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Chapter 1

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Belisarius watched the stone ball arching through the sky. The trajectory was no flatter than that of a ball cast by catapult, but it slammed into the brick wall surrounding Ranapur with much greater force. Even over the roar of the cannon blast, the sound of the ball's impact was remarkable.

"A least a foot in diameter," stated Anastasius.

Belisarius thought the cataphract's estimate of the cannonball's size was accurate, and nodded his agreement. The other of his veteran bodyguards, Valentinian, grimaced sourly.

"So what?" he grumbled. "I've seen a catapult toss bigger."

"Not as far," countered Anastasius, "and not with anything like that kind of power." The huge Thracian shrugged his shoulders. "There's no point fooling ourselves. These infernal Malwa devices make our Roman artillery engines look like toys."

Menander, the last of the three cataphracts who had accompanied Belisarius to India, spoke up.

"What do you think, general?"

Belisarius turned in his saddle to reply. But his quick answer was interrupted by a muttered curse.

Anastasius chuckled. "It's amazing how quickly we forget old skills, isn't it?"

Belisarius smiled ruefully, for the truth of the remark could not be denied. Belisarius had introduced stirrups into the equipment of his cavalry only a few months before his journey to India. Already he had half-forgotten the little tricks of staying in a saddle without them. The ambassadorial mission which Belisarius led had not brought the new devices to India, however. Stirrups were one of the very few items of Roman military equipment which were superior to those of the Malwa Empire, and Belisarius had no intention of alerting his future enemy to them.

But he did miss the things, deeply, and was reminded of their absence every time some little motion caused him to lose his balance atop his horse—even something as simple as turning in his saddle to answer the young Thracian behind him.

"I agree with Anastasius, Menander," he said. "Actually, I think he's understating the problem. It's not just that the Malwa cannons are superior to our catapults at the moment. What's worse is that our artillery engines and techniques are already at their peak of development, while the Malwa devices are still crude and primitive."

Menander's eyes widened. "Really? They seem—"

The young soldier's gaze scanned the battleground. Belisarius and his entourage had arrived at Ranapur only the week before. But the northern Indian province of which Ranapur was the capital had rebelled against their Malwa overlords two years earlier. For more than a year now, Ranapur itself had been under siege. The once fertile fields surrounding the large city had long since been trampled flat and then re-elevated into a maze of trenchworks and earthen fortifications.

The scene reminded Menander of nothing so much as a gigantic ant nest. Everywhere his eyes looked he saw soldiers and laborers hauling supplies and ammunition, sometimes with carts and wagons, but more often through simple brute labor. Less than thirty yards away, he watched a pair of laborers toting a clay-sealed, tightly woven basket filled with gunpowder. The basket was suspended on a bamboo pole, each end of which rested on the men's shoulders. Despite being clothed only in loincloths, the laborers were sweating heavily. Much of that sweat, of course, was the product of the blistering heat which saturated the great Gangetic plain of north India in springtime, during that dry season which the Indians called garam. But most of it was due to the work itself. Menander estimated the basket's weight at sixty pounds, and knew that it was only one of many which those two men would have been hauling for hours.

That scene was duplicated dozens of times over, everywhere he could see. The entire city of Ranapur was surrounded by wooden palisades, earthen walls, trenches, and every other form of siegework. These had been erected by the besieging Malwa as protection from the rebels' catapult fire and occasional sallies.

Menander thought the Malwa were being excessively cautious. He himself was too inexperienced to be a good judge of these things, but Belisarius and the veteran cataphracts had estimated the size of the Malwa army surrounding Ranapur at 200,000 soldiers.

The figure was mind-boggling. No western empire could possibly muster such a force on a field of battle. And the soldiers, Menander knew, were just the fighting edge of an even greater mass of humanity. Menander could see only some of them from his current vantage point, but he knew that all the roads in the vicinity of the city were choked with transport bringing supplies to the army.

Glancing to the south, he could see barges making their slow way up the Jamuna river to the temporary docks which the Malwa had erected to offload their provisions. Each of those barges weighed three to six hundred tons—the size of the average sea-going craft of the Mediterranean world. They were hauling food and provisions from the whole of northern India, produced by the toil of the uncountable multitude of Malwa subject peoples.

In addition to the freight barges there were a number of equal-sized, but vastly more luxurious, barges moored to the south bank of the Jamuna. These were the accommodations for the Malwa nobility and high officials. And, here and there, Menander could see slim oared craft, as well, moving much more rapidly. The galleys were powered by fifty or so rowers, with additional troops aboard. The Malwa maintained a careful patrol of the river, closing Ranapur's access to water traffic.

Most of all, Menander's gaze was drawn by the huge bronze cannons which were bombarding Ranapur. He could see eight of them from the slight rise in the landscape where he and the other Romans were watching the siege. Each of the cannons was positioned on a stone surface, surrounded by a low berm, and tended by a small horde of soldiers and laborers.

"Magical, almost," he concluded softly.

Belisarius shook his head. "There's nothing magical about them, lad. It's just metalworking and chemistry, that's all. And, as I said, crude and primitive metalworking and chemistry."

The general cast his eyes about. Their large Rajput escort was not far away, but still out of hearing range.

Belisarius leaned forward in his saddle. When he spoke, his voice was low and intent. He spoke loud enough for all three of his cataphracts to hear him, but his principal audience was Menander. Out of all the hundreds of cataphracts who constituted Belisarius' bucellarii, his personal retinue of elite soldiers, there were none so deadly as Valentinian and Anastasius. That was why he had selected them to accompany him on his dangerous mission to India. But, for all their battle skills, neither of the veterans was really suited for the task of assessing a radically new situation. Young Menander, even with more experience, would never be Anastasius or Valentinian's equal as a warrior. But he was proving to be much quicker to absorb the new realities which the Malwa were introducing into warfare.

"Listen to me, all of you. I may not survive this journey. Whatever happens, it is essential that at least one of us return to Rome with what we've learned, and get the information to Antonina and John of Rhodes."

Valentinian began to make some little protest, but Belisarius waved him down.

"That's stupid, Valentinian, and you know it better than anyone. A thousand things can kill you on the field of battle—or off it—and I'm no more immune to them than anyone. What is important is the information."

He glanced again in the direction of the Rajputs, but the cavalrymen were still maintaining a polite distance.

"I've already explained to you how the cannons work," he said. He cocked an eye at Menander. The young Thracian immediately recited the formula for gunpowder and the complex series of steps by which it was properly prepared. His words had the singsong character of one repeating oft-memorized data.

Belisarius nodded. "It's the wetting and the grinding that's key. Remember that." He made a small nodding gesture toward the distant cannons. "The Malwa gunpowder is really pretty poor stuff, compared to what's possible. And so is their metalworking."

Examining one of the cannons, he sat slightly straighter in his saddle.

"Watch," he commanded. "They're about to fire. Watch the trajectory of the cannonball."

Menander and the other two cataphracts followed his gaze. A moment later, they saw one of the Malwa soldiers take a long iron bar out of a small forge. The bar was bent ninety degrees at the tip, and the protruding two inches glowed red from heat. Gingerly, he inserted the firing bar into a small hole in the breach of the cannon. The mouth of the cannon belched a huge cloud of smoke, followed almost instantly by the roaring sound of the blast.

The recoil jerked the cannon back into its cradle. Menander saw the gunner lose his grip on the firing bar. The bar was spun against another of the Malwa soldiers, who backed up hastily, frantic to avoid the still-glowing tip. Menander did not envy the Malwa gunners. Theirs was a risky task. Two days earlier, he had seen a recoiling cannon shatter its cradle and crush one of its gunners.

Menander and the other Romans followed the cannonball's trajectory all the way to its impact against the great wall of Ranapur. Even from the distance, they could see the wall shiver, and pieces of brickwork splinter and fall to the ground.

Belisarius glanced at his companions. All of them were frowning—the veterans with simple puzzlement, but Menander with concentration.

"It didn't fly straight," announced the young cataphract. "It shot off at an angle. It should have hit the wall fifteen or twenty feet to the east."

"Exactly," said Belisarius with satisfaction. "If you watch carefully, and keep track, you'll eventually notice that the cannonfire is very erratic. Occasionally they shoot straight. But more often the ball will sail off at an angle—and the elevation's just as haphazard."

"Why?" asked Menander.

"It's the clearance," replied the general. "What's called windage. In order for a cannon to shoot straight, the ball has to fit snugly in the bore. That requires two things—an even, precise bore all the way through the cannon barrel, and cannonballs that are sized to match."

Anastasius puffed out his cheeks. "That's a tall order, general. Even for Greek artisans."

Belisarius nodded. "Yes, it is. But the better the fit, the better the fire. The Malwa don't even make the attempt. Those cannonballs aren't much more than crude stones—they'd do better to use iron—and the cannon barrels are simply castings. They're not machined at all. Even the casting process, I suspect, is pretty crude."

Valentinian scowled. "How would you machine something that big in the first place?" he demanded. "Especially metal."

Belisarius smiled. "I wouldn't even try, Valentinian. For cannons the size of these, sloppy accuracy isn't really that much of a problem. But let's examine the question from a different angle. How hard would it be to machine a very small cannon?"

"Very hard," said Anastasius instantly. His father was a blacksmith, and had put his boy to work at an early age. "Any kind of machining is difficult, even with wood. Almost nobody tries to do it with metal. But—yes, if it was small enough—"

"Hand cannons," said Menander excitedly. "That's what you'd have. Something small enough for a single man to fire—or maybe two."

"One man," pronounced Belisarius.

"I haven't seen any such weapons among the Malwa," said Valentinian uncertainly. "Maybe—" He fell silent, coughing. There was a soft wind blowing, and the cloud of gunsmoke emitted by the recent cannonblast had finally wafted over the Romans.

"God, that shit stinks," he muttered.

"Better get used to it," said Anastasius, rather unkindly. For a moment, the giant Thracian seemed on the verge of uttering one of his frequent philosophical homilies, but Valentinian's ferocious glare made him think better of it.

"You haven't seen any handcannons, Valentinian, because the Malwa don't have any." Belisarius' voice was soft, but filled with confidence. "They're not hiding them from us. I'm sure of that. They've kept us far from the battlefield, but not that far. If they had any handcannons, we'd have spotted them by now."

He waited for the roar of another cannonblast to subside before continuing.

"And that's the wave of the future. Handcannons. If we can get back to Rome—if some of us can make it back to Rome, and get this information to John of Rhodes, then we've got a chance. We'll have better powder than the Malwa, and our artisans are more skilled than theirs, on balance. We can build an entirely new kind of army. An army that can defeat this colossus."

For a moment, he considered adding some of the ideas he had been coming to, of late, concerning the structure and tactics of such a future army. But he decided against it. His ideas were still only half-formed and tentative. They would confuse the cataphracts more than anything else. Belisarius needed more time. More time to think. And, most of all, more time to learn from the strange mentality that rested, somehow, in the bizarre "jewel" that he carried in the pouch suspended from his neck. The mentality which called itself Aide and said that it came from the far distant future.

His musings were interrupted by Valentinian.

"Careful," muttered the cataphract. "The Rajputs are coming."

Belisarius glanced over, and saw that a small group of Rajputs had detached themselves from the main body of the elite horsemen and were trotting toward them. At their head rode the leader of the escort, one of the many petty kinglets who constituted the upper crust of the Malwa's Rajput vassals. This one belonged to the Chauhar clan, one of the most prominent of the Rajput dynasties. His name was Rana Sanga.

Watching Sanga approach, Belisarius was torn between two sentiments.

On the one hand, he was irritated by the interruption. The Rajputs—following orders, Belisarius had no doubt—never allowed the Romans to get very close to the action, and never for very long. Despite the limitation, Belisarius had been able to glean much from observing the siege of the rebel city of Ranapur. But he would have been able to learn much more had he been allowed closer, and if his observations were not always limited to a span of a few minutes.

On the other hand—

The fact was, he had developed a genuine respect for Rana Sanga. And even, in some strange way, the beginning of friendship, for all that the Rajput lord was his future enemy.

And a fearsome enemy at that, he thought.

Rana Sanga was, in every respect except one, the archetypical model of a Rajput. The man was very tall—taller, even, than Belisarius—and well built. The easy grace with which Sanga rode his mount bespoke not only his superb physical condition but also his expert horsemanship—a quality he shared with every Rajput Belisarius had so far met.

His dress and accouterments were those of a typical Rajput as well, if a little finer. Rajputs favored lighter gear and armor than either cataphracts or Persian lancers—mail tunics reaching to mid-thigh, but leaving the arms uncovered; open-faced helmets; tight trousers tucked into knee-high boots. For weapons, they carried lances, bows, and scimitars. Belisarius had never actually seen Sanga wield those weapons, but he had not the slightest doubt the man was expert in their use.

Yes, the ideal image of a Rajput in every sense, except—

Sanga was now within a few feet. Belisarius smiled at him, and found it impossible to keep the smile to a polite minimum.

Except for that marvelous, dry sense of humor. 

"I am afraid I must ask you and your men to leave now, general Belisarius," said the Rajput, as he drew his horse alongside. "The battle will be heating up soon, I believe. As always, we must put the safety of our honored guests above all other concerns."

At that very moment, as if cued by the Rajput's words, an object appeared above Ranapur. Belisarius watched the bomb—launched by a catapult hidden behind the walls of the city—as it arched its way toward the Malwa besiegers. Even from the great distance, he could spot the tiny sparks which marked the bomb's fuse.

"You see the peril," announced Sanga.

The fuse, Belisarius saw, had been cut too short. The bomb exploded in the air, well before it struck its intended target, the front line of trenches encircling the city. Which were at least a mile away from the little knoll where they stood.

"The deadly peril," elaborated Sanga.

"Indeed," mused Belisarius. "This is perhaps the most dangerous moment in my entire life. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps it takes second place to that terrifying episode, when I was eight years old, when my sister threatened me with a ladle."

"Brutal creatures, sisters," agreed Sanga instantly. "I have three myself. Deadly with a ladle, each and every one, and cruel beyond belief. So I have no doubt that moment was slightly more dangerous than the present one. But I must still insist that you leave. The safety of our honored guests from Rome is the uppermost concern in our Emperor's mind. To allow Emperor Justinian's official envoys to suffer so much as a scratch would be an irreparable stain upon his honor."

The Rajput's expression was solemn, but Belisarius suddenly broke into a grin. There was no point in arguing with Sanga. For all the Rajput's invariable courtesy, Belisarius had quickly learned that the man had a will of iron.

Belisarius reined his horse around and began moving away from the siege. His cataphracts followed immediately. The entire Rajput escort—all five hundred of them—quickly took their places. Most of the Rajputs rode a polite distance behind the Romans, but a considerable number took up positions as flankers, and a small group of twenty or so trotted ahead to serve as the advance guard for the little army moving through the milling swarm of Malwa soldiers and laborers.

Rana Sanga rode alongside Belisarius. After a moment's silence, the Rajput remarked casually:

"Your Hindi is improving rapidly, general. With amazing rapidity, actually. And your accent is becoming almost unnoticeable."

Belisarius repressed a grimace, and silently cursed himself for a fool. In point of fact, Belisarius could speak Hindi fluently, when he chose, without the slightest trace of an accent. An almost magical capacity for language was one of the many talents which Aide provided him, and one which Belisarius had used to advantage on several occasions.

And one which, he reminded himself again, was useful in direct proportion to being held a close secret.

He sighed, very slightly. He was learning that, of all the difficult tasks which men face in the world, there is perhaps none quite so difficult as pretending to be semicompetent in a language which one speaks perfectly.

Belisarius cleared his throat.

"I am pleased to hear that. I hadn't noticed, myself."

"I thought not," replied Sanga. The Rajput glanced over his shoulder. "Given that your Hindi is becoming so fluent, I suggest that we might speak in Greek from now on. My own Greek, as you know, is only passable. I would much appreciate the opportunity to improve it."

"Certainly," said Belisarius—speaking, now in Greek. "I would be delighted."

The Roman general pointed back toward Ranapur with his thumb.

"I am curious about one thing, Rana Sanga. I notice that the rebels seem to lack any of your cannons, yet they obviously possess a large supply of gunpowder. It seems odd they would have the one and not the other."

The Rajput did not reply, for a moment. It was obvious to Belisarius that Rana Sanga was gauging the limits of what he could tell the Roman.

But the moment was very brief. Sanga was not given to hesitation. It was one of the many little things about the man, Belisarius thought, which indicated his capabilities as a military commander.

"Not so odd, General Belisarius. The cannons are under the exclusive control of the Malwa kshatriya, and are never stationed in provincial cities. Neither are supplies of gunpowder, for that matter. But cannons are very difficult to manufacture, and require special establishments for the purpose. By law, such manufactories may not be created outside our capital city of Kausambi. Gunpowder, on the other hand, is much simpler to make. Or so, at least, I am given to understand. I myself, of course, do not know the secret of its manufacture. None do, except the Mahaveda priests. But it does not require the same elaborate equipment. So long as one possesses the necessary ingredients—"

The Rajput broke off, shrugged slightly.

"—which I, needless to say, do not—"

Fibber, thought Belisarius. I doubt he knows the exact process, but I'm sure a soldier as observant as Sanga knows the three ingredients and their approximate proportions. 

"—and the necessary knowledge, gunpowder can be made. Even in a city under siege."

"I am surprised that Mahaveda priests would join a rebellion against Emperor Skandagupta," remarked Belisarius. "I had the impression that Malwa brahmins were utterly devoted to your empire."

Sanga snorted.

"Oh, I have no doubt their co-operation is involuntary. Most of the priests were undoubtedly killed when the province revolted, but I'm quite sure the lord of Ranapur kept a few alive. It is true, the Mahaveda are sworn to commit suicide before divulging the secret of the Veda weapons. But—"

The Rajput tightened his lips.

"But the priests are perhaps not completely free of the weaknesses which afflict we lesser mortals. Especially when they are themselves the objects of coercion, rather than—"

He fell silent entirely. Belisarius completed the thought in his own mind.

Rather than the overseers of the work of their mahamimamsa torturers. 

Their conversation was the closest Belisarius had ever managed to get to the subject of the Malwa secret weapons. He decided to see how far he could probe.

"I notice that you refer to these—incredible—new weapons as the Veda weapons. My own men tend to believe they are the products of sorcery."

As he had hoped, his last words stung the Rajput.

"They are not sorcery! Magical, perhaps. But it is the reborn power of our Vedic ancestors, not the witchcraft of some modern heathen."

That was the official public position of the Malwa Empire: Ancient weapons from the time of the Vedas, rediscovered by diligent priests belonging to the new Mahaveda cult. Belisarius was fascinated to see how completely it was accepted by even Rajput royalty.

But perhaps, he thought, that was not so surprising after all. No people of India, Belisarius knew, took greater pride in their Vedic ancestry than Rajputs. The pride was all the greater—a better word might be ferocious—for the fact that many non-Rajput Indians questioned the Rajput claim to that ancestry. The Rajputs—so went the counter-claim—were actually recent migrants into India. Central Asian nomads, not so many generations ago, who had conquered part of northwestern India and promptly began giving themselves airs. Great airs! The term "Rajput" itself meant "sons of kings," which each and every Rajput claimed himself to be.

So it was said, by many non-Rajput Indians. But, Belisarius had noted, it was said quietly. And never in the presence of Rajputs themselves.

Belisarius pressed on.

"You think so? I have never had the opportunity to study the Vedas myself—"

(A bald lie, that. Belisarius had spent hours poring over the Sanskrit manuscripts, assisted in deciphering the old language by his slave Dadaji Holkar.)

"—but I did not have the impression that the Vedic heroes fought with any weapons beyond those with which modern men have long been familiar."

"The heroes themselves, perhaps not. Or not often, at least. But gods and demi-gods participated directly in those ancient battles, Belisarius. And they were under no such limitation."

Belisarius glanced quickly at Sanga. The Rajput was scowling, now.

A bit more, I think. 

"You must be pleased to see such divine powers returning to the world," the general remarked idly.

Rana Sanga did not respond. Belisarius glanced at him again. The scowl had disappeared, replaced by a frown.

A moment later, the frown also disappeared, replaced by a little sigh.

"It goes without saying, Belisarius," said Sanga softly. The Roman did not fail to notice that this was the first time the Rajput had ever called him by his simple name, without the formal addition of the title of "general."

"It goes without saying. Yet—in some ways, I might prefer it if the Vedic glories remained a thing of the past." Another brief silence. Then: "Glory," he mused. "You are a soldier yourself, Belisarius, and thus have a better appreciation than most of everything the word 'glory' involves. The ancient battle of Kurukshetra, for instance, can be described as 'glorious.' Oh yes, glorious indeed."

They were now within a hundred yards of the Roman encampment. Belisarius could see the Kushan soldiers already drawing up in formation before the pavilions where the Romans and their Ethiopian allies made their headquarters. The Kushans were vassal soldiers whom the Malwa had assigned to serve as the permanent escort for the foreign envoys.

As always, the Kushans went about their task swiftly and expertly. Their commander's name was Kungas, and, for all that the thirty or so Kushans were members of his own clan and thus directly related to him by blood, maintained an iron discipline over his detachment. The Kushans, by any standard, were elite soldiers. Even Valentinian and Anastasius had admitted—grudgingly, to be sure—that they were perhaps as good as Thracian cataphracts.

As they drew up before the tent which Belisarius shared with Dadaji Holkar, the Maratha slave emerged and trotted over to hold the reins of the general's horse. Belisarius dismounted, as did his cataphracts.

From the ground, Belisarius stared up at Rana Sanga.

"You did not, I believe, complete your thought," he said quietly.

Rana Sanga looked away for a moment. When he turned back, he said:

"The Battle of Kurukshetra was the crowning moment of Vedic glory, Belisarius. The entire Bhagavadgita from the Mahabharata is devoted to it. Kurukshetra was the greatest battle ever fought in the history of the world, and uncounted words have been recorded discussing its divine meaning, its philosophical profundity, and its religious importance."

Rana Sanga's dark, heavily bearded, handsome face seemed now like nothing so much as a woodcarving.

"Eighteen million ordinary men, it is also written, died in that battle."

The Rajput drew back on the reins, turning his horse.

"The name of not one of those men was ever recorded."


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