[ The original beginning of this chapter was removed. ]
Khalid ducked down, wincing, and felt something cut his cheek. The heavy iron head of an arrow had punched through the laminated wood of his shield, splintering through the inner face. A yard away, one of his men pitched back, legs jerking spasmodically, another black fletched arrow jutting from his armpit. The Arab captain hunkered down behind the shield, digging it into the gravelly sand. More arrows flashed past, knocking up puffs of dust as they hit the beach. Desperate, he looked back, searching for his men.
Many were dead, but more were crouching behind their own shields, trying to get away from the rain of arrows that hissed down from above. The Arab detachment was pinned down on the open beach, trying to find some cover among the driftwood that was scattered along the narrow strand. Above them, a sharply sloping hill towered over the beach. An hour ago, when they had begun landing, swarming ashore in longboats, it had been a peaceful scene.
“Cursed Romans!” Khalid looked around again and saw that more men were splashing through the waves to shore. The beach was very shallow, so the boats could run up all the way to the edge of the surf. Khalid praised the lord of the world for that, none of his men could swim and this way all they had to do was get a little wet. More arrows whickered down out of the sky and one of the new men pitched over as he ran. “Hear me, Sahaba! Allah is watching!”
The young Arab gathered his legs under him, settling his grip on the straight cavalry sword that he was carrying. At his movement, the other men also readied themselves. “At my sign!” His voice carried well along the beach.
“Allah akh-bar!” Khalid gave a great shout and leapt up, scrambling up the slope. It was loose and sandy, barely held together by tufts of sea-grass. His boots dug in, sliding, but then he was on harder ground, sprinting forward. More arrows flashed around him. He turned his torso sideways, his shield up, and ran harder. Ahead he could catch sight of the tops of cypress and juniper trees above the dancing edge of his shield. Another arrow plowed into it, punching all the way through. He gasped, feeling it strike his chest and spark away from the laminated metal plates.
During the voyage from Caesarea, while the men were learning to row and to puke over the side of a galley without fouling the oars, Mohammed and his captains had reviewed each qatib of the army of the Sahaba. In each regiment, the officers were given the best armor, like Khalid’s lorica segmentata, then the swordsmen, then spearmen, then archers and slingers. Arms and material were reallocated too, trying to ensure that each qatib had the equipment they needed. Khalid had found it intensely interesting, watching the lord Mohammed explain and dicker with each unit, smoothing ruffled feathers, quieting dissent, taking his time to ensure that each man in the army understood what was expected of him.
Like taking this promontory!
Khalid crashed through a thicket of gorse bushes that straggled along the top of the slope, his breath harsh in his ears. There were men running away from him. To his left, some of the defenders were still shooting down at the men scrambling up the hill. Khalid shrugged his shield down on his arm and leapt towards the nearest archer. His sword blurred in the hazy afternoon air and cut into the man’s neck. The Roman began to cry out, then the sound was choked off in a gurgle as the Arab sword severed his windpipe. Khalid kicked the body away with his boot.
The Arab spun, blocking the snake-like blow of a spear with his shield. Another Roman had rushed at him, shouting wildly. Khalid knocked the spear point away with the flat of his blade, then bulled in, slashing overhand. The man, elderly, with a white beard and rheumy eyes, jumped back. Armor rattled on the Roman, badly laced, and his movements seemed slow, even hesitant to Khalid.
A retired soldier, flickered through his mind. Khalid charged in, slapping the spear away with his shield, then chopped hard at the man’s knee. The Roman tried to dodge, but tripped on a tree-root and the point of Khalid’s sword plunged into the inside of his thigh. A high wailing scream burst from the man’s mouth, then cut off abruptly. Khalid’s face was a mask of disgust, but he put his boot against the Roman’s neck and used the leverage to drag his sword free from the underside of his jaw. Blood flooded out, soaking into the dry soil.
Khalid looked up and saw that his men had cleared the top of the slope of the enemy. There were sounds of fighting off among the tall cypresses. One of the Sahaba jogged up as Khalid was wiping off his blade, the white flashing on his helmet marking him as a sub-commander of archers.
“Captain? The Romans are all dead or run off. What now?”
Khalid looked out to sea, seeing the fleet scattered across the dark waters. Fat bellied merchantmen were moving slowly towards shore, preparing to unload horses and more men. Two more of Khalid’s lieutenants came up. One of them was bleeding slowly from his left arm. The stolid Persian, Patik, was close behind them. Where the others were edgy, fired up by the struggle, he was relaxed, his sword sheathed and laid over his shoulder. It had not been a difficult fight. The Arab captain turned, pointing north along the wooded shoreline.
“Across the headland is a town with a harbor. These men must have been the local militia. Most of them are dead now, so we will take it from the survivors. There’s no time to waste, get everyone formed up in squads, then forward!”
Khalid motioned for the archer to wait. The other two lieutenants jogged off through the trees, shouting for their men. “Put two of your men on the beach, some up here on the crest and then more along the path to town. I don’t want anyone getting lost in the woods. Understand?”
The archer nodded, then he left too. Khalid stared at Patik, who was staring around at the trees in interest.
“What is it?” Khalid was curious. The Persian rarely took an interest in his surroundings.
“These trees, they look just like the ones on the Asian side. The flowers are the same, too.”
“So?” Khalid shook his head. He didn’t understand. Patik raised a thick black eyebrow.
“We’ve crossed the Hellespont. It’s been a long time since a Persian did that. It should be different here.”
“Get going.” Khalid growled, then strode off through the brush, impatient to see the walls of the town. Behind him, Patik knelt, running his hands through the dry sandy soil under the leaf litter and pine needles. It felt like the dirt back home, too. He grunted, then stood, wiping his hands, looking around again.
“O misery, whose land have I lit on now?” Patik’s voice rolled, rich and sonorous, unheard among the cypress and pines. “What are they here – violent, savage, lawless? Or are they friendly to strangers and god-fearing men?”
Then he laughed at his conceit and his face became cold once more, stolid and uncaring. He crashed through the thicket, his powerful legs quick on the trail after his captain.