Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907
Along the subterranean river course, cautiously and without a light, groped Kedha, Semiramis and Asharal, while at their heels walked Huzim bearing on his shoulder a mighty hammer with a ponderous head of brass; and following after came a thousand Babylonian warriors picked for their courage and their skill in deeds of arms.
One other came also, albeit none had bidden him, and now he came snuffling to the Syrian’s side, knowing full well that the time was past when his mistress might send him back; so Semiramis cursed Habal softly and suffered him to go.
“Asharal,” she whispered presently, “in this my enterprise a chance is given thee to win renown among the peoples of thy land, yet in return therefor I ask a price.” She laid a hand upon his shoulder and spoke into his ear: “If the halls of the citadel be cleared, no man save Menon first must stand with me upon the roof, else a woe may come of it. Pledge me, therefore, in the word of a Prince of Babylon.”
“Princess,” he answered, “the kingdom which I serve is thine, even as its chief is thine, and he who passeth Asharal upon the stair must pass him dead.”
Now Kedah, who heard, said naught, but his hand sought the hand of Semiramis whom he loved; he raised it and in the darkness pressed it to his lips.
Prince Asharal went backward, whispering to the chieftains of his line who in turn passed down the purport of command to every follower, then in silence the march went on.
They came at last to the mouth of the passage-way which was guarded by a double gate of brass, and beyond, through its massive bars, could be discerned a vaulted chamber, where the city cisterns lay, stretching away in impenetrable gloom. Behind the gates sat a full-armed sentinel drowsing at his post, yet an arrow in his throat brought deeper slumber to the man; then Huzim raised his hammer and, grunting, struck the gates. Thrice fell his mighty blows, with a clanging crash that sent the echoes rolling down a hundred passage-ways, and from out the murk came running other sentinels, trumpet-tongued in the flush of dread alarm.
“Strike, Huzim!” shrilled Semiramis. “Strike in the name of Bêlit—and in mine!”
So Huzim once more raised the hammer head above his own and, with a heave which drove the blood from out his nostrils, struck; the brazen gates fell inward, smitten from their hinges, and Semiramis sprang over them. Upward her warriors pressed toward halls of Zariaspa’s citadel, and where a doorway barred their path, there Huzim smote it, till wood and metal gave before his strength; then into the central hall burst a raging imp of war, with the wolves of Babylonia baying at her heels.
Within the inner court were gathered many women, the wives of nobles, the children of King Oxyartes and his spouse, huddled together in the fear of death, but these Semiramis harmed not. Her work was laid among the warriors who manned the gates of the outer court, holding them for the inrush of the Bactrians fighting in the streets, for every man who might be spared from the citadel’s defense was flung against the invading hordes of Menon and the King. So it chanced that within the citadel were, in all, three thousand men-at-arms, and these Semiramis attacked as a hound may leap at a lion’s throat; yet ill it might have gone with her slender force had Menon not sent another thousand warriors to follow down the hidden river course. They came at the turning point of fate, the mountaineers from the land of Naïri, wild, hairy men who sang as they fought, or died with a broken song upon their lips; thus their strange, barbaric tongues gave heart to Babylon, even as their swords brought woe amongst the enemy.
The gates were won; the victors pursued their quarry from hall to hall, through winding passageways and on stairs that dripped with blood, while Semiramis, with Kedah and Huzim, worked ever upward toward the highest battlements. Two stairways led to an opening on the roof, the one upon the right, the other on the left, and these they mounted, while from without came the roar of battle raging in the streets.
When the Bactrians, pressed by Ninus, sought refuge in their citadel they came upon fast-locked gates, and so a tangled swarm of defeated warriors were squeezed against the walls, while into them drove Menon and the King, cleaving a pathway to the goal of their hearts’ desire.
From the press King Ninus looked upward to the summit of the citadel and marvelled at what he saw, for a shepherd dog—the first to stand a conqueror thereon—looked down and barked and barked; then Semiramis sprang beside him, her red locks tossing from beneath her helm. She, too, looked down, on a caldron of murder seething in the pool of Zariaspa’s walls; then she raised her round young arms, and, even as the conquering eagle screams, so screamed Semiramis, in a vaunting battle-cry.
In the streets below that cry reechoed from the thirst-parched tongues of a raging multitude that thundered at the fast-locked gates and trod on a floor of slain; then the bolts were drawn and the halls of the citadel were gorged with the inrush of a conquering horde. In the van ran Ninus, and close beside him Menon came, each intent on mounting to the battlements, each watching covertly lest the other gain some vantage ground; thus it came about that the two contrived a separate road. The King advanced to the stairway on the right, and with sword in hand looked backward, in a grim, unspoken vow to slay the man who followed him; but a Babylonian whispered in the ear of Menon who was straightway swallowed up amongst the throng.
Now the followers of Asharal, according to their pledge, made way for Menon, opening a path toward the flight of stairs upon the left, while the right was barred by the fighting-men of Babylon. Here none might mount and live, yet at the coming of the King—this black-browed warrior-lord of all the world—the blood of Babylon was cooled; their sword points fell, and they suffered him to pass—to pass across the wounded, senseless form of Asharal.
So, upward ran Prince and King, the one upon the right, the other on the left, each panting in his toil till their veins were swelled into throbbing, purple knots; each casting aside all reckoning of life and death save the one desire to outstrip his fellow animal in the race toward the roof. The roof!—whereon a woman stood—one mould of mortal clay, yet mixed with the blood-red wine of passion, whereof men drink, and in their madness trample on the altars of their gods.
Upward, still upward, till a single flight remained, and none might say which held a vantage of the lead; then Menon groaned aloud and sank exhausted on the stair. Huzim, watching from above, leaped down to seize his master in his arms and bear him upon the roof; yet, alas! too late, for the mighty sinews of the King would win to the summit of the citadel. The race was well-nigh run. Between the lord of all Assyria and his goal there stood one man alone—Kedha the faithful—he who loved Semiramis as a dog may love the master of his heart; he who loved in silence since that bygone day in Syria when a red-locked imp of war had cursed him in his teeth and with him charged a wall of battling Kurds. At the coming of the King he crouched upon the stair, not in fear, but in awe of that crowning flash of Destiny when a man and his spirit reach the parting of the way. An arm shot out and seized the monarch’s thigh; a shoulder pressed him, and the two plunged downward, rolling to the bottom of the stair.
In the fall poor Kedha lay beneath the King—beneath two hairy hands that in fury gripped his throat. These hands had builded Nineveh; they had played with nations as a juggler toys with sharpened blades; they had woven the thongs of servitude—from sun-baked Egypt to the frozen waters of the North—and now they closed, till the neck of one last slave was snapped and his body lay in a bleeding, huddled heap. Thus Kedha passed, in the cause of those he loved, and, in passing, wrought a nobler deed than the lord of all Assyria could boast, with scepter and with sword.
When Ninus at last came out upon the roof, Menon rested from the toil of battle and the stress of his racing climb, breath-spent, with fast-closed eyes which noted not the coming of his King. In his heart of hearts the monarch yearned to raise the victor in his arms and hurl him from the battlements, but Semiramis leaned upon his hunting spear, even as Huzim leaned upon his mighty hammer haft; therefore the monarch smiled. He raised Prince Menon and set him upon the battlements, and then, in the sight of the watching hosts, proclaimed him conqueror; whereat a mighty roar went up, till the soul of the King grew faint with fury, though his hand was steady, and he smiled.
When darkness fell, great braziers of oil and fat were lighted in the hall of the conquered citadel, and there the King made feast in honor of his victory. Beside him sat Menon and Semiramis, on whom the monarch looked with a look of love, hiding his flaming jealousy in smiles. Beyond them sat the brave Prince Asharal, on whom King Ninus also smiled, with a devil of hatred clawing at his heart. So the feast went on and on, and joy was rife throughout Assyria and Babylon.
When the wine was half consumed, and when beasts and captives had been slain in sacrifice of Asshur, then Ninus arose and spoke concerning the splendor of all things which had come to pass. To those deserving praise, he praised without stint of measure, promising such reward as the treasures of plundered Bactria might yield; yet Menon he set in honor above the rest. He bade his warriors look upon this man as the son of Ninus—son of his loins and heart—who would henceforth share in the stress of war and the rule of the King’s dominion over men.
“For who,” he cried, “shall sit upon Assyria’s throne if Ninus, perchance, be gathered to his fate?”
A silence fell throughout the hall, and each man looked upon his fellow, wondering. Semiramis, too, sat silent, her eyes fast fixed upon the master’s face, striving to read his hidden heart, even as a seeker after truth may scan a graven lie upon a monument.
So the feast, at last, was done, and each man sought his rest, the King to toss upon his couch and plan a war of craft, while Semiramis, because of a wounded knee, was borne in the arms of Menon to his tent, and slept from weariness.
The feast was done; yet within the stricken city’s gates another feast was made—a feast of horror—for the victors fell to plundering far and wide, seeking for wine and blood, for hidden gold, for jewels—and for those who wore the gems.
As Fate has written, women must ever shed the tears of war; so now they were hunted from home to home, to fall a prey to the brutish lust of conquerors. Some shrieked for mercy, and received it not; some slew themselves and passed to judgment undefiled; while others still would smile on being comforted. The feast, at least, was done. A red moon hung above the peaks of Hindu-Kush, and dipped into the gloom. A stillness fell on stricken Zariaspa, for the gods of mercy sent it sleep. Anon, the stillness broke to the howling of a dog, or the rustle of some wounded warrior who crawled from out the shadows in search of a cooler spot whereon to die.