17

One month later…

Eskkar and Grond, accompanied by four Hawk Clan guards, entered the grounds of Akkad’s main barracks. As the sounds of busy lanes faded somewhat, Eskkar took a moment to enjoy the soldiers’ quarters, where much of his life had been shaped. During the days when he held the post of Captain of the Guard, the barracks housed all the soldiers as well as their weapons and horses. The once familiar stable smell had finally departed, along with the horses. A large corral across the river now held most of the soldiers’ mounts, with the remainder stabled at a smaller holding area just south of the city. When the time came to tear down the malodorous horse pens, the soldiers completed the task in half a morning, glad to see the last of the odor-rich structures. A favorite punishment for petty infractions, many men had labored there over the years, cleaning out the muck in the hot summer sun.

New barracks soon sprang up to accommodate the growing numbers of men learning the art of war. These provided additional housing for the recruits as well as weapons’ storage. The training ground, located at the back of the barracks, remained untouched, however.

As he strode across the grounds, Eskkar missed the horse smell. He and a few others who grew up in horse country claimed they could still catch the scent of the endless streams of horse piss that had soaked deep into the earth. While others complained about the foul odors, even the faint scent of horse sweat always reminded Eskkar of his youth and life with the clan.

“Have you heard anything about the training?” Eskkar’s long legs covered a lot of ground, forcing Grond and the guards to hurry to keep up.

Gatus had started training a group of recruits as spearmen less than a month after the meeting at Rebba’s farm.

“Nothing much.” Grond kept his tone non-committal. “I know Gatus added new recruits now and then, and lost a few, too, but he hasn’t told me anything. And none of his men will say a word.”

Eskkar glanced at his friend and bodyguard. Only Gatus could convince Grond to keep a secret. “It’s been almost three months since he started training them. He better have something to show for it. How hard can it be to teach a man to use a spear?”

Grond knew better than to answer that kind of question.

They turned the corner at the barracks, and Eskkar found Gatus waiting across the open space for them, sitting on his stool and holding a wood rod the thickness of his thumb in his hand. The Rod of Gatus, as long as his arm, had become part of the soldiers’ tradition, and few recruits managed to escape its touch. A good whack on the arm or back, Gatus explained, helped each man concentrate on the orders of his superior, usually shouted in the recruit’s face at the top of his lungs.

The instructors, too, used their rods almost as freely as Gatus, until even the slowest witted of the recruits learned instant obedience to their superiors’ orders, no matter how seemingly senseless or humiliating. During the early months of training, while the men’s bodies grew hardened by exercise and constant practice with their weapons, that lesson remained the most important. All orders must be obeyed at once, with no exceptions and no excuses. The reason was simple enough. In battle, the enemy cared nothing for how weary or ill or hung over a soldier was. The sooner every recruit learned that bitter lesson, the longer they would stay alive in combat.

Over time, as the men increased their skill level, the physical abuse tapered off, and the trainers’ efforts shifted to more and longer periods spent practicing with bow, sword, and knife. Another skill every recruit had to master was wrestling. It not only strengthened the men’s bodies, but also taught them how to fight unarmed. And as the long and arduous days of physical effort passed, the men grew more confident not only in themselves and their skills, but in those of their companions at arms, the men who trained at their side, and who would someday fight beside them.

Gatus had long ago mastered the art of turning farm boys into soldiers. Eskkar had acknowledged that fact early on, and given Gatus responsibility for training Akkad’s archers. Still, while many knew how to train fighting men, the old soldier had learned the best ways to turn individual fighters into a fighting unit. Under his hard tutelage, the men gradually formed a bond with each other. As Gatus had explained many times, first you beat the recruits down, showed them how weak and pitiful their strength and skills were compared to their trainers. That humiliating demonstration usually sufficed to drive the recruits to train harder and harder to master the skills demanded of them. By then, every recruit hated his trainers as much as any enemy they would face in battle.

When done properly, the grueling ordeal helped the men learn to work and fight together, each one determined to prove to their hard taskmasters that they could not only withstand the brutal discipline, but take strength from it. As that happened, each man’s sense of pride increased. With each improvement in his fighting skills, that sense of worth grew stronger and stronger. Gradually a fighting unit took shape. What started out as a rag-tag group of individuals developed into a band of brothers that learned to take care of its own, the stronger helping the weaker, and the more skillful assisting those who needed extra work.

Months later, when the recruits had turned into true soldiers, they looked back in awe at what they had accomplished. By then many had changed beyond recognition, muscles bulging where none had existed before. Skills with their weapons progressed as well, from barely knowing which end of a sword to pick up, to supremely confident. Only then did the men grudgingly admit that perhaps their vigilant taskmasters had known all along what they were doing.

Now Gatus had turned his attention to this new force of spearmen, letting others train the archers and sword fighters. What would result from all this remained to be seen.

“Well, Gatus, your men look fit enough,” Eskkar said as he approached, raising his voice so that everyone could hear. He got the words out before Gatus could complain about Eskkar’s late arrival. “What are you going to show me?”

“My spearmen are ready to show you what they’ve learned.” Gatus tapped his rod against his other hand. He, too, spoke loud enough to make sure everyone heard. “Why don’t you and Grond stand over against the wall, where you’ll be out of the way?”

Eskkar and Grond moved to the side of the barracks, the Hawk Clan guards trailing behind them. Gatus waited until Eskkar and his guards complied, then slid off his stool, tossed it aside, and turned to face his spearmen. Behind him, thirty men stood in two ranks, each of them carrying a shield and a spear, and with a short sword at his waist. Leather helmets made the men look both taller and fiercer. Every spear rested on its butt, the bronze tip pointing at the sky, as the men awaited their orders. Half the spears, Eskkar noticed, extended a forearm length longer than the others. He realized something else. These men had awaited his arrival for some time, standing patiently in the warm sunshine without shifting about or shuffling their feet. No men Gatus ever trained would be found sitting about in the shade when the king arrived. Each man looked confident, and the eyes that followed Eskkar’s movements showed no hint of fear or awe.

Eskkar knew the importance of hard discipline in building morale. Unlike steppe warriors, whose honor guided their training from the youngest age, villagers first needed to be taught to obey before they learned how to fight. Warriors had learned these lessons as far back as anyone could recall. Eskkar accepted these ideas without question, since that was the way of the steppe warrior. The villagers, without any real clan or code of honor of their own, needed a teacher like Gatus and his methods as a way to gain respect. By the time the recruits took pride in themselves and their fighting skills, they had also learned the most important lesson of all, that of trusting and caring for the soldier who fought beside you. The months of shared suffering they’d endured bonded them to their fellow soldiers. They learned to trust not only their own skills, but those of the man next to them.

Because, as Eskkar well knew, that’s what made a man fight, not some cause or even hope for a few pieces of gold or loot now and then. You fought because your sense of honor demanded it; you fought because your friend stood at your side and you could not think of letting him stand alone. And you fought on when all appeared lost, because your friends had died beside you, and how could you do anything less to honor their memory than give your utmost? Most of all, you fought because you had mastered the skills that would carry you to victory, and that belief in yourself and your weapons made each man determined to stand strong against his enemy.

Over the years, while Eskkar wandered the land, he came to understand better the code of the warrior, and the way it helped keep him alive. His father Hogarthak had taught his son well in that regard, so well that even as an outcast boy struggling against an unfamiliar and harsh world those lessons remained ingrained in Eskkar’s mind. Still, he had never quite mastered the teaching of the same lessons to others. Eskkar could lead men in battle, could even train them well enough, but Gatus could turn raw recruits into a fighting unit better and faster than anyone Eskkar had ever seen.

With this group of spearmen, Gatus had worked hard with each leader of ten to make sure his subordinates knew just how far to go with the men. Recruits needed to be cured of their former habits, but not broken in spirit. When they finished their training, they would be accepted into Akkad’s warrior ranks, and have the status that came with their oaths to defend their king, their city, and their fellow soldiers.

For many, it was the first time in their lives that they had ever accomplished something so difficult but so rewarding. Whether it was hitting a target at a hundred paces with a single swiftly launched shaft, or taking a man down with three powerful sword strokes, men soon learned more about themselves, about what they could do and accomplish, than any weapon they took to hand.

Now Eskkar glanced at a small assemblage on the training ground. For more than a month, he had chaffed at Gatus and his slow and patient methods. Every few days Eskkar had asked Gatus when the first group of spearmen would be ready.

“Soon.”

The laconic reply grated on Eskkar’s nerves. Nevertheless, he’d learned during the siege of Akkad to leave the training to Gatus. In those days, Eskkar had been stunned to hear that it would take many months to train a competent archer. He’d fumed at the delay, amazed that so simple a weapon required so much time for a novice to master. But Gatus had proved himself right. One of the reasons why Akkad’s archers remained so formidable was their complete mastery of their weaponry.

But did teaching a man to use a spear take as much time as learning to use a bow and arrow? This time, he held his tongue, just in case Gatus once again proved himself right. And Eskkar had plenty to occupy his time. He’d spent many days in Nuzi helping establish the gold mine and clearing the nearby countryside of bandits. Visits to Bisitun and the other northern cities took Eskkar away from Akkad for long periods as well. And whenever he returned, there were always the nobles, merchants, traders and craftsmen to deal with, all claiming some urgent need that no one besides the king could resolve.

Yesterday, just before the sun had set, Eskkar had returned from the north once again. This time Gatus met him at the Compound. “My first group of spearmen is ready for you to see. Come to the barracks in the morning.”

Gatus’s demeanor provided no hint as to what would await Eskkar at the barracks.

“I’ll be there.” He resisted the temptation to ask what he would see, or to add that it had taken long enough to whip a few men into shape.

O nce again Eskkar studied the men. They all looked confident, and he recognized the nervous movements that revealed the excitement that lay just below the surface. Gatus had worked with these men for months, testing, changing, and refining his ideas on how spearmen should train and fight. No longer a group of raw recruits, the men standing behind the old soldier had suffered months of hard discipline and physical labor. Now Gatus felt satisfied that they had mastered their craft, and that they stood ready to demonstrate their skills.

“All right, you men,” Gatus called out. His booming voice echoed over the training ground. “Let’s show our king what we can do.” He gave a command, and the men turned to the right, transforming themselves instantly into a column of twos.

“Carry spears!”

The weapons bobbed upward for a moment, then came down, until each spear hung naturally at the end of each man’s right arm, the point held slightly outward, so as not to jab the man in front.

“March!” The barked order started the soldiers moving forward.

Gatus paraded them back and forth in front of Eskkar. The men marched in a straight line and moved in unison. Three subcommanders stepped along at the men’s side, noting how each movement was executed, and correcting and encouraging the men, though not loud enough so that the king’s group could hear the words.

Eskkar noted that every man took his first step with his left foot, so that their arms and legs moved together. That would be important, because if the men got out of step, they would be more likely to trip and fall over each other. The long spears they carried would make that dangerous enough. It wouldn’t take much to poke out someone’s eye.

The line of spears moved together, each weapon remaining level with the earth as the men marched back and forth. The drill continued, the men marching this way and that, until Eskkar felt his attention wandering. He expected more than just watching men march back and forth. And with the spear held loosely at arm’s length, the spearmen didn’t look particularly dangerous.

At last, Gatus gave the order to halt and the column stopped directly in front of Eskkar, resuming their original formation of two ranks, but about seventy paces away from where he stood. Another command swung the line around.

“Attack positions!” Every spear was raised in a smooth motion, held just above shoulder height, each man gripping his weapon with the palm facing upwards. The rear rank took one step forward, so that they stood just behind the front rank. Shields were raised to eye level, covering almost all of the man’s body.

For a moment, all Eskkar could see were the soldiers’ eyes peering over the tops of the shields. They stood almost shoulder to shoulder, the tips of the weapons extending to the front.

“Advance!” Gatus’s voice again rang out over the training ground.

The spearmen, in perfect step with each other, moved toward Eskkar, and he saw that all the men carrying the longer spears now formed the rear rank. Their spear points protruded almost as far forward as those of the men in front. A compact line like that would brush aside any line of swordsmen, who needed room to swing their weapons. And even if you could get close enough to take a swing, the spearman’s shield would deflect the blow, and any swordsman would probably be gutted by at least two spears for his efforts.

Eskkar saw all this at a glance as the line approached, covering the distance with long strides and without hesitation. If they didn’t stop, he and Grond would be pinned like rabbits to the barracks’ wall. Grond saw the same impending danger. His sword rasped from its scabbard and he took a half-step in front of Eskkar, just as Gatus gave the command to halt. The spear points hung in mid-air, two paces from Eskkar’s chest.

Taking his time, Gatus walked casually from behind his men to stand at Eskkar’s side. “Well, next time you’re late, I may forget to give the order to halt.”

The men didn’t laugh. Gatus’s rod, which he still held in his hand, would have instilled silence into their ranks. Still, Eskkar saw plenty of grins covering their sweaty faces. At least he hadn’t been frightened enough to draw his own sword.

“Impressive. I wouldn’t want to be facing them on open ground.”

“Spears up, at rest!” Gatus shouted, and the men raised their weapons to the vertical, then let the butts drop to the earth. Gatus moved closer, but he kept his voice loud, making certain that his men heard the words of praise. “This line of spearmen would tear through any enemy.”

“They would at that,” Eskkar agreed, impressed by their skills. “But against archers, how would they stand up?”

“The shield covers most of the body,” Gatus explained. “In a real fight, they’d be wearing bronze helmets. You’d lose a few to arrows, but attacking at a run, most of the line would reach the enemy intact.”

Or so it was hoped, but now wasn’t the time to talk about doubts. Eskkar took a step forward, stopping in front of the nearest spearman. He reached out to take the spear, but the soldier refused to let it go. Eskkar tightened his grip and pulled harder, putting his own muscles into it. The soldier slid forward, feet struggling to hold his position, but didn’t release his grip. The man’s arm, Eskkar saw, was as thick as most men’s legs.

“They’ve been taught never to let go of the spear,” Gatus said, tapping the rod against his thigh. “Give the king your spear, Drannah.”

No doubt Gatus knew the name of every man in the ranks. The soldier let go of the weapon. Eskkar hefted the spear, surprised at its weight. Far too heavy to throw more than a short distance, it was meant to thrust, to push through a thin shield or a man’s body. The slim bronze tip, carefully fitted and bolted to the shaft, would enter smoothly, and be withdrawn just as easily, with little chance of snagging on clothing, flesh or shield.

“Each man has been trained to thrust with the spear, and to fight with his sword if the spear breaks or gets entangled with the enemy,” Gatus explained. “The shield gives plenty of protection, and each man is responsible for guarding the man on his left as well as himself. And the shield can be used as a weapon itself.”

“Show me how they fight with swords.”

Gatus nodded, and his trainers took over. The men broke ranks, leaned their spears against the barrack wall, and reformed. Once again, the soldiers repeated their maneuvers, now carrying their short swords. They advanced, striking out with the weapon as they moved. The sword, Eskkar noted, was never swung, only thrust with short, stabbing motions, either straight ahead or upwards. Using the weapon that way meant thrusts to the belly, chest and throat. That went counter to Eskkar’s instincts. The long sword he carried was meant to strike in an arc, hitting with the edge of the heavy blade and cutting through flesh and bone from the pure force of the swing. The usual intended target was your opponent’s head or shoulders. The sharp point allowed a mounted rider to vary his attack, or stab downward, but that was seldom the first choice in a fight.

Nevertheless, Eskkar realized the benefits of thrusting with the point of these much shorter weapons. Less muscle was used, and the stroke could be launched faster. He guessed a competent soldier could get in two or three thrusts before a warrior could swing his blade a single time. Also, a man went down as fast or faster with a blade in his stomach or bowels. As long as these men had the shield to protect them, that way of using the sword would be deadly to anyone in their path.

The soldiers broke into groups of two, and each practiced against his companion, thrusting with both sword and shield. Eskkar saw that they used the shield as efficiently as the sword, shoving it forward, or thrusting with the edge. Used together, they made a deadly combination. He’d fought against men armed with shields and swords before, but the shield had served mostly for defense against an attacker’s sword, not part of the killing process. Gatus had learned something new about the craft of killing, Eskkar decided. Once the tactic spread, there would be one more enemy maneuver to worry about.

When the exhibition ended, the men were tired, hot, and covered with sweat. But not one of them had shown any sign of weakness in the way they carried their shield, sword or spear. Precision had marked every one of their movements, all thirty of the men moving as one. Gatus had not only trained them well, Eskkar decided, but he’d hardened their bodies to match with their weapons. He’d taken untrained recruits, selected the strongest men he could find, and toughened them up. And just as important, he’d shown them how to fight like a unit.

Eskkar had learned many lessons during the siege of Akkad, but one lesson had stood out. To win a battle, it wasn’t necessary to have the most men on the field of battle. Quality and training could make up for numbers. A small force could defeat a much larger one. He proved that with his handful of archers against the might and numbers of the Alur Meriki. Eskkar remembered how many months the bowmen trained, until they could stand exposed on the wall and launch arrow after arrow without flinching, powerful arms drawing each shaft to its full length before releasing. Now Eskkar would have to do it again, defeat a much larger force with a smaller, better-trained one. Except this time it would be spearmen such as these leading the way.

And they would have to lead, he decided. Gatus had the right answer. The new army of Akkad would be built around men like these. Archers and horse-mounted fighters would still be critical, but Eskkar realized their main function would be to enable the spearmen to close with the enemy. To support that effort, bowmen and cavalry would need to learn new ways of fighting as well. That training for the horsemen had also begun, far to the north in another training camp near Bisitun, and now yet another tactic needed to be taught — how to attack or defend against enemy spearmen. One thing Eskkar had no illusions about — whatever new trick or tactic Akkad developed, their enemies would learn about it soon enough, and add it to their own capabilities.

“Are you satisfied?” Gatus demanded, breaking into Eskkar’s thoughts. “With a few hundred men like these, I could cut my way through any army.”

“No, I’m not satisfied,” Eskkar said, raising his own voice. He wanted to be sure the men heard his words. “Tomorrow I want you to start marching these soldiers as far as they can walk, march their legs off, until they can cover twenty miles a day. When they can march that distance, carrying all their weapons and a day’s ration of food and water, and still be ready for a fight, then I’ll be satisfied.”

He heard the groans from a few of the men.

Frowning, Eskkar pushed past Gatus and stepped to within three paces of the spearmen. “Listen to me, you men. In the battle with Sumer, my archers marched twelve or fourteen miles at night, carrying their swords and bows, and then fought a battle at dawn. If they can cover that much distance in the dark, you should be able to do twenty in daylight.”

That stopped the spearmen’s complaints. Eskkar didn’t mention that the men had traveled light, with no food and almost no water.

“Twenty miles is a long march,” Gatus said, moving up and standing at Eskkar’s side. “A man would have to be tougher than bronze to make that distance.”

“Then start with ten,” Eskkar said, “and keep them at it until they can do twenty. I will want to cover even more distance than that in time. And I want all my soldiers to move quickly, as fast as we can move. If we’ve learned one lesson, it’s that the side that can react and move the fastest is going to have the advantage.” He strode up and down the line of spearmen, studying their faces up close, looking each man in the eye.

“Unless you’re not as tough as my archers,” Eskkar suggested. “Or if you prefer to have the enemy pick the time and place of battle.”

“NO!”

He smiled at the unanimous response that echoed around the training ground.

“Then tomorrow we’ll see what you can do,” Eskkar said. “And I’ll march with you, just to show you it can be done. Will you march with me?”

A cheer went up this time. The soldiers were as excited as he’d expected. A long day’s march had just turned into a challenge. To march with the ruler of Akkad, to show him what they could accomplish, that would be something to boast about in the alehouse.

“Dismiss your men, Gatus. We’ll leave at dawn tomorrow.”

Gatus turned the men over to the leaders of ten, with orders to prepare for tomorrow’s march. Then he joined Eskkar and Grond.

“Can they do twenty miles, Gatus?”

“They’ll do whatever you can do, Captain. But I’m too old for that kind of walking. I’ll be riding my horse, laughing at all of you stumbling along in the heat.”

“Maybe I’ll join you,” Grond said.

Eskkar knew his bodyguard hated walking as much as he did. He also knew that Grond would not allow himself to ride while his commander walked.

“You’ve trained them well, Gatus,” Eskkar said. “Now I want at least five hundred more of them to start, maybe more if we can find enough men, each as strong and well trained.”

“Five hundred! I was expecting to train only another hundred or two.”

“You’ve got one year, Gatus, that’s all. When they’ve completed their training, you can pay them the same as the archers. You were right. These men are going to be the core of our strength. Keep training them until they can march and fight in their sleep.”

Trella estimated it would take at least one year before a new threat from Sumeria materialized, more likely two. But Eskkar knew it was always better to prepare for the worst.

Gatus shook his head. “Spears, swords, shields, helmets, sandals, pay, not to mention food, ale, whatever, it’s going to take a lot of gold to support so many men. Not to mention time and work to train them.”

“You’ll find a way, Gatus. And the gold will be coming soon from the mine at Nuzi. Ask Trella about the training and weapons, too. She’s always full of ideas. Oh, I forgot to ask. Can these spearmen stop a charge of horsemen?”

For once, Gatus was at a loss. “I’m not sure about that. We’ve never tried anything against cavalry tactics.”

“Well, you’d better figure out a way. Spearmen are no use to me if a few hundred mounted riders can brush them aside. Sumer will have plenty of horseflesh, and I’m certain we’ll see all of it sooner or later.”

Eskkar smiled at the frown on Gatus’s face. Catching the old soldier off-guard didn’t come easy. “Come, Grond. We need to get back to the house. Gatus has plenty to do to get ready for tomorrow’s march.”

With the Hawk Clan guards leading the way, Eskkar and Grond left the barracks. Gatus remained where they left him, deep in thought. Eskkar knew the old soldier wasn’t wasting any time worrying about tomorrow’s march. His subcommanders could handle those simple preparations. No, Gatus would be wondering how to stop a mounted charge. Still, if anyone could think of a way, Gatus would come up with something, though Eskkar was willing to gamble that Hathor would be involved in the solution.

T he following night, Eskkar blew out one of the two candles illuminating the chamber and eased himself down onto the bed with a small grunt of relief. His back hurt, his feet were blistered, and his face still burned from the heat of the sun. The bed’s softness cradled him and he let himself relax with a groan of relief.

“You shouldn’t have marched with the men,” Trella admonished. “Turn onto your stomach and I’ll rub your back.”

“In a moment. I’m too tired to move. But at least I led the men out this morning, and back this evening.”

“I watched a few days ago as Gatus led them through their drills. They looked very efficient, very dangerous.”

He hadn’t known she had visited the barracks training ground. Leave it to Trella, to want to learn something new. Only a few dozen villagers were allowed in, mostly soldiers or the wives of the more senior men. Of course, she had blended in with the women, no doubt with Annok-sur at her side.

“Gatus had an easy day, since he rode out and back.” Eskkar let out another groan of satisfaction, glad to be off his feet.

“As you should have done. The men wouldn’t have thought any less of you for riding.”

“I wasn’t carrying a spear or a shield. And by walking with them, I got to know them. I spoke with every man on the march, and I’ll remember at least a dozen names. It was a day well spent.”

He reached up and touched her breast. Her nipple hardened and he smiled at the sight. He liked arousing her, joining with her passion.

“First, roll over,” she said, ignoring his attention. “I want to practice my massage.”

Eskkar turned onto his stomach and cradled his head in his arms. Trella knelt with her knees on either side of him. Her hands pressed hard against his back as she leaned forward, fingers probing deep into the muscles.

“Ahhhhaa,” he said, giving a gasp of pain mixed with pleasure. “Is this more of what Zenobia taught you?”

Zenobia was the woman who operated Akkad’s most famous and luxurious pleasure house. Trella had befriended her when she arrived, alone and vulnerable. After the Alur Meriki were driven off, Trella gave Zenobia the gold needed to buy and operate the house. Now the finest pleasure girls served the choicest wines to Akkad’s leading merchants. The strong drink loosened their tongues, and everything they said reached Annok-sur’s ears. Only a few of Eskkar’s closest circle knew of the relationship.

“Oh, yes, we all practiced on each other, especially on Tammuz and En-hedu. I can still see the blush on his face.” Trella’s hands, which had started kneading her husband’s lower back, moved up to his shoulders, each new movement eliciting a further moan of pleasure.

“Zenobia has a slave girl named Te-ara,” Trella went on, “who is well-practiced in the art of massage. Zenobia brought Te-ara to Bisitun to teach En-hedu the secret art. I traveled with them, to watch the training and see what I could learn for myself.”

Eskkar knew that she had gone north to Bisitun for a few days, near the end of En-hedu’s training.

“When I left, En-hedu had learned a dozen new ways to pleasure her husband, sometimes with Zenobia and Te-ara and me helping.”

“I’d blush, too, if four naked women were fondling my manhood day after day.”

Trella laughed. “We spilled his seed so many times, he begged for mercy. His eyes went wide with fear when we approached. Zenobia and Te-ara drained his poor member so often, he could scarcely walk afterwards.”

“He probably enjoyed every moment. Does he still care as much for En-hedu? Or did Zenobia and Te-ara steal his love?”

She laughed again, and moved her hands to the muscles across the top of Eskkar’s shoulders. “He cares for En-hedu more than ever. I’ve seldom seen a man so smitten with his woman. He would die for her, and she for him.”

“I wonder how they’re doing in Sumer. Have you heard from them?”

“No, nothing, but it’s too soon. They may not even have arrived there yet. Besides, it will take them many months to settle in and figure out what is happening.”

“And if they’re discovered?”

“Then that will tell us something as well. It will tell us that King Eridu is wiser than we think, that his men are quick to guard his secrets.”

“Tammuz and En-hedu will die slow deaths.” His voice drifted lower, as the effects of a long day and Trella’s ministrations began to take effect.

“They know the risks, husband. They both want to fight for you and for Akkad, and this is the only way they can.”

“And Yavtar vouches for this merchant…”

“Gemama. Yes, as best he can. When the war comes, even Gemama may be of use to us. I think you should turn over now, husband, before you fall asleep.”

She moved off his back, and he wearily rolled over, another long sigh of relief escaping from his lips. Before he could protest, she cupped his manhood in both hands and began to massage it.

“I may be too tired for that,” he said, letting his eyes close. But his hand reached out for her breast once again.

“That’s what Tammuz kept saying. Let me show you what Zenobia taught us for such times.”

In moments he was rock hard and gasping at her grip. Satisfied, she moved astride him with a sigh of pleasure. “See how easy it is to arouse a man.”

Wide awake now, Eskkar thrust himself upward, feeling the heat from her body. “You are still the most beautiful woman in Akkad.” Then he could say nothing as she twisted her body, tightening her muscles and grinding herself against him on and on, until his heart pounded and his seed burst inside her.

Later, as they lay in each other’s arms, he had just enough strength to whisper in her ear. “You are the only woman for me, Trella.”

She understood how hard it was for him to say such words. “And you are the only man for me.” She kissed his neck, pressed herself against his shoulder, and held him until he fell asleep.

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