2

That same day…

The afternoon sun drifted toward the horizon as Eskkar, ruler of the city of Akkad, galloped his horse down the gentle slope to rejoin his commanders and their men. Tall and powerfully built, he carried a long sword slung over his shoulder. Dark brown hair, fastened with a strip of leather, almost reached his shoulders. People seldom noticed the thin scar, scarcely visible after so many years, that marked one cheek. Instead their eyes were drawn to the broad face and strong jaw that marked him as a child of the northern steppes. His grim countenance and penetrating brown eyes tended to make strangers uneasy in his presence. They sensed a remnant of the fierce barbarian that still dwelt beneath the surface.

Eskkar’s face provided no clue to his thoughts. In his long years as an outcast and wandering sword for hire, he’d learned to keep his emotions from showing. But Eskkar’s companion and bodyguard, Grond, who rode beside him, had less control over his features. Frustration showed clearly on his face.

After leaving Akkad, it had taken five days of hard traveling to reach the border and take up the pursuit. Then for three more days, Eskkar, his Akkadian archers, and a small force of horsemen had searched the low hills and gentle valleys for the bandits who had terrorized and ravaged Akkad’s southern border. The soldiers had waded through high grass or rocky ground as they trudged up and down the headlands in pursuit of the band of horsemen who somehow managed to stay just out of reach. The chase had wearied everyone. The eight days of constant marching at such a fast pace had taken its toll even on their sturdy legs.

Eskkar and Grond reached the base of the ridge and rode toward the Akkadian soldiers. Most lay sprawled about on the ground, winded from a long climb up yet another in the seemingly endless hills and grateful for every chance to rest. Only Hathor the Egyptian remained mounted, waiting for Eskkar’s approach. Hathor commanded the thirty horsemen that comprised Eskkar’s mounted force. They’d spent most of the day searching for the bandits, or riding patrols to prevent an ambush. The rest of the Akkadian force consisted of eighty-one archers.

“Are the scouts back yet?” Eskkar hooked his leg over his horse and slid to the ground, handing the halter to one of the camp boys, who dashed up to take the king’s mount. The boys, who had no status and received no pay, followed the soldiers and helped tend to the horses, all for the privilege of helping Akkad’s fighters.

Hathor glanced toward the rear of the column, where the last two of his scouts had just crested a hilltop. “They’re coming in now, Captain.”

The soldiers who had fought beside Eskkar the last three years called him Captain, from the days when he’d been Captain of the Guard. The city dwellers in Akkad called him Lord Eskkar, while those in the surrounding villages called him king. Those who merely disliked his rule called him an uncouth barbarian. His enemies used worse language. Some claimed he was a demon summoned from the deepest subterranean fire pits by his witch-wife to carry out her sinister commands. Whatever men called him, all respected his ability to not only lead men, but to win battles.

All these names and titles held some truth to them. Born a barbarian, he’d fled his clan in his fourteenth season, when his family perished in a blood feud. He’d killed one of the executioners, stabbing the man in the back as he killed Eskkar’s younger brother. For more than fifteen years he wandered the lands of his hereditary enemies, the dirt eaters. He suffered abuse and contempt, each day expecting some ignoble death to strike him down but somehow managing to stay alive. As he survived each crisis, he grew stronger and more skillful, until the day came when he feared no one.

The chaos of a barbarian invasion had changed his fate. Eskkar rose to Captain of the Guard, and with luck and advice from his new wife, united the people of Akkad and drove off their attackers. With the defeat of the invaders, the city’s inhabitants pleaded with him to be their leader, ruler of the largest city in the land. Little more than two years had passed since that day, but new challenges arose to replace the ones vanquished, and each morning brought another struggle for survival.

By now Eskkar had ceased to fear the future or worry about the present. Each day was a gift from the gods, and a chance to defeat one more enemy. And a new adversary seemed to arise at every turn. Whenever men prospered, others appeared with a sword in hand, always ready to take what they had not earned themselves.

The two scouts reached the head of the column, dismounted, and joined Eskkar and the others.

“We saw more bandits coming up from the south-east, Captain.” Alexar commanded the main force of archers. Now his face showed his concern.

“I saw another dozen following our line of march to the west,” Eskkar said. “Probably more. They’re following us on either flank, with more at our rear.”

“With the forty or fifty we’ve seen, they already outnumber our horsemen,” Hathor said. “Who knows how many more are waiting up ahead?”

“I don’t like it, Captain,” Alexar said. “They’re leading us on, staying just out of our reach.”

Eskkar, too, recognized the signs. All along the southern border, they found dead bodies, farm houses and crops burned to the ground, and the land ravaged beyond all reason. With each grim discovery, Eskkar’s anger grew, along with the determination to make these raiders pay for their incursion.

Even barbarians didn’t wreak such havoc. They might kill many men and take their women, but they left most of those they ravaged alive, so that they could be looted again on some future raid.

By now Eskkar and his commanders realized that the so-called bandits were anything but. Instead of scattering or fleeing at Eskkar’s approach, they yielded ground slowly, staying well away from his force of archers, and confident in their superior number of horsemen. They retreated in only one direction, southward. With each passing day, the situation had worsened, as more and more of the enemy showed themselves.

“Commanders, follow me,” Eskkar ordered. He strode a hundred paces away from the men and sank to the ground on a grassy swell. A lone tree provided some welcome shade from the late afternoon sun, and honey bees buzzed at the nearby flowers. One by one, his commanders — Grond, Alexar, Hathor, Mitrac, Klexor, and Drakis — joined him, sitting knee to knee as they completed the circle.

Looking at their faces, he saw the same anger and frustration that burned in his own belly. He had chosen his commanders well. All were Hawk Clan members and proven in battle.

The Hawk Clan formed the elite corps of Akkad’s soldiers. After a near-fatal skirmish in the early days of the struggle against the barbarians, Eskkar and the few survivors of that first contact had sworn a solemn oath of brotherhood to each other, and to Eskkar, who had saved their lives and led them to victory.

In those days, most of his followers had been outcasts themselves, men without family, kin or clan. The creation of the Hawk Clan changed all that, providing each member with a new family, Eskkar’s own. In Akkad, everyone recognized the bravest of the brave, for only through valor in battle and the acclaim of his fellow warriors could a man become a member of the Hawk Clan. To wear the Hawk emblem on his chest was the greatest ambition of each fighter that served in Akkad, the goal that each soldier sought above all else.

The binding promise each man swore united them as brothers and pledged their loyalty to Eskkar’s leadership as head of the Hawk Clan. This new force of battle-tested warriors, now joined in bonds of brotherhood, turned out to be Eskkar’s single most important contribution to defeating the barbarian horde. For what brave man could abandon his brother in time of need, or fail his family when danger threatened? The clan linked each man to every other, and promised a haven of safety when advancing age or wounds meant they could no longer fight against Eskkar’s enemies.

As they fought together, the bond between the Hawk Clan grew deeper. Having gained their trust and respect, Eskkar repaid it by making sure his commanders and even his newest recruit knew not only what he intended, but what he was thinking. That knowledge made them confident of his leadership, and established that same trust in each other.

Eskkar’s proven ability not only to fight but to lead men into battle enabled him to rely on simple instructions and to avoid complicated strategies, even in the chaos of battle. With his close commanders, he felt certain they had the ability to carry out his orders, act independently if necessary, and improvise where needed. That closeness made them a unique group of warriors, who not only thought as a band of brothers, but fought as one, too. Almost as important to Eskkar, none of them would hesitate to speak his mind.

“It’s time to decide what we face and what we’re going to do,” Eskkar began. “We’ve been chasing these riders for three days, and still they elude us. Whatever city sent them — Larsa, Sumer, maybe even Isin — needs to be taught a lesson. In these lands, and with a force that large, I’ll wager that these bandits are Sumerians, or at least in their pay.”

The city of Larsa had the most to gain from the border lands, and their history of raiding Akkadian territory went back more than a generation. But Trella had a sufficient number of spies in that city, and Eskkar doubted their king, Naran, could organize such a raid without her agents noticing. Isin, farther to the south and west, had a king bold enough for such an affair, but King Naxos hadn’t launched any raids on Akkad’s lands since he came to power several years ago. That left the city of Sumer, ruled by King Eridu.

“Meanwhile we’re moving further and further south,” Alexar said, “and in another day’s march, we’ll reach the River Sippar. That will put us south of our own border, and into the lands of Sumeria. We don’t have enough food or supplies to go that far south, and if we did, we would need to find some way to get across the river. If these bandits or Sumerians crossed over and took all the boats with them, we’d be trapped on the wrong side of the river, and helpless.”

“No, we can’t go further south,” Eskkar agreed. “We need to finish these invaders off once and for all.” He looked at Mitrac, who commanded twenty of the archers.

“Mitrac, what do you think?” Eskkar always started with the youngest of his commanders. His wife, Trella, had suggested that idea to her husband, so that the youngest would not feel the pressure of contradicting their elders.

“Our men can keep up the chase for another few days. If we can close within bowshot, I don’t care how many men they have. So far, the scouts have seen no sign of longbows. We just need to get within reach, so our bowmen can kill them.”

Klexor, who commanded half the horsemen under Hathor, spoke next. “We can’t get close with their scouts watching our every move. The archers can’t keep up with our horsemen if we try and chase the bandits. I think we need to learn more about them, how many mounted men they have. Maybe we should set a trap tonight for one or two of them. We’d have them by morning. We’d soon find out what they know.”

“Even that might not tell us how many men we’re facing, or what their leader’s plans are,” Drakis said. He commanded twenty archers. “There could be hundreds of soldiers just waiting for us to come within their reach. We move toward them, they fall back, and somehow increase their strength.”

“I agree with Drakis. There must be a large force of archers or soldiers somewhere nearby.” Alexar commanded all of Eskkar’s archers. “Otherwise, the tactics of these men make no sense. Why else would they linger near our force, when they could just ride away?”

Eskkar turned to Grond, his bodyguard. “And what do you think?”

“I think they’re luring us into a trap,” Grond answered without hesitation. A large man, even broader than Eskkar, he’d been a slave in the western desert before reaching Akkad. “Somewhere up ahead, where the ground is favorable for them, they’ll turn on us and attack. We’ve little more than a hundred men. If they strike hard enough and with enough men, we’ll be overwhelmed. You need to find a way to get close to them, and soon.”

All eyes went to Hathor, the last to speak. A few years older than Eskkar’s thirty-two seasons, he was the oldest of Eskkar’s leaders. While all the commanders recognized Hathor’s ability, many of the men and inhabitants of Akkad remembered the past. The sole survivor of the band of despised Egyptians who had seized power in Akkad, Hathor had fought against Akkad’s forces. He’d escaped death first by chance, and then by Lady Trella’s intervention.

“Their horsemen,” Hathor said, “outnumber ours at least two to one. They’re well-armed and mounted on animals as good as our own. Not what you’d expect bandits or raiders to be riding. If we have to engage a force twice our size without support from the archers, it could get very bloody.”

Eskkar started to speak, but Hathor wasn’t finished.

“If we had enough men,” he said, meeting Eskkar’s gaze, “it wouldn’t matter where we fought them. But our enemies have counted our soldiers, and still they remain close by, readying themselves for the battle. So they don’t fear either our numbers or our weapons. If we’re outnumbered, it would be foolish to fight them at a time and place of their choosing. That is the one advantage a smaller force cannot yield. Without a good plan of our own, I say we should retreat, march north toward Akkad for a few days, and send for more men and supplies.”

All the other commanders dropped their eyes. No one wanted to propose an embarrassing retreat, and only someone with Hathor’s experience and proven valor had the strength to make such a suggestion.

Eskkar grunted. “First, let’s make it clear that these men are soldiers under good discipline. That means they’re probably ready for whatever we do, and they won’t be afraid to face us in battle. If we retreat, they won’t just let us go. They’ll nip at our heels all the way back to Akkad if we let them, attacking us at every opportunity. By the time we gather enough men to confront them, the countryside will be ravaged beyond repair, and a whole growing season lost. But Hathor is right. We must not fight on their terms. We must select the time and place of battle, and use it to crush them.”

“And how will we accomplish that trick?” Grond asked.

“We must do what they don’t expect,” Eskkar said. “They’ve made their plans, and they’re waiting for us to advance or retreat. Instead, we must devise something different. The first thing I want to do is stop moving south. Our men are tired from eight days of marching. They need a rest anyway, if they are to fight well. So we’ll stay right where we are tonight and all day tomorrow. The next day, we’ll begin marching back north, and at a good pace, as if we’re afraid to remain this far south any longer.”

He turned to Hathor. “If you were in their place, what would you do in response?”

“I’d send the horsemen to loop around us, get in front of us,” Hathor said without hesitation. “They could delay our escape until their main force of fighters, if there is one, closed up behind us. With so many horsemen, they could easily slow us down.”

“I agree,” Eskkar said. He let his eyes reach each man, and saw that all of them, even the dour Egyptian, had smiles on their faces. They knew their commander well enough to know that he had something planned. The idea that Eskkar had mulled in the back of his head all morning had taken shape. The gamble would be great, and if his plan failed, his entire Akkadian force would be at risk. Nevertheless, he couldn’t come up with anything better. He would put forth his plan. His commanders would add their suggestions and improvements, and when they were finished, their confidence would unite them once again into a deadly fighting force.

Eskkar returned their smiles. “Here’s what we’re going to do. The first step is to convince our enemy that their plan is working.”

Every head leaned closer. Eskkar began scratching in the dirt with his knife. Soon stones and more knives marked the earth, each signifying places where forces could be arrayed. They talked and argued, offered suggestions and criticisms. Their voices rose and fell with the heat of their emotions. By the time the sun sank toward the western horizon, the plan had grown complete. As Eskkar expected, his experienced fighting men had expanded and improved his idea.

From a distance, the rest of Akkad’s soldiers watched in silence. A few of the veterans had seen such a war council before, and knew that a difficult and dangerous plan would soon put them in harm’s way. But those same veterans looked unworried. In battle after battle, Eskkar had always outwitted his enemies. At least, until now.

W hen the war council ended, the Akkadians camped for the night, grateful and all the more relaxed after they learned they would not be marching tomorrow. Eskkar and his commanders huddled about the campfire, reviewing and refining their plans. When yawning slowed the conversation, Eskkar told everyone to get some sleep. He took one last turn around the camp to make sure every man had prepared himself to fight in case of a surprise attack. Respectful of his adversaries, he’d readied his men for the possibility of a night or dawn raid. Finally satisfied, Eskkar rolled himself in his horse blanket and, for the first time in five days, slept as well as any of his men.

A strong guard kept watch over the camp and its horse herd. Whatever happened, the horses had to be protected. A night raid to stampede them would be ruinous.

In the morning, Eskkar’s commanders woke everyone well before dawn. When the sun rose without any signs of enemies approaching, he let his men break their fast, though weapons remained close at hand.

Afterwards, Eskkar and Grond studied the land surrounding them.

“Those low hills over there,” Grond said. “I think I saw movement along the crest.”

Eskkar grunted. He’d studied those same hills, and hadn’t seen anything. “I remember when I had eyes as keen as a hawk. Now I need others to search out any signs of life.”

Grond had five less seasons than Eskkar, though most people thought they were of the same age. “Less than a mile away. Close enough to keep an eye on our camp and count our numbers.”

“Swordplay will carry that far,” Eskkar decided. “Maybe you can swing a blade with Klexor. He’s big enough to make plenty of noise.”

Grond laughed. “Who gets to win?”

Klexor’s stocky body was the largest in Eskkar’s mounted force. Hathor stood a bit taller, almost as tall as Eskkar, but lacked the bulk to his body.

“Decide for yourself. Then you won’t complain afterwards. But let’s start with the men. And send out scouts to the north and west first. That will give you and Klexor time to prepare for battle.”

The hilltops that probably contained the closest enemy scouts lay to the south and east, and Eskkar didn’t want to disturb their vigil by sending outriders in that direction.

Not long afterwards, a fight broke out in the Akkadian camp. A dozen men began pushing and shoving, fists swung, and men staggered to the ground, only to rise again and rejoin the fray. The commanders quickly broke up the quarrel, and the grinning men fell back on the ground, trying to look properly subdued.

Eskkar and Grond looked on with satisfaction at the performance.

“Now you can try your hand with a sword. I’m betting on Klexor.”

“It would be close,” Grond agreed. “But we’ll put on a fight that should send the Sumerians a message.”

“Let’s hope it’s the one we want them to hear.”

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