Two days later, just before the sun reached its height overhead, a small procession wended its way out of Akkad’s river gate. The party walked along the path that followed the riverbank for half a mile, then traveled across the fields to the sprawling farmstead owned by Rebba, one of the nobles who helped rule Akkad. Though the nobles had lost some of their authority after Eskkar’s rule commenced, they still retained much influence, and ruling the city without their support would have made that task even more difficult. With this new challenge to Akkad’s future looming, both Eskkar and Trella knew that the nobles’ advice and consent would be critical.

Noble Rebba and his family owned several large farms, which made him the wealthiest farmholder in the lands close to Akkad. His crops and herds contributed much to the city’s prosperity, and its inhabitants respected both his wisdom and courage. In the fight against Korthac, Rebba had gambled his life and that of his family on Eskkar’s behalf.

Rebba’s farm lay less than two miles north of Akkad and along the Tigris. Eskkar and a small force of soldiers had landed their boats there two years ago. He’d raced down the river from the village of Bisitun to recapture Akkad from the Egyptians who had seized both the city and Trella.

Trella and Eskkar led the way toward Rebba’s holdings, accompanied by Grond, Gatus, Bantor, Alexar, Hathor, Mitrac, Yavtar, and Klexor. Annok-sur walked behind Trella. Though Annok-sur had no official duties, everyone knew she controlled the large network of spies and informers that Trella had established throughout the city, the surrounding countryside, and even in distant villages. Many considered her the third most powerful personage in Akkad, after Eskkar and Trella. Six guards accompanied the group, one of them leading Eridu by a rope tied around his neck.

The distance made for a pleasant walk in the open air, surrounded by breezes from the river and the clean scent of crops growing in the fields. Rebba had constructed a half dozen small footbridges over the intervening canals, which carried vital water to his fields. Travelers to and from his farm and Akkad no longer needed to splash through the muddy canal waters to reach their destination.

A small pack of dogs began barking as the group approached the farmhouse, but a servant quickly chased them away, reassuring the animals that the new arrivals meant no harm either to them or their master. Nevertheless, the half-wild creatures kept a watchful eye on the visitors as they walked past, and Eskkar heard their low growls.

The little cavalcade reached the main house, which was not much larger than the other half dozen structures surrounding it. They didn’t enter. Instead they moved around to the rear, where they found the rest of the gathering waiting for them in the shade of two willow trees. Branches formed a green canopy overhead that blocked most of the sun’s rays. Whenever a breeze sprang up, the leaves rustled and sighed in a distinct voice, depending on the direction of the wind.

Rebba had gathered three tables and placed them end to end. Another table off to the side held wine, ale, bread, water, and fresh fruit, enough to satisfy any hunger until the main meal would be served just as the sun went down.

As the host, the Noble Rebba sat at the head of the table, his cousin Decca sitting beside him; Decca had sponsored many of the craftsmen and small shops which served Akkad’s inhabitants. Nobles Nicar and Nestor, who helped rule the city before Eskkar and Trella took control, had also taken seats. Noble Corio, the newest member of the ruling group, was the artisan who constructed Akkad’s walls; he sat beside Yavtar and faced Nestor and Nicar across the table.

When Eskkar and his party arrived, everyone took time to greet and welcome each other. All the leaders of Akkad, all the men of importance to Eskkar’s rule were there, with the exception of Sisuthros who governed the large village of Bisitun to the north. There hadn’t been enough time to summon him. Under Eskkar’s authority, these men made all the decisions that governed the daily lives of the thousands of people in Akkad.

At last everyone settled in, leaving only the guards and Eridu standing a few steps away. Eskkar took his place at the opposite end of the table, facing Rebba. Trella sat at her husband’s right hand, while Annok-sur occupied a stool just behind her. Gatus and the other commanders occupied benches on either side.

“Noble Rebba,” Eskkar began, “I thank you for welcoming us to your house. In this heat, to gather so many inside Akkad’s walls would have meant a long, hot day. And I want to thank you for offering to guard Eridu. Trella believes that his wound will heal faster here than in Akkad. He’s promised to pay eight hundred gold coins for his ransom, so we need to keep him alive. A Sumerian river trader arrived in Akkad from the north yesterday, and we entrusted him with the task of delivering the message to Sumer and Eridu’s family.”

All eyes turned to the Sumerian. Eridu appeared pale and weak, his tunic dirty and his feet bare, nothing like the ruler of a mighty city. His fever had broken, but bandages covered his right forearm, a yellowish stain marking the end of his stump.

“So this is King Eridu,” Corio said, “who wanted to bring war and destruction to Akkad.”

Elevated to his position as a result of Eskkar’s rise to power, Corio could seldom restrain his impatience with what he called the old ways. He’d built the wall that had saved Akkad from the barbarians two years ago, and now directed the massive effort to raise newer, stronger, and higher ramparts around the expanded city that continued to grow faster than anyone thought possible. He never hesitated to speak his mind. As Trella once remarked, you always knew what Corio was thinking.

Eridu lifted his head and let his eyes take in the leaders of Akkad, but he said nothing. After a moment, he returned his gaze to the ground.

“He doesn’t have much to say, does he?” This time the comment came from Nestor. “I owned two of the farms your men ravaged. One of my cousins is missing, probably dead at your hands. What do you know about those raids?”

“Answer him,” Eskkar ordered.

Eridu’s lips trembled at Eskkar’s words, and his eyes revealed a glimpse of the hatred the Sumerian possessed. But fear overcame his hatred, and he knew better than to disobey Akkad’s ruler. “I know nothing of your cousin. Many bandits raid the land on both sides of the border. I accompanied my soldiers to drive them off.”

“You marched three hundred men on foot, from Sumer to well north of the Sippar river, to chase after your own horsemen,” Eskkar said. “Did you intend to follow them all the way to Akkad?”

“We were preparing to return when you attacked us.”

“He thinks we’re fools,” Corio said. “Perhaps we’d be better off separating his head from his body.”

“King Eskkar has promised to return me to Sumer when the ransom is delivered,” Eridu said, a trace of defiance in his voice. “Eight hundred gold coins. A boat took the request south this morning.”

“It’s not too late to change our minds,” Eskkar said. “So I’ll give you a choice. Tell us the truth, or I’ll cut off your other hand. Your kin can feed you and wipe your ass for the rest of your life. I’m sure it’s a duty they will look forward to.”

Eridu’s eyes widened. A glance at those seated at the table convinced him. Stony eyes showed not a trace of mercy. Not one would utter the least word to stop Eskkar from carrying out his threat. Eridu swallowed nervously. “What do you want to know?”

The story came out with a little prodding, none of it new or surprising. Sumeria needed the land, the cities in the south had a rightful claim to it, Eridu was merely carrying out the will of the people. After a while, the questions died out. The king of Sumer had wanted fresh lands and the glory of a conquest. Nothing more really mattered.

Eskkar nodded to Eridu’s guards. “Take him away. Rebba’s servants will show you where to put him.”

“I still think we should kill him,” Nestor said, when Eridu was led around the side of the house. “When he gets back, he’ll just start preparing for war all over again.”

“I think it’s best to let him go,” Eskkar said. He and Trella had discussed Eridu only last night. “Better to have an incompetent fool ruling in Sumeria. If he ends up dead, we may find ourselves facing someone worse.”

“And the gold will be useful to compensate those who lost their farms,” Nicar said. “The question now is, what are we going to do? The lands of Sumeria, including the six cities, possess four or five times as many people as we do, maybe more, and their wealth, taken together, is far greater than Akkad’s. If they stand united, and are determined to wage war against us, we could be facing a long and bitter struggle just to survive.”

“Our southern border stretches from the Euphrates to the Tigris,” Gatus said, “and then follows the Sippar river to the east. That’s close to two hundred miles from one end to the other. It will be impossible to defend it all.”

“You can’t patrol a border area with archers,” Alexar added. “We’ll need horsemen, and plenty of them.”

“There aren’t enough horses in the land for that,” Rebba added “And the expense of maintaining so many animals… Eridu’s gold will be long gone before you have a tenth of what you need.”

Raising and maintaining good horseflesh took gold, and plenty of it. Corrals had to be built, cleaned, and maintained. A horse went through large quantities of grain and grass each day, and needed to be exercised as well. Then each beast had to be trained to fight, to charge ahead when its instincts made it want to falter or turn aside. That required skilled riders who understood horseflesh, who could teach both men and animals how to form a battle line, charge the enemy, and run a man or a horse down. It all took time. Even in Akkad, only the wealthy could afford the luxury of owning a simple riding horse, let alone an animal trained for war.

“Eskkar, you say that Eridu was ready to do battle with your archers?”

“Yes, Nicar. His men had a large number of shields, and even more javelins. The shield-bearers expected to charge our archers, supported by the javelins, until they could close the distance.”

“And do you think this tactic would have worked?”

The table went silent for the first time, and every eye lifted to Eskkar.

“Yes, I think it would have succeeded. As long as they could close with us quickly, it might have worked. We were greatly outnumbered. Even if we drove them off, our losses would have been heavy. Without shields of our own, the javelins would have been deadly to our men. A few breaks in the line, and the enemy could have poured through and overwhelmed us.”

“So our archers will not be able to overcome superior numbers, is that what you’re saying?”

Eskkar poured some water into his cup and took a sip, using the moment to gather his thoughts. “Not necessarily. Our archers are well trained. We pick only those men strong enough to bend a bow and empty three or four quivers without weakening. As Gatus can tell you, it takes many months, four to five at least, to harden their muscles. An archer must learn not only how to loose an arrow, but how to gauge the distance, hit a moving target, and stand beside his fellows.”

“When an archer is fully trained, he is a deadly and efficient soldier. But for all that, the archer has his own weaknesses. Unless he’s in a defensive position, he’s vulnerable to surprise attack, night attack, or even attack within close quarters. Outside of a city and its walls, he needs horsemen to scout for him, so that he can prepare to come to grips with his enemy. Archers also need someone to guard their rear. In the fight against Eridu’s men, I had to use our horse boys to watch our backs.”

“So you’re saying our archers are of little use outside the city?” Nicar’s voice held a trace of worry.

“No. What I’m saying is that up to now the archers have been our strongest force. But that will have to change. We need to prepare for a different kind of war, a longer conflict, and we will need new kinds of soldiers.”

No one seemed happy to hear Eskkar’s words, least of all his own commanders. Most of them had trained and fought as archers. Using their bows, they’d won yet another victory over superior numbers, and now they heard their leader say that their efforts might not be enough. The nobles were equally unhappy. A long and drawn out war would be a drain on all of them. Trade would be the first casualty. Already the nobles contributed large amounts of gold to pay for the building of Akkad’s walls, and the ongoing support of the city’s fighting men. In return for that contribution, they expected peace and security for their farms and trading ventures. A protracted conflict with the Sumerian cities would drain much of their wealth, with little to show for it.

“Do you think we can win this new kind of war?” Corio, impatient as always, drummed his fingers on the table.

“Yes, we can win this war,” Eskkar said. “As we’ve all seen, battles are not won just by having superior numbers of fighting men. We drove off the barbarians, and we outfought Korthac to reclaim our city. Both times our fighters were outnumbered. Until now, we’ve taken great care in selecting recruits. Now we need to use all the manpower we have available to us, even those we’ve passed over when we select our archers.”

Eskkar glanced at Gatus, the captain of the guard, and the oldest of Eskkar’s commanders. Everyone respected both his courage and his words. More than that, the nobles trusted him. Born and raised in Akkad, he always spoke his mind and never cared whom he offended. Approaching his sixtieth season, he’d trained most of Akkad’s fighters, and helped Eskkar develop his battle plans and tactics.

“What do you think, Gatus?” Eskkar shifted to face the old soldier. “Can you answer Corio’s question?”

“Eskkar and I, and all the commanders,” Gatus began, gesturing with his hand to include the rest of the soldiers, “have talked about such things for years. Now it is time to do more than talk. We’ll need soldiers who can fight on foot, who can attack an enemy with sword and spear. And we’ll need horsemen, many of them, to act as our eyes and ears, and allow us to strike at our enemies far from Akkad.”

The old soldier spoke with passion. Gatus had seen every kind of enemy, and knew what to expect. Whenever he spoke, men listened. But everyone at the table knew Akkad had nowhere near enough men, nor horses, nor gold to pay them.

“If we have to fight an extended war with Sumeria,” Nestor said, “the expense may be more than we can support. Perhaps it would be better to negotiate with the Sumerians, to make peace with them. They may have learned their lesson. We could even offer them some of the borderland.”

Trella reached out and picked up her water cup. The simple gesture turned every eye toward her, as she knew it would.

“Lady Trella, what do you think?” Once again it was Corio who spoke first.

“Nobles, this conflict between our city and the south will not happen overnight. Eskkar dealt Eridu’s forces a heavy blow. How many men did he lose, husband?”

Of course, she already knew the answer. Trella seldom needed to hear anything more than once. With her flawless memory, she could recall details even many months after hearing them.

“We killed about twenty or twenty-five of their horsemen, and over a hundred and seventy soldiers. Twenty-eight prisoners were taken, and I spoke with each of them. Then I let them go, so they could return to Sumer and the other cities and tell the story of what happened. There were many wounded who we left where we found them, to live or die. We captured most of their weapons as well.”

“That means there will be no more war for the rest of this season,” Trella went on. “And probably not next year, either. Eridu will need time to recoup his losses, and rebuild his reputation. The lost weapons will be expensive to replace, and he will have to pay the ransom as well. His supply of ready gold will be severely depleted, if not exhausted.”

She paused a moment, to let everyone at the table digest her words.

“And, as my husband has explained to me, the defeat of the soldiers will be a heavy blow to their morale. They know they were vanquished by a smaller number of fighters. Their king was taken prisoner. Eridu will not find it so easy to recruit replacements. It will take time before he can again raise a large force of men.”

“So you think we have a few years before the Sumerians begin to trouble us again?”

“No, the plotting will begin as soon as Eridu returns home,” Trella answered. “But the next year or two will give Akkad time to prepare. In that time, there is much we can do. And as Akkad’s leading merchants, perhaps you can find new opportunities for your trading ventures.”

Corio laughed, a long chuckle that turned every head. “Of course, Trella, you’re right. My business will prosper because the increased need for protective walls, not only here in Akkad, but in some of the smaller villages on the border. Nicar’s trading will increase, too, as he supplies us with the ores needed to forge weapons. The city will grow again, as we hire new soldiers, and what we pay them will flow back to us in taxes and increased business.”

“Yes, Corio,” Trella said, letting a smile cross her face for the first time. “If we know what the future will bring, and if we have time to prepare, there is no reason why everyone’s wealth should not increase, even as our soldiers grow in numbers. With Sumer’s defeat, more people will seek Akkad’s protection, more farmers in the borderlands will cry out to join with us. Already the city and the countryside are full of young men who have left their farms to come here. It may be that, in the long run, all of you here today will see your trading ventures prosper.”

Nestor nodded. “Yes, that may all be true. But what happens when the Sumerians march north with thousands of men? How can we defend the border against such a force?”

“We’re not going to defend the border,” Eskkar said. “We’ll patrol it with horsemen that Hathor will train. If the Sumerians come north again, we’ll gather our forces and march south. Akkad’s walls will protect the city, while we invade Sumeria. We’ll ravage their lands and crops. Our threat to carry the war to their cities will be what secures the border.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Rebba didn’t wait for an answer. “It won’t be easy to invade Sumeria. You’ll need supplies and food, and you’ll have to march your men a long distance. And when you do arrive at Larsa, you’ll find yourself facing a walled city full of defenders.”

Larsa, the northernmost of the six cities in the Sumerian alliance, had always been the most troublesome. It would be the first one to face any attack by Akkad.

“Yes, Rebba, that’s exactly what I expect,” Eskkar said. “So that is what we’re going to prepare for. When we tear down Larsa’s walls and put what’s left standing to the torch, the other Sumerian cities will understand the price of crossing our border and attacking our people.”

“And have you considered how you will destroy Larsa’s walls and capture it?”

“Not yet,” Eskkar said with a smile. “My commanders and I meet tomorrow to begin planning for such things. While we train archers, horsemen, and foot soldiers, Corio and his kin will be busy figuring out ways for us to storm a city’s walls. By the time such an attack is needed, we should have both the manpower and the skills needed to capture a city the size of Larsa within a few days. If we can do that, we can end the war.”

“And if the rest of Sumeria fights on,” Nestor said. “Then what will you do?”

“We’ll march to the next city and destroy that one, too. Crush every city that resists, and spare each one that abandons war. Put yourself in their place, Nestor. Would you rather fight or make peace?”

“You assume much, Eskkar,” Nestor answered. “How can you be so certain?”

“It’s not just me,” Eskkar answered. “My commanders think as I do.” He glanced around the table. The soldiers were nodding agreement. “Don’t forget, nobles, many of our preparations will soon be known to the Sumerians. That may help them choose peace instead of war. If they know what we might do to them, they may just decide to leave us alone. But as long as we have something they want, as long as our fertile farmlands tempt them, or they desire to control our trade, they will search for every opportunity to take what they want. If that means destroying Akkad, those who seek power or wealth will demand it. We must be prepared for war, whether it comes as an invasion or more raids across our border.”

No one spoke, and it seemed as if the sighing of the trees gave voice to everyone’s thoughts.

“We fought to save our city from the barbarians,” Nicar said, breaking the silence. “We fought to take back Akkad from Korthac. Would we now give it away to the Sumerians? How much would it take to satisfy their demands? Half our land? All of it?”

“So you think war is the answer,” Rebba said. “Attacking other cities and destroying them?”

“Only if they bring war to us,” Eskkar said. “We have to prepare Akkad to meet whatever threat may come, either next year, or the year after that, or the one after that.”

“No one wants war,” Trella said.

“Then you think we can avoid a conflict?” Rebba directed the question to Trella. He knew she decided Akkad’s future as much — if not more so — as her husband. And that she wanted peace.

“No, I think it will come,” Trella said, “but we may be able to delay it, and we can hope to make any conflict a short one. And it will be better for Akkad if the war is fought in Sumeria, and not in our lands. Then it will be their farms and villages that are ravaged.”

“Whatever course of action we decide, we must speak as one voice,” Eskkar said. “If the people think we are not united, then their resolve will weaken and Sumeria’s desire for revenge will grow stronger. My commanders and I have seen the face of the enemy. We believe Akkad needs to prepare for war. But if the nobles and leading merchants show disagreement, it will give strength to our enemy even as it weakens ourselves.”

“I agree,” Corio said. “We must prepare for war.”

“As do I,” Nicar said. “But with one condition. We must make every effort to maintain peace with Sumeria. I do not want our words or preparations to force them into war.”

“Nor do I,” Eskkar said. “And remember, they have little that we would want. If Akkad is to grow, we will grow to the north and to the west. Sumeria has nothing to fear from us. In time, they should have the wits to understand that.”

“Then prepare for war,” Nicar said. “The sooner we can achieve a lasting peace, the better.”

“Prepare for war,” Rebba said.

Nestor and Decca looked at each other, resignation on their faces. “Prepare for war.”

All eyes went to Yavtar. As one of the most prosperous traders in the city, his opinion carried weight. The half dozen boats he owned plied the river, carrying cargo north and south.

And he had risked his life in the battle to save Akkad from Korthac.

“I spoke with one of the leading merchants in Sumer. Like us, he understands that trade is cheaper than war. It is their leader, Eridu, seeking the glory of a conquest, who brought on this conflict. If we treat them fairly in matters of trade, we may avoid any future raids.”

“To accomplish that,” Trella added, “we want to set up a trading village just inside the border. That will make it simpler to trade with Sumeria, to exchange food for their goods. A convenient trading outpost will make it easier for them to choose peace rather than war.”

“Then we’re all agreed. Good.” Eskkar let his body relax. “Perhaps we can start by trying to convince Eridu of our peaceful intentions.”

“It might be better if I spoke with him,” Nicar said. “He’s not likely to want to hear anything from the man who cut off his hand.”

“No doubt,” Eskkar said. He wanted nothing further to do with Eridu anyway. “Just make sure he knows what he’ll lose if he tries anything like that again.”