The field hospital was little more than linen cloths strung between poles to alleviate the worst of the midday sun. Scores of wounded soldiers lay packed beneath them on the bare earth, spilling out to each side of the shade, where the suffering of the battle's survivors had thirst and heat added to the plague of flies that had arrived to torment them. Now the hum of insect wings provided a background to the moans of the conscious victims and the muted clatter and murmur of overworked physicians and their blood-spattered assistants.
Through the scene of devastation walked a young man with fair hair and an aura of authority. His two companions towered head and shoulders above him, but nobody had eyes for them. Every eye turned to watch the young man, and even the dying stifled their groans as he drew near, pale bloodless faces turning to him as if his very presence could turn back the remorseless march of death.
The young man stopped at every wounded soldier, stooping to grasp a hand or touch a shoulder, murmuring a word of thanks or praise, often using the wounded man's name. With some, the young man dropped to his knees and spoke at greater length, remembering past deeds, but no man was ignored--even the unconscious or dead warranted a look or a sigh. His companions stood in silence behind him, watching in pride and awe as their commander gave of his own strength in an effort to strengthen his men.
"How does he do it, Hephaestion?" one of his companions murmured. "He knows every man by name. Even I don't know the names of half the men in my troop."
Hephaestion smiled, his eyes never leaving the fair young man on his knees beside a grizzled, blood-soaked soldier old enough to be his father. "Perhaps when you do, Philippos, you too will be Alexander."
The trio continued onward, the long day slipping toward nightfall. Outside the confines of the field hospital, the Macedonian army cleared the battlefield of the fallen, separating out the bodies of their comrades from those of the Sogdian enemy, and setting up camp for the night. Alexander took no sustenance as he communed with the wounded, taking neither food nor drink, but he looked none the worse for his labours, feeding off the strength of his spirit.
Toward sunset he arrived beside the last handful of men and looked down at a tall fair-haired Macedonian clad in the remains of antique armour, a bloodied band of cloth wound around his head.
"What's your name, soldier?" Alexander asked softly. "You're one of few here I don't know."
"Son of Leonnatos, from the hills behind Pella," Philippos added. "He's in my troop. Brave, if a trifle inexperienced."
"Indeed? I know Leonnatos and as his son you are welcome."
"I...I met you once, sir. At Mieza."
Alexander stared at Nikometros for a minute, and then nodded. "I remember--the white fox cub, wasn't it?"
Nikometros essayed a smile. "Yes sir. And again at Siwa."
Alexander nodded again, the faintest of smiles creasing his tanned face. "How's your head?"
Nikometros lifted a hand to touch his head and bit back a wave of pain. "It will mend, sir," he gasped.
Alexander squeezed the fallen man's shoulder and passed on to the next man. Shortly after, but only when he had comforted the last of the survivors, he accepted a cup of watered wine and a piece of bread. Refusing a seat, the young king looked out over the campsite and then turned to the east, staring hungrily toward the unseen horizon.
"We move out at first light."
"What of the wounded?" Hephaestion asked. "Many will not be fit to travel for days."
"Leave a company to guard them, and half the physicians. They can catch up when they've recovered."
"The more severely wounded?"
"Have them taken to the settlements and outposts. When they recover, they can join the men who govern these lands in my name."
At dawn, the Macedonian army moved on, toward the east once more, leaving over a hundred wounded behind them. Days later, most of them were well enough to start in pursuit of the vanished army, but Nikometros and a score of the others found themselves sent to tiny military outposts scattered in the wake of conquest, where small detachments of soldiers strove to keep the peace, a handful of Macedonian soldiers amidst thousands of newly subjugated tribesmen. By the time the wounded recovered fully, the army was far to the east and their duty now lay with the garrisons that had taken them in.
One such outpost lay on the southern borders of the great rolling plains of grass known as Scythia.
Razor-sharp shadows cast by the harsh sunlight made the landscape unreal and forbidding, adding to the feeling of unease that had been gradually washing over Nikometros, son of Leonnatos. The patrol had been following the tracks of the bandits for half a day--tracks that led into the stony, barren hills near the Oxus River--without finding them. It was as if they had sunk into the dry ground or taken wing. Desolation met Nikometros' eyes in every direction as he scanned the valley and rock-strewn hillsides--the desolation of a largely lifeless land. The few signs of human existence, crude stone and timber dwellings, were now in smoking ruins.
The stench of burning flesh hung heavy in the still, hot air, and the sounds of his horse picking its way between the stones on the uneven path were flat and muted. Flies, ever-present, rose in swirling clouds as the horse's shadow fell over nameless carrion, settling again a moment later. His horse shied as a vulture squawked and beat its way slowly into the air, and Nikometros leaned forward, patting the stallion's neck, soothing him. "Easy, Diomede, easy!"
Horse and rider picked their way slowly over uneven ground past a burned out hovel. A dirty, unkempt figure moved slowly on foot alongside him, kicking aside bits and pieces of pottery and other debris that lay scattered by the side of the track. The buzzing of flies, the soft clop of hooves and the muted jingling of harness were the only sounds invading the silence. Nikometros scanned the rocky ground ahead, seeking the danger he knew must be near but finding nothing. His head ached, bright sunlight spearing his red-rimmed eyes, and he removed his antique bronze helmet, raising a hand to touch the scar that lay beneath his sweat-soaked hair. He looked up to where a few kites circled high above, almost lost in the intense blue of the mountain sky, the sight reminding him of the cold airs above the mountains of his homeland. The crush of heat as he lowered his eyes to the Scythian mountain wastes was almost too much for him.
Nikometros shifted his weight when his stallion fidgeted, stamping and trying to turn as another horseman came up alongside him. He turned to see his friend, Eumenion, smiling at him.
"There's nothing here, Niko. We should head for home."
Nikometros felt again the pang of injustice as his friend spoke. They were of equal rank, but Eumenion was his superior by a month. That was enough to give him command of the patrol, even though Nikometros had seen more fighting than his companion.
"I disagree," Nikometros murmured. "The bandits obviously passed this way and recently, but I don't trust our guide. He keeps assuring me they are nowhere near."
Eumenion glanced at the figure of their guide standing stolidly by Nikometros' horse's head. Short and solidly built, clothed in dirty rags, and reeking from accumulated filth, his body blended in with the desolate rocky ground. His dirty face gazed vacantly at the hills around them.
"I'm not sure he's capable of guile, Niko," he replied. "He hardly seems aware of us."
Nikometros reached down and tapped the guide on the head, grimacing as he did so. He was sure the man was covered in lice.
"Raiders...where are?" he said, twisting his tongue around the recently learned syllables of the Scythian tongue.
The guide looked up at him with a blank stare then shrugged and pointed once more up the valley.
Nikometros cursed softly. "A plague on this language, 'Menion. I wish I knew enough of it to really question him and find out where he's leading us. I'd also feel happier if we had enough men to send out a proper scouting party."
"All the more reason to head for camp then. There's nothing happening here."
"But they've been here. You can see the bodies, the pillaged huts."
Eumenion looked around and yawned. "They're only natives, when all's said and done. Oh, all right, Niko, a compromise." He pointed up the valley. "We'll go as far as the crest of the ridge. If we see nothing, then we head home. Agreed?"
"I'll move them ahead then."
Nikometros snapped off a sardonic salute, wheeled his horse, and galloped back to the men waiting further down the dusty track. The body of horsemen broke into a trot when Nikometros beckoned them forward, clattering forward over the rough ground. They displayed little discipline, joking and chattering to one another as they rode. Nikometros upbraided the first of them but the men, mostly older recruits, took no notice. Instead, he contented himself with examining the men as they passed, putting a name to each face, scrutinising their equipment, noting how each sat his horse.
"Ten only," he muttered to himself. "And only half-trained recruits at that. May the gods keep us." His right hand went to the ornate gold armband around his left arm, as it always did when he was worried. The armband had been his mother's, and her mother's before her, a trophy of some long forgotten war with the Illyrians on Macedon's northern border. It featured a woman's upper body merging into the coils of a serpent. A prized possession, Nikometros felt that some daemon of good luck resided within it. He rubbed it absentmindedly, hoping his luck held for them today.
Spurring his horse forward Nikometros took up a position near the head of the column, the guide running alongside and holding onto his horse's mane. The valley narrowed, the path steepening, and the rock walls drew together in a short but narrow defile before rising to the ridge crest, marked by two large boulders. When they entered the mouth of the defile, Eumenion raised his hand, and slowed the column to a walk. Nikometros scanned the rocky hillsides, looking for any sign of movement. Only the sun-baked earth met his intense gaze, waves of heat distorting the air. A few scraggly trees sprawled over the boulder-strewn ground, casting harsh shadows in the bright sunlight. Sweat trickled slowly down his back. Flies gathered in a small cloud around him, settling around his stallion's eyes and mouth. It tossed its head irritably, snorting. Nikometros shifted uncomfortably, the worn, leather straps of his armour digging into tensed muscles. He slipped his helmet back on, immediately feeling the sweat pour out and soak his hair.
The column moved slowly forward, penetrating deeper into the defile. Eumenion moved up beside Nikometros, his brown gelding whickering softly at the golden stallion.
"It's too quiet, Niko," Eumenion said nervously. "We should turn back."
Nikometros frowned. "You said the ridge crest. It's not far."
"It's a good place for an ambush."
"Then we will have achieved our purpose and found the bandits." He stared at Eumenion. "We continue?"
Eumenion hesitated, and then nodded.
Nikometros searched the pass in front of him with his eyes, before turning to the fidgeting column of men and horses behind them. "Move forward slowly, and as you love your lives, stay alert as we go through there."
He pointed his sword at the guide, who looked up at him impassively, scratching his armpit. Nikometros leaned down, gesturing with the sword.
"There up take," he said then cursing, tried again. "Take us up there, but if you lying, I kill you, no make mistake."
The guide looked sullenly at him before turning away. The column of horsemen, with the two officers at its head, moved slowly up the path and through the defile in single file, passing between the larger rocks at the crest of the ridge. Nikometros looked keenly about him when they topped the ridge, but could see no sign of danger. The shade cast by the large boulders was a short but welcome relief from the heat. Nothing stirred on the slopes, on either side, as the column moved slowly over the ridge crest. The path before them descended steeply for fifty paces before leveling out.
Nikometros pointed to the level space. "We can rest there before we turn back." He found himself rubbing his armband again, and dropped his hand self-consciously. The horses' hooves slipped in the loose scree, the clatter of the rocks and the jangling of metal sounding loud in the baking immobility of the bare hillside. Nikometros slowed and looked back to check on the men, seeing the last of them emerge from the shadows of the rocks on the ridge crest.
"That cursed fool's half asleep," he muttered to himself. Nikometros opened his mouth to shout at the soldier swaying on his horse. A shadow flitted across the sun and something whispered in the still air. He glanced upward, glimpsing swift movement above. Eumenion grunted beside him, and Nikometros swung round to face his companion.
Eumenion stared back at him; a wide-eyed empty look of horror, and his hands scrabbled at his throat. He opened his mouth and blood cascaded down his chin. The officer slid slowly back off his horse, falling limply to the ground. Nikometros watched all this in numbed disbelief, the silence and lack of awareness of danger making the events seem unreal. Eumenion lay on his side on the stony ground, an arrow shaft in his neck propping his head up. His dead eyes seemed to be looking back up the trail.
Unthinkingly, Nikometros glanced in the same direction. So little time had passed that the trooper swaying on his horse in the shadows of the rock was still falling, and two others began to fall with him. A shout of warning left his lips as reality flooded into his mind. Nikometros jerked his horse's head round, seeking the guide, but the man had disappeared. As another volley of arrows whistled overhead, he saw figures moving on the far slope, many more than he would have expected. Nikometros looked back at his friend's body for a moment then shook himself back into reality, cursing as he realised the folly in delay.
"Men, to me!" he yelled. "Form up on me...shields over your heads."
One of the soldiers surged back up the path, whipping his horse frenziedly. A man stepped out from the shadows on the ridge crest, and cast a spear, taking the horse low down in the neck. The horse screamed and reared, throwing its rider. Before the man could rise, two youths were upon him, hacking downward with short swords.
The remaining men closed on Nikometros, jostling his horse. Strained faces peered around shields as they struggled to maintain a position close to him. The clatter of arrows on the shields brought back an instant memory of hailstones on the wooden roof tiles of his uncle's hall near Pella, and of safety. He felt a strong desire to lose himself in pleasant memories as the weight of his responsibilities fell upon him. His friend Eumenion was dead. Unless he took some action--instantly--he would be joining him in Hades, as would his men. It was now his duty to care for the troopers. He looked quickly around, taking in the situation.
"Listen, men," he cried, pitching his voice to carry over the din. "We are going to have to break free, and we can't go back through the pass. Follow me down the valley. Keep in close formation, shields up!"
Nikometros kicked his horse in the ribs, pulling his head towards the slope and urging him onward. The powerful stallion leapt forward, plunging down, scattering rocks, and slipping in the loose rubble of the scree slope. High-pitched cries came from the hillside when the ambushers saw their prey escaping. Another volley of arrows followed, but these already fell short as the surviving troopers fled. Aware of riders close behind him, Nikometros spurred his horse on harder, fighting for control on the steep slope, the angry cries of the archers fading rapidly as his small troop raced onward. Down onto the valley floor they fled and, eventually, out onto a broad grassy plain at its base. The Macedonians fled onward, only slowing as their mounts tired.
Pulling his horse up, Nikometros turned to look back at his men, afraid of what he would see. Only five remained. Sweaty, dirt-streaked faces stared back at him, eyes wide, seeking reassurance from their only surviving officer. The men wheeled their mounts round, looking back the way they'd come, quaking at the thought of pursuit. Horses panted and snorted, their coats covered with foam, muscles trembling from the effort of their flight. Nikometros flicked his eyes over his men, registering who remained. He recognised Timon, an older grizzle-bearded Macedonian.
"You, Timon...I saw Doriskos and Thyses fall. What happened to Leonidas and... who was that new man, Periscus was it?"
"Fell in the first volley sir," Timon grunted. "And another three of us took wounds. What do we do now, sir? We can't go back through that valley."
Nikometros did not want to think of what must be done. His mind cringed at the responsibility so suddenly thrust upon him. Five of the men dead...gods! And Eumenion too...He put his shock and grief aside, thinking furiously. We can't risk going back over the ridge, but the hills are low at this end of the mountain range. Perhaps we can go around them. The Oxus River must be close too, and there's a small garrison on the river, closer than our fort. Maybe two days ride. Lifting his head, Nikometros raised his voice so they could all hear him.
"We go around the hills, to the west. That will bring us back to the Oxus River. Then we go south, upriver." He paused, and his voice took on a gentler tone. "There's nothing we can do for our fallen. We'll be back in force later. We can honour our dead then..."
His voice trailed away when a memory he fought to forget pushed unbidden into his mind. He saw again the ghastly stare on Eumenion's face when death took hold of him. Nikometros gathered his thoughts, and then addressed his men again.
"All right, listen to me. We have a long ride to the river and we can't push our horses much more, but if the gods are with us, we can make it. Keep close together, and don't be tempted to fight if we run into more of the enemy. This time we run." He quelled one or two murmurs at this with a fierce look. "We'll be back and we'll avenge all our comrades then." Nikometros looked into each man's eyes as he spoke, seeing pain and doubt in some, exhaustion in all, but also a desire to survive. "Timon, lead out, double file. At a trot." He kicked his horse into motion and the six remaining troopers formed a rough double line, their shadows long behind them.
Shadows were gathering around the tiny column when at last they rounded the low remnants of the hills. In front of them, though still many miles away across a plain that resembled a sea with the wind rippling the grass like waves, lay the river. Nikometros reined in, letting his horse rest. He gazed over the plain, searching for any trace of the enemy. The ambush by archers and spearmen worried him, though he tried to conceal it from the others. The rabble of local tribesmen owned no horses, and none had been in evidence at the ambush, yet they had followed the tracks of at least twenty horsemen for the last three days.
Where are they now? Nikometros wondered. Have they come through the valley ahead of us? Are they waiting for us somewhere?
Nikometros looked around slowly then pointed towards a small rocky outcrop about half a mile away, nestled beneath the last of the hills. "We camp there tonight," he said, "and try for the river at first light."
The men were reeling with exhaustion as he led them toward the pile of rocks. He wished they could risk a fire tonight but he knew it could easily be seen on these featureless plains.
At least we have some basic rations, and a warm blanket apiece.
When they drew close to the rocks, a motion beyond caught his eye. Involuntarily pulling back on the reins, his spirit plummeted at the sight of a large body of true Scythian horsemen coming around the edge of the outcrop. They rode easily, men in trousers and jackets, hide boots and Phrygian caps with gaily-coloured material hanging down around their horse's legs. More ominously, they were armed with the short double-curved bows that could cut them down long before they could get to grips with their enemy.
They had no choice. Nikometros' weary band had nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, and they were heavily outnumbered. His men and horses, tired already, waited for his command, though one or two were already edging away from the oncoming enemy. Nikometros knew that to sit and do nothing meant certain death. To flee, though, was but postponing their fate a short while. But what choice do we have? Wheeling Diomede, Nikometros gestured towards the distant river.
"Ride for the river," he yelled, "we'll be cut down if we stay."
The horses reared, jostling and bumping each other when his men hauled on their reins. Before they could move more than a few paces, loud cries told him they were seen. Nikometros kicked Diomede, forcing him into a gallop, in spite of the horse's great fatigue. His men strung out behind him, thrashing the sides of their horses, hoping for more speed. He glanced back, his throat tightening to see the Scythian horsemen only a few lengths behind. They screamed excited war cries while they rode, their horses moving easily, fresh and full of energy. Nikometros snapped his attention back to his men, urging them onward, but he could see their efforts were hopeless. Already, their horses were faltering, stumbling, their sides streaked with lather. As he watched, the Scythian horsemen swept by on both sides then curved around in a double line to block them. Nikometros cursed volubly. His men hauled at their horse's heads, desperate to avoid a collision with the encircling warriors, but Nikometros knew that surrender meant death.
"Ride through them," he screamed, "we cannot stay here to die."
Nikometros' horse swerved violently, almost unseating him, and he realised it was too late, there was no way through. The gods had turned their faces away and death must surely follow swiftly. His men sat slumped on their jostling horses in the middle of a ring of screaming and laughing riders. The Scythians, brandishing weapons, tightened the circle. At some unseen signal, the ring of galloping horses came to a stop amid clouds of billowing dust, and a complete silence fell. Every Scythian horseman sat staring in at the small group of Greeks. All held a bow at the ready, arrows pointing toward the Macedonians. The soldiers stared back at them, in no doubt that their deaths lay only a few breaths away. The moment dragged out and still the encircling Scythians sat silent and motionless.
"Fight, you sons of whores!" yelled Nikometros. "Come and find out how Macedonians can fight!"
Three riders detached themselves from the ring of horsemen and moved slowly towards him, halting twenty paces away. Two of the men were typically short and squat, but the third, tall and slim, sat his horse silently. The tall man wore a close fitting leather jacket and trousers, with a cloak over his shoulders. Gold ornaments and jewels hung from his neck and encircled his arms. An ornate felt cap of Phrygian design with inlaid metal rings covered his head. Nikometros locked eyes with him, acknowledging him as the leader. The other two, far more plainly dressed, remained slightly behind him and to each side. They exchanged a few words, too low for him to hear then, at a gesture from the leader, one of the others drew his sword and rode forward slowly, shouting at Nikometros.
Nikometros stood his ground. He resisted the temptation to draw his own sword. Their lives were in the balance and he knew he must not precipitate a massacre by any sudden action. The fact that they had not been killed immediately told him they still had a chance of survival. Maybe the Scythians meant to ransom them. Nikometros dredged up every Scythian word and phrase in his memory, preparing to bargain for their lives.
A high, clear cry came from behind him, lifting the hairs on Nikometros' neck. A soldier pushed past him, still calling out in a high voice. Agamis, the young Thracian, pushed past his companions toward the Scythian leader. He called on his gods to accept his spirit, to know he had lived and died well.
"Agamis," Nikometros shouted. "Halt!"
A glazed look in his eyes, Agamis spurred his horse, calling on his Thracian gods again and launched himself at the trio. An unseen signal from the young Scythian leader released the ring of horsemen and Agamis died, transfixed by several arrows. The ring of horsemen surged inward, swallowing up Nikometros and his men in a confused melee. Nikometros dragged his sword from its sheath and holding his shield high, he dug his heels into Diomede's sides. He swung his sword at a horseman on his right, slashing him across the chest, while blocking another blow with his shield. A spear caught him in the left shoulder, knocking him back and another in his thigh threatened to unseat him.
I die with honour, father. Pain flared in the side of his head, dizzying him, and his bronze helmet tumbled to the ground. The figure of the Scythian leader loomed in front of him, and Nikometros swung blindly, determined to take him with him in death. A jarring shock in his arm swung him around when one of the leader's guards parried his blow. The man shouted and thrust his spear at Nikometros' midriff; the bronze point striking his breastplate and glancing off. Nikometros swung his sword, pushing the spear aside then again, hacking at the guard's neck. The blow connected with the man's shoulder, slicing through the thin leather. The guard cried out shrilly, blood soaking his chest and his face pulled taut in agony. Nikometros pushed his horse past the dying guard, seeking the Scythian leader as horses milled around him, confusing him. Sounds of combat fell away behind him, but he could not spare a look when another spear came at him, searching for his life. His men's cries and shouts faded then ceased and Nikometros knew death had come for them all.
"I will not die alone," he cried out.
His stallion pressed closer to the leader, and a startled look crossed the Scythian leader's eyes when Nikometros swung his sword again. The man jerked backwards, pulling sharply on his reins and half turned his horse to escape the raging blood-covered Macedonian. Nikometros swung wildly at the arms clutching at him and ignored the spears probing his armour. Dropping his shield, he threw himself at the man, falling on the other horse's rump. He slid off, clutching at the man's leg with his hand as he fell, dragging him off his horse. Nikometros fell to the ground, amidst flailing hooves and dust, coughing and clutching his sword and, with an effort, pushed himself up on his knees. Horses stamped and moved around him, bumping into him and churning up the dust, making him cough. A stray hoof thumped into his side. Nikometros looked around wildly, seeking the Scythian leader.
They can't see me for the horses.
The young Scythian leader lay half-stunned on the ground in front of him, making feeble efforts to rise. Nikometros threw himself forward, chopping down awkwardly with his sword. The blow hit the man on his metal-ringed cap, knocking it off and away under the horses' hooves. The leader cried out and raised himself on an elbow, eyes wide as he faced his death. The horses parted momentarily and Nikometros gathered himself for the killing stroke, knowing his own death would closely follow. He raised his sword, his eyes locking with the fallen man's--deep green eyes, wide and staring. Something stirred deep within them as they gazed at Nikometros' own pale blue ones. Long locks of black hair framed a delicate, beardless face; a face too soft, too gentle to be a warrior's.
Awareness flashed through Nikometros' mind at the same moment he started the killing downstroke, "Gods," he croaked, "a woman..." His arm jerked the blade to one side, missing her and burying the blade in the rocky earth. Nikometros' sword slipped from his hand and he knelt in front of her. His right hand crept across his body, fumbled awkwardly with his armband again. The young woman's eyes followed the movement of his hand, her eyes suddenly widening in shock. A shadow crossed his face as a horse moved up beside him and a stunning blow to his head sent blood cascading over his face. Blinded, Nikometros was briefly aware of someone shouting in a clear high-pitched voice before he slipped gratefully into oblivion.