One of Croesus’ servants had run to tell the king about a prodigy which was happening right here in the centre of Sardis; indeed it was happening quite literally right under the king’s very nose, yet Croesus found he could hardly believe his eyes as he stared down into the public square from a second-floor balcony in one of his private apartments.
“Well… a prodigy indeed!” he drawled thoughtfully as he tossed the servant a gold coin to dismiss him. He turned to Sandanis and continued, “I would not have believed it if, had I not seen it with my own eyes! The whole city is swarming with snakes… and you say those horses actually left their pastures to come down into town to eat them? Aren’t horses usually terrified of snakes?”
“Yes your majesty” Sandanis replied, equally intrigued by this inexplicable and bizarre phenomenon; “Although, these are not poisonous, but harmless grass snakes…” he continued as he regarded the square below them once more. After a few more moments he finally observed, “Even so, I have never seen anything like it! What do you suppose it could mean?”
Fascinated, they continued to watch as the mercenaries’ horses continued to feed on the reptiles. Only the previous day these horses had been put out on the hills to graze, but this morning they had followed a swarm of snakes which had invaded the city in huge hordes, where the horses then began to feed on the serpents with a most voracious appetite.
Both Sandanis and Croesus, born into the aristocracy, had been horsemen all their lives; yet they were both astounded. This was a most unusual taste for horses to develop; though they were both educated men, neither had ever even heard of such a phenomenon. They could only conclude that it was the result of divine intervention. Surely, Croesus thought to himself, there must be some profound meaning behind these strange events; although he could make nothing at all out of them himself.
“Sandanis,” Croesus replied, pensively, to his general who was equally astounded and equally at a loss for words, “I have absolutely no idea; I’ve never seen anything like it either.” He thought for several moments and then ordered, “Send an inquiry to the soothsayers of Telmessus; they are the best I know at interpreting prodigies. If anyone can enlighten us as to the meaning of this one, they can.”
“I shall send a messenger at once Sire!” Sandanis said with alacrity, as he bowed and took his leave to obey the king’s orders. Telmessus was at least three days’ steady marching from Sardis, but a messenger on horseback could have a reply from them in less than half that time; soon they would have the solution to the enigma.
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While Croesus retreated to Sardis, his enemy, Cyrus, had occupied Sinope, whose citizens were very relieved to see their Median and Persian allies chase the Lydian invaders out of their territory. The Syrians had feasted Cyrus and his men generously, treating them as heroes. In the meantime Cyrus took advantage of Croesus’ retreat not only to book and bury his dead, but also to rest his troops in shifts and to appoint a large detachment of troops under the command of General Mazares, Prince of the Budii, to take command of the garrison here.
Mazares was one of the five Princes of the Tribes who had been involved in the original plot which had culminated in Cyrus’ revolt from Astyages; his appointment to this post was his reward, for the courageous Mazares had taken more than his fair share of risk by organizing their very first fateful meeting. Harpagus was charged with overseeing the repairs to the city and with addressing their immediate needs for improved security, while Mazares organised a large cohort of troops to permanently garrison the city.
“Well Harpagus?” Cyrus now demanded as he faced his general over a large, chart-strewn table in the large chamber which they had chosen to use as a war-room, “Is the city secure?”
Harpagus had set his men immediately to strengthen any weak points he found in the city’s defences; most especially those which they themselves had just taken advantage of in recapturing the city. He immediately repaired the superficial damage which had been done to the city walls during its two recent battles; as well as the more serious damage which had been caused by generations of neglect. He also posted guards at regular intervals along the city’s walls and also in the high towers which framed the city’s gatehouse, rotated in four-hour shifts around the clock; this would give them plenty of warning of any surprise attack; he thought, or indeed, of any other approach by the enemy.
“Yes your majesty.” Harpagus replied, quite satisfied with the progress of his men’s work. ”The people will not revolt… they do not care for Lydians…” he added with a grin.
Indeed, Lydia’s sudden attack on Sinope was seen by all of the region’s inhabitants as the most despicable treachery. Although the Pterians had held no formal treaties of alliance with Lydia, they had nonetheless traded with her peacefully for centuries previously; as they had always done with all the countries with which she shared her borders; as indeed had all of Cappadocia. It was what had made them all rich. Inevitably such abominable treachery was rewarded with a universal and intensely-felt hatred from the citizens of Pteria for their conquerors; and that hatred remained undiminished even now that the enemy had been forced to relinquish their hold on their city.
This was just as Cyrus anticipated; now he thought silently to himself, he would make very good use of that sentiment. “And Croesus has fled with his army back to Sardis?” he demanded. The general nodded. This news had come as a great relief for Cyrus; it meant that at least the Lydians would not attack again for some time; perhaps not until the spring, he thought; maybe they would be content to sit the winter out behind Sardis’ walls and gather her allies.
“Yes sire!” Harpagus said with evident pleasure, “My spies tell me he now plans to winter there and attack again in the spring; he has even dismissed his mercenaries, who formed the backbone of his army! He assumes that we will winter here and strengthen our position before striking again.”
When he heard this Cyrus suddenly saw an opportunity to avoid a lengthy and possibly futile winter siege; he looked his general levelly in the eyes as, in an icy voice, he said, “Then we will strike now! Sardis will be ours before the winter sets in! Assemble the army! We march on Sardis immediately!”
“Yes your majesty!” Harpagus replied with a smart salute, snapping immediately to attention, “At once your majesty!”
Then he quickly turned to a trumpeter who waited dutifully nearby for instructions, and gave the order: ”Trumpeter, sound the Assembly!” The trumpeter instantly nodded once and then ran out of the building to sound the Assembly in the courtyard.
Instantly soldiers came running from every direction to form ranks in the square. Within a few minutes, while Cyrus and Harpagus went to find their steeds in the nearby livery stable, the whole army had swiftly formed ranks outside the city gates; with the cavalry at their head. Though they were a king and a general, cavalrymen and private soldiers rushed right past them in their haste to form ranks on parade, with little more acknowledgement of their rank than a cursory nod, in order to hastily arm themselves, put saddles on and mount their horses and form ranks in the courtyard with their comrades. Cyrus and Harpagus did not hurry, but strolled over to the livery stable, where grooms had already saddled their mounts, taking their time to give stragglers every chance to take their place in the regimental column. The king and his general then mounted their own horses and took their customary positions with the cavalry at the head of the column.
With a brassy fanfare from the trumpets, and the fifes and drums striking up a merry marching tune, the regiment of cavalry cantered smartly out of the city gates. They were closely followed by a massive column of infantry, comprised of archers and spearmen, both of which were also armed with long, bronze daggers as well as their primary weapons, the long, bronze-pointed spear. Marching at the double, they were only slightly slower than the cavalry. Finally, following the infantry at a fast walking pace was a gigantic baggage-train or caravan, consisting of several hundred heavily-laden camels, carrying all the supplies and equipment Cyrus felt he would need in order to besiege Sardis; the Sinopeans having generously resupplied him with a large contingent of troops and all the equipment he had required.
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Croesus’ messenger bowed deeply as, with both hands, he received the small papyrus scroll on which the Sooth-sayers of Telmessus had written their response to Croesus’ enquiry regarding the prodigy which had been observed in Sardis. As he handed the messenger the scroll, by way of giving the herald a précis of the longer analysis contained in the scroll, the soothsayer said in a dark voice, “Croesus must look for an army of foreign invaders in his country; and when they come they will subdue the native inhabitants; since the snake is a child of the earth and the horse is both a warrior and a foreigner.”
Hearing this, the messenger was aghast; he turned and fled out of the Temple of the Soothsayers as fast as his well-trained legs could carry him, careless for the first time in his adult life of his bearing and dignity, and with but one thought occupying his entire being: Sardis was going to be invaded! The soothsayer’s message clearly indicated that Cyrus was not going to be content to winter in Sinope as Croesus had assumed; instead, he would besiege Sardis immediately. He must get back to Sardis in time to warn his king: Lydia was about to be attacked.
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