Չորրորդ Հայքի Գրադարան . ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ . Չորրորդ Հայքի Գրադարան . ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ . Չորրորդ Հայքի Գրադարան . ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ . Չորրորդ Հայքի Գրադարան . ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ . Չորրորդ Հայքի Գրադար

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Semiramis: A Tale of Battle and of Love

CHAPTER XXX

THE DESERT AND THE KING

Written by Edward Peple and originally published in 1907

On the rim of Arabia’s desert Semiramis and her army sat down to rest, for well she knew this pitiless, burning waste would offer a sterner barrier than the points of a million swords; therefore the Queen took council with herself and prepared to battle with the scourge of thirst.

On every chariot was loaded wine-skins, filled with water and covered o’er with cloths and matted grass to keep them cool.  Each rider was commanded to fare on foot, while across his steed were balanced other water-skins; then came to light the wisdom of Semiramis in choosing ten score thousand reeds as a gift from the King in India.

These reeds were of mighty length, and on their ends were set the heads of spears; again, they were hollow, and, the pith therein being bored away, they were filed with water, when their butts were closed with plugs of wood. Thus it came to pass that each man bore a new and fearsome weapon in his hands, wherefrom he might drink and ease the torture of a thirsty tongue.

Then, presently, the army moved toward Boabdul’s stronghold in the desert’s heart.  By night they journeyed, when the sun shone not and the air was chill; by day they slept beneath the shade of canopies which were stretched on the points of planted spears; yet even their vast supply of water dwindled into nothingness, and the beasts of burden suffered and were sad.  Men drank of their spears, but the heat had warmed their drink, and many died of madness and were left behind.

Yet Semiramis journeyed on.  Her pathway led, not straight to the goal of her hot revenge, but by a devious course which touched the palm-groves of oases, where springs and wells were found; and where these wells had dried beneath the fierceness of the sun, there Semiramis drove her reeds into the earth till oft’ a grateful gush of water flowed therefrom.  In these groves her warriors rested, drinking the precious juice of life and filling again their reed-spears and their water-skins; then the journey was taken up once more.

Now it came about that the scurrying riders of Boabdul brought word that Assyria marched across the plain; so the Arab prepared to give them battle on the sands, or to fly if the force proved stronger than his own.

King Ninus had befooled the Arabian Prince, persuading him that the people rose in an unjust cause, till Boabdul harkened and was wroth because of this shameful thing, swearing to give his blood, if need be, in behalf of a brother king.

And now, at the dawn of a certain day, these two looked out on the desert, and were amazed.  Through the mists came the army of Assyria, not as a strong-armed host to batter down its foes, but as men who were famished by the desert’s breath, whose strength was spent, who reeled and fell upon the sand, to rise and struggle on again.  Their war-wings stretched in ragged disarray; their chariots came crawling far behind where they should have held the van, and horsemen limped across the fiery plains, leading their drooping steeds.

At the sight, Boabdul looked into the eyes of Ninus, and Ninus looked into Boabdul’s eyes, and laughed.  ’Twere pity to fall upon this heat-picked skeleton of strength and ride it down; yet, since it was written thus, who, then, should thwart the will of Asshur and his scribe of fate?  So Ninus and Boabdul laughed again, and prepared a slaughter for the sons of sacrifice.

Two clouds of wild-eyed riders swept around the grove of palms, their white robes fluttering their lances flung aloft and caught as they fell again. They joined in one, a mad-mouthed horde of desert-wolves, who loosed their reins and raced at the core of Assyria’s stricken lines.

At their coming, Assyria bended as a twig which it trod upon; yet, of a sudden, the twig would bend no more.  Where warriors had seemed to sink exhausted on the sand, they now stood up in the splendor of their strength.  Where lines seemed torn to wilted shreds, they now closed tightly, and Arabia came upon a hedge of spears—the reed-spears of Semiramis. Behind the first line stood another line, their spears protruding against attack; and behind these two stood other lines, till he who would reach Assyria must leap a hurdle of seven rows of points. Thus Arabia hacked vainly at a wall of death, even as in after days the blood of Sparta spilled itself on the spears of Macedonia.

And now the war-wings ceased their feeble flutterings, to close upon Boabdul and his men, to take them in as a mother might take a wanderer in her arms; though on that mother’s breast they found no peace of heart.  The Bedouin horsemen backed upon themselves in a close-packed, tangled mass, fighting with scimitars against a storm of darts and the thrusts of spears; then a lane was opened, and into the boiling ruck drove Semiramis and her wedge of chariots.

In the car of the Queen stood Huzim, holding the reins and striving to guard his mistress with a mighty shield of bronze; yet to-day Semiramis cared naught for shields, nor recked of death, so long as she came upon the Vulture of Assyria.  For him alone she sought—the King!—and never before had the tigress raged as she raged this day.  Where an hundred scimitars flashed about her head, she rode them down and bored toward the King—bored till her steeds were slain and her chariot overturned, then she arose from the earth and bored on foot into the press.

She cared not for a thousand swords, and yet one scimitar there was which she might not pass unscathed.  High up it swung, in the fist of Prince Boabdul; but ere it could descend upon her, Huzim leaped and dragged the Arab from his horse.  On the blood-wet sands they battled, beneath the hoofs of plunging steeds, where dying Bedouins sought with dagger thrusts to claim still one more death ere they stood before their gods; and Huzim, who was once the Arab’s slave, prevailed against Boabdul, gripped him tightly, and whispered into his ear:

“Peace, little master! for it grieveth me to crack thy bones.  Peace, then, for I hold thee fast!”

Now the Prince whose rage and mirth went ever hand in hand, forbore to strive with his mighty conqueror, and laughed because of Huzim’s words; yet the Arabs, seeing their chieftain fallen, surged backward and burst their way through Assyria’s wall of men.  Beaten, they fled like foxes from the trap which Semiramis had set for them; and in the van of their flying pack rode Ninus, on a matchless steed of Barbary.  Away they sped through the desert’s shimmering haze, where Assyria might not follow after them, nor did Semiramis seek to follow, for in her brain was born a craftier design.

In the grove of palms she caused Boabdul to be brought before her where she cut his bonds and offered him her hand.

“My lord,” she spoke, “with thee I have no cause for war, nor did I seek to bring a harm to these thy followers who are dead or scattered o’er the plains. My concernment is with the Vulture of Assyria, and him I will snare though I rake the sand-wastes of Arabia from end to end.”

Then she told Boabdul of all things which had come to pass—how the King had crucified Prince Menon whom the Arab loved, and had stolen his wife for the space of a score of years; and so great was Boabdul’s wrath that he rent his robe and swore by his gods of fire to follow after Ninus, to find him, and to nail him on a wall of woe.

“Fear not,” he cried, “for my desert is but a prison-yard, where the wardens of heat and thirst will hedge our captive round about and drive him to the arms of those who seek.  Fear not, for soon will we come upon the King.”

And thus Semiramis had won unto her cause the man who above all other men could aid her in her quest; the man who balanced a thousand tribes on the edge of his whetted scimitar; the man who now sent forth his riders, recalling all who had scattered across the plains.

Throughout the day Semiramis rested in the shade, and slept; but when night was come she chose a few from amongst her warrior-chiefs, then with Boabdul and his brown-skinned Bedouins she slipped across the sands.  On camels they rode, those long-limbed, lurching beasts that devoured the leagues with a tireless, padding gait—that glided like ghosts beneath the icy stars—that slid through the wastes of red Arabia on a trail of death.

And in the silence of the night Semiramis raised her eyes and arms and cried unto the stars:

“Oh, Ishtar, Ishtar, give over this devil to the vengeance of my heart—keep, thou, my lord till I come again to him at Nineveh!”

King Ninus was mounted on a matchless steed of Barbary, and his eagerness to be gone from out Arabia kept pace with his matchless steed. Full well he knew that Semiramis would follow after him; full well he knew that, since Boabdul’s arm was lost to him, his hope lay eastward in the distant country of India’s King.  Could he win to the Euphrates, cross over it, and skirt the coast, coming at last to the river Indus, he there might mock the huntings of all Assyria, and bide his time till an army could be raised—an army which should give him back his throne, his power; for these King Ninus craved, and would have them, though his years were few.

That Semiramis hunted him, was a thought of bitterness in the monarch’s heart, for he loved her utterly; yet, since Prince Menon had risen from the dead, a terror, also, rose, which vied with the yearnings of his love and sent him eastward in a line as straight as an arrow’s flight. His steed outstripped the flying Bedouins who had burst through Assyria’s lines, and soon the King sped on alone—alone on the desert’s fiery breast—and hour on hour he fled from the vengeance of Semiramis.

At evening the King grew faint from heat and his lips were parched with thirst, while even his splendid mount was drooping, and faltered in its stride. The wise steed scented the breath of a cool oasis toward the north, and would have turned thereto, but Ninus knew naught of the plainsman’s lore and lashed the wise one, racing him eastward in a dead straight line.

Thus it came about that when night had fallen the horse grew lame, so Ninus dismounted and rested upon the sand.  Then a cold wind rose, which sang across the desert, searching his bones till he shivered and cursed aloud; and the good steed shivered, also, because of his sweating body and the lack of a master’s care.  Naught had this stallion of Barbary known save love and tenderness; and now, with drooping head, he looked upon the cursing King, and wondered.  No covering was there to shield his flanks against the cold; no water wherewith to bathe his wind-burned nostrils; no hand to stroke his muzzle in caress; no lips to croon the love-songs of the land of Araby.  The chill of the night had entered into him, till he whinnied for the shelter of a master’s tent, and coughed in pain; then man and beast lay down together in a hollow in the sands which Ninus dug with his royal nails.

When the warmth of morning came again, the two went on their way; yet a red sun rose to harry them, to pour its light upon them in a wavy glare; and the stallion of Barbary reeled toward the east.  Again came night. Again came day—the pitiless, parching day, when league on league of tawny desert wrapped them round in a world of flame; when their tongues were black and swollen from the pangs of thirst, a thirst which took them by the throat and shook them, a thirst which reached beyond and gripped their hearts.

Then, presently, the faithful steed could bear his weight no more; he staggered and fell upon the sands to die.  King Ninus slew him, and, in the fury of his thirst, he drank of the horse’s blood; but the blood was warm and brought no ease to him, for rather did it spur his mad desire. Then the famished man rose up and wandered away on the desert’s breast—alone.

No more he fled from the anger of Semiramis toward the east, but strayed in circles, while the heat-waves danced before his eyes, causing a haze which blinded him, till through it ran the twisted fancies of a dream. Before him he spied a river gurgling through the sands—a deep, sweet river, where the cool palms waved upon its shores; so Ninus spread his arms and rushed toward it eagerly.  Yet, at his coming, the waters fled away and melted as a morning mist dissolves; then the King fell prone upon his face, to bury his lips in a draught of the flaming sands. To his knees he rose and lifted his hairy arms aloft, whispering hoarsely to the gods on high; and unto Ninus came the gods!

He saw them on the far horizon’s line, gaunt spirits sweeping down as the storm-king rides—red Ramân, prince of lightnings and the thunder-bolt—the lord god Asshur and his underlings of war and death; and even as Ninus had set a sin on the shoulders of these gods, so now they bore that sin, and the sin was in the likeness of Prince Menon who had come at last to reckon with his King.  And the lord of the world would have burrowed in the sands to hide himself, but the spirit of a blind man pointed out the way, and Ishtar’s spirit snapped the leash of her spirit hounds.

Straight at their prey they sprang, but the King was a King, and stood upon his feet to battle with them mightily—to fight as his hands had fought from childhood to declining years; yet now he was old and the glory of his strength was spent.  He felt the teeth of Ishtar’s hounds upon his throat, and, in his madness, knew not that the deathly grip was of thirst alone; so Ninus screamed and died—died battling, as the man had battled all his days, yet Menon’s prophecy was a prophecy of truth.

When the red sun, weary of his raging, sank behind the desert’s rim, Boabdul and Semiramis came upon the ending of their trail.  The King! On his back he lay, his wide eyes staring at the heavens whence his judgment came.  The body of a King! The shell of a spirit which had ruled the wills of lesser men, which had conquered all save the spirits of the gods alone, and, conquering, had used the world as a sandal for his lordly feet.  The body of a King; yet now a King no more, but dust!

Semiramis looked down upon him, sorrowing—sorrowing because of one who had cheated her in life, as now he cheated her in death; but the Arab read another tale in that kingly heap of dust, and spoke to her in gentleness and in the ripened wisdom of his years:

“Grieve not, O Queen Shammuramat, because of a vengeance that is lifted from out thy hands.  Grieve not, for of a truth King Ninus hath been crucified on a wall of the desert’s wrath.”