Scott Oden: Men of Bronze

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Scott Oden Men of Bronze
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    Men of Bronze
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    Исторические приключения / на английском языке
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Barca, with a bellow of rage, gave chase.

The battle became a rout; the rout, a slaughter. Memories of the burning huts of Habu, of the children left to rot in the sun, sealed the Bedouin's fate. Barca's soldiers ranged the field with vengeful purpose, mutilating the dead and slaying the wounded, despite their cries for succor. As the rising sun crested the distant hills, searing away the mist, silence came again to the City of Lions.

Tjemu, his back against a crumbling obelisk, snatched a bloodied turban off the ground and knotted it around his punctured thigh. "Sand-fuckers! " he hissed. He had made it through the battle with only cuts and scrapes until the very end; until an injured Bedouin lurched up and rammed a broken spear through his leg. The blade missed the great artery, though a savage twist left him with a hole the size of a child's fist. The Bedouin who speared him, a beardless boy barely out of his teens, lay crumpled at his feet, the Libyan's sword still wedged in his skull. Tjemu spared him a single pitiless glance.

The ebb and flow of battle carried Tjemu to the edge of the square, its stones littered now with the detritus of war: broken and discarded weapons, hacked shields, bodies and parts of bodies, all of it stewing in pools of blood and bowel that gathered in the low places. He recognized friends among the slain. Gambling partners, drinking companions, and sword brothers lay supine now, staring at the azure sky with glazed eyes. The Libyan felt a pang of regret that lasted only a few heartbeats before he succumbed to the satisfaction of being alive. The Medjay, finished with their murderous rampage, saw to their wounded. Some bound their cuts; others sat very still, sipping water or wine. In the shadow of a leonine statue of the goddess Sekhmet, he saw the old Canaanite, Ithobaal, crouching over a corpse. Of Barca, he saw no sign.

Tjemu limped to Ithobaal's side. "What did you find, old man? Loot, I hope."

"Trouble," Ithobaal said, gesturing to the body. Tjemu frowned at the corpse, trying to look past the waxen skin and skewed limbs, past the trio of arrows that ended the thread of his life, to see what Ithobaal saw. Tjemu toed aside the blood-grimed head scarf and looked more closely at the dead man's face.

"Amon's balls! A Persian! "

Ithobaal tugged a leather dispatch case from inside the dead man's robe. "And a courier, to boot. We'd best find Barca."

Tjemu looked around. An eerie silence gripped the battlefield, sending an involuntary shudder through the Libyan. In his gut he knew they would not find Barca until the devil in his soul had sated its lust.

Ghazi's breath came in sharp gasps. His heart hammered in his chest as he flattened himself against a crumbling retaining wall and listened for sounds of pursuit. Nothing. The old shaykh exhaled. The swords of the Medjay left his robes in tatters, and he bled from a score of lacerations. Ghazi glanced down at the scimitar in his cramped fist, its crimson blade dull, notched from the fighting. Sunlight shredded the morning mist. Before him, running parallel with the wall, lay a flat plain that sloped down to the Nile's edge, broken now and again by heaps of shattered stone, solitary palm trees, and scrubby acacias. Knee-high grasses swayed in the light breeze. He could see the reedy bank and the sluggish water beyond. Perhaps a boat lay near?

"Al-Saffah!" he said, wringing the sweat from his eyes. "Ai-Saffah! The gods take you! " At Kadesh, the oasis of the Beni Harith, Arsamenes had warned him about the Medjay and their implacable captain. Warned him, a child of Sinai, that no good could come from tweaking the devil's beard! Why didn't Ilisten? Five-score of his men, his kin, paid for his arrogance, his foolishness. They were dead and Ghazi was trapped, the breadth of Egypt between himself and safety. He could still reach Memphis. From there, he …

The crunch of a hobnailed sandal on stone shattered Ghazi's reverie. He glanced around, sword ready. The noise repeated itself. Fear-bile welled up in the shaykh's throat. Where? Dust trickled across his face, feathery light. Suddenly, a shadow stretched out before him.

They're above me!

Ghazi glanced up. Atop the wall, like one of the Furies in blood-splashed armor, crouched al-Saffah. His features were twisted into a mask of hate, and his slitted eyes burned with a baleful fire.

"Bastard!" Barca hissed, his jaw clenching spasmodically.

Ghazi paled. A high-pitched scream burst from his lips as he dropped his sword and bolted for the river. He thought of nothing save the promise of succor to be had in the Nile's muddy swirl. Terror lent his aging limbs speed. If only he could reach the river's edge …

Pain blossomed in Ghazi's left shoulder. A fist-sized chunk of masonry, hurled with all the strength of Barca's arm, splintered the bone. The force of the blow sent the Arab cartwheeling. He struck the ground hard. Breath whooshed from his lungs, and his agonized shriek choked off in a tide of vomit. Ghazi fought for breath. He fought to drag his body, one arm useless, to the Nile's dark breast. A long shadow fell across him. The Arab craned his neck, eyes wide with panic.

Al-Saffah leapt from the wall and stalked through the grass, a ribbon of blood drooling from the blade of his scimitar.

Ghazi wept. "M-Mercy! P-Please, al-Saffah! Please …! "

Barca's scimitar flashed down, crunching through the old man's shoulder and into his chest. "Did you bargain with the women and children of Habu?" he hissed, hacking at the flailing Bedouin. Again and again he struck until the thing under his blade grew unrecognizable even as human. With its hunger slaked, the Beast relinquished its grip on his body, leaving his limbs cold and trembling. Barca reeled away, his sword falling from his grasp. He stumbled backwards; leather scraped stone as he struck the wall and slid to the ground. He cradled his head in his hands …

He struck as their moans reached a crescendo, driving the sword point-first between the Greek's shoulder blades. Vertebrae splintered as he leaned on the hilt. Beneath her lover, the young man's wife screamed, a piercing shriek that ended when the sword crunched through the Greek's body and into hers. Blood exploded from her nostrils. Cold, betrayed by his own rage, the young husband fled, leaving the lovers joined forever in death.

"Neferu," he whispered.

Tjemu spotted him first, walking through the windrows of the dead like a farmer in the wake of harvest. Barca paused beside knots of wounded Medjay, clapping their shoulders and laughing. In his presence groans ceased; grimaces of pain turned to triumphant smiles. The Libyan nodded to Ithobaal. "I cannot tell who loves him more, gods or men. Look at him. Barely a scratch. You've been with him longer than I have. What's his secret?"

Ithobaal, who could claim kinship with King Achish of conquered Gath, shaded his eyes with a spade-like hand. Blood spattered his graying beard. At sixty, he was the old man of the Medjay, the voice of temperance and reason, the wise old wolf in a pack of killers. Blood-grimed fingers toyed with an amulet around his neck, a lapis uadjeton a leather thong.

"Secret?" Ithobaal said, his voice like the tolling of a bell. "He has no secret. When death holds no terror for a man, little brother, what does he have left to fear?"

Ithobaal watched Barca's mood darken as he approached. In all his years of soldiering, he had never met a man quite like the Phoenician. He had seen his share of veterans humbled by the aftermath of battle. Champions who tearfully thanked the gods for the gift of another day; princes who puked their guts up as fear caught up with them; kings who needed a moment alone to compose themselves. He'd seen men become so overawed by the recognition of one's own mortality that came on the heels of violent confrontation that they would never fight again. But not Barca. Never Barca. Without fail, the captain of the Medjay assumed the air of a man who had been cheated, a man who had been guaranteed a rendezvous with Death only to have it denied him.

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