The thing on the pyre withered.
Bitias rocked back and forth in the bitter-sweet smoke, held erect by his bronze corslet and the spear butts he’d jammed into the dry Libyan soil. Around him, the other armored figures stood motionless, dazed by what they’d just witnessed.
“Oath-breakers!” Opposite the armored men of Carthage, Hiarbas stood tall upon his four-horsed chariot at the head of his army, javelin horizontal over his head. “Dogs! Defilers of wells!”
The curses echoed off the armored men around Bitias. Crackles from the nearby flames punctuated the silence that followed. Dido was dead. Without her, they were lost, leaderless, unprepared.
In the open ground between the opposing forces, Hiarbas’ young gift bearer stood motionless, eyes gazing on the blacked horror atop the pyre, arms laden with the precious carved ivory box and animal skins. A sirocco curled a tendril of smoke around him before lifting it into the bright clear sky.
A loud clatter came from the Libyan column as Hiarbas launched his chariot forward. The team, long pampered by the Libyan chieftain, promptly brought the vehicle to a full gallop. He corrected ever-so-slightly, purposely riding down his own gift bearer who was oblivious to the danger. The ceremonial offerings scattered into the dust.
Hiarbas pulled the team back and fourth, crossing and re-crossing the pulped remains. A scythed wheel jolted over the ivory box, shattering it. His oaths were no longer Canaanite, but his own harsh language.
Behind him, his warriors began to swing out from their road formation like wings of some great carrion bird. Their crane-skinned shields flashed in the sun.
Bitias watched the fire-hardened spears drop into the horizontal as the Libyans formed up. With his own vision limited by his helmet, he looked to the right towards Hêgêsistratus, seeking guidance. The colony’s general stood erect, large rounded shield to his side, twin spears upright in his left hand, bronze armor and helmet glimmering.
Bitias waited for Hêgêsistratus to say something, do something that might defuse the situation. Hiarbas’ screamings continued. The Libyan ranks dressed up their line with trigonometric precision, clan commanders calling out their readiness.
Then Hêgêsistratus looked over his shoulder. Bitias turned as well to see Scylax the priest on the elevated slope of Bursa Hill, the women and children flanking him, the structures of their Qrthdsht, their Carthage, a backdrop. The priest exchanged a nod with the general. Bitias now noticed the bows circulating amongst the women. Bows normally kept stored away yet brought forward this day for the archery competitions that were to follow the wedding celebration. Dido’s idea.
We’re going to fight. The thought chilled Bitias’ back like ice water, but brought little comfort in his sun-heated armor. Seventy five hoplites, backed by women archers. Against hundreds of Libyan warriors.
Bitias thought hard, but there was no diplomatic solution; the Libyan line was now advancing at a trot. No retreat—the blue Mediterranean was at their backs.
“Grn‘bn!” bellowed Hêgêsistratus. Cornerstone. He’d anchored himself near the pyre, using it as a barrier against flanking. Bitias’ mind recalled the abysmal training and the inability of the Carthaginian citizens to meld into the tight formation required. They were Canaanites, a race of independent merchants and not warriors; their failures in training proved it.
But this was war, not practice.
Bitias found himself stepping up to Hêgêsistratus’ left side, touching the man’s shoulder to assure him that he was there, and also to get the distance just right. His shield slipped forward to overlap. Then someone patted his shoulder, and he glanced sideways to see Barcas at his side, handsome face set as he peered towards the oncoming line. Shield overlapped shield as the line formed, a continuous clatter. Behind him, he could sense the lightly armed second rank forming. True ranks, Hêgêsistratus had said, should be many rows deep. But you made do with what you had.
Bitias wished for a drink. The bronze armor was roasting him alive. The hoplon shield felt as if it would pull his arm from its socket. He gripped his two spears tighter and used them as props to keep the shield up, the wall intact.
A bead of sweat trickled from beneath the leather cap under his helmet, stinging his eye. He blinked it clear.
“Nsh’!” rang the call to ready arms.
As one, the ranks transferred a spear from their left to right hands, raising them over their shoulders. Bitias momentarily feared that he would not get the first two fingers of his throwing hand through the leather loop at mid-shaft. But the line slipped around his fingers easily, the shaft settling into his palm.
The Libyan line had swept up to their king’s position and he started his chariot forward, pacing his running men so as not to outstrip them.
Scylax’s reedy voice drifted down from behind. “Draw your bows!” There came a creak from a hundred Scythian missile weapons. “Aim left, where their line extends beyond ours.” The priest gave the enemy the space of several fluttering heartbeats to shorten the range before giving the order to release.
Like the locusts of last summer, the arrows hummed overhead. To the left, Libyan shields acquired quivering arrows. Perhaps twenty men faltered and went down, trampled by the following ranks.
If they get around our left flank…
Bitias’ thoughts were interrupted by a rhythmic clanging to his side. Hêgêsistratus was rapping his spear shaft against the top of his shield. From the darkness of his helmet rose a chant.
“Dido. Dido. Dido. Dido.”
All around him, the other men took up the pulse. The noise grew, a wall of sound radiating from the Carthaginian line. Bitias found himself shouting along with the others, heat and fear forgotten.
“Dido! Dido! Dido! Dido!”
Hiarbas’s chariot was to Bitias’s left. The chieftain’s dark face twisted in rage to have her name thrown at him. The woman he’d been promised, now dead atop the pyre. But all through the Libyan host, Bitias detected flashes of doubt and fear. The men of Carthage, with their bronze and noise, must be fearsome to behold.
The attackers swept nearer. Bitias itched to throw his weapon, as if that might end it all. Someone chanted “Hold… hold…” calmingly. The dark men were almost on them.
Over the tulmit came Hêgêsistratus’ bellow.
Bitias grunted as he heaved his spear, the line around his fingers aiding the force of his cast. His target had been a howling warrior, shield bone-white in the sun. He’d aimed at the man’s head, hoping for a heroic cast. Low, his iron-tipped spear struck the shield opposite, punching through it and body behind it. All along the Libyan line, men were tumbling into the dust.
Bitias pulled his other spear from his left hand, swinging it up over his shoulder. Something pressed up against his back—the second rank, planting their shields against the forward men, forcing rigidity into the defenders. And then the lines came together with a crash.
Bitias thrust his spear forward, catching a Libyan just below his collarbone, driving deep enough to debilitate but not to foul. Something crashed twice off his own bronze shield. Over the press of colliding formations, he saw another flight of arrows and a chariot wheel spinning up and through the air, bringing a wild laugh to his lips. Then a lance tipped with an antelope’s horn skidded over his shield from the left, ringing off his helmet. He sensed more than saw Barcas’ thrust, heard a scream, and saw the lance-point quiver upwards.
He saw no men, just shields, spears, screaming maws, hate-filled eyes. His spear rose and fell, sowing carnage. It seemed to go on forever…