[ In the middle of this chapter was a fight on the road up from Perinthus between Khalid's scouts and some Roman milita ... hack! ]
Smoke billowed out of a burning house, swirling in eddies across the road. Despite the rain spattering down, the farmhouse was burning fiercely. Corpses lay strewn across the farmyard – peasants by their tattered clothing. Khalid al’Walid sprinted from the gatepost to the side of the barn, his long hair slicked down on his neck. Water was in his eye, curling under the visor of his helmet. He cursed, blinking. Two of the Sahaba lay in the yard, arrows jutting from their still bodies. Shouting came through the smoke and rain. There was fighting out on the main road, too.
“Patik! Where is that damned Persian?”
Khalid peered around the side of the barn. The shutters of the farmhouse were hanging open, leaving black squares in the fieldstone wall of the building. Someone inside, sheltered from the rain, had shot his men. The burning building threw an intermittent red light on the door. The young Arab cursed himself for leading his men into this town. It was a trap, set by the suddenly resurgent Roman army.
Men ran past, just outside the gateway of the farmhouse. Khalid almost called out to them, then realized that they were Eastern soldiers in chain-mail and rectangular scuta. Only the absence of the tribal helmet markings adopted by the Sahaba warned him. He gulped, cursing himself for not realizing it would be hard to tell friend from foe in bad light like this.
A stone rattled behind him and he spun, long cavalry sword nipping out. Patik, moving along the wall towards him, frowned and pushed the point away with his gauntlet.
“You were shouting, captain?”
“Yes,” growled Khalid in a low voice. “Let’s get out of here. Those were Roman troops.”
Patik nodded. He had seen them too. “This way.”
Together, they scrambled over the low wall and into a garden, wheat and yams lying in trampled rows. Patik hunched down low and scrambled along the side of the yard. They passed a wall of wooden slats and Khalid, following, could hear men speaking behind it in Latin. The sound gave him a queasy feeling. Past that, they were in another lane. It was filling with mud as the rain got heavier. Some men in armor were huddled under a sagging porch on the opposite side.
“Captain!” They hissed at Khalid and he and Patik splashed across the lane to join them.
“Where’s everyone else?” Khalid bit out the words, knowing that he should know. The Sahaba, looking rather damp, shook their heads in puzzlement as well.
“Don’t know, sir. We got separated when the Romans started at us.”
The van of the Sahaba army had been making good time across the Thracian countryside for three days when the weather started to go bad. It rained, then cleared up, and then rained again. There was a day of sunny blue skies, and then it rained for two solid days. Since then, as the Arab army crawled forward along muddy roads and over swollen streams, it tended to just rain whenever it felt like it. Khalid had never fought in the mud before. It was not pleasant.
A day ago Khalid had caught sight of the walls of the city. Even from a distance, through the unpleasantly warm haze, he had stopped in his tracks, staring. They rose up over the hills and rooftops of the scattered farmhouses, gray and implacable. This morning, in a brief clear moment, he had seen them again, much closer. They were huge. An endless long rampart of brick and stone, studded with huge towers. Then, behind that, there was a second wall, twice as high as the first.
Patik, seeing that he was impressed, had grunted. “Six miles long, as the Romans measure, from the Propontis to the Golden Horn. A hundred strong towers, held by brave men.”
Khalid felt a little ill. Then he thought of the powers arrayed against this immense fortification and his spirits improved again. Within an hour of that, his command was lost in fog, fighting an unknown number of Roman legionaries and citizen militia. What a fine day!
“All right, let’s try and get back to the main road.” Khalid looked both ways, then splashed off down the lane. The men followed, most of them sniffling with colds. Patik trailed, his hand-and-a-half sword out and at the ready. The young Arab reached the end of the lane, then darted out, his own blade at the ready. The mist had cleared a little, letting him see down the main street of the town. Fifty or sixty feet away there was a struggling mass of men, fighting. The rain dulled the racket of metal on metal. Khalid shouted and ran in that direction. The other Sahaba jogged along behind him.
Among the struggling men, hewing at each other with axes and swords, were many of the Sahaba. Khalid jogged up, looking about for more enemies. It seemed that a cohort of legionaries was trying to block the way back to the highway.
“Cut through! Let’s get back to the main army!” Khalid pushed his way through the crowd, his sword high. Roman soldiers were only a dozen feet away, fighting in line, their big rectangular shields interlocking to make a nearly solid wall. They stabbed with short spears and their gladius at the Arabs. The Sahaba were trying to get to grips with them, though their longer spears and cavalry swords did not seem to be making a big difference.
Khalid cursed, seeing that the Romans were a little uphill, too. The footing in this mud was bad enough. At least the rain had cut down on the archery. Khalid felt almost naked, standing in the middle of this street.
“Form up,” he shouted, “we’ll rush them!”
The men that had followed him from the lane crowded around, their shields up, swords at the ready. Patik was among them, standing a half-head above any of his fellows. Khalid started to drag the other men, already fighting, into order. The Romans, seeing their enemies withdraw a step, also backed up, reforming their own line. For a moment, there was peace on the muddy street as both sets of men glowered at one another.
A cloud of smoke, damped down by the rain, blew across the street. Khalid waved to his men, shouting: “For Mohammed! For the lord of the world! Allau ak-bar!”
He ran forward, shouting, and fifty men were at his shoulder, screaming a high wailing war cry. The mist parted and the Romans where there, braced and ready. Khalid leapt at the first one, hacking overhand with his spatha. The Roman parried with his shield, grunting as it took the blow, then stabbed out with his short sword. Khalid wrenched his shield into the way, managing to turn the blow. At his side, Patik slapped down a gladius and then smashed his armored shoulder into the man’s shield. The legionary staggered back, into the second rank, and Patik – snarling like a lion – lunged into the gap. His longsword whirled over his head and clove the head clean off the soldier that Khalid was trading blows with. The young Arab gaped in surprise, seeing the man’s neck suddenly spouting blood in front of him. Then he too, shouting wildly, leapt over the corpse and he was at swords strokes with the men in the second rank.
The Sahaba pressed hard and the Roman line suddenly gave back. Bucinas wailed in the rain, a mournful blat of sound, signaling retreat. Khalid paused, gasping for breath, leaning on his sword, letting the water seeping through the joints of his armor cool him. It was hot work in this din of battle. Patik, as always, was standing nearby, cleaning blood and bits of muscle from his blade with a cloth.
“Hold up, lads!” Khalid’s voice sounded mournful in the rain. “Let’s get sorted out.”
The other Sahaba appeared out of the rain, dragging their dead and wounded. Khalid wiped his beard. It was impossible to keep dry in this muck. They would all have hoof-rot if this kept up. He counted noses and saw that they had only lost five or six men.
“Not so bad…”
“Such heavy blows have overwhelmed the men.” Khalid frowned at Patik, still leaning on his great sword, for he was quoting again. “Our former champions, all laid up in the ships, all are hit by arrows, run through with spears…”
“What are you talking about?”
Patik raised an eyebrow at the aggrieved tone in Khalid’s voice.
“Old words, captain, suitable for a day like this I think.”
“Keep them to yourself! Break the men into bands of ten, search the town, make sure it is ours!”
The big Persian nodded, smoothing his curly beard and moved off in the rain. Khalid spit, then started trudging up the hill towards the highway. Hopefully the rest of the Sahaba were there, not more Romans.