By Ben Bova
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
The dreadful news reached us when we were less than a day's march from the capital, returning home after a long, hard campaign against the wily Armenians, in the mountains far to the north. The gods had turned their backs on our rightful emperor; he had been poisoned by his own scheming sons. Now, lusting for the power their father had wielded, the sons made war on one another.
The empire of the Hatti stretched from beyond the twin peaks of Mount Ararat in the northeast to the shores of the Great Sea. Our armies sacked Babylon and fought the prideful Egyptians at Qadesh and Megiddo in the gaunt lands of Canaan. With swords of iron and discipline even stronger we conquered all that we encountered.
Now Hattusas, our capital, had crumbled into chaos. Even before we reached its outer wall we could hear the tumult of terrified voices wailing to the gods for protection. It seemed as if the city's entire population was streaming out of the gates: white-bearded men, aged grandmothers, children wide-eyed with fear, whole families pushing carts loaded with their meager possessions, mothers with crying babies in their arms, all blindly fleeing. Smoke was rising from the citadel up on the hill in the center of the city, an ugly black plume staining the clouded sky.
I knew what each of my men was thinking: what's happened to my family, my wife, my children, my mother and father? I felt that fear clutch at my own heart as we reached the city's main gate.
"Stay together," I commanded my squad. "March in step."
I knew that we would need iron discipline now more than ever. They obeyed, good soldiers that they were. Instinct born of hard training made us move as one unit, spears at the ready.
Once inside the gates the stream of fleeing populace turned into a torrent of people ashen with panic, all rushing to get away from the city. And we saw why. Gangs of young men were marauding drunkenly through the twisting streets, breaking into houses and shops, stealing all that they could carry, brutally raping any women they found. Screams and pleas for mercy filled the air.
"Where are the constables?" one of my men cried.
Gone, I realized. With the emperor dead and his sons warring against each other, order and safety had collapsed into lawlessness.
A woman with a baby in her arms and two more little ones trailing behind her rushed up to me, her face twisted by fear.
"Soldiers! Help us! Protect us!"
My instinct was to fight these drunken looters, to safeguard the defenseless people they were preying upon. But all I had was my squad of twenty. Twenty men against hundreds, one squad of soldiers against a city in anarchy. It was hopeless.
"Leave the city while you can," I told her. "Get away until this madness burns itself out."
She stared at me, disbelieving. Then she spat on me. My hand flew to the pommel of my sword. I told her through gritted teeth, "Get away while you can. Leave while you're still alive."
She turned and hurried to rejoin the stream of people fleeing for the city's gates.
"Stay in order," I shouted to my squad. "We can't fight them all."
The men grumbled but we marched on, eyes forward, shields on our arms and spears upright, up the narrow street that led to the citadel and to the home of my father, where my wife and sons lived. Three of my men had family in the city, I knew. The rest came from elsewhere in the empire.
"We're going to the citadel. From there you can go to your families or to the barracks," I told my men.
We marched toward the citadel, toward the house of my father.
The gangs gave us wide berth as we marched in step up the cobbled main street toward the citadel. Twenty men in the emperor's gear, each armed with a nine-foot spear and killing sword were enough to make most of them melt away from us. Someone threw a rock that bounced off my shield. When the twenty of us wheeled and leveled our spears in that direction, the looters scattered away like the vermin they were, scurrying for safety.
"Stay together," I repeated, resuming our march up the street. As usual, I stayed on the right end of our line, since I am left-handed and wear my shield on my right arm. Thus we presented a solid line of shields from end to end.
It was hard to watch the rioters looting and roaring, staggering from house to house, dragging out shrieking terrified women, and do nothing. Dead bodies lay in the street. Blood ran in the gutter down its middle. Young toughs in knots of four and five lurched from shop to shop, flagons of wine in their blood-soaked hands. I even saw bands of soldiers, still wearing the emperor's leather and iron, smashing and looting alongside the wild-eyed gangs.
"We'll tend to our own families," I repeated to my men. "There's nothing we can do for the others."
Truly, the city was in anarchy. Twenty soldiers would not be able to restore order. Twenty hundred were needed. The streets smelled of blood and panic. Smoke was thickening in the sky.
The stone tower of the citadel, up atop the hill, was in flames. Fire and death are ever the twin sons of war, and the black smoke rising from the royal palace told me that the gods had turned their backs on the Hatti. My home was hard by the high wall that encircled the citadel. My father, my wife, my two little sons were there. So I hoped.
"Stay in order," I called to my men. "I'll drub the man who breaks ranks."
We marched onward toward the burning citadel. None of the drunken looters came near us. Brave they were with their clubs and daggers against cringing women and quaking old men; against a disciplined squad of armed spearmen they made no opposition. We marched upslope along the cobbled street and everyone gave us a wide berth.
Most of my men were too young to be married. They lived in the barracks inside the citadel wall. The three who had homes to go to I released once we reached the wall, with orders to rejoin the squad before nightfall. The others milled about uncertainly.
"Stay together," I told them. "Go to the barracks and save what you can. Then form up again here, by this house."
It was the house of my father, the house where I had been born. And my sons, as well.
Like all the others along the street, my father's house was braced along the citadel wall. Built of well-fitted stone, it leaned slightly aslant. Its one window was tightly shuttered, but the door was ajar, leaning crookedly on its hinges. Not a good sign, I thought. The roof thatch was smoldering, probably from a spark wafted on the breeze. The very air was thickening with smoke from the burning citadel.
I stepped into the shadowy interior of the house, my eyes quickly adjusting to the gloom. My heart sank. The room had been ransacked; table overturned, chairs smashed to splinters. The fireplace was cold and dark. I looked up to the loft where the beds were; silent, empty. The bedclothes had been torn off and ripped.
Then, in the far corner where my father had often told me tales of war and conquest, I saw his withered body on the packed earthen floor, huddled beneath a bloodstained cloak.
I had seen dead bodies before, by the score, by the hundreds. Yet the sight of my father there in the shadows made my throat go dry. I sank to my knees beside him and gently, gently turned him so I could see his face.
They had battered him terribly. Yet his eyes fluttered, then focused on me.
"Lukka ..." His voice was a tortured sigh.
"Don't try to speak. Let me —"
He clutched at my arm, his aged fleshless fingers still as strong as a hawk's talons. "I knew you would return." He coughed painfully. "I knew ..."
"Quiet, Father. Quiet. I'll get a healer, a priest."
"No need. No use."
He coughed blood.
"Your sons," he gasped. "Gone ..."
"They fled." He coughed again, his frail body spasming in my arms. "Your wife was mad with panic. Slavers were breaking into the houses ..."
"She feared them ... she took my grandsons ..."
The third child of war, I thought. The poor wretches who were not killed or maimed were made into slaves.
"Find them!" my father commanded me. Gripping my arm even harder, he hissed, "Find them. My grandsons. They are my flesh. Find them, Lukka. Find them!"
Those were his last words to me. He died in my arms, his blood soaking into the earthen floor while smoke from the burning thatch made my eyes sting and water.
My sons. My wife. Find them.
I took a spade from the corner by the fireplace, where my father had always kept his tools. Coughing from the thickening smoke, I dug a shallow grave for him there in his house, the home of my ancestors. I tried to remember the words for the dead, but my mind would not recall them. All I could think of was his final command to me. Find his grandsons.
If the slavers have found them they're already dead, I thought. Slavers don't keep young children, especially boys. Mouths to feed, and too small to do any useful work.
I got up from my knees while choking smoke filled the room and eager flames licked across the timbers of the roof. I stepped out onto the street. The air was thick with smoke. More houses were burning, I could see, as swaggering gangs of looters put the torch to what ever they could not carry away with them, roaring with drunken laughter. Men can turn into beasts so easily, I realized. Take away the authority of the emperor and even trained soldiers become looting, raping animals.
I wanted to kill them. Kill them all. Slash their guts out and watch their eyes go wide with pain and shock. But that was nonsense, of course. I could kill five of them, ten, a dozen. But in the end I would be swarmed under and cut to pieces. What would that accomplish? So I stayed my hand and waited in the doorway of the house in which I had been born.
The sky seemed to be darkening; drops of rain began to spatter the cobblestones. Not hard enough to stop the flames that were crackling on the roof, though.
My squad was nowhere to be seen. They'll be back, I told myself. At sundown, they'll return, just as I ordered them to.
But I wondered.
The world had split apart. The empire was in ashes and ruins. And my father had commanded me to find his grandsons, my little boys, and their mother, my wife: Aniti.
I had first met her on the day we were married in the temple of Asertu, nearly six years earlier. The two families had arranged the marriage while I was away on campaign with the army. A soldier's life is not his own. I had been a soldier since I was fourteen, like my father before me. I had no choice; he was accustomed to giving commands and having them obeyed. Before my beard was anything more than a wisp he led me to the barracks and entered me in his squad. Thus I spent most of my days in long campaigns far from home, carrying out the emperor's orders.
Aniti. I tried to remember how much time we had spent together in the years we had been married: a few months, all told. Enough to father two sons by her. She was a pleasant enough woman, not given to anger, never sullen. But I could not recall the color of her eyes, nor the sound of her voice.
The rain became heavier, making rivulets that flowed among the cobblestones. The roof of the house crashed down in a shower of sparks and flame, as if the gods honored my father's grave with sacred fire. I pulled my cloak tighter around me while I stood in the chilling rain and waited for my men to return.
As it grew darker they began to show up. One, then a pair of them, then another three. By the time it was fully dark eighteen of the twenty were standing in the rain-soaked street, their cloaks over their heads.
"Nerik isn't coming, Lukka," said Magro, usually the jokester among my men. He wasn't joking this day. He looked miserable beneath his dripping cloak. "I saw him go off with some of his friends from the barracks."
"And Hartu?" I called to them. "Anybody seen him?"
Head shakes and mumbles. Hartu had family in the city, I knew. He was the eldest son; his parents probably needed him more than I did — if they still lived.
We were eighteen men, eighteen soldiers of an army that no longer existed. As individuals we would be as helpless as any fleeing refugee.
But if we stayed together we might be able to survive. As one lone man I could never hope to find my sons. But with my squad of disciplined spearmen ...
I made a decision. "All right. Form up. We march." "March?" asked big, slow-witted Zarton. "To where?" "To find my sons," I told them.
For six months I led my squad of men westward, across the chaos and anarchy of the collapsed empire. We had to fight most of the way, against bandits, against villagers and farmers, against other desperate squads of former soldiers like ourselves.
Soon enough we discovered the remains of a refugee caravan. It had been attacked by bandits. The dead were strewn across the ground like a child's broken toys. My wife and sons were not among them, thank the gods. I learned from one of the wounded guards who had been left to die that those who survived the attack were being herded to the slave market at Troy, far to the west, on the coast of the Aegean Sea.
Slaves. Slavers wouldn't keep two little boys, they'd kill them on the spot. Aniti, my wife, what of her? I wondered. A woman isn't responsible for what happens to her when she is in captivity, but still ... a slave, powerless, defenseless. I had to squeeze my eyes shut to blot out the visions that came to my mind.
I thanked the dying guard and eased his way into the next life with a dagger to his throat. Then I searched the ground once again, until it was too dark to see, but my sons were not among the bodies scattered across the wreckage of the caravan.
So I pushed my men onward, toward Troy. They grumbled as soldiers always do, but they had no real choice. Together we were a formidable band of men, armed and disciplined. We lived off the land, became little better than bandits ourselves.
Bad dreams filled my sleep: dreams of my infant boys lying broken and dead in a roadside ditch. Dreams of my wife on the auction block of the slave merchants.
Some nights I dreamed of Hattusas, saw the city in flames while ravaging mobs looted and raped through the streets. In my dream I saw the old emperor die, poisoned by his own sons, and I was powerless to help my emperor. Try as I might I could not move, could not even shout a warning to him.
Then it wasn't the emperor who was dying, it was my father, his life's blood seeping into the dirt floor of my house while choking smoke filled the room and eager flames licked across the timbers of the roof.
"Gone," my father moaned. "Taken by slavers ... your wife, your sons ... gone ... Find them ... Find my grandsons."
He died in my arms. The burning house crashed in on me.
I snapped awake and sat upright on the meager pallet of straw we had scraped together. Blinking the sleep away I slowly recalled where we were. A farmstead in the brown, scrubby hills off the royal road that led to Troy.
The farm wench beside me stirred slightly, then turned over, snoring.
I was soaked in sweat, like a weak woman instead of a Hatti soldier. In the gray light of early dawn I reached out my hand. My sword lay by my side. It had never been more than an arm's length away from me, not for these past six months.
Perhaps my wife and children were already dead; we had found corpses enough along the royal road. But not my sons. Not my wife. Not yet.
How long can they live under the slavers' lash? I wondered. My sons were little more than babies; the elder hardly five, his brother two years younger. How can she protect them, protect herself? I felt as if I had been thrown into the deepest of all the world's black pits, cut off from light and air and all hope. Suffocating, drowning, already dead and merely staggering through the motions of a living man.
Enough! I commanded myself. Don't let despair swallow you. Battles are lost before they begin when soldiers surrender themselves to despair.
Reaching out my hand, I lifted my naked sword. Its solid weight felt comforting in the predawn gray. A Hatti soldier. What does that mean when the empire no longer exists? When there is no emperor to give commands, no army to carry the might of the imperial will to the far corners of the world?
All that matters to me now is my two little boys, I told myself. And my wife. I will find them. I will free them, no matter what it takes. Or die in the trying.
I got to my feet and gathered up my clothes, my iron-studded leather jerkin, my helmet and oxhide shield. As I stepped outside the crude lean-to that passed for a barn I saw that the sun was already tingeing the eastern horizon with a soft pink light. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Hittite by Ben Bova. Copyright © 2010 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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