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Volume 11, Issue 2: Pictura

Saba

Douglas Wilson

The city of Saba was virtually unassailable. It was almost completely surrounded by a wide loop of the river, and between the water and the city walls were a series of ramparts. A setting sun looked down on the lush river country, and a long row of darkskinned Ethiopians looked down from the first rampart at the camp of the Egyptians.

The unexpected arrival of the Egyptian vanguard the previous day had shaken the confidence of the Ethiopians; the Egyptians had beaten them back to this, their capital city. The city had never fallen, but now many believed that a crushing fall was inevitable. The fear was most intense at court, and counsels were confused. The regent was not a strong man, and wafted between the competing claims of courtiers.
The reason they were in these straits stood at the head of the Egyptian army, gazing at the rampart in front of him. The general was a young man-around 35-and full of that impatience which accompanies military genius. His eyes were gray and unacquainted with laughter. He turned and gave a few brief commands to one of his officers.
He glanced to the left to watch the road next to the river. Hour by hour, fresh companies marched steadily into the camp. He had posted a company of drummers next to the road; they had been beating on their deep hidecovered drums all morning. The general smiled grimly and wondered if the drummers knew how powerful their weapons were.
Behind the gates of the rampart a company of the Ethiopians had assembled. They could hear, in the background, the ominous dooming of the drums. In number they were large enough to hope for success in their mission, although few did, and small enough that failure would not dangerously weaken the defense of the city.
The leader of the band was one of the young noblemen of the city-his name was Amaftur, and he was a true warrior. He was also a good warrior, which was why he was unhappy about this mission. He would have had no part of it had he not been goaded into it by the step-daughter of the regent-Tharbis. Not that she had advocated it, or pressed it. That fool of a king's counselor-Chaeba!-had suggested it, and the king had agreed. All the noblemen, who knew something of battle, just stood there silent. But when the king asked for someone to lead the sortie, the silence had looked more like cowardice than wisdom. If Tharbis had not been there . . . well, here he stood tightening his greaves and oiling his shield.
All Ethiopia knew that the success of the Egyptians was bound up in their general. The spirit of the gods was on him. If he were removed, the superiority of the Ethiopians could again be reestablished. The object of the sortie was to drive like a dagger at the heart of the Egyptian army, kill their general, and fall back to the city. The full strength of the Egyptian army had not yet arrived, and if the task had any hope of success it had to be done now.
The men now stood silent and ready. A goat was brought and quickly sacrificed. Their young leader slowly lifted up a brass bowl filled with warm blood, said a fervant prayer to the gods, and poured out the libation. The grim men gathered behind the gate and waited for the signal. It was not long in coming. Two hundred voices united in a fierce shout, and two hundred spears clashed on two hundred shields. For a brief moment, they forgot the drums.
The forward sentries for the Egyptian army saw the gate swing outward and quickly sent word to their general. The Ethiopian sortie poured out the gate, and to the Egyptians' surprise, did not spread out laterally. The company of men remained together, and in a fairly wide column. Their charge was swift and pointed. The Egyptians near the tents of the general and officers had about two minutes to prepare.
The rude collision between the two armies was confused, as such collisions always are. In the shock there were falling men, flashing swords, and thrusting spears. From the midst of the fray the only ones who could make any sense out of what was going on were those gifted with a special military mind, or those thoroughly trained. In this case, these qualifications were held by the Egyptian general and Amaftur respectively. For all others it was martial chaos.
But there was another vantage point. It belonged to Tharbis, as she stood above the gate on the first rampart. The soldiers near her on the rampart quailed at her presence. When she was like this she was as terrible as she was beautiful. She strode back and forth, intently watching the action. She wondered, distantly, what would become of their young commander. She had heard rumors at court that he desired to marry her, and she was not entirely closed to the idea. He might do. He was a brave warrior-as this small battle was showing.
The column had reached the Egyptian tents, but at a severe cost. They were now flanked on both sides with hundreds of Egyptians, and more were arriving by the minute. Suddenly, the newlyarriving Egyptians fell back, apparently signalled to do so by their commander. He thought the attack some sort of feint and did not want his soldiers out of position. About a third of the Ethiopians were down. Now they were falling back under pressure from an equal number of Egyptians. Tharbis looked closely and could make out the Egyptian general, fighting at the head of his men. The red plume on his helmet danced with each spear thrust. She found herself strangely stirred. Why were such men so rare? Maybe it is because they spend so much of their time killing each other.
The Ethiopians were falling back more swiftly now. The only thing that kept it from becoming a rout was the courage of Amaftur. He was everywhere, rallying his men, striking down Egyptians. He was wounded in the left leg, but seemed oblivious to it.
Two small bands of Egyptian soldiers had run parallel to the fight and were now in position to cut off the Ethiopian retreat to the gate. The Ethiopians were now just a small tattered band-maybe forty men. Suddenly the Egyptian general signaled his men to fall back. He stood out in front of his men, looked at the Ethiopian leader, and raised his spear in salute. He could not have known that that bloody salute would win him the city.
Tharbis looked down at the brave men falling back through the gate. She looked back at the Egyptian general, his spear still raised. She did not understand much, and she did not understand herself at all. But she did understand that she had to have that man—or rather he had to have her. Thinking back later, she knew exactly when her decision came. But she also knew that it was not her decision; it was his. She bit back her words.
That evening she called Amaftur to her. He came to her counsel chamber and was admitted by the two guards at the door. Tharbis was seated on a small ivory throne at the far end of the chamber. He limped slowly in and bowed.
"You fought well today-and bravely."
"I wish all shared your sentiments, your majesty."
"The carping of courtiers seldom contains any truth worth acknowledging. You do not seek the applause of cowards and fools?"
He smiled. She knew the court well.
"You asked to see me?"
"I did. If you are not too weary from your mission, I have another for you." Amaftur nodded.
It was late that night when he found himself approaching the Egyptian camp for the second time - but this time he was alone. The night was exceptionally calm. He stopped about 20 yards from where he knew the first sentries to be and hailed them. He then walked slowly toward them, with his hands out from his sides. Two suspicious Egyptians met him with their spears lowered. They did not need to say anything; the challenge was implicit.
"I have a message for your general from the princess Tharbis."
"A message of surrender?"
"I was not told to deliver my message to the sentries." Amaftur spoke haughtily.
One of the sentries ran off and returned a few moments later with an escort for Amaftur. They walked into the heart of the camp, with the Ethiopian looking stonily around. They stopped at the tent of the general, and the escort spoke briefly with the sentries outside. One of them disappeared into the tent to awaken the general. After what seemed to be just a few seconds he reappeared.
"You may go in."
"Do you want my sword?"
"I told the general who you were. He said there was no need."
Amaftur nodded his head, and understood the actions of Tharbis a little more. A man like this commanded respect-and loyalty-even from his enemies. He walked slowly into the tent.
The general was waiting for him. He waited for the young emissary to speak.
"I bring you a message from the princess Tharbis."
"What sort of message? She does not speak for your regent."
"In this matter she speaks for herself. I bring an offer of marriage."
The general's eyebrows went up, and Amaftur smiled inside. It was a pleasure surprising a man who was rarely, if ever, surprised.
"And in exchange?"
"She offers you the city-on the condition that the city be spared. You must also take a vow that you will be her lord and take her back to Egypt with you as your wife."
The general turned away in thought. It was clear that this military campaign was not turning out as he expected. Victory he expected, but not this sort of victory.
"What is she like?"
"She is beautiful, if that is what you mean."
"It is part of what I mean."
Amaftur nodded. "She is also used to having things her own way."
"And is that why she is willing to betray her city?"
Amaftur spoke with some heat. "She betrays nothing-nothing that has not already been betrayed in high places. The counsel of fools has betrayed the city. She is trying to spare the city."
"Even at the cost of marrying an Egyptian, eh?"
Earlier Amaftur had detected in the tone of Tharbis' instructions something more than politics and intrigue, so he thought it wise to say nothing. The general turned back to him.
"You may tell your princess that I accept her offer and will take the vow."
Amaftur nodded and turned away.
The fall of Saba the next day was swift. At the order of the princess, defenders had been moved from their positions at the Refuse Gate to reinforce the Main Gate. Several companies of Egyptians had poured through the mysteriously opened gate before anyone realized what was happening. There was some brief fierce fighting until the Ethiopians realized that the Egyptians were willing to show clemency to those who surrendered. They had already been thoroughly demoralized by the events of the previous day, and if surrender would not be followed by a painful death, then surrender was not unattractive.
Tharbis was immediately escorted out of the city, surrounded by a squadron of men appointed by the general himself. She walked with the air of a princess, and hid the turmoil she felt very well. It was time to meet her husband.
The old man stood up. He was halfway up the slope of a haggard mountain with a gray wilderness spread out below him. He began to make his way slowly down. The reminiscence was over; it was time to act. It had been many years since he had seen Tharbis-and it would be good to see her again. Her decision to leave her gods and come out to the camp had been made at great cost to her. It was a pity that her arrival in the camp should cause such a stir-such opposition! But why should she be the only one to pay a price? And why should she be denied the privilege of worshipping Jehovah? Moses shook his head. Miriam had to be faced. It was time to meet his wife.

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