Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Semiramis in her chariot drove slowly round the wall of Zariaspa, scanning it from every vantage point; impenetrable, grim, it towered above her in the dignity of strength—the majesty of strength—which scorned to even mock the puny power of muscle and of brain.
“Mistress,” asked Huzim who stood beside her in the chariot, “what booteth it to win this outer wall when the higher walls of the citadel must needs be scaled?”
“It booteth much,” she answered with a smile, “for this citadel was made a gift to me two moons agone.”
The Indian drew his reins and stared upon her in deep concern, thinking the sun, perchance, had touched her brain.
“What meanest thou?”
For a moment there came no answer, yet presently she raised her impish eyes:
“Huzim, my father Simmas once spake a mighty truth, saying that he whose tongue betrayed the children of his thought was both a murderer and a fool.”
The Indian flicked his steeds, and in silence drove along the city’s western side till Semiramis bade him draw his reins again; wherefore he knew not, for she paused to watch the common sight of a giant catapult hurling stones against the wall. This engine was fashioned in the form of a flinging-beam, the beam bent downward by ropes of human hair and sinews from the necks of bulls, while on its end was set a heavy stone. The beam, released, sprang upward, propelling its missile in a lumbering curve, yet wrought no harm, for the heavier stones fell short, while the lighter ones flew high, to crash into some house beyond the walls.
“See,” said Semiramis, sitting upon the rim of a chariot wheel and pointing to the fruitless work, “they ever miss their mark because of these stones of unequal weight and shape. See, Huzim, the Bactrians hold no fear of missiles which fly so slowly and do but encumber the earth beneath their walls. If, perchance—”
She paused of a sudden, one brown hand rubbing idly on the chariot wheel, her gaze fixed fast on a heap of broken stones; then she laughed aloud and danced upon the sand in the manner of some joy some child.
“What aileth thee, my mistress?” asked the Indian, and she laughed again in answer to his questioning:
“In truth, good Huzim, once more am I the mother of a thought—a sturdy brat—and thou shalt help me nurture him, for, lo! these laboring swine have made to me the gift of Zariaspa’s outer walls.”
Menon, Huzim and Semiramis sat far into the night, pondering over plans and stratagems, and when morning came the Indian and his mistress sought out a hidden valley among the hills. With them went seven score of workmen, a full-armed guard, and slaves who bore the beams and bodies of abandoned catapults; and straightway the voice of labor rose on the mountain side, while along the valley’s lip was set the guard, who with slings and shafts made answer to wandering curiosity.
In Menon’s camp a labor was likewise set afoot, and engines of siege were put to rights again, while the army, wondering at things they could not understand, were set to making sacks. These sacks they contrived of fibre, of discarded clothes, of the cloth of canopies, or of any fabric gleaned from far or near sobeit they held two hundred-weight of sand; and when a warrior made questionings as to the strangeness of this toil, his chief would bid him hold his tongue, for the reason thereof was known to Menon and Semiramis alone.
When tidings of these happenings were brought unto the King, he drove away the messenger with oaths, for his heart was sick of fruitless stratagems. Where Ninus failed, there also must Menon fail; so the King went hunting through the uplands, finding little game, but much to vex the soul of him because of unhappy ponderings. Glory he desired, and the mastery of all the world, yet greater than these was his haunting thirst for the mastery of one woman’s love and the glory of her passion lit for him alone.
In such a mood King Ninus one day came upon Semiramis returning from the valley in the hills, and marveled at the score of engines which she dragged across the sands. So frail they were, so slender as to build and the fashioning of hurling-beams, that the King desired to know if these toys were designed to fling the stones of cherries at their enemies.
“Aye,” said Semiramis, gravely and without a smile, “for the Bactrians like not cherries, nor the stones thereof. Come, good my lord, tomorrow, for tomorrow a red juice trickleth from their battlements.”
This answer puzzled Ninus, puzzled him throughout the night and filled his very dreams with a deep unrest; so on the morrow he drove into Menon’s eastern camp to mark what craft might lie beneath the Syrian’s words. Yet, if craft it was, its meaning was hidden from the monarch’s mind, for Menon was now employed in throwing sacks of sand against the city wall. No aim had they to harm the besieged upon the battlements, but smote the masonry with a harmless thud and piled upon the earth. Full two score engines, set in line and served by eager, sweating men, were thus engaged in a foolish sport; and as Ninus laughed in scorn, so laughed the Bactrians, gibing Menon and urging him to a greater diligence.
Now, strangely, Menon’s warriors made no answer to the enemy’s abuse, but wrought in silence, bearing endless bags of sand upon their backs, while beyond sat the engines of Semiramis, idle, aiding naught in this mockery of siege; yet beneath the walls a mound of sand-sacks grew apace; then, of a sudden, the jeering Bactrians understood. Their laughter was changed to curses, their merriment to shouts of rage, for they saw that Menon built a sloping road-way to their battlements and soon would launch a horde of warriors upon the walls.
And now a tumult rose—the cries of captains raging at their men, the shriek of battle-horns and the answering din of Bactrian soldiery rushing to defense. On the walls were set their heaviest catapults with the aim of wrecking Menon’s lighter engines of assault; but now the “thought-child” of Semiramis took a part, and even Ninus watched in awe.
This engine was not the like of other engines, for its hurling-beam bent backward in half a circle’s space, and on the beam was set a chariot wheel. When loosed, the beam sprang forward with a sidelong sweep and the missile was launched as a boy might fling a shell. At the first discharge—aimed high because of a lurking vanity in the Syrian’s soul—the wheel spun out, and, with a strange, melodious sound, went whining over Zariaspa. The eyes of Assyria’s host looked on in wonder and in pride of her, and the joy of Semiramis was like unto the joy of a crowing babe.
Soon other engines were set in place and a score of chariot wheels were loosed, with a mournful, pleasing hum—pleasing to those who sent it forth, yet of different tune to the hapless warriors who were dashed from off their walls. These wheels, by reason of their roundness and their equal weight, could be flung with a wondrous accuracy, and woe unto those who sought to serve the Bactrian catapults; while Menon, in peace, went forward with his toil of piling sacks of sand.
If the Bactrians raged because of this new-born stratagem, so Ninus also raged, but in another vein of wrath. None had communed with him concerning it, and Menon, in secret, sought to snatch a glory from his King; so Ninus cast about him for a cause of just displeasure at the man. With the road against the wall he could find no fault, for the sands of the desert were free to all; yet the casting away of his chariot wheels was wicked extravagance, a crime, and in no wise to be borne.
“How now, Shammuramat!” he cried, striding to her side, and trembling in his wrath. “Wherefore shouldst thou do this evil thing? and how shall my hosts ride home to Nineveh when the wheels of my chariots are cast among our enemies?”
“Nay, lord,” she answered, with her devil’s laugh, “to-day, when Zariaspa shall be thine, then mays’t thou gather up these cherry-stones and call them wheels again.”
So Ninus, cursing, turned upon his heel, mounted his waiting chariot and drove furiously toward the western camp, in his ears a roar from Zariaspa’s walls and an answering roar from those who toiled beneath; then Semiramis left her engines, and, with Huzim to drive her steeds, went clattering along the dust-trail of the King.
The camp once reached, the King deployed his armies in a swift attack upon the western wall, in the hope that Bactria’s force was bent on the distant point where Menon struck his blow; so creaking towers and mighty structures of wood and brass were pushed toward the battlements, and men swarmed up, to grapple with defending foes, to fall and die.
Semiramis, following in the wake of Ninus, caused Huzim to draw his reins at the camp of Asharal, the Babylonian Prince whom the monarch had deprived of office, yet restored again at the pleadings of the Syrian. To him she whispered, and at the whisper Prince Asharal smiled happily and straightway sought the King. The King he found in a fretful mood because of the slowness of his armies and their failure to win the walls, and it troubled him the more when Asharal in meekness bent his knee and spoke:
“My lord, in what appointed place shall thy servant serve, trusting thereby to aid my King in this his sore discomfiture?”
Now this question, to Ninus, was like salt in an open wound, and he fain would have smitten Asharal upon his humble mouth; yet many watched, and so the King stretched forth one trembling arm and pointed to the citadel.
“There standeth what we seek! Go seek it, fool, and trouble me no more with idle questionings!”
The Babylonian bowed his head, half in homage, half in his wish to hide a joyous smile, and so went out from the presence of the King; yet, presently, he came upon Semiramis, sprang upon her chariot-tail, and the steeds were lashed in a race toward the hills. They made no pause till they reached the gateway of the subterranean river course, where Asharal made choice of a thousand Babylonian men-at-arms, and, commanding them to follow, disappeared with Kedha, Huzim and Semiramis into the bowels of the earth.
This move was made in secret and with care, yet a rumor thereof was learned by the prying High Priest Nakir-Kish who forthwith hastened to the King; yet Ninus was in the stress of an ill-gone battle, frowning tugging at his beard, so the High Priest held his tongue till a more propitious moment for his evil news. He waited apart, but Ninus spied him presently and called him to his side.
“Priest,” said he, “a weighty question haunteth me, without a pause or peace, and the answer thereto is hidden from my mind; yet, mayhap, some aid may rise from out thine auguries.”
“Speak on,” begged Nakir-Kish, and the troubled monarch spoke:
“At Nineveh I swore an oath that he who first stood conqueror on the citadel of Zariaspa might claim a woman as his own, be the man a king or the spawn of a Hittite serf. In Bactria I gave this woman unto Menon, swearing again in an oath to part them not.” He paused and looked on Nakir-Kish with narrowed eyes. “May a monarch swear two oaths, the one against the other, keeping both? Not so. Which, then, shall I keep, and which may Ninus break without affront to the justice of our gods?”
The High Priest looked upon his master and read the evil in his heart. Full well he knew which oath the King would break; full well he knew the danger in unpleasing auguries; so he closed his eyes, and in a solemn voice made answer, craftily:
“To one who is born a god, the gods alone make known their highest will. Heed, then, O King, thy servant’s poor advice. Stand first thyself upon the citadel, and in thy justice give this woman unto him who best deserveth such a prize.”
He paused. The moment now was ripe to tell of Semiramis and Asharal, yet ere he could speak the tide of battle called the King who leaped into his chariot, leaving Nakir-Kish alone. In the sands of the desert the High Priest stood, watching his master’s receding form till it passed from sight, then he muttered in his beard:
“A man may be born a King; a man may be born a fool; yet if I were King I would stamp this Syrian devil in the dust, lest she ride one day on a kingdom’s back as a beggar may ride an ass.”
So the High Priest Nakir-Kish went out and opened the carcass of a sacred crane, finding therein no augury of happiness for master or for man.
On the eastern side of the city wall the sand heap grew apace, and now a band of Hittites rushed furiously up the slope to engage the defenders of the battlements. No foothold might they gain upon the wall, and were slain because of their ardor and their foolishness; yet their bodies added to the growing pile.
On the walls thronged hordes of reckless Bactrians, stemming the assault, and among them crashed the spinning chariot wheels, landing with an upward lurch and causing wide, bloody gaps, to be filled by other martyrs in a hopeless cause. The Bactrians liked not cherries, and, even as Semiramis had said, a red juice trickled from their battlements. Likewise, beneath the walls were many Assyrians slain by darts and slings, and, when sacks of sand grew scarce, their corpses were set in the catapults and hurled upon the heap, till the roadway well-nigh reached the summit of the wall.
The forces of Menon now gathered for a rush, but the Bactrians checked them by a brave device. From the wall’s lip they emptied great vats of oil which ran in the crevices between the sacks of sand, and when torches were flung thereon the roadway became a Gibil’s path which mortals might not climb and live. Huge tongues of yellow flame licked forth; dense clouds of smoke puffed out and went rolling towards the sky; yet if this sea of fire held hungering Assyria back, it likewise drove their foemen from the battlements, and so for a space defense and assault alike were quelled.
And now a watcher from the summit of Menon’s mound cried out a warning unto those below.
“The King! The King!” he cried. “Ho, brothers, look ye and beware! King Ninus hath won to the western wall!”
It was even as he said, for on the west but a weak defense was given, and Ninus and his warriors had mounted to the parapets, soon to descend into the city streets and cleave a pathway to the citadel. The Citadel! There Menon, too, had sworn to stand the first, for his heart was troubled by the master’s double oath; yet now the road was blocked by raging flame.
“Sand! Sand!” he cried, and the sacks were slit and set in the catapults. On striking they would burst, the loose sand being scattered far and wide; and thus, through diligence and the urging of his men by lashes and the promise of rich reward, the flames were in part subdued.
Then up this smoking pathway rushed the armies of Assyria, lusting for blood in the thirst of a long year’s wait, hungering for the plunder of this mighty jewel-chest, mad for the women waiting in the grip of fear. They burned their hands on the blistered masonry, scorched their feet as they trod the parapets; yet quickly they spread to distant points along the wall or leaped below on the spear points of the Bactrians.
The walls once gained, Assyria held the whip-hand, and an endless stream of fighting men came pouring into the streets. On the western side King Ninus had torn away the masonry which blocked the gate, and a wedge of chariots came thundering in, to ride the defenders down. Thus, east and west, Assyria pressed on Bactria, forcing the foemen inward toward their citadel, and through every street and alley battle rioted and knew no pause. For every pace King Oxyartes asked a price of blood which Ninus paid, and the sons of Zariaspa struggled to the death for their hearths and homes, while women from the house tops tore away the tiles and flung them down—flung curses also, and their very beds which they dragged upon the roofs and tumbled on the conquerors.
On every hand the awsome din of war arose, the screams of death and victory, the battle chants of charging men, and the roar of flame which wrapped the city round about. As clouds of rolling smoke went up, with the tongue of carnage sounding underneath, the household doves of Bactria took fright and began to wheel in dizzy circles overhead. A warrior saw therein an omen, and cried to his fellows that Semiramis was born of doves; therefore Asshur smiled upon her and on the arms of those who served.
Forthwith a mighty roar went up, and as Assyria pushed toward the citadel her warriors thundered forth the name—SHAMMURAMAT.