32

Eskkar frowned at the well-worn tracks that led to the valley north of Bisitun. Three months ago, when he and Hathor first visited the place with a dozen Ur Nammu warriors, the ground showed no sign of anyone’s passage through the land. Now the pristine emptiness of the hill country had changed. From the depth of the tracks, he knew horses, oxen, wagons, cattle, sheep, men, women and even children in increasing numbers had followed the same trail over the last three months, no doubt all of them bearing burdens of one kind or another. Probably not a day went by without another group of men or wagonload of supplies arriving. Still, when Eskkar crested the last hill, a little before sunset, and saw the valley below, he halted his horse in surprise.

“A walled village!”

Grond halted his horse beside that of his captain. “Well, I suppose it is. Not much of a wall, though. Or a village, either.”

Eskkar let his eyes take in the site below. A mud-brick wall, just tall enough to keep a horse from jumping over it, ambled its way across the entrance to the valley. He guessed it to be at least two hundred paces from end to end, maybe even more. A wide gate near the center provided access. Beside the gate, a lone lookout tower twice the height of the gate rose up, its skeletal logs providing little more than a platform where a man or two could stand. Farther behind the wall, huts and tents extended a good distance into the valley, and Eskkar could see three separate horse pens, one of them empty. Smoke rose from several cooking fires, the gray streams curling lazily into the blue sky before following the wind to the east. The ringing sound of a bronze hammer pounding on a shaping stone echoed off the valley’s walls.

As he watched, an empty wagon pulled by two oxen emerged from the gate, no doubt headed back to Bisitun to pick up another load of whatever goods Hathor and his commanders needed. The men conveying cargoes between Bisitun and here would be earning plenty of coins for their hard labor.

“All this, in only three months.” While Eskkar had seen how well villagers could dig and build during the siege, this matched anything he’d seen at Akkad.

“Hathor knows his business,” Grond said. “You picked the right man to build your cavalry.”

They rode down the hill, followed by the ten Hawk Clan guards who had accompanied Eskkar all the way from Akkad. The lookout guard saw their approach, and raised a shout that must have carried halfway up the valley. In moments, six bowmen appeared from behind the wall, readying their weapons efficiently and taking their stations without anyone shouting orders at them.

Eskkar grunted in approval. The camp’s discipline appeared sound. By the time he and Grond reached the gate, the guards had already unstrung their bows and waved them in greeting. Hathor arrived to join those standing by the gate, hands on his hips, waiting for them.

“Welcome to Horse Valley, Lord Eskkar.” Hathor had a grin on his face. “And good to see you again, Grond.”

Eskkar swung down from the horse, and the two men clasped each other’s arms. “I’m glad I decided to come. It looks like you’ve built a village here since the last time I was here.”

Hathor glanced around and shrugged. “This is nothing. Wait until you see the training ground. Come, I’ve much to tell you.” He called for his horse, and a soldier brought out a fine brown stallion. “Follow me.” He put his heels to the horse and cantered up into the valley.

Eskkar mounted and rode beside him. Beyond the horse pens the valley curved, and he saw another, much smaller wall blocking a cleft into the valley’s walls.

“That’s where the Ur Nammu keep their animals.” Hathor gestured with his hand. “They camp there at night. The masons built it for them in three days.”

Halfway up the valley, Hathor halted. A long house had been built here, along with another corral filled with ten or more horses. “This is where my commanders and trainers sleep. We’ll stay here tonight. That will give me time to order up a feast in your honor, and prepare the men for tomorrow. Too late in the day to start a goat roasting, but we have some chickens, enough to make a good stew. We’ll save the goat to celebrate another day.”

Eskkar glanced up the valley. In the distance, he saw a small herd of horses roaming free. “A feast? Trella told me you were starving up here.”

“Well, we were for the first month. Now we’ve plenty of food, and ale, too, for that matter. Grain, chickens, vegetables, everything we need comes from Bisitun. As the women arrived, they started building ovens, and now they bake bread, dozens of loaves each day. More than enough for everyone. We started giving some to the Ur Nammu, and they started bringing game into camp at day’s end. So everyone is eating well.”

“How many men do you have up here?”

Hathor had to stop and think. “About two hundred men, and another hundred women and children. You’ll see most of them here tonight. When we heard you were arriving in a few days, the first two companies of cavalry had just finished the first part of their training. So I promised everyone a feast in your honor. They’ll all want to see and hear their king.”

That meant another speech. Still, Hathor and the others had made remarkable progress establishing the training camp. Eskkar hadn’t expected any of the soldiers to have completed their training this soon, so they deserved at least a few words of praise. Unlike the steppe warriors who started riding as small children held in their fathers’ arms, many villagers knew little about horses. For them, learning to ride and fight from the back of a racing animal meant overcoming their fears, real enough considering the size and speed of a horse.

By the time Eskkar, Grond and his guards took care of their horses and washed off the dust of their journey in the stream, the preparations for the feast were well under way. Soldiers carried armfuls of wood and started new campfires. Women and children crowded about, as curious to see the man who ruled their lands as to do the cooking. Two grinning soldiers dispensed and guarded the ale supply, but provided each man and woman with at least a cup of ale. Eskkar guessed that a few soldiers would be drunk before dark.

Everyone wanted to talk to the king. Every soldier, every recruit, found some excuse to visit Hathor’s little camp. Even the laborers and craftsmen soon heard about Eskkar’s presence and joined the crowd. Children, some barely able to walk, wandered over to stare in open-mouthed silence at the dark-haired man, though most soon decided that the tall and somber figure looked no different from any other man, and they wandered off to play their games.

Many people brought their own food with them, content to sit on the grass as close to Eskkar and his companions as they could get. He wanted to talk to Hathor, to learn what progress had been made, but it proved impossible. When Fashod, Chinua and four other smiling Ur Nammu warriors joined them, a shout of welcome rose up. Eskkar had never seen or heard anything like that before, villagers cheering barbarians. He still felt it odd that excited people often shouted out his own name.

With a smile, Eskkar forced himself to relax. The feast would have to come first, and from the looks of the ale being poured, it would go on for some time.

I n the morning, Eskkar’s head throbbed with pain. He’d eaten too much food, drunk too much ale, and in general behaved more like a half-drunken warrior than a king. Now he stood outside, pissing on the rocks that lay scattered behind the house and sighing in relief. The ground in front of the house had been trampled flat, but at least none of Hathor’s men lay there in a stupor. The Egyptian had seen to that, making sure everyone got a few cups of ale but no more. By now every man, aching head or not, had returned to his station.

When Eskkar walked back into the house, he found Grond waiting, holding a cup of water that contained only a splash of ale.

Eskkar drank it down without pausing. It helped, but it took a second cup to quench his thirst and ease the pounding in his head.

“Grab some bread, Captain,” Grond suggested. “Hathor’s waiting with his commanders.”

Eskkar clenched his jaw. More embarrassment. They had let him sleep while others had gotten up at dawn and gone about their business. Yesterday’s ride to the valley had been long and tiring, but probably no worse than the day’s training many of the men had undergone. No doubt everyone believed he was getting old and needed his rest.

The gloomy thought darkened his brow, and he followed Grond out to the side of the house, where Hathor had set up his command post.

The Egyptian greeted them. His face had resumed its somber look. Now that Eskkar thought about it, last night was the first time he’d ever seen Hathor laughing or even smiling so much.

He motioned for Eskkar to sit on the ground beside him, and Grond took his station just slightly behind his king. Instead of the usual circle, seven subcommanders faced their leaders, and one look at the ground explained that arrangement. A rough model of the valley had been dug into dirt, showing the long valley, the horse pens, and the training grounds.

“We’ll start here, Lord Eskkar,” Hathor began. “After we explain what we’ve done, we’ll inspect the training grounds, and my commanders will give you a demonstration of their men’s horsemanship.”

“Good.” Eskkar tried not to sound impatient, though he wanted to see the recruits in action, not stare at the dirt. Still, one had to begin somewhere.

“I’ll start with the horses,” Hathor began. “The Ur Nammu still break most of them, but a few of my best riders have started helping them with that. It’s a difficult task. The men get thrown, stepped on, and one particularly clumsy fool managed to break his arm.”

Eskkar realized that one of the men facing him had his left arm in a sling. A few of Hathor’s commanders chuckled at the remark, and Eskkar saw the sheepish look of the man with the injured arm. Eskkar nodded in sympathy. Such accidents happened to everyone sooner or later. Men were thrown or fell from the horse, stepped on, scraped against trees and shrubs, and even bitten. Horses that would charge full speed into a battle might take fright at a blowing bush and either bolt or start bucking. Any such sudden motion could launch their unsuspecting rider through the air. And, of course, these things usually happened just when you thought you had the animal under your control.

“Once the animal can be ridden,” Hathor continued, “we spend most of the morning riding them around the valley and the nearby hills, getting horse and rider used to each other. The Ur Nammu showed us their way of caring for their mounts, so now each rider cleans, grooms and feeds his own horse. We even have a few extra mounts for the trainers. We rest the animals during midday, to save them from the heat, while the men train with swords, knives, lances and bows. We don’t have enough bows to go around, but the bowyers in Bisitun are working as fast as they can, and the Ur Nammu have contributed a few more every time they return from their main camp. We’ve a good supply of lances already.”

“Can our men handle the bow while they ride?” Eskkar had worried about this since he first envisioned using cavalry much the same way as the barbarians did — to charge their enemy, loosing shafts as they rode, before wheeling off and forming up for another attack. If fifty men launched five or six arrows during each charge, that meant close to three hundred arrows raining down on the enemy force, with very little opportunity for them to shoot back. Barbarians considered this their most important tactic, especially when used against dirt-eaters or, in the case of Sumeria, massed infantry.

“We’ve less than twenty men learning to use that weapon, and their progress is slow,” Hathor admitted. “But they’re improving, and I think it can be done, at least for some of the younger and better riders. We’ll have to see, but their Ur Nammu teachers expressed satisfaction with their progress. Those who can’t are taught how to throw a lance. That’s difficult enough to do from horseback, but some of our men are getting good at it.”

Barbarians such as the Ur Nammu learned to ride and shoot from a horse’s back almost from birth. Eskkar understood that villagers would never achieve a steppe warrior’s level of skill in a few months, if ever. He knew he could not do it himself. His training with the clan had been interrupted before he had a chance to master the bow from the back of a horse. Not that he would ever have been very proficient. Eskkar was too tall to be a good archer from horseback, and his large hands lacked the dexterity needed to draw and nock an arrow while riding at a dead run.

“If using a bow can’t be done, Hathor, don’t waste the men’s time. I’d rather have a good rider flinging a lance and swinging a sword than a poor archer fumbling with a bow.”

A lance — usually not any taller than a man — made for a deadly weapon when thrown from the back of a charging horse. With the speed of the animal to add strength to the rider’s arm, a flung lance could pass right through a man’s body or impale a horse. In the last few months, Eskkar had spent quite a bit of time practicing with that weapon. Since he knew he could never shoot a bow on the run, the lance gave him the best weapon to strike an enemy at a distance.

“We have many months before we have to make that decision,” Hathor replied. “And you’re right, not many will be able to master that kind of archery. Right now the main thing is to teach the men how to ride and fight from horseback. Learning to ride well is a difficult and painful task that takes months to master. We’ve had two men killed so far, and lost a few horses to broken legs. Both men had their necks broken after being thrown. Now as soon as we think a man won’t make a good rider, we stop his training. No need to waste men or horses. And I’ve had to send back a few men, those who couldn’t control themselves or the horse while swinging a sword.

More than a few. Eskkar had heard the reports of those who couldn’t master the needed skills. Still, the numbers were fewer than he’d expected. Not everyone had the strength in their legs and back that enabled them to keep their seat while guiding a galloping horse across rough ground with one hand, and swinging a sword with the other.

Just as important was each rider’s sense of balance. A man needed to know how and when to lean forward or to the side, how to move with the animal. Striking with a sword required plenty of balancing ability. Otherwise the rider would crash to the earth with the first blow. To use a bow from a fast-moving horse required even more balance, since you needed two hands to use the bow. And you still had to guide the horse with your legs, voice, and the halter, while snatching another arrow from the quiver and fitting it to the bowstring, another task that took plenty of practice. Hand and leg movements had to guide the horse with precision, while the rider kept his balance with the animal racing beneath him.

Hathor waited a moment, then continued. “To train so many horses at the same time requires plenty of work. Like their riders, some horses, even after they’re broken, aren’t meant for warfare. Almost all of the horses we select are about thirteen to fourteen hands high, which gives them the size and bulk needed to carry a man and his weapons. Still, some taller animals don’t have the endurance, and a few smaller ones do as well as their taller brethren, though we make sure those mounts are matched with a small rider.”

Every barbarian, including Eskkar, preferred to ride his largest and strongest horse into battle. “And the Ur Nammu have found enough horses of that size to bring to us?”

“Yes. Subutai has his men out riding all the way to the steppes, to gather more wild stock.

“At least those animals will know how to fight. Unlike the tame horses raised in the villagers’ corrals.”

A horse raised in the wild could be a fearful fighter. Life in the herd involved biting, kicking and banging into other horses. Stallions fought and often killed to protect their mares, and the mares fought to protect their colts. Those same instincts made for a good warhorse.

As the sun rose higher in the morning sky, Hathor explained the rest of his training procedures, stopping often to answer Eskkar’s questions. Twice, Hathor turned to one or another of his commanders for a more precise answer. By then Eskkar knew all their names and responsibilities.

“Now I think it’s time to inspect the horses, Captain. And while we’re doing that, my men will prepare for the demonstration. We’re going to have two forces charge each other, so you can see how they ride and how they fight.”

Eskkar climbed to his feet. His head had cleared, and he felt rested and refreshed. It would be good to feel a horse between his knees again. “Come on, Grond. Let’s see what these men can do.”

“They can ride, Captain,” Hathor assured him. “And I think they’ll fight well when the time comes.”

“Then my trip was well worth the effort. After your commanders have finished, I’d like to ride with your men and take some practice with a lance. I don’t always get enough time in Akkad.”

Hathor nodded. “Then I’ll join you, if I may. We can hurl a few dozen lances and see how many targets we can hit. And since I saw you practicing your swordsmanship with a lance in your left hand, I’ve been doing it myself.”

“I learned that from Gatus. He has his infantry using their spears in all manner of ways. You never know when it might come in handy to have a second weapon.”

“Let’s hope we never need it in a battle,” Hathor said. “But always better to prepare for trouble than be caught by surprise.”

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