56

Day 12

It seemed to Eskkar that he had just closed his eyes when Grond awoke him. Eskkar jerked himself upright. Sounds of men moving about were all around him, not the loud morning sounds of men yawning and complaining themselves awake, but the softer sound of men rising and preparing for battle, and trying to do it with as little noise as possible. When he got to his feet, Eskkar realized that everyone else was already fully awake. A quick glance at the fading moon told him dawn approached.

“Nothing to see yet, Captain.” Grond held a heavy sack in his hand. “Gatus is moving the men in shifts down to the river and back, telling them to drink all they can hold. Every water skin will be filled.”

Grond dropped the sack, and Eskkar heard a clanking noise from within. “A gift from Trella,” Grond said, as he untied the cord that held the sack closed. He lifted a bronze breastplate. “She says you’re to wear this when you ride to battle. Yavtar’s been lugging this up and down the Tigris and Euphrates for days. Says he’s glad to finally be rid of it. I think he was afraid someone would steal it.”

Eskkar started to protest but Grond cut him off. “Don’t argue, Captain. You’ll need this today. Every archer will be aiming at your heart, and we can’t afford to lose you. At least until the battle’s won. Trella told me not to give it to you until just before the battle, so that you wouldn’t have a chance to lose it.”

“Naxos had one like that.” Eskkar had never worn a breastplate. They were difficult to make and cost a great deal of gold. “Will it even fit me?”

“We’ll see. Hold this.” Grond handed Eskkar the breastplate, picked up the back protector and began lacing the two parts together across Eskkar’s shoulders. A few quick tugs, and it slid into place. The two pieces fit perfectly, and Eskkar suddenly remembered Trella a few months ago spending what seemed like half a morning measuring him for a new tunic.

Grond fastened the sides together just above Eskkar’s waist, and the breastplate settled onto his chest.

Eskkar took a deep breath, half expecting to find some excuse to avoid wearing the armor. He felt the weight of the bronze, but it moved smoothly and didn’t seem to affect his breathing. Nor did it seem that heavy, with its weight distributed over his shoulders. At least for now.

Gatus strode over. “About time you were up. Thought you were going to sleep right through the fight. Did he give you any trouble about the bronze?” Gatus wore armor himself, but made of thick leather.

“No, Gatus. I think I caught him before he fully woke. He hardly protested.”

“Well, then that’s taken care of. I had half a dozen men waiting to force him into it.”

Gatus laughed at the thought, and Eskkar wasn’t sure if he meant it or not. With Gatus, you never knew for certain.

“The last of the food has been handed out, and the men are swelling their bellies with water. Everyone’s pissing like mad, either from too much to drink or because they’re scared to death. Watch where you step, there’s shit everywhere. I swear there’s not a tight bowel in any of them. Even I dropped a good load, always a good sign.”

With the reminder, the strong odors of urine and shit caught Eskkar’s attention. The urge to relieve himself became urgent, and he, too, decided to walk down to the river. It was going to be a long and hot day. He splashed into the cool water and washed his face and hands, then drank until he could hold no more, forcing himself to swallow long after his thirst was satisfied, until his belly protested it could hold no more.

His commanders were moving everyone into position when he returned. Grond waited there, holding Eskkar’s horse. The first rays of the sun were starting to lighten the eastern sky, and soon the sun would lift itself above the land of Sumeria. If the Sumerians planned to attack at dawn, they would find the Akkadians ready and waiting.

Grond handed Eskkar a loaf of bread. Eskkar saw there was only one loaf, and broke it in two, giving half back to his bodyguard. “Don’t argue. You’ll need your strength today, too.”

He swung up onto the horse. Boy snorted and pawed the earth, sensing the excitement in the air. To Eskkar’s surprise, he felt relief. For two years he dreaded the coming of this day, even hoped it would never come. Now there was nothing left to think about. He recalled his father’s words: Just kill the man in front of you, and don’t worry about anything else. Well, father, today we’ll see how well you’ve taught me.

The edge of the sun cleared the horizon, and flooded the land with the day’s first light. Everyone searched the landscape, but no enemy moved toward them, though in the distance Eskkar could see plenty of movement from the enemy camp. Sumerian commanders would be moving their men into position as well, though he doubted the task would be done as smoothly as the Akkadians.

“Move the men out, Gatus. And good hunting to you today.”

The old soldier had replaced his usual wide-brimmed hat with a bronze helmet that covered his forehead and protected the back of his neck almost to his shoulders. But he kept the hat with him, hanging by a loop from his belt. Eskkar understood. The battle might not start for some time, and the bronze helmet would heat quickly in the sun.

With the first rays of the sun, the men’s spirits rose. Throughout the camp, men shouted orders, heard them repeated and expanded. Leaders of ten cursed their slow-moving men, pushing the laggards still brushing the sleep from their eyes into position. The spearmen moved out first, leading the way. They marched in a three-deep formation. The archers wearing their leather caps and vests fell into place behind them. Eskkar and Grond guided their horses out of their way, and joined Hathor and Fashod. Shappa and Nivar followed the horsemen, striding along behind them.

“Well, we’ve given them the first surprise.” Hathor jerked his head toward the Sumerian camp. “I don’t think they expected us to be marching toward them.”

“Let’s hope that’s not all they don’t expect. Fashod, your men are ready?”

“Ready? I can scarcely keep them in check. The thought of killing so many dirt-eaters at one time is more than they can stand.”

Eskkar smiled at the Ur Nammu warrior’s words. He hadn’t used the term “dirt-eater” for months now, out of politeness to his allies. “Just keep them under control until I give the signal. Hathor, you’d better take your place as well. Good hunting to you.”

“And to you, my king.” No mere title of courtesy sufficed this day.

The Akkadians kept moving, taking their time. The spearmen marched with their left flank against the Euphrates. They carried their spears loosely, dangling them at arm’s length in their right hands. Each spear now showed a thick wrapping just behind the center of the shaft, to provide a better grip. Bronze helmets glinted in the rising sun. As they stepped forward, Eskkar heard the subcommanders keeping order, making sure the line moved as one. Even today — or maybe today of all days — discipline had to be maintained, and a united front presented to their enemies. Leaders of ten and twenty gave their own commands, to keep each group in its proper place and position.

Just as they were trained, Eskkar thought, watching the familiar spectacle of men moving in formation. He’d seen Gatus march his men out a hundred — maybe two hundred — times before. Well, the routine orders would keep everyone’s mind off the enemy waiting for them. Eskkar knew that the Sumerians would be sweating already. Despite their greater numbers, they knew they would face a determined force.

Eskkar reached his position, at the spearmen’s right flank. He kept the horse at a slow walk, to stay even with the infantry. From his right, nearly eight hundred Akkadian cavalry extended out in a line, also falling into three ranks. Grond moved his horse to Eskkar’s left, while Fashod and Chinua rode on Eskkar’s right. Behind them rode the forty Ur Nammu warriors. They had argued and fought for the honor of riding with Eskkar into battle, and he had finally agreed, as long as they promised to follow orders.

For them, allowing dirt-eaters to lead the way into battle was almost unthinkable to their sense of honor, especially against other dirt-eaters, but they had promised to wait until Eskkar gave the signal to attack. They sat their horses with ease, showing none of the tension or stress that betrayed itself with the slight and nervous movements that the other cavalrymen displayed. While most men dreaded battle, these warriors lived for it.

The small signs of nervousness didn’t concern Eskkar. He knew the cavalry would follow where he and Hathor led them. These men had just raided across Sumerian lands, and already proved their valor.

Eskkar saw Hathor take his station, a third of the way down the line of horsemen. Some of the horses showed as much excitement as their riders. The animals — tossing heads and pawing the ground — sensed the oncoming danger, and relied on their riders to reassure them. For some of the more nervous riders, controlling their mounts now occupied all their attention, to the soft swearing of the companions on either side.

The first third of the cavalry would follow Eskkar. Hathor would lead the next third, to deliver the first blow from the hammer. Klexor and Muta had the next position, with the last third, ready to deliver the second hopefully fatal hammer blow. Drakis commanded the spearmen on Eskkar’s left, expected to be the most dangerous position today. He not only had to lead his men, but ensure that the Sumerian horse fighters didn’t flank him, to attack from behind.

By now every infantry man, every horse and rider settled into their proper place. The Akkadians, despite moving at a slow pace, had traversed almost half the distance to the Sumerians.

“Demons below, look at them!” Grond spoke just loud enough to be heard at Eskkar’s side. “How many men did you say Shulgi had?”

Eskkar, too, had his eyes fixed on the enemy. He needed to grasp their positions and notice their leaders. “More than enough. But Shulgi’s the key to this battle. It’s him that we have to kill. No matter what happens, you make sure he ends up dead.”

“Let’s just hope he isn’t thinking the same thing about us.”

S hulgi and Razrek had finally readied their weary men. Once again, the cursed Akkadians had failed to attack during the night. The stake-filled ditch the Sumerians had dug to entrap the attackers remained empty, another wasted effort. When dawn showed an empty expanse between the two forces, Shulgi had been ready to give the order to advance until he saw Eskkar’s forces on the move, coming straight toward him, spread out in a line, the infantry along the river on Shulgi’s right, the cavalry on his left.

“They’re going to attack us.” Razrek couldn’t believe his eyes. “They’re bigger fools than I thought. They don’t have enough men. We’ll flank them and take them from the rear.”

Shulgi saw the same thing. His line of spearmen and infantry — four and five deep — stretched from the riverbank, across the Akkadian spear-men, and reached past almost half of Eskkar’s cavalry. Razrek’s horsemen, Shulgi’s left flank, extended far to the east, well beyond Eskkar’s line of horsemen.

“Get to your men,” Shulgi said. “When I give the signal, charge straight at him, and let your left flank swing around and attack his rear.”

“Are you going to attack first?”

“No. If they want to come to us, we’ll wait here for them, behind the stakes.”

Shulgi examined his forces, looking up and down the line. His men were regaining their courage, now that they saw how few were the numbers of their enemy. No matter how strong the Akkadians might be, it would only be a matter of time before Razrek’s forces turned their flank and delivered the death blow to their rear. No line of spearmen could fight both front and rear.

“I don’t see any reserves.” Razrek stretched upright on his horse. “Nothing to protect their rear.”

“Good. Then all we need to do is flank them, or punch one hole in their line, and they’re finished. Now get moving. And I don’t care how many men you lose, just get behind them.”

G atus halted the men halfway across the empty grassland that separated the two forces. The Akkadian line rippled and shifted as the men stopped advancing. Sunlight glinted from the bronze helmets and spear tips. The men gulped from their water skins. More than a few had to piss again, but now they had to remain in place, and try not to spray the legs of the man in front of them. When they had finished taking care of their needs, they rested the butts of their spears on the earth and waited for the next order.

The two armies were less than a mile apart. Eskkar glanced to his left, just as Gatus gave the order to resume the slow advance. The initial stage of the attack depended on Gatus getting his men into the proper position, so the old soldier had command of the first portion of the advance.

The Akkadian spearmen resumed moving forward, matched by the cavalry, and gradually closed the gap between the two forces. This march didn’t need to cover much distance, and Gatus stopped the spearmen for the second time just out of bowshot from the Sumerian archers. About a quarter of a mile separated the two forces, but Eskkar guessed that Mitrac’s men might have the range to put a few shafts into the enemy ranks. Eskkar twisted on his horse, and saw that Mitrac had his hand to his mouth, calling out something to Gatus.

Meanwhile, the Sumerians started shouting at their enemies, daring them to come closer. They waved their weapons in the air, and called curses down on the Akkadians. Eskkar couldn’t quite make out the words, but he had no doubt what was being said. Gatus’s men remained silent. Only women and boys talk before a fight, Gatus had reminded them often enough.

One of the Ur Nammu warriors, a young man named Teadosso, disobeyed orders and moved his horse a dozen paces out in front of the first rank. Before Eskkar or anyone could order him back, Teadosso stood up and balanced himself on his horse’s back, both feet pointed the same direction, as he guided the animal down the line of Akkadian horsemen at an easy canter. At the same time, he lifted his tunic and waved his bare backside toward the Sumerian cavalry.

Eskkar, caught by surprise as much as any of his men, couldn’t help laughing at the sight. Teadosso galloped his horse to the end of Hathor’s riders, then, still standing astride the animal, skillfully turned it around and headed back toward Eskkar’s position at the other end of the line. As the horse reversed itself, Teadosso changed his position, so as to keep his rear facing the enemy. More curses from the Sumerians filled the air, but even the enemy probably had to admire a good bit of horsemanship.

Everyone was laughing now. Teadosso returned to Eskkar’s end of the line.

“Get back to your place, you fool!” Fashod ordered, but his tone softened the rebuke. Teadosso dropped down onto the horse’s back and guided his mount back to its original position, and two or three of his grinning companions clapped him on the shoulder in approval.

Eskkar turned toward Gatus, a few hundred paces away. The old soldier rode just behind his men. He waved his sword toward Eskkar.

“It’s time.” Eskkar took a deep breath, drew his own sword, and held it high, then pointed it, not toward the enemy, but toward Hathor. “Move your men out. Nice and slow.” His heart beat strongly in his chest as he gave the order, and he felt that familiar mix of fear and exhilaration that preceded a battle. But it didn’t matter now. Eskkar had committed his men to this battle plan and there was no way to turn back. They could only go forward, to victory or death.

Hathor repeated the signal, and at the last part of the line, Klexor saw the waving sword. He repeated the signal to Muta, who sat on his horse alone at the far end of the line. When he saw the signal, Muta turned his horse to the flank and started walking eastward, as slow as he could make his mount move. Horse by horse, and always remaining in the three-abreast formation, the whole line of Akkadian cavalry faced to the east and plodded after Muta. Screened by the slow-moving cavalry, the slingers walked east as well, always keeping the horsemen between themselves and the enemy.

Eskkar and his Ur Nammu guards were the last to move. Now he was at the rear of the cavalry, which was now being led by Muta at the other end. Behind them, they left the right flank of the spearmen exposed, but two hundred archers moved up to form a double column, not a line, along the infantry’s right flank. When Razrek’s cavalry arrived to turn Gatus’s flank, these archers would have to hold them off.

F rom behind his infantry, Shulgi stared in surprise as he watched the Akkadian cavalry. They were moving east, the horses plodding along slowly, almost as if they were leaving the scene of the battle. As the line extended, a gap appeared between the Akkadian infantry and the cavalry. As Shulgi watched, that gap began to widen.

Razrek galloped up beside him. “Is he trying to flank us? The fools don’t have enough men.”

Shulgi ignored Razrek’s excited utterance and studied the battleground. The Akkadian infantry wasn’t moving. Every spear still pointed toward the sky. Either Eskkar was abandoning his spearmen and leaving the field of battle, or he intended to try and position himself to ride around the end of Razrek’s horsemen and launch an attack at their rear.

“I can see men behind his cavalry,” Shulgi said. “I don’t see them carrying bows. Are they the boy slingers he’s brought with him?”

“He’s going to turn our flank, and attack from there,” Razrek said, ignoring the comments about the slingers. “Your bowmen and infantry won’t be of any help if he attacks from that direction. They’ll be too far away. Let me attack now.”

Shulgi had already considered that option. If he let Razrek attack without support, the Akkadian cavalry might be able to deliver a powerful blow to his own horsemen, while keeping their infantry intact. And if he moved to the attack with his infantry, Shulgi’s forces would be giving up their strengthened position behind the row of stakes. But if Eskkar’s spearmen retreated, Shulgi’s forces would have to chase after them.

As long as he kept his forces together, Eskkar’s men couldn’t attack him effectively. He decided on a third course of action.

“Stop your whining, Razrek. Get back to your men. Keep your horsemen in front of Eskkar’s. Don’t let him flank you, no matter what. Match his movement, but stay in line with our infantry.”

Whatever trick Eskkar might be planning, Shulgi intended to counter it with overwhelming force.

Razrek whirled his horse around and galloped back to the center of his men. “Form a column and move to the east. Keep the Akkadians in front of you.”

The jeers and curses had all disappeared now, replaced by grim expressions. Word spread through the ranks of the Sumerians that King Eskkar was trying one of his usual cunning tricks. Razrek’s horsemen began to move to their left, trying to stay even with Eskkar’s slow-moving cavalry force. It took longer for the larger mass of Razrek’s horsemen to wheel to their left, but once it did, the entire Sumerian cavalry began to shift along with the Akkadians.

G atus, seated astride his faithful mare behind his lines of spearmen, watched the Sumerian ranks in front of him as they stared at Eskkar’s movement to the east. It was obvious that Shulgi intended to remain behind his stakes. Nevertheless, Gatus could see the heads of the Sumerian spearmen following the movement of their cavalry. Without raising a sword, Eskkar had sown some confusion in the enemy’s ranks.

Mitrac came over to stand beside him, his longbow held easily in one hand. The archer carried two quivers slung over his shoulder. “What’s happening?”

Gatus had the advantage of the horse’s height to give him a better view. The rest of the archers standing behind the front ranks couldn’t see much.

“Lots of movement in the lines, but they’re holding firm. They’re sure Eskkar is up to something, but they don’t know what. But don’t worry about him. We’ll be busy soon enough.”

Eskkar had given him the most dangerous and difficult assignment. Gatus had to not only hold off the Sumerian infantry, he also had to distract them to give Eskkar enough time to make his plan work. And the time to begin that distraction had arrived.

“Alexar! Drakis! Move the men forward. And keep it slow!” He turned to Mitrac. “Now it’s up to you.”

Orders were barked, and the line of spearmen rippled and shifted, spears lowered once again to the marching position. Then the three ranks began to move, taking their time, as the formation moved ever closer to Shulgi’s forces waiting behind their line of stakes.

The Akkadians moved slowly across the gap. Mitrac trotted a dozen paces away from Gatus, to keep a better view of his own men. Now Mitrac had to worry more about the disposition of his bowmen than anything else. He was the one who would decide when to halt the formation.

“Far enough, Gatus!” Mitrac had both hands to the sides of his mouth as he shouted the words. “We’ve a bit of a breeze behind us.”

“Halt!” Gatus bellowed the command, repeated by his commanders and subcommanders. The advancing spearmen stopped moving, the line almost as straight and smooth as if they were practicing back in Akkad’s barracks. According to Gatus’s count, they had advanced a little more than a hundred and twenty paces.

Mitrac shouted another command, and his seven hundred bowmen halted, braced their feet wide apart, and put shafts to the bowstrings. The master archer paused to glance up and down the line of archers. Everyone appeared ready. His was the command that would start the actual fighting. “Draw your shafts! Loose! Shoot at will!”

Gatus watched the first flight of arrows whistle high into the sky, level off, and begin its descent. Before they reached the highest part of their flight, another seven hundred shafts were launched. A third wave of arrows flew upwards even as the first wave descended on the enemy. At first Gatus thought Mitrac’s bowmen had stopped too soon, but then Gatus saw the arrows strike the enemy shield wall. Many shafts fell short, but most rained down on the upraised shields. The arrows sounded a soft drumming note when they struck, but Gatus also heard men screaming, as a few shafts found crevices and gaps between shields.

“Keep shooting!” Mitrac bellowed the commands, even as he worked his own bow. “Pull every shaft to the ear! Get them up in the air!”

The Sumerian archers fired their own weapons, but almost all the arrows landed twenty or thirty paces short of the Akkadians. A small enough distance, Gatus realized. A shift of the wind to the opposite direction could bring the enemy bowmen within range.

But for now, at least, most of the Sumerian weapons did not have the same reach. The Akkadian archers needed months of practice to build up their strength, so as to draw the heavy bows to the maximum. Some of these men had trained with their weapons for as many as four years, had fought from the wall against the Alur Meriki horsemen.

Gatus whirled the mare around and glanced at his rear. A steady stream of men trotted from the water’s edge, each carrying four quivers of arrows in their arms. Six of Yavtar’s supply boats had managed to reach Eskkar’s forces just after midnight, along with three fighting ships. Yavtar’s force had encountered King Shulgi’s boats and archers almost twenty miles upriver, and it had taken a hard battle before the Akkadian ships broke through, at the cost of losing five boats. Now the surviving vessels crept along the river behind the marching soldiers, carrying thousands of extra shafts, and stones for the slingers as well, although those weren’t needed yet.

Gatus raised his eyes to the horizon, and saw nothing. Eskkar had assured him that Naxos wouldn’t come out of his city, but Gatus hadn’t been so sure. But the land behind them lay empty. Not even any of Razrek’s men had attempted to swing around behind them yet.

Turning the horse back toward the Sumerians, Gatus glanced to his right. Eskkar and the cavalry had ever so slowly opened a gap of about two hundred paces between the two halves of the Akkadian army. That gap would tempt the Sumerians soon enough.

The bowmen kept launching shafts into the sky, grunting now with the effort to pull each arrow back to the ear before releasing. Empty quivers littered the ground beneath them. Each archer had already emptied one quiver, and their second would be exhausted soon. Those arrows, already more than twenty thousand, would be taking their toll on the enemy, despite the Sumerian shields.

No more carefully timed volleys now. Better to have the arrows arrive continually, Gatus knew, so that every enemy would be afraid to show his face.

Many arrows fell short, but most reached the enemy position. The Sumerian infantry had their shields raised up to cover their heads, but a few shafts here and there would slip over or under the protection, wounding or killing when they did. A shield couldn’t cover every part of the soldier’s body, not unless the man hunched himself down like a dog behind it.

The Sumerian archers returned the volleys. Supposedly, Sumer had two thousand archers, more than twice the number of Akkadian bowmen, but, as Gatus knew, giving a man a bow didn’t make him a bowman. He turned to his right, to see Eskkar still moving slowly away from the Akkadian spearmen. At least Eskkar and his horsemen wouldn’t be under attack by Shulgi’s archers.

Gatus knew they had reached the most dangerous time of the battle. The arrows raining down on the Sumerians would make it difficult to get their infantry moving. But if Shulgi sent his men charging toward the Akkadians spearmen, they would likely be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. Nevertheless, the Sumerians remained behind their line of stakes. They wouldn’t want to give up that position readily. And the odd movement of the Akkadian cavalry would be proving a distraction. Eskkar and Gatus had to give young Shulgi the chance to make a mistake. And making him worry about bowmen on the one side, and Eskkar’s odd maneuvering on the other, just might do the trick.

Gatus turned his mare to the side and trotted over to where Mitrac stood, just behind his double line of bowmen. The young master archer was using his own bow, but Gatus saw that he kept his eyes on his men as well.

“It’s up to you, Mitrac!” Gatus shouted. “You’ll have to loosen that position.”

Mitrac nodded. “We will. Their archers can’t reach our men. We can keep shooting all day if we have to. They can’t stand up to this for long.”

Even as Mitrac said the words, another handful of panting men arrived, carrying fresh bundles of arrows that they distributed to replace those already launched. Thanks to Yavtar’s boats, the Akkadians had plenty of shafts. The old sailor had delivered thousands of arrows with the last of his boats.

Gatus wondered how many arrows Shulgi’s archers had with them. They’d likely lugged those arrows from Sumer to Kanesh to Larsa and now to Isin. The Sumerians would get their first surprise soon enough. They’d be expecting the number of Akkadian arrows to diminish, as the archers shot most of their shafts, but with Yavtar’s last cargo, that wasn’t going to happen, not for some time.

The Akkadian bowmen continued their assault on the Sumerian lines. Gatus could see men going down, despite the shields. And many of the shafts were falling behind the line of spears, no doubt striking at the Sumerian archers, who had to be as close as possible to their front line to have even a hope of reaching the Akkadians. The enemy would be growing nervous, fearful, aware that death could strike at any moment from the sky. Thousands of arrows had already been loosed, with only a few Sumerian shafts able to reach Gatus’s men.

Again Gatus stretched himself upright on his horse. He’d seen movement in the Sumerian ranks. The center, where the enemy cavalry butted against the infantry, had started to thin. Gatus snorted. Perhaps Eskkar’s luck might hold up one more time. He knew Eskkar and the cavalry would begin their charge any moment. Now was the moment to give Shulgi something else to think about. He filled his lungs with air.

“Spearmen! Ready your weapons. Prepare to advance!” Gatus looked up and down the line, to make sure every commander stood ready. “Advance!”

The battle cry “Akkad!” roared from more than three thousand warriors, the first sound they’d uttered today. The spearmen began marching toward the Sumerians, the front rank holding their shields to the front, the second and third ranks holding their shields high, to protect against descending arrows that would soon be arriving in greater numbers, as they closed within range of their enemy.

Behind the spearmen, Mitrac issued his own orders. Seven hundred bowmen continued their shooting, arcing their shafts up into the air, to fall on the crowded Sumerian ranks of infantry and archers. The Akkadian archers moved forward as they shot their shafts, spread out in a ragged line and staying just far enough behind the spearmen so that they could launch their arrows. Without shields, the only protection the bowmen had came from the spearmen, and the fact that the Sumerian archers were now directing their arrows at the advancing infantry, to stop the Akkadian advance.

“Spearmen! Halt!”

Gatus gave the order before the men had moved another hundred paces. His soldiers expected the command, so they maintained their ranks. He waited until all the forward movement had ceased. “Spearmen! Retreat!”

The subcommanders and leaders of ten repeated the command, and the spearmen began backing up, moving with care since they had to keep their shields up and maintain their ranks. Mitrac’s bowmen retreated also, but they kept loosing shafts as they moved, maintaining their position just behind the spearmen. For the Sumerians, this must seem a strange sight, to see their enemy first advancing, then retreating in good order and all the while maintaining their shield wall. Gatus’s men had trained for months to execute such a maneuver. It was an infantry movement he doubted the Sumerians could duplicate.

When the men had returned almost to their starting point, Gatus called a halt. A few bodies lay scattered on the ground in front of his men, so the Sumerians had caused some damage. He saw that Mitrac, too, had lost a few bowmen dead or wounded. They had little protection, just their leather helmets and vests that might stop a shaft at this range, but not if the distance diminished.

But the archers kept firing, and arrows kept leaping off their bows, to rise into the sky and descend on the enemy. Already the front wall of Sumerian shields appeared to be covered with arrows. Something had to break soon, he knew. Shulgi should be getting rattled by now. At least, that’s what Gatus hoped.

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