Sam Barone: Empire Rising

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Sam Barone Empire Rising
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    Empire Rising
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    Исторические приключения / на английском языке
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Sam Barone

Empire Rising


3157 B.C.E., at the eastern edge of the great southern desert in Mesopotamia…

Head sagging, his face inches above the heated rubble of rock-hard dirt, Korthac struggled against the escarpment. The long ascent had scraped the skin from his hands and knees, and now every contact with the sun-seared stones burned his fl esh, as he struggled another step up the slope. Close your eyes, just for a moment. The inner voices grew more insistent, seductive, as another wave of dizziness swept over him. Rest! Let another lead the way.

Clenching his teeth, he crawled on, fighting against the voices as much as the steep hillside and the pitiless sun. Korthac could not show weakness in front of his men. The desert might kill him, but it would not defeat him.

He’d find water at the top, and live. Clinging to the thought, he dragged himself upward.

Water. Most of all he fought against the need for water, forced himself to ignore his swollen tongue and parched throat. Water. Korthac pictured streams of clear, bubbling water nestled under shady sycamore and willow trees. He forced the image from his thoughts and concentrated on wrenching himself up another arm’s length. The vision and the voices kept returning. He must find water, or the desert would prevail over him, claim him and all his followers. That could not be.

The top of the ridge beckoned, just a few paces above. He moved with caution, making sure his trembling legs did not betray him. Twice in the last hour Korthac heard the death screams of men who had fallen back to the desert floor. If he lost his grip, started to slide back down, he didn’t know if he had the strength to stop his fall.

His thirst drove him on. Fortune had saved him and his minions time and again in the last two months, but even the gods couldn’t keep a man alive in the desert with no water. He refused to believe his destiny meant for him to die like this, hunted and herded into this barren wasteland like some wretched slave, driven mad by thirst before the death gods claimed his body.

Last night, a few hours past sunset, Korthac and his men reached the base of the plateau they’d first glimpsed three days ago. The remnants of his once-mighty army fell on their faces and slept until dawn. When they awoke this morning, two men could not get to their feet.

Korthac ignored their pleading. “Kill them.” He’d given the same order almost every morning for the last two weeks. Those closest drew their knives and thrust them deep into the chests of the helpless men. The rest needed no further urging. They crowded around the two dying men and cut their victims to pieces, every man shoving and pushing his way to seize a piece of moist flesh, valued as much for its thirst-quenching blood as for its nourishment. When the gory ritual ended, only the splintered bones, their marrow sucked dry, remained on the red-soaked sand. Even the skulls were cracked and the brains scooped out. Afterward, fewer than eighty men started the climb up the sheer and treacherous slope.

Korthac ate with the rest, on his knees and pushing the bloody flesh into his mouth as fast as he could. The act no longer shocked him or any of his men. The strong fed upon the weak to gain sustenance for another day.

But even a fresh-killed body didn’t hold enough water to keep so many men going through the desert. They’d had no water for three days, not since a brief rainstorm sprinkled the sands and fi lled a few hollows in the rocks with its precious liquid. If they didn’t find water atop this plateau, they’d all be dead by sunset.

His outstretched hand grabbed on to nothing, and Korthac realized he’d reached the end of his climb. Pulling himself over the crest, he rolled onto his back, breathing hard, oblivious of the blinding sun. When he heard the scraping of those following, he forced himself first to his knees, then to his feet. His men would not see him crawling about on the dirt.

Shading his eyes, he looked around. The landscape had changed. For the first time in weeks, he saw the endless sands replaced by a stony mixture of earth and clay, with scattered shrubs and bushes dotting the terrain. To the east his eyes picked out what he’d hoped to find, a line of green about two miles away that could only be trees. Where trees grew, water flowed. The gods had favored him once again. He would survive to find his destiny.

Korthac turned back to the cliff ’s edge and in a hoarse voice called out the news to his men. As he did so, he looked down at the desert floor, surprised at how distant it seemed. They’d climbed more than two thousand feet to reach the top of this elevation.

Hand on his knife, he made sure the first four men to reach the crest still carried their burdens, small sacks tied to their backs. Only then did he relax, counting and appraising each of his fighters, to see if any looked too weak to carry on. But the sight of the distant tree line gave every man renewed vigor. Dirty, crusted with blood and sand, their skin burned nearly black from weeks under the unrelenting sun, they looked more like demons than men.

When the last one reached the top, Korthac finished his count. Seventy-four men had survived the desert passage, less than half the number who survived the battle and fled with their leader into the wasteland. Nothing could stop them now. He led the way, his men stumbling along behind him.

They headed east, the same direction they’d run, walked, and crawled for the last two months.

Halfway to the trees, Korthac caught sight of a village and changed his course. As they reached the outskirts of the small cluster of mud huts, the ground gave way to a barley field that offered its heady scent to the wind. Forcing a path through the waist-high crops, his eyes picked out the mud-ridged channel carrying water to the growing plants.

Korthac lurched into a run, his men staggering behind as best they could. He reached the edge of the irrigation ditch and flung himself down, to gulp mouthfuls of the muddy stream. His men splashed about on either side, crawling and pushing until they, too, shoved their faces into the water.

Korthac drank until he needed to draw a breath, then let his face fall again into the muddy water. Only when his stomach protested did he stop.

Disgusted at showing such weakness, Korthac pushed himself to his feet, noted the flow of the water, and moved away from his men until he reached a part of the ditch still unsoiled by his followers. He knelt and drank again, but only a few mouthfuls, able to restrain himself once more.

Then he washed his face and hands, and scooped the cool water over his body, rinsing away most of the dirt and blood that had crusted over him for days.

When Korthac stood up, he felt refreshed, even his hunger driven away by the fullness in his belly. He and his men would take what they needed from the village and rest there until they regained their strength.

He walked down the line of the canal, giving orders to his subcommanders, getting everyone out of the water before some fool drank himself to death. Splashing through the ditch, Korthac walked toward the huts.

It seemed strange that no one had noticed their approach, that no farmers worked the field. Just before he reached the first of the mud structures, he heard a scream, a piercing cry of agony that rose above a background of laughter, the mixture of sounds close ahead. Passing into the village, he counted the dozen or so scattered huts and tents. Likely less than fifty people, all struggling to stay alive in this rocky place at the edge of the great desert.

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