Cambyses looked ahead. There, along the tree line, were dozens of mounted barbarians, clutching spears and glaring at the gathered Persians from atop anxious horses. He tried to take a quick count. The barbarians were moving into an out of the woods, making it hard to accurately number them from this distance. The men all around him clutched their weapons, a diverse array of maces, clubs and stone axes, and tensed.
“Hold.” Cambyses put his arm out to gesture patience and watched the riders intently. The barbarians, grim faces on horseback, would raise their spears and shouting challenges at the gathered warriors. A few galloped back and forth down the edge of the trees, turning outward at random moments as if to feign a charge, though always reining their horses in.
“What, are they not coming?” Anses sounded very disappointed.
“You may ready your ax, friend.” Cambyses had his orders. He knew the will of his lord and moreover what he was to do for the good of Pasargadae, the good of Persia, the good of home.
A second group of warriors had joined them from the city. The looked unsteady, some as green as the grass they were standing on, but all kept their eyes forward and their weapons at hand, trembling only slightly. Cambyses wondered if they looked like that when they first set out.
He stood up to his full height and took a few strides forward so he could be seen by all. He turned to address them.
“Men.” He gestured at the treeline behind him. “Today, we fight for Persia.” Anses was already past him before he’d finished the line.
Cyrus stood among the wide circle of stones, his holy site at the base of the ring of cliffs and mountains that rose south of the city, his capital, Pasargadae. White birds flew overhead, circling and some descending to alight in the square pool his astrologer had planned in the center of the ring.
Over to his left, Persia workers were carefully chiseling and assembling slabs of white rock into a ring of pillars, a circular structure at least 4 or 5 full-grown men high. It was to be a shrine. Of shrine to the Persia belief.
“Do you feel it?” Cyrus walked with Ansem, his close advisor. “That divine spark. That thing that drives Persia and her Persias towards greatness.” Cyrus stroked the black hair of his beard. “This will be a great place. A holy place. With this, we will declare our beliefs. Where we will define the power that is Persia.” He paused, reset his gaze from the horizon onto the ground at his feet and, after a moment, clasped his hand in a tent under his chin.
“Have the trading caravans set out yet, Ansem?”
“By the morn, sire, yes, the first of them sets out from here to Tushpa, and then once we’ve procured boats that can convey them safely across the water, down to Kabul.”
“Ah, yes, the Kabulers. We should arrange a diplomatic envoy. I’d like to know better our neighbors to the south. They seem a hearty people, no? They may make strong allies…”.
Cyrus continued through the site.
“What other news?”
“Pasargadae is bustling, my lord. Overfull even. There’s another caravan setting out in a fortnight to establish a settlement to the north. They’re planning on building on a river that flows out from the northern mountain range. They plan to herd cattle, as well, sire, if you’re feeling inspired to whittle.”
“I need…” Cyrus stopped. “I’m yearning for a guiding philosophy, Ansem. A political one. My people need guidance, they’re seeking – I can feel it! – seeking a system of governance that can bind us all together, declare us one kingdom, one united land of Persia.” Cyrus paused.
“The granaries, Ansem, I trust construction is proceeding?”
The warrior woman, the Scythian Tomyris, shone like a beacon as she stood outside the palace with Cyrus. Her helmet, ornate and shaped with rams horns on the side, reflected the sunlight harshly. She wore her armor, though clearly designed more for ceremony than protection, in a way that clearly illustrated she was quite at home in a more practical set.
Pasargadae was growing. All around, you could see the strength of Cyrus’ empire rising upward. A great bronzed dome now rose over the palace. Similar, smaller spires sat atop building around the city. Construction of a harbor had begun in Tushpa to the west with plans to begin one here in a year.
“I must show you my pairidaeza, Queen Tomyris. They are great walled gardens, one near my cities, Hagmatana, to the north.” Cyrus’ beard wore a bit more grey than black now. “It is a peaceful, a wondrous place.”
“You Persians have the strangest words for things, King Cyrus.” said Tomyris. “And I may yet lay eyes on your city to the north,” she paused. “One day. But for now. It is good for you to host my delegation here. I admire your capital city.”
“You may assume our delegation will be equally honored by a visit to your capital.” He let the sentence hang, offering her space to fill. When she did not, Cyrus said nothing in turn.
“Who is that man, there in white?” Tomyris gestured over to a bearded figure slowly making his way toward the gates out of Pasargadae. He walked with a long trail of people behind him, Persians coming to stand in their doors as he passed, children bringing out gifts of the harvest to lay at his feet. His progress was slow. At nearly every house he would pause and lay his hand on a child or a someone who was sick or injured brought out to see him, and he would speak.
“That is one of our great men, a prophet.” Cyrus looked over at Tomyris, whose brow was furrowed beneath her golden helm. “We Persians believe we have been gifted with a spark, a blessing of the divine as a people. He is one such, a great man who gives our civilization purpose and drive.” He paused. “Just now, we are finishing construction on a building meant to inspire Persians for a hundred, hundred years. A high temple of…”
“Do you have any enemies, King of the Persians?” Tomyris stepped away from the palace. Her delegation gathering around here.
“As many as friends, I like to think, Queen Tomyris. I pride myself on being able to know, very clearly, the difference.”
“The Scythians too know their enemies, King Cyrus. But do not worry. I do not usually meet with my enemies face to face. Usually,” she grinned. “I met them only first when their head is presented to me on a platter.”
“We know too the wisdom of keeping our feet near to the ground, Cyrus, and our eyes steady on the horizon.” She turned to go, back towards the Scythian boats waiting near the shore.
“Good luck with your stone wonder, dear King. May it not reach so high as your ambitions, for no building of man could reach such heights and not fall.”
Cyrus stood quietly amidst rubble of what was to be his great Oracle, his temple to the works of all the people of Persia. Construction had been so close. It was nearly complete, before disaster. Now men were working to salvage what materials could be saved, to clear the site to make way for whatever thing would eventually take its place.
A trade caravan, led a mule kicking up dust along his cobblestone roads, passed slowly around the falling wreckage of the site. The driver, a bald man in green and yellow robes, clicked and flicked a whip forward to keep the animal plodding forward. Did he know the wonders that would have been, not the pile of stone and dust he slowly skirted around now?
How could he.
Missionaries from his holy temple to the south were making their way across the river. He could hear their chanting on the wind. As they drew closer, one of their number saw the gathering of soldiers and the man, the King, Cyrus, who stood within. The group turned as one and came over, the robed man in the lead bending low on one knee.
The first of the boats should be leaving now. Builders had been working tirelessly to construct a hull that was strong enough to bear the beating of the waves without foundering.
Cyrus repeated the ritual words of greeting and he nodded to each of the missionaries in turn as they greeted him as King, then rose and waited to be addressed and dismissed. Cyrus felt a breeze thick with the smell of the ocean come down over the sands where they stood from the domes of Pasargadae.