,” she murmured into his blood-flushed ear, “where stores of food are sent for my brother’s needs, there, also, may a message find its way, though it float or fly.”
This she delivered boldly, on the hazard of a guess, and Dagas fell upon his knee and made obeisance, begging that she hold no evil memory against him, in that he had harbored doubt.
“Nay,” she answered him, “of all which hath come to pass I will make report to Oxyartes;” then, as the Bactrian’s cheeks went white, she added, meaningly: “The King would know when his chiefs mix caution with their zeal, else how shall he make a just reward?”
Dagas rose up in a flush of pride, and of vanity which ever follows certain men of war.
“Command me,” he cried, “and thy lightest wish shall be mine own desire.”
Semiramis paused, to look upon the earth in thought; then from her finger she drew a jewel, placing it within his hand.
“Dagas,” she enjoined, “when the conquering host hath come from out the west, seek thou the King of Tyre, saying that she of the flame-hued locks hath come in safety unto Hindu-Kush. In proof of thy words, display this bauble before his eyes—then keep it for thine own.” With a radiant smile she checked his thanks and spoke again: “Ride southward with all thy men-at-arms to guard the roads, lest Assyrian runners pass. Nay, I need no guide to the Secret Place, for the way is known to me. Now set us wine and meat, and then—farewell!”
The young chief hastened to do her bidding eagerly, in hope of the rich reward from Oxyartes, though to his racing heart it seemed that in life he could ask no higher gift than to bask in this woman’s smile. So he set them a feast, which being done, his guests arose. Henceforth they must go on foot, for the mountain paths were such that horses might not climb, so the steeds were left with Dagas and his followers. At parting the Bactrian lingered, gazing with awe into the Syrian’s eyes.
“Princess,” he faltered, “in days to come I pray thee to hold my memory, for the sword of an humble man is thine, be it drawn against enemy or friend.”
Thus Dagas spoke, yet little did he dream that in after years this love of his would part a nation and its king.
Semiramis yearned to question him concerning many things, but her tongue gave thanks alone, as her hand dropped into his and pressed it. So she fared to the north, with Huzim and Habal following her lead, while Dagas stood watching till they passed from sight; then he turned and sighed.
For a space the travellers journeyed swiftly, the woman smiling to herself, while Huzim pondered and spoke no word; yet, presently, he laid his hand upon her arm.
“Mistress,” said he, “our path is upward among the crags, and as we journey now, we risk the peril of unknown ways and wander from our course.”
“Nay,” Semiramis denied, “our quest is in the north, for there a weighty secret lieth. Listen; to Zariaspa cometh a strange supply of food, vexing Ninus, in that he may not cut it off and starve his enemies; therefore in the north I seek its source, though I hunt the hills for the space of a double moon.”
The Indian frowned and slowly shook his head. One hour agone she had burned to reach the mountain top, and now would hunt behind it for the space of a double moon. Of a surety the ways of women were a trouble unto Huzim’s mind.
“And how,” he asked, “may we know that this secret place be hidden in the north?”
Again the Syrian laughed, and the laughter pleased her to the finger tips.
“Good Dagas betrayed it by a fleeting glance, and knew not that he gave his master into my hand. What manner of place it is, or where it lieth, the spirits of the mountains only know; yet, mayhap, these spirits may be taught to wag their tongues.”
Once more the patient Huzim shook his head, following on in silent thought, and for a space they bent their steps on a gently ascending path, till they came to a rocky spur which overlooked the plains.
“See!” cried Semiramis, pointing with her spear, while her merriment was loosed, to echo back from stone to stone. “Yon troop of Bactrians rideth toward the south, to cry alarm, to guard all roads, and to wait a phantom host which cometh to Zariaspa’s aid.”
Huzim gazed out and saw that her words were true, though he joined not in her merriment.
“Nay, mistress,” he murmured, “this Dagas is but a fool; yet deeply was I troubled for thy fate, till streams of sweat poured out upon my skin. Thou didst say that Syria had risen in revolt—that Hittite chariots advanced—that Nineveh was but a blotch of mud upon the plain. ’Twas witful craft, I grant, though hazardous, for truth was twisted inside out, even as women wring their garments at a washing time.”
“Aye,” sighed Semiramis, dreamily, as she rested on her hunting spear and watched the riders vanish in a cloud of dust, “aye, good Huzim, in song and legend this truth of which thou speakest is a wondrous thing, yet oft must the god of wisdom robe himself in the splendor of a lie.”