<%@ Language=JavaScript %> Oath of Empire: Excerpt from THE STORM OF HEAVEN

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THE PORT OF KORINTHOS, 31 BC

The sea gleamed like spoiled glass, a flat murky green. Smoke from the town hung in the air, drifting slowly along the beach in thin gray wisps. The Queen, her pale shoulders covered by a thin rose-colored drape, stood in the surf. Tiny waves lapped around her feet, making tiny silver bangles lift and fall with the water. The sea was a warm as a tepidarium pool.

"No man has ever set foot on the island." The Matron's tone was harsh.

"This is my son," said the Queen, her voice low and urgent. "I need your help."

Sweat beaded on the Greek woman's face, even in the shade of a wide parasol that her servants had lodged in the sand. The Matron stood on the polished plank deck of a small galley, riding low in the water a dozen yards away. Despite the Queen's entreaties, the gray stiff-backed woman had refused to leave the ship and come ashore.

"We give shelter to women; grown and child, but never to men."

The Queen winced, for the harsh snap of the older woman's voice carried well over the water. There was no wind to break up the sound, or drown it with the crash of surf on the rocky shore.

"He is your get, you must care for him. This is the rule of the Order, as it has been from the beginning."

The Matron turned, flipping the edge of her woolen cloak, black and marked with white checks, over her shoulder. The Queen flinched, feeling the rebuke in her bones. She turned, staring back up the beach, to the awnings and pavilions of her camp. The bright colors of the pennants and the cloth that shaded her son and the waiting servants seemed dull and grimy in this still hot air.

"Have I not given enough?" Despite her best effort, the Queen's voice cracked and rose, shrill and carrying. "Must I give up my son for your faith? He is all that I have now - his father dead, murdered, his kingdom lost. Can you not take him away, at least from here, and hide him away?"

The women in the galley rowing deck, responding to the shrill whistle of a flute, raised their long leaf-bladed oars as one. The Matron's figure descended from the platform and paced, slowly, forward to the fore of the lean little ship. She did not turn, or look back, and the angle of her head was canted towards the horizon. A single bank of oars dipped into the water and the galley turned, swinging easily in the calm sea.
The flute trilled, and the ship slipped across the water, gaining speed with each flashing plunge of the oars.

The Queen felt great weariness crush down upon her, pressing on her shoulders with thick, gnarled fingers. She swayed a little, feeling the sand beneath her feet slip, but then righted herself.

It would not do, she thought, to be carried up from the baleful shore by my servants.

The Queen walked in darkness, her head bent over a swaddling cloth. A bare gleam of firelight from the bonfires by the ships touched a curl of hair. Now her feet were bare, the wet slippers long discarded, ruined by the salty water. Her son gurgled, sleeping, in her arms. At the very edge of the firelight she stopped and turned, staring out at the gloomy sea. It lay flat and still, windless, as it had done for days, stranding her fat-bellied troop ships in the port.

"What a beautiful baby boy. Hold him up, that I might see."

The Queen stiffened, feeling the air grow chill. She raised her head sharply, putting her body between her son and the languid voice that came from the darkness. There was a woman, there in the shadow, just beyond the edge of the light. A rustle of cloth and a flash of white caught the Queen's eye as a hood was drawn back.

"WhoÖ? I know you." The Queen's voice turned brittle and hard. "Why are you here?"

Laughter drifted, dying leaves in the fall, cascading down on chill autumn air.

"You need me, Pharaoh, to save your son and your dream."

A hand came out of the darkness, thin and elegant, with long tapering nails. Their surface winked in the dim firelight, glossy and black. Thin gold bracelets jingled a little as the woman stepped closer. The Queen raised her own hand sharply, though the imperious gesture seemed futile against the presence in the darkness.

"I will not give him to you. I did not summon you. Go away."

The figure stopped and paused, and the Queen sensed a lean head turning in the night, considering her for a long moment. A faint wind began to rise, brushing the Queen's curls and softly fluttering the silk draped around her shoulders. Pale red caught in the eye of the figure, gleaming with the bare echo of one of the bonfires.

"Then he will die, spitted on the blades of your enemies, or strangled in his crib. Is this your desire? To see your child lowered into the cold ground? To see the tomb door close?"

The Queen shuddered, feeling the swaddling cloth cold under her fingers as if it were a shroud.

"Give him to me," hissed the darkness, "and he will grow strong and powerful. He will learn many arts lost to the race of menÖ everything that you dreamed for him will come trueÖ"

"No."

The Queen ran from the darkness, her son crushed close to her breast. Sand sprayed away from her feet, but the cold breath on her neck gave her feet wings.

Behind her, far from the firelight, a figure moved, gathering its consorts around it. Silently, on padded feet, they went away in the night. The pale woman turned on the height above the town, looking down upon the dim lights in the windows and the torches that burned on the steps of the temples.

"So did old Pelias run," she mused, feeling a great humor steal over her. "When his daughters came singing, bearing a cauldron of ruddy red ironÖ" She settled her cloak around her shoulders and turned her face to the stars in the dark sky, smiling.

THE YARMUK PLATEAU, SOUTHERN SYRIA COELE, LATE SUMMER 624 AD

"This is it! Form up by ranks, you lot!"

Colonna, ouragos for the fourth lochaghai of the sixth banda of the Third Cyrene Legion, wiped his face with the long dirty white cloth that wound around his helmet. The sun had only risen moments before, wallowing up huge and pale orange in the eastern sky, but heat already flooded the land. The ouragos tried to spit, but his mouth was too dry. Around him, his men staggered to their feet, strapping on their belts and pulling helms studded with rivets onto their heads. Colonna tugged the wax plug from his wine-skin and took a mouthful of the bitter liquid inside. He grimaced at the taste.

Every third day, sour wine. His old drill instructor's voice echoed in memory. What a fine plan!

Dust puffed into the sky, forming a slow moving yellowish cloud over the army as it stirred. Orders had come before dawn, delivered by runners in kilted wool, and Colonna - at least - had seen that his men had eaten and drunk before the chill of night had fallen away. Thousands of men shuffled across the dry grass and stony ground. Mindful of the flags of his banda commander, Colonna walked along the line of men in his lochaghai. He kept his face grim and impassive, but in his heart he sighed, seeing the painfully young faces squinting out from under their metal caps.

A fresh army, those were the words that the Imperial Prince Theodore had used when they had first landed at the great port of Caesarea Maritima down on the Judean coast. One destined for victory and glory.

Colonna was able to spit, thinking of that day. The Imperial Prince, resplendent in his crimson cloak and burnished gold-washed armor, had stood on the stage in the city amphitheatre and his deep bass voice had rolled over their heads. The ouragos had paid little attention, for the bones were rolling his way that afternoon, six months gone. One of the other squad commanders had told him the gist of the Prince's promises and brave words of conquest and booty. Such a fine sound they hadÖ

"You men, listen close." Colonna stopped, settling a hard glare on his face. He scowled at the legionaries in his squad, and paced slowly back down the line. They were fit enough, with kit barely a year old and clean weapons. Their ranks were trim, too, for his hobnailed boot had been on their backsides enough in the last months. The baby-fat was gone from their faces, burned away in the Syrian sun as the Imperial army had marched hither and yon, searching for the enemy.

"This is the day. No more running up hill and down valley, trying to bring these bastards to heel. This is the day they stand and fight."

Colonna half-turned, shading his watery blue eyes with a sunburned hand. He looked east, squinting in the glare of the morning sun. The land was open and uneven, marked with tumbled hills of black rock and shallow washes filled with scrawny trees. A slight slope descended from the Imperial camp, down towards a dry shallow watercourse. Beyond that an equally gentle slope rose up, thick with tufted grass and scattered fist-sized stones. There, anchored by a high tor of crumbling black rock on the left, and by the edge of the plateau on the right, massed the enemy. A lone outcropping of the dark stone rose up, just behind the enemy's right wing.

The ouragos pointed, one cracked finger jutting hard at the foe.
"Look, lads," his voice was soft and some of the men bent forward to hear him. "There they are, this rabble that we have chased about, these bandits that the Prince rails against. Do you see them there?"

None of the men turned to look, for Colonna had long ago taught them the reward of such a rash action.

"Arrayed in ranks they are, four divisions, with flags and banners and horns. Half our number, if thatÖ Do you see them? They stand ready, even now, for battle. We are still knocking the sleep from our eyes - yet they are already in battle-lineÖ"

The ouragos sighed and settled the lorica of overlapping iron scales on his shoulders, blunt fingertips brushing over his sword, his bow-case, the edge of his layered oaken shield. Its painted leather cover was freshly oiled and he hoped it would not crack in the heat of battle. There would be a struggle today.
A deep note sounded in the air; the drone of a bucina in the hands of one of the signalers.

"Squad, face forward!" Colonna tugged the cheek-plates of his helmet down and tightened them snug under his chin in one motion. "Ready at the walk!"

As far as the ouragos could see, the Roman army was in motion, shaking out into their lines of battle, men jogging slowly forwards in great square blocks. Cavalry thundered past, raising more dust, and the ouragos cursed them absently. The horsemen wore long striped robes and chainmail glinted beneath. Thin, spindly-looking, lances lay across the shoulders of the horses. Within a moment, the Ghassanid auxiliaries were gone, trotting down the slope, angling towards the left.
Colonna looked sideways, seeing the flags of his banda commander rise and fall. He raised a hand and chopped it towards the enemy.

"Forward!"

"Lord of the wasteland, O power that raises the wind and moves the stars in their courses, strength that brings the crop from the barren ground, I submit myself to your will. You have spoken from the clear air, and I have listened. Now, our enemy is before us, now our strength will test his. In your hands, I leave victory or defeat. I am your servant, fill me with your desire."

The man bent his seamed forehead to the plain rug that he had laid down on the rocky soil. For a moment he rested it there, feeling the peace of the early morning. He put from his mind the rising sound of men and horses and metal clattering against metal. He closed his ears to the shouted commands and the thud of hooves on the ground. In his mind he cradled the silence of the pre-dawn air, when only he had walked among the sleeping men, feeling the wind rising in the east, rushing over the land, fleeing the coming sun.

In a single smooth movement he rose, drawing up the rug with a thick, scarred, hand. He blinked, unseeing, and minded only the business of brushing the dirt and grass-stems from the woven fabric in his hand. When he was done, he smoothed down his beard, ruefully fingering the thick tendrils of white that had crept into the black hair. His body still felt young and strong, thick with muscle and hardened by long years of travel in the fringes of the Empire, but his beard was that of an elder, a chieftainÖ

Fool! He chided himself. You are a chieftain now, a kingÖ

"Lord Mohammed?" The voice was low, but the man smiled at the soft husky quality and the carrying power that hid within it. He turned, raising a bushy eyebrow in question, smiling.

"Yes, Lady ZoŽ?"

The young woman matched his gaze, her dark brown eyes narrowing in suspicion. For a moment she considered him and he could tell that his good humor had put her on edge. Then she plunged ahead, pushing aside her fear that he was mocking her.

"You rise each morning to greet the sun, praying to your god, yes?"

Mohammed nodded, folding the rug away and stowing it behind the saddle on his flea-bitten red mare.

"I do."

"What do you say?"

Frowning, Mohammed turned and looked around, seeing that a large number of his Tanukh were loitering near, just out of earshot. The men, seeing that he glanced their way, feigned indifference, bending to the tasks at hand. Some were speaking softly with their horses, hands moving slowly on glossy brown necks, or checking over weapons and armor. Nearly all were garbed in long desert robes of white and tan laid over green coats. Some, like the massive Jalal, had wrapped their helmets with twined cloth. They had come a long way from the ragged, hungry band of men that had come with Mohammed out of the wreck of Palmyra. Strength and purpose were apparent in the surety of their movements, in their quiet voices.

"I say that which is in my heart, ZoŽ."

The young Palmyrene woman frowned, her patrician nose wrinkling up. Unconsciously, she brushed a curling tendril of rich dark hair back from her cheek. Inwardly, Mohammed sighed to see her tuck it back into the folds of cloth that cushioned the curving steel helmet that she wore. Like his companions, the Sahaba, she was armed with a long straight cavalry sword and clad in armor of iron rings sewn to a leather backing. Like them, she would fight today, pitting her strength against the enemy.

Such a maiden should not carry anger like a cracked water-urn, he thought sadly.

"Does this god hear you?"

"The lord of the empty places hears all things, ZoŽ. He fills the world."

"Does heÖ" ZoŽ paused, her eyes troubled, her lips pressed into a line. "Does he answer?"

Mohammed nodded, his rugged face suddenly lighting from within with a smile. Fine white teeth flashed in the thicket of his dark beard and he saw her relax, minutely.

"He does, my friend."

Mohammed pressed the flat of his hand against the center of ZoŽ's chest. The thick iron rings were still a little cold from the night air.

"Here, in true silence, you can hear the voice from the clear air. Take a little time each day and listen for his voice. If you can still your own thoughts, if you can calm your heart and put your fears aside, you will hear it. It sings, calling like a doveÖ"

ZoŽ blushed, her fingers darting towards his wrist, then away, falling stiff to her side. Mohammed quelled his smile and took his hand away.

"Come, there will be battle today." He strode up the hill, mindful of the loose shaled black rock that crowned it. Tents waited, just beyond the crest, and a banner fluttered above them, a green field marked by a crescent moon and a sword.

"It is a strong place," growled Jalal. The stocky Tanukh commander had plaited his hair into four long braids and two of them hung down nearly to the surface of the map table. His knuckles, glassy with scars, rested on the table like the roots of ancient trees.

"It is a trap," said the younger man, lean and fine-boned like a hunting bird, with a deep hooded robe of rich cloth thrown back from broad shoulders. "Look at it, it is bounded on one side by cliffs that plunge a hundred feet or more to the bed of the Wadi Ruqqad. On the other, there is a swathe of ground so broken and rough that our camels can barely pass, much less these soft-hooved Roman horses. Behind their camp is another ravine crossed by a single bridge. He has put his neck in a noose!"

"All that means, O most noble lord Khalid, is that we must confront the enemy head-on, across a frontage that he has the men to cover, while we do not."

Khalid shook his head in dismay and made a show of rising from the camp chair he had been sprawled in. He flicked his robes into order and smoothed down the dark blue silk he wore over a fine Persian chain-mail shirt. The young man glanced sidelong at the older Tanukh and stifled a smile.

"I wonder, lord Jalal, why it is, if the Roman position is so strong, that we are the ones outside and they are the ones inside. They outnumber us, conservatively, by four to one. They have better arms and armor and far more cavalry. Their heavy horse, these cataphracts, these mounted armored bowmen, are rightly feared throughout the world. Did they not crush the might of the Persian empire just two years ago?"

Jalal bridled at the sneering tone in Khalid's voice and his eyes narrowed. The young commander grinned back at him, silently daring the older man to violence.

The door to the tent parted and Mohammed entered, with ZoŽ hard on his heels. Jalal stood back from the table, relieved, and made a sharp nod in greeting.

"Lord Mohammed, good morning."

Mohammed ignored the tension in the air and looked idly from man to man. Khalid bowed in greeting and reclaimed his seat against the wall of the tent. Jalal also stepped away from the folding wooden table, taking his place with the other Tanukh on the opposite side. Mohammed marked the way in which the other men - the lieutenants and the chieftains and the petty kings - had arranged themselves into familiar groups by clan and house.

"Good morning," he said to the assembled men.

The table was covered with tattered papyrus scrolls - the sum total of their maps of this land. Mohammed leaned over the maps, pushing some aside with a finger. Luckily, his travels as a caravan master had often taken him along the Roman roads that tied the Empire together. He had crossed this highland plain before, coming up from the coast and heading for Damascus. Thick fingers smoothed his beard as he considered the sketch-maps that Khalid's scouts had devised.

"Al'Walid," he said, after a time, "you count the enemy numbers at forty-five thousand."

Khalid leaned forward, his dark eyes bright. He nodded sharply.

"Yes, lord. The better part of eight legions face us, bolstered by auxiliaries and mercenaries of various sorts. My men have been in and out of their camps several times, garbed as their local scouts. I am sure of their strength, down to the count of horses lamed and the men sick from bad water or the sun."
Mohammed nodded and turned back to the papers and the table. Again, after a long pause, he looked up, his gaze searching the faces of the men in the tent. The air was growing hot as the day advanced and the sun mounted into the sky. Soon it would be fierce indeed, particularly on the plain below the hill, where the wind was blocked by the rising land.

"Our number," he said, musing, as if to himself, "is only a quarter that. Perhaps a little moreÖ Have any new contingents joined us in the night?"

"No", said a stoutly built man of middle height with a thick curly black beard ornamented with small glittering jewels. Like many of his fellows, he wore Roman-style armor and carried a legionary's helmet under one arm. Despite his young age, he squinted nearsightedly in the dim light of the tent.
"One of the local clans came in last night. Fifty or sixty men with bows and small shields at most. Nothing since then."
Mohammed nodded. "Thank you, lord Zamanes. Our strength is complete, then."

The King of Jerash and Bostra ducked his head and stood back, finding his place amongst the captains of the regiments drawn from the old Hellenic cities of the Decapolis. Zamanes was not comfortable with Mohammed, not since the Tanukh had started talking about the things that they had seen at the Ka'ba, or on the High Place in Petra. Still, the young prince had thrown his lot in with the southerners. It was far too late to crawl back to his old allegiance now.

Mohammed considered them, these men from the rebellious Roman cities. He was sure of the core of his army; the Sahaba - Jalal and Shadin and the rest of the Tanukh -- that had made the haj with him from the north, his own kinsmen from Mekkah and the lands about that dry city. The Sarid tribesmen had long been his ally, and their chieftain, that rascal Uri, had been his friend from youth. Even the Yemenite fighters that had come up with Khalid's captured fleet were familiar to him - the Quryash and the Bani Hashim had traded with them for centuries.

Too, he knew the Palmyrenes. ZoŽ he understood. He could feel the furious anger that burned in her heart, the overwhelming desire for vengeance that had broken her ties with the Legion that she had served. She was a like an eager hawk, ever straining against the hood, desperate to fly shrieking at the enemy. She, he kept close by. Her talent and power had to be guided, or it would bring disaster.
Her cousin, this stripling Odenathus, Mohammed thought he understood him as well. He followed his Queen, ZoŽ, and his loyalty was to the dream that his beloved city might be rebuilt. Like her, he would fight, but the Quryash lord thought that the young prince could be trusted to keep his head. His men, they would follow their Queen. They were a small band, now no more than a few thousand exiles, but Mohammed trusted them near as much as his own Tanukh.

But these city-dwelling Romans that formed the majority of his armyÖ Mohammed studied their faces openly, for he was not given to slyness or guile. Zamanes seemed a solid enough fellow, but their loyalty had been to Rome for so long! Centuries of Roman rule had held the Levantine coast, the Decapolis, and the great cities of Syria in its withered gray hand. Now they had risen up, outraged by the treachery of the Eastern Emperor, Heraclius. Frightened and stunned by the destruction of glorious Palmyra. Angered by the new census and the threat of heavy taxes to repay the cost of the long war against Persia. But would they stand, when the battle reached its pitch and men were dying in droves all around them?

"Khalid, you say that the Romans will come forth?"

"Yes, lord. My spies in their camp brought me news only hours ago Ö the Imperial Prince Theodore intends to crush us, today, in a single blow."

"Tiamat's dugs, you fool, what are you doing?"

The Imperial Prince Theodore, younger brother of the reigning avtokrator of the Eastern Roman Empire, the commander of the Legions currently in Judaea and Syria Coele, turned in his saddle, smiling at the furious Armenian that had pulled up in a cloud of dust and gravel at his side. Theodore motioned slightly and one of his servants jogged up to the side of his stallion and whisked yellow-brown grains of sand from the prince's cloak with a long-handled duster made of hawk tail-feathers. Behind the arrival, a cordon of tall men in red cloaks closed like a lake swallowing a sling-stone.

"Vahan. You have left your post on the left wing? Is there someÖ problemÖ that you could not resolve on your own?"

The Imperial Prince inclined his head slightly, still smiling faintly, watching with amusement as the burly, thick-bodied Armenian princeling sputtered in rage, his weathered face turning red under a heavy black beard. Theodore and his escort of Egyptian body-servants and slaves, red-cloaked Faithful with their long blonde hair in plaits and their axes gleaming in the morning sun, stood at ease across the crest of a low hill near the center of the Roman line. The forest of spears and colorful umbrellas and a windscreen of mauve-dyed linen sewn to iron strakes drew the eye from miles away.
From this low height, the prince could cast his eyes right, shaded by a shining white parasol of waxed linen, and see the rectangular blocks of his Legionnaires stretching away, four or five miles, to the edge of the plateau. To the left, past where a shallow streambed curved under the shoulder of the hill, there was a sloping open plain filled with slowly moving clouds of dust that marked the presence of Roman cataphracts and Armenian mercenaries a-horse.

The cavalry and the left wing were the responsibility of this Armenian, Vahan, who had now brought his roan mare up, wither to wither, with Theodore's black, glossy, mount. The prince laid a gentling hand his horses' shoulder, for the presence of the mare was beginning to excite the stallion. Both horses were fitted with barding; the Prince's an elaborately decorated chanfron of heavy felt reinforced with bands of iron, Vahan's a simpler hardened leather, stained by travel and use.
"Lord PrinceÖ" Vahan swallowed another curse and blinked sweat from his eyes. Like his kinsmen on the plain below, he was clad in a heavy woolen doublet under lamellar armor of overlapping iron bands. Sweat seeped from the edges of his armor, turning the heavy leather laces black with moisture. Theodore wondered if the man could fight a full day in such heavy gear and not expire of thirst.

The prince raised a finger and gestured. One of the servants, a young Egyptian girl with her black hair bound back in a fillet of copper and dressed in a plain white cotton shift edged with red hurried up. The cream-colored ceramic jug in her hand was beaded with water droplets, forced from the cool interior by the heat of the day.

"Drink, Lord Vahan. You are not used to this lowland heat. PleaseÖ indulge yourself."

The Armenian shook his head sharply.

"No," said Vahan sharply, ignoring the outraged glances of Theodore's aides. "You are sending the infantry ahead too soon. You must have them hold their position on this side of the wadi until my light horse has deployed to screen their advance. A swift charge from my cataphracts will shatter the bandits, why spend your legionaries so fruitlessly?"

Theodore turned his attention back to the plain. The blocks of legionnaires on the right-hand side of the hill were shaking themselves out into a long line of battle. As each block advanced over the uneven ground, they tended to separate and clump, following the path of least resistance. Despite this, Theodore could faintly hear the stentorian bellowing of the centurions, keeping their knock-kneed, imbecile charges in order. The first lochagai were, even as the prince shaded his eyes with a hand to better observe them, jogging up the slope beyond the dry streambed.

"It will take some time for the infantry to cross this dry creek that concerns you, Vahan. Your horsemen are swiftÖ they can easily make up the difference. You have your task, in any case. Drive off their camelry on the left and flank them. I will not send your heavy horsemen up that hill."

Vahan ground his fist into the side of his high-cantled saddle. It was old-fashioned, with four jutting corners and a flimsy looking belly-strap. He gestured, stabbing out with a thick finger.

"Lord Prince, you have not fought the Arabs before. See, there, before the mass of their army? Lines of horsemen already advance at a trot - those men are javelineers, Lord Prince. They will take great delight in striking down many of your legionnaires from a horse hurtling across the slope. They will have a slight advantage of height, too, and that will give the flight of their pila greater weight."

Theodore nodded, still smiling, watching with interest as the second rank of legionnaires crossed the streambed, still keeping a steady pace, still keeping even lines and distance from their fellows. From the vantage of the hill, looking down like this, seeing the whole of the battle spread out before him like a map, he felt a fleeting giddiness. Couriers and riders stood close to hand, just behind him, behind the crest of the hill, with fleet horses at the ready. His orders could fly on those hooves to any point of the battle-line in momentsÖ

"Lord Prince!" Theodore shook his head slightly and turned back to the Armenian.

"Yes?"

"Pray, signal your men to halt their advance until they can be supported!"

"Oh," said Theodore airily, "they are. Watch and you will see." Then he said, crossly, "you should not have left your command. Such things set a poor example for your troops."

Mohammed squatted atop a splintered black boulder, his arms resting easily on the tops of his thighs. His tan-and-white robes fell around his boots, pooling on the cracked rock. He was very still, letting the faint breath of wind flow over him. The sky was clear, though the horses curveting in the valley below him were raising intermittent clouds of pale yellow dust. Some of it was beginning to hang in the air. In a few hours, it would be a thick pall across the whole battle. There, below, several thousand of his riders were darting towards the slow-moving Roman advance.

"Do they think this is a game?" ZoŽ's voice growled up from below. She was sitting at the base of the boulder, in a tiny scrap of shade, her sword, sheathed, over her long legs. A white veil draped her face, leaving only dark brooding eyes visible. "Seeing how close they can come to the enemy? Flaunting their riding skill with a shot from full gallop, standing in the saddle?"

"Some do," said Mohammed, his voice quiet and still. "See how their shot falls amongst the enemy? Like rain falling in the dust."

"Will it become a deluge?" Anticipation sparked in ZoŽ's voice and Mohammed could hear her stiff linen robes rustle on the stones as she made to rise.

"No," said Mohammed, "not yet. Khalid wishes to test their discipline."

"Huh." The sound was filled with grievance. "He is a reckless boy. It is unwise to trust him with such authority."

Mohammed tasted the air, the tip of his tongue appearing briefly between his lips. There was the echo of a brittle taste. He continued to observe events in the valley.

"You are jealous, I think," he said after a moment. "Your cousin is quite taken with our young eagle - on some days they seem inseparable. Khalid is anÖ attractive man, in many ways."

ZoŽ just hissed in disgust, settling back against the crumbling rock. "Men are fools."

Colonna swerved to avoid a pale gray stone jutting from the slope. His hob-nailed sandals slapped on the dry ground, adding yet more dust to the cloud that was thickening around him.

"Advance! Step left! Advance! Step left!"

The centurion's throat was already hoarse as he shouted over the rattle and din of his men advancing, shields held up before them. He moved, five paces behind the men in the third rank of his lochagai. This was slow work, tramping up the long incline, ducking away from the intermittent arrows that whistled out of the sky. Luckily, they were still at long range for the light bows favored by these tribesmen. The men in the first and second ranks were already slowing, not just from the fatigue of humping sixty pounds of armor, shield and weapon, but from the steady tension caused by the snap of shafts striking the ground amongst them. Some men had four or five arrows studding their shields.

Colonna, even in the rear rank, was grateful that the enemy had not really come at them in force yet. He risked a look over his shoulder, back towards the low hill where the Lord Prince and his cavalcade of servants and lackeys was camped. Dust smeared across the sky and made it difficult to see. He could make out swatches of bright color and gleaming metal. The sun was full in the sky now, and burned on his neck. Soon the exposed surfaces of his armor would be too hot to touch. It seemed, in the pale yellow murk, that most of the army had crossed the streambed.

"Advance! Step Left!" He was still shouting, automatically. Shaking his head, he wrenched his attention back to the men. Some of them, while he had been distracted, had begun to drift to the right, behind the shelter of their fellow's shields. More arrows whistled out of the sky.

"Accursed dogs!" Colonna, groaning a little, picked up his pace and lashed at the backs of the men in front of him with a long stick. "Keep left, keep left!"

An arrow flashed past his face, its black fletching only inches away, and the centurion swore bitterly.

I don't want to die here, not on some damned rocky hillside in some pox-ridden fleabite of a provinceÖ

There was a thundering sound and he raised himself up, looking over the shoulders of his men. The ranks of the bandits had parted, making avenues through their line. Robed horsemen were now charging down the hillside, their helms glittering in the morning sun. The sky darkened with arrows.

"Do you feel it?" Mohammed's voice was very faint. "Stand ready."

ZoŽ looked up, craning her neck to try and catch a glimpse of the Arab on the boulder above her. It was no use and she stood, slinging her saber and its sheath over her shoulder in one fluid movement. She put a hand, gloved in leather and covered with tightly sewn rings of Damascene steel, on the flaking black stone. The Quryash was still squatting there, forearms on his knees, but now his eyes were closed.

ZoŽ felt a tingling on the back of her neck and turned slowly, dark brown eyes narrowing as she studied the valley below. There was something in the air, a familiar tasting sound and an unheard touchÖ

The Queen of Palmyra's eyes widened and her fine-boned features, dark with the sun, twisted into a snarl of rage. The sensation that trembled in the unseen world was all too familiar.

Sorcery. The Legion thaumaturges put forth their strength.

Theodore urged his stallion a little forward, out from under the cool shade of the parasols, and squinted, watching the far slope with interest. Behind him and to one side, Vahan was cursing continuously and with ill-disguised heat. The Prince shook his head in delight, hiding a grin behind his hand.

"Vahan, you have fought these desert rats before?"

"Aye, Lord prince, many times. Your legionnaires will not catch themÖ your men will take a dreadful punishment from their javelins and swift, stabbing attacks by those lancers. When you men rush at them, their horses will gallop away. If your men stand, they will swelter in this heat, endlessly, while the bandits pick at them with bows from a distance."

"Good," said the prince, interrupting. "Then I do not need to explain it to you. If we had time and leisure, I would bid you stay, and watch the battle as it unfolds." The prince's voice changed in timbre, becoming cold and commanding.
"But you, sir, are absent from your command. Get yourself back to the left flank and get your lancers and cataphracts sorted out! In but a little while, the enemy will be fully engaged along our front, yet our superior numbers will allow us to spill round his left. That is your task, Vahan, get to it!"

Theodore motioned with his head to the nearest of the Faithful and the Armenian found a pair of blond giants at his elbows. They grinned, showing large yellow teeth. Vahan swore under his breath and reined his horse around. The Scandians stepped back, their long axes on their shoulders.

"They will not stand to face us today, Lord Prince. Why should they? The desert is their sanctuaryÖ"

Why indeed? Theodore had considered the very issue for weeks, while his forces gathered here on the plateau. There was good water here for the streams ran year round. Below the cliffs off to the south ran the main road from the coast up to Damascus, and to the north, other roads converged. This place here, on the heights above the Sea of Galilee, was the turning point of the entire defense of Judea and southern Syria. The prince was sure he wanted battle, now that his full strength was at hand. Did the bandits? They seem to, having come out in force, in full array, to face me.

"Boleslav, attend me!"

The captain of the Faithful, the jarl of the north-men that had come with the Lord Prince from Constantinople, stomped up, a single-bladed axe slung carelessly over one mighty shoulder. The north-man was nearly six and a half feet tall, and built like a mountain. Even the steadily growing heat did not seem to touch him.

"Ja?"

Theodore leaned from his horse, his mouth close to the north-man's conical helmet.

"Have word sent to the thaumaturges. Tell them to begin their working."

Boleslav nodded, his thick neck sliding like the gearing of a water-mill.

"Ja, altjarl."

ZoŽ jogged down the slope, her riding boots quick amongst the stones and scrub. A single plait of her hair, braided in a pattern that her aunt had shown her as a little girl, bounced on the back of her armor. She had tied up the sleeves of her robe to keep her arms free, and carried the cavalry sword in her right hand. Mohammed remained behind, on the boulder, high above the line of battle. Regiments of her kinfolk were squatting at the base of the hillock, their banners furled and their kaftans pulled over their faces. The men of Palmyra were long used to the desert, having sprung from the northern tribes, and they knew the sun as a friend and ally, but still dangerous. Water skins were being passed along the lines of men.

ZoŽ came to a halt, her ears filled with the slowly rising hum of the sorcery building in the valley.

"Do you feel it?"

Odenathus nodded in greeting and acknowledgement.
"I do," he said. His long face, darkened like hers by the sun, was pensive. "They're not messing about today."

ZoŽ shaded her eyes and stared across the swale at the Roman camp. There, among the stunted trees and tamarisk, she could make out the rectangle of a legion way-camp and, just outside it, the circle of staves and withes that marked the quarters of the Ars Magica detachments.

"There must be at least twenty battle-masters," continued Odenathus, his voice steady. "Plus the usual lot of apprentices and journeymen. Almost double the usual complement to a Legion force of this size." The Palmyrene's face was grim and his hands moved restlessly on the hilts of his sword.

"Yes," said ZoŽ, distracted, "they must have borrowed from the other legions, maybe the ones in Persia. The prince wants to make a big showÖ"

Closing her eyes, ZoŽ settled her mind, letting the heat and the dry wind and the sound of flies recede. It was difficult. The air was charged with the anticipation of the hundreds of men nearby. Odenathus was worried and she could smell the fear-tang in his sweat. Her own armor was heavy and the bindings bit into her skin. She breathed out slowly, measuring the intake of air to the beat of her heart. She knelt on the soil, the cold metal of the pommel of her sword pressed against her forehead. The sensation helped her focus, let her mind block out the sensorium that constantly flooded her sight, her hearing, her taste, her touch.

Faintly, she felt Odenathus kneel beside her as well, and the whisper of his thought.

ZoŽ let the image of a wheel form in her mind. This came of its own accord, from long practice, and with it, as the wheel spun and brightened and grew larger, she felt the last distractions of the physical world fall away. An old friend had called this the entrance of Hermes and had told her, as they sat beside a high mountain stream, their road-weary feet cooling in the chill blue-white water, that he imagined it as the eye of Horus, coming up out of unguessable depths. First, he had said, it was a single bright mote in an abyss of darkness. But then, as it rushed closer, it became larger and brighter. At last, as it came very close, it was enormous, bigger than a house, a burning eye trailing sparks. Once it rushed over you, once it consumed you in cold fire, you had passed the first entrance to the hidden world.

ZoŽ had been taught in a different school, one that used a wheel of fire image, but the effect was the same. When it passed over her, her mind was free of the physicality of the senses. Her hidden sight opened and she beheld the valley in its true form, Odenathus a shining flame beside her, steady and true.
For a moment, before she asserted a pattern of symbolism that fit her waking mind, she beheld a shining void, filled with millions of hurrying lights. The streambed at the base of the slope was a slow blue surge that coiled and twisted across a bright landscape. Thousands of men in movement on the slope were sparkling motes. The horses thudding across the dusty ground delicate traceries of living fire. Behind and beyond each burning mote, there was an infinite darkness. Each tiny gleaming point, if one looked closely, was isolate and alone in a vast empty space. And beyond them, arrayed across the rising hill where the enemy camp lay, was a shining wall of gold. Symbols danced across its surface, forming out of the rainbow shimmer, then disappearing again. Her perception shied away from the abyss of the sky, for the blue vault and thin white clouds were gone, leaving only an infinite depth filled with a haze of burning spheres.

Sweat beaded on her forehead and she summoned up a second image, the first in a swift succession of patterns. This was the second entrance, where the adept, the sorcerer, brought forth from his mind a series of symbols and patterns that allowed the manipulation and perception of the hidden world without going mad.

That raw sky, the unfettered vision of the truth of the world, was too much for the human mind. Even in the brief instant that ZoŽ had stared into the abyss of light, she had felt the core of her being begin to dissolve, to lose the unique identity that made her ZoŽ, Queen of Palmyra.

A flower box unfolded before her, expanding into a constantly growing pattern of planes and forms. Each facet gleamed with a single pure color, bright enough to hurt the eye. At the heart, where the wheel of fire had spun and hissed, there came a shining trapozohedron. The people of her city, though they had come up out of the Arabian Desert long years ago, thought of themselves as Greeks. The heir of Athens, they had called fair Palmyra under the reign of the first Queen Zenobia. Poets and sages, mathematicians and astrologers had flocked to the golden court.

ZoŽ's teachers had been mathematicians and more, geometricists. They had instilled their own symbology in her. The trapozohedron collapsed and then unfolded, becoming a dodecahedron. Now her mind settled and familiar reality asserted itself. The hills had shape and solidity, Odenathus, still at her side, now seemed a mortal man, not a thing of fire. But the golden wall remained and now the sky was filled with the tracery of power and intent.

"The thaumaturges are attacking?" ZoŽ was startled. The Eastern Empire prided itself on the strength of its wizards, but their skill had always been turned to defense and the by-play of siegework.

"They have learned from the Western mages," rasped Odenathus as he stood. "We must work quickly."

ZoŽ rose as well, her mind finding her cousin's thought waiting. They had been trained in those same schools, under the tutelage of the Legion, during the Persian war. Now the circle closed. ZoŽ extended her will and it meshed with Odenathus and together they turned to face the valley. Power from the rocks and stone, from the air, from the water buried deep under ground, flowed to them. Their own matrices of hidden shape began to build.

Here they come, thought Odenathus, and flame boiled out of the golden wall, licking across the ranks of Arab and Decapolis troops. ZoŽ knew that the men could see nothing, maybe only feel unease, a sour taste in the air. She put forth her strength, lashing out with a deep blue arc of light that hewed into the red fire. The tendril of power recoiled, flickering back into the safety of the shield that wavered beyond the streambed.
Thunder grumbled in a clear sky, and the Arab soldiers, still waiting in the hot sun, looked up in surprise.

"Allau Akbar!" The sky rang with the massed cry of four thousand throats.

Colonna felt the earth shake as the Arab cavalry hurtled down towards the front ranks of the legionnaires. In the instant before the shock of contact, the centurion had bellowed ground and interlock! The first line of soldiers, even with fear burning in their bellies, went down on one knee and ground their rectangular shields into the soil. The second rank stepped up, their shields held high, their spears a thicket of iron before them. The Arab chargers slewed aside at the last moment, the desert-men turning in their saddles to fling javelins at a dozen paces. The entire charge slid sideways along the Roman front, the riders howling a battle-cry as they hurled into the closely packed Romans.

The heavy darts pincushioned the plywood shields, some tearing straight through the heavy laminate. Some of the legionnaires in the front ranks fell, their throats pierced, or their bellies gushing bright red blood onto the ground.

"Loose!" Colonna screamed, his throat already hoarse from shouting.

Behind the first four ranks of Romans, two lines of men cocked their shoulders and flung, convulsively, as one, a storm of javelins. The heavy wooden shafts, capped with heavy triangular iron heads, whipped through the air and tore into the ranks of the Arabs as they wheeled away. Dozens of the riders fell, their light leather and chainmail armor pierced by the heavy bolts.

Colonna hissed in triumph, seeing the damage that had been wrought.

"Halt fire and reform!" He bawled. The legionnaires in the middle ranks halted their smooth, metronome, motion and stowed their remaining javelins. Every fourth man had been holding the other's spears and now there was a rattling sound as men took up their primary weapons again.

"Advance!" The Romans untangled their shields and shook out their line, orderlies dragging the dead and wounded away from the front rank. Men from the second and third ranks stepped up, their shields filling the gaps. The Legion advanced, a pace at a time.

The Arab horse withdrew in a cloud of dust, their robes flapping in the wind of their passage. Gravel spattered on the faces of the shields, making a sound like rain on a roof of wooden shingles. The legionnaires pressed up the hill at a steady pace. Dust settled out of the air, coating their faces. The swirl of lancers faded back, while other riders, these in black robes with green flashing, filled the intervening space. These men had long bows made from cane. Single arrows snapped through the air.

Colonna ducked aside again and cursed, realizing that the screening force was shooting for officers.

"Oh, lord of the wasteland, fill me with your strength."
Mohammed ignored the battle that was spreading up the slope below him. Six months before, he would have been a-horse, riding hard along the line, directing his squadrons and regiments into battle. Clan standards would have fluttered at his shoulder. Messengers would have been rushing up to him, looking for orders, carrying word from the flanks. Today, Khalid and Jalal bore that burden. He could feel the shape of the battle, though, and there was a trill of fear in his heart.
The Romans were advancing steadily, their hobnailed boots eating up the long slope a pace at a time. Their numbers overlapped the Arab line, too, and soon the right flank might be overwhelmed. He was not worried about his left wing, for it was anchored against the cliffs that lined the edge of the plateau. Horses thundered past, making the tiny shaled black rocks on the top of the boulder quiver and dance. Mohammed dug his hands into the decaying lava, feeling the strength in the earth.

"We go forth against your enemies. Our faith is strong and we abide by the laws that you have laid down to govern the lives of men."

He sang to himself, reciting the prayers that had come to him while he had lain exposed on the summit of An'Nour. The voice from the clear air had spoken to him, showing him the movement of the stars in their courses, revealing the passage of cranes and ravens in the sky. Now it steadied his mind as he opened himself to that shining power that had filled the world.
"We submit ourselves to your will, O lord of the world. Give us strength."

Grains of sand and dust spattered against the back of Mohammed's cloak. Blood seeped from beneath his fingernails as they dug into the ancient corroded rock.

Sweat poured from ZoŽ's face and neck, soaking her doublet and the cotton shirt that she wore under her armor. Her mind was far away from her body, struggling in the unseen world. Her eyes stared, sightless, at the broad valley, now filled with a vast towering cloud of dust. Fire burned openly in the sky now, for the powers that had been summoned strove in the air above the knots of fighting men that grappled on the desert floor.

Together, as they had been trained, ZoŽ and Odenathus invoked a wheel of burning white and sent it, spinning, into the midst of coalescing forms that had rushed forth from the wall of gold. Lightning rippled into the dust-cloud where the powers met and the two Palmyrenes staggered, their faces flushed with heat, at the impact. Barely a hundred yards away, the lines of the Decapolis infantry were locked in a din of combat with the Legion.

ZoŽ, risking the loss of her connection to Odenathus, dropped out of their battle meld.

The rebel city-dwellers were being pushed back, their line bulging at the junction of their line and that of the Ben-Sarid tribesmen to their right. A wedge of Roman helmets was in the gap, their swords and spears flashing with blood. The city-dwellers were fighting hard, but they were not professionals. Luckily, the citizens of the Decapolis were blessed with good, heavy armor and new weapons. They might not be well trained, but the riches of their home urbs had equipped them well. ZoŽ wiped the sweat from her eyes. She looked around, seeing the block of Palmyrene exiles still holding their position, making a hedge of steel and iron around the two sorcerers.

"Hadad!" It took a moment to summon enough spit to make her voice work. The commander of the Palmyrene swordsmen jerked around, his face pale with worry.

"My lady!" Hadad scurried over to her, his pale thin face barely visible in the heavy visored iron helmet that was strapped to his head. Like most of the men gathered on the slope, he was wearing scaled armor under a surcoat of white and gold, and had a long sword at his side and a round shield slung over his shoulder. "I feared to wake you, but the Gerasans are falling back, we should move you to safety!"

"No," rasped the woman, her dark eyes fierce. "Attack now, leave us. Push back the Romans - otherwise the line will break."

Hadad shook his head violently. "No," he said, "lord Mohammed directed us to protect you. If you fall, it will go poorly indeed."

ZoŽ spat on the ground, seeing blood in the sputum. She met the man's eyes squarely and he flinched.

"Attack now, or I'll cut you down where you stand. The line must not break."

She unclenched her hand, feeling the pain in her joints. The day seemed overlaid by a gray haze. Fatigue she thought dully. Odenathus and I aren't enough to stop them.

Hadad was gone, and distantly, through the roaring in her ears, she could hear men shouting. She pushed the sound away, descending into the unseen world again. Power flowed to her, rushing to meet her purpose.

Allau akbar!

"OddÖ" Theodore was still sitting on his horse, though hours had passed since the sun had risen. He was used to spending long hours on the hunt or on campaign. His brother Heraclius might have the red cloak and boots, the title of avtokrator, but he could no longer match his younger sibling for stamina and strength. "They are standing and fighting."

"They are brave men," growled Boleslav. The captain of the Faithful had remained on the hilltop, keeping a close eye on his charge throughout the day. Theodore grinned at the big north-man, knowing that the Faithful were growing restless, seeing the day decided by others when their own axes had yet to taste blood. "They fight like cornered wolves."

The other Faithful, hearing a snatch of the conversation, grunted in assent.

"That is what is odd," mused Theodore. "The rabble of the desert are not brave. They are like the wind, like jackals, feckless, coming and goingÖ yet here, on this day, they stand and fight. I do not understand it. Still, if they want to die on our spears, let them!"

Boleslav turned his shaggy blond head to one of his under-captains and rumbled some command. The other man nodded sharply and jogged off down the hill, leaping lightly from boulder to boulder. Theodore raised an eyebrow as his bodyguard.

Boleslav shrugged, saying "they shout something as they fight. I send Firdik to hear it."

Theodore nodded absently, one gloved hand stroking his short-cropped beard. Like his brother, he was mostly blonde, but his beard came in red. He thought that the Faithful counted him as one of their own. He surely bore more resemblance to them than to the dark complected Greeks and Anatolians that Heraclius ruled.

For now, the Lord Prince thought, idly. Brother is sick and may not last the yearÖ

"Ah!" Theodore thrust the thought away and stood in the saddle, feet held securely by the Sarmatian-style stirrups that he had adopted for his own troops. The insufferable Western Emperor Galen might be a sanctimonious over-bred fool, but he could pick good mercenaries. Theodore had learned a great deal from watching the Western Legions during the war against Persia. The Lord Prince did not intend to waste his knowledge.
The thin line of Arabic camelry on the far left wing had given way in the face of a massed charge by Vahan's Armenian cataphracts. The bandits were falling back. Some of them had dismounted, and were shooting with their bows from behind the tall shapes of their ungainly mounts. All that stood on the enemy's wing was a camp of wagons and carts, lashed together with ropes, that stood at the base of one of the tumbled lava cones. Theodore smiled, seeing the opportunity open for Vahan to turn the entire enemy line and roll it up.
"Well done!"

Dust plumed from the dry ground and the Armenian general reined his horse in. Around him, his kinsmen crowded with their armored horses, the sun glaring from their lamellar armor. It was burning hot in the neck-to-toe suits of iron, but Vahan was used to it. An arrow spiraled out of the sky and glanced from his breastplate. The cheap iron tip shattered, but the Armenian only grunted. The bandits had scattered before his charge, but they were still lurking about, sniping with their bows.

"Get those bastards away from that camp! Wheel to the right," he shouted, his voice booming from the helmet. He chopped his hand towards the slopes of the hill that the Roman infantry was fighting up. His bannermen heard him, and their tall flags dipped and swayed, indicating the direction of movement. It would take a bit to rein in all his men. Some had ignored orders and were nosing about the camp, doubtless out for a bit of loot.

Cataphracts milled around him, trying to redress their lines. Some of the men had unshipped their long horse-bows and were shooting at the Arabs hiding behind their camels and in the circle of wagons in the pass between the big hill and its lesser cousin. The ground was getting rough, littered with head-sized stones and even boulders. It had been difficult enough to get the horsemen through the thick brush lining the wadi, now it looked like the ground was worsening.

"Advance at a walk!" Vahan turned his own horse and it lumbered up the slope towards the cone-shaped hill. "In good range, shoot, then close with sword and mace."

The Armenians, still scattered across the swale between the two hills, began to drift to the right, following the wail of their trumpets and the signal flags. Vahan motioned to one of his lieutenants, a cousin, who commanded his light horse.
"Vargir, screen that camp and keep the camel-men off our flank. That bastard prince will get his victory, I suppose, but it will be hard going up this hill."

The man nodded, pushing his felted cap back on his head. It was blue and marked with swirling patterns. Like the other horsemen in his band, he wore a leather jerkin reinforced with iron rings sewn to it, and was armed mainly with a horse-bow and a stabbing sword. "As you say, lord."

Vahan turned away, ignoring the motion of the scouts as they peeled off from his main force. The ground was worsening, and the Arabs had turned the end of their line. Now they faced him at an angle, with crowds of men with spears and brightly painted shields amongst the boulders and rocks.
He swore, but urged his horse forward. At least they were facing out of the sun now.

"Run for it!" Odenathus tugged hard at ZoŽ's arm, then scooped her up in one motion. Despite her weight and his own burden of armor and fatigue, the young Palmyrene prince sprinted away from the outcropping of rock. The infantry that had been screening them from the battle had disappeared into the racket of steel on wood and iron down-slope. Despite the addition of Hadad's fighters, the Decapolis troops had been forced back again. Boys carrying amphorae hurried along the line, bringing water to groups of men that were resting just out of the battle. A constant stream of wounded staggered up the slope from the rear of the rebel line.

The ground was littered with the bodies of those that had failed to flee.

The air over the outcropping convulsed, distorting like the heat rising over a campfire. For an instant, the clouds in the sky behind the distortion could be seen reflected a thousand times, faceted like the surface of a jewel. Odenathus threw himself to the ground, covering his cousin's body with his own, and clapped his hands over his ears.

The ground where they had stood spasmed violently and then burst into a whirl of violet fire. Men in the rear ranks of the Decapolis regiments screamed in fear and then burst into flame. A huge boom echoed across the battlefield and splinters of rock rained down on the two Palmyrenes as they cowered on the ground.

"So much," croaked Odenathus, wiping blood out of his eyes, "for our battle-sorcery."

He could barely move. His limbs were cramping painfully. The two of them had held the Roman thaumaturges at bay for almost five hours. Despite the agony in his muscles, he hooked his cousin's arm in his and began dragging himself across the ground, away from the outcropping.

"We are your servants, O most mighty and merciful lord. Your will is our will."

Mohammed stood, his cloak flapping in the stiff breeze that had blown up from the east. His face was grim and set, for he saw now, having opened his eyes at last, that his army had been ground back against the base of the hill. The right flank had been bent back perpendicular to the main line of battle. Where the camelry had been driven back, the last of the Decapolis reserves had shored up the line, fighting amongst jagged black boulders. The slope there was getting steep, which let the infantry gain an advantage over the Roman cavalry for the moment. Even from this distance, he could pick out individual men fighting, struggling in the mass of melee, their shields and swords covered with blood. A steady stream of the wounded spilled away from the back of the line. The Romans were pressing hard against their foe.

But still, the Arabs fought on, falling back slowly. Their spears and long, curved swords stabbed at the enemy and the ground where the battle passed with littered with the dead, the wounded, shattered armor, broken shields. Beyond the enemy, a camp still stood at the rightmost end of what had been the Arab line in the morning. Now it was surrounded by a swirl of Roman auxiliaries, who were exchanging bowshot with the defenders crouched behind the wagons and carts in the camp. Most of those in the camp would be women or servants or older men who could no longer stand in the line of battle.
A woman of the people, thought Mohammed, who knows the drawing of a bow, is blessed.

The sun was beginning to fall to the west, but the full heat of midday was strong on the land. The sky had faded from its early blue to a dusty white. The heat shimmer from the valley floor was thick, distorting sight and confusing distance.
Too, forces worked in the air. Green flame stabbed out of the sky, lighting amongst a troop of Arab cavalry that had been rushing to shore up the right wing of his army. Horses screamed and men died, wrapped in a fire that burned flesh and armor alike. Mohammed snarled in rage, seeing the power of his enemies at play among his troops, unfettered.

He squinted, but could not make out the banners of the Palmyrene regiment that he had set to defend Queen ZoŽ and her cousin. If they are deadÖ He halted the thought. Khadijah was dead, too, and his family left far behind. There was a power that called to him, that directed his thoughts and his actions. He had placed absolute trust in it and it did no good to wail at fate.

His hand came to rest on the black metal hilt of his saber. The men and women of his city had made it. He could feel their love in it, trembling under his hand. It carried the sense of the old black stone that rested in the shrine of the Ka'ba, in the most holy place of his people. When he touched it, he felt the presence of the power that resided in the empty places.
"O lord of the Heavens, most Gracious and most Merciful, put forth your strengthÖ"

Sunlight winked on armor and lancetips, there behind the bulk of the conical hill that rose behind the embattled camp off to the north. Pennons were there, green and white, that stood stiff in the rising wind.

Cornicens blew, ringing clear in the air. Colonna ignored them, though they sounded the call to stand down and reform the line. The man in front of him, a man in half-armor and a sharp conical helmet wrapped in white linen, was busy hewing at his shield. The man's curved sword bit into the edge of the big rectangular scutum and Colonna felt the blow thud against his arm. Other men were struggling all around them. The Roman line had splintered on the rough slope, losing cohesion. Luckily, the enemy was exhausted, and was unable to exploit the opportunity. He stabbed, hard, with his gladius and the Arab skipped aside.

The sword whipped around again and Colonna managed to drag the shield into the stroke. Splinters flaked off of the back of the panel, stabbing at his eye. He cursed, hacking blindly at the enemy. Suddenly there was a gurgling cry and a clatter as the saber fell to the stones. Colonna blinked, seeing another legionnaire wrenching his sword from the Arab's side.

"My thanks," rasped the centurion. The legionnaire, his face gaunt with weariness, nodded dully back. Dried gore caked the man's hauberk and his arms were seeping blood from a dozen cuts.

The cornicens blew again and Colonna shook his head, wiping sweat and blood out of his eyes.

I've got to get the lads formed up.

"Form up! Fourth of the Sixth of the Third, form on me!"
Other legionnaires stumbled towards him. The Third had suffered today, going uphill against these bandits. Unexpectedly, the enemy had been better armed and armored than the Romans. Too many of the new lads were lacking quality gear. They had been mustered too quickly. Their own cavalry trotted past and Colonna stared at them in surprise. These men were fresh, with their tunics still clean and their weapons dry of gore. Up-slope, the Arabs were falling back again, their lines tattered and disjointed, but they still stood firm amongst the black rocks. A column of fresh infantry came marching up the hill and Colonna ordered his men to stand aside.

That bastard of a prince isn't going to let up, is he? Good for him!

Theodore had taken a moment to dismount and refresh himself in the shade of one of the pavilions. One of the servants had brought him a porcelain bowl of water to lave his face and a clean towel. Things were well in hand on the field below. It might be time to deliver the final stroke.

"Lord Prince?"

Theodore turned at the voice, grinning, for he owed much to the tired-sounding man that had made the trek up the hill to see him. He finished drying his hands and then gestured for a chair to be brought immediately. Servants scurried off to find something suitable.

"Master Demosthenes! You are most welcome! Please, sit."

The thaumaturge slumped into the chair, a light construction of pale blond pine, varnished to a smooth glossy finish, with a crosscut seat inset with darker walnut. Theodore motioned for wine as well, and something to eat. Demosthenes was obviously exhausted, his long face graven with weariness. His beard, usually neatly trimmed and brushed, was tangled with sweat and dust. Dark smudges colored his eyes and there was the mark of bruising and a burn on his right hand.

Wine arrived, in a silver ewer, and Theodore poured it himself. The thaumaturge put the cup to his lips and drank greedily, though his hand shook with an obvious tremble.
"That was hard work, today." Demosthenes' voice was a harsh whisper and Theodore had to lean close to hear him. "Their sorcerers were young and strong. Well trained in the art."

"How many were there?" Theodore had begged, borrowed and stolen every thaumaturge he could lay his hands on for this campaign, stripping the entire eastern half of the Empire, including the garrisons in upper Mesopotamia for them. It might be traditional for the thaumaturges to be parceled out, one or two to each Legion for siege work and to block the sendings of the enemy, but Theodore had bigger plans in mind. He had seen the power that the Western Empire could bring to bear with a massed group of mages. The powers of the Persian priests, the mobeds and mobehedan, were legendary Ö why not match them, strength for strength?

"Not many," said the thaumaturge, some strength returning to his voice, "but they stood only on defense, while we must make do with attack. It is draining work, trying to twist the world that way. Still, we overcame themÖ" He paused, and Theodore could see that the man was sifting memory, trying to find a pattern in the day's chaos.

"Why," Demosthenes said, surprise in his voice. "I believe there were only two! But skilled, my lord, and well used to one anotherÖ perhaps brother and sister. Great strength can be had that way, if the minds can find a common join."

The Lord Prince stood, grinning from ear to ear. "But not enough to carry the day, master wizard!"

Not enough. The prince swung around, his step light. He looked west, checking the sun. There were still hours of light left. Well enough time to smash the Arab army into the dust.
"Send word to the mage's encampment," he called to a courier rider that was standing close by, "tell them their work is done for the day. Tell them to rest, to recover their strength."

"All day we wait, sitting and getting fat." The Tanukh's voice was low, but it carried to where Khalid was sitting on his horse, half shaded, half covered by the overhanging branches of a thorn-tree. The young commander feigned deafness, his brilliant eyes focused on the clouds of dust beyond the shallow pass between the two dark hills.

"The city-men, they are being heaped with glory. Soon they will rest in soft paradise, their every whim catered to by white-limbed maidens with long rich hairÖ" Shadin had been dwelling overmuch on this topic throughout the long, endless, day. "Ö each a virgin and willing, even eager, to learn from a man's hand. Soft spoken, too, and demure, with downcast eyes."

Khalid continued to ignore him. One thin-fingered hand was curled around the pommel of his saddle and the other rested easily on his thigh. The big Persian, Patik, waited quietly behind him, squatting in the scattering of shade cast by the thorn tree. The rest of the men were also resting in what shade they could find, or moving quietly amongst the horses sheltering behind the conical hill.

Beyond the little pass, the battle had moved away to the left, though there was still some fighting at the encampment. Khalid ignored that. The wagons were empty, the carts overturned. The camp-followers were within, it was true, along with some men wounded earlier in the campaign. The Romans were more interested in the mass of Arab and Decapolis troops now fighting on the shoulders of the hill where Mohammed's banner and tents stood. He squinted, watching a singular figure, dressed in white and brown, that stood on the height.
The Romans can see him, too. Khalid mused, his thoughts disguised behind a carefully bland face. But will they know what they see? Can they feel him, their sorcerers?

"These men of the city, they are dying with the word of god on their lips. They will find paradise." Shadin was still holding forth to the men of his squad, most of whom were trying to sleep, upon the world that awaited them after death. "They will find two cool gardens planted with shady trees, each watered by a flowing spring. Every tree, for I have heard it from his lips myself, will bear every kind of fruit, each in pairs."

Distantly, horns blew and Khalid sat up a little straighter. His eyes swerved to the hilltop. The lone figure remained, standing on the dark boulder, the wind blowing its robes out from it like a flag. The young man looked back to the pass, eyes narrowing. He could see a great flock of banners and pennons moving, as if a mass of mounted men were coming up out of the streambed.
Khalid hissed in delight. Behind him, Patik's cold gray eyes flickered open and the Persian diquan stood, his muscles moving smoothly. His lamellar armor of overlapping iron plates rippled like a snakeskin. Gentling his horse with a slab-like hand, the easterner mounted. The other men, roused by the movement, looked to their own horses. Shadin, interrupted in the middle of a long and detailed description of the "dark-eyed houris" scrambled to his feet.

Khalid ignored them all, his full attention focused on the hilltop. He ignored the sky darkening behind them.
Light flashed there, from metal turning across the path of the sun, across the mile or more of scrub and twisted thorn-bush. Khalid felt something like a physical shock as the tiny figure on the boulder turned and looked at him.

"Mount up!" Khalid's voice carried, strong and clear, across the rocky hillside. Hundreds of men scrambled for their horses, armor jingling in the hot afternoon air. Ahead of them, where they had laid hid throughout the day amongst the gray rocks and tiny depressions in the ground, scouts raised their heads, preparing to rise and run alongside.

"Paradise is waiting!"

"This is the last act," said Theodore to the cluster of courier riders that were waiting at the back of his pavilion. They were very young, the scions of the great houses of the provincial landowners. For many, this was their first campaign. As had generations before them, they would run errands and messages for the cataphracts, for the nobles who commanded the armies of the Eastern Empire, even - as now - for the Lord Prince himself. Someday these boys would carry the kontos, bow and sword of the cataphractoi themselves.

Theodore smiled genially, seeing their tense, determined faces.
"We have held back our full strength throughout the day, waiting for the enemy to weaken. Now he has been driven back onto his camps, or onto that hillock yonder, where his tents lie. Go down into the valley and carry word to the centurions that the exhausted men are to fall back, while fresh troops take their place."

He clapped his hands sharply in dismissal and turned away. The boys scrambled for their ponies.

"Boleslav!"

"Aye, altjarl?"

"We move, too. Have the servants break camp. I wish to see the end of this myself."

There was laughter amongst the Faithful, for their axes were hungry. It was boring, sitting on the hilltop. Red cloaks moved swiftly as Theodore swung into the saddle of his stallion. By the time that he had spurred the horse to descend the trail to the valley floor, a cordon of the great-thewed north-men were all around him in an irregular circle.

The prince laughed as he walked the stallion down the slope, the north-men running at his stirrups. The wind of his passage dispelled a little of the day's heat. It was good to feel the air on his face.

Colonna stepped off of the roadway, motioning for the men behind him to do the same. He had wrapped a cloth around his face to keep the dust off, for the road they were following was barely a track and no proper highway by any means. It meandered down from between the two dark hills and crossed a deep ravine that lay behind the Roman camp. A rider had come to Colonna and the remains of his detachment while they were sitting in the shade under the stunted trees that lined the little streambed they had crossed in the morning. The boy had directed them back to the main camp, beyond the hill and beyond the ravine. The centurion had shrugged and rousted his men out.

Now the road was crowded with wounded men as they approached the bridge.

It wasn't much to look at, this bridge, only a single arch of stone over the narrow slot of the ravine, but it was still standing. Men and horses and wagons carrying those too wounded to walk were backed up on the near side of the crossing. There was only room enough for a single wagon to cross the span.

"Make way! Make way!" A rider on a well-lathered horse trotted up behind Colonna and his men. The centurion had seen him already and his fellows were off of the roadway, squatting or standing in the gray-white brush that lined the road. A troop of men in heavy armor, their helmets held on their saddle bows, rode up. They looked weary and hot and Colonna could see from the make of their armor and saddles that they were not regular Legion troopers.

Only the Eastern Empire maintained a cavalry arm of the Legion, those were the noble cataphracts. These men must be mercenaries, probably Armenians by the look of their beaded tack and bridle. Colonna had heard they were good fighters, but touchy and very brave.

"You, centurion!" One of the men, blessed with a thick dark beard, was pointing a stubby finger at Colonna. "Your men are wounded?"

"No," said Colonna, rising to his feet. It had felt good to just sit for a moment, but officers rarely thought about things like that, leastways not when centurions were lolling about. "We're fit. A rider from the Lord Prince told us and our mates to fall back and let the reserves take over."

"Good," barked the man, and now Colonna could see that the riders breastplate had once been gilded with gold before someone had tried to stave it in with a mace. "You've charge of the bridge crossing. Get this herd of addled sheep sorted out and the road open!"

Colonna made to salute, but the black-bearded man had already curveted his horse around in a half-circle and was riding hard off the other way, his escort in tow.

Some of the men were coughing and waving their hands to dispel the dust.

"Let's go," growled Colonna, wedging his helmet back on his head. "Now we're vigiles."

"You there," he shouted at the first of the drovers crowding the road with a wagon. "Get that rattle-trap off the road!"
Behind him, the rest of his lochagai was fanning out, their spears in hand, trying to get the walking wounded and stray farmers all onto one side of the roadway.

Theodore let the stallion take its head and pick up to a run as they approached the dry streambed that lay between his day camp and the battle. The horse leapt the sandy wash with ease and the Lord Prince laughed, feeling the power coursing in the magnificent beast. The Faithful had fallen behind, crashing through the thickets that lined the dead stream. Theodore reined around to let them catch up.

Boleslav jogged up, his thick, trunk-like legs seemingly tireless.

Theodore opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, hearing a great shout rise up behind him.

Allau akbar!

The prince turned in the saddle, staring up the slope, as the Faithful re-established their cordon around him. There, under the eaves of the rocky hill, there was sudden, violent motion. The prince raised an eyebrow, seeing the massed ranks of his army stagger back as the Arab bandits, trapped on the higher ground, suddenly charged pell-mell down the slope.

Allau akbar!

The sound echoed from the hills, raising a chill on Theodore's arms. It seemed the cry of tens of thousands of men, not the bare handful that now struggled with the front ranks of his own army. The sun was beginning to fall behind the hills and Theodore shaded his eyes with a hand.

"Boleslav, where are my couriers and runners?"

The north-man grunted, his own deep gray eyes searching the slope for any foes that might have broken through the main line of battle.

"None have yet returned, altjarl. Soon they will, I think."

Theodore grunted in disgust. The din of battle was rising sharply. These bandits had acquired some unexpected fervor.
"Then we shall have to find them. Forward!"

Mohammed stood, though the wind had picked up again, and it plucked at his robes with sharp fingers. Thistles bounced past, driven by the gusts. Under his feet, on the slope below the outcropping, the men of the Decapolis, stiffened by the Ben-Sarid and the Yemenites, had thrown themselves into the Roman lines with terrible energy. The enemy, still forming up for a second round of battle, had been taken off-guard. Two wedges of Decapolis heavy infantry had hacked their way into the Legion blocks. Behind them the Yemenis were filling the air with arrows, firing up at an angle to let the shafts plunge into the massed ranks of the Romans down-slope.
They have proven themselves, thought Mohammed. The city-men had paid a terrible price throughout the long day, taking the brunt of the Roman attack on their shoulders. Now they should be on their last legs, exhausted and bled white by the struggle. Despite this, they attacked ferociously, regardless of their casualties.

The storm of their war-cry echoed up around the boulder like the beat of a drum. Twenty thousand throats, crying out to the heavens.

"Now His strength comes," said Mohammed softly, leaning into the wind. Sand and gravel whipped at him, but he ignored the cuts on his hands and the dull roar that had been building out of the east in the last hour.

"Now, you men that lay your hearts down before him, who take his guidance and law into your own houses, know that he will succor you. He, the Compassionate and Merciful one, will hold you in the palm of his hand."

Mohammed's eyes closed, shutting out the vision of his men dying, sliding in their own blood, their bodies pierced by the short-hafted spears of the Romans, on the slope below. The attack had faltered as the Romans reformed their lines, and now it was failing as the flanks of the wedges were attacked by hundreds of legionnaires.

A voice came from the clear air and it rolled like thunder.

Khalid rose up in his stirrups, his saber held high and forward, glittering as the polished blade caught the westering sun. He howled, and his men howled behind him, a thousand riders on fleet-footed horses. The drumming of their hooves make the ground jump. Rabbits and birds fled before them, startled from their day-nests.

Allau akbar!

The ring of wagons swelled in Khalid's vision and the land flashed past under the hooves of his mare. Before them, he saw the Ghassanid archers break away, fleeing before the weight of his charge. Behind him, and on either side, the flowing line of charging horses unfolded, filling the shallow pass. Some of the men, the Bedu, raised their voices in a long wailing scream, and Khalid joined them. He and his personal guard, Patik among them, galloped past the wagons on their right side. No one tried to stop them, though the women and old men in the laager of wagons cheered as they hurtled past.

Khalid flashed them a brilliant smile, but then turned his attention to the roadway he could make out down the slope. It was crowded with men walking, and more wagons, and beyond all that, there was a dark slash of a ravine cutting across the plateau and a bridge.

The rest of the Arab reserve flowed past the wagons on the uphill side, with Shadin in the lead, his thick hand gripping the hilts of a long hand-and-a-half sword. The drumming of hooves almost drowned out the war-cries of the Tanukh and the Palmyrene knights, but those men raised their voices all the more. Shadin's thought flickered, momentarily, to his sword-brother Jalal, who had held the command of the center of the Arab line at dawn.

Do you still live, my brother?

It didn't matter now, for the lead edge of the Arab charge, six thousand men strong, was about to slam into the rear cohorts of the Roman left wing. Shadin raised his voice in a scream of rage that echoed back from the empty sky.

Allau akhbar!

Theodore and his bodyguards had reached the standards of the tribune commanding the left wing of the Roman force when the sky began to darken. The Lord Prince was hurrying the man through the usual pleasantries, trying to find out where Vahan and the other generals were when Boleslav suddenly shouted in fear. Theodore's head snapped up in alarm; he had never heard such a cry from one of the Faithful in all his time among them.
The eastern half of the sky had vanished, swallowed into a towering wall of darkness. The sky above had turned a sickly yellow that boiled and seethed with angry motion.

Sodium-yellow lightning rippled through the depths of the black cloud, illuminating the rushing stormfront from within. For an instant, the Lord Prince was aware that a terrible silence had settled on the field of battle. Men all around him looked up in awe and terror, seeing only the outline of the outcropping and a single white figure that stood on the summit, it's hands raised. There was no wind, no sound, not even the rattle of metal on stone.

"All-father, receive our souls on bright wings."

The Faithful broke the silence with their song, raised in a hundred basso throats. Theodore stared around wildly, seeing that the north-men had raised their axes in defiance to the dreadful sky that rushed towards them.

"All-father, hear us, send your winged messengers to bind our wounds, to lift us up from the field of battle. Valhalla is waiting, the golden hall on a green hill. All-father, hear us!"

Then the song was drowned by the awesome roar of the wind and the world vanished in a howling storm of blinding sand and grit and Theodore's horse bucked in fear and he saw the ground rushing up to meet him.

ZoŽ cowered in the lee of a tumbled slab of cracked blackish rock. Odenathus was crowded in beside her, his cloak stretched over both of them. The sky screamed and raged and she could hear, somehow, through the tumult the sound of Mohammed's voice, tolling like a temple bell. Sand lashed at their shelter, spilling down the crack between the stone and the cloak. The fabric was stretched taut by the pressure of the wind that tore at it. Her cousin moaned in fear, feeling the power that was unleashed in the sky above them.

I knew he was strong, wailed ZoŽ to herself, the palms of her hands ground down over her ears, trying to shut out the hammering noise. It was useless, the roaring sound was in the ground as well as the sky. It filled the hidden world. I didn't know what that meant!

The earth shook under her, and her fingernails dug into the stony ground.

Mohammed stood on the boulder, staring down into the valley. The wind had died around him, leaving a quiet space in the maelstrom. Not more that a dozen yards away, the storm raged, tearing out brush by its roots, whirling tents and wagons away. Eddies of dust and sand and grit curled around the invisible sphere, pressing against it like the current of a river. Here, where he stood, listening to the sky, there was only a quiet whisper of movement in the air. Tiny grains of sand pattered down where the storm met the quiet, making little cones on the ground.

You must act, O man, but I will guide you.

A voice was speaking from the clear air, here in the heart of the storm. Outside, beyond this sanctuary, the wind ripped and howled, shifting the stones of the hill in their foundations. The darkness of the sandstorm had covered more than the sky, now it flowed across the desert, cracking trees and lashing men as they lay huddled on the ground.

Some men still moved in the storm. Khalid and his riders were galloping down the road towards the bridge that crossed the Wadi Ruqqad. Mohammed could see them, in the queer yellow-green light that filled the sphere of quiet. He knew that they would reach it and seize it from the Romans stunned by the storm. On the slope below him, where the men of the Decapolis had watered the ground with their blood throughout the long day, his followers could stand in the wind. The Roman army had already splintered, in fear and surprise, and Shadin and Jalal were meeting amid the carnage, their faces striped with blood.

You must strike to the sea. Swiftly. Swiftly.

Mohammed nodded. The voice from the clear air rarely gave him counsel, but in this thing he was already determined. His fingered a medallion that hung around his neck. It had come to him by a messenger's hand, while he and his men had been encamped at the old Nabatean capital of Petra. It was from his wife's sister. It was an old coin, struck in the mint of Makkah in his father's time. On the obverse was stamped the image of a ship.

In those days, the poor men of Mekkah had found their riches waiting on the broad blue sea, in the ships that plied the trade along the Persian and Indian shores.

Mohammed stared out, into the storm, at the ruin below him. Across the valley, between curtains of hurtling dust, he could see lightning stabbing in the murk. The Quryash shook his head slowly, feeling the ripple of power even at this distance. The Roman thaumaturges could feel the will in the storm and sought to meet it with their own.

Foolish.

Mohammed knew the strength of the lord of the empty places, of the wasteland. Was it not the strength of the whole world itself? Of all that existed, or had ever existed?

How can men seek to overturn that?

The lightings faded and died, muted and swallowed by the roiling yellow-brown sky. Intermittent red and viridian flashes continued for a little while, but then they too ceased.
The Quryash turned away, pulling his scarf over his face. This work was done.

Wind shrieked and hissed, lashing Colonna with a stinging hail of sand and gravel. Bits of wood, splintered from the leaning trees, flew through the air like tiny javelins. The centurion was crouched in the lee of a wagon, close by the bridge abutment. Some of his men had climbed down the steep sides of the ravine, seeking shelter from the storm.

What a fine day, thought the centurion, his head bent to his knees to hide his face from the gale that might rip the flesh from his bones. All our work undone by a freakish storm, a khamshin, out of the deep desert.

Most of the men trying to cross the bridge had gone to ground when the thundering black wall had come roaring out of the east, but Colonna and his lochagai had tried to keep order on the span itself, shoving the remaining wagons across with main strength. Then the storm had hit, smashing them to the ground, tearing shields from men's backs. Carrying young Domus Aureus right off the bridge itself, shrieking in fear, to fling him into the ravine. Colonna turned his thought from that. It was cruel way to die.

The color of the air changed, deepening from a sickly yellow to a darker, more ominous color. Colonna felt the wind shift too, and then suddenly it slacked off. Shaking dust and sand from his shaven head, the centurion staggered up and lurched out onto the road.

"Form up!" He started to call out to his men, then he felt the echo of hooves in the ground.

Colonna turned sharply, his gladius sticking as it rasped out of a sheath clogged with sand and grit.

A horseman loomed out of the darkness, robes billowing in a following wind. Colonna started to shout, started to bring up his sword to block the lance-tip that was flickering in the air.
Too late, he thought, feeling the nine-inch shaft of tempered steel punch through his shoulder. The metal scales of his armor rang, screeching as they crumpled under the impact. Colonna gasped, feeling his arm go numb with a massive shock. Blood spattered across his vision and then he was lying, arms and legs askew, in the spiny brush by the side of the road. A river of horsemen rushed past, their faces covered with scarves, their long robes flying around them.

More screams filtered through the air. The storm continued.
A fine rain of sand began to fall out of the air. Colonna blinked, trying to keep it out of his eyes. It was very dark.