Author's Notes: This is a story that I, at first, intended to be an alternate history, but morphed into a fantasy/swords-and-sorcery story. This chapter takes place in an alternate version of ancient Carthage, only instead of the Roman Republic, Carthage faces an ancient empire to the north across the Steady Sea. I'm working on the next chapter but it's not going well so updates will be slow. This is also my first story so please tell me what I need to improve.

Chapter 1: To the camp

It is hot. The sun beats down like the hammer of The Gods' Blacksmith upon me. The wind blows. It is dry. It steals water from my body. My lips feel like cracked rocks, my skin like the dusty road my horse trots across now. My hair and helmet, Ba'al damn them, stick to my head, the latter adding insult to injury by doing nothing to keep sun and sweat out of my eyes. My armor, I bless it in battle, but curse it on the march. It sticks to my skin. My sword belt and my baldric dig and chafe into my waist and shoulder. I keep silent. A general must not complain. I must set an example to the men I lead. That is why my slaves are with the baggage train, behind the army, and not shading me or carrying my equipment. The enemy is near; we must reach our destination quickly and be ready to fight along the way.

My men, Ba'al bless them, are keeping quiet about their discomfort. Every man marches not only in full armor and weapons, but each also carries food and water, tools and materials, and all other things an army on the march needs, but is normally carried by animals, carts, and slaves. The men are hardly silent though, swapping exaggerated stories and obscene jokes, with some occasional grumbles and strange rumors breaking the monotony. As long as they keep up the pace and keep discipline I allow them to do so. Forcing the men to march in silence would only create fear, as they speculate to themselves as to why they must march in silence. Because the enemy is near? The general leading them is angry? It says much about a general as to which his men fear more.

My soldiers are a "mixed basket" in their origins, quality, and motivation for fighting for the great city of Kart-Hadasht. I have few, if any, who fight out of any sense of civic pride or duty. I have militia from the fat merchants who make our city wealthy, who fight only for their property, their over-inflated incomes, their families, or personal political gain. I have temple guards who fight because priests and sacrificial animals say the Gods ordain it, not because the Assembly demands it. I have mercenaries who fight for loot captured from defeated enemies, for a sense of adventure, or to gain favor with our wealthy city. I have soldiers given to us by client kings who fear our wrath should they fail to support us, either in an army burning down their homes or our merchants not selling the luxuries they grow fat on. Personally I suspect the latter to be their greater concern. I have professionals who fight for a monthly wage. The animals who fight for their feed and slaves that wish to avoid the lash. I also have a precious few who fight for me.

Honestly, I fight not for the city at all. I have become disillusioned with its fat merchant citizens and its ruling men, the Assembly of One-Hundred. They somehow managed to turn a minor disagreement over fishing rights on some insignificant peninsula on a tiny island into a full-blown war with the great kingdoms of the northern continent. How I never will know, nor do I ever wish to. All I know is that my family's political enemies, the same ones who all but banished us for fear of our military skills, begged me to lead the army they had gathered. I lead, will fight and kill, just for the pleasure of gloating over my political foes. I have no grudge or quarrel with the people of the north, but they have invaded our city's territory, and are my enemy now. I will kill them without regret or remorse. That is, assuming I and my men can get to our camp without passing out from heatstroke. By now I would be willing to believe that sunburn could kill a man. This from me, a native to this hot climate. I wince in sympathy for those born in colder temperatures.

I restrain myself from sighing in pure relief when our campground comes into view. My men show no such restraint, whooping for joy when they are informed that we will stop soon. Much to my amazement they pick up the pace, and we reach our destination with some precious time to spare. Time I can use to fortify the camp after a fashion.

A voice calls out to me. "General Barca." I turn and face my chief staff officer.

"Yes officer Mahelbel?" Mahelbel Alced has been my friend for a long time now. We first met during our city's efforts to pacify the Lucitti tribes on our western frontier. It was, for both of us, our first campaign. Since then we have served together in nearly every campaign we have participated in. He is sensible and possesses a talent for logistics that surpasses my own by a wide margin. He knows me well enough that I often do not have to explain myself.

"How should we select men for camp duties?" His question is, as usual, right to the point. Another reason I value him so much. I consider his question. How should I do so, in a way that will not provoke men not used to building proper camps into mutiny? I decide on an old standby. I give my answer.

"Have the men get into units of ten and draw lots. Two of every ten start building fortifications, palisade, trench, and watch towers. One out ten will pitch the tents and get the cook fires ready. One out of ten will take care of the animals and baggage train. Anybody attempting theft loses both hands. One out of ten will clean and organize their unit's equipment. The rest will draw lots for their turns on sentry duty; those off duty get to rest. Any and all complainers get latrine duty for the rest of the campaign."

Mahelbel cannot help a chuckle and half smile at the last comment. "With this lot," he says wryly, "half of the army will be on latrine duty."

I smile back but continue my orders. "I need the fastest Noumidikon cavalry to scout the surrounding area and find the enemy, our current information is too old." I must know the enemy's exact location. If they get past me Kart-Hadasht is finished. I must face them on ground of my choosing. Otherwise my chances for success will all but vanish. Mahelbel knows this already and gives his reply.

"I already know who to pick. Everything shall be done as you have ordered." I give a curt nod to his reply.

"I expect no less." He then rides off to give my orders to the various officers.

I spend much of the rest of the afternoon supervising the camp's completion. Again I am surprised by the speed my men are showing. Perhaps I should give them more credit. Thankfully I have to make few corrections, and those few are fairly forgivable. Despite Mahelbel's half-joke about latrine duty, I actually have to have many of those not on sentry duty draw lots to get enough men for it.

Though if I am to be honest with myself, I must say that our fortifications will not stop a determined enemy. The trench is too shallow and the stakes of the palisade are not deep enough into the ground. This is hardly the men's fault though. At this hour the heat has baked the ground as hard as rock, and my men don't have the tools to dig it properly. The defenses will, however, prevent casual raids by the enemy. The feeling of security it gives the troops is also a great morale booster. That by itself is more valuable than any number of defenses. I am just thankful that we had enough time to build the place, thanks to my men's uncharacteristic enthusiasm at the end of the march.

Two hours later, the camp is almost complete when I hear a voice call out to me. "HanneBa'al!" I turn to see my youngest brother riding towards me. I was not expecting him so soon. I am very glad to see him and I cannot help but smile at his approach.

"Maego, you made it after all!"

He laughs. "Well, I could not leave my favorite brother to face the northern hordes on his own." We dismount and embrace warmly, then begin riding to the officer's quarters. The evening briefing will start soon.

Maego is not just my youngest brother, but also my youngest sibling. That I, the eldest son and child, would be so close to the youngest causes a fair number of raised eyebrows. Traditionally, due to traditions of inheritance, the eldest and youngest sons are anything from rivals to bitter enemies, and more than one family has seen one assassinating the other.

Maego refuses to see me as an enemy, and I see him as a fine man worthy of great honor. We are the closest of friends and I trust him above anybody else. His military skills have saved me on several occasions and his help will make a difference.

Presently however, something bothers me. "I only sent my message two days ago, how did you get here so fast?" His estates, financed by wealth from numerous successful campaigns, are towards the east a ways away from Kart-Hadasht. I had sent a message asking him to join me two days ago, but it should have taken the horseman three days to arrive at Maego's home and Maego another four to ride here.

"I was already on my way here, actually." That is odd. He has no reason I am aware of for being away from home. It could not be the war; he disdains the Assembly even more than I do.

I can only ask in surprise, "Why?" He turns to me and smiles.

"Not long after the Assembly contacted you, HannKa'Be sent me a message by sea, telling me that you would probably need my help. I took the ship to Kart-Hadsht, got a horse and followed you." That explains a lot. HannKa'Be is one of my and my family's allies on the Assembly. He has helped me navigate the quagmire of politics to resounding success on several occasions. It appears I owe him yet again and I tell Maego as much.

He laughs at my consternation and shouts, "Well, thanks to him the Brothers Barcid are back on the battlefield!" Many of the Feenikae-speaking people nearby cheer wildly. The exploits of the three sons of HameKi'Lar, myself, Maego and HasdaruBa'al on the battlefield are used for everything from bedtime stories to lessons in the military college, and the knowledge that two of us are here to fight gives the men yet another reason to be optimistic. The Master of Bountiful Fortune and his wife Blessed Change have truly been smiling on me today. Tonight I will make sure to give them a proper offering.

We reach the tent that doubles as both my sleeping quarters and the army headquarters. The officers of every major unit are there waiting for the evening business to begin. When Maego walks in after me they greet him enthusiastically. I, however, get everyone back on track so that we can get the tiresome, but necessary, job of keeping the army running smoothly done with.

We go over everything from animal fodder, strength of the pack animals, condition of the equipment reserves, to food and water supplies. Again I am thankful for Mahelbel and his ability to keep an unholy amount of tiny details organized. If not for him many of my campaigns would have been failures simply because I underestimated how much men and animals eat.

After the vital chores are finished, I get to the part of the meeting that I dread. I must inform everyone of the strategic situation. Many details have been kept quiet to prevent morale from dieing a quick death. Now I must share the intelligence that I received shortly before I departed. I take a breath, and I begin.

"Normally the general begins with something like, 'the situation is grave'," that gets some chuckles, as every Assemblyman seems to begin his speeches that way. "I will not say that since the situation is not grave." Now most look confused. Those that know me best, like Maego and Mahelbel, look worried.

"The situation, as it stands, approaches absolute disaster." Now everyone is listening intently. "Our largest island colony, Libyaeum, has fallen along with the army protecting it, and all four of our other colonies are under siege and will not hold out for more than another week. They are saved only by the fact that the enemy is divided between the island colonies, our North-Western buffer states, and its invasion here."

"Our Navy suffered at Libyaeum and now it is overextended trying to guard against both the Makuranae and the Sea Raiders, who have taken advantage of the situation to operate far more brazenly. Due to this the Makuranae have managed to cross the North Sea unopposed and land the same army that conquered Libyaeum somewhere west of here. Its most likely target is Kart-Hadasht herself." Everyone now looks either grave or nervous. After all scouts still have not returned with the enemy's position, size, and composition. Before I begin however…

"Everyone, what rumors have you heard regarding the Makuranae?" That question confuses everyone, especially those that know me. After all I have well-deserved reputation for being contemptuous of rumor and hearsay, preferring to rely on first hand accounts or my own eyes for information. In this case however, the rumors I overheard from the men during the march must be addressed. A nervous officer, one of Mahelbel's assistants, speaks up first.

"I heard that their smallest army is larger than our biggest by over one-hundred thousand." That would not surprise me if it was true, considering the difference in size between the territories controlled by the Incensubcri League and the city of Kart-Hadasht. In any case, rumors regarding the enemy's, usually exaggerated, size are the most common in my experience. I just nod and wait expectantly.

The other officers look a bit braver and another speaks. It is Cadorotix, the commander of the Averneri contingent. He speaks calmly and with seriousness that contradicts the words he speaks. "Some of my warriors say that the enemy employs priests that can create thunder and fire in their bare hands from nothing. No powders or naptha at all."

Nervousness is gone now. The officers snort with derision at his words. I do not even need to nod, they continue without my prompting. The next to speak is Nicano, commander of the Kitekoin archers. "I heard the horses they ride have wings!"He makes no attempt to hide the derision in his voice. I can sympathize with the sentiment. The other officers' laughter has barely died down when another speaks.

This time it is Jubaga, the Noumidikon prince who leads the Noumidikon cavalry. He is skilled but untested. "I hear that their archers carry bows taller than themselves and that their warriors carry swords longer than they are tall!" The laughter comes even from Maego and Mahelbel. It shows no signs of stopping soon, so I use the opportunity to retrieve a package from among my gear. The laughter slows down as I open the package.

Now it is my turn to speak. But not to share rumors. I shall share only grim reality. I hold up the first item and the laughter is replaced by confusion. I hold a staff of wood roughly six feet long, which tapers at either end and is slightly curved. In one smooth motion I take a string, loop it around one end, bend the staff and loop the string around the other end. Confusion is gone, replaced by fear.

I hold a bow. Taller than I am, and I am one of the tallest men in the room. With another motion a take a sword from the package. Now everyone looks frightened or even physically ill, especially Jubaga. The sword, disc-shaped pommel to sharp tip, is four feet long. The metal gleams in a way our best weapon smiths cannot hope to replicate. The edges of the straight, double edged blade look almost impossibly sharp. I hold the bow in my right hand and the sword in my left.

I lift up the sword, make a show of examining it, and I say, somewhat sardonically, "Well, it is not longer than I am tall." Nobody laughs. Nor were they supposed to. I set down the weapons, look everyone in the eye and begin.

"These were brought to Kart-Hadasht by the survivors of Libyaeum. The Assembly ordered that the information brought be kept secret. Wisely or foolishly I will let you be the judge." I make sure that I am facing Nicano when I speak the next part.

"The enemy force almost certainly includes not just a contingent of these flying horses, but a survivor also described winged lizards a bit larger than a full-grown Dailami stallion." Dailami stallions, as everyone knows are very large. Someone speaks up.

"Why have we not heard about them before?" I turn to look at the speaker. It is Hann'Eon, the commander of the Sacred Band. I give my reply.

"According to the survivor, they do not leave anybody alive to spread rumors, neither the creature nor the rider. The survivor said that he only got to see them by pretending to be dead, hiding under corpses to disguise his scent. We are very fortunate to have his information; he got a good look at both units of sky warriors." Mahelbel asks a question.

"Why is he not here giving it to us in person?" His tone suggests that he at least suspects the answer.

"He died not long before we set out. He forced himself to live long enough to deliver his information." I again offer a silent prayer to the Gaunt Man and his daughter the Kind Hag, for the man's spirit to rest easily in the Green Fields.

Nicano speaks again; he sounds almost, worried, "Is it true that the beasts are ridden by a clan of warrior women?" That gets everyone's attention. The only ones who do not look incredulous are those who have fought with the Averneri. Women Warriors hold an exalted place in their society, though I have never heard of one leading an army. The contingent with the army now has one or two units of their dreaded fighting women.

I confirm Nicano's words. "The survivor was very specific about that actually. The winged horses are ridden entirely by women, and the winged lizards entirely by men. He noted that the two units, even when near each other, never moved to support the other. Quite possibly that means that there is a rivalry between the two groups." It remains to be seen if this is just trivial information or a weakness to exploit.

"He also gave some information about their arms and tactics as well. Both units favor long lances, held underhand, as their primary weapon. They were seen with swords and other arms but only resorted to them if grounded for any reason. None were seen using missile weapons of any kind but do not discount the possibility of them doing so. Their favored tactic seems to be simply swooping downward to hit formations either from the rear or directly above." Why they do not use missiles from above when that would make them all but untouchable is a mystery to me. Lack of cultural skill? Or something as basic as warrior pride? My questions will have to wait for another day though. I press on.

"He also made a curious observation. Despite operating as heavy cavalry, neither wore any significant amount of armor, forcing them to withdraw if threatened by archers." Now the enemy does not seem so undefeatable. I look over to each officer of our archers and slingers. "All of you will be responsible for keeping those sky warriors from eating our men alive." They nod, faces set with grim determination. Nicano speaks.

"Our arrows shall shatter shields and families alike." He gives the oath all of the Kitekoin's elite archers take upon their coming of age. I give a nod. That is all they need. However there is more for them to know.

I take a breath and begin anew. "The priests capable of creating thunder and fire from nothing are quite real." Nobody is surprised now but several do look worried. Understandable. After all, how do you fight something like that? I will tell them how.

"Another two survivors, one now dead, described them in detail. They saw fires burn grown men to ash and winds that blew shield walls apart with little effort. However the priests number less than one-half thousand and the number of them capable of doing such incredible feats is even fewer still. Most can only throw sparks or bolts of heat that, while painful, are rarely lethal." While everyone is definitely relieved, they know as well as I that there is a problem.

"While we know this, the men underneath us do not. I do not care what you tell them; just say what ever you need to in order to ensure that they do not run at the first sight of sparks flying from a robed man's hand." They already look like they know what to say, and I will not doubt them. Not now.

"Even more good news. These strange powers of theirs cannot be used from too far away, they have to be close and have clear line-of-sight from them to their target. They wear no armor, and carry no weapons. The elite of them were seen riding as light cavalry but most were on foot." Everyone sees where I am leading too. I turn to those commanders of the heavy cavalry.

"Make killing them your top priority. Even if we suffer defeat we must not leave any to assault Kart-Hadasht." Everyone sobers at the reminder that there is a strong chance for our defeat. But we have no time to dwell upon it. There is yet more to be said.

Now onto the item that started my lecture in the first place. I pick up the massive bow again and hold it in front of them. They listen intently.

"These bows have roughly the same range as our Feenekae or Kitekoin composite bows, but can fire more arrows every minute that ours can. However they do have a flaw." Everyone looks curious. After all what kind of flaw could such a mighty looking weapon have anyway?

"At long range our bows pierce armor or even shield, these cannot. Only at close range do they penetrate armor. Despite that, the long arrows are still quite capable of severely maiming their victims should they strike an unarmored part of the body, and should the armor they strike be flexible enough they can knock the wind out of a man. No arrows were observed penetrating any but the lightest and weakest shield. A Lucitti skirmisher described an arrow bouncing off of his caetra without making a dent." A caetra is a small round shield favored by the Lucitti tribesmen. The fact that an arrow was stopped by one is rather telling. Caetra are known for their lightness and viciousness in close quarters, not for their ability to take blows.

"I will emphasize a very important point." I look over to the archer and slinger officers. "Do not under any circumstances attempt to duel these longbows at any range, without armor you will fall prey to their faster shooting rate. Infantry commanders, keep your eyes on the sky and be prepared to bring your shields up. Run to close the distance before their arrows can take too heavy a toll on our soldiers' morale. None are used to fighting large numbers of archers so this will be new for them. Light cavalry, do not engage. Heavy cavalry, again, take them out when you can." I hear some grumbles from the non-cavalry officers. I need to stop this before jealousy takes root.

"I am not playing favorites. Our foe merely has a fair number of troops that heavy cavalry are best suited to deal with. All of you will have your chance at glory." While they look chastised now, I know for a fact that this is not over, and probably never will be.

There is not much more I can say at the moment until scouts come back with reports. I will give them more information then. I dismiss them and as they begin filing out a voice calls to me. "General Barca!" I look at the source. It is Jubaga. I nod in his direction and he continues, his voice full of more confidence than he probably was actually feeling, "Consider the enemy dead."

I cannot help but smile at the bravado the young man is showing. But I cannot let him be stupid. "Just make sure that you and your men are alive to celebrate their funeral pyres." Jubaga understands. Even the most untested officer understands. A victory is not a victory unless you survive.

In just a couple of minutes, Maego, Mahelbel, and I are the only ones left in the tent. I look over to both of them and regard them for a moment. I, Maego, and our brother HasdaruBa'al all look much alike. Curled dark hair and beard and small brown eyes, a complexion that hinted at ancestry other than Feenekae, and large broad shoulders and strong builds. Mahelbel looks thinner than a Feenekae normally does, and is slightly taller than most as well. He also wears his hair and beard much shorter than I or my brothers do. But I look away, close my eyes and sigh; putting the bow I was still holding down.

"I only wish I had more information." My companions nod in sympathy. They know how much I despise the unknown. As vital as information was for any general it was even more so for me. After all, good intelligence was vital in all of my greatest victories. Mahelbel speaks.

"The scouts that were sent out should be back by tomorrow with the intelligence we need. I chose riders with good eyes and memories, and the ability to keep a cool head. They should have all the information we could ever require when they return." I appreciate the reassurance. I actually knew all that, but having something confirmed always feels better. However I am still not optimistic.

"Our best hope is that the enemy force was damaged badly enough fighting for Libyaeum to give us a good chance. Hopefully they diluted their force further by leaving a large garrison to keep the island pacified. Otherwise not one of our men is going to return home. They took no prisoners that I am aware of and the escapees numbered only just under two dozen." Not me being my most depressing but I am getting there. Maego just gets up and stretches.

"Well, lets all just get to bed. Things always look brighter in the morning and not just because of the summer sun either." My brother the optimist. Most of the time I find it annoying, but now, I would not have it any other way. Mahelbel agrees.

"My feelings exactly Maego. We should rest and contemplate the enemy when our brains are not addled by our long march." I just smile.

"You two go ahead and get to bed, I will take a walk. That always does more for me than any sunshine." Maego just shrugs.

"Suit yourself, good night." Mahelbel says his farewells and leaves with him. I take time to wrap up the Incensubcri weapons and then step out into the warm summer night.

End Chapter One

Author's notes: For clarity's sake I will define some made-up terms I use in this story.

The Gods' Blacksmith: The Feenikae smith god, similar to Hephaestus in Greek Mythos but is married instead to The Mistress of Materials, the goddess of tools, ores, ingredients in general.

Ba'al: The chief god of the Feenikae Pantheon, the Creator of sea, sky, and earth and the eternal watcher of all Creation. He is usually represented by a four-pointed star with either bull horns or a comet tail.

The Gaunt Man: The Feenikae ruler of virtuous souls in the afterlife He is thin because he gives generously to those dying of starvation. His counterpart is The Bloated Man, the ruler of evil souls. He steals food from the starving. Their children are the Kind Hag and Wicked Beauty respectively.

Bountiful Fortune: The god of good luck. His wife is Blessed Change. Their counterparts are Plentiful Disaster, the god of bad luck and his wife Cursed Circumstance.

Kart-Hadasht: "The Crossroads of the Steady Sea" herself. A large city-state on the southern coast of the Steady Sea and the center of a vast merchant empire. She is the fantasy counterpart to the historical Carthage.

Assembly of One-Hundred: Kart-Hadasht's ruling body. Made up of those who claim descent from the city's ancient founders. The five most senior members are The-Ones-Who-Judge, or simply the "Judges."

Lucitti: A tribe on the western most frontier of Kart-Hadasht's territory. Originally the city's main enemy, they were conquered by HanneBa'al and his brother HasdaruBa'al fifteen years prior. Now they make up a fair percentage of their military and economic might. Their historical counterparts are the ancient Lusitanian and Cantabrian tribes.

Noumidikon: The catch-all term for all of the tribes that live in the deserts to the south-west of Kart-Hadasht. They are allies of the city rather than subjects, and their cavalry is one of the reasons Kart-Hadasht is so feared in battle. Their historical counterparts are the Numidian tribes.

Feenikae: The name for the people who founded the city of Kart-Hadasht and make up the vast majority of its citizen nobility. The Punic peoples are their historical analogue.

Averneri: The tribes that occupy territory north-east of the Lucitti. Legendary for their large statue and courage in battle, they were originally fierce enemies with Kart-Hadasht. However they became allies with the city to fight against their Lucitti neighbors and now fight along side the city against the encroaching Incensubcri League to the north. Their historical counterparts are the Gallic tribes.

Makuranae: The dominant ethnic group of the Je'Tur'An Empire of the northern continent. Also the catch-all term for all of the peoples of the northern continent.

Incensubcri League: Ostensibly, an alliance of smaller kingdoms, city-states, and countries on the southern border of the Je'Tur'An Empire. In theory they are allies and economic parters with the empire. In reality, they are client-states ruled by puppet-monarchs under the control of the empire.

Kitekoin: A people who live on an island chain to the northeast of Kart-Hasdasht. Their people make their trade as mercenary soldiers and their archers are particularly feared. Kart-Hadasht is one of their most frequent customers. Their historical counterparts are the ancient Cretans.

Dailami: The peoples of the far eastern grasslands. Their horses are legendary for their size, speed, and beauty.

The Steady Sea: The massive ocean that separates the northern and southern halves of the world. The origin of its name is unknown, but it has been called that for centuries.