Hannibal was no stranger to mountains.
His mother had been from the mountains on the edge of the desert. Once, as a child, he had visited her people, palm still stinging from a blood oath he'd sworn to his father, and had been stunned into silence by the mountains, their stature and their size and elegance, like ancient elephants gone to sleep and turned to stone among the sands.
The Pyrenees barely registered as mountains until he had to cross them. They'd simply always been there if he was to turn North, a great shadow just above or just beyond the horizon. Crossing them had not been as easy as crossing the Ebro, but it had been an entirely human endeavour.
Now the Alps had crested over the horizon and he was that child among the dunes again. There was a great beast slumbering beneath the earth and its spine was breaking the world.
He breathed in deep. There was a chill in the air like winter come too soon and he was too old for such flights of fancy.
Maharbal whistled at his side. "That must have been one hell of a row between Tanith and Ba'al. Look at the size of that thing."
"I will thank you not to disrespect our gods thus," said Arishat. She was Hannibal's second cousin on his mother's side, but most importantly, she was a priestess of Tanith. That she was here brought legitimacy to Hannibal's quest and conquest and when the other women on this voyage saw the sharp edges and severe planes of her face they always stood a little straighter and felt a little safer. This army would not have gotten as far as it had without cooks and Numidian horse riders and scouts and Balearic slingers and spies and Iberian archers and all the myriad other jobs the women did. The least Hannibal could do was respect that.
Maharbal shrugged at Arishat's words. He was never afraid to speak truth to power, mortal or immortal -- that was why Hannibal liked him -- but it was for power to listen and act or not; Maharbal would not repeat himself -- that was also why Hannibal liked him.
Arishat's face was a thunderstorm, but she let it be. She was in no fouler a mood as they marched to the mountains than she had been before. They did not like each other, but they did not dislike each other, either and if nothing else they respected each other.
Hannibal was first to begin climbing the mountains. He had to be. He could not ask of his soldiers what he would not do himself.
Hannibal climbed. Maharbal whistled at d started climbing second, but the man was a horse rider, through and through, and soon well behind. For her part, Arishat quickly overtook all of them, including Hannibal himself.
The symbolism of that was not lost on him, but she had been born in the mountains and the army needed someone to guide the way. The symbolism of that was not lost on Hannibal either.
Soon neither symbolism nor fact mattered, only the climb.
The rocks were sharp and the road was harsh. When beige and grey faded to white, Hannibal's breath began curling and wafting in the air like smoke from a fire. The real work was beginning.
He stopped the army and those who had not already dressed more warmly were ordered to do so. Hannibal himself put on some gloves and pulled his cloak tighter around himself. Even just one of these would have made drawing his sword harder and with both he felt as vulnerable as he did when naked, but the thought of losing one or more fingers to frostbite was stronger than the discomfort. Still. It set his teeth on edge to feel so naked while wearing so much.
They continued walking.
Arishat flitted far ahead and when he caught up with her Hannibal was relieved to see she left tracks in the snow like any mortal. He had not met her before she had arrived at Seguntum, fresh of the boat from Carthage.
Cold began to settle beneath his skin, first in prickles of ice over his cheekbones, then in daggers of frost right to his bones. Once there, the cold made itself at home and he stopped feeling it, or much of anything. His face was made of cold, unfeeling glass and would shatter at the first blow.
Maharbal tackled him to the ground.
An arrow whizzed where his head had just been. Hannibal scrambled for his sword, but between the gloves, the cloak and Maharbal, he might have been dead twice over before he was ready to fight.
He pulled Maharbal to his feet. Maharbal winced at the strain on his shoulder, but was soon on his feet anyway.
One of the Celts from Southern Gaul picked up the arrow that had almost killed Hannibal, notched it in her bow and fired it right back where it came from. Over her shoulder, she told Hannibal, " They're Ceutrones, general."
Hannibal nodded in acknowledgement. He grabbed a shield off the nearest horse. The Ceutrones had the high ground. He should have expected treachery, but he had believed their alliance to Rome to be, if not reluctant, then indifferent enough that if they had not attacked in the plain, they would not attack in the mountains.
The Ceutrones were blocking the pass. If Hannibal wanted to march on Rome -- and he had a scar on his palm that said he did -- he would have to go through them.
They had the high ground. An arrow thunked right into his shield, piercing through the joint, missing his arm by an inch. They had the high ground, but this was a mountain and high ground wasn't necessarily as much of an advantage as it would have been in the plain. Higher up meant more wind, meant more cold, meant more snow.
Hannibal took a step back against the force of the wind and arrows. They did have the wind going for them, unbelievably. He wouldn't be able to use that and if any man could make the cold do anything, Hannibal had yet to meet him.
Snow, however, he could use.
Anyone who knew snow in the mountains feared avalanches. If he could just, somehow, create one...
He briefly reviewed everything he knew about avalanches. They were sometimes caused by nothing anyone could see, but he could not rely on luck. He never had and never would. Often avalanches were caused by storms; his name might have been Barca, but he couldn't cause a thunder strike -- uh.
He didn't need a big avalanche so it wouldn't need to be a big thunder strike. He had tinder, he had flour -- if he could only get to it -- and he had a flint and fire striker his eldest sister had given him when he'd been old enough to wonder where the family name had come from. She'd be altogether entirely too disappointed in him if he couldn't make something explode with all that after she'd taken such care to teach him how -- and hadn't that been a row, when Father had found out.
Hannibal finally reached Maharbal. He had the look on his face that heralded a world of pain for the people who had dared hurt his horses.
"Maharbal," Hannibal said. Maharbal acknowledged his presence with a glance. "Where's the flour?"
"Now is not the time for cakes." Maharbal looked at Hannibal like he'd grown a second head, but opened the saddlebags of Hanno's dead horse. He handed Hannibal the flour.
"But I like cakes," Hannibal said with a grin.
Maharbal rolled his eyes. "What are we blowing up?"
As if on cue, the volleys of arrows stopped. Hannibal pointed at a patch of snow and quickly snatched his hand down when an arrow was aimed at it.
"Would that I could help," Maharbal said. "But my shoulder's not going to be of any help to anyone anytime soon. Get Arishat, or Hanno, or one of the Celts, if we can still trust them."
Hannibal nodded. He'd thought the same thing himself. Arishat and Hanno were too far to be any help. The closest person was the Southern Gaul from earlier. An Archer. Perfect.
Hannibal gestured her over.
She made her way to his side. It was a close call, but she managed to take those five steps without getting shot.
Hannibal explained to her what he wanted to do and asked if she could do it.
She looked over the horse, held out her arm and extended her thumb. She closed one eye and mimed pulling back a bow twice. "Yeah. Not saying it'll be easily, but I can do it."
So they went to work. To the first arrow Hannibal tied flour wrapped in part of his cloak to the shaft. As to the second arrow, the archer replaced the arrowhead with her own flint.
She stood and fired both arrows in close succession.
The first arrow landed struck the base of a tree among the snow. The second ripped open the flour sack and struck flint against steel.
Flint and steel made sparks. Sparks and flour made explosions. Explosions and snow made avalanches.
It was a small avalanche, but it was enough.
After that, the only enemy they had left until they reached the valley of the Po was the mountain itself. Hannibal had known the climb through mountains would the worst thing he would have to face in his life, but feeling the deaths of his men, each one digging into his bones like endless cold, was something else entirely.
Rome had nothing against the Alps. He had marched across the Alps, he could march on Rome.