Authors: Stephen Baxter
In the corner, meanwhile, Pimpira was grinding grain. He kept his head bowed, his eyes averted, subservient. He lived with Kassu and Henti as a slave once more, though he slept with his parents
in a big barracks during the night, both of them having survived the March. The only sound in the room was the soft, repetitive, scratching rasp of Pimpira’s grindstone – and under
that, a soft, breathy singing. Henti, murmuring an old Kaskan lullaby. Kassu had heard it before, it had been taught her by her grandmother on her mother’s side, who had come from that
region. She probably didn’t even know she was singing it.
Kassu leaned over his wife. Her head was bowed, and he saw the neat parting in her long dark hair, the tight bun at her neck. ‘You’ve been with him,’ he said softly.
She didn’t look up. ‘Have I?’
‘I know. I always know. I can see him on you. Smell him. Hear him in the songs you sing.’
‘Why don’t you stop us, if you still care? Oh, I forgot. You had your chance, and you weren’t man enough to take it.’
‘We fight in the morning.’
Now she looked up at him. ‘What?’
‘The Carthaginians are coming out. Our scouts have sent word.’
Uncertain, she bent her head and kept sewing. ‘I thought that general of theirs who has taken over the city, the Roman, has been refusing to give battle.’
‘Evidently he changed his mind. That’s Romans for you – probably why they always lose. Indecisive. So you see, my dear wife, this might be the last time we will be together
this side of the grave.’
She looked up again. ‘Do you want—’
He laughed and pulled back. ‘I only have an hour. We’re to muster and advance on the city, to be ready before dawn. I’m to report to Himuili himself. So unless you can do
something quick – has Palla taught you any more whore’s tricks?’
She put aside the cloak she had been mending. ‘I’ll help you prepare. Pimpira, food for the master, now.’
Kassu was deflated at her calm. She always had been the stronger one.
He began to pull together his kit.
So, before the dawn had fully broken, the Hatti army drew up on the desiccated plain, west of Carthage. Kassu reported to Himuili, his general.
And he was handed a horse. The beast was a nag, bony and limping slightly, but it was, undoubtedly, a horse. Somewhat to his surprise he found himself riding with Himuili and other senior
commanders, even including Prince Arnuwanda himself, as they inspected their forces. In the often chaotic months since the siege had been laid Kassu had enjoyed a kind of promotion that
wasn’t necessarily reflected in his rank. He seemed to be recognised as one of Himuili’s more literate and numerate junior officers, and was therefore useful in great feats of
organisation, such as the running of the Hatti’s military camp-city, and now in drawing up the army in good order, ready for this climactic battle. So here was Kassu in the dawn light,
passing before tens of thousands of men ready for battle,
on a horse.
Himuili watched him, amused. ‘Comfortable, soldier?’
‘Yes, sir. Well, I can feel this nag’s bones through the saddle. I thought I’d come no closer to a horse again than a hoof boiling in a stock pot.’
Himuili barked a laugh. ‘Well, it’s your lucky day. We’ve been keeping back the surviving beasts for today, for the battle that we knew would come – keeping them out of
the sight of hungry scumbags like you, Kassu. You can guess how many men have gone to their graves because we kept a horse alive instead, but that’s something we will have to sort out in the
‘Shut up. Look along the line.’ He pointed.
Kassu looked north. On the Hatti army’s left flank he made out cavalry units: men and horses, some mounted, some leading their horses.
‘So what do you see?’
‘Our own cavalry.’ The men were each equipped with lance and sword, and a small round shield. ‘And light archers. Mongols?’
‘Others equipped with Frankish bows.’ These were gadgets of wood and iron; you turned handles to wind a thick cord back across a frame. They were awkward to handle but the bolts they
delivered could pierce thick armour. ‘What about the Almughavars?’
‘On the right wing.’
Kassu turned to see. These riders of the steppe were lancers; they carried four or five iron-tipped javelins that they would hurl one by one, and then they would drive forward at an infantry
unit with a long spear. Once they closed they would snap the spear to use it as a shorter thrusting weapon.
‘All these lads of the steppe have worked out their own way of fighting,’ Himuili murmured. ‘Godless wretches who drink their horses’ blood by day and hump them by night,
but formidable fighters if you use them right. If we get one good charge out of them I’ll be happy. Well, it might be enough, for the Carthaginians are probably in a worse state than we
He turned his horse’s head to the east, towards Carthage, and led Kassu a little further away from the line. The plain before Carthage was turning yellow-brown, like the desert, from all
the sandstorms, but you could still see the hummocks and ridges that had once marked out farms and orchards, and the ruins of broken-down buildings stuck out of the dirt like broken limbs. And
beyond all that, on the horizon, Kassu could see the walls of the city itself, a line of dirty white, studded with towers.
Himuili grunted. ‘A formidable sight.’
‘Yes, sir. But even from here you can see how the walls have been blackened by our fires. Anyhow, Carthage itself isn’t the prize. Carthage is just an obstacle on the road to Egypt,
and all its lovely grain.’
Himuili grinned, leaned over and slapped his back. ‘Good response. You should talk to Palla about putting some of this stuff in his sermons to the troops, which for me are a bit heavy on
the suffering and submission of Jesus. Ah, but you and Palla have history, don’t you? Well, forget I mentioned him.’
He turned his horse again so they looked back at the army of the Hatti, drawn up for battle, blocks of men, their armour and polished weapons glittering in the light of the rising sun. Kassu
could see the restless rustle of the cavalry units on the left and right wings. Arnuwanda with his party was galloping before the line, under a great banner of Jesus Sharruma, a colourful little
knot of motion. Jesus Himself had been brought out of His temple and positioned on a cart just behind the central phalanx, a towering statue encrusted with precious metals and jewels, shining in
the low sunlight.
‘So you see the formation,’ Himuili said. ‘Our best troops in the centre, the Bodyguards and the Golden Spearmen, before Jesus, to be led by Arnuwanda himself. The other
central units have been handed to the Chief of Bodyguards, the Chief of the Wine Cellar, the prince’s brothers and cousins . . .’
In the Hatti system the King was always the commander in chief – but as the Hatti nation had no king just now, with Uhhaziti’s coronation postponed until after the fall of Carthage,
Prince Arnuwanda took that formal command, while relatives, more men of the royal blood, filled the other senior posts. Kassu suspected that Arnuwanda would be allowed to lead the initial advance,
but would be whisked to the back of the lines by his own guards before the real action started. ‘Who have they given you, sir?’
Himuili pointed to his right, and spat between his helmet’s cheek flaps. ‘That bunch of bears.’ They were a unit of Scand and Rus. Bristling with fur and in their horned
helmets, from this distance they did look like animals. ‘I’ve learned enough of their language to order them about. Mostly obscenities. You should see them in their quarters, Kassu.
Hairy as my left bollock, every last one of them, but when they strip naked to scrape off the filth, you see that their entire skin is coated in tattoos. If I were a Carthaginian I’d take
care where I pierce such a fellow when I kill him, for his flayed hide would make a good souvenir to hang on the wall. But they’re ferocious, I’ll say that.
‘Well. There you see it, soldier. What do you think of our chances today?’
Kassu thought carefully before answering. Himuili was quick to anger, but he knew the general wanted the truth. ‘There’s a lot of us, sir. But a lot more have died since we got here.
And we look . . .’
‘Say it, man.’
‘Weakened. Even before the fighting starts. By the hunger, the thirst. Many of us have had a brush with one sickness or another even if we haven’t succumbed to the plague, and every
dose of the shits weakens you a bit more.’
‘You’re not wrong about that. Ten days back you’d have observed me attempting to spew up my own arsehole. Look how scrawny they are – even those cursed Rus, for all their
bluster. Look how
they move. I think we’ve prepared as well as we can today. But even so, here we are, Kassu, the last army of the Hatti, and it’s an army of skeletons, of
‘Perhaps. But it’s the Carthaginians’ last chance too . . .’
Now there was a trumpet blast, cries of warning, fingers pointing east. Turning their horses, they saw that the great gates of Carthage had opened.
Himuili grinned. ‘The game’s on. Good! Come on, soldier, let’s get back to our line before it blows away in the desert wind.’ And he flicked his horse’s reins and
In the early morning of the very day of battle a courier came for Rina, sent by Barmocar. To her bewilderment she was summoned to join a party that would go into the field
ahead of the Carthaginian army, to meet the Hatti leaders in a last-ditch negotiation. Her – a Northlander matron and outsider in this city, summoned to this most historic of events! But, she
thought with a kind of grim pride, a Northlander should be marching with the Carthaginian army today. After all it was a Northlander weapon that might win the day for Carthage. And, short of
beating out the iron carcass of an eruptor herself, in the days since her meeting with Barmocar and Carthalo she had used long-dormant skills of leadership to do as much as anybody to ensure that
the project had been completed.
So she dressed quickly, donning a smart but sensible robe, and pulled a cloak over her shoulders. For walking on the rough ground outside the city, she dug out the stout boots she had worn for
the journey from Northland. Here in the small town house given her by the suffetes, she had no servants to help her. She could not bear servants in her presence, not any more. Having checked her
appearance in a brass mirror, she hurried out of her house and to the city gate.
The army pouring out of Carthage was an extraordinary sight. It was an army of scarecrows, Rina thought, after months of siege, all but the officers dressed in ragged uniforms and armed with
Fabius’ carriage was more extraordinary yet. He called it his ‘truce wagon’. The great vehicle, specially constructed, rolled on four pairs of mighty timber wheels, each hooped
by iron and fixed to tremendous axles. The wagon was drawn by teams of Hatti prisoners, harnessed like oxen, but Fabius had promised them their freedom when the job was done, and so they pulled
willingly. On the wagon’s bed sat a great chest, a huge wooden box nearly as tall as Rina, so long that the custom-made wagon barely fit it. The chest was covered in expensive cloths and
tapestries bearing images of the city’s gods. But the most extraordinary aspect of the whole thing was what lay on top of that chest: human skulls, all lacking their lower jaws, a heap of
them arranged in an orderly pyramid. You could see that most of the skulls were small, most of young children; the larger ones supported the smaller, until at the apex of the pyramid was fixed the
smallest of all, tiny enough to have fit into Rina’s palm. It was the skull of a newborn, its little throat slit at the moment of its birth. This was a
cart, and the city’s
primitive sacrifice was horribly visible. And that, of course, was the point.
As the truce wagon rolled out of the gate, followed by the columns of troops, Fabius with his senior officers walked ahead. The great and the good of Carthage had been summoned to follow behind
the general, and Rina hurried to join them. Here came Carthalo, following in the Roman’s wake, along with many others of the councils, even the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four whose
constitutional function was to keep generals like Fabius in check. None dare resist him now. Some of Fabius’ soldiers walked beside the general, whether to protect him from Hatti or
Carthaginians it was hard to say.
Barmocar, his expression dark, worked through the small crowd of dignitaries towards her. ‘So you came, madam.’
‘You summoned me. It was only courteous—’
‘Courteous? I brought you here to see what you have done, woman. The skulls, Rina – the skulls!’
She took a breath. ‘And Mago—’
He turned away from her, his face working. ‘
His skull is here
, on the carriage with the rest, not ten paces from where you stand. He did not die on the grisly altar of the temple,
however. He died well, in combat, fighting off a Hatti raid. I hope that whatever you imagine I have done to you is now compensated.’ He leaned closer and whispered, ‘And if we live
through this day I will make sure the rest of your life is blighted as mine is.’ He withdrew.
Alone, Rina walked on, trying to show no emotion.
Outside the city walls the Carthaginian army began drawing up in battle order, the men gathering in great blocks within which the men were all dressed and equipped similarly. These formations
were called phalanxes, Rina had been told. The truce wagon rolled forward, accompanied by Fabius and the nobles, advancing beyond the lines. And now, Rina saw, a party of the Hatti came out to meet
the Carthaginians. One man was mounted, and the rest walked under their own truce banner, of Jesus Sharruma with the crescent moon.
Rina was close enough to Fabius to hear one of his aides muttering advice to him. ‘The mounted man is Arnuwanda, their prince, chief of the armies, though it’s said it’s his
aunt the Tawananna who makes the big decisions. The soldier at his side is Himuili, one of the smarter generals. The young priest – I don’t recognise him, I was expecting Angulli . .