A Birthday Story for MJS and the Now Lost Forever Tel Asmar
So, first off: Happy Birthday MJS! We miss you! And love you! And your beautiful, gracious, thoughtful wife, who in turn gave me a gift by asking me to give you one. I hope you enjoy your book. Secondly, I'm too heartbroken to explain Tel Asmar; just google "Tel Asmar UChicago dig house" and you'll understand- it's gone. My pain is nothing to the families of the dead who have lost infinitely more than that thanks to a reckless war of lies and greed.
Seeing as how Corrente is now a High Literary Society, I thought I should contribute something. The background on this short fiction is this: it's "historical" in feel and tone, but in no way up to the scholarly standards of my past. I feel badly I'm fuddling some historical and philological fact for the sake of fiction, so to my Assyriology friends: take it easy on a sister, yo? Also, due to a mix-up on the due date, I wrote this in exactly one morning and gave it all of one look-thru before publishing it for MJS' gift. So forgive the slightly choppy and unfinished element to it, it's essentially a first-draft. Someday, I may go back and clean it up and turn it into a long book; I've been sitting on a larger story of which this is part for some time. Anyway, here you go, Birhtday Boy and Gentle Readers.
"The Ashes of the House of Ur"
The tall brute looked and sounded exactly like his name implied; son of the war goddess indeed. Hulking over Ibrahim’s second wagon like a trained ape at the temple fair, he could hardly articulate the goods of passage, let alone write them. Lucky for him, a clever palace scribe was there to cover his ass and get the job done.
“Twelve woven blankets,” the brute slurred.
“Actually, your honor, “ said Ibrahim. “That’s ten. The other two are for the flooring.” He tried his best to look unconcerned, but the high ranking palace scribe's presence implied that the political scene was as dangerous for him as ever, perhaps more so. “That looks like more than ten to me,” the hulking mass of a beer-guzzling Akkadian said. “Are you saying I can’t count?” His muscular concern mirrored the urgency with which his scribe sought to insert herself into the conversation. Ibrahim took advantage of this.
“Lady Lali,” he said to the skinny scribe and using her nickname, which was known to him because they shared the same blood of the old families. “What say you of these blankets?” His deep, liquid eyes pleaded with her. He knew she knew all he wanted to do was leave; to escape the increasing burdens of all merchants of the Old Blood in a crumbling empire. To take his family, herds and goods to a new land; one long since abandoned by the ancient people of the sea, where the hills where green, and lightly populated by wild flocks or predators. The rumors of the place had spread in the last famine, when the empire had failed to provide for the people. Ibrahim had spoken out against the temples and their increasingly anti-traditionalist leadership then. He had paid for it ever since.
Lali looked at the small herds and poor-quarter quality of Ibrahim’s carts. Another reject of the new order, refugees taking flight, she thought. They were so common these days, what with the empire restricting its support to the “loyal families” and all. Sad, she thought. In the old days, merchant princes like Ibrahim would’ve been invited to compete for choice temple bids, their herds culled for the finest representatives for use at the city festivals and temple competitions. But no longer; the young prince was woefully easy to sway, and mostly a fool. His advisors had convinced him that a “loyalty” purge was long since due, and that the gods demanded it.
“Geb,” she called to her co-worker. “I’ve got to get some beer, and take a piss. It’s too fucking hot for this shit.” It was true, the midday was nigh, and they’d been processing passers at the gate for six hours. Some beer and dates, and an indoor break, were long overdue.
“Ya,” he called, looking up from the line of carts. “Suck me, the Sun is taking a heavy tithe from us all today.” His blasphemy bespoke his common, ignorant origins, and of the sad state of the empire that such a cur would be the guardian of a royal gate. "Well? What are you waiting for?" Geb said to the merchant. "Give me the fee and get your asses going." The brute snorted at his own cleverness; Ibrahim had retained enough of his wealth to own several of those princely animals, despite his fall from political favor. Ibrahim bowed and passed on a heavy purse, and motioned for his people to begin the process out of the city at last.
Lali did not turn as she and her companion sauntered towards the brothel-tavern. The sun showed His power by rising hotter and further over the small group at the gate. The rest of the supplicants had already moved into the shade of the wall, poor wretches that they were. But Ibrahim, and his train, turned quickly in the direction of the exiting sand road. When the bricks ended, he was officially “free of the god” of the royal Gate of Exit, and thus no longer under the protection, or inspection, of the temple representatives. Or its rulers. As she walked to her respite, Lali, for all her temple-bred sophistication and royal blood, wondered what it would be like to join such a one on that adventure. To the desert, she thought. Far, far beyond the merciless politics of the people of the sun and moon...
Inside the deepest, most sacred of the palace chambers, a crowd was gathered around a birthing woman. The royals were sitting or standing nearest, as befitted their station. Sasa thought that there was no other color more intriguing than the combination of blood and brick; she watched it take form now and marveled that the gods would grant humanity the ability to perceive such subtle beauty. The accompanying scream of the woman lying upon the brick only added to her esthetic moment. Seated on a hard bench too far away to worry about being splattered, Sasa was almost bored by the gravity of the moment.
“La BuLu SaHaSha!” called one dancer. Sasa thought that she was well chosen, that slim redhead. Her ritually-worded phrases sounded as terrible as a dam overflowing with sand, but her father was rich and a key political supporter in the north. Dance on, little toy, thought Sasa.
“You seem ill pleased,” an older voice interrupted Sasa’s day-dreaming. “The King’s grandson's birth is so hard for you to bear?” The older priestess was both mocking and sycophantic; she must have noticed that Sasa had hardly taken note of the proceedings.
“The Son of the Moon sits ill at your suggestion, “ Sasa snapped. She cast her head just enough to catch the eye of the offending priestess, and back again at the ceremony. “Speak ill again of me or my family and I’ll see you tongue cut out and dried in the market, you old whore.”
The older woman backed away to her curtained abode, gathering shadows with the lesser priestesses in jealousy and fear. Sasa had warned her princely brother about this problem before, but with the birth of this son nigh, he had been always too distracted to listen to his sister. Sasa knew, as he did not, that no amount of ritual, or political purging in the lower and common people's ranks, would stop the decline of the once mighty House of Ur.
Hours passed, and the men attending could not refrain from shifting with ill grace in the seat of the Grape-Goddess. Sasa was beyond weary at this point, and the screaming of the birthing woman had passed beyond enervating, and into the realm of boring. The prince's newest son by way of this latest Eastern whore was just another event to take her away from her reading, her studies, her planning; Sasa resented the requirement that she attend yet another royal brat's entrance into the world. Sasa dared to turn her head away from the Mystery, and looked out the unguarded window out on the streets before the palace. In the coming dusk, the city streets sparkled with a luminescence that was rarely seen in the world; Sasa had been to Luxor; she knew brilliance. Just as she knew that the Akkadian interlopers ruining her brother's kingdom would never rise in learning and culture to create such, should they finally dislodge the ancient line of her family's royal rule. How could they, with the contempt for the wisdom of women all their leading men showed? Fools, Sasa thought, no man has a head for engineering like women naturally did. But Akkadians kept to their ignorant ways, filthy sons of tent-dwellers that they were, who as a people had built no walls, no gates until they were taught how by Black Headed women of Sumer.
A horrible splotching sound alerted Sasa that her task was nearly done. The chanting increased, and as she stood to join it she took up the ululuation of the ancient ritual. Her blood would stand any test, and she let her training show, so that all would know that her mind was naught but the same- ancient, royal, holy. Let her brother's advisors, half-Semitic bastards and impure of blood all, try to push the ancient order aside, she thought. Such misfortune could only mean the gods were cruel and punishing her people for their wickedness. Yet she thought: I am literate, rich, and beautiful. I am Princess of the Blood. I have nothing to fear from interlopers and merchants pretending to understand how to preserve the kingdom. Let them seek to rule through my brother. I will fight them with wits they scarcely understand, with weapons that only I can wield. From the cold certainty of her own virginity, she knew that the empire bred more useful sons than it could sacrifice or kill. War would come, and wash the ancient land of Sumer once more in rivers of blood. The gods had willed it, yet Sasa would do all she could to save her land and her people.
"What do you mean, 'turn back?'" Ibrahim nearly shouted to his family priest. "We just barely made it out of the gate with our skins as it is!" Normally a gentle man, the priest quailed before this unusual anger of his lord. "Great Father," he said using the ancient title for family patriarchs, "the omens are clear. We are not yet..." He searched for the right word. "Complete." He licked his dry lips and tried not to think of what would follow his next words. "And worse, the Moon God has spoken to me again, in my dreams. The path to the lands by the sea will not open for us, and the foreign warriors upon it will crush us as they seek the city Gate of Triumph." He bowed his head and prayed that Ibrahim would listen. And the gods rewarded him, as they had his master with wisdom. "All right," Ibrahim sighed. "Tell me what is yet needful."
The priest did not smile, but his shoulders unbowed and he said a silent prayer of thanks to the goddess of wisdom. "My lord, it is as I have said. You must take a new wife, a wife of Old Blood. Without her, you will not find the path that will lead us to freedom in the sea lands. You must go back, and not return to the camp until you have secured her." Ibrahim did not quite let his anger return, but he let his impatience show at a reminder of this old, festering argument between the two of them. Ibrahim had taken four wives in his life, and he was yet a young man. He had many sons, and daughters, and some of them were here in the camp they had made, two days ride away from the city. But none of his wives were here to teach and nurture them. Each in her turn had died upon the birthing brick, after bringing forth a third, or fifth son or daughter. He did not want to bear witness to such cruelty of the gods again. "Aga, you know I cannot. My liver will not bear the hardship, and suffering of such loss once more. It will break in sorrow first." He turned away and looked at the setting sun, itching to follow it, away, always to the west, and to the freedom from bitter memory.
"My Sun," Aga said softly, granting Ibrahim another holy title, "you know we all believe in your rulership, your vision. You do not turn your face from the gods' will; your liver is pure and kind, and your line is strong." He swept a hand in the direction of the sprawling camp. "Your flocks are thick as lice upon an ass, you have married your older sons to Black Headed daughters, your daughters to Black Headed princes. Those that remain are filled with love for you, and know you will yet make great futures and fortunes for them. None of us blame you for speaking out for the common people, for risking your lands and titles in this dark time of turmoil and coming war. We know you are right, we believe with you that the city will yet fall. The Akkadian line has brought the disfavor of the gods to the Land of the Two Rivers, and they have blown their divine breath hard upon your neck; we feel it too." Aga paused, thinking upon what might yet give his master the strength to do what must be done. "Have faith, great lord. The gods will not allow you to fail in your quest, should you but follow their will." He fell silent.
Ibrahim sighed. The sun had nearly set, and he knew that if he rode alone upon his strongest ass, he could be back at the city's gate of returning in under a day; a man alone moved swifter than any mass such as the one he led now. He still had a large collection of cash, and he knew the way to sweet talk the gate's guards; his name was still highly regarded by the Black Headed people for defending them against Akkadian tyranny. And with a little favor from the gods, it was likely he could sneak in unbeknown by the spies of the palace and temple. If only the King had not lost his wits, he thought for the thousandth time. If only the Prince were not so venal and greedy; if only the Akkadian half-breeds were not so impious to the old ways; if, if, if...
Suddenly, a hawk screeched in the sky, its cry harkening the impending darkness like a warrior's battle song. It was a sign, for the hawk flew to the east, towards the city. Ibrahim had been dedicated under the sign of the hawk, he knew the gods were making their will clear. "Tell Awan to saddle the strongest ass," he said to Aga. His eldest remaining son was always quick, and quicker still to take commands from his father. "I will nourish myself with some date beer and kid flesh, and I will go. May Humbaba take you if you turn out to be wrong, Aga." He said this last in good spirit; both men knew that demon would never stoop to slaughter such a lowly being; only great heroes had that honor. Aga's eyes sparkled with joyous tears, and he knew that at long last, the goddess of wisdom had cleared the sand from his master's blood and freshened his liver with her holy breath. They would yet be free of the coming doom...
"You stupid whore!" Another vase went crashing across the room, shattering just above the head of the kneeling scribe. "How could you be so fucking stupid?" Sasa paced the large floor of her stately room, her long skirts dancing around her fine, slim legs; the stride of a lioness, the scribe thought. An angry lioness. "Lali, how many times do I have to tell you, you are not to let the merchants of the old line leave without my knowledge? Let any of the rabble, and for the love of the moon god, any of the long-stinking Akkadian trash, yes. But we need the merchants, damn your eyes! Did I not give you the tablet of those forbidden to leave with my very own hands?" Lali remained silent, and took a soft breath as she waited for her mistress' anger to pass, as she knew it would. For all her fiery temperament, Sasa was wise beyond her years and virginity. Lali waited while her mistress sang out a litany of curses that would shock the lowest mercenary from the uncultured wastes of the East. Eventually, Sasa took her seat upon her pillowed bench, where she took a deep breath, and let her hands take up the burden of her head. Finally, she said to her scribe, "All right. Tell me again."
Lali did not rise, but spoke softly from her position beside the altar. "Daughter of the Moon," she used the ancient title. "I am your slave, my will is one with yours. This you have long known, since I was dedicated into your service. Many nights we have lain together, many vile, Akkadian plans we have thwarted; our two heads have saved many pure-blood families. All that I am is devoted to you, not even Pazuzu himself could turn me from my path." Lali hoped this appeal to love might work better than one of sense. She also had the breath of the gods upon her, and Sasa needed to know. "But Enki tickled me with his divine reed, and made me to know that Ibrahim of the Lower Gate Street was one who must be allowed to leave." She paused, letting her mistress reflect again upon his title, his blood, and the sad history of his fall. "Your tears are mine, that for all we have done, we could not save him, nor his place at court."
Sasa contemplated once more the horror of a state falling down around her despite her every effort, and every waking moment devoted to its preservation. She reviewed the facts in her head: the tribes of the West were once more rising, their raids upon royal herds increasing, their disruptions of trade with the north growing more burdensome with each passing moon. The bastard Akkadians, so long now in possession of the House of Ur, were proving their disloyalty and sympathy with their western cousins; yet her brother would not listen, her father could not, and her mother was long dead. In the East, the ancient battle between Ur and Susa was renewed once more, and the Sons of the Lord of Arratta banged a thousand shields and shouted curses at the city's gods. Too many of the pure-blood families had fallen from power, too many merchants were fleeing the city for safer lands, too much money was leaving with them. She thought all this in the space of a few seconds, her sharp mind once again returning to the words of her friend, lover and scribe.
"But still we must try," Lali went on. "You, me, all of the priestesses of the old line, all of the loyal families. Hear the thoughts that Enki and Inanna gave me this day: Ibrahim will return. And in doing so he will work the will of the gods. I cannot say to what end, but I can feel it, I know it." She placed her left hand over her liver. "This I swear to you; it was given to me to know this by the goddess of war herself. On all that is holy, I tell you I made the right choice." She waited for her mistress to decide if Lali had been inspired, or a fool. Like her mistress, her faith in the old ways was pure and strong.
Sasa rose, and went to stand before the altar, next to her scribe. She took up the libation cup and grasped a pinch of pure flour from the carnelian box that sat upon the altar. She spoke the secret words; women's words, holy words praying for the goddess to give her wisdom. She sprinkled the flour and poured out the beer into the lap of the goddess' icon. Then, she lit a stick of incense, and bowed her head, waiting to hear the holy voice. After a time, it came to her.
"I must go to the temple, Lali." Her voice was filled with a gravity that her scribe did not like. "I must partake in the deep ritual: of sacred instruments, of the Skin drum, of blood." Lali was well trained enough not to start at this dire declaration, but inside she was afraid. Since the coming of the Akkadians, the High Priestesses had declared that this deepest of mysteries was no longer to be performed. Decades had passed since one of the Pure Line had undertaken to perform it. Only a handful of the royal women even knew of it anymore. "Are you sure?" Lali asked softly, almost afraid to let the words pass her lips. "Do not let a demon of misunderstanding put filth in your ears." She spoke gravely, if a bit above her station. She wanted her mistress to be sure.
"I'm sure." was Sasa's only reply. Her Mistress knelt before the altar, a signal that she would spend the remainder of the night in private prayer and supplication. Lali rose, and went to prepare a bath of purification for her mistress. The moon would be full in two days' time, and there was much to do before that.
Mushallu was not of the old blood, and his fortunes had risen as steadily as the old families' had declined in recent years. But he was not pleased by this fact. True, he had been granted more and more contracts with the temples and palace. He had been able to purchase a home on the ancient Street of the Lower Gate, where the best families had lived for generations uncounted. He had been able to secure a place in the temples for three of his youngest daughters, at prices that would've made his common, mercenary grandfather pale. But he could afford such extravagance, and more, all because Prince was a fool. It was not the gods' own fortune to be a rich resident of the empire at a time when the King was weak, and his enemies aware of that fact. Worse still to be led by a craven fool of a prince. "Master," his slave's voice came from the other side of the curtain. "There is a tablet for you." Mushallu motioned for the slave to pass it to him through a slit in the gauze cut for that purpose. No slave may gaze upon the lord during the time of contemplation; it was however acceptable for him to interrupt if there was sufficient cause.
Mushallu was a rare Akkadian; he kept no Black Headed scribes because he himself could read. Even the Old Tongue was known to him. And by the Gods! In his hand, the tablet the slave had passed through to him was in the fine script of the very Black Headed gentleman who had taught him, all those years ago. Then a kindly youth, he had taken pity on a jealous, curious Akkadian commoner, and broken his own father's prohibition on teaching reading to Akkadians, all because of a boy's generous liver to strangers. And now! Mushallu set the tablet down, and said a hurried prayer to the god of quiet thought. He hoped he would be forgiven for interrupting his meditations this one time.
"Babu," he said softly to another slave waiting at the edge of the door to his room. "Bring me two large cloaks, with hoods. Make sure the wool of them is dyed a dark color." He did not pace his sumptuous room, but instead tapped his foot with impatience. How to do this without incurring risk to his friend? And indeed there was risk; Mushallu knew that his friend was risking capture and likely death if it became known he was in the city again. The Prince's "loyalty" purges were opportunities for the greedy to prove their own loyalty, by telling the guards of any suspicious activities of the fallen old families. Mushallu knew that he would have to be careful. "Babu," he said to his slave as he returned with the cloaks, "is the Brothel of the Two Snakes still open? I know it's late."
"Yes, Master. Your fourth son was there at this hour just two days ago, when he met the merchant from Dilmun for a beer and the company of a couple of priestess-whores."
"That is good. You may have a cup of beer tonight for your service." Mushallu believed in the old ways, and always treated his slaves with kindness. Unlike so many of his fellow Akkadians, who were less and less often inclined to be instructed in the customs and manners of the cultured people they had conquered. "Babu, do not tell anyone that I am leaving, do you hear? Not my sons, not my wives; counsel the other slaves to silence as well. They must not be placed in jeopardy; I alone will take this chance at displeasing the Court." Babu bowed to show that he would follow those orders, and silently.
Mushallu had purchased his spacious home from a fallen old family for many reasons, the main was its beauty. But also because of its clever design, obviously the woman who first laid out the floor plan knew of the occasional need for silence and secrecy on the part of the residents. He went out to the street via a secret door, unseen by any of his family, most of whom were likely asleep but he wanted to take no chances. If he were to be reported and turned in to the Prince's master of spies, at least he would have a family to carry on his name. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with the deadly political games in the city. The Prince, the loyalists to the old ways, the High Priestess, even the Princess all had spies and counterspies. All laid plans and plotted to power; it was a merchant's lot to dance to the drum of that fate, and only a nimble dance would keep his head on his shoulders.
He quickly arrived at the Brothel of the Two Snakes, and was relieved to see it lit and filled with late night revelers. The beer vat was almost two thirds empty, and many straws laid on the floor around it, another good sign. Drunk people told no reliable tales to spies. He motioned to a poor boy crouching just outside the Brothel entrance. "Here, boy," he said as he handed him a bit of cash. "Run over to the entrance of the near gate, and give this to a man who will be waiting there. He will have a red sash around his traveling robe." As the boy pocketed the cash, he took the tablet Mushallu held out to him. It was still soft, but he knew the man who would receive it would be able make out the script. The boy dashed off, probably in hopes of another late night reward from the man with the sash. Mushallu sighed and went into the brothel, and thought of the days when there were not so many poor orphans littering the streets of in other times, quality neighborhoods.
The brothel keeper was a wizened old woman with a merry face and the red nose of a true lover of beer. She was smart enough to be sober while running her brothel-tavern, and as she looked upon his fine clothes, she nodded, gesturing to one of the higher tables. "'Tis empty, m'lord, and for a High One like you, the gods' own comfort. May I bring you a beer, and a woman to serve your needs?" Her accent was thick and Mushallu guessed she came from the high country, and likely of mixed blood. "Beer, yes, but no woman. I will also want a screen. Will you erect one at once?" She smiled at his politeness, he guessed she rarely was as well treated by the higher classes. "Of course, m'lord. Your will is mine." She waddled off to another chamber with a quickness that belied her years. Shortly, Mushallu had the beer and privacy he sought. And just in time. The boy had done his duty in haste, and Mushallu's friend was entering the brothel just as the screen was being erected. Hood still raised, he moved quickly and quietly to his place at the table. "Mushallu, may the gods bless you always. My thanks for risking so much," Ibrahim said to his older friend.
"What else could I do? Our families would've been forever entwined, were it not for the ignorance of the Prince and those fools he calls advisors. Indeed, I think them twice-demon spawn for forcing you to leave." Mushallu shook his head and muttered a prayer to the god of chance. "No, my friend," said Ibrahim, "there you have it wrong. I was barely able to leave the city. The Princess herself had me on her list of merchants who were to remain in the city. It was the hand of my own personal god that let me escape." Quickly he explained to his friend his situation, his vision, and his dilemma. "So you see, if I am to follow the vision my personal god has given me, I must also bow to his will. He will not give me succor of the liver, but perhaps he will allow me to feel it filled with joy once more."
Mushallu gravely sucked at his beer, chewing on the straw in consternation and thought. "What you ask, my friend...It is hard." Ibrahim did not contradict him, nor did he entreat him. Their friendship was deep and great, but he would let Mushallu make up his own mind. Presently, Mushallu said, "Do you know the woman? Was that much vision granted to you?" Ibrahim shook his head sadly. "No. All I know is that she must come to me by the second day after the full moon; so Aga's omens predicted. Where and how," he threw up his hands in an appeal to heaven. "If only I knew." Mushallu reached across the table and clasped his friend's hand. "Do not worry, Ibrahim. These are dark times, but the gods show mercy to the just. Never doubt this." Across the room, a foreign mercenary shouted and slapped the plump bottom of a laughing prostitute. Somewhere unseen, another prostitute lifted her sweet voice in song. Soon, the brothel's tavern was filled with the sound of lusty, drunken voices laughing and singing a bawdy hymn to the moon god. Suddenly, Mushallu felt the touch of his own personal god's hand. "I have an idea."
It had been difficult, but Sasa still had authority and she knew when to use it. After much plotting, arguing, and flat out yelling at the wicked, stupid creatures her brother's advisors had forced upon her in the temple, the sacred chamber had been cleared and prepared as she instructed. She and Lali had let forth a clever cover story. They let it be known that the Princess had received a vision, and that for once, the ritual during the full moon must take place in the open altar chamber, instead of the traditional chamber of women, high up in the temple's top floor. They put forth that the war goddess would require a great, and expensive, ritual feast and dance, to improve the chances of the armies in the coming battles. The fact that much would be spent on this ritual had brought out the greedy side in the newer priestesses and favorites of her brother's courts; they and their families would reap much temple wealth by providing the many animals and foodstuffs required for the outdoor ritual. Showing even more cleverness, Sasa had (with no small mixture of royal disdain and flattery) convinced one of the half-breed priestesses that only she and her half-breed sister could lead the ritual. Sasa kept to herself her doubts about the ability of that pair to perform it without error. Sasa had also stressed that it would be necessary to make the temple grounds closed to men during the ritual. This last served a secret purpose: for Sasa to work the Great Art, the temple must be free of men, in the manner of the old ways. Sasa had correctly relied upon the arrogance, and ignorance, of the half-breeds, as well as their jealousy of the wealth at those temples led by priests. Of late those temples had seen more and more foodstuffs and animals, at the expense of temples led by priestesses. It was yet another Akkadian influence and corruption of the old ways.
As the moon rose in the sky, Sasa waited patiently for the false ritual to begin, from her view on the uppermost floor of the temple. She prayed silently that the gods would forgive her blasphemy. I seek only to serve you, she said to them in her mind. Your will, and for the good of the people and the land, your people, your land, o holy ones. She begged them to let fall upon her alone any penalty for what she would do this night.
The hour passed quickly, and soon the temple square was filled with the half-breeds and their eunuchs, each of those servants long cut of their manhood. The fires burned brighter and brighter, and the lowing of the sacrificial animals almost drowned out the chants of the priestesses, for the number of animals for sacrifice was great. Sasa turned away from her window view. The hour of the great ritual she meant to perform was nearly at hand, and she waited only for Lali to bring her the last of the ancient, long-hidden instruments. Sasa had reviewed the oldest tablets for these last two days since completing her purification. She closed her eyes, seeing the ancient script instructing how the rite was to be performed. In the second hour after the fullness of the moon crossed the threshold of the land, she would begin. "Inanna guide my hand," she intoned. As a royal princess of the blood, she alone was allowed to name Inanna both war goddess, and her own personal goddess. "Bright Lady, give me strength."
Sometime later, Lali returned with the last of the devices of the holy rite. She was as solemn as her mistress, and her thick brows were bunched in thought. Mentally, she reviewed all the steps the two of them had taken so far, as well as the complicated steps which remained to be performed with exacting precision, lest they fail and unleash the avenging demons upon themselves. Like her mistress, she was apprehensive at the gravity of what they were about to undertake, and like her mistress, she was solemnly confident that she had made no errors thus far. It only remained for Sasa to complete the final steps, for royal blood alone could handle the ritual instruments and live without fear of being struck down by a demon of pestilence. The ritual fire had burned, and the embers it left were glowing in the altar's fire basin. With slow and deliberate movements, she unwrapped the small drum, flail, and knife of the ritual from their ancient kidskin covers. She did not touch the instruments, but laid them out before her mistress, who by this time had taken her place before the altar's fire.
Lali stepped back to her position, outside the four square of the altar's holiest space. She knelt, and began the chant. How powerful, how frightening, how glorious it was to once more speak the sacred words of the Fine Tongue!
Sasa took up her part of the ritual by speaking her full name and all her titles in the Fine Tongue. Lali wanted to weep, for it had been a long time since a princess and high priestess had been allowed to name herself thusly in ritual. Perhaps it would never happen again. Lali rose, and began the careful steps of the accompanying ritual dance around the four square of the altar. She did not lose pace with her chant, and her voice was a sweet harmony to Sasa's melodious recitation of the sacred, ancient text. With increasing speed, the women took themselves through the movements designed to please the gods to the utmost, and convince them to bring true vision to the high priestess. Sasa began to beat the drum, taking up the flail in one hand and the knife in the other. The former fell on the drum's skin, which only the most initiate in the Mysteries knew was made from the flesh of the dying god who was reborn, lover of the Goddess of Grapes. With the knife, Sasa drew out the holy script upon the air, writing in the secret language and speaking the deep formula. The embers of the fire seemed to glow more brightly, and both women began to perceive how the script was made fire in the very air itself. It was working!
Sasa's delicate wrists made more elegant movements in the air, twisting the knife this way and that. She did not lose pace with the flail and drum, nor did Lali falter in the dance, its pace all the while increasing. Chant, counter-chant, step, turn, step. The soft tattoo on the drum beat on. Through the aperture in the temple roof, the light of the full moon was bright upon the four square of the altar. Lali completed her steps, and began to move away from the altar and Sasa. With careful attention, she began to close off the windows of the room, so that only the top opening remained unblocked. Then, bowing so low with every step, she paced backwards, speaking a holy word with every step, until she reached the altar room's entrance. There, she moved the screen into place, so that no eye would fall upon Sasa as she entered into the final phase of the ritual. Lali knew that she must guard the entrance fast against all, with her very life if need be. Just as she knew that this would be the final test upon Sasa, and that the gods, if they granted her vision, would exact a high price from her for it.
Lali closed her eyes, and listened to Sasa as she completed the last lines of the text. Silence did not descend upon her, for the priestesses below were still chanting and sacrificing their animals in the square below. Still, it was quiet enough in the upper chambers of the temple for Lali to hear Sasa as she beat the drum for the final time. Lali saw in her mind's eye the last act of the ritual: Sasa would be placing the most rare and precious incense cube into the firepit, and taking the sacred knife, she would open her wrists. This was the critical moment. For not until the moon had passed from the sight of the temple roof opening could Lali rush in again and bind her mistress' wounds. If the gods were pleased with the ritual, Sasa would bleed only one drop upon the embers, and fall into a sacred trance, receiving a vision. If they were not, she would bleed to death before the moon had completed its passage.
Lali took a deep breath, and prayed to her personal god as she never had before in her life.
Ibrahim waited nervously at the wall just around the turn for the Gate of the Bull. His cloak shrouded his face from passers-by, but he knew he was not wholly safe from danger. The last few days had been a strain on his nerves like no other he had ever known; for the thousandth time he prayed to all the gods of the Land of the Two Rivers for protection. He could only wait. Time seemed to stretch out endlessly before him, crawling forth as slowly as dying man burned by the Sun moves on open sand. Mushallu had for the last time proved the value of his friendship, as well as his cleverness; Ibrahim could only pray it would be enough.
Mushallu had devised a desperate plan; risking much on the mercy of his personal god. Both men had agreed at the brothel that night; only one person could help Ibrahim in his quest: the Princess herself. But would she? That, they had not known. They knew of her protection of the old families, her strong faith in the old ways, but they had feared her wrath at Ibrahim's flight from the city the first time. Would she agree that he had been granted a true vision by his personal god? They had no way to know. They could only send her a desperate, pleading tablet of request for audience. It had arrived on the day of the festival of the full moon, and when the slave who had delivered it returned to Mushallu's home in the quarter of the Lower Gate, their hopes had been dashed, for the slave reported that the Princess was not leading the ritual. Both men had assumed that this meant she had finally been pushed from her office, and replaced by priestesses sympathetic to the aims of the Prince and his faction at court. Now there was no one to whom Ibrahim could safely turn for aid.
But hard on the heels of Mushallu's slave followed another. He was of the Princess' own inner sanctum, a pure-blood who had been dedicated to her service by one of the old families as an act of loyalty and obeisance in the oldest of traditions. It was an encouraging sign. He came with a mysterious tablet instructing them to wait, and Mushallu recognized it as the Princess' own hand, from the times when she had written to him requesting his goods and services in her capacity of temple high priestess. They could not puzzle the meaning of why the Princess would write to them herself, instead of using her scribe. But they waited, and the next day, another tablet arrived.
This one was not in the same script as the one from the day before. Ibrahim, a sort of student of script, noted that it had been written either in haste, or by someone in the grips of strong emotion; normally the royal classes took care and time to craft tablets free of error, and in the beautiful lapidary style favored by the elite. But no matter, for the contents of the tablet caused Ibrahim's liver to fill with joy and awe. There would be no audience, because the Princess had foreseen Ibrahim's request, and in a vision of her own, she had been granted an understanding, and enjoined by her personal god to help him. Although the tablet did not specify what she knew of his vision, Ibrahim took it as the greatest mercy the gods had ever shown him, that such a high one would serendipitously take to aiding him during this most dire hour of his life.
There remained great risk; Mushallu was not at all certain that Ibrahim had not been spotted by the spies of one or another hostile faction. In the two days following the festival and ritual of the full moon, both men had been frought with nervous caution. But Mushallu was rich, and that had helped a great deal. Bribes were sent to the palace lauding the Prince and making requests to service his household with Mushallu's family's goods. Street urchins had been paid to make trouble to distract the royal and temple guards, and a party had been thrown for visiting merchants, city guards, and hopefully a few spies, in the brothels of Mushallu's immediate neighborhood. Both men hoped that all these things would deflect suspicion and attention away from their attempts to hide Ibrahim, who was more or less right in the middle of a lion's den of hostile, half-breed Akkadian loyalists. For there was no other place for him to hide in the city. Despite his popularity with the old families, those homes were too closely watched by palace spies for them to be safe places in which he might hide.
Mushallu had wept when Ibrahim had taken his final leave of him and the city. The Princess had given only vague instruction: Ibrahim was to go to the Gate of the Bull on the afternoon of the second day after the full moon, and await what he sought. Mushallu had worried for his friend. What if the Princess did not in fact know what Ibrahim sought, or what if it was an elaborate trap by palace spies to catch the exile? "How can she know?" he had cried to Ibrahim as he made ready to depart. "Why is she being so vague?" Ibrahim had replied, "Because she is the favorite of the gods, my friend. And her personal god is powerful, and loves Her Black Headed children." It was hardly enough for Mushallu, who, despite his love of the old ways, was Akkadian enough to fear the cruel humor his people believed the gods loved to show their creations. He had given Ibrahim a vast sum of cash, "just in case," and pleaded with his friend to not hesitate to flee, the instant there was any sign it was truly a trap. Ibrahim had kissed Mushallu on both cheeks and taken him by the hands. "You shall be forever in my prayers," he told him. "Forever, my family will remember your name and praise it to heaven."
Now, as the Sun turned his face away from the land, Ibrahim found his own faith wavering. Who would come? The Princess' final tablet had said only he must bring a token of his house and present it to a person who would know him; how this person would know him she did not reveal. Suddenly, a voice behind him spoke his name. "Ibrahim," the female voice said softly. There was a wistfulness, and perhaps even sorrow in it; he was disarmed and relaxed by its lack of malice. She spoke his name again, "Ibrahim." This time, she sounded as solemn as in prayer. He turned, and lifted his head up from under his hood, careful not to expose his face to passers-by. Before him, a delicate woman of the old blood, royal and ancient by the look of her, stood before him. Her thick brows were the deepest black, her curved, arching nose of the shape of the most beautiful women of the land. Everything about her told him that she was palace bred and born, of the ancient line. And then he started, for he recognized her! It was "skinny" little Lali, the scribe who had helped him some days ago, in his escape from the city. He knew that she was of the household of the Princess, but he wondered in some fear and awe- what had changed her so? For she was solemn, and seemed to have matured overnight into a beautiful goddess. Yet sorrow hung upon her brow like a heavy crown.
"Lady Lali," he bowed slightly. "I thank you once more for your aid." He wondered how she would lead him to the woman who was to be his bride, and how she would get them out of the city. "I-" She cut him off with a slow wave of her beautiful, delicate hand. How had he failed before to notice how beautiful she was? "There is no time, and we must leave at once. I will explain to you as we ride for your camp. It is two days from the city, is it not?" Ibrahim could not contain his fear and looked shocked, for there was no way she could have known this unless his camp had been set upon by someone from the city. "Do not worry," she said. "Your family is safe and well, the camp remains undisturbed, and ready for your departure to the west when we return to it." She took his hand in hers, and looked deeply into his eyes. "You are a good man, I think." He did not understand why she said this to him. Dumbly, he realized that she was the woman he would be taking to wife, she was the woman completing the vision given to him by his personal god, and to the family priest. For a moment the awe of it struck him dumb and rooted to the ground. Then she tugged at his hand and spoke sorrowfully, but firmly. "Come," she said simply. "We must go."
Sitting atop her ass, a young woman of the old blood thought of her last few days. I will miss the city, she thought to herself. I will miss you, my beloved, she thought, and another face, so like her own, rose in her mind for the thousandth time. A face, so royal, so fierce, so like a lioness challenging the Sun with her roar. How I will miss you, and how I wish the gods had not favored you so. Bitterly, she remembered the Akkadian belief, and knew then they were both right and wrong. The gods did lovingly favor their children, but betimes the cruelty of their love was more than a mortal liver could bear.
And so it had been for her, and for her lost Sasa. Sasa had lived: the ritual had worked and she had been granted a true vision. Oh, how desperately did the young woman riding away from the city atop a merchant's ass, wished that it had not been so. When the moon had passed through its course, and she had opened the altar room's entrance, she was overjoyed to find her princess, her beloved, her priestess, alive and whole. The sacred knife had indeed been the instrument of the gods, for Sasa's wounds had already begun to close, and no blood fell from them. But Sasa herself...Lali had been horrified to see the whiteness of her face, and the horror staring back at her in the other woman's eyes. "So much blood," Sasa had said, "so much fire, death, destruction."
Lali had borne her princess away from the altar chamber, slipping through secret passages back to the rooms Sasa occupied. There, she had laid her upon her bed, crooing soft words of assurance to her lover, coaxing her shaking limbs to stillness. When she felt that Sasa would rest, she stole back up to the altar rooms to retrieve the instruments of the ritual. She hid them away once more in the ancient hiding place, and returned to find her princess no better than before. Worse, Sasa had been repeating a litany over and over, "I will fail, all is lost, I will fail, all is lost..." At first, Lali had attempted to quiet her, reassuring her that she would not fail, that the gods were pleased, that she must be misinterpreting the vision. Gradually, Lali coaxed out the details from Sasa, one increasingly horrifying revelation after another.
"Inanna has decreed it, and All Father An and Enki have acceded to her the firebrand of heaven," Sasa had said. Tears were flowing down her face, and her voice shook. "The time of the Black Headed people is at an end." Lali had felt the horror mounting in her breast; fear for herself, for her princess and their people coming like a black cloud upon the horizon. "No one will survive," Sasa had continued. She went on to relate to Lali the fullness of her dreadful vision. The Akkadian faction at court would continue its quest to disempower and throw down low the last of the old families. They would succeed in driving away the merchants, the faithful warriors, those with skill and talent would flee the city. They would raise up their own families, and unleash an orgy of violence against the last who remained true to the old ways. But the gods were not finished punishing the Land of the Two Rivers. For even as the Akkadians completed their task of replacing the old families, and reshaping the old traditions to suit their own beliefs, terror would fall upon the city, indeed, all the old empire. From the west, the desert tribes would rise under a strong warleader, who would assail the city's very walls. In the east, the Sons of Arratta would ride, Egypt herself would join them, and bring mercenaries and foreign adventurers to a massive army of conquest. The streets of the city would flow with blood, the temples would be thrown down, the icons of the gods stolen, and all across the old empire, the cities of the Black Headed people would burn and fall. All this would happen before the Prince, who would soon be King as the old King succumbed to his final fate, had reached his forty-fifth year. Breaking Lali's liver, Sasa had recounted the most bitter part of her vision: in the times that followed, there would be no reigning priestesses leading the temples, and none to speak the Fine Tongue. It was an end to the people, all the old ways, and the beginning of a new age of barbarism and destruction. "When we are destroyed, in the north shall rise those who will ape our ways, but not understand them. They shall rename the gods, forget the Great Art, and nevermore will ritual magics protect and defend this land. The Age of Iron and Blood will begin." And then, Sasa had let her body spasm with weeping and horror; nothing Lali could say or do brought her succor.
But after a time, Sasa had regained her composure, or at least some measure of it. Lali had been proud to see her return to her composure as royal princess and high priestess. Sasa was young, but even so, she recalled her duty. It was then that small hope blossomed inside Lali, for the faintest of smiles had graced Sasa's lips, and she turned to look at her scribe, lover, and friend. Gently, she had put her hand upon Lali's face, stroking it as she had in the former days, before this horrible knowledge had weighed upon her. "But not all is lost. The gods have favored two of the Black Headed people above all others. Two who shall be honored with a great gift, perhaps the greatest gift they have ever given to mortals since They gave the Plant of Immortality to Ziusudra, so many ages ago when he and his wife, rode their ark upon the world, at that time drowned by the wrath of the gods."
It was then that Lali learned of her own fate, and of a man, a merchant prince of the old line, and a place on the shores of a far western sea, where she would go.
"My wife," Ibrahim called to her from his seat on his ass; awe, enthusiasm, hope and love warring for rulership upon his face. "Do not dwell on what you cannot change. " He rattled on. "I beg of you, look about. Look at how the Sun favors us with a gentle hand, and how our flocks and herds thrive along the road. My sons and daughters have heard your vision well, as they have mine. We are strong, and time will pass quickly. We will reach the land promised to us, you will see." She could tell he meant to be kind, and indeed he was. He had been so honored to know that she was his reward, the gift his personal god and all the gods had granted him, to take away the pain in his liver at all the losses he had endured. He was a good man, wise, and strong. And he was so courteous. He had not forced her to the ritual marriage bed, he had let her come of her own accord. Gentle and good, he could perceive that time was needful for her, that she could not forget her priestess-lover, that she would be hard-pressed to adjust to life on the long road, like some wandering tent-dweller instead of the lady of the old royal blood that she was. He himself catered to her every need, waiting upon her with patience and grace.
And most of all, he had shared his own vision with her, one that was great as Sasa's had been terrible. His personal god had spoken to him in an awesome voice, commanding him to leave the city and make for the western lands. Lali had not known this god; there were so many that even a priestess of the old line could hardly be expected to know them all. Ibrahim had told her his god was called the One God, a strange and mysterious god who had promised her new husband mighty gifts. Her husband and she would do no less than found an everlasting nation, one that would sing endless praise in the One God's name. Indeed, the ways of this god were very strange, for he was jealous of his childrens' love and Lali feared what new rituals she must needs learn to please him. But it was a matter for which she knew she had time. Sasa had told her that she would indeed reach the western lands, and that Lali would there take a new name, to honor her husband's personal god. Sasa had assured her that Lali would live a long, long life, surrounded by Ibrahim's family and her own child, who would be mighty like his father would become. It would've been an uplifting prophecy, had it not been born out of the destruction of her home, the loss of her soulmate and the death of the old ways that accompanied it.
Lali counted in her head silently the days that had passed, and the days that remained before they would reach their destination. In sorrow, she knew that by the time they had arrived, the first horrors of Sasa's vision would come to pass; Sasa herself would likely be dead and the great city under the first of many assaults. Lali prayed to her personal god, a small goddess little known to the people but a favorite among priestesses. Let me be strong, she prayed silently, let me learn to love this man. Speak to his personal god on my behalf, entreat Him to let us keep some of the old traditions alive. Lali could see how her husband was changing; every step closer to the new land brought out a fierceness in him, a pride in his coming destiny. But wisdom too sat upon his brow, for the hand of his god was strong, and his god protected all that was good in His chosen child. Lali would never forget what she had been, what she had left behind, what was lost forever. It was then she made up her mind to make a series of tablets. Her daughters, if no others anywhere in the world, would keep the knowledge of the old ways alive.
The sun beat down hard upon the sweating student. She knew that these caves had never been fully excavated, not down to the lowest levels. But as she walked back into the one causing all the excitement, she forget the heat, the sting of sand, even the fact that for days, the villagers helping out on the dig had been atwitter with talk of a giant scorpion sighted somewhere in the area of the dig. Like her advisor and fellow student archaeologists, every time she entered the site, her mind leaped, and dreamed of fame and futures assured. Finally, after so many years of searching, there was a real, scientific reason to believe she had discovered the final resting place of the First Hebrew Patriarch.
There had been false finds and theologically motivated "discoveries" of such in the past, many times. But she lived in a new age, one in which science had finally replaced politics and theology as the prime mover in her field. And science had confirmed: here was a resting place that the ancient Hebrew people had honored, seemingly above any other site ever discovered. All the evidence was clear. Even during periods of conquest, the ancients had protected and hidden this cave from all enemies; now she and her team believed they understood why. Her advisor had already left the site in a helicopter provided by the government, for a luxurious change. With him went the remains of what he, and many others, now believed were of the first leader of Israel. The real, historical Israel, a complex people with roots in the ancient Semitic tribes that once ruled and fought and devised mythologies all across the modern Middle East.
"Sam," she called down to another student left behind like her to finish up excavating the graves. "Did you get the last of that soil off the bottom layer? The one with that odd stone box? I know yesterday you said you'd have it cleared, and the epigraphers are here if you want them to take a look at it." She heard an affirmative grunt, and looked over the lip of the excavated depression. Sam was pretty far down, even for an ancient level like they supposed the one they had reached to be. He was holding a tiny tablet under the artificial lights they'd set up in the cave's darkness. "How's your Sumerian?" he called up to her. "Pretty good," she said. She caught herself. "Sumerian? Here?" "Actually," he replied, "it's even weirder. I think it's Emesal, the woman's tongue."
He turned his face up to her, a smile growing there as she'd rarely seen on him, dour grad student that he was. "I think we've got something here, something that will make the old man sorry he took that fancy 'copter out of here yesterday instead of toiling it out with us nobodies. Heh, not 'nobodies' for long, I think." He handed her a tablet and she saw that the stone chest was absolutely packed with them. "Thank god," she said for the hundredth time, "they had the sense to put all this stuff in this cave and seal it off so well." It was rare that finds of this age were so well preserved. Indeed, she could make out a great deal of the cuneiform script, despite its great age the tablet was amazingly well preserved.
After a few minutes of reading, she looked up at him. "This is going to change...everything," she said with awe.