Authors: Stephen Baxter
Kassu himself, in brightly polished mail and his best cloak, walked behind the main Hatti party. Henti carried a bowl of potatoes, gathered from the bit of farmland they had been granted a
day’s walk from the Hatti camp-city, dispossessed from a Libyan family. Fifty soldiers’ wives in this party were carrying such bowls. The potatoes were a symbolic gift for the
Carthaginians, to show them the Hatti besiegers were not starving, that they could afford to be generous. The bowl was heavy, and Henti looked hot, weary, displeased. They barely spoke. They rarely
did these days. Kassu had saved her life, and Palla’s, but he had not been able to save his marriage, it seemed, apart from the outer form.
Then the wind changed, and the smoke from the city wafted over them. Kassu smelled meat, grease: the smoke of funeral pyres. Henti winced and turned her head, but with her two hands holding the
bowl she could not cover her face.
Only a handful of advisers walked with the queen under the awning: Tiwatapara who had once been Hazannu of New Hattusa, the general Himuili with a small, carefully selected guard – and
Palla, the young priest, dressed in elaborate robes of purple embroidered with gold. It sickened Kassu to his stomach to see Palla there. But he had to admit Palla was doing well during this
extraordinary war, filling the gap left by his superior, Angulli Father of the Churches, who was usually either insensible with drink or raging because of the lack of it.
The Carthaginians themselves waited before the gate, the dignitaries on a spectacular podium under a white linen roof, bright in the sunlight. Perhaps a thousand troops had been drawn up in
parade order before the gate, a show of strength; Kassu recognised Libyans, Iberans, Franks, Balearics, in among the Carthaginian phalanxes. But despite this splendour the ground before them was
scarred by defensive ditches and berms, and the face of the great wall behind the Carthaginians was blackened by fire. Once there had been fine suburbs out here beyond the city’s protecting
walls, the homes of the rich, even hunting palaces. Now all that had been demolished by the Hatti, stripped and burned, any inhabitants caught outside the walls driven off, sold into slavery or
slaughtered. Even the Carthaginian army had retreated to within the walls of their city now, despite the crowding inside.
In the Carthaginian pavilion chairs and low tables had been set out on a huge ornate rug. After an elaborate formal ceremonial the Tawananna and her advisers were seated in the pavilion, facing
their hosts. Servants circulated with trays of sweetmeats and jugs of wine. Of the Carthaginians, Kassu recognised only Fabius, the Roman general, who had made sure the enemy troops knew his name
and reputation. The rest, mainly men, mostly dressed in elaborate robes, were evidently courtiers – or whatever the equivalent was in Carthage, which was a strange city that had no king. The
group broke into huddles of conversation, while interpreters and aides murmured in their ears. Around the dignitaries, soldiers on both sides stood with their cloaks held back and their hands
hovering over the hilts of swords.
Kassu could hear his own general Himuili speaking to Fabius, and he could understand, for the cultured Roman spoke the Hatti’s Nesili tongue. They made a contrast, though. While a huge
ferocious Rus stood behind Himuili, Fabius’ only close companion was a boy, unarmed, who sat on a low stool, scribbling, drawing, writing.
The pyre smoke was the first thing Himuili mentioned. ‘By Jesus’ mercy, Roman, you’re roasting the pork this morning.’
Fabius grinned, not offended. ‘The clear-out of the night’s dead. We’ve long run out of anywhere to inter them, trapped within our walls as we are, and so we burn. As do you,
for my scouts have spied out your daily pyres, Himuili, so you needn’t deny it.’
‘Of course we burn to get rid of the plague victims – and you have it in Carthage as well as we do, and
‘Must it be like this, Himuili?’
Himuili nodded. ‘You and I know what a siege is like. You begin with trumpet blasts and bright banners and dreams of glory. Before long it’s disease and hunger and filth, and latrine
trenches running with liquid shit and vomit.’
‘But do our masters know this?’
‘At least my lord the prince Arnuwanda has served on more than one battlefield. Whereas the fat old men who command you, Roman – what are they, merchants, landowners, farmers? And, I
hear, when they get bored with their generals they put them on trial and nail them to the nearest tree.’
‘We haven’t reached that point quite yet.’
Himuili shrugged. ‘Spare yourself that fate. All you need do is persuade your merchant bosses to open the city gates to us, and the war will cease.’
‘We have not come to destroy, or slaughter. The Hatti kingdom has always been open to people of all kinds – New Hattusa was always a land of a thousand tongues, under the mercy of
Jesus Sharruma. We don’t want to destroy Carthage. All we wish is to
‘You are a million strong! Come to
a land already starving?’
‘But what choice is there? After all we can’t withdraw, for we have nowhere to go. Your merchant princes must understand that. And even if you were somehow to manage a victory over
us, what would you do with us all?’
‘Sell you as slaves in return for wheat. Egypt is a big country. Always lots of work for slaves. You could build a new mausoleum for the Pharaoh, perhaps.’
Himuili laughed. ‘You do amuse me, Fabius. Are all Romans comedians?’
Fabius grunted. ‘Since we’ve been the butt of jokes by the all-conquering Carthaginians since before your Jesus walked the world, we have to be.’
‘Ha! I’ve heard some of them. What do you call a Roman raising a cup of victory wine? The waiter! But time is running out for you, comedian.’ Himuili leaned forward, intent.
‘My own spies tell me that. Factions at your court are pressing you to come out of these walls and give battle.’
‘You know as well as I do that you Hatti would probably win such a battle. Which is why it won’t happen. Besides, there’s an equally vocal faction on the councils who want to
negotiate some kind of peace.’
‘And you, what passes for a military commander in this city, must try to satisfy the contradictory demands of your rulers.’
‘This is the Carthaginian way, Himuili, and it’s served them well for a long time.’
‘Hmm. If you ask me, they’ve already got you crucified, Roman.’
Fabius drily raised his cup of wine to his opponent.
Now the event reached some subtle milestone. The servants withdrew and more formal negotiations began, with the Tawananna directly addressing the senior Carthaginians, amid a buzz of translators
The talks lasted hours. Kassu and Henti stood in stiff silence, with the silent ranks of aides, servants, slaves and soldiers.
It was fruitless, of course. Despite the courtly politeness and the elaborate exchange of gifts, there could be no peace; the Hatti could not withdraw from the field, and the Carthaginians could
not afford to open their gates. The meeting ended in pleasantries, and no agreement. This had been the pattern of the whole campaign season.
The very next day the Hatti launched another attack.
In Carthage, the cry of alarm went up before dawn.
Nelo, in the barracks he shared with a hundred soldiers just inside Carthage’s walls, heard it echo from watchtower to watchtower, and then within the city itself, along the streets and
alleys, in the market squares and temple places. And he thought he heard shouts and screams.
Gisco was on his feet, fully armed. It was as if he never slept. ‘Up! Up, you buggerers, up you get, on with your boots and your scabbards.’
Suniatus rolled out of bed and belched, and from paces away Nelo could smell the stale wine on his breath. ‘Those Hatti ball-sacks sound like they’re having another go,
‘So they are, lad.’
‘What’s our assignment?’
‘We’re going up one of the gate towers. The scouts have been here with the news. Lads, this time the Hatti have managed to get the gate itself open, and they’re already
swarming in the city like maggots in a corpse.’
‘What? How? Those gates have stood all summer.’
Gisco laughed as the men hurried to piss in their night pots, to dress, to find their boots and helmets. ‘All summer! That’s what I like about you, Suni. A real sense of history,
just as the general once said to you. Lad, those walls have stood
a thousand years
without being breached. Even the Muslims couldn’t knock them down when they came calling. And they
haven’t fallen now. The problem is somebody has conveniently
the gate. Just a crack, but that’s all that was needed.’
‘Who did it, Sergeant?’
‘Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the Hatti have to be stopped. And they’ll be stopped by us. You too, Nelo, get that coat of mail on, I’m sure your lord and
master will want a scribble of what’s to be done today. And, you never know, you might decide you’d like to share in a bit of fighting after all. Right. All ready? To the gate –
Without looking back, he led the troops out of the barracks. The men, some still buckling armour or fixing their helmets, followed Gisco at a trot through crowded streets. Nelo ran with the
They were at the south side of the sprawling suburb of Megara. Their barracks was actually an old warehouse, requisitioned when the army corps had had to abandon their camp and move inside the
safety of the city walls, a transfer that had made Carthage even more crowded, even more tense, even more dangerous. It was barely dawn, and Nelo smelled the tang of desert sand in the air. Another
dust storm must have blown over in the night, but at least it muffled the stink of the ever-burning funeral pyres.
The alarm had been raised. As they hurried to the gate they had to push through crowds running the other way: men and women, mothers carrying infants, old folk, the ill and feeble being helped
or carried along, and in a city riddled with disease and hunger there were plenty of them. Gisco’s troop had to push their way through the fleeing mob.
Then they turned a corner – and Nelo was confronted with the sight of enemy troops,
inside the city
, standing and fighting before the half-open gate. But they weren’t Hatti.
These towering men, fighting knots of hastily assembled Carthaginian troops, were Rus or Scand, with long tunics over baggy trousers and leather boots, and caps and coats lined with fur. They wore
their red hair, beards and moustaches long, and any exposed skin was dense with tattoos, intricate scribbles over faces, hands, bare arms. Some of them fought with barbed stabbing spears, some
threw javelins. But the most ferocious of all used axes, each longer than a man’s arm and fitted with a single crescent-shaped blade tapered to widen back from the edge, a design that made it
horribly efficient in its function. Nelo, staring, saw one man get in a clean blow at his Carthaginian opponent, a single downward swipe that cut through the man’s mail coat and tunic and
splayed open his breastbone and ribs, lodging in a mass of intestines before he fell forward.
Before such warriors, wave after wave of Carthaginian troops pressed forward only to fall in their turn, and the cobbles already ran with their blood. A horrific battle, taking place within the
walls of Carthage itself. Was the city lost already?
Suniatus and some of the others would have dashed straight into the fray, but Gisco roared commands. ‘Not here! Not yet! You’ll do no good to be cut down like these poor lads. Follow
me, and we’ll win the day. This way, this way!’
The gatehouse was one of a pair of massive stone towers that sat on either side of the gate itself. Gisco led a dozen men up a stone staircase; soon they were panting with the exertion. Through
slit windows Nelo saw the battle opening out beneath him, a pool of struggling, fighting, dying men before the open gate, and a greater Hatti force outside the wall, pressing to enter. At the top
of the tower was a small chamber with glassless windows that looked out at the plain beyond the city, where the fires of the Hatti sparked, as innumerable as the stars in the sky.
Nelo was bewildered by what he saw in this crowded room. On the stone flags stood massive wooden barrels, brimming with what smelled like pitch. Under the command of an army officer two
harassed-looking slaves were using buckets to transfer this sticky slop to a smaller container set in the middle of the room. This container was connected to what looked like a two-handled pump, a
lever fixed over a single pivot; Nelo had seen similar gadgets used to clear minor floods in Northland. And from the container ran a kind of hose, with its nozzle dangling out of the window over
the Rus and Scand and their foe.
Gisco nodded to the officer in command. ‘Here’s the muscle you asked for, Sili.’
‘You took your time!’
Gisco hastily dumped his helmet and weapons. ‘Get these slaves out of the way. You two!’ He pointed to Suniatus and another man. ‘Work this pump. See?’ He grabbed the
handle and, with an effort, raised and lowered it. Nelo heard the pitch gurgle in the hose. ‘And you—’ he picked two more, ‘—get the hose. Hold it out of that window
so you can get the stuff all over the Hatti and their Rus attack dogs. Understand?’
‘Just do it. The rest of you stand by. Watch that door, the stairs – don’t let
in until this is over. Got that? And be ready to replace the others at the pumps
and the hose. And you, Northlander. Watch. Listen. Draw. Show your Roman master how clever we Carthaginians are.’
The man Sili muttered, ‘Or at least the Syrians from whom we long ago stole this trick.’
‘Shut up, Sili. Just have the wick lit and ready. All set, lads? Get pumping. Hold up that hose. Hold it up!’
Soon black liquid was squirting fitfully out of the hose. Nelo saw it rain down on Carthaginians and the Hatti and their colleagues alike. It was just mucky, oily sludge, and none of the
fighters even looked up from the work of slaughter as it fell on them.