WHO RULETH, FIRST MUST RISE
Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
A sumptuous feast was held, whereat the greater and lesser chiefs of every camp assembled, each in his appointed place; moreover, throughout the army of Assyria no soldier went unfed, or thirsted for a gulp of wine.
At the head of the royal board sat Ninus, in his robes of state, with Menon on his left, Semiramis on his right, while below them ran a double row of grim-faced warriors from many lands, the bearded nobles of Assyria’s court, the swart barbarian clad in skins; yet pieces all in the bloody game of war. With thumpings of hairy fists they bawled for wine—red wine from the hills of Syria—and in the riot of a drunken toast they thundered forth the name—Shammuramat!
King Ninus smiled into Menon’s eyes, dropping his hand upon the shoulder of the youth, while Menon smiled in turn, lifted the monarch’s hand and pressed it to his lips. And thus amid wild music of the sheep-skin drum and the zither’s tinkling whine, beneath the flickering glare of torches filling the air with resinous reek, a truce was made; a treaty betwixt Prince Menon and the King, wherein all enmity should cease, and the youth once more might claim a foster-father’s love. In peace might he dwell with his wife Semiramis, and, fearing naught, lead forth his men-at-arms to storm the walls of Zariaspa.
Deep into the night a din of revelry was heard, till the vault of the skies turned gray and the burning stars winked out, even as the brawlers one by one dispersed, to rest till a span of sleep brought back their fires again. Then Menon and Semiramis gave thanks unto the King for his bounty and his love, made low obeisance, kissed his robe, and hand in hand went forth into the night.
Outside the tent, amid a glare of torches, a chariot stood, its steeds grown restless at the weary wait, and thither Menon led his wife, now his for all time by the oath of Assyria’s King; yet ere they could mount and loose the reins, a white-clad figure stole from the shadow of a lesser tent, stood full in the chariot’s path and raised his arms. Menon peered beneath the hood, then bent his knee to the High Priest Nakir-Kish.
“What wouldst thou?” he asked, and the High Priest answered, solemnly:
“Of Menon—naught!” Then he laid a finger upon his lip and beckoned to Semiramis.
Marvelling, she followed him to a point beyond the hearing of her lord, and by the light of a dying moon she marked his features, grim and cold, his thin lips twitching beneath a manelike beard. A man of commanding beauty was Nakir-Kish, strong in the vigor of his two score years, and stronger still in the pride of his mystic power; and now with folded arms he looked upon Semiramis, keenly, without a show of haste, then, presently, he spoke:
“Princess, thy crafts become thee not, nor is it meet that a woman meddleth in affairs of men. Go, then, to the tent of thy lord whom Ninus spareth, and rear him children, leaving the arts of magic and of war to priests and warriors.”
“Wherefore?” she asked, and looked into his eyes.
“Because,” he made reply, “where the fires of heaven fall, the earth is seared, and the daughters of mortals sleep to wake no more.”
She smiled, then answered, proudly, and as one who knows not fear:
“My mother was Derketo; my father a warrior-god from the Eastern Seas. The fires of heaven may warm me, but will never blight.”
Full well she knew the cause of his discontent, for the worm of jealousy may eat into the hearts of priests, even as it feeds upon the vanity of lesser men. In bending Ninus to her will, she had filched the boasted powers of Nakir-Kish, and even though she gave him credit for his magic arts, still she contrived to stand upon a step above his own. Where an army of spies had failed to win the secret of Zariaspa’s food, where even the Magi with their spells and slaughtered birds discovered naught, a woman had sought among the hills and found; thus, coming as the savior of Assyria’s hosts, her, shadow fell athwart the temple’s door, and the pride of the priest was shamed. What if this shadow grew? What if this woman thirsted for a higher power and yearned to sway a nation, even as she swayed the minds of a score of fools? Might she not, in the end, push Ninus from his godly pedestal, and in his fall bring bruises to the flesh of Nakir-Kish? Born of devils or of men, what the Syrian craved, that thing must be her own; so the heart of the priest was troubled lest these happenings come to pass.
“Think,” he whispered; “once, once only, will Assyria’s King forgive, and at a word from me the pardon of thy lord may slip his memory, in that Menon passeth from our sight to comfort thee no more.”
Now threats against herself Semiramis could bear, and smile at them as at an idle puff of wind, yet at a hint of evil unto her lord, the tigress within her woke and showed its claws.
“Priest,” she answered, in that purring tone which in after years her courtiers learned to dread, “I bethink me of a little fox I reared in Syria. A weakling he was that grew in strength and appetite because of my bounty and my care. From my hand he received his food, from my heart a love which shielded him from every harm; yet when he stole my father’s fowls and hid among the rocky hills, nine days I hunted him with this my hunting spear, and nailed his skin against the wall.”
Semiramis thrust her weapon upright in the earth and beside it held forth her hand.
“Choose, Nakir-Kish—I care not which—but choose!”
The High Priest pondered, looking into her winkless eyes. Fowls must he have, and wisdom warred with pride. His pride called out aloud for open enmity, for the measuring of his power against her wits, yet wisdom whispered that it were better far to receive his food in peace rather than buy it with the price of a priestly skin; therefore he loosed her spear from out the earth, gave back her own, and took the proffered hand.
“Thou hast stood my test,” he murmured, with a lying smile; and Semiramis watched him till he disappeared beyond the shadows of his tent ere she mounted the chariot beside her waiting lord.
“What seeketh the High Priest?” Menon asked, and the Syrian laughed softly as she answered him:
“He fain would be our friend, for the great man, in his wisdom, hath divined that thou and I may one day rise in power.”
Across the plain they drove, eastward, till they reached a clump of sheltering trees, and here Prince Menon drew his rein. As to wherefore, she questioned not, for as the moon slipped out from behind a cloud, the warrior took her in his arms, the first embrace since Nineveh was left behind, and her lips met his in a kiss of passion and of tenderness.
Yet others beside the moon looked on, with frowns as dark as the gathering clouds; for from the shadows watched Nakir-Kish, sullen in the helpless fury of defeat, while the lord of Assyria saw, also, and clenched his mighty fists.
The moon went down behind the spine of Hindu-Kush, and the High Priest slept at last; but Ninus sat brooding till the dawn had come, and the thoughts of the King were evil.
And now fresh plans were set afoot for the conquering of Zariaspa; King Ninus still laid siege to the western wall, while Menon set upon the east, though between the two no outward enmity was seen. By night they wrought their stratagems within the royal tent, and by daylight scanned the city from the crest of Menon’s mound, till those who watched them said within themselves:
“Now, verily, are they like unto a father and a son, wherefore Assyria will profit and be glad.”
Then it came to the mind of Nakir-Kish that Semiramis, because of her splendid deeds, would claim some office of leadership, thereby fermenting jealousies amongst the warrior chiefs; but in this were his prophecies confounded. The Syrian asked for naught. So the High Priest wrought in secret with the King, urging that he set her in command of the Babylonians, whose chief, Prince Asharal, had been stripped of office through the wrath of Ninus. By this design a mighty part of Assyria’s host would hate the girl and seek her downfall, even though her blood was spilled; yet when Ninus offered to set her in the place of Asharal, she laughed and shook her head.
“What!” she demanded, “shall I, a woman, wear the sword of so great a man? Nay, lord, if thou wouldst please me best, forget thy wrath and restore this fallen idol unto Babylon.”
“Not so,” cried Ninus; “in my teeth hath he defied me, and though I spared his life, no more shall he lead his warriors to war. Of a verity, the race of Asharal is run.”
“True,” spoke Semiramis; “right well doth he merit death, yet what of the Babylonians who followed in his lead? With another chief they are but as sullen swine, undiligent, earning not their salt; yet under command of Asharal, who, in the strangeness of their hearts they love, no longer are they swine, but fighting men. Justice, therefore, cheateth Ninus, when craft will give him an hundred thousand allies to his strength.”
King Ninus, marveling at her wisdom, laughed aloud, and set Prince Asharal in office once again, though when it was whispered that Semiramis and not the King had compassed it, Ninus gained little love from Babylonia, while the Syrian won a kingdom for a friend—a kingdom which would one day set her up on high, and hail her Queen, from sun-parched Egypt to the frozen waters of the North.
Thus Semiramis foiled the high priest Nakir-Kish, refusing all honors, taking no part in battle save such assistance as might be rendered to her lord in strategy; yet at length she chose her own reward and was set in command of the subterranean river-bed, together with all supplies therefrom, and in this her choice was good. She pitched her tent among the foot-hills beside the opening of her trench, then summoned the faithful Syrian Kedah, placing him as chief of a thousand men-at-arms. With this her body-guard, and Huzim who slept across the opening of her tent, she could rest in peace, knowing that none would molest her person or pry into the secrets of her charge.
Three days went by, and many a laden barge came down to fatten Ninus and his men, yet on the fourth day a great commotion was observed upon the city walls; a throng of priests came forth with Oxyartes at their head, and gazed toward the distant mountain range, then an under-priest made ready a pyre of wood, drenched it with pitch and applied a torch, so that soon a column of dense black smoke ascended in the breezeless air. Then another pyre was lit, likewise a third, though his last was smothered by a mighty cloth in the hands of many priests. The cloth they removed anon, then thrust it back again, and lo! the smoke went up, not in columns the like of the other fires, but in short black puffs with intervals between.
To those who watched, these pitch-fires seemed but some religious rite of their strange, barbaric foes, but one among them was of different mind.
“By Bêlit,” cried Semiramis, springing to her feet, “the Bactrians signal to their friends among the hills! Go, Kedah, take a force of slingers to gall those busy priests upon the wall. Up, Huzim! Light a score of fires, in that the signs of Oxyartes may be confounded. Go!”
She watched, and soon a myriad of fires sprang up, to send a spark-shot curtain rolling above the battlements; the while a band of Hittites camped hard by, thinking an attack was planned, ran out and stormed the walls. A wild, unwonted hubbub rose, whereat the King grew wroth and sent a force of men with whips to flog the Hittites back into their camp again. Then the Bactrians, looking down upon these things, were mystified and whispered among themselves in wondering awe:
“To the high gods, praise! King Ninus hath lost his reason, for of a certainty the man is mad!”
That day the trench which led to the camp of Ninus was closed by a mighty gate of wood, and the subterranean river flowed once more to Zariaspa, and the Bactrians ate of the food which travelled underneath their towering hills.
“How now!” the King demanded of Semiramis when report was made to him by Nakir-Kish. “Wherefore should we feed our foes? Lift straightway this foolish gate and let us feast again.”
“Nay, lord,” the Syrian made reply, “this thing I may not do;” and the King stepped backward, rent by wonder at her words.
To Ninus, one who disobeyed was as one whose life is forfeited forthwith, for the pride of the man was great, and commands, once given, were carried through, even though the cost thereof was greater than the vantage gained; yet in the calm defiance of this red-haired imp there lurked a spirit as fearless as his own—a something which bewitched the soul of him, causing him to swallow down his wrath and ask with a meekness new to his fiery tongue:
“Where the King desireth the welfare of Assyria’s host, wherefore wouldst thou thwart so just an aim?”
Thoughtfully she scraped the earth with one sandaled foot, smiled, and made reply:
“Of a surety my lord would be a half-fed serpent rather than an empty-bellied hawk.”
“What meanest thou?” he asked, and again the Syrian smiled.
“’Tis better far that the belts of Assyria hang loose for a little space than to shout to Oxyartes concerning our knowledge of his river bed. Should he signal again to his friends across the Hindu-Kush, then straightway will they cease to load their boats, and albeit Zariaspa thereby starveth, naught is gained, for Ninus suffereth the hunger of a fool. So, then, to Oxyartes shall go one-half, till he, in wonder at the small supply, will signal to his friends for more; and thus may we satisfy the needs of all.”
For a space the monarch made no answer, but looked in thought across the yellow plain, then at length he spoke, as one who communes with himself alone:
“By the splendor of Shamashi-Ramân, the time hath come when Ninus must cease to meddle in affairs of craft.”
He spoke no more, but mounted his chariot and drove to his distant camp, slowly, with his head bowed low, though ever and anon he laughed, as one who gloats with pride at his own contrivances.
When the King was gone, Semiramis sat pondering, with puckered brow, with eyes which saw not, yet seemed to pierce the city walls; then she caused the river-gate to be raised once more, and, whispering a command to Kedah, called Huzim to her side and disappeared with him till the strength of the sun was spent and night had settled down upon the hills.
Prince Menon, coming from his eastern camp to seek Semiramis, could find no trace of her. In vain he sought, but none could give him news, while even Kedha lied stoutly concerning her affairs, though it pained his vitals to falsify unto one he loved. In despair the Prince was thinking of departure, when Semiramis herself appeared with a suddenness which caused her spouse to stare. From beneath a mat in a corner of her tent the head of Huzim rose; after it came his body which stooped and raised Semiramis as from a pit. Wet were her garments, soaked with mud and slime, till it seems as if she must have wallowed in a mire, while even her hair hung dank and dripping about her neck.
“In the name of the gods—!” cried Menon, but she checked him with a grimy hand thrust swiftly across his mouth. She looked to note that none were lingering outside her tent, then, laughing softly, whispered into Menon’s ear:
“Fear not, my lord; no accident hath befallen me; yet the soul of the King desireth a bird called Zariaspa, and I—in the hope of pleasing him—have sprinkled a pinch of salt upon its tail.”