Building Stonehenge: The Wooden Ring


Building Stonehenge: The Wooden Ring

“How do you know who we are, and how do you know our language?” I said. I suppose I must have sounded a bit rude to the old man. But I was in shock. I seemed almost like a dream; the wind blowing, the great stones, the old man and fierce blue dog. Aon stood silent, observing as was his way.
“Oh, I have traveled much as you have, my friend. I’m not from here, either. I came from the far west of this land. But I have sailed across the sea and been to the land of many islands where they speak your tongue. I spent many years there, learning things which I have found useful. Other things I learned which I have chosen to forget, which may be even more important.”
He looked kindly at us. He had a thin face, and he was short and thin himself. Though he was old and had pure white hair and a long white beard, his hair and beard were clean and blew lightly in the breeze. His eyes were blue-grey and sparkled in the sunlight. There was a hint of laughter in the corners of his mouth. He wore a simple tunic, which was not filthy, but well kept, neatly sewn and mended, and he wore simple sandals and carried no weapon. A tall walking stick was stuck in the chalky soil at his side. Nothing fancy about it either.
“And you are?” he asked, almost breaking into laughter. I guess I was so taken aback by this strange man speaking Achaean that I had forgotten my wits and manners.
“I am called Pelop, and this my son Aon of Epirus” I said, saluting.
“Little Stek, wasn’t it?” he replied. My heart grew tight for a moment. I felt a sudden shock of fear.
“Stek was my name.” I answered after a moment. “A long time ago.”
He kept my gaze, steady with his clear eyes. The laughter was gone now he seemed to look right through me.
“Let me see you leg, “he said. I had been standing, leaning on the crutch, my leg lightly resting on the turf.
“Sit down; easy now.” He said.
I settled back onto the slope of the hillock with Aon’s help. The old man got up and knelt by my side. He looked at my bad leg and made me try to move it. He looked at and felt my feet, both of them, and then my hands. He looked at both of my eyes one at a time. The he put his fingers on my neck, gently and lowered his head and closed his eyes. All was still except for the incessant wind blowing ove the top of the hillock, swirling around us in fits.
He withdrew his hand and stood. “Wait here for a bit. I need to get something.”
He trotted off with his blue dog in the direction of a crease filed with trees. Aon and I sat there.
“What do you make of him?” I asked my son.
Aon calmly stared off across the plains. The grass was waving like seas in the wind. A few puffy clouds scudded across the blue sky. The old man appeared at the edge of the trees, his hands cupped, holding something, his dog by his side.
“I’d say you found the Merlin.” Said Aon.
The old man came back and knelt again and lifted up a long, black leech from his wet palm and put it on my knee. Another he placed on each side of the knee and one or two behind. Then he put two above the ankle.
“Of course, you’ll have to stay here for a while, until they’ve had their fill of your bad blood. Then I’ll have to open that up and let the fire drain out of it. Otherwise it will never heal. It may never fully be the same anyway. I think the blood-fire has probably eaten part of the bone away. But you will gain some strength back and be mostly free of pain when we’re through. Lucky for you, this old tomb is my home. So I have a robe to keep you warm enough for the night, and food.”
“Tomb?”
“Yes, these little round hills are the barrows of the old Kings and Merlins. They’ve been here for a long time, I think. They were emptied of their former occupants ages ago. They make a good shelter for a simple man who isn’t afraid of spirits.”
“And are there spirits?” I asked.
“Of course there are. In your mind” he laughed. “If you let yourself get scared, there’s no end of spooks and demons and little men and werewolves and the like out here. Good and bad, this place is full of them.”
“And if you’re not afraid?” asked Aon.
The old man turned and looked at my son directly.
“Then maybe you’ll learn a thing or two from them.” His eyes sparkled with humor, and I thought he was pulling our legs.
I noticed that already the leeches were getting fatter.
“Oh, you’re a right feast for them. They’re very good at taking blood out without causing harm. When I cut you, you’ll bleed more, but it will be better, cleaner blood than otherwise, with what these suckers are getting right now”
After about an hour, he gently pulled the engorged leeches off my leg. Indeed, the swelling had gone down a bit. The old man walked back to the woods and returned. “I returned them to the stream over there. They’re happy now, fat and happy. The trout will catch them and eat them and your bad blood if they’re not careful.”
“Why are you helping me?” I asked him.
He was standing, his white hair and beard blowing. He looked down almost disdainfully at me.” Well, it’s my job, isn’t it? Haven’t you spent your life looking after others?”
“How would know that?” I asked.
“Um… I can see certain things about people. It’s a trick I learned long ago, maybe in another lifetime. I’ve always been able to see things. Besides, I’m a herder? See my herding dog? I call him Owl, because he is wise, Like Atena’s owl in your land.”
“A herder? But where is your flock?”
“Two of them are sitting on the side of this barrow. And one’s about to get cut and feel a lot of pain.” He laughed.
He went into the barrow and came back with a cup and a fine-pointed bone needle, about a hand’s length. It was very sharp at its point. He knelt again and handed me the cup.”The strongest liquor I have. For medicine only. Drink and don’t spit it out.”
I tipped the cup and wallowed. The wine was like fire. I had to stop from spitting it out. But I swallowed it down. I felt it coursing through me almost at once.
“A special brew, “he said.” The little people showed me how to make it. It’s called wisgiegh.”
My head spun. A fine drink, that was for sure; stronger than any wine I’d ever had.
“Hold your son’s hand. This really will hurt a bit, but you’re a warrior; you can take it without crying out.”
He took the point and held it against my skin right above the knee.
“Look, a hawk!” he said loudly and looked up. I looked up too, squinting into the bright sky, and at that moment he drove the needle into my leg with great force and pushed down as hard as he could. I nearly cried out, but held my tongue. Aon gripped my hand with his as hard as he could. The old man probed around with the long bone needle. I could see sweat beads forming on his brow. Then all at once, there was a great spurt of blood and pus out of the entry wound. It splattered out on the old man’s hands. He smiled broadly.
“I got it!” he beamed. He pulled the needle out smoothly and then pressed down on my leg above the wound with his thumbs. So much blood and pus came out I thought I would faint at the sight. Black, dark blood and yellow pus. He pressed again and again, until there was nothing but just red blood. He took the cup and poured the last drops of the wisgiegh right on the wound. It burned. I winced, but almost had to laugh. Pelop the mighty warrior nearly felled by a wizard’s incision.
“That was your problem,” he said, “poison fire in the blood. It would have been worse without the leeches, but that was pretty bad.”
He went into his barrow and came out again with another draught of wisgiegh and a bowl with a wet mix of greens and browns in it. He gave me the wisgiegh, “for being a good lad” and stuffed some of the herbs into the mouth of the wound. The he put a light wrapping around it.
“Now, that wasn’t too bad, was it?” he stood and poured some water on his hands from a jug and washed them off. “We’ll change that poultice everyday for the next week or so and see how it looks. Sometimes you have to open these things up a few times. Don’t worry, I have more wisgiegh.” He laughed and Owl sat and wagged his tail and looked up admiringly at his old master. So did Aon and I.

The old man and Aon carried me into the barrow. It was a long, narrow chamber, about a man’s length across, but thirty feet deep. They propped me up so my leg was raised a few inches and my head was cushioned with a dried block of turf. The leg hurt, but I felt a sense of confidence in the old man’s treatment. He came back with more leeches and let them attach around the wound.
“There now, he said, sitting down on a block of stone, “You’ll mend soon enough. But no walking until I say so. You both can stay here.”
He was speaking some Achaean, mixed with the island language when he couldn’t recall the Achaean words. I understood him well enough. Aon was very quick with language and was able to fill in the difficult spots.
“I’ll want to hear about you. But you need to rest now. Fear nothing. I will tend to your blood –sucking guests and your son and I will see that no wolves eat you.”
I suddenly was very tired.
I woke to the smell of something cooking. Smoke was rising from a fire at the mouth of the barrow. I didn’t know if it was dawn or dusk, but the light wasn’t strong. I fell back asleep, I guess. When I next woke it was dark. I had to piss something terrible. My leg was stiff and sore. I didn’t want to move it. T lifted my head up a bit and saw the shadow of someone by the opening of the barrow.
Aon?” I said.
The shadow suddenly vanished. A dream? I heard a noise behind me. “Yes, father?”
“Sorry, I’ve to piss. Don’t think I can walk.” Then the old man was there with a gourd. He helped me roll over on my side and piss into the gourd. I was relieved, to say the least.
“That was two days worth, “he laughed. “You’ve been a good patient. You haven’t moved. Much easier than the restless type. He went to the fire and brought back a torch and stuck in a crack for light.
“I saw someone at the opening.” I said. Both Aon and the old man had been behind me in the barrow.
“Ah…” he said quietly. “ Nothing to fear here that you don’t bring yourself.”
“So, was that one your sprits?” I asked.
He rubbed his chin through his long white beard. “This place is very old. This land has been the center of ….practices that don’t happen often anymore. Though I fear they’d starting again. People are…needy…fearful. Cunning men can prey on their darkness”
“The skull on the pole. That man’s not the real Merlin, is he?”
The old man rubbed the top of his head, where his hair was thin. “The people, “he said, “like wizards, witches, fortunes tellers, prophets. Surely you know that. You have been a great traveler. I know a little of your story from people I have talked to about you.”
“Yes.”
“As I told you, I have a gift of being able to see certain things in a person. I can make guesses that are sometimes right. But I have no desire to be a village priest. I was the Merlin for a long time. I finally saw that it was not the best way for me to serve my flock. They wanted rites and sacrifices. Sacrifices are pointless. They only exist to feed the fakers who parade around as wise men. I would rather spare the poor animals, or call it making food, not call it pleasing the gods.”
“But are there gods to be pleased?” I asked.
He thought for moment, staring at the floor.” There are things in this world that can’t be explained. But that doesn’t mean there are no explanations, “he said. “ Lightning and thunder seem to come from the gods. But I don’t think so. I think they come from the conflict of the cold, dry north wind with the wet sea air and the land. It always blows hard and cold from the north after lightning. The stars and moon and sun are not gods either. I’m not sure what they are, but they are for us, a kind of way of keeping track of the seasons. Down along the river, and up here at night among the ancient barrows, things move without shape and sound, yet one can feel them, and sometimes see them for moment. You did just now. But someday we’ll understand what they are. What that drunken fool on his village hill does is not magic, that’s for certain. But there was no one else available, so I made him the Merlin until I could find a better one. I am back to being simple old Waelf u’ Carrain. Waelf was the name my father gave me and Carrain was my village, about ten days northwest of here, in the mountains of the west near the sea.”
“You said you traveled all the way to the Achaean isles.”
“I was a wanderer, looking for answers, when I was young. I wanted to go to the land of the great man-mountains in the sand. But there was too much warfare. I barely escaped alive and made my way back, and finally came here.”
“I lived in that land and helped build those pyramids. These barrow stones are as big as many we moved. Who made these barrows?”
“The old ones, long ago. The ones that sacrificed humans.”
“Where did the stones come from? I see no stone hills here.”
About one day north, there is place. But there are better stones in my homeland. I would like to build something here. I think you will build it for me. When you are walking I will show you a special place. Not far. Now rest some more. And don’t fear the shadows. That’s all they are.”

My fever cleared and I didn’t see any more shadows. Just a dream. For once, I had the feeling that I was dealing with man who could be called a wise man. He had a calm, simple, outward self. But that was because he had thought things through deeply and had faced the world as it was, not the way the superstitious folk did. If he said there were powers or spirits out here, or places where the energy of the land was special, I believed it was as a result of having watched carefully and without fear; or rather without cowardice. There is a difference, which every warrior knows whose worth his place at the victory feast: bravery doesn’t mean lack of fear; it means facing fear head on and taking on the task at hand, no matter how scared you are. Waelf u’ Carrain, the real Merlin, had that ability. He also was willing to try things to see if they would work, rather than simply accepting the ridiculous explanations people gave for things. He was also, like me, willing to try things to see if they’d work. That sounds obvious, but most people just do as they’re told, based on what has been done before. He had excellent powers of observation. He spent hours at the edge of the stream and the pond, watching how bugs crawled around, and how the fish ate them, and how the frogs grew, and so forth. He knew the movements of the sun and moon better than the Egyptians and Sumerians, who have studied the heavens since before time.
In one way he was different from me, and more akin the Prophet Abraham. He believed there must be a power that created the worlds, the earth, the stars, and the sun and moon, that made the grass grow and the winds blow and the leaves die and people fall in love and kill each other. I wasn’t sure. It seemed like it might just be a random tumble of gaming bones to me. I, who been a warrior for so long, and who had robbed so many brave men and cowards of their shades, thought that the world was full of madness. Men and women were insane, and the world of animals was nothing but hunter and hunted. Storms destroyed crops, floods washed away villages, diseases killed and disfigured almost everyone, even my most noble and beautiful Vila, who had never wished ill on any soul. And in the end, everyone and everything died and disappeared. Even the pyramids would someday be piles of sand, blown away on desert winds. No, I couldn’t see a kind hand in this creation, as Waelf called it; it was all nothing but change, eternal change.
But Waelf, like me, had a place in his mind that called him to help make things better. I was good at organizing and building. Waelf was good at seeing a need as well.
“The simple folk need something to lessen their fear, “he said to me. I had begun to mend nicely. I could now bend my leg and could actually walk, though with a limp. The fire in my blood had injured my leg. My knee still hurt, and Waelf thought it always would. But the fire itself was gone and I could feel my strength coming back. “I want to build something for them. A way of telling the seasons.”
He was leading us across the fields, past old barrows and wooded draws to a wide place that overlooked the wide plains.
“I have watched the sun and moon for many years, “ he said, “ and have marked where the sun rises and sets on each day of the year. There is a place I will show you. “
We came past a row of stunted trees. There before us was a ring of logs standing upright, each about as thick as a man’s arm. The ring was about fifty man-lengths across, with a bigger log sticking upright in the exact center of the ring. Outside the ring was another set of upright logs at various spots. We walked to the middle. I counted twenty-six uprights, all evenly spaced, and eight beyond the circle, those being a bit uneven in their placement.
“let me guess,” I said, “ You took a length of rope and tied it to this post and walked around, leaving stones or the like to make a circle. Then you measured the spaces between them until they were even. But what are the further posts?”
He rubbed his bald spot. “ I put this post here, as I felt this was a good spot, it spoke to me. You can see for miles here. I did indeed measure the circle in the way you describe. It’s logical. I then came her every morning and night for two years and carefully placed stones at dawn and sunset on the spots where the sun rose and set. In this way, I figured out when the sun was furthest to the south and furthest to the north. I set my first posts out beyond to mark those days. That is the beginning and end of the sun’s year. When it rises at that post, “ he pointed to one in the south east, “ and sets at that one, in the southwest, the day is the shortest of the year. The very next day, the sun rises a little to the north and goes further every day until it rises at that post, “pointing to one in the northeast, “ and sets over there, “ a post in the northwest. That is the midsummer’s day, when the day is longest. By watching for a long time and setting the other posts, I was able to figure out the two days of the year when the night and day are the same length. “He indicated four other posts. Then I noted the middle place and put larger posts at the four directions that are right between the other posts. North, south, east, and west. So I can come here on any morning and by looking at this ring of posts, I can tell you exactly where we are in the year. Now, a farmer needs to know when spring is coming, and a sheepherder need to know when his flock with give birth. These things can all be noted on the ring and the various days can be celebrated.”
“Why celebrated?” I asked.
“Because people need celebrations to ease their fear, “said my quiet son, Aon.
“Exactly.” Said Waelf. “There’s only one problem.”
“The posts will rot away. You need to build this with stones.” I said.
“Not just any stones.” He said.” they need to be magic stones”
“But surely there are no magic stones?”
“Oh, but there are. At least the people think there are. And they’re a long way away.”
“I suppose you want me to bring them here and put them up.”
“Why do you think I cured your leg!” he laughed.
Aon and I laughed too, the laughter of madmen, who do things knowing that they are folly, but do them anyway. The laughter of doomed men.

32 The Giant Stones

My leg soon felt good enough for me to walk around on. Waelf told us of a place a good day’s journey to the north where there was a huge ring of stones and other monuments of the old people.
“There are barrows there, some big ones, and a hill that they say was built by giants. It’s almost perfectly round. Perhaps an ancient king is buried there. Near the hill, there’s a long row of big stones that leads to a wide circle, with a smaller circle inside. I have been in the place, but not for long enough to tell if it’s a season-teller. There are no locals who know more about it than tales of sprits and dread things. They offer sacrifices there. Nearby is a place where the stones came from; I saw it. Certainly the great rocks were cut and prised from the ground in this quarry.”
“But these aren’t the special rocks you tell of.” I said.
“No, the ones that I would like to bring here are far away to the west, across the water. They are blue in color. They’re on the slopes of hills of my home country. They’ve been long worshipped. I myself feel they have healing qualities of some kind. It’s far, though. Perhaps it would be enough to make a ring here with local stones.”
“The rocks here are the chalk type. They would wash away in a few seasons.” I said.
I was starting to think that whole idea was bit crazy. I wanted to build a fine ring, because building with stone was something I liked; I wanted the challenge. I could see the ring in my mind. I was already planning how to put the stones in place, already seeing it at midsummer’s day with the sun rising between the stones. I would be an entire ring made of thrilithons like the Pillars of Herakul far away to the south across the great sea. But bringing huge stones across hills and valleys with boggy streams and woods, up long slopes of hills and own, was a project I couldn’t see happening. Where would we get the manpower? The locals were few in umber and I couldn’t see the so-called Merlin of the hill wanting to see our circle being built. He would stop any willing locals by telling them he would curse them or worse.
When I could finally mange it, we walked own the few miles to the village. I noticed the rotting skull had slipped own the pole by the Merlin’s fire. We found Finn preparing to leave for his homeland.
“It’s time I went on my way” he said.” You’re doing well now. I wish to see my old lands and see if any of my old kinsmen are still alive.”
He paused from his work of lading his little horse with his belongings. These ponies were few, but they were sturdy and tough. I would need to trade for a couple. Finn had my meager store of gold and other trinkets with him.
“I was bringing them to you up there at the barrow, “he said.” Everyone knows where you’ve been. There’s been a spy who’s been watching you.”
“The boy, “said Aon.”I’ve seen him looking out from the woods.”
“Nice of you to tell me, “I said.
I suddenly didn’t know what course to take. Staying in this village with its superstitious locals and mumbo-jumbo priest seemed a small end to my story. Perhaps I should just go with Finn and see yet another land. But my leg didn’t feel up to a long journey just yet.
“Your old friend Waelf wants me to build a stone ring for him up on the open plain.”I pointed up the hill.
“That’s’ a good project for you. You know how to do that. The Green Isle wouldn’t be good for you. It’s still wild. I’ll be going back to fighting and carrying on. I think you should stay here, my king, rest up for a while and then build that ring.” He tightened the ropes on the pony with final tug. The little horse gave a deep sigh and pawed the ground with its mud-caked hoof.
“I’d need men to move the tones. The nearest place is twenty miles. But Waelf wants to bring certain stones from the far west country.”
“Ah yes, the stones of the western hills. They’re famous. People go there from all over, even from the Green Isle, to be healed. I don’t know why; they look like any other rocks to me. You’d need to bring them here by ship, like in Egypt. The land is too hilly out that way, but the rocks are close to the shore. You could sail them around the land and float them right up the river if you had a good ship and some river boats. “
He stopped and looked down. “I want to get home, “he said, “but I owe you my life, my little slave king. I’ll stay here and help you bring your stones. Then I’ll go to the Green Isle and pass my days away.”
At that moment I was aware of a movement up on the rampart of the hill above the village. There was the baleful Merlin, staring down at us. I could have hit him with an arrow if I had my bow strung.
“That one is the big problem, “said Finn.” He’s a not a good man. Yet, to get enough men from around here to drag the stones, we’ll need his help.”
”I’ll have to ask for it then.” I said.

Finn, Aon, and I set to figuring out how many men we could get during the cold months, since that is when the stones from the nearby quarry could be most easily moved over frozen ground on sledges. A large cut block would require about forty men, unless there were very steep sections, for which we might need another twenty. Waelf and I discussed the blue stones of the far hill.
“They don’t have to be too big,” he said. About man size. They wouldn’t have to be cut. They are already the right size. They’re in one place. It’s very sacred. There are many barrows there. ”
I told him for the stone to look man size, it would have to be at least two feet longer than a man; even then, after being set in the ground, they wouldn’t be as tall as the tallest men. But the men here were short, so we could figure on a seven-foot stone, about two feet thick. We’d need. A stone of that size would take about twelve men to move easily with a sledge and ropes and levers; ten in a pinch, if the going wasn’t too hard.
“To be realistic about this, we’ll need hundreds of men and their families to support them,” I said. “We’d need a new village right nearby and food. How would we manage that?”
Waelf just shrugged. “No one said it would be easy.” He said.

Though I doubted we could build Waelf his magnificent stone ring, I was drawn to the man. In this world of darkness, he walked unafraid of meeting life and its mysteries face to face. As my leg improved, for which I was very grateful, we took to walking about the high plains above the Avonna River and its chalk ridges. There places where the old people had carved deep through the green turf into the chalk, leaving large figures of men and beast and unknown designs outlined in the brilliant white earth beneath the grass.
“To see this properly, one would have to be a bird, “he said. “maybe the old ones could fly.” He laughed , but there was an unanswerable question.
“These are for the gods to see.” I said.
“Yes, yes, the gods, “he muttered.
“In Sumer and in Egypt, they talk about gods from the early days coming down from the skies in fiery chariots or boats with wings.” I said.
“Oh, do they? “he said.
“Yes, and the Sumerians have temples on the tops of their great mud-brick pyramids, which they call ziggurats, where young, beautiful priestesses await the pleasure of the gods.”
“Oh, you don’t’ say.” He answered, having already figured out who the special priestesses no doubt served nowadays.
“That Merlin down there, he takes his pick of the women by using the fear of the curse.”
“But can he produce a real curse? Surely people would figure that out over time.”
“Any illness can be called a curse. He leads with fear, not with wisdom. That is why I wish to build the ring. Then people can see for themselves when it’s time for planting and lambing and won’t have to rely on that man’s fakery. People are easily fooled. The only real magic is in knowledge. Knowledge will set you free of fear, not enslave you to it.’
I thought as we walked. I had been trying to find a way by which we could gather a work force to move the stones. The Merlin would never go along with our plan. Without him, the people wouldn’t help. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“I will cause the Merlin to curse me, When his curse fails to work, he will exposed.”
Waelf stopped walking. The wind blew his white hair about. He squinted in the sunlight and peered at me through the slits of his eyes. His brows were furrowed. He was working through this solution.
“OH, you know that might actually work. But he wouldn’t just quit without a big fight. It could be dangerous for you and your son. Or for other people. He knows enough about plants to make poisons. He could sicken others and blame you. Imagine that he kills a favorite boy-child of , say, the headman.”
I thought about the ramifications myself for a moment.
“You’re right, that is too dangerous, not for me, but for others. We’ll need some help from somewhere.”
“I’ll ask the little people to send some warriors this way, “he laughed.
“You joke about the little people, but what do you mean by them?”
“You, my Achaean friend, will laugh at an old man. But sometimes I just ask the night for things. And they sometimes appear, though it takes time for my requests to be answered. So I say the little people, who the old ones believed in, and Finn’s people still do, are out there listening. Sometimes they decide to help. It just means I really don’t know how it al works.”
He paused. “But, still, I’ll ask them” he laughed again.

Aon and I set about trying to win the villagers over. We made bows that were better than the crude simple local bows and gave the first to the headman. We took him hunting and brought home a fine doe. Aon and I drove the doe to the man, who had an easy shot, but one longer than he could have made with his own bow. We also made hooks from some of our store of copper and Aon took some men fishing. The copper hooks worked far better than their bone ones, though some disputed the fact. Finn and I set up an archery contest with the local shots. We let them shoot at live targets set at sixty paces, eighty paces. Few hit them, though the headman shot a hen with his new bow, which made him strut around like cock himself. Then Finn, Aon, and I had a shoot-out. I bested them with shot of almost two hundred paces into a piglet that had been let loose. There was amazement from the crowd. We also set a feast from the killings of the targets and sent the headman up to give the Merlin his share, which was short but his standards, no doubt. But since I had been playing at being the friend of the headman, he was full of self-enjoyment and confidence and was not overly cowed by the filthy shaman, who showed his anger by throwing down the offering in the mud.
We slowly enticed the Merlin’s boy to come out and join us at various events. We held a foot-race along the trace that came up from the south. The boys easily beat the older men, which provoked quite a bit of laughter and sly comments from the village women. The race was won by a young man called Tark. His name reminded me of my boyhood friend Tarn, who had died in slavery. Tark looked like he had a strong heart and an independent mind. I took Aon aside and told him to make sure he befriended this one. I vowed I would find a way to set these people free of the slavery of that bad medicine man on the hill.
Merlin’s boy’s name was Brun. He had been traded to the Merlin as a small child for a promise of protection against illness. The Merlin’s name was Belgar. He originally came from the east, along the great river of the green island, the Demms. Belgar had arrived at a time when all was peaceful. Three years before, there had been an attack by raiders from a western tribe, who had come seeking the rich river land of the Avonna. The locals would have been over run, but for the timely arrival, by chance, it would seem, of Finn and his band of adventurers. Waelf, who was at that time the Merlin, had appealed for help from the red-haired stranger and his strong warriors. Waelf guessed that Finn wouldn’t be a plunderer, though he could have been. Finn and his men had driven off the invaders.
“I simply liked the old man, “ Finn said. “ He reminded me of certain of our own holy men in my homeland. The western peoples were uncouth and savage, no different from these people right here.” He spat and then drank from a beaker of beer. “But the Merlin, er, Waelf, had an air about him. So we helped. Then we went on our way after a time and crossed the channel and headed south. You know where I ended up, but my route was different than yours, through the rich lands south across the seas and then by sea to the sand lands.”
But Waelf had chafed at being the Merlin after a while. People didn’t get any smarter, no matter what he said or did. They still wanted sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, which Waelf wouldn’t permit. When Belgar showed up and began having an influence on the locals, Waelf became withdrawn and depressed and finally just walked away from village, leaving them to go forward as they all saw fit. But he had never stopped trying to figure out how the help them and their children’s children.
Aon slowly drew little Brun out. He was scared, and for while only spied on us, no doubt telling the Merlin what we were doing. But it seemed that the longer he watched, the more he saw that we weren’t doing anything bad. Quite the opposite. As we gained the confidence of the villagers and even men from nearby villages, Brun came more and more out of his shell. He even talked to Aon now and then. Aon was more a man than a boy now, but he straddled both worlds well enough. Brun was about twelve, so he was becoming a man. Once, when Aon had the boys fishing on the Avonna, Brun watched from th distance. Aon slowly made his way along the spread-out line of boys fishing from the bank until he got close to where Brun was crouched among the reeds of the shore. Aon came up smiling to Brun and offered him a copper hook. An unheard –of treasure. It was already tightly tied to a length of sheep sinew. Brun drew back but didn’t withdraw.
Aon said, “Here. You want to try with this hook? Look, let’s tie the line onto a nice willow shoot. “
Aon cut a willow branch off from the trunk of a massive old tree with his flint-edged knife. The white sap dripped on his hands. He cut it down to about a man’s length. It was stout, as thick as man’s thumb. The sinew was twice as long as the pole. Aon pierced a fat worm with the sharp copper hook’s point and drew the hook through the wriggling body.
“Just hold it ove the reeds and let it drift down with the current and the lift it out very slowly and toss it upstream and go again. If you don’t get a bite, move until you find a nice hole. Watch our for the weeds, though, they’ll catch the hook and you’ll lose it.”
There were waving clumps of trailing river-plants in the clear currents. In between the strands of weeds was gravelly bottom. The trout liked to hide by the weeds and slide out and take whatever floated their way. It was an easy life for a fish, and they were fat and strong.
Brun shook his head. Aon just laid the pole and line, complete with wriggling worm, on the reeds and walked back to check on the on the boys. One of them was landing a fat fish. The others had gathered around and were offering encouragement. Others were fishing with increased intensity, trying for their own catch. Aon helped the boy land his fat speckled prize and glanced back. Brun had taken the pole and gone upstream a way and was fishing. Aon smiled when he saw the rod bend over and saw the silvery splash of a trout as it came to the bank.
I the days that followed, he sometimes saw Brun fishing at a distance. Then the boy was missing for three days. He asked the other boys casually about the sorcerer’s apprentice, but got shrugs. Aon decided to do a little spying of his own.
There was a copse of trees on the far side of the ring-mound of Sarum. Perhaps once it had been an earthen wall, but long ages had passed since the days in which the ring was built and trees now grew up the steep slope. Aon waited until dark and crept into the stand and looked down on Belgar the Merlin’s rude house and filthy sacrifice area. Aon shuddered at how the priestesses of Dodona would have regarded the place. Their shrine had been kept clean, ready for offerings to the Immortals in which the witches truly believed. Obviously, this imposter was simply using the fearful natures of the locals to his own advantage. A small fire smoldered before the house. The skull was gone from the pole, rotted away. It was silent. Or was it? Aon thought he heard voices from the house. Belgar’s deep rumble, low, but angry, and a whimpering, like a scared sheep. Then the man’s voice was raised and there was a slapping noise and the boy cried out. Then all was still. There was nothing new about a man beating a boy, or using him in an animal way either, though the gods of Dodona forbade it. But those gods, Demetre, Afroda, Apollaon, Dyaus, Perunas the Striker, and the others were far away. This was the realm of Ock, the angry god, the Thunderer. Fear, Disease, and Death were his demons, who rode the night winds, if you believed the fake Merlin in the roundhouse. It angered Aon to hear the pain being suffered.
But we could do nothing for now, except make it plain that there was fresh blood and anew spirit in the village. Still, out time was running out. Soon, Finn would leave if we couldn’t gather enough men to move some stones and show the locals that we meant to make something that would be real magic for them.
Waelf, Aon, Finn, and I sat around Waelf’s little fire out side his barrow one night. At Finn’s request, Waelf broke out a small amount of his wisgiegh, which Finn consumed eagerly. Then we had some honey-wine. We talked long into the night as the stars wheeled in the clear skies. It was midsummer now. Waelf had shown us the way the dawn sun lined up with his log-henge. It was wonderful. I longed to build in stone again.
“That imposter down there has them in his thrall, “I said. “ We’ll never raise enough men to move any big stones. We need a good crew with only one purpose, not a bunch of farmers under the thumb of a witch-man.”
“But soon enough, the harvest will be here and past and the ground will have its frost. That’s when you said moving the stones would be easier. And the men will have nothing to do.” said Waelf.
“True enough, “I answered, “and that’s how it was done in Egypt. But the Pharaoh taxed the people to have stores of grain and bir for the flood season, when the farmers could be put to work hauling stones. We have no stores.”
We sat in silence for a while. Above, a few shooting stars streaked across the darkness.
“I wonder what those are?” said Waelf. Then he added softly, “The little people say we should go to the far hills and look at the stones there.”
“Oh, the little people, “laughed Finn. “Don’t go believing what they say! They’ll have the better of you every time!” He drank deeply from his beaker.
But I knew what Waelf meant. It was his way of saying that we should not get stuck in trying to think our way out of this situation. We should act.
“If you know the way, we could leave tomorrow, “I said, “but your flock may get worried and turn even closer to Belgar if we leave.”
“Yes, they may, “he said quietly, “but if we come back with so thing wonderful, it will open their minds.”
I had learned to trust the instincts of the old man. Besides, I was walking better now, and we had three ponies to carry our food and sleeping skins. We would go.
“To the western hills!’ grinned Finn Ma’Kul the mighty adventurer, raising his cup.
“To the little people!” I said, and raised mine.

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Merlin the Archer: On to the Green Island–two Merlins


Merlin the Archer: On to the Green Island–two Merlins

How many trails had I been down in my life of adventure and wandering? How many battles, and escapes from battles? Shipwrecks, being bound in ropes, washed up on unknown shores? I had ridden horses into combat, run through rains of arrows, climbed walls of burning cities, swum in brackish water with crocodiles and who knows what else lurking. I had slipped past drunken husbands, vigilant guards, and treacherous enemies, stood before god-kings who could have had me killed with snap of their fingers, been made a slave three times. But it was a mere slip of my foot that brought me to ruin.
The locals begged Herakulis to stay and be their own god-king. They were convinced he had lifted the stones by himself, with help from his divine blood line which they said came from So, their sun-god. Had they no eyes or minds? Their credulousness didn’t matter to me. But if he decided to remain as their king in this place which he plainly loved, our little community would be made weaker, more prone to attack from sea-raiders. Herakul was a famous, respected and feared for his strength and courage, and his presence meant a measure of safety at least from known enemies. He had taken a fancy to one of the younger women, a sea-widow of twenty summers, a real dark-haired beauty named Dromakeh. She was far above the other girls of the area in looks and sense of herself: queenly. I could see Herakul falling into the notion of staying.
“Little king, I can’t refuse the people. They want me to stay with them. I think I’m going to. Why don’t we all come here? There is everything we need.”
It was true. To the west of the great headland was a fine, south- facing gentle natural harbor. A few tiny fishing villages circled the bay. Beyond were low mountains which abounded in deer and other game. Bees made honey in the forests on the uplands and one lively river, riffled with pretty, tumbling waterfalls was called the River of Honey. It was a small kingdom, truly. We held a council.
Most men voted for the move, though it meant having to give up our hard work of the last four years. Still, there was plenty for everyone here, and the enthusiasm of the local chieftains for the protection offered by our band made them almost beg. It was a three day sail from Melaka, our town, but an easy trip with good ports along the way. Finally all but four agreed to make the move. Herakul was pleased to have his companions with him. I looked at him lying propped up on one elbow by the big fire at night, dark-haired Dromakeh by his side. His stomach was getting large, his hair grey. The hero had found a home at last. I could see him getting old here, surrounded by little Herakuls and Dromakehs, enjoying a well-deserved good life as a free man. The people had gods and goddesses here, but mostly they lived for the seasons, fishing, farming and hunting in time with the changing sun and moons. They weren’t particularly warlike, though they had disputes, which they settled by holding a council of the leading men. The main fear came from the sea, for sea-raiders came to prey on the villages. That would soon end with the coming of the mighty Herakulis the Hero.
All seemed set and we stayed a few more days, sailing the ship and smaller boats around to scout out locations for our new dwellings. I didn’t care too much, except to be sheltered from sea-storms, but Aon was taken with a certain place, a little point at one end of a curving, protected beach where the water was perfect for swimming and diving, with easy fields behind it waiting to be cleared of scrub trees, and a small stream that tumbled down from the tall hills that were close to the sea right here. I saw a point not far to the west that had a perfect place for another ring-temple. We rowed our boat over and climbed up a cliff to a flat piece of ground, almost a perfect circle itself, about a hundred yards wide. There was a natural rockfall above it from a big hill. We could just roll stones down and stand them up. This one I would set up to match the rising mid-summer’s sunrise and mid-winter as well. I could see it in my mind’s eye. From here we could make out the Pillars of Herakulis across the wide bay to the east against the pale-blue sea-sky. I was a little excited and thought that maybe this was indeed a good place to settle down once and for all, free from the man-killing goddess and the slave-making god-kings. We would be masters of this land, and good masters, fair and just.
We were climbing back down the cliff to the boat tied on the rocky shore below. It wasn’t a tall cliff, nor was the climb difficult. I could have done it in the dark with warriors chasing me looking to take my head. The footing was a little loose, but dry, nothing dangerous. But somehow I get careless for a second. My foot dislodged a rock about the size of my hand and my heel shot out from under me. Easy now, I thought, just lean back and grab the side of the cliff. But in what at first seemed like a comedy, my hand took hold of section of crumbly rock, which fell apart like dirt in my hand, and then my other foot caught the root of a tiny bush that clung to the cliff face at the side of our crude path. I felt my weight shift forward, and then I fell head first down the steep slope. I still thought; this is stupid, I’ll be able to grab something any second.
But I couldn’t, for the slope suddenly fell away to a sheer drop of maybe twenty feet: three man-heights. I crashed down heavily, out of control. I hit my shoulder and right arm on a huge, sharp boulder at the sea’s edge. Somehow I missed hitting my head, or I would have died right there. The small waves washed around the seaweed-draped rocks. My arm was hurt and my shoulder wrenched badly from the shock. The wetness of the rock and seaweed would not allow me to grab a handhold with my left hand, and my left leg slipped into the water, brushing a small head-sized boulder as it swung around. The boulder toppled off the bigger rock and rolled slowly but inexorably and with great force onto my left knee, pushing the kneecap down as my heel caught on a ledge of rock. I felt a blinding flash of pain and I realized that my leg was seriously hurt. All from this stupid fall caused by slipping on a small rock. I managed to keep my head above the water; the waves weren’t big that day, but my left leg was pinned. I looked at it as the swell pulled the water back. It stuck out at an impossible angle to the side. The rock had almost broken it clean off at the knee.
In a moment there were others around me, lifting off the stone, not much bigger than my head, and pulling me from the water. The pain was unbearable. I had learned to take pain without crying out, but I believe I screamed for help. I remember being lifted out by two men. I saw Aon standing up to his waist in the water looking at me with fear in his eyes. That’s all I remember about it now.

“He’s waking up” I heard someone say. For a swift moment, I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. My eyes could barely open. The light was blinding. Lift that piece of cloth,” I heard another voice say. I recognized it. It was Aon. The world seemed to be shifting, going up and down. I couldn’t move. My mouth was dry. I tried to talk, but nothing came out. I saw Aon lean over me through the slitted, blurred vision of my eyes. I was in terrible pain. My whole body hurt, but my leg more than anything. I had never felt this kind of pain before. I think I tired to lift myself up with my elbows, but they didn’t work.
“Hold him down, “said a deeper voice. One of the crewmen, Santarellas. “Hold on. We’re getting close now.” I looked up and saw the small sail billowing above my head. Aon held a piece of sail-cloth above my face to shield out the sun. The boat lurched forward and I heard the shouting of many men.

“Looks like the women will have to do the moving from now on for you, little king.” Herakul laughed.
“They like men who have the wooden legs in the middle, not on the side, “said Finn.
I took the wine-skin and rained big draught. I grimaced out a soldier’s death smile, but even that seemed to hurt.
“Don’t’ make me laugh, please!” I said. The slightest movement made my leg pain flare up like a white-hot fire. Finn had bound it with a split oar and tight windings of sailcloth and ropes. I couldn’t flex it, which I knew was good. The Egyptians had done this for their wounded soldiers. Finn had told me he learned it somewhere else, though.
“There was a man, a wikka-man, at a place in the big island, “he said. “He could treat you for this, if he was still alive. But this is what I remember of how he did it. I’m afraid for your leg, my king. If it turns the green, then we’ll have to cut it off or you’ll die.”
I felt sick. The fire was burning in my leg at the knee. Fire inside, deep. I had looked at it when Finn had rebound it today, two weeks after the fall. It was red, but not green, black and blue further down by my ankle and cut, but not deep above the knee. The rock had fallen so that my knee had given way to side.
“It will get better, “I managed. It had to. I couldn’t lose my leg.

But it didn’t get better. The pain stayed. I couldn’t move my leg, not bend it at all for the whole long winter. Aon tended to me and so did Evonna, for whose care I was grateful. I learned to get up and hobble around with a crutch of a stout staff that had a cut off stub of a branch at the top that I could put under my arm. I refused to be a useless person.
Finn warned me, “If you don’t heal that, it will get worse. Go easy, Pelop. Let others care for you. You age been caring for others your whole life. You are owed that debt.”
Spring comes early to those blessed warm shores and by the time the sun had begun to track back northward along the lines of ring-stones Aon had put in place, I knew I had to find an answer. The local witch-man and women had come and gone, wearing their animal skins and burning smelly batches of herbs and singing strange songs. As always, the spirits were of no use for me. Maybe I should have never turned away from the gods. But I had made that decision a lifetime ago. Too late now. My knee was swollen out like a melon.
“Maybe I should go back to the Land of Red and Black earth, the Two Kingdoms. Nefer-Kah’s healer would know what kind of poultice to put on.”
“Well, we can’t go there!” said Herakul. Traders had brought us word that there had been a scandalous birth to Pharaoh’s new wife, who had some years before borne him a fair-haired son. Now a new child was black-skinned. Pepi was the copper color of the people of the red and black lands, the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.
“We could go to my green land and see if the old wikka-man is still there. If anyone in this world could heal you, it’s is him, “said Finn. “ I’m ready to go home, anyway. I want to leave my bones in the green lands. I’m going to go on the next tin-trader. You should come.” Finn looked weary. His white hair was now matched by his lined face. None of us were the young warriors we had been five years ago.
The tin-traders sometimes stopped in our bay on their way to and from the northern lands beyond the great gates of the wide sea.
I nodded. Maybe, I thought.

Evonna looked sad when she entered the house. She put down a pot she had carried from the spring behind the house. It flowed out of the rock face which rose steeply up towards the ridgeline. She had stopped outside the door. I was lying on our bed of piled straw bound with strips of bark and covered with thick sheepskins. She tried to smile. I didn’t. My leg was truly on fire and I was tired of it. No matter how much I tried to pretend, it was too much for me. I used my crutch to get outside to go to piss or shit, but there was too much pain for me to go anywhere. Aon did my work, hunting and fishing and ploughing our field inland from the curving beach. I was a useless old man.
Evonna scowled and I spoke to her through clenched teeth, a bit impatiently, for she had a way of not talking straight to me, which angered me. I knew it was the way of women, and that most men, including no doubt her drowned husband, would beat their wives until they were cowed into such behavior, but I wasn’t that kind of man, so it bothered me that she was so subservient.
“Well, “I said, “what is it?”
She turned and tried to hide her face, but I saw her tears. Then I knew. It was the tin-ship.

“There’s no stopping you, “said Herakul.
I leaned on Aon’s shoulder and we limped slowly towards the ship. It was a wooden ship, like ours, about ten man lengths with a solid looking mast and eight oars a side. It wasn’t in the best repair, but I knew that Aon would soon set things aright with that, for I had taught him everything I knew about ships. Finn was already on the deck, grinning.
“Herakul, you God! Lift this poor miserable old pirate into the boat.”
Herakul picked me up in his huge arms and carefully he and Finn and Aon got me up to the deck. Evonna stood on the beach, her head hanging down. She had pulled her hair down to cover her face. A knot of people had gathered around the ship, as always happened when one came to port. But this time the word had spread that I was going with it, and Finn and Aon, so many of our lot had drifted down to the cove. Some women stood with Evonna. She was still young enough to attract another man. In fact, I knew that two or three of our sea-dogs had their eyes on her. We had made a nice house in an ideal place. It was hers. But I was leaving, and I knew I wouldn’t be back, and she knew it too.
There were jars of honey and long jars of wine and other things that were made locally going on the ship. Herakul was the chief broker for the goods. Not so much that this folk would be hurting if there was no return trade. He would get some tin and amber and other things if the ship made it. The captain was a red-haired man of the north who spoke the outlandish language of Finn Ma’Kul, the White-hair. The crew was impatient, for the wind was right now favorable for sailing west, but that would change, and the currents were strong in the strait and could stop a boat dead without a good wind.
Herakul lowered himself down of the side of the ship into the waist-deep water. In the old days, he would have jumped and maybe even made the shore. He turned and looked up at me and reached with his big bear paw of a hand. I reached own clasped his wrist, and he mine. We looked into each other’s eyes.
“May the gods go with you, little king, “he said.
“And with you, my old friend.” I answered, holding his gaze for just a moment longer.
Then we let go and I stood, leaning against the thwart next to Aon, who smiled and waved at our clan of old warriors and their women and children and dogs and pigs. The sweet hills of the land now known as the Pillars of Herakulis were blue in the slight haze which came with the eastern wind. It was a warm wind, the kind that brings sandstorms off the great desert of the southern lands. The people were quiet, solemn. As the crewmen poled the ship back out into deeper water and turned it with the sweep, I stayed watching the people and they watched us in silence. Then Herakul, who had walked back up on the beach, started clapping his hands and shouting and raising his fists in a warrior’s battle salute. The men all joined in and I raised my right arm as well, as did Finn. We saluted the hero Herakul and his clan and they gave us better back than we gave them. The captain yelled something and crew pulled the oars and the ship drew away from the cove and caught the wind and we began to ride on the long swells of the great western ocean.
We made good speed at first, out through the straits but then wind died away, replaced bit by bit with a westerly breeze that called for rowing along the coast. It was arduous, but all I could do was sit there with my leg propped up on a bale of wool and watch the shore, sky, and sea. The shoreline of low cliffs was monotonous, though there were small villages here and there where we stopped for the night. At last, after two weeks, we made a rugged point and turned north. The wind was at our left side and we could sail off the coast, but the waves grew like mountains, long rolling ridges of water that stretched all the way to the horizon. I had seen big waves, but never like this. If we came under one of these giants breaking, the ship would be returned to the pieces of wood that made it in a second.
“Just wait, grinned Finn, his eye shining with the adventure, “until we cross the open sea; then you’ll see some real waves. “
The coast still stood off our right bow and we found good harbors almost every night. The coast went on forever, At each point, I thought we’d see the open ocean before us, but there lying ahead was another flat-topped cliff face a few miles north, and another and another.
I slowly learned to say a few more things in the language of the northmen. Finn taught both Aon and me. First ship terms, swear words, and the names for waves and wind and clouds. Then the names of the gods, one of which was strangely familiar: my old friend Awa.
“Awa.” I said quietly to myself, remembering Mata lying in her own blood by the burning hut. It seemed like another life.
“Yes, she is our mother.” Said Finn.
“It is the same goddess I knew as a child.
“Okk came later. Awa was there first. She gave birth to Dagda and Lug and Nudas. “
“Do they fight among themselves and let people suffer?” I asked.
“Are they not gods?” laughed Finn. He was a sensible man.
“Then I have no use for them, “I said. “They’re just like the rest.”

When at last we made the last of the northern points and entered the open ocean, the waves began to mount. Though I had sailed on many a ship, I could not believe that the little red-headed captain could hold the sweep true as we rode the moving mountains. We had the wind at our backs, and that was the saving grace, for if we could not have run with the wind, we would have gone down in those wild seas. There was no harbor now for eight days, longer than I have ever spent out of sight of land. The men prayed and poured libations of jug wine into the sea for the blessing of Dilanus, the sea- god of their land, Kumreh, in the western north.
My leg was on fire and I couldn’t get much rest, so I practiced speaking with the captain, whose name was Bragh, with Finn helping. Bragh told us tales of the sea.
“If you go north, towards the North Star at this time of year, the winds blow you true like this. We’ll make landfall on the flat shores, where the great stones are. But if you go south, with the pole star at your back in the springtime, the winds blow the other way and you can sail all the way across the world to the lands of the white sands where it’s always warm. It’s two moon’s journey. The people there are peaceful. They wear the feathers of big, blue and red birds. They have no tin or wool or wine. There are trees with huge berries on them that give milk. I have been there. They have no ships, just little boats that carry to men for their fishing. And when you come back, there’s a river in the middle of the ocean that carries you back north to the green lands. The water’s warm, even when there are mountains of ice floating in it.”
More sailors’ tales. No flying horses or shape-changing witches? He was right about the great stones, though. We made landfall after the long crossing at a place where someone had already stood up three long rows of giant stones, far bigger than our puny efforts had been so far. I was impressed, though the stones were rough and not cut, they were tall and wide. There were hundreds of them, and also temples or tombs with three uprights and a huge flat stones for a roof. The locals said that the stones had been there from the time of the giants; the time before time. I hobbled through parts of the rows and was amazed at the work. It made me think that I would make a larger temple next time I built, if there ever was a time. I never stopped thinking about it. I could plan it and Aon could lead the men if an opportunity arose.
We sailed on after a spell and came around a long, windy point and sailed across what the sailors called the Sea River. The winds were whipping our ship and the sail had to be reefed to half sail. The swells weren’t as big as before, but the tops were blown off across us and we were wet and miserable for the whole passage of two days and nights. I felt a great admiration for the tough little captain and his hardy crew. They spoke not a word of discouragement and worked hard at every task. Of course, they drank quite a bit, too, to fortify themselves against the cold, but the drink didn’t make them sloppy or stupid. At last we made a point into calmer waters at the mouth of a river and the low white cliffs topped with green came into view. The Green Land.

30 Merlin

There was a small town of wooden house and huts at the river’s mouth. It wasn’t much by the standards of the Land Between the Rivers, Egypt, or even Epirus, but it was welcome after the two months of sailing through rough seas. The men were home. Their families greeted the ship with joy, children running in the cold water’s edge and lank-haired, pale-skinned women standing patiently on the shore. They wore dirty brown and grey hooded cloaks and animal skins streaked with mud, soot, and grease from cook fires and long seasons of eating with their hands. The air was cool and cloudy. Low cliffs rose along the long curving beach to the east. To the north were low hills. Everywhere there was greenery, grass so rich that it was like the sands of Egypt only backwards. There was hardly a patch of ground anywhere to be seen, just grass and bushes and trees in thickets. It glowed green even under the gloomy overcast of the cold sea. The houses of the locals were mostly made of interwoven tree limbs kept upright by stakes driven in the ground and caked with mud and sod in the open spots, and roofed with thick piles of dried grasses that were moldy from rain, but so thick that much of the rain stayed out of the insides. The huts were dark and dank, full of smoke from the little hearth-fires. A blue haze of wood smoke hung about the settlement. I could hardly call it a town. Between the houses was mud, mixed in with scraps of bones and refuse of all sorts. It smelled like shit, for there was shit around the huts. The people were dirty, too. Their hair they wore long, tied in the back. Their teeth were mostly dark and rotten. The children ambled about in the mud, naked except for little cloaks.
But they had the same spirit I had noted from the ship’s crew. They laughed a lot, and were non-complaining. There were no perfumed Egyptians here, with fly-whisks and parasols and face paint. They had lots of bir and they offered it freely, though I noticed the custom was to offer a drink and then expect one in return. It worked out, as all was shared. No one went with his thirst unquenched, even if he couldn’t provide for others. His turn might come later. These were tough people, wiry and strong. I saw they had bows and flint-edged wooden knives, but not a great many other weapons. The bows were for hunting; the arrows were nicely tanged and had good workmanship. They were designed to bring down a boar or a stag. Aon, Finn, and I stayed in huts with the kinsmen of the big man of the village, the brother of the ship’s captain, as it turned out. We had fowl and bir for dinner and bread and bir for breakfast. Not unlike the common folk of Egypt or Akkad in that way.
There were amulets and pouches hanging above doorways and around the necks of the people. To ward off evil, no doubt. There was some coughing sickness in the village and I saw that people’s shit was watery. Pigs and chickens rooted and pecked in the filth on the mud and shit where they liked, naturally. There was a string of fish hanging on a short pole outside a hut. The fish trailed into the mud. If you eat shit, you’re going to be sick. But people think sickness is caused by witches, shades, and demons and the like. I could see that digging trenches beyond the huts for shit would help, and I suggested that to Finn. We had worked on that in our community with Herakul and we had less of the loose shit disease. But Finn shook his head.
“These people are as stubborn as Nefer-Kah’s donkeys, “he said. “They won’t just change their ways because some fancy outlander says to. Even Merlin can’t bring change quickly.”
“When will we see this Merlin?” I asked. My leg was still hurting. The pain came and went, but I couldn’t bend my leg at all without white-hot fire in my knee.
“Bragh says he’s up at the Sacred Place. We’ll go soon.”
Aon and I talked about the shit and mud. He caught the idea at once, as he always did. He was the smartest of people, being his mother’s son and mine, by the luck of the gods. We took it on our selves to make a trench behind Bragh’s brother’s house, some lengths away, in a place where rain water would drain the filth away from the hut. The headman liked it, as did his woman, a ruddy-faced little girl of fifteen winters. Maybe it would catch on. Maybe not.
We set out, heading north. They had a crude cart, two wheels and a plank deck, which was pulled by hand on a track. Fortunately, the road was well traveled, almost a wide ditch in the green turf. I felt bad about being hauled along. I have always taken care of myself, never had servants. But I had no choice. It was thirty miles to the Sacred Place, as Finn called it. We had a little crew of seven lads to help. There was much coming and going to the Sacred Place. It was a meeting and trading place, too. Folk from all over the Green Land came there to be healed and to barter for small things that could be easily carried. There was a market town near the Place. We traveled through what I thought was most pleasant country I had ever seen. Green everywhere, with low, rolling hills, pretty. Clear-running rivers, valleys dotted with tiny villages and farms.
The people here were great farmers. Blessed with lots of rain, they grew wide fields of grains. There were tall, stately trees along the rivers. Here and there was a standing stone, at which the locals paid obeisance as if it was a God. There were offerings of food and flowers and small jugs of barley wine at each stone, placed there by travelers on the sacred road to the sacred Place.
“The Merlin is a great magician, “ said Finn as we walked. “people come even from my island across the windy sea to get his healing.”
“The Merlin? “I asked. “I thought he was a man named Merlin.”
“Ah. There’s always a Merlin, “said Finn.” His face and body changes over the ages, but there’s always a Merlin to help the people.”
“Is this the Merlin you’ve told me about?”
“I think it is, an old, old man by now. But there will be another after. He is sent by the gods, you see.”
Oh, the all-powerful gods. I hoped that this Merlin was a good one. But now the seed of doubt that had lain dormant in the pain-wracked and desperate field of my mind began to suddenly to bud and throw off shoots. Another witch, doing what Mtombe used to call mumbo-jumbo. Feathers and smoke and spells and potions; none of which did any good but keep the witches’ pot full of stew and his beaker topped off with barley-wine.
In twodays we came to the market town of Awonna. Like Evonna, I thought. They called the main stream the Awonna, which I thought must come from Awa herself, the inescapable goddess of the seed. These farmers would certainly worship her quickening for their crops and the harvest goddess and the goddess of the hunt and so forth. The market town was small, but well made compared to the mud slop of the coast town. Here the houses were round, with three courses of flat stones and roofs of woven branches daubed with turf and mud. There were at least fifty houses and many other outbuildings and pens for sheep and cattle and pigs. The settlement was set on the slope of a small hill of white stone and sand which rose above the meeting place of several streams, so the rain ran off rather than standing in the pathways between the dwellings. It was far cleaner than the coast town. The people were the same stock, small and wiry; tough looking. I had the thought that they would make good fighters, though each man seemed to have an independent look to him, which probably meant they could never be formed into fighting units. There were no fortifications around the town, which surprised me. On the top of the hill was a larger dwelling. The place of the Merlin. They called this hill Sarum.
There was a market that day, and farmers and other locals were all milling about the open place at the foot of the hill. There was much bir and the honey wine and barley wine being drunk by the men. The customary dirty -footed -and -faced children ran about, and a few women were wrapped in cloaks, bartering for greens and squealing piglets and ducks and the like. The locals greeted Finn like a long lost hero. He had a reputation here, almost a godlike status. He had been through here years before and had helped defeat the neighboring tribe from some nearby valley. That is when he had known the Merlin, already at that time an old man of over forty.
“And where’s the Merlin,” called out Finn, who towered above the locals, “does he not feast with his people?” Finn had had some of the honey wine, called mead, which is heady stuff, and was a fine mood.
The mention of the Merlin brought a few scowls and the locals made signs against the evil eye, which I thought was strange. Finn had told me this Merlin was almost a god himself. One of the younger men tossed his head in the direction of the looming hill. Smoke rose form the peak of a round house there, and set before it, right at the edge of the earthen wall that circled the top of the hill was a pole set in the ground. On top of the pole was the dried –out black husk of a human head. A man with a long black beard poked his head over the top of the earth wall for a moment and then disappeared. I’m afraid we partook of the local’s generosity in too great amounts that afternoon to be good visitors to the great man. We slept it off in an outbuilding provided by a burly farmer. Te beds were starw on a dirt floor, bit I must say that I slept better than I had a some time, ion considerable less pain, from the effects of the mead, though when I woke my head felt a bit heavy.
Finn, who could drink any man short of Herakul himself under the table, was up and eager to take me to the Merlin. Aon, who hadn’t had much to drink, being a sober lad in general, also was ready to go. He had an interest in the various rites and doings of priests, and compared the sacrifices to see whether one place had a connection with another.
“Everyone sacrifices goats and fowl, and even bulls and boars, “he said, “ and usually the priests or priestesses get the finest cuts.” It was true. The offerings were usually a fold of skin and fat over a leg bone, while the main cuts went to the feast, priests and king first. The poorest supplicants got scraps. Aon had grown strong being raised in a temple full of doting witches. Because he had witnessed so much close at hand, he carried deep doubts about the abilities of healers and other priests and witches. In that doubt we shared a common bond.
The day was overcast, but bright. Maybe the slight hangover from the strong drink made me blink more than I would have liked. three of us accompanied by a village headman of sorts, went up the trial to the top of there hill where the Merlin’s pace stood. It wasn’t much to look at, just another round house of mud and turf and stones, except for the blackened, rotting head on the pole at the entrance. The hilltop itself was within a circle of low earthen walls, with one gap in the walls facing south towards the village below. It looked like it had served as a fort and no doubt would do so again someday.
Finn aid, “This is where we made our play against the hill men from the east. I killed their leader with my bare hands and they slunk away like cowards.”
The cowhide skin that served as a door for the roundhouse flapped and a boy stepped out. He was about ten years old, skinny, with lank, brown hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was wearing loose pants and a tunic of coarse material. Linen, perhaps, though not the fine cloth of the Egyptians. It was so dirty that it was hard to tell what color it might have been. Maybe close to white once, now a dun color, dark with the patina of mud and animal grease around the hems. The lad peered at us suspiciously and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Still, snot dripped down his thin upper lip.
“Where’s your master, then?” Asked the headman, whose name I had forgotten. The headman was no cleaner than the boy and had the same coloring and looks; a long face with a pointed chin and eyes set close. In fact, they looked like they were of the same family. I wondered if the boy was this man’s son.
“The Merlin is busy.” The boy said, a bit harshly, considering he was talking to three tall foreigners of obvious wealth compared to himself.
Finn folded his arms across his chest and said, “Well, you get in and tell your busy master that Finn, the one they call Ma’Kul, is here and would like to see his old friend.”
The boy stared at Finn. He didn’t seem to know who Finn was. Of course, he wouldn’t have been born perhaps when Finn had saved the town and the Merlin years before.
“ I’ll tell him.” The boy turned and slunk back through the hide door. It flapped on the door post. W could hear a deep voice that sounded angry, though thr word were unclear.
The flap moved again and large, burly man stepped out. He was almost as tall as Finn, a good hand taller than me. He was heavy, broad across the chest and shoulders, with a large belly as well, but strong looking. He had dark brown hair and a full beard, unkempt and wild looking, with a feather and a leather thong and amulet hanging from crude braids. Hi hair was filthy and his large ears protruded out from its long locks, which stuck to his pale skin. He was deeply pock-marked on his face and his nose was enormous and red, like that of a man who drinks far too much. He wore a dark brown robe and held a carved wooden staff in his hand, about as long as an arm. A symbol of authority, not a weapon. A symbolic cudgel; a witches’ staff. It had feathers and sea-shells tied to one end and they clinked together as he clambered out of the doorway. Around his neck hung a gang of necklaces of pierced stones and bones and other magical objects. His feet were sandaled. His eyes were dark brown, almost black. He had a somewhat menacing look to him. In battle, I would have chosen to take him out quickly with my arrows to get rid of a formidable foe. He stood there under the bright grey skies, squinting at us.
He didn’t say anything. I glanced at Finn, who had a strange look on his face. Plainly, this was not the man he thought to meet here. The boy had come out and stood slightly behind the big man. It was he who spoke.
“The Merlin asks who comes to see him after first drinking in his scared precinct without permission or sacrifice.”
Finn softly translated this complicated statement to me and Aon. And he added, in Egyptian, “This is not the man we seek.”
Still, I stepped one step forward and made the gesture of salutation which almost all men everywhere but Sumer use, my fist to my chest, and said in Achaean, “I am a weary wanderer who seeks the advice for an injury. I did not mean to slight your Gods. Forgive me for my ignorance.”
Finn put this to the man and boy in the local tongue, some of which I could understand, having been among the seamen of these people for some months now. Finn also bowed slightly and asked the headman to give the Merlin two fowl and a jug of mead as an offering. The boy took the offerings and motioned for us to sit on logs that lay around the fire ring. The human head, with a dead man’s grin, up on its pole stared balefully down on us from its empty eye-sockets. The Merlin, if that’s who the dirty, sloppy man truly was, sat down on a well-worn sawed-off stump that fit his broad bottom well. Bits of bone and slop on the ground around the stump indicated its frequent use. I had seen such places before. Witches, healers, priests, they’re all much the same. They accept the sacrifice for the God and eat and drink it themselves. The good ones share it fairly; the bad hoard it and give out scraps. He waved at the boy, who swiftly cut the chicken’s heads off. He then slit the bellies open and Merlin looked over his shoulder at the guts that spilled out on the cutting stump. The big man grunted and nodded his head. He then had the boy pour a cup of mead and bring it to him. He spilled some on the ground, while muttering an incantation of some kind and then drained the cup himself. Then he ordered the boy to bring us cups. So at least he would share the wine.
We drank, which after two cups helped to ease the headache I had brought with me up the chalk hill. Our Merlin slumped sloppily on his stump and let out a loud belch, which made us all laugh. The wizard grinned and pointed at me and said something. Finn said, “What hurts? Show him your leg.”
I pulled my leggings up and showed him my swollen knee. Even after almost half a year, it was dark and bruised. I could barely bend it without it causing me extreme pain. The Merlin stood up and ambled over and looked carefully at it. He poked at it with his grubby fingers, which hurt and made me wince. Then he lurched over to his stump and picked up his mead cup and took a big draught. He muttered something which Finn said meant, “A pig and five jugs of mead.”
So that was the price. I could manage that. We agreed and got up and left the half-drunk Merlin sitting on his well-worn stump. Te boy looked at us. I could see something in his eyes which I couldn’t understand; anger, or yearning? We were to return at dark. I had no doubt that his mumbo-jumbo, as Mtombe would have called it, worked better by firelight or under a moon than in the plain light of day.
When it had grown dark we ascended the hill once more, towing a nice fat pig, which had cost me dearly – a copper arrowhead, on a rope and carrying seven jugs of mead; two for us and five the so-called Merlin. We could see the glow of a big fire as we climbed the hill. As we entered the walled enclosure, the nasty black skull looked at us from its pole, silhouetted by the flames of a large bonfire. The boy was sweeping the areas around the fire and the sitting logs with a branch. The Merlin was not there. The boy motioned for us to sit and led the pig to the cutting stump. Poor pig. Ah well, he’d be eaten anyhow. Just as well be tonight. We sat on the far side of the fire from the roundhouse. The flames crackled and sent sparks into the night sky. The clouds had blown away and bright stars twinkled above. It was truly a fine night, if a bit cold. My knee hurt worse in these cold northern climes. I welcomed the fire’s heat.
At last the door flap moved and out came our Merlin, decked out in a full outfit of animal skins, including a headdress made of a large deer’s head with antlers of twelve points. Very impressive. He carried a gourd rattle and his cudgel. His feet had sandals with lots of sea-shells on them, which clattered as he walked. He came out to the fire and the boy brought him a large cup of the mead, which once again offered to the fire and then drank. The he turned his attention to the pig. He held up a flint-edged knife to the sky and began incanting to his Gods at length. Then he reached down and slit the pig’s throat in a smooth motion. The pig, held fats by a nose halter and leg bonds tied to stout pegs, struggled only momentarily. The cut had been skillful, for all the man’s bluster, and the animal died quickly; a good sign. Merlin then knelt down and slit the pig’s belly in a long cut, and reached into the bloody carcass and pulled out the entrails in the usual fashion. No different than the priests and priestesses of Epirus or Uruk, I thought. He looked at the mess and poked at this and that with his finger. He stood and stared down for a long moment.
Then he said something to the boy, who brought him a bowl of water in which he washed his hands as clean as they could get. There was a small clay pot on the edge of the fire which gave off a pungent smell of herbs. The boy dragged this away from the flames and poured some into a bowl. This he set out in before the Merlin, who offered drink to it and to the sky, all the while muttering away. Sometimes he would stomp his feet and rattle the sea-shells, other times, wave his magic cudgel across the sky. His voice grew louder and louder, until he was calling into the night with great power. I could see how people could be taken in by it; he really was quite a showman. I however, was not so easily impressed, having already witnessed rites conducted in Achaea, Sumer, and Egypt, where they’ve been at it fro even longer and have more pomp an ceremony. If Abraham had done this I would have had more faith. This was regular outlander nonsense.
At last he made a great show of throwing a handful of dust into the fire, which sent up an impressive shower of sparks. Some kind of earth that had that property, no doubt. Then he came to me with the bowl and dipped his hand into the liquid, a greasy-looking concoction of leaves and who knows what. He spread it on my knee and leg, rubbing it in a bit too hard for my pleasure, but I let him do his business. I hoped it would work, really. My pain had been uncomfortable at best and unbearable at worst, which was most of the time. He then wrapped my leg in linen and bound it with strips of hide and told Finn I was not to move it for three days, and then to bring two more chickens and he would remove the bandage.
So, four chickens, a pig, and six jugs of mead. Not a bad price for the Merlin. Finn helped me down the hill to my bed of straw inn the headman’s lice-infested hut and there I lay for two days without moving. At the third day I was helped back up to the Merlin’s roundhouse and he slowly removed the bandage. The leg didn’t hurt any worse than before. I felt somewhat hopeful. He said to take it easy and it would slowly recover. W gave him the two chickens and thanked him with another jug of mead.
Bu the end of the week, my leg was in terrible shape. The wrapping had been so tight that my foot got black and blue and now was also swollen and on fire. I was deeply angry and wanted to go tell the fool off. But the headman begged me not to, for the Merlin could call down a curse on the whole village or especially on his house, since he had been sheltering me. Finn shrugged.
“This is not the man I told you about. The old Merlin was an older man, thin and clean. He dressed simply, lived a simple life, and was wise as any seer or noble of Egypt. The locals say he moved on and this man came and told them he had been appointed Merlin by the old man. I’m sorry, my dear friend, truly, for making you come all this way.”
After two weeks the swelling had gone down in my foot somewhat. Aon made me a very nice crutch with a carved stag’s head to lean on and I began hopping around the valley. I couldn’t stay cooped up anymore. Above the river bottoms was a series of ridges of white earth covered in grass. I decided to go up there and take a look around. It was a few miles distant. At last I was able to hobble around a little better and Aon and I managed to get up to the ridge. It was wide open there, a rolling plain across which we could see for miles. A beautiful place, windswept, with tall green grass and little hills and valleys showing their traces in the distance. Here and there, there were tiny hillocks topped with grey stones, round, not natural looking. I thought they must be made by men. We mad our way to a nearby one. It was plainly man-made alright. Two huge, long stones lay side by side. They were topped by a large stone which was mostly covered in turf. It looked as if the grass had grown up into the stones over many years. The place had an air of being from a distant time. We made our way around the hillock. There, on the slope of the rise, taking in the sunlight out of the breeze, sat an thin old man. At his feet was a small but solid-looking blue-and –black splotched dog that stood and growled at us, baring its fangs.
“Ah, my friends from the distant sea. I’ve been waiting for you. At last you’ve come.”
My jaw must have dropped open. He spoke Achaean!

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Merlin the Archer: Revenge — on to the Pillars of Herakles


Revenge –on to the Pillars of Herakles

When I was through sitting with her, keeping company with her lingering shade, if there is such a thing, I carried her wrapped in her cloak down to the precinct of the Goddess. Aon was there, with the old priestess. I laid the light bundle on a flat stone in front of the temple. Other priestesses had gathered quietly. They stood back respectfully, their heads covered in veils of the same grey cloth that wrapped Vila’s body.
I turned to my boy, who stood gravely, looking at what had been his mother. I put my hand on his shoulder and bent over to talk to him.
“My son, I need you to wait for me here. I will be back in a few days. Then we will go on a journey together with my friends. You will like them and you will become a man in their company.”
He nodded. The old priestess put her arms around his shoulders and held him very gently, a soft smile on her cracked, aged lips. Clouds were darkening over Tomaros.

If the traitors of Hedra had ever dreamed I would come back, they hadn’t planned on a war general who had led armies for Sargon of Akkad and Pharaoh Pepi coming back to deal with them. I had forty men plus Finn and mighty Herakul at my side. We came over the ridge to the east of the town, marching boldly and openly. I shot the first five men I saw who appeared with arms. By then, Brukos had run out of his villa with his bodyguards. Herakul, Finn, and I came forward and met them, three against seven. It was no match. Herakul was worth ten men by himself. Brukos, coward that he was, tried to run when he saw his men fall to us, sword and axe to spear and mace. But I caught him and cut his guts out with the same dagger that had taken my Queen’s life, leaving them to trail through the dust and stones of the road that led to my old house, though he cried out his innocence and begged for his miserable life. He tried to scream, but his voice quit him before his life did. He crapped himself as he stumbled and pissed his robes. He grabbed at his trailing entrails, but soon he fell face down, his bleeding, broken nose and sightless eyes against the sharp little stones of the road. Up the little hill, at my old house, the King’s house, Andros and his men were pushing carts together to make a barricade, but we charged it and slaughtered them. I shot Andros from ten feet away, right through the throat. I was in a full rage; the wrath of the Gods, as they say. While he yet breathed, I took an axe and cut off his right hand and thrust it down his throat, where the arrow shaft had broken in two. I then impaled him on a sharp-pointed fence post and ordered the men to back away from the houses. There would be no killing of women and children. Instead, I brought all our company to the big wall that I had constructed. We took long, wooden fence railings and brought the walls of Hedra down. The big rocks tumbled into the valley below. We went around until all the walls were fallen. I bade the households to seek their future shelter elsewhere, but not in the direction of Dodona. Hedra was to be no more. My men wanted to take the women as spoil, but I forbade it. Instead, we went back east to Dodona and I made an offering of sheep and goats taken from my old city as an offering to the Goddess and to the shade of Vila, Queen of Hedra and mother of Aon.
Then we went to the ship and sailed away, never to return.

28 Hunting the Stag

The leaves rustled slightly; a zephyr perhaps. They crouched unmoving, wrapped in the green maze of a forest-bound thicket of pig brush. Aon watched as slow drops of water dripped from the tips of the broad, bright green leaves that covered his hiding place; one, two, thee, four… A snap of a tiny twig. No question: something was moving stealthily in the trees beyond the little brook. The stream itself murmured an endless song, like a thousand whispering voices, each issuing from beneath a pebble, a reed, a tangle of water- worn streamside tree roots. Someone had tried to dam the brook with large stones and the flow gurgled around these head-sized boulders. The grey sky seemed darker than the forest, as if the broad, bright leaves retained the sunlight of forgotten blue days, glowing luminously in waves and sheaves, so thick that Aon couldn’t see twenty feet in front of him.
His father sat with his legs drawn up to his chest at the base of a big tree, under a canopy of greenery that hung down like a bed curtain. He simply listened, hearing the great stag creeping forward. He could now hear distinctly the tearing of the new grown shoots in the great deer’s mouth as the animal tore them gently, but with precision and power, from the branches. Aon could see his father’s intent eyes from where he waited, his bow ready. He felt the cool, polished stone wristguard on his skin, the tension of the nocked arrow in the taught string. Now he saw the antlers above the tops of the thicket. They waved like branches in a breeze, tipping one way and the other as the deer moved his head to eat. Aon pulled the arrow back with the greatest care and ever so slowly lifted the arrow’s point to the level of the stag’s breast. Right behind the shoulder blade, just far enough down to be sure the arrow wouldn’t glance off. One shot, that’s all he’d get.
The great buck was no more than twenty paces away now, working his way towards the hunters. The wind blew towards the men, concealing their scent from the wary prey. There was a clatter as a bird took wing from the three above. The stag looked up and at the same time, Aon stood and shot.
The arrow flew true and straight and punctured the flank of the great stag, plunging in so deep only the last foot of the shaft with its duck-feather fletches stuck out from the side. He bolted sideways with a loud clattering as his twisting antlers broke branches and his hooves struck rocks and then he ran. Aon was off too, seemingly as fast as the stag itself, chasing it through the forest thicket, trying to keep the sound of the frightened, wounded animal within hearing, for he couldn’t see it. Soon the sound was fading away far ahead and he had to slow and follow the trail of broken twigs, and muddy hoof prints. The way was obvious and the blood that was left here and there made it clear that the shot had done its damage.
Pelop came upon Aon and the dressed-out stag at late dusk. The old man had taken his time, as he had to now. Aon’s trail was easier to follow than the deer’s. But the stag had run more than a mile, which was a long way for a man with one good leg to walk.
Pelop sat down heavily on a fallen tree trunk and said, “Good shot, my son. I couldn’t have done better.”
Aon knew this was a lie; no one could out -shoot his father even now. But Pelop could no longer run, so his hunting days were limited to small game and birds. He left the big stuff to his son, who at nineteen was in his prime in many ways.

We first sailed from Epirus across the wind-tossed straits to the west and came to the south-facing shore. Winter was lifting into spring. After a long passage we saw in the distance a huge smoking mountain that stood above a land of fine harbors and large towns. Herakul did some trading in these ports, for provisions, and spent some time brawling in taverns. But I now had my young son, to whom I was a stranger, in my care, and I coerced my huge, rowdy friend to quit these towns. Locals told us that the mountain was home to a race of Cyclops, one- eyed giants, and Herakul wanted to have a look for himself. I persuaded him to make the climb another time, when we wouldn’t be putting the life of a child in jeopardy by our adventuring. He was miffed, and vowed to return someday, but we sailed on. We had no need to go anywhere fast, so we traded and harbored and very slowly made our way along, sometimes staying in a good place for a few days or even weeks.
I spent my time with Aon on the deck, teaching him about the sails and even giving him a turn at the oars, though he wasn’t capable of lifting one by himself. We rowed together on one oar. He was silent at first, and I respected the fact that he had lost his mother and knew me only from tales. His whole life had been spent under the shadow of illness and death among the priestesses of Dodona. He had been on his own in that wild and lonely place. I could see he had looked within himself already. He was suspicious of the world, but not afraid. He readily learned the ways the sails set in different winds and swells. He had only swum in the cold streams of Epirus, and found the sea delightful. Along these coasts the waters were clear and warm. You could see deep down where large fish swam which we caught for our meals on hand lines and with spears. Some of the sailors were accomplished divers, who could hold their breath for several minutes and come up with treasures from the bottom, large shrimps and other delicacies. Before long, Aon was going down far past where I felt comfortable. Swimming seemed to bring him a little out of his shell; he would laugh and show off a sponge or some other rarity he had plucked from Pozdeon’s blue lair.
The men took him under their protection. He was our ship’s boy, our good-luck charm. He and I watched the starry skies at night and talked about the vast arrays of shining lights in the heavens. He told me the names he had been taught. He believed them to be signs of the gods. The great warrior with his shining belt and mighty shoulders, followed by the brilliant star called the Dog Star, was his favorite, though it meant colder weather was coming and more storms would upon us when it began to rise in the east after dusk. I didn’t tell him what I thought about the gods and the stars. There would be time for that someday. For me, I saw his mother in him, bright and intelligent and quiet. She had suffered no fools, including me, and I could see that Aon carried her inner bearing. He would sit and listen and not make needless jokes. He was comfortable being alone. I wanted to ask him about himself, but refrained, instead I watched as well. For my part, I told him stories of the Sargon and Karpatha and Egypt of the great pyramids and Kanaa. He listened and took it all in, perhaps not fully trusting my tales. Most times, there were others within hearing that made comments and rude jokes in the natural way of the sailor. Aon sorted it out in his quiet mind and kept his own counsel.
When we stayed in harbor, we would go ashore and hunt. He had my talent with the bow. I showed him a couple of tricks, but he was a good shot and a stealthy hunter. Those long, lonely winters on the slopes of Mount Tomaros had been a good school for him. Finn and Herakul were impressed by him.
“He has your calmness and thoughtfulness, “said Herakul.
“He’ll be a better shot than you before long, “added Finn, “ and fortunately for him, his mother must have been good looking, ‘cause otherwise he’d be in trouble.”
The one in trouble, pretty much all of the time, was Herakul, whose insatiable lust for women kept us rowing out of harbors ahead of angry chieftains and mobs half the time when we had come to harbor. It wasn’t his entire fault; women wanted him for his size, which was a quick legend wherever we went. Later I heard him referred to as the father of the Celts, the northern people. By this it was meant that he had certainly fathered quite a few children wherever he went. And no one forgot him. Sometimes we heard tavern singers, blind men with harps, who sang for drink and food and lodging, tell of the hero Herakul, or Heracles in the western way, the slayer of this beast or that, the man who had done many fantastic labors. Well, he had done many things, I can attest, since he did many of them around me. Truly, no one was stronger in battle and less fearless than my old friend. But he was wild. The singers said he was born of Dyaus, or whatever god was worshipped in whatever place we found ourselves. I daresay he began to half believe this nonsense himself. I left him largely in the care of Finn, who was only one step behind Herakul in size, courage, and wildness, and who would come to be a legend in his own land someday, with a similar name, Finn Ma’Kul. I thought the harpers pulled our legs for a few drinks, for they also sang about me, telling tales of my archery and my so-called intelligence. They said I had magically lifted stones to build the great man-mountains of the Pharaohs. This stones were moved with ropes, levers, and muscles; not magic. If I had believed them, I would have thought myself a proper hero, worthy of a place among the half-gods. Fortunately, I knew I had been mostly a slave and came from a tiny village in the Snow Mountains and had no father that I remembered, only a mother named Mata, who had been killed by those heartless raiders when I was just a little older than Aon now was. I was no god’s son. I was a man.
We traveled north slowly for months along mountainous coasts, seeing another huge smoking mountain above a great bay. Eventually we headed towards the west and storms compelled us to winter at the mouth of a river. Here, Herakul fathered many children, no doubt. I believe it was from this sojourn that his legend spread west and north and most likely in all directions, though I never went east again, so I can’t say what tales were told in Epirus or Troja or Karpatha. Because we were without anything to do and winter- bound, and to keep the men out of trouble, we built a temple of standing stones in a circle to thank the locals for helping us through the cold months. The temple was appreciated by the villagers, who in truth had had to put up with us for a few months. I directed the cutting and raising of the stones. Using the techniques I had learned from Ikaron in Egypt, I had the men split off rocks from a formation that the people said had healing powers. We slid the man -sized stones on sledges of peeled logs during the time when the ground was frozen. The ice made an easy road for the blocks. Levers and ropes and strong muscles did the rest.
On problem I faced was that in contrast to Egypt, where workmen built long, sloping ramps up which to haul the stones, here we needed to stand them up on end. I solved this by building a small ramp for each stone, using the dirt and stones from holes half the height of the standing stones. We then pulled, lifted and levered that stones up the ramp until they were resting, balanced right on top of the pile of dirt. Then we simply slid the stone into the hole and pulled it upright with several ropes, each pulling from a different quarter. We quickly filled in the hole around the stone and there it stood. To make a true circle, I used the Egyptian way of putting a peg in the ground at the center of the circle we planned, and then tying on a rope. I merely walked the rope around the peg, inserting other pegs to show the future positions of the stones, each one the same distance from the center. When we had finished putting up twelve standing stones, I put a smaller, more slender one right at the center; with a big flat stone for the sacrifice before it in the direction of the rising sun, since it was the sun that most everyone thought of as the main god. It made a handsome temple, building it kept the men mostly out of trouble, and it brought great good-will upon us from the local chieftains, who helped keep us in drink and girls while we stayed.
“We’ll do that next winter, too, “I said to Aon, who had been a good student and had easily grasped the measurement with string and other aspects of the construction., “ but next time, we’ll add one more stone outside the circle and line it up with the center to mark the passage of the rising sun at the short day. That way, the locals will know when the New Year has begun. Then they can plant their seeds the same way each year. ”
Aon looked hard at me. “You are very smart, father.” He said quietly. My heart fairly felt like it would bust at these words from my son, who had not yet made much in the way of comment about me in our first year together.

We coasted slowly westward, making many stops along the way. We passed great bird-filled sea marches and saw places where cliffs dropped sheer into the sea. We made point after point, many of them sheltering harbor towns with the usual taverns and women. Despite our easy progress, before long we had left winter behind and were in the warm sea waters that Herakul loved.
“Wait ‘till you see this place, my little king! It’s ours for the taking; beautiful girls, warm beaches, and no great god-kings to make a slave out of you.”
He was right. As we made our way south, the coast was not unlike the land where we had seen the smoking mountain the year before. But where that had faced west, this opened to the south and east and warm winds off the sea made for a fine air. The great sun rose like a fiery chariot out of the sea in the morning, reflecting off the generally calm waters and tinting the coastal hills with a rosy glow. The waters were warm and clear, full of fish and porpoises, which gamboled beneath our bows, much to the happiness of my boy, who was coming slowly out of his shell, like a snail. Bit by bit, he began to laugh with more ease and enjoy himself with the men. He was noticeable taller than when we had found each other. Almost two years had passed now.
I myself was growing older. I tired to count my years, but the closest I could come was perhaps thirty-five. I had been just coming into my manhood when the Ottars took me and killed Mata. Now, I had been a slave, a king, a slave of god-kings twice more, had a boy of ten years, and was a free man. My companions were of the best kind; robust men like me. Herakul was turning grey in his hair and beard, but still was as strong as a bull. Finn’s hair had long ago turned pure white, though he too was fit and able. My hair was still fair. I cut my beard short and sliced off the long ends of my hair. Aon looked like his mother, with thick hair, the color of dark honey. His eyes were grey as hers had been. We counted thirty-eight men in our band, many of whom I was have to classify as old sea-dogs. There was a sense among us all, except for a few younger lads, that it was time for an easy life.
And here it was. Although mountains stood inland, they were not tall. Along the coast there were coves and longer beaches with rich farmlands between the sea and mountains. Things grew by themselves, and the local villages were not places of starvation. At each stop we made for any length of time, we lost one or two men to the wiles of local girls, so that by the time we came to the place under the big mountain, we were not a crew that would intimidate a town. We settled on a fishing town with about two hundred families or so in the area. We made our place south of the town so as not to ruffle the feathers of the local cocks to much. There was plenty of land to go around, and town had a rough tavern and a market for bartering. We built a stockade and huts and stayed there for five years. Over time we made bigger and better houses, until we had small palaces of a rude sort for almost every man that wanted one. I found the plough to be hard work, but I had quarried stone blocks for Pepi the Pharaoh. Compared to that, it was easy farming my own fields for me and my son, if rather boring much of the time. We grew garden foods and fished and hunted. Aon and I worked on his bowmanship; he became almost as good as me. Women slowly joined in to our community, drawn by the handsome men. There was a girl who just kept coming around until she ended up staying. Though I did not love her, I did like her and she was kind to Aon. He name was Evonna. She was dark and small, as were all the locals. She had had a man, but he drowned while fishing, a common tale in these parts.
We kept the ship in good repair in a tiny harbor we made at a stream mouth, and took frequent trips up and down the coast and even out to the two big islands that lay off at some distance to the east, lands in their own right, especially the larger of the two. Herakul slowly traded way the last his goods for things we needed. On one trip to the south along the coast we came to a remarkable place, which made Herakul want to pick up and move. It was a tall, commanding headland, a great rock, really, it seemed, with sheer cliffs facing to the east : a finger of land pointing south off the coast. The locals said that the great ocean lay beyond and we didn’t doubt it, as the swells were bigger there and marched from the west through a strait we could see across. On the far side of the strait was a another massive mountain that seemed to match this one, so we sailed across the windy passage and saw that it did appear to be a continuation of the same more northerly great hill. We returned and made camp at the base of the northerly landmark, for surely it was one, there being no place so memorable anywhere nearby, and truly few places so dramatic anywhere, except for the islands of smoking mountains far to the east..
“I wonder what lies beyond these gates, “I said, as we sat around a fire. There were small apes that lived on the huge rock, and they came close to fire, seeking a handout. Herakul amused himself by throwing them some fish-scraps.
“If you go far enough, you come to the green land of my people, “answered Finn. He had grown quiet of late.
“The villagers told me when I was getting this wine that there is a great land in the midst of the sea beyond. Ships come here bringing tin. The men are fearsome and their ships are made of animal skins.” said Herakul.
Finn brightened up, “Those are the ships of my folk, “he said. Our boats are made of skins over wood frames.” He looked as if he was seeing them in his eyes now. Then, quietly, he said, “I really should be getting back before…” his voice trailed off.
“What, before we run out of wine and girls?”” laughed Herakul. “Your land’s cold and dark and ruled by witch-men and little green people, if we are to believe you. Who’d leave this for that?”
Finn laughed, and countered, “Well, fair enough.” But I could see that he was serious.

We went back to our village, but Herakul kept talking about the great rock.
“I like that place, “he said as we worked on the ship’s rigging one day. We tied some new ropes for the sail and repaired a few broken things.
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, “he paused as if unsure if he should go on.
I looked at him with mock surprise, “I know you’re crazy, my old friend. Come on, out with it.”
He knotted his great forehead so that a dozen deep lines formed. Sweat dripped across his skin from the sun and the exertion of pulling ropes taught. “Let’s go down there and put up a couple of your stones, little king.”
I tied off the last of the ropes. “And why?”
“Because I think the place is worthy of a temple.”
“And since when do you believe in the gods, oh mighty Herakul?” I laughed. It was unlike him to be so serious.
He sat on the deck and crossed his legs.” You know, little king Pelop the archer, we’re not getting any younger. I’d like to leave something before I die.”
“Something beyond a thousand children? “ I laughed again. He grinned back.
“Something for all my many children and their children to remember me by until the end of the world. I think two great stones, tall as three men each, with a stone across on top. Out on the flat part above the strait.”
“A task worthy of Herakul the son of Dyaus.”I said.
I thought for a moment. I was used to looking at stone wherever I went and knew that there was plenty that could be quarried there, right from the cliff face. Twenty men can pull a huge stone a short distance. Getting the lintel on top would be tricky for stones as big as the ones he was talking about.
“For you and your memory, I would gladly do it, “I said.

We set out a month later, when our harvest was done, with eighteen men. Aon was now a hairy man of fourteen, almost as tall as me, and went with us. Evonna wept when we pulled away from the shore. She had had a bad dream about me. I put it down to the attachment of women. After Vila, there would never be another true love for me. We sailed easily down to the great rock and set up a camp at a spring. The cliffs were at hand and I could already see a dozen possible stones for our project. I had collected very hard stones over the years that I used as cutting axes for softer rock. I looked for fault lines in the cliff face and soon we broke away three great stones and dragged them to the edge of the flat area overlooking the sea. It was magnificent place, all right. The matching southern mountain to the great rock loomed up across the strait. No doubt this would become a famous place. Already people used it for sacrifices and ceremonies. We swept away the debris of past fires and cleared a spot for the two huge uprights. We used our hammers to flatten the end that would go up, so we could balance the lintel stone on it. I had my doubts we could actually get a stone up twice as high as a man, but we prepared for it anyway. Then we dug our holes, as deep a men are tall. We laid down a road of flat stones to drag the upright on until the big stone was in place, with one the non-flat end pointed at the hole. We had cut stout trees to use as levers. Herakul and Finn and the other really strong men would lever up one end of the stone a few inches, while my team quickly piled boulders under it. Aon‘s sharp mind worked perfectly with mine and he directed one group of stone jammers, while I matched him on the other side of the huge rock. Then Herakul’s crew would go the other end repeat the process. Bit by bit we raised the stones up as tall as a man’s head. That took three days. Then we carefully began to lower the end that was above the hole, while continuing to raise the other end ever higher. We finally got it to slide right into the hole, so it stuck up and out at an angle. From there we used levers, ropes, more stout tree trunks as braces, and a lot of sweat to gradually pull the stone completely upright, which I measured with an Egyptian-style plum line. While most of men held the stone straight up with ropes and tree-branch braces, the others rapidly filled in around the base with the rubble we had used to raise the stone to begin with until the great stone was securely upright. Then we stood back and cheered and drank wine, exhausted but triumphant.
The second stone was a bigger problem. One thing after another seemed to wrong, but after a week we had that one in position upright in its own hole as well. The two stones stood the height of two men, not the three that Herakul had envisioned but bigger than most any stones this side of the Land of Pharaohs. They were ten feet apart, with the gap between them opening to the rising sun, so that the stones matched the peaks of the great rock and the mountain across the strait, like a symbol of the two great mountains and the sea channel between them. The lintel stone we had cut would fit across them with some to spare at each end. It was a huge piece. Putting the lintel up was going to be the hardest work and the most tedious. We had to make a pile, really a small hill of rubble all the way to the top of the stones. I tried weakly to talk Herakul out of it, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I recovered my pride and we set to work. We had caught the interest of the local tribesmen, who we engaged to help in our sacred task, claiming the glory of the temple for their sun god, who they called So. Herakul and I didn’t care what god the temple was thought of being for. He wanted to leave a monument. I wanted to see if it could be done. That is how our minds worked.
When we had our hill built, I had the men construct a long ramp at a much gentler angle than the hill, which served as a base for the ramp. It took us two weeks to get it done, with all the locals hauling stones and baskets of dirt and pebbles. At last the ramp was complete and we began the treacherous and back-breaking task of dragging the enormous stone up to the top. We had thirty men, fifteen on each thick rope, pulling side by side on the ramp above the stone and another crew coming up behind, using wedge-shaped rocks and tree-branch levers to keep the stone for sliding back down the slope. The ramp was only just wide enough for the lintel stone near the bottom, but I had had the men make it actually wider at it got to the top. I worried endlessly that the whole hill would slide away under the weight of the massive lintel-stone, but by luck and good guessing on my part it held. If the stone slipped off to one side, that would make the whole project very difficult to finish, so we were very careful, making sure of each move before we made it. I also ran ropes that went right over the tops of the uprights. I had worn smooth grooves in the edge of the uprights to fit ropes through and kept the grooves wet to ease the wear on the ropes and make them slide more easily. There were ten more men on each rope pulling from the ground on the far side of the ramp. Bit by bit we slid it up and finally reached the top, which was actually higher than the tops of the upright stones. We levered the stone ahead until it was balanced right between the uprights. The slightest mistake would send it sliding down, and we’d be sunk. But with braces and ropes, we secured it as well as we could. Then we very slowly raised the downhill end of the stone up by adding stones underneath it until it was level. Herakul and Finn manned the tree-trunk levers. This was truly Herakul’s greatest feat of his famous strength, as lifting the stone even a hand-width was all the crew could do, and then only for a moment while we jammed in fist-sized rocks and ever so slowly leveled the mighty lintel.
Once we had it in place, we used ropes and braces and poles to swing it around in its peak of rubble until it was right above the uprights. We slowly and carefully dug out the rubble underneath the stone and it settled on the flat tops of the mighty standing stones. We had done it.
A great cheer went up. By now, all the women and children and many men had come from far around the area. They had made a large, festive camp around the stones. There must have been two hundred men, eager to help.
“Herakulis! Herakulis!’ they cheered, his name sounding different in their language. He climbed up on the lintel stone and raised his hands to the skies, as if in offering. Aon and I stood up there with him, and Finn as well. Wine skins were produced. It was a great triumph. Now I knew it could be done. Standing up there I could see in my mind’s eye how a whole ring of great lintel-capped stones would look.
The locals all pitched in and we cleared the ramp and rubble in less than two weeks. I set a ring of waist-high stones around the great monument in a big circle. I didn’t bother to align the ring with the rising sun or anything too fancy; it was just to provide a setting for the great triloton.
“We did it, little king! “ Boomed Herakul. The sun was setting. The last ring stones were in place and the locals were having a feast around a great fire made of the tree-trunk braces and levers to celebrate their new hero, Herakul, or, as it sounded in their tongue, Herakles.
“They’re calling it the Pillars of Herakulis, “he said proudly.
“I would think people will remember that name for long time, “I said.

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Merlin the Archer: A slave no more– Pelop and Vila at last


A Slave No More: Return to Vila

By daybreak, Finn, Sadik, and I were half a march north. We slept in a cave above a wadi, deep in the desert badlands. Urartu had stayed behind. I stood with him apart from the camp. The fires still burned in the east, though we could only see a dull red glow through what must have been thick smoke. The wind brought us a horrible smell later in the night, like that of rotting flesh. Lot said it was brimstone, and I thought that must have been the source of the gigantic fire. Lot said it was the Lord smiting the wicked men of Sodom. But it reminded me of the mountains of fire in the islands of the dark sea of Achaea. They smoke and smell, too. And there are springs of hot water in the hills that have a similar smell. I don’t believe in superstition. It had been a huge earthquake. Small ones and even striking big ones were common in Achaea. But this one was the biggest I had ever felt by a long march.
Urartu said, “I will lead the men back to Hebron, and there I will stay, as a servant to Abraham if needs be.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “My brother, I wish you well. We have been through the underworld together, and I will never forget your friendship.”
I knew he could not bear the thought of living without Sarai, now that he had seen her again, and knew that she lived. I bid him a fond farewell. He had been my brother in arms for these last years and it was a sad parting. But such partings are the very nature of the world. For me there was no choice but to escape if I wanted to live. I had no bonds to Egypt and its culture, though I looked fondly on its people for the most part, and would miss the easy life there. But for men like Tanisre, who I had killed, and Nefer-Kah, who had treated me like a prize bull, and the man-god Pepi, for whom I had no reverence, I had little regard. I had earned my freedom. If I had ever not deserved it for some reason, that reason was known, as they say, only to the gods. To me, I had been imprisoned by chance and by the vanity and treachery of greedy and power-seeking men.
The mystery of a strange man like Abraham puzzled me, as did the awesome power of the earthquake and firestorm that had torn the heavens asunder. The air was thick with haze and smoke and the ground still rumbled beneath our feet as we marched north. At times the earth shook and rocks tumbled from rimrock ramparts above us and we had to plot our course as best we could to avoid being under cliffs. We felt small; the earth felt gigantic and alive and powerful.
If this was indeed the striking power of the living, personal hand of Abraham’s God or of the other endless gods that men worshipped, then I was indeed in trouble; for I could believe only in what I saw. I had walked through the night and had never seen a spirit or a ghost whose head faced backwards, or a demon or were-wulfen or any of the other countless scary things that drove people to spit on themselves and slaughter animals for sacrifice or close themselves up in filthy houses to keep out the dark unknown. I knew where these fears truly lived: in the mind and heart. I found it awesome when the sun rose again each morning, but there was nothing that its light chased away except for the darkness of the mind itself. Men, on the other hand, were indeed fearsome. For they, with their black, cold hearts, tied to greed and power and depravity by fear of death and fear of their own feeble mortality, would do anything to anyone. Why did men need gods when they could themselves kill, rape, sack, or torture others? The gods that people invented did these very things as well, giving people the excuses they needed for their dreadful actions. I had myself had killed far too many men to reckon. No doubt many of them were fine men with families and other lives away from war.
Yet there were good people too. In fact, most people were basically good and wanted only the same basic things for themselves that others wanted: food, shelter, safety for their families and communities. But they acted like cattle, afraid of the whips of men who merely claimed to be stronger than they were. I had watched the cattle count in Egypt and had marveled how the huge, horned beasts clopped docilely along, driven by the shouts and prods of a few skinny boys carrying thin sticks. If the cattle had only realized their strength and power, they could have run the herders over and had their freedom. But they allowed themselves to be driven to pasture, where the calmly ate until the day of slaughter. People were cowed by the men who made the gods and called themselves gods. If they could but rise up, they could bring down these imposters. I myself seemed to have been born to be the slave of those with power, though I had also been a king of sorts. I vowed now to never again be a slave to any man. I would die first. I had no god to swear on, but I held that to myself and made that promise. I was now on the road of freedom and would never be taken from it.
So we left the lands that were under the power of the Pharaoh of the Two Lands, the Red and the Black, the Living God-King. I hoped that we wouldn’t come upon that other God-King’s servants, for I feared that if we got too far north, Sargon’s men would catch us. We would thread the needle between the Egyptians and the Akkadians and make for the sea and steal a boat. At least Finn and I would. Finn was the last of the northmen to survive, his fellow countrymen having died in Kush and of illnesses. Sadik swore his loyalty to me, but said he would not set foot on a boat.
“My people are sand-people. I will stay here in the desert where I belong. I wouldn’t want to freeze, anyway.” He laughed, as we took a rest under a lone tree in dry wadi. Finn had been telling tales of the Green Isles where he was from, of how cold it was and cloudy, and how it rained all the time if it wasn’t snowing. His Egyptian was stilted and his accent outrageous, plus his sense of humor was contagious. He joked about women so skinny you could tie them in knots and then have your way with them and the like. He was full of tall tales. He said in his country there were little men who had great treasures hidden under the ground. The little men could grant you a wish if you could catch one, but they were a clever race and the wishes usually came back to haunt you. There were also night witches called ‘Shees, which could chill the heart of the bravest man.
“But I’ve been out of many night, and I ne’er seen one.”
Sadik said, “You two look like foreigners here. Kanaanites are suspicious people. There are many villages on the way to the coast. But I know a way to help disguise you.”
We came westward through the desert hills until we came to the Yeriko road. There we hid in a cave above the road while Sadik went on ahead to Yeru- Salem, the fine-looking town I had noticed on the first journey through this land. There was something about this town and the hills around it that pleased me, though I couldn’t fix the reason why in my mind. I fell asleep in the afternoon and had a strange dream, in which the hills were on fire, and I awoke with a start, but all was still and peaceful. Sadik came back later with a small sack of a dark powder, which we mixed with water into a paste, with which we painted our beards and hair to turn them dark. That would help, though both Finn and I were far taller than the average Kannaanite. Sadik had also stolen three blankets, which we wore as robes. The weather was turning towards winter now. We covered ourselves and walked hunched over like sick men as we went down the road, leaning on staves. We carried hidden daggers, but I had no bow for the first time in a long while, and it bothered me greatly to feel so unarmed. We kept to ourselves and often hid when we saw a large caravan approaching. On the seventh day I smelled the unmistakable salt of the sea. We were following the main track along a small river that flowed out of the hills. Ahead was a sizable town with a fine harbor. We looked it over from a hill. I knew that the winds often blew from west to east on the coast, but we were in great luck, as a storm was approaching, bringing wind from the south. If we could steal a boat we could get away toward the north. Of course, in that direction lay Ugarit, which Sadik learned was still in the hands of the Akkadians.
“Perhaps we can work as sailors on a ship to Cyprus, the copper island, “I said. Sadik set off into the town to see if any ships were going that needed extra hands.
He returned late in the night. “If you come now, I think you may be in luck. I found a captain in one of the taverns in the harbor. He seems a bit rude, a huge man with rough ways. But he said he could use two hands. He sails at dawn. He’ll be up all night drinking as far as I can tell. He’s that kind of man.”
We stole through the dark streets of the town, called Yaffo. We hunched over even more than usual and even passed a patrol of armed men, who crossed the street rather than be near a coughing man. Sadik took us to the quays and we waited behind some bales of stuffs on a pier while he went to the tavern, the only business still open at this late hour of the night. I noted the sound of snoring coming from the deck of the ship, a sixty-foot galley of the usual coastal trader type, a ship I knew well. There was a guard who woke and barked at us, asking our business. He spoke a rude Achaean, so I answered him in a mix of languages that we were hands waiting for the captain and that seemed to satisfy him.
At long last, we heard the sound of loud, deep voices across the harbor, in the direction of the tavern. There was an argument of the drunken type, and calming voices mixed in. Then the drinkers broke into a bawdy song about a tavern-keeper’s daughter, an old one every sea-man knows. The party wandered around on the sea-front for a few minutes and finally two men came down the quay. One was Sadik. The other presented a large silhouette in the dim light cast by two torches back over by the tavern. But the stride, size, and bearing were unmistakable to me. I stood up from behind my bale and stepped out, pulling back my cloak. The big man stopped and seemed to peer at me from under his dark brows. Then he leaned his head back and laughed a great roar of a laugh.
“Two hands, you said! But you didn’t tell me one is my King! “
“Hello, Herakul.” I said.
We embraced, a long hold, in which he nearly crushed the breath out of me with his powerful arms.
“I heard you were an Egyptian general!” he said excitedly. “But let’s rouse some oarsmen and clear the harbor now. There are Akkadian informers here. I gather you would need two heads to satisfy the angry kings you have left behind!”

By the gods, as those who believe in them say, it felt wonderful to be on the rolling green sea again. The oncoming storms brought a strong wind from the south, and we had no need to break our backs pulling the oars as we sailed for Cyprus. Herakul’s ship carried a load of planed cedar logs, most prized in the world of all woods for their strength and length for building, to a Cyprian merchant. Herakul planned to exchange the wood for oil and wine to trade further west along the coast of the great land of the Hattusans, Kappodikians, Lydians, and others all the way to Troja.
“After that, I will give you to command this vessel wherever you like, “he said.
The sailing was fine through the rolling swells. I had not been on a ship on the open sea for nearly six whole years now. I had been a slave, but now I was a free man. I drank wine with Herakul and Finn, who became instant brothers, being of the same kind of men: bold and fearless and not moved by the opinions of others. I felt like one of those black midgets that noblemen of Egypt kept in their households for entertainment compared to these giant men, though I was not a short man. Herakul told us of his life of the last three years. He had gone to the land of the Perses, the children of Perseus, he of the flying horses.”
“And did the horses fly?’ I laughed.
“No, but they run fast and they race them. They have the fastest beasts I’ve ever seen, far faster than any onager. The Perses are ragged, squabbling tribes with no great kings. But someday they will be a mighty nation, for everywhere there are very proud people. And their women are as handsome as any I’ve seen. Didion stayed with them. He became a retainer to a tribal leader who had a beautiful daughter. I grew bored and tried to make my way to Harappa, far to the east, but the desert was impassable and I finally came to the south coast and rode a ship called a dhow with a pearl merchant back to Dilmun. From there I needed to hide from the Akkadians and sought refuge among the Bedu’. I crossed the great sand sea on strange animals that are like horses but have huge humps in which they hold enough water for two weeks without a well. At long last I came back to these lands and was nearly captured by the forces of Sargon. They decided to take the whole coast back there, and would have except for the resistance of the locals. No one will ever defeat such fearless men as the kanaanites. They are sworn to defend their land to death and for generations untold yet to come. Your Egyptians won’t hold them for long. If Sargon couldn’t subdue them, the faroe never will.”
I agreed. Plus, the land itself was difficult, with so many ridges and steep-sloped, wooded hills and narrow defiles. A small army could beat a large one by ambush.
“I decided to become a trader after that. I got this boat in a roll of bones. I haul tin and copper, wine, oil, timber, people, anything I can find to carry from island to island. Troja is a great city, there is gold there form the great sea north of it. My old country of Thrace is west of there, but I dare not return there unless I have, like you, an extra head or two to give to some pissed-off old kings!”
We had a laugh and another draught or five. Herakul! My blood companion and I were on the sea again. But this time, I knew where I wanted to go.
“Oohh, I don’t know about that, little king Pelop. It has been years now. Do you think she yet lives? “
“If she does or not, I will go there and find out. If she has died, there are those who will pay for that. I will go by myself, if needs be, though I would think that here are three men who never turn from an opportunity to have a little action.”
Finn and Herakul grinned and rank.
“Count me in, “said Herakul.
“And me, said Finn”

Troja was a fine city for these parts, with walls around walls. The people were proud and hardy for city dwellers. They raced horses round the walls for sport. It would have been very hard to take in war.
“I would say it would take years.”
“And every man you could find, “said Finn.
“You’d need to fool the defenders into opening those gates or you’d never get in, ‘ I said.
We traded goods for trinkets of gold and wool bales. The weather had turned cold, and wool would be good demand in Atena.
“Too close to Tirana,” said Herakul. “I will trade this in the land of the Iberians, far across the endless sea, or maybe even in the land of our friend Finn.”
“The people of my land “said the big red-bearded man, “have wool growing out of their anuses! They eat it for breakfast! They fart it when the get under their sheepskins themselves at night!”
We had a good laugh.
“Before we sell this to people who don’t need it, first we’re going to see about a queen I once knew, and her boy-child.”I said.
But for now, we were free men at last and we felt the wind of freedom blowing behind us. We made our way from island to island, some of them of the smoking mountain type. I thought of the inland sea and the great fire of brimstone, but put it out of my mind. We traded and bartered, got drunk, got chased out of port twice by angry locals, and generally behaved like dogs that had been locked in cages for a long time; we took what we wanted of the food and drink and women of each port. So we ruffled a few cock-feathers of the locals. No matter, we were the biggest cocks everywhere we went. But after two weeks of living like drunken young sailors I decided to sober up and took command of Herakul’s crew and vessel and made a course that would take us south, around the lands of Mykenai and Tirana; beyond the western lands of Itak and Lefkata and to the coast of fine Epirus. Hedra was to the north. I knew the land now, and made for a sheltered, secluded beach where we could safely beach our ship. We had forty men with us. They had been with us from the start in Yaffo and had shared in our fine ramble. Some had been sailing with Herakul for more than two years. They swore loyalty to our venture. Ten would stay with the ship, to keep her from falling into the hands of pirate and warlords. The other thirty and the three wild men equipped ourselves with the weapons we had and headed north to the sanctuary of the goddess at Dodona, under the mountain. I knew the priestesses there were incorruptible. If I was to get the truth it might well be there. It was a thirty mile march. Once again I had a bow, a fine Akkadian recurve that had been lifted by one of Herakul’s shipmates from a nobleman in Ugarit. It was the very kind of bow I was most pleased by, and it had a quiver of well made arrows, some even with real copper points.
We crossed the ridges and headed for the great mountain Tomaros that stands above the sanctuary of the Three Goddesses at Dodona. We came over a spur of the mountain and looked into the valley. It was a peaceful winter scene; snow on the hills and wisps of blue smoke rising from the village near the sanctuary at the foot of the mountain. I bade the men stay where they were and went unarmed down through the leafless woods. I came upon the ancient standing stones that encircled the Goddess’s sacred place. Within were the temple grove and the temple itself, a rectangular building that looked like it needed repair. Behind it was a collection of small dwellings of the usual kind: stone-walled, roofed with woven branches and sod-earth. An old crone sat on a block of stone before a fire, stirring the contents of a large cook-pot. Her hair was white, but bound up in the back in the manner of the young priestess of Afroda. I thought she must at this late time in her life make her offerings to Hera, since Hera was the oldest of the three Goddesses. I approached softly, not wishing to startle her in this quiet place.
Without looking up she said, “You will find her. But will you not want to see her, nor she see you.”
I was startled by the strength in her voice; it was that of a younger woman.
“Excuse me, mother, “I said, “But how do you know who I seek, or who I am?”
She now craned her neck up and looked me in the eye. She had only one good one; the left was cloudy and light blue. She had only a few stumps of teeth and her skin was worn like old leather, with so many wrinkle lines that there was no smooth skin at all, only lines and folds. But once she had been beautiful, I could still see, and she smiled at me with a knowing twinkle in her one eye.
“You think she doesn’t know, but your mother knows, always, she knows. She cares for you, little slave boy, little king. She knows why you come like a supplicant to her sacred grove and old stones.”
I was stunned, but thought: I won’t show it. It’s the usual witch-talk, everyone comes seeking something, and she’d be bound to know that.
“I am a wanderer here and seek only the blessing of the Goddess of this place on my journey.”
“Then what is your offering?” She asked, “Why do you come empty handed? Bring the Goddess something to offer and we’ll see what she knows about you and your journey.”
She turned back to her cooking, “Now, begone!” She spat.
I backed away and left the grove. My mind was confused. What was happening? I shook my head to free it from the spell. Witches. I should have stayed in Egypt. I went back to the men on the hill and got my bow and went out hunting for some game with which to make an offering. I wandered over the wintry slopes of Tomaros, slipping along as quietly as an animal myself, an arrow on my string. I came to little creek that tumbled out of the mountainside. It flowed over white boulders topped with patches of snow, between the stark slender tree trunks of ash and poplar and dark evergreen cypress. I moved silently along it, following it down, knowing that deer and rabbits came to drink and I would have a shot if I was lucky.
I heard a sound of a branch cracking from a footfall ahead, and I crept forward around a large rock to see into the next pool below. To my surprise, instead of a deer, there was a young boy there, probably eight or nine years old. He held a bow himself. He had fair hair and was tall. It made me smile. He looked like a young lad I had once known in another lifetime; a boy named Stek. Then I saw another figure; someone wrapped in a cloak of grey wool, a tiny person, on his or her haunches, crouched down by the stream. The figure’s hand reached out and I drew my breath in when I saw the skin of the hand was also grey, and hardly more than bones with dark skin stretched over them. In spite of myself, I flinched, and stepped clumsily on a stone and fell on my behind, my feet sliding out from under me so that I slid forward on my backside in a clattering of loose stones from behind my rock and stopped right at the feet of the boy. He had drawn up his arrow and it pointed at my face. He was resolute and steady. I had the feeling he had already known killing of men.
“Don’t move, “he said calmly.
“I won’t, “I said, “I mean no harm. I was hunting for deer, much as you are, perhaps.”
He didn’t say anything. I eased my hands out, putting my elbows to the earth to show him I had no weapon in them. The figure in the grey cloak shifted and slowly turned.
I had seen death since I was a child. I had looked at the faces of men and women who had been mercilessly slaughtered. I had witnessed starvation, seen bloated carcasses of men and beasts in rivers, the butchered bodies of the mutilated warriors of Kush and Elam. But the face that looked at me was a dead face with eyes that yet lived. Her flesh was eaten away around her mouth, and her gums and teeth were black. There was a huge hump protruding from below her right ear that grew to her shoulder, which was drawn up by the growth towards her head. Yet her neck itself and every other feature was as thin as dried- out reeds, the skin pulled tight in lines. If she had hair, it was far back on her head, for under her cloak only her wide forehead was visible, littered with red, bulbous growths that were joined by a stitchery of veins that stood out and showed violet against her ashen skin. One hand stuck out, like it was a forgotten thing, bony and trailing in the muddy snow on which she crouched. The other hand was only a stump, the fingers having the look of having been worn down to bloody knobs. With that wretched hand she drew her cloak more closely around her and she shrank back from me, drawing up to herself like a snail drawing into its shell, a tiny, fleshless ball of filth and decay wrapped in a dirty woolen rag.
But I knew her eyes. They still shone with that piercing intelligence that had moved me from the first time I set my gaze on her, when I followed her down the hill at Hedra ten years before.
“Do you not know your father?” She said. Her voice was thin and reedy, like wind blowing through dead stalks of grass in a winter field.” Put down your bow, Aon. This is your father, King Pelop.”
I forced my eyes to keep her gaze. I wanted to snatch the boy up and run; just run away and fly into some other world, far from this bewitchment. There was absolute silence, except I could now hear her breathing, a dry, wheezing sound like sand blowing across rock. Aon lowered his bow and stepped back towards her. I pulled myself up and knelt in the mud, looking into Vila’s yes.
She broke the gaze and lowered her eyes and said to the ground, rapidly, as if she wished to get rid of the words as quickly as she could.
“They threw us out. Andros and Brukos. Andros… he…we went into the hills and finally came here. That was six years ago, or seven. I lost count. The priestesses took us in. But I began to get sick a long time ago. The mothers said they could not heal me, that it must be a curse of the Gods. But then others got sick, too Aon, I thought he…. But he got better. Many people died across the whole of Epirus.”
She looked up again at me. I had not looked away. I wanted to reach out and touch her, take her in my arms and hold her.
“I have this thing growing in me. The mothers told me you would come. Ephratae saw you in a vision sent by the Goddess. You would come and take Aon with you. You will do something for the Gods. Something for the people who need the Gods”
There was no point in my saying that this is what the Gods give; disease and death. This is the Gods’ gift to men.
“You must help me, “she whispered.” Aon must go now and you must help me. Then you must go. I have been waiting for you for a long time. I fear not, my love. I only am so tired. You must help me go.”
“But, I cannot.” I said.
She spoke forcefully. “Aon. Go now and wait near the stones below. Wait for your father.”
Aon stood, still as a hunter. Tears rimmed his eyes.
“Please my little one, please go now. I love you and I will see again someday, if it pleases the gods.”
“Momma.” He said. But I could see a steadiness in him. He was wise; he had seen this coming for a long time. He knew the path ahead of him. I was actually there. I doubt he had thought that would really happen. He bent down and kissed his mother’s cloak and rested his small hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then he turned and walked away, as if he had never been there at all.
I had drawn up close to her. She looked me. Her sorrow was like waves washing over me coming from a far place of long storms.
“Do you know why? “ She asked softly” have you found out why we live, why we are born to this suffering?”
I shook my head. “People say they know, but it’s all the same. I have been to the ends of the earth. I have been a slave for the last six years. Only just now have I gained my freedom. I was held in the land between the rivers and then in the land of the pharaoh. I always was coming back to you. We were betrayed by those men in Hedra. They will pay for their treatment of you. “
I paused, then collected myself. Now was no the time for anger. That time would soon have its day. I said, “I have seen men and women do terrible things, and then call on the Gods for help and mercy. But I have found no one who knows why we live and die and suffer. It’s all….it’s just what people want to believe.”
She looked down for a moment and then back up at me, a deepness in her eyes. “I have watched the flowers and trees here in this sacred place. They grow and bloom and then they die and other flowers and trees do the same. It never ends, but it never stays the same either. I fear not what might come. I will die now. And other girls will be born and live and die, until the end of time, if there is such a thing.”
I reached out and gently touched her cloak, brushing it so slightly it might have felt like a breath of wind and nothing more.
“Of all the people in the world, my sweet Vila, you are the wisest one I have known. There are no Gods, or they wouldn’t let this happen and let bad people live and grow old. “
She breathed out, a long sigh.” I am so weary, my Pelop. You must help me now. Give me your knife and put it in my hand.”
I slipped the bone-handled dagger between her bony fingers so that it pointed towards her chest.
“Now, my love, my king. Take good care of your son, our son. I will see you someday, perhaps.”
I held her bony hand in mine and she just leaned forward. The blade entered her as if it were cutting through delicate linen. She collapsed on the point and let out a long low breath mixed with a wet sound and fell into my hands, rolling over, her tiny legs unfolding as she gave up her shade to the gods. She shivered and then her life went out of her and she was still.

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Merlin the Archer: Sodom and Gomorrah


Sodom and Gomorrah

There was an army of sorts standing between us and the city of Gazah. I was gladdened by the reports that Sargon’s armies had quit this region, for no matter how well I had trained my soldiers, our four thousand men would have been no match for the huge armies of Akkad, with their horsemen and phalanxes of armored fighters. The city of Gazah was not much more than few hundred houses spread out along an endless straight stretch of beach, with only a small breakwater harbor. There were fields and palm groves inland for a way, like islands floating in a dune sea. Rows of palms lined the ditches and canals of the settlement. Further inland the land rose up and there were distant hills, the ones I remembered from the trek fro Yeriko. There was a wall around the inner part of the town, but it wasn’t high. The Egyptian ally defenders sent a messenger out at night that brought us word that they were down to their last supplies and arms.
The tribal chief, Malek, had his camp south of the town. I sent a column of a thousand men right along the beach to catch his attention. As I knew he would, he threw his full force of several hundred fighters against our column. Meanwhile, I sent my archers and the One Hundred around to the east in a circling movement. When we had reached as far north as the town we turned and charged suddenly back towards the coast, fell on their exposed flank, and drove them literally into the sea, killing many of them as they retreated into the waves with nowhere left to run. The defenders of Gazah broke down their gates and came out too, taking vengeance on the rebels. I put Malek’s sad, bloodied head put on a stake near the beach. I ordered that a few of the defeated rebels be let go to flee away to the north and east. I wanted news of our coming to spread among the other rebel forces. From Gazah we marched up to Isqalluna, where we drove away another, smaller band. They scattered like leaves before the wind. Lachish we took without a fight. The town opened its gates and welcomed us as liberators. I knew they were just trying to spare themselves. It looked to be an easy campaign.
But locals who had interest in surviving and saw that we had the power to bring peace to the land brought us word that the larger armies were lying away to the east, in the hills towards Yeriko. They said two generals, Cheroboam and Hektmakar, were joined together near a pass that led over towards the lower inland sea. Rumors abounded, for the Kanaanites are superstitious, wild people, easily swayed by lies and tall tales. It was hard to tell what was truth and what was a tall tale. I dismissed the story that there were giants among the rebels, men ten feet tall, who could throw stones a mile. I had heard that kind of rubbish my whole life. But it seemed we did have a more difficult task in front of us. We sent out scouts with certain locals, sheepherders and the like, to get an accurate picture of the hills and valleys ahead. They reported what I already knew fro my flight through this same country, that the coastal plain gave way to rolling hills that became thickly forested steep slopes. An enemy who held the high ground there would be impossible to dislodge. I marched our army straight towards the mountains and came within site of the camp fires and scouts of the forces of Cheroboam and Hektmakar. I knew they watched us from the ridge tops. I had our troops pretend they were coming up into a pass along a clear-running stream, right below the heights held by the rebels, but at the last we turned south and moved swiftly south down a valley that locals told us would take us to lower, more desert passes east towards the inland sea.
We made a fortified camp, ringed with solid lines of defense. I ordered the archers to stand watch in shifts, but told the rest of the men to act normally. I wanted the enemy to think we might be vulnerable and come down out of their mountain lairs so we could engage them on more open ground. But none came. The next day we crossed a low pass that led to a semi-desert plateau of low hills near a village called Hebron. I was undecided as to our course there.
Old man Abraham came to me as I sat at my fire in the company of Finn, Urartu, Sadik and the other leaders of the One Hundred. The crane-like old coot sat down, his arms and legs like sticks now. His age was finally catching up to him. I saw the fire in Urartu’s eyes. Abraham paid him no notice, but flapped his long sleeves and waved out at the darkness.
“This is the land our people, the home my future children have been given until the end of days. We will stay here. Whether you stay or not doesn’t matter. Our Lord will protect us. Pharaoh’s power is weak here. These men out in the hills live here, too. You will never defeat them. The hills are riddled with caves and secret springs. The fighters up other can go on attacking you forever. Return to Egypt.”
I looked sideways at the old man. What he said made sense. But I had a job to do to win my freedom. If I let an undefeated army run off, I would go back the Two Lands in disgrace. I wouldn’t be given my freedom; more likely I would be killed. I secretly feared that Shesut’s marriage to the Pharaoh had put my life in jeopardy as well. If anyone knew of our parting tryst, I was as good as dead. Pepi liked to have monumental depictions carved of him striking down bound prisoners. I had no desire to be among them.
“I must fight these rebels and defeat them. There is no other answer. I will lure them to us and then destroy them. You are free to settle any place you want. There are not so many of you that these hills could not take you in.’
“But, “Abraham said, “The men of the eastern cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and Zoar will move against you, too. They you can defeat, for their towns and holdings are on open ground just to the east, along the shores of the inland sea. They are wicked men, not like the honorable shepards who band together to drive you from their ancestral homeland. The men of Sodom and Gomorrah are city dwellers. They are cowards, who hope the honest hill fighters will do the job of ridding the land of you. Then they will fall on the survivors and take them as slaves or worse. I know these people.”
Abraham looked sad, his usually vibrant spirit suddenly dulled for a moment.
“My nephew, a man named Lot, lives among the wicked men of Sodom. I sent two boys to tell him of a vision that I had of that town being visited by God’s wrath, but I fear he will reject them, and the men of the town like to have boys in unnatural ways.” He was grave. “It is a strange place. The valleys are green and the fields are fertile, but the hills have rents in them which burn with foul smelling fires, and there is brimstone around the inland sea. I foresee a great catastrophe there.”
I had learned that Abraham’s visions were worth paying attention to, though I was more interested in the fires from the ground and the brimstone, which I knew as a yellowish, bad-smelling soft stone. I had seen such places in the hills of western Achaea, where the locals said the smithy of the gods made his bronze swords and helmets for Dyaus and Perunas the Striker. I knew that in such places, the land shakes often and walls fall. Also, in such places, seeresses and priests inhale the deadly vapors of the earth and give their oracles.
“I thank you for your counsel, my friend, “I said to the thin old wraith of a man, “but my course is clear. I must beat these armies or have them at my back. After I have defeated them I will turn my attention to the cities of the inland sea, unless they sue for peace first and make that unnecessary.”
He looked at me with his deep, wise eyes. It looked as if he wanted to try to convince me further, but knew me well enough that he knew it was useless to try. He turned and stalked quietly away like a great stork or crane, but slower than before. After a few steps he looked back and said, “There are caves near here where we will take shelter. Trouble yourself not with us, and thank you for providing us with your safeguard. May the Lord be with you.” he held up his hand in blessing.
I saluted him, hand on chest in the Achaean way, an said, “and with you.” For I couldn’t think of any other response, not being a religious man myself.

We crossed over the desert ridges to the village of Hebron, where we parted company with Abraham and his followers. I saw Urartu standing apart, looking at the ground. Sarai held her head high and wished me luck, and then went with her aged husband and the others towards a large cave in a hillside. We marched away north up though the rolling hills, heading for the Yeriko road, that went through Bet-Lahm, a small village, and staying close enough to the rising ground on our right to take the high ground should be attacked. In the late afternoon on the second day we met the two generals as they led their troops down towards the south from their earlier position. There was an open space between us, but we had the better of it, with some hills to the east and the enemy somewhat below us to the west. We also outnumbered them by a third or so. Theirs was a substantial army, and appeared somewhat disciplined; instead of a rabble, they marched in ranks. I could see that there were many slingers among them, no more than shepard boys. But I knew what damage slings could do. Stones are plentiful and as effective as arrows. I wished to avoid combat, but knew it was a certainty. I decided to take a surprise course and sent the One Hundred rapidly east out of sight behind the hills, where I told them to then turn south at a run and then west, to get completely behind the enemy. I knew the Kanaanites would look for us to try to outflank them to the north and east, from the hills. I played the chance of illogical attack; coming from the unlooked-for quarter.
I also chose to send a first attack right into the setting sun, once again to take them by surprise, since they could easily see us, whereas we could only see their shadows silhouetted in the brilliance of the setting sun.
They must have thought me stupid. They recklessly charged into our feint and we drew back and unloosed our Nubian archers on them, while letting the Kannaanites advance ever further into our center. I ordered the men to keep their shields up against the rain of stones coming from their slingers and archers. I commanded our center to fall completely apart and the rebels charged through our lines. The van of the enemy had easy success and swept forward. They seemed to taste victory and pressed quickly. But they should have known that it was too easy. By the time the rebels had passed through our center Cheroboam and Hektmakar probably had realized the danger of a trap, but for them it was too late. We let a big part of their forces run through us, and then closed ranks, while the One Hundred, who had run up into position, charged out of the setting sun and fell on their rear, causing panic. I had kept back a third of my forces behind a hill and now sent them after the now eastern-fleeing rebels, chasing them into the desert towards the inland sea beyond the arid ridges. The others we obliterated with archery, spears, and battle axes. I wanted to spare some, but they fought too hard, showing no desire for mercy. Against such a foe, death is the only strategy. Better to destroy them than to leave them behind us. They’d only revolt again later. The carnage was terrible on both sides. I finally called our troops back and let the enemy carry the dead and wounded away to minister to them in whatever way they saw fit. We ourselves had lost over two hundred, nearly one of every fifteen men. Hektmakar was killed; Cheroboam escaped northward with his few horsemen. Night fell and across the field you could hear the cries and moans of the wounded as they lay beyond hope on the stones of the desert hills.
In the dawn, we piled up the bodies of the fallen and held a soldier’s simple funeral service, using the battlefield way of mass cremation. Otherwise, disease would spread among us and the people of the valley, whose ill-will toward us needed not be compounded by disease. Our soldiers wanted to leave at once, fearing the unburied spirits of the dead. But I ordered my most loyal Egyptian commander, Ani, to fall south and stay with the main force just north of the village of Hebron, fearing that Cheroboam would once again attack and take control of the strategically important road through the hills. Then I took three hundred mixed spearmen and archers, and my One Hundred, and we turned to the east, following up our earlier force chasing the rather sizable band of rebels who had fled towards the vast valley of the inland sea.
The land quickly became a desolation, a wilderness of dry wadis and cliffs. There were at least a few hundred men ahead of us. We couldn’t let a band of that size go free. Their sign was clear enough on the trackless hills and bluffs. We followed them, at times seeing them in the distance crossing a ridge or coming up the side of the bluff. There was no place of refuge for them or us here, for there was no water at all in this hard desert. We dropped lower and lower, heading ever closer to the inland sea, which seemingly is below the level of the rest of the earth, in a cleft formed by forces unimaginable, yet visible for all to see. It looked as if an axe of the gods had struck the earth and left a deep cut, in which lay the sea. At the end of the day we came to the edge of high cliffs. Our earlier force had stopped there as well and awaited my orders. Combined, we numbered over five hundred. The way ahead led down the cliffs on a steep winding road to the flat lands around the sea, which stretched out before us from north to south, with only a thin strip of land that seemed to separate northern and southern sections of the sea. At the western end of the strip, at the base of the cliff where we now stood, was a large flat-topped bluff a few hundred feet high, like an island in the desert. It was about a mile and a half away. We could see the rebels had climbed to its top and taken up a position that would be impossible to attack.
Beyond the hill lay the strip of the land that led to the other side of the sea-valley. Massive cliffs and ranges of harsh mountains rose in waves beyond the sea. I ordered the men to make a fortified camp and rest. We had marched twenty miles that day after fighting the day before, and though the wounded were back with the main force near Hebron, the men were worn out. We set up watches and through the night we saw the fires that were lit by the rebels on the fortress rock out in the valley.

The sea is a strange, otherworldly place indeed, sunk down in a deep valley below high cliffs and strong, empty ranges. The desert cliffs were not unlike Red Egypt in their bareness, and the valley of the sea, like a less fertile Nile Valley. I knew from before that Yeriko was at the north end of the valley, near where the little river flows into the long sea. Abraham had told me that along the eastern shore of the southern part of the sea were five towns, small cities, of which the two most principal were Sodom and Gomorrah. It was in Sodom that Abraham’s nephew Lot lived. I wondered what had become of the two boys Abraham had sent to Lot, but it was not of my business to attend to, so I put it out of my mind.
In the morning, the rebels still held their place on the bluff.
“We’ll never get them down from there, “said Finn. Urartu and Sadik agreed. I pondered the situation. If we left them there, they would certainly cause trouble down the road. I didn’t know if there was any source of water for them on that rock, but I knew we had only what we carried in our water bags. So we didn’t have the ability to wait them out. I decided that must abandon our position and return to Hebron. We would wait one day here to see if there was any movement, then turn back.
I had sent runners to Hebron to exchange information with Ani, the commander of Nefer-Kah’s householder archers. Strangely, a troop of Egyptians arrived at our camp at dusk. They were not my troops at all. Their commander was a man named Tanisre, who identified himself as being from the Royal Guard. He rode in on a horse, a most strange thing for an Egyptian, for though there are horses in Kanaa, they are rare in the Two Lands, donkeys being the usual steed. Tanisre was a haughty, hawk-face man, short, like many Egyptians. Plainly he was used to command and expected me to regard him as my superior. He came with two hundred fresh spearmen of the Libyan type, broader and more heavy set than the average thin Egyptians. He came to my fire.
I saluted him and asked how he came here, to this desolate place. I had not known of any reinforcements.
“I have been sent by the Lord of the Two Lands, the Black and Red, Horus Incarnate, Pepi the rightful son of Osiris and Isis, to oversee the subjugation of the rebels. I am to take the lead in the campaign.” He said flatly. His servant had brought him a camp stool with three legs, which he sat down on, ignoring the fact that I, the warrior who already had defeated the enemies of the Pharaoh, was still standing. I felt my mountain-man blood surge. I stood over him. I could have struck him down with my dagger right then. His Libyans would have been no match for my battle-hardened fighters. But Finn stood a few feet apart. He stared at me and gave his head the slightest shake. I took a deep breath.
“As my Lord commands, “I said, “But my master Nefer-Kah gives me my orders.”
“Nefer-Kah has given you to the Pharaoh,” said Tanisre in a dismissive way, “you are now under my command. “
There was bustle of commotion among the troops. I saw that Finn, Urartu, Sadik and I were surrounded by Libyans.
“I am in command here now, of all the troops, “he said, “and I am to bring you all before the Living God.”
He waved at his guard-commander, “Bind them!” he said.
I yelled, “What?”
The Libyan commander and some men stepped towards me. My hand went to my dagger. But at that moment two of my soldiers burst forward through the Libyans and threw a man headlong into the dust next to the fire. He was middle aged, somewhat fat, dressed in finer clothes than one would see in the desert hills: a town dweller. Tanisre stood up, and pulled back. The Libyans leveled their spears at me and at the man on the ground. Finn and Urartu had come to my side; Finn held a mace and Urartu his axe.
My soldier looked with surprise at the Libyans and he and his men held their own spears toward them. He seemed unsure what was happening. Tanisre had eased back into the Libyans.
“Speak, Hotep, “I said to my soldier.
Hotep held his gaze on the Libyans and said, “We found this man and several others running up the road from the east. We though they might be rebels.”
The man had pulled himself up from the dust and stood there brushing the dust from his bearded face and his robes in a panicked way. There was a look of absolute terror on his face. He held up his hands as if beseeching the gods.
“The wrath of God is upon us!” he cried out.
And then there was a sound that I had not heard for a long time, a deep rumbling coming from the very depths of the earth itself. It seemed to start from the east and came rolling like an endless herd of thunder-cattle stampeding towards us. The ground began to shake, then to violently jerk back and forth. The rumbling grew louder than any thunder and the rocks shook back and forth. I fell to one knee and steadied myself with my hands on the ground. I suddenly felt as small as an ant, and as powerless. The soldiers all fell, their spears clattering. There were cracking noises as huge pieces of the rimrock broke off from the cliff face and crashed down into the chasm below. Great clouds of dust rose, and the tripod holding the fire fell and sparks flew in a sudden blast of wind. The land was suddenly dark with night and dust. Everywhere men were crying out to the gods for mercy.
Then all at once there was a red light across the valley. What was it? I found my feet and peered into the void. It looked like a gigantic wall of flame was rising, starting from the north and almost instantly spreading south. It was many miles away, yet there could be no doubt. It must be fire. It spread quickly and here and there were huge balls of flame, as if something had suddenly burst into fire. I thought of the smoking islands of the Achaean sea. It was what was called the fire of the gods from under the earth.
Then there was a new sound, coming from far across the valley of the sea; a loud, but distinct cracking noise, as if the very earth was a huge log had being split by the axe of heaven. Then came a deep thudding sound, sharp but heavy, as if mountains them selves had smashed into each other at tremendous speed. We all grabbed our heads. I thought my ears would burst. Truly, this was the vengeance of an angry god. Had anyone ever heard such a sound before? There were three different claps of this earth- bound, mind-shattering thunder. We fell to the ground. The deafening sounds seemed to go on past us like gigantic waves as the ground quaked.
“Don’t look at it! “Shouted the man next to me. In the red light I could see him. He was on his knees, his face in his hands, turned away from the dreadful fires of the underworld. “I am Lot, “he said,” I was told this would happen.”
Then the quaking eased, though the ground still shook. Someone ran up with a torch. My head was racing. Whatever had just happened, I knew one thing: I would not be taken. This was my chance. I pulled my dagger and I turned. “Come with me!” I ordered.
I found Tanisre running in fear into the desert, surrounded by a handful of Libyans. Finn was with me now. I ran through the terrified Libyans and grabbed the Egyptian. I pulled him up to me. I was six inches taller than he was, and outweighed him by plenty. I lifted him almost off the ground and plunged my dagger into his heart. He died quickly, as much from fear as from my mortal thrust, I suspect. I tossed his body on the ground. Other torches appeared. “Kill the Libyans”, roared Finn. The word was spreading of the Libyan’s treachery, and my men, scared as they were by the earthquake and the distant fire, fell upon those that didn’t cry for mercy. I shouted for my men to come to order and fall back to camp, which they did, though in a confused way. Finn and Urartu ran among the men, calming them and ordering them to come to their ranks. “Falcons!” Crocodiles!” Cobras!” Came the shouts of the unit leaders. I ordered that the highest ranking Libyans who yet lived were to be brought to me. I found Lot and a few of his people, including three women and two young boys. They were at the edge of the cliff. Lot was turned away from the fire, though one of the women stood there watching, her face illuminated by the red glow. The flames were astounding. Even at this distance one could see the pillars of fire.
“The cities are destroyed, just as he said,” said the woman.
“Just as who said, “I asked her.
She turned to look at me, “Why, Abraham, of course,” she said calmly.

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Merlin the Archer: Out of Egypt


Out of Egypt

The huge brakka rode easily on the strong current of the broad Nile. My leg had healed and I felt whole, though restless and angry. I had killed my friend Mtombe, but, well, such things happen in war. I had angered Weni the Great General with my contempt, but my prowess in battle and defeat of the enemy had earned me fame and respect in the ranks. In each city we docked in on the way back down to Lower Egypt we were greeted with music-playing crowds of people, who brought us beer and wheat cakes and meats and melons and honey and other sweets produced by the fertile land of the great river. The Nomes greeted us with honors and feasts. We sailed on a fleet of large ships ordinarily used for transporting the huge stones from Senet to the temple and pyramid sites. A favorable wind filed our sails and the river bore us ever closer to Saqqara and the city of Memphis. At long last we came nigh to the entrance to the Shedyet, a large lake full of fish and crocodiles, home of the great temple of Sobek, the crocodile god who had favored our victory, according to the Egyptians. In the distance to the north I could see the bent pyramid of Sneferu, the father of Khufu the great, and beyond, his Red Pyramid. The next day would bring us back to the estates of Nefer-Kah and his daughter Shesut. I thought of her and was filled with a certain dread. Now I was a man of fame; Pelop the Warrior. I might be freed as a gesture to the people, an offering to the great Nine Gods; The Ennead. What might this mean for my future? My combat with Mtombe had destroyed my infatuation with Egyptian life. I longed for the rough freedom and hard, clean life of the Achaean hills. I yearned for my noble and guileless wife Vila and my son Aon.
We docked at Memphis and the army marched up the palm-lined lanes to the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a festive air. Thousands of people thronged the lanes, beating on drums and shaking sistrums, singing their feast-day songs and playing harps. Children ran barefoot among the soldiers, who smiled and didn’t scold their boldness. Men saluted us and women trilled and flirted with their eyes. But this seemed more than just a day for a victory. Sedan chairs with noblemen and women rode on the shoulders of servants; people carried jars of wine and beer and platters of fowl and pigs. The whole populace streamed towards the enclosure of the palace of Pepi. We were just part of the moving tide of humanity; we, The One Hundred, Victors of the Kush War. People began pressing past us. I asked Sadik what was going on. He shrugged, but Ikaron, who had greeted us at the quay said.
“Well, don’t you know, Shesut is to become a Queen of Pepi, a mother of the next Horus. Nefer-Kah has been raised up to vizier. Ask the gods for your lucky day, Pelop; today joy reigns and you may be freed.”
I must say my jaw probably dropped. But it stood to rights that Nefer-Kah would want his daughter to be a Queen, even if Pepi already had three. My dread lifted and I prayed that this was true.
We soon came to the wide space before the palace, with its red-painted columns and giant slanted towers of mud-brick, glazed in sparkling colors and carved with reliefs of the Pharaoh smiting his enemies. I had to laugh darkly to myself. I hadn’t seen him in that wadi facing down Mtombe. But no matter, for the people all served the god-king and nothing happened without the will of the Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, the golden-skinned deity who walked among the people. The palace front had two towers which rose from wide bases to somewhat narrower tops. There was a gate between them flanked by giant statues of the pharaoh as Horus, the Pharaoh as Amon-ra. Colossal sphinxes lined the lane that led to the gate, from which emerged a column of shaved-head priests and many musicians, bearing censors of incense and chanting their homage to the living God. The lesser pyramids rose behind the palace, the chief among them the stepped pyramid of Djoser. A great glittering litter was being born out by dozens of priests and servants. Before it, wearing a dark-blue head-cloth and a gold belt and a wide collar of precious stones and worked silver walked Nefer-Kah, looking almost like a living god himself. Behind him, high atop the litter on a throne rode Pepi the Pharaoh, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of the gods, a god himself, carrying the hook and the flail across his chest and wearing the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. His skin was painted deep red and gold, with brilliant gold traces on his face sharply contrasting with the black kohl outlining his eyes. Nefer –Kah raised hi own scepter, a rolled papyrus, a symbolic deed to his Nome, an emblem of his power, and the noise and movement came to a halt.
He turned and prostrated himself before the God-King, and we followed his example three times. Then he rose and addressed Pepi.
“Oh Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, Lord of the Two Lands, destroyer of enemies, provider for the people, he who traverses the two realms and lives forever, we salute you!” The Pharaoh sat unmoving. This is how he was seen, as a living god, not as a mortal.
“You who in your divine wisdom consults with your father Amon-Ra and the gods of the Ennead, give us your blessing on this day of victory and celebration!” A huge chorus of voices welled up, praising the pharaoh.
Then Nefer-Kah turned and faced the crowd.
“The Lord of the Two Lands has caused the enemies form Kush to fall in the desert dust, their bones to be smashed, their bas to be damned to the darkness of death without the blessing and presence of the living god. He has wasted the enemies of the Two Lands. And now he will strike at the enemies of the north and smite them to death with his wrath and power. Our victorious armies will march on the Kanaanites and destroy them without mercy so they will never again attempt to plague us with their mischief. Thus has spoken the living god, Pepi-Re who sees the fates of the world with his far-seeing eye of Horus.”
A mighty cheer went up fro the immense crowd. Though I had only understood some of the high court language Nefer-Kah had used, the message was plain enough. We would march again to war, this time with the Kannaanites.
My heart leaped. I would be one step closer to the sea, to my freedom. I vowed to escape and sail west at last. I cheered like the rest, waving my bow above my head. But only I knew for what I cheered.

The moon was shining on the stpeed pyramid when I at last returned to the estate of nefer-Kah. The One Hundred, ahd celebrated with the people in the open space before the Pharaoh’s palace. Finn, sdaik, Urartu and the others wandered back drunkenly through the plam trees. There would be wear soon again, but tonight we were free of obligation Finn had plans with a stable gilrl and the others sought pleasure in other places. I headed back to my room. At theback of the palace.
There were two soldiers thre, waiting for me. They took me into the palace proper, through the walled garden to a room lit by oil lkmaps. Nefer-Kah sat at the end of along table, a cup of wine inhis hand. He wore no head cloth. Is hair was white. I had never seen him without head gear. His eyes had been wiped clean of kohl and gold paint. He wore a simple linen kilt and no collar. Without his nobleman’s outfit, he looked like an older man, tired and irritated.
He waved the guards away, pointed at a chair near him and said, “Sit.”
I sat and he poured me a cup from a beaker of wine and pushed it at me. I could see he had been drinking. The wine sloshed over the lip of the cup.
“So, slave-king. My daughter is now a goddess.”
He was angry but he didn’t look at me, rather he stared at an oillamp on the table. I didn’t lnow how he wanted me to respond.
“You think that’s good?” he looked sharply at me, “to have a daughter who’s a goddess?”
I kept my silence.
“You have done well for yourself, for me, “he said,” Win this war . I will consider your freedom.”
“I will do my best, my Lord, “ I said.
“Your best?” he stared into my eyes.” You had better do your best. The Lord of the Two Lands demands it of me that you do your best. Of me!”
He picked up his wine-cup and threw it against the wall, where it shattered in dozens of clay fragments. The red splotch of wine ran down the wall onto the paving stones..
“Me! Without me he wouldn’t be Pharaoh. I helped put him on the throne, and now he takes my daughter to keep me below him. I am now honored, “ his voice grew quiet and spiteful, “ as the father of a goddess. But he is the incarnation of Horus. He is not worthy of it.”
He reached over and took up my cup and drained it.
“I hope she bears him a son who will supplant him. “He said. Then he grinned drunkenly at me. “A son who looks Achaean!” he began laughing crazily and stood and walked out of the room. I stayed there for a few minutes, unsure what to do. He was my master, after all. I wanted to run, but knew I had to pretend all was well. After a while a steward scurried in and without any acknowledgement of any problem escorted me back out through the garden. My heart was racing from the encounter. I knew I could just as easily be killed now as given my freedom. Nefer-Kah had wanted to seize power. That was the reason for building up his army. I would have been the instrument of his strike against Pepi. But he had missed his chance when Weni had brought Pharaoh’s troops in to be trained by me. Now Nefer-Kah’s force was smaller than Weni’s. I had offended Weni with my public contempt of him. Shesut was now going to be the wife of the Pharaoh. There was nothing to hold me to Egypt any longer .My course was clear. If I could only stay alive until I could realize it.
I walked through the moonlight out to where the desert began. The pyramids loomed up, ghostly in the light. I heard a sound behind me and crouched, ready to take cover. Lions and jackals might roam this strip at night. Something was coming towards me, but too loud for an animal. A tall shape appeared, outlined against the dark palms by the moonlight. It was a woman.
“We are safe” She said in a whisper. “I am thought to be in my chambers, preparing for my marriage day tomorrow.”
“Shesut, “I said quietly, “you have always been crazy, but this is the height of madness. Do you wish me killed? The Pharaoh is famous for slowly killing his prisoners in public. Leave me now so that I may live.”
“I had to see you once more, “she sighed. “It is not my wish to be a goddess. But I may be the mother of a god who looks like you if I am so blessed by Isis and Hathor.”
She stepped to me and I could see her breasts, bare in the moonlight. She touched me and I came to life I spite of myself. She slipped her linen gown from her body and laid it on the sand. We fell together with lust, anger, and affection mixed with our blood and tears. We joined together in a moment that made us almost rise above the world, in spiraling upward that would have been envied by the very gods themselves.
We lay together, wet with each other, and the cool evening breeze gently flowed over us like exquisite water.
“My seeress told me that I would conceive of a god-king tonight. She was frightened for me, but I felt glad. Only we will know” the starlight caught her big eyes. They twinkled in the darkness.
Only she would know, for I would not be here. I said nothing, but held her gently in the darkness.

The little steward scuttled over to me from beneath his parasol-carrying servant. I was assembling the One Hundred and the other troops for the war out on the practice fields. Carts and strings of donkeys were there, laden with provisions. The men checked their weapons, sharpening blades, tightening shield –straps, and re-stringing bows. It was business-like, but with the usual pre-campaign blister and good-natured nervous barbs being exchanged between men and between teams as well.
“Don’t bother with your arrows, little Falcons, ‘ one of the Crocodiles yelled across the pitch to an archer” The targets are smaller than hippos, and you won’t be able to hit them anyway!”
“Thank you for your sage advice, Crocodile! I’ll say hello to your wife when I return and you don’t.”
The men laughed. We were to march in the morning and spirits were good. We had proven ourselves in the Kushite war and had bonded as a team. The Nubian archers had shown themselves to be true and good fighters as well, and this time they would going up against foreigners not of their country or race. Nefer-Kah’s army numbered one thousand eight hundred men, the largest single troop in the pharaoh’s army. Other Nomes were contributing, but Weni’s force had stayed south, in Upper Egypt, to keep guard against a further Kushite uprising.
I was to be the leader of the contingent of Nefer-Kah, but I wondered what might happen after the events of the previous night. It had occurred to me that Nefer-Kah had revealed too much of his ambitions to me in his drunken state. It put me danger to know that he coveted the throne. On the other hand, he may have been so drunk that he didn’t fully remember what he had said. I could only wait. Nefer-Kah would ride in the rear, with his household guard, while I would lead the vanguard.
The steward, a weak-looking man with virtually no chin to speak of, bowed obsequiously to me, a form of manners I hated. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and make him look me in the eye.
“Er…” He cleared his throat, “I wish to have words with you in private.”
He cleared his throat again.
We walked a few yards away. “Well, what is it?” I asked. I knew he wouldn’t tell me directly whatever the message was; I’d have to decipher it as usual with Egyptians of the upper servant class.
“Greetings, Achaean. Long life and health to you.”
“And to you, Nehni, “ I said. Patience.
“And the preparations for war go well?” he squinted at me. Sweat dripped from under the edge of his wig. Yet he must have felt it was important to be away from his parasol servant.
“We are ready at our Lord’s command.’ I said.
He looked at the practice field. “ Ah yes, our Lord. He feels not well today.”
I said nothing.
“Well…. our lord had a long day yesterday. I believe he was very tired last night when he called you in.”
“Yes?”
“And well, I believe his memory was affected by the over-exposure to the sun during the long feast of victory.”
“It was a long, but happy day. I slept well last night.” I lied. Shesut and I had parted company at dawn. I had slept for les than two hours. But I was twenty-seven and Nefer-Kah was fifty. “I understand what a tiring day it must have been for our Lord.”
Nehni leaned closer and said in very low voice, “ You may be assured our lord has no memory of his conversation with you. The wine he was serving was strong. I trust your memory is equally impaired/”
“I had too much wine and beer, “I said, “ enough for a hippo.”
We chuckled insincerely together.
“Then it’s not a problem of any kind.’ He said. He turned to walk away, but turned back and said in a low voice.
“A warrior about to go into battle would be wise to sleep early in one’s own quarters with the door string pulled in tonight.”
I looked blankly at him. I needn’t answer that statement.

The next morning we marched, the One Hundred in the van, past the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a balcony between the two gate towers of the palace and the God-King sat on a throne, wearing the red and white double crowns of the Two Lands. As always, he carried the crook and flail, crossed on his chest. He was joined by five women, his Queens, the foremost of whom was the tall and regal Nebwenet. She sat beside Pepi in a slightly lower chair. Behind her were the younger queens, including the new one. Shesut was painted and wigged and sat stock still, looking as remote and god-like as the statues that lined the lanes and stood guard outside the palace. He skin was flecked with gold. I did not try to catch her eye, for a mortal may be killed for staring at a god directly. We saluted as we marched by, to no acknowledgment by the royal party. The whole army followed us, and by the time the Pharaoh and his new bride had retired to the palace rooms, we were long up the road towards Iunu, the city of the Sun-God, Ra. Shesut would remember me, but she was born to be a queen, and now she was.
I Iunu, the city of Ra, I had a surprise that changed the course of the future. Kanaa was till in the grip of the same famine that had chased us from the mountains of Hurria to Haran and then to Kanaa. The bitter drought and lack of food had caused, so we heard, the armies of Sargon of Akkad to withdraw for now to Ugarit in the north and Mari, Ebla, and the other cities of the two rivers in the east, across the wide desert. Bands of starving refugees had come down across the sand-ocean that separated Gazah from the delta of the Nile seeking food. Pharaoh’s priest and accountants managed the food of the Two Lands wisely, and had little to spare for migrating peoples. One such group was to be taken north with the army and settled again in Kanaa after we defeated the warring raiders who were plaguing the northern delta regions. At the head of a large band of refugees was a familiar figure: the tall, skeleton-like Prophet of the One God, Abram, who had now changed his name to Abraham. His wife Sarai had been seen by Pharaoh Pepi and much coveted. In fact it was said that he took her to bed only to discover that she was the wife of the desert seer and not the old man’s sister, as had been claimed. The pharaoh thought it witchcraft and feared he would be cursed, so the whisperers said. The claim wa that spirits had come and warned the Pharaoh to not touch the beautiful Sarai, but turn her free. Superstition. But it worked for Abraham and Sarai this time. How anyone could think that young, beautiful Sarai was the sister of that old walking-stick of a white-haired man was hard to fathom. The story didn’t make sense, but supposedly, Pepi gave Abraham gold, flocks of sheep, and provisions if he would lead his band out of Egypt and back to Kanaa, which Abraham agreed to do. I think Pepi probably wanted to be rid of the crazy old man. Egypt had her gods with their priests and temples and didn’t need a new God , especially one that was all-powerful and could strike down other gods. In any case, he set the wanderers free. Sarai had changed he name to Sarah for some reason, and they had acquired as a gift from Pepi a slave girl called Agar, who was with child. It was said that the child was Abraham’s, which made me laugh, most likely the father was a stable boy or a soldier, or some nobleman, even Pharaoh Pepi, but I suppose it could have been true. Agar was a pretty girl of less than twenty years.
Urartu was beside himself with the discovery that Sarai, now Sarah, was in Iunu and would be traveling with us. He had never gotten beyond his morose lamentations for her lost love. I foresaw trouble and counseled him to stay calm and not engage in any rash actions for now. We were charged with delivering them back to Kanaa, where the band of refugees, the children of the One God, promised to settle down.
I led the army north along the delta road towards Arish. There we would cross the dune lands until we came to Gazah. Several armies of hungry men led by brigands and tribal-chieftains were running wild through the hills and valleys of that land. We were to take Yeriko and the other cities and restore order, then return to Iunu. Abraham and his people were to settle somewhere.
After the first night’s halt I went to the tents of the believers and met the Prophet and his wives, Sarah and Agar. I greeted the old man.
“Hail Abram!” I said cheerfully. For all his strangeness, I had affection for him and his tribe.
“Abraham, “he said solemnly, “I have taken a vow. I have changed my name.”
He sat on a camp-stool, his stork legs folded under him like grey bones.. Sarai was as beautiful as before, but looked a bit worn. Agar was a striking young half-Bedu’ girl with high cheekbones and a thin face, painted in the Egyptian way. She was plainly with child. She crouched on her haunches near the fire and said nothing, but Sarai rose from her pots and greeted me warmly and offered me food as she always had, as if no time had passed since we last parted. She gave me a glance which I couldn’t figure out. I let it pass.
“So you are coming with us to Kanaa. Have you a place that you will settle?” I asked the old man.
“We will go to the fields west of the long river, north of Yeriko. I would go south, but my nephew Lot has taken up with bad people in the lower valley. There is blood between us.”
“So be it, “I said. “My job is to destroy the bandits and armies that ravage the lands. We will get you close to your chosen land. Then you will be on your own.”
“It is not my chosen land; it is Yahweh’s land that he has chosen for my children and their children’s children for the rest of time, until the end of all things.”
More crazy talk. I smiled and thanked Sarai for her hospitality. I walked away from the camp. I noticed after a few minutes that someone was following me as I made my way through the camps of the troops. It was Sarai. I withdrew from the path and waited in a palm grove. The dusk was deep now and she passed me as she followed the rough rail that led to the next encampment of troops. I called to her from the trees.
“Sarai, “I said quietly, “why do you follow me?”
She slipped under the shadows of the palmettos and papyrus reeds. She looked down at the ground. She seemed unable to speak.
“Come now, “I said, “I would honor your hospitality with an answer to any question you have for me. You have nothing to fear from me”
I waited. She looked up and I could see her eyes were tinted with tears. She tried to talk, but broke down sobbing and lightly leaned against me.
“He is here and alive, “I said.” Not a day has passed when he hasn’t thought of you; I can assure you of that. He pines like a love-sick dog. “
I laughed to ease the tension. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to laugh as well. The she turned as fled back through the darkness in the direction of the refugee camp.
I reached the camp of the One Hundred. My men were readying for sleep, rolling out their reed mats on the sandy ground. I found Urartu sitting by himself on the edge of the dunes. He was staring out into the ocean of sand that lay to east.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “May the gods favor you, my friend. But remember, our work comes first. I will need to you to help me finish this war so we can all gain our freedom. Be a good soldier and show discipline. Your time may well come. I have seen her. Trust me, she has not forgotten you.”
He looked up at me. His pain showed on his worn face. It would live I his heart until it was healed, no doubt.

We reached the sea again within a few marches. I smelled its invigorating salt air. How I longed to be sailing away on it. But I turned my attention to the task at hand. There were likely to be raiders in the dunes between Arish and Gazah. Rabble, no doubt, but we would need to maintain our order and show these people our superior force so that they would lose interest in causing trouble. Much trade moved along the coast here to Egypt by land and ship. Pharaoh must be dominant here. The road led through the dunes just miles from the sea. We only encountered a handful of bandits, who fled before our army of over two thousand men, marching in strict formation. At last we came over a rise and looked down on Gazah. There was a garrison there, but it had been much embattled and weakened of late and had to hold the town and nothing else. Isqalluna lay beyond, and the hills of Kanaa lay in jumble to the east. Abraham said the lower valley of the five inland cities were off to the southeast, across the desert. That is where his nephew Lot lived, in the city of Sodom, a well watered valley. Abraham said the main cause of trouble would come from the tribes of that region.
“They are sinful men, who car only for greed and pleasure. No work of theirs will bring happiness. They have left the way of the wanderers of the Lord and live within walled towns and gamble and drink and sleep with each others wives, and with each other. I speak of the men.”
“And what is this, this sin? “ I asked.
“Sin is breaking the covenant with God. That is what the men of that region have done. They have forgotten what I taught them. There will come a reckoning and God will destroy them before you can.”
I didn’t know about The One God and sin. My job was to take on the rabble and bring order and win my freedom. To Sodom and Gomorrah and the other cities I would bring the armies of Pharaoh. Then I would take Yeriko.
Then I would take my freedom.

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Merlin the Archer: The Death of Mtombe


The Death of Mtombe

Before leaving for the campaign to subdue the Sand-People in Kanaa, there were offerings made to many gods. Since I was now such a big part of the proceedings, I was required to attend the offerings and even make my own. It was then that I got my first chance to really spend a few hours at the Great Sphinx.
I been fascinated by this monumental statue since the first time I had seen it. It stood in front of the Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Kaphre’, though Ikaron told me that he thought it was built by the outcast brother of Kaphre’, Dedjefre, who ended up being erased from the King-rolls and whose pyramid was taken down. Its ruins could be seen on a hill to the northwest of the great three.
Whoever built it, and whoever it was meant to represent, for some thought it was Kaphre’ and some thought it was his father Khufu, it was an incredible piece of work, without an equal in the world. It towered over people standing at is base, and the expression on its face seemed to sum up the Egyptian way of life; far-seeing, noble, enigmatic, unfathomable. It was as if it said: Behold, I am Egypt the Great, the eternal. I will be here when all else has fallen. It would certainly outlast the mud-brick ziggurats of Uruk and Ur, of that I had no doubt. The pyramids would survive as well, I was sure. It was still hard for me to accept that these great things were built largely by the people’s faith. But it was so; when the yearly flood returned, as it now was, it being the fall season, the field workers came back and began work on the temples and pyramids anew. Thousands of workers carried stones, chipped rocks smooth, and hauled them into place. I was struck by the cheerfulness of the workers. This tedious, backbreaking work made their lives make sense; this life in the land of milk, honey, beer, and wheat-cakes and mutton and beef, music, and painting. It impressed me, this faith, though I could no sooner make it my own than I could have turned black like Mtombe. But I saw it, how it worked for them, and I resolved to bear that in mind as I found myself in positions of leadership, whatever they may be.
The sistas played their jangly beat and people chanted and played hand drums and harps as the walked in a grand procession from the valley temple next to the Sphinx up the processional way, which was lined with sphinxes larger than oxen and tall statues of gods and Pharaohs, painted with bright colors, to the Pyramid of Kaphre’ and back again. Offerings of food, drink, animals, and incense were made at many altars to many gods in the wondrous temples. The columns holding up the immense stones of the partially open temple roofs were as tall as ten men, and two men across at the base. They were inscribed with paintings of Pharaohs subduing enemies, of people paying tribute to crocodile and hippo-faced gods, and with the picture-like symbols of Egyptian writing. All were painted with brilliant colors. Rays of sunlight filtered down through the openings in the lattice works of giant stone roof lintels and illuminated the clouds of sweet incense smoke that rose from the offering bowls on the altars. The war leaders paid especial attention to the Goddess of War, Sekhmet, and the chief gods Amon and Ra, worshipped as one god. Khnum was thanked for bringing once again the flood that replenished the soil of the valley.
The cattle count had been taken by the Pharaoh’s scribes and tallied. Priests announced the bountiful totals and people rejoiced. Children were everywhere underfoot as always, their heads adorned with the side-lock that was left after shaving most of their heads. Donkeys carried load of sticks and fodder for the ever-present cattle. Now that the harvest was over, People were back from the summer plantations along the river banks and crowded into the permanent mud-brick apartments above the level of the flood. It was as if there one vast city that stretched down the sides of the river as far one could see. Truly, if this nation deiced to conquer others, there would be no way of stopping it; there were so many people, so much wealth. But with their settled life, Egyptians were not overly inclined to war.
But there were threats to peace that had to be dealt with, and chief among them there were the tribes that the Egyptians called the Sand-People. I knew them as Kannaanites. The pharaoh had influence as far away as Isqalluna and Gazah, where I had been captured. The people of that region were restless and eager for the plenty of Egypt. Southern Kanaa was dry like Egypt but without the Nile to bring it bounty. The Sand People were hungry and jealous, and men of the first condition are dangerous and of the second are easily prodded. Sargon had been pushing the local leaders of the kannaanites to make trouble in the Pharaoh’s lands. They had recently sacked the city of Gazah, killing the nomarch of the province. It was said that the Akkadians had withdrawn from southern Kanaa, but were still in the north.
The other threat was similar, but lay far to the south, beyond the great falls of the Nile and the island of Elephantine’. There the warriors of Kush, the black kingdom, had staged raids against the prosperous towns of Upper Egypt. That was Weni’s territory; he was nomarch of the far upper river. Weni had backed Pepi in his quest for the throne and the Pharaoh owed him a debt and indeed, depended on Weni for his continued rulership of the Two Kingdoms. A council of war was called by Pepi.
The war leaders assembled in Nefer-Kah’s palace. Servants had to sweep the lanes to prepare for the arrival of the god-king and his court. Offerings were made for the house gods and fragrant incense was burned to purify the air for the Pharaoh. There over forty men. When all were seated, Weni stood and addressed us, bowing and saluting the Pharaoh.
“O Pharaoh Pepi, destroyer of enemies, god of the two kingdoms, Son of Re’ the sun-god, beloved of Amon, life, health, and strength be with you! By your leave we have assembled the war-leaders, made offerings to Sekhmet and Horus and Mighty Khnum. I wish to tell you of two grave threats to the Two Kingdoms and ask for your divine wisdom on these matters.”
Ikaron was whispering the translation of the high Egyptian to me. Weni went on speaking for some time about the sand-People and the Kushites. Pepi sat unmoving. His face was painted in a light gloss of gold that extended down his beck and shoulders. He looked very much like a living god. He carried a golden mace in his right hand, no doubt as a symbol of his mighty power to smite his enemies. When at long last Weni ended his harangue, the warlord sat down and waited.
After period of silence Pepi said commandingly, “I have made offerings to Sekhmet and Horus and Might Amon-ra. The priests have read the omens and have chosen that we shall destroy the Kushite invaders at once. When they have been crushed, then we shall return here and lay waste to the Sand-People. Both things will be settled in our favor, according to the will of the gods. I have spoken.”
With that, he stood, and we stood and saluted him as he left the chamber. Nefer-Kah came up to me smiling broadly.
“Congratulations, Achaean! You are to play a leading role in this campaign away south.”
“Yes, my lord, “I said, ‘and you will lead our troops yourself?”
“No, I am to stay here with the infantry to maintain the northern border until the Kushites are beaten down. You will take the archers and your One Hundred. Do well, Pelop the Achaean, and the Pharaoh may choose have me set you free.”
I bowed deeply. My heart skipped a short beat. I had not expected to hear these long wished-for words so soon. “I am honored to have served so far, and will give my all to this war, to further serve you.” Somehow I felt an implied threat when he said ‘do well’. If I didn’t do well, what then? There was no reading Nefer-Kah. He revealed nothing he didn’t want revealed.
“You seem to get what you want, Achaean.” He said. He gave me a look that conveyed something yet more. I pretended not to notice.”You will do well and win your freedom, I would wager.”
He went off to talk with other warlords. Ikaron said very quietly.” This was all decided before today. I would watch my back if I were you. Your secret is known by more people than you would wish. Our lord plays his pieces without showing his future moves.”
I looked at him. He lowered his eyes and glanced around the chamber. Men talked in groups, discussing plans.
“Did you think such a thing would not be known?” asked Ikaron. “The palace is a small place, and our Lord is no fool.”
I felt a tightening of my gut, but showed no outward sign.
“Thank you, I know this is a risk for you.”
“You are the one at risk. Do well in your war, my friend.”

The war did go well. I went with other commanders, mostly Egyptians of the Upper Kingdom, who had journeyed with Weni to court and now returned to settle things with the invading Kushites. There was one other man, who said he was from Troja, a city near the great inland sea of the north. His name was Dardanos.
“My mother was Macedoi, “he said in a strange but understandable dialect of Achaean, “so I speak your tongue. I come from city that is called great, though it is but a hill-town compared to all this.” He waved his hands at the shore. We were sailing and rowing upstream, along the bank, where the current eddies back on itself and the flow of the Nile is not as swift. We were passing a large town compete with a great temple complex and a small pyramid. “The walls of my city are almost a mile around, “he said, “and yet our people are usually hungry. The Hattusans raid us and steal our cattle and women. The Macedoi and Thrakoi torment us with sea-raids.”
“How did you come to this land? “I asked.
“I came on a ship carrying rare stones, amber, malachite, wine and olive oil, and the like. I caught a fever and was left behind. After many adventures I ended up in Swenet, the city ruled by Weni at Elephantine’ island, and there I have stayed, as a guard for our Lord Weni. Life is good here.”
“It is good,” I said, “and yet I find myself yearning for home, or for the place I called home. My first home was in snowy mountains far to the north. But that was a lifetime ago.” I told him of my own adventures as we sailed. He was a spearman and swordsman. Dardanos and I soon became fast friends.
The troops were somewhere, marching along the river. They had set out weeks ahead of our departure. I had attempted to stay away from Shesut, but she still found me, and I gave in to her temptations.
“My love, “she whispered as we stole a tryst under the winter moon.” How will I live without you?”
I couldn’t answer. My own feelings were confused. I had tried to keep my plan alive of getting freed and returning to Vila and Aon. But time had passed and Egypt had me in its sway. I had fallen ever more in love with the peaceful life of the warm valley and the silence of the dune sea, the silhouettes of the great pyramids at sunset, the lowing of the cattle and the beat of the sista. Shesut was a fine match for me in many ways, if I could only be freed. I had to live through this war and succeed for my Lords and masters. If I did, then I would have choices. Obviously Nefer-Kah thought of me as valuable enough to allow me to dally with his daughter, who after, all was no child, but rather a spoiled noblewoman with her own mind and opinions. Should I be freed, I would no doubt have to become his vassal and marry her, in the way of the Nile people. There was no ceremony, but living together made a contract taken seriously be all concerned. But I might leave, for I felt the call of the sea and my homelands.
“Love me now, my princess!” I tried to put a light face on her solemn declaration.” The arrows of the Kushites are deadly. They say they use poison on the tips!” I grabbed her and pulled her to me. She was supple and warm and moved with me in a way that would have pleased the gods.
Shesut cried when I left. She sank to her knees and her tears ran black down her cheeks from her kohl. I knelt by her and lifted her face with my hands.
“Don’t cry, my princess of the Nile. I will be back. Make an offering to Isis to protect me.” I knew she was a follower of the goddess wife of Osiris.

Dardanos and I played at Trojan dice on the deck. It was cunning game, which I never failed to lose. I swore he was cheating me, but he said it was because he worshipped Tur, the thunder god of the Hattusans, who is known to love games of chance. Weni and the other Egyptians enjoyed our bouts, and laughed heartily at my expense, though in truth we played for fun and the wagers were those of slaves, not noblemen. The Egyptians played endlessly at Senet, a game played on a rectangular box marked with squares, in which pieces are moved by throwing sticks and counting the numbers revealed by the throws. There was wine and food aplenty on board. The weather was cool and pleasant, it being winter now. If I had not known we were going to almost certain war, I would have thought the whole thing a pleasure cruise.
The journey took three weeks, for the Nile is a long river that winds in great curves between distant desert ranges. Sometimes the valley was so wide one couldn’t see the desert beyond the fields, date-palm groves, and flood marshes. At other times the river was squeezed between sandy cliffs. Temples and towns dotted the river’s edge. Fishermen plied the waters with nets in small boats, some of them reed boats like the ones of the marsh-people of Sumer. We went past Tentyra, Edfu’, Nubt, and other cities, both large and small, and came at long last to the upper reaches of the Upper Kingdom. Here the cultivated lands only occupied a narrow strip on each side of the river, and the bluffs stood like temples of the sand–gods. We had to be more on our guard, since between the Egyptians settlements there were Nubian raiders. We saw them sometimes, looking down from the cliffs. They were black-skinned, and I thought of Mtombe and wondered if he had escaped all this way. It seemed impossible, for it was a month’s march from Saqqara, and he would have had to hide and travel secretly by night not to have been caught. Of course, after he had traveled half the length of the Nile he could have ended up in a small village and made up some story about coming from the south instead of from the north, for there were other blacks in the endless valley working alongside the lighter-skinned and thinner-nosed Egyptians. I didn’t imagine I would encounter him again.
The timing was almost right. We reached Swenet and Elephantine’ island two days after the troops who had marched from the north. In addition to my archers, led by Urartu and Finn, there were levies from Tentyra, Edfu’, Nubt, and the City of Amon. With the garrison at Swenet, the total came to over five thousand men, though not all would be used in battle. It seemed strange to me, a veteran of Sargon’s armies of forty thousand, but this was a large army for Egypt. There simply weren’t enough enemies to warrant a larger force. The Kushites probably were no more than two thousand, and those in scattered bands of raiders. Still, it was said that they had new leader, and he had rallied the Nubians of the further lands to his name. I shivered when I heard it: Mtombe the Lion. I wondered if Mtombe was a common name in Kush. No one could tell me. The Kushites had been raiding along the borders, and had driven out many Egyptian farmers from the upper river. Weni told us that it was not important, but that they needed to be taught a lesson to keep them from coming into both Pilak and Swenet, for it was there, below the first great falls of the Nile, that Egypt began, or opened, as they said. Above the cataracts, as they were called, regular boat traffic was impossible. Only below the first one was river commerce with the Lower Kingdom possible.
And many things came down the river to Memphis, even giant cut stones for pyramids and temples in huge ships. The Nile is wide and even, without rapids, and ships can both sail and be rowed upstream and down at most times, except in the extremes of flood, when it is a little more work. The desert stretched out to the east and west as far anyone knew. There were rocky highlands far off, but they were not visited by the river people. Why should they leave their fertile fields for desolation? The fields were still green above the cataract, and that is where the Kushite would come from. Scouts said that Mtombe the Lion’s army was camped not twenty miles south, on a bluff of the east side of the river.
“We will train the infantry of the cities in the ways of your force, “he told me through Dardanos.” In two weeks time we will go and meet them.”
Weni put us up in barracks of the usual mud-brick huts. The regular troop slept out , for there was not enough room to billet this many men. I slept out with my archers and the One Hundred. I would suffer the same fate as they did. It cheered them to see me among them. Weni’s men respected their leader, but even more, they feared him. His hand was swift to punish and it bred resentment in some, especially the Nubian archers. I asked that my archers go into battle and that Nubians be left to guard Swenet, along with irregular forces conscripted from the cities of the Upper Kingdom. I wanted to have a smaller disciplined force than a large rabble. I thought about the enemy. If it was indeed Mtombe leading them, they would also be trained, at least somewhat, in the Akkadian ways of war. I pondered strategies with Dardanos, Urartu, Sadik, and Finn.
“If I trusted the Nubian archers, I would send them around the Kushites and have them attack from the rear, then come upon them from the front and engage them from both sides. But I don’t trust the Nubians to not switch sides.”
“They have sworn loyalty to Pharaoh and Lord Weni.” Dardanos said.
I eyed him warily. He was Weni’s man, and though he seemed to be my friend, perhaps he was Weni’s spy as well. I had to be careful.
“A lion rules the jackal until the Lion is not around. Then the jackal does as he pleases.”
Dardanos shrugged. “The Lion is stronger and call always kill the jackal.” He replied.
“Unless the all the jackals join together.” I said.

Once the training was well under way, I left it in Urartu and Finn’s hands and went of south with Dardanos, Finn, Urartu, and five Egyptian guards from Weni’s personal guard. We left before dawn and rode on donkeys, a most uncomfortable experience, for fifteen miles or so, before leaving the donkeys in a wadi in the charge of the Egyptian soldiers and going on on foot. We carried bows and wore rags the color of the sands. We stayed far to the east of the river, back in the harsh hills. We had only enough water with us to go and get back again by nightfall. I guessed by scanning the terrain where the camp might be and we found it before too long. It was down in a canyon that opened on the river. We crept along the canyon rim until we could get a good look, but we went with extreme caution. There might well be lookouts. We came to a spot where a side canyon spilt the rim and crawled on our bellies to the edge and looked over, using thorn bushes as our cover.
I was encouraged. It looked like a cattle-raiding camp; a few hundred men lay about near cook-fires. There was no visible sense of order. I imagined they would fight that way, too; a wild charge with fast results for our side. Except for their black skins, they looked largely identical to our army with their loin cloths and simple head cloths. They did have bigger shields, seemingly of cattle –hide, elongated to over more of their bodies. This caused me some concern; I hoped our volleys of arrows would find their mark and not be deflected by their large shields. Never underestimate an enemy. I had done that before, and gotten beaten and captured. I had no desire to be a slave of such savage-looking men. I wanted to be a free man this time. I could see piles of shit everywhere in their camp and I thought, well that’s one thing I haven’t tolerated since Ugarit, back when I king of the slaves. My men shat in tranches I had them dig, and covered it afterwards. There was no sign of Mtombe, or anyone else that looked important. Maybe there was no way to tell in their Kingdom.
I looked over at Dardanos and signaled to pull back. We drew back slowly from the rim and crept along until we were well back from the rim. Then we sprinted towards where we had left our donkeys. I had a strategy in mind that would easily defeat the Kushites. If we could march fast enough to take them by surprise, we could pin them down with arrow-fire from the rim and finish them off with a frontal assault from the river with organized infantry. It would be no harder than killing off a nest of vipers.
We came over a ridge to where the donkeys and the soldiers were waiting. Or so we thought. They were gone. I instinctively held up and grabbed Dardanos’ arm to stop him. Urartu was behind us and pulled up from his run. But Finn charged ahead down into the wide and deep wadi, wildly looking about. The other three of us got back under a ledge and waited. An arrow whistled through the still air and skittered off the rocks near Finn’s feet, then another. The next one hit him in the thigh and he fell, grasping it. Then he got up began to run down the wadi, in the direction of the river. He had dropped his bow and limped as best he could. Arrows were flying from the ridge across from us. I drew an arrow back and waited for moment until I saw a man rise up. I loosed my shot and it flew close to its mark.
“Let’s go, “I hissed.
We ran out from under the ledge and down the wadi, staying apart to keep from being one big target. There was a line of boulders a hundred lengths ahead and we made for it. Finn got there at the same time. He had broken off the arrow so he could run, and the tip stuck out through his thigh. It wasn’t serious.
“They just missed your ass, “I said. He grinned back, despite his pain. I said, “We’ve got to get to higher ground. Up that ravine!”
We ran up the little ravine. If there were Kushites up there, we were dead, but we’d be dead if we stayed here, too, as soon they would get high ground on us and cut us down. When we made the top, we found no one. Bu then we heard the sound of war-cries. Running towards us along the rim of the wadi were at least fifty men, waving spears and shooting arrows.
“Run!” I yelled. The ground was open before us and we ran for the river. There was no place with cover from which to shoot, and there were too many of them anyway. Arrows whizzed by us and skipped off the ground to fly out over the rim. Finn stumbled and fell as we crossed a narrow, steep-sided wadi. I pulled him up. Urartu and Dardanos knelt at the top of the draw, and shot back at the fast-approaching Kushites. Then we ran again. I could see the edge of the cliff above the river coming up, just few hundred lengths ahead. There was an outcropping of rocks along the rim and we got down behind it and shot the rest of our arrows, taking out a dozen warriors. But there were still thirty. I looked down the cliff face. It was fifty feet straight down and then there was a slope of another hundred feet or more of rubble and sand.
“Jump!” I said. Urartu shook his head. But Finn turned and just leaped off the rim. We watched him fall and hit the slope below. He tumbled end over end almost all the way to the bottom, and lay there , not moving. There wasn’t time for any further indecision. I grabbed Urartu’s arm and pulled him over the edge and fell with him. I hit the slope hard, but managed to go head over heels five or six times and come to a stop. I was but scratched and bruised, knew I wasn’t seriously hurt. Dardanos came down as well. Urartu groaned; he had twisted his ankle badly. The river was only fifty feet away. Finn stirred in the sand. Dardanos and I grabbed him and half dragged him to the water. Urartu came limping up.
“Go! Swim! Hurry!” There were reeds growing thickly along the backs, as everywhere on the Nile. I looked up and saw the Kushites on the rim above us. Arrows whistled through the reeds. The water was deep enough for us to get our heads down and swim along the edge of the reeds. Finn was losing strength. Blood poured from his wound. But he still managed to keep up and we swam downstream, keeping to the edge of the reeds. I kept waiting for the Kushites to appear at the water’s edge, but they didn’t follow us. There must not have been a good way down nearby.
We swam and floated away downstream for the rest of the daylight. The going was agonizingly slow. Finn and Urartu were hurt and we expected to be attacked at close range at any moment. Plus, there were hippos and crocodiles in the river. We only made maybe three miles before dark. Once we floated slowly without moving our legs and arms as we passed a large group of hippos not forty lengths away. These huge water-pigs were the most dangerous animal in the Nile, though the big crocodiles could easily kill and eat a man. It was another ten or twelve back to Pilak and Swenet. In the very last of the twilight, we swam to the far aide of the river and made our way onto dry land. Finn and Urartu needed to rest. Finn was pale from loss of blood and his leg was hurting him, and Urartu’s ankle was swollen out and turning black.
“The camp needs to be warned, “I whispered.
“You go,” said Dardanos. “We’ll stay hidden and I’ll keep watch while these two rest up a bit, then we’ll come after.” I nodded. I had had the good fortune to retrieve two arrows from the water that had been shot by the Kushites. I still had my bow, strung across my back. I set out under the starry night and half walked and half ran down the riverbank. Twice I came up on things moving in the dark. But whatever they were, they moved off. Probably jackals or gazelles. I came to a bend in the river that I remembered. A point stuck out from the west side of the river, where I was, and a matching protruding point lay downstream on the east side. I waded in and let the current sweep me down a way and then swam until I made the east bank. Here, the cliffs were further back and there were some cultivated fields. I heard something moving in the palm thicket above the bank. I could make out the sound of an animal eating grass, tearing it out with strong teeth. I caught a silhouette of it for a moment. I stood up. It was one of our donkeys. Its halter still trailed rope. I caught it and threw my leg over its back. It obediently headed home, down the riverbank.
It was dawn when I finally rode into the camp. Sadik, my Bedu soldier was waiting for me on the trail.
“You are safe, master Pelop. But where are the others?”
“Urartu, Finn, and Dardanos are ten miles back, on the west bank. Two are wounded. We must send a troop to bring them back, but they must travel on the west shore. The camp of the Kushites is beyond there on the east side, and they saw us. Did no Egyptians return?”
Sadik shook his head.
I went to my little lean-to and slept. I woke to the sound of shouting and commotion. Donkeys were braying and men were calling out I confusion.
I grabbed my bow and ran to the edge of the camp. Just a half-mile away, I could see a squadron of our solders, and the figures of Finn and Dardanos and Urartu with them, riding on donkeys. They were racing to reach the camp.
For behind them, streaming down in unorganized waves were there warriors of Kush. They came down the side of a big rocky hill, whooping and shouting. They carried their big shields, flat on the bottom, and pointed on top. Spearmen ran ahead of archers. They had come over a ridge and now the Kushite army appeared on the ridgeline. In the center was a warrior wearing bright colors, blue and white. He wore a crown that looked like the white crown of Upper Egypt, pointed and tall. He rode a white donkey. His skin was black, as was that of his warriors. He was surrounded by a body of spearmen who chanted something and pounded their spears –butts into the ground. Silence fell and the Kushites stood their ground. There came a loud, clear battle call. I thought it must be from the leader or someone close to him. I couldn’t; understand the words. But the whole Kushite force shouted back an answer of six or seven syllables. The man called out again, and the warriors roared back. And a third time. Then many drummers began to pound out a beat, and I could hear high-pitched nasal-hornpipes blowing. The force slowly came at us, except for the front of spearmen and archers. They came running, screaming out curses and taunts in their own tongue.
Weni had come up and calmly he called out the orders to our men. I organized my troops under their team banners. I called for our sistrum players and drummer s to match the martial music of the Kushites. We formed our ranks, Spearmen in front, archers behind. Weni’s infantry was three deep of spearmen. His Nubian archers he held back. He didn’t call for their arrows to be given out. I ordered Sadik and the One Hundred to gather on the right flank. The troop with Finn, Urartu, and Dardanos reached our lines safely. Dardanos grabbed his helmet, a Trojan one with a white horse-hair tuft on top and boars teeth on the sides. Finn and Urartu retreated to the rear, too wounded to fight.
We slowly moved out from the camp. The Kushite shock troops were a few hundred yard away, just out of bowshot, dressed only in head bands, their long wild hair hanging down in filthy, matted locks, calling and taunting, jabbing their spears in the air. Our ranks advanced as they were taught, row upon row, each one kneeling with spears fixed while another passed through to kneel with their spears fixed. I looked from the right flank down our lines and was pleased. But I hoped that Weni’s men would hold and not charge until the time was right. Kushite warriors ran out within bow range and challenged us, exposing themselves to our arrows. I picked out one, a brazen fellow with yellow plumes stuck in his hair. He ran naked within a hundred lengths, and grabbed his cock and waved it at us, laughing. I loosed and arrow and hit him right through the chest. He twisted to the side and fell, spitting blood and landing in a heap..
Now a larger band of Kushites ran forward yelling their war-cries, coming well within range. Their spearmen came first and dropped down on one knee, the flat bottoms of the shields on the ground and the pointed tops providing v-shaped openings for archers to fire from. I was similar to our formations, but their shields were more effective, since they made a solid wall with their flat bottoms. Our round shields didn’t provide as much protection. I vowed to copy their shields in the future. They rained down a long volley on our ranks, causing many casualties. I could see the impatience of the infantry to charge and wipe out the ragged Kushites. But Weni held them back. He waved my flank up, and my spear-and archer battalion edged forward. We pushed their vanguard into the center, and I left them exposed to a charge from our right, since I had the One Hundred in reserve, hidden in the marsh at the riverbank. If The Kushite attempted to flank us, The One Hundred would fall on their flank and they would be caught in a pincer between my prepared troops and the One Hundred.
I saw that we needed to stay back and not allow ourselves to get drawn up onto the slopes on the hills, where the Kushites would have the higher ground, so we held back and halted our lines. The Kushites vanguard looked confused. They ran up and down our line, shooting arrows and taunting. It was a standoff, but one that favored us, since we were basically invincible. If they wanted to hurt us, they’d have to try to outflank us and in that way change our battle plan.
That is what happened. As I had expected, there was a sudden charge down the hill by a rabble of spearmen onto our right flank, where we had drawn in to face the center. Since their center was now in disarray and had suffered some losses, I had the back lines switch directions, and so we were ready when the Kushite warriors reached us. I fell back and joined the On Hundred, down along the riverbank, hidden in the reeds and scrub-brush. I watched as the Kushites attacked along the back of our line, but finding it prepared for their onslaught, they looked somewhat confused. They were not organized anyway. At that point, I led the charge out of the reeds and into their rear. They were caught by surprise and panicked. Looking across the lines, I could see that their leader had ordered his center to charge again into our ranks, trying to attack from both sides. But we made quick work of their outflanked warriors. Soon they were running for their lives, and when their center pressed in on our lines, we were able to turn our full attention on them, plus Weni’s center now fell on the Kushite center from the other flank and it became a rout. Weni had called up the Nubian archers, who could plainly see which side would be victorious. They were given arrows and began firing volleys into the Kushites, who threw down their weapons and retreated under their big shields. Now Weni’s left flank , held until now in reserve, ran at full strength towards the ridgeline. The Kushites fled the field and we followed eager to give the death blow to the rebel army. Within minutes we had the ridgeline. The leader was riding away on his white pony, his bodyguard around him. I rallied the One Hundred and we ran after them. We caught them near the next wadi. We had them pinned down, for if they tried to climb out the far side of the dry watercourse, we could simply cut them down with arrows. They hid behind the low rim rock of the wadi and shot back.
Then I saw the leader making a break for it, further up the wadi. I ran behind our lines with my bow until I was even with him. He turned and I was able to see his face. It was certain. It was Mtombe. I had him dead to rights. I had only to loose my arrow. He saw me as well. We stared at each other for a moment, not longer than a few seconds. Then I lowered my bow and he ran over the next ridge and was gone.
We destroyed the main part of the Kushite threat that day, killing over four hundred of them. They would be no match for a strong garrison from now on, until they could build up another army. That wouldn’t happen again for a couple of years. Weni was very pleased and offered sacrifices to all the temples of Swenet, Pilak, and Elephantine’ Island. Amon-Ra, Horus, Sekhmet, Khnemu, Sobek the Crocodile God, and Isis and Osiris, plus a host of other gods whose names ran together in my mind, were celebrated and made sacrifice to. We hadn’t had too many casualties, though we would have to recruit new men for every team. Finn was livid that he had missed the fight. His Northmen companions gloated over the number of their kills. Urartu could barely walk and was going to need a long recovery away from battle.
We sent an expeditionary force up the river for forty miles and fought two other smaller groups. Mtombe wasn’t among the dead.
Weni called me in. “This Mtombe. I heard you had him within shot.”
He looked at me with his brows drawn down, trying to look commanding.
“Yes, “I said, “I let him live.”
“Why?” He looked hard at me. I knew I had gone too far.
I held my head up and stared back at him. “I owe him my life. He was my companion in the waste lands and mountains when I escaped from the wrath of Sargon of Akkad. Without him I would not have lived. ”
He looked at his camp table. There was pitcher of wine and two cups. He poured one for me and for himself and offered it to me. “I see.” A life debt was serious enough for Weni acknowledge. “Can you bring him a treaty from the Pharaoh?”
“What kind of treaty?”
“The Lord of the Two Lands demands that the men of Kush cease fighting and also bring five hundred Ri of tribute every year.”
“He is a proud man. I doubt he would submit. He’d rather lose his head.”
“So be it. If no treaty, then it will be his head.”
“He might well take mine.”
“The Pharaoh who reigns as Horus, son of Osiris, might take yours as well, if you fail to do this.”
“And if I am able?”
“Then perhaps your master and the Lord of the Two Lands might look favorably on you.”

I thought it was a fair deal. I should have killed Mtombe when I had the shot. That was my duty to my Lords. Weni was a powerful man, perhaps second only to Pepi himself. My master Nefer-Kah was strong, but only as a nomarch. And though his nome was in the scared precinct of the Great Pyramids, the real power of the Two Lands lay in the great bend of Kena and Tentyra and in Upper Egypt; in Abdju and Niwt-Rst and Swenet. Many Lords of the Two Lands had come from here. Nefer-Kah had to follow Weni’s lead. And I had to bring in the word of my old friend Mtombe that he would not fight any longer, but submit to Pharaoh and give tribute. Or my own head would be forfeit.
I picked out ten men from my One Hundred, including Sadik and two Nubian archers. I left Finn and Urartu to tend to their wounds.
“Lead the One Hundred,” I told them,” if I should not return. And find a way to get your freedom.”
We rode on donkeys, bearing only small rations and no gifts. My life was in the balance, but for his sake, Mtombe had to know he could not win. It was in his interest to make a deal with Weni and withdraw from the Egyptian lands. I wouldn’t be able to promise Mtombe that Weni’s word would not be broken. That’s just the way it was. I was a slave; Mtombe a rebel. The lords of Egypt held the power.
We rode south, unopposed by any rebels, along the east bank and came to the camp of the Kushites. It was abandoned, the fires long cold. We pressed on, following the tracks of the retreating army of rebels. We traveled for three days, until we came to a bluff overlooking the Nile. If we pressed on any further our rations would run out before we got back to Senet. This was as far as we could come. The Kushites were nowhere to be seen. I pondered my decision. I couldn’t go back. I dismounted and ordered them to return without me. I took my bow and two quivers of arrows, a short sword, and a water bag and some wheat-cakes in a goat-skin bag. My men reluctantly turned and left me there alone. I watched them disappear back over the ridges that led north. Then I went down with long, sliding strides down the steep, rock and sand face of the bluff until I reached the river. Ahead of me about a mile were cliffs that rose above the south side of a large, dry wadi that met the Nile from the higher lands of the east. After some time, I came to the dry stream bed. It was pure sand, white almost as snow. The cliffs were white, too, and I thought this was the kind of stone the great pyramids were faced with. I had to squint to keep the glare from blinding me. I peered across the wide wadi and saw a figure of a single black warrior standing on the sand facing me. It was Mtombe.
I approached slowly. He held a bow in his hand; an arrow nocked and ready. He grinned, his white teeth mirroring the brilliant sands.
“Stop there, old friend, “he said, “This is no longer Pharaoh’s land.”
“He doesn’t want the land. He wants peace.”
“Peace? He wants to kill us off with his fish-eating dog soldiers and have them starve and rape our women. He wants to cut our children’s throats and eat our cattle and goats. You know me Achaean, I’m like you. I don’t believe in god-kings.” He spat on the sand three times to keep the spirits from cursing his blasphemy.
“It’s about power, Mtombe, “I said. The Pharaoh and Weni have an army you can’t beat. Better to submit and pay some tribute and live in peace.”
“Each season the Egyptians come further and further up into our country, taking the good fields, killing the game. We will stand here and fight and die.”
I looked at him. He was proud. I admired him, the way he stood there, free and strong. But I knew my course.
“I am to bring your word or your head. Or I lose mine. Give me your word. I will plead your case.”
“You are blind, King Pelop of the slaves. The lords of the two lands are merciless when it comes to us. I will not submit. They would only break their word and kill more of us and take more land.”
We stood there in the glaring sunlight, silent for a moment.
Then he said, “Come with us. Together we could drive these power mad dogs from the river. There are beautiful women of our color that would prize you!”
He had been slowly raising his bow as he talked. He did it casually, as if just adjusting his arms. I stepped quickly to my left and raised and shot first, hitting him in the left shoulder. He grabbed at it, and I took that second to shoot another arrow into his neck. He fell backwards, clutching at the shafts, blood staining his hand and arms and chest. I ran to him and stood over him.
“I am sorry, Mtombe, my friend. But you gave me no choice.”
“You will not escape. My warriors are coming for you now” he gasped. Already his life force was seeping away with the blood that marked the white sand. No one was coming yet.
“By the gods, “he whispered, ‘finish it. I forgive…”
His head fell back and he gave up his shade. I quickly cut off his head, sawing through the neck bones with my bronze knife. I put the bloody, dripping monstrosity in my goat- skin bag and turned and ran back toward the cliffs on the south side of the wadi. Then I heard them. As I gained the scrub below the cliffs, I glanced back and saw at least a dozen warriors running after me. I climbed a narrow cleft in the cliff, gained the open ground at the top, and ran hard across the rocks and sand. Several ravines drained the bench, and I crossed them at a run, pausing to catch my breath once behind a section of rim rock. I saw them coming. My tracks were as plain as the bright day. My best bet was the river, but when I came to the next ravine, I saw that the bedrock was exposed and I suddenly turned and went up the wadi, taking care to step only on rock. I climbed relentlessly up away from the river into the stone hills. There was a maze of wadis and cliffs there and I reached a higher level of rim rock, backed by even higher cliffs, on the next level above of the first bench above the river. Peering back down from momentary hiding spots, I could see the warriors slow down and search for my traces. Most of them ran down towards the river, but three came up the wadi. I pressed onward, staying to the rocks, and traveled some miles along the rim, which in some places was only as wide as footpath, with a sheer drop- off of over a hundred feet and equal heights of unscalable cliffs above.. The hours went by and sun finally lowered in the sky. From a hiding place I saw two warriors still following. They were some distance back now, but they searched the ground carefully as they came, conferring with each other. I lost track of the third, and that made me worried. I could kill these two, but where was the other?
A large ravine cut into the cliffs a few hundred lengths ahead. It was open to anyone looking up from down below. I would have to find a way to cross it without being seen. I found a good vantage point behind a boulder and watched the two men climbing up to this level. I decide to take them out and wait for the third warrior to show himself. I waited until they had gained the rim rocks. They were close, only forty lengths way. I carefully stuck three arrows into the sand at my feet and nocked one. Then, when I reckoned they were close, I stepped out and shot the one who was further back. He cried out, and when his companion turned for second to see I hit him with two quick arrows. I figured them to be dead or dying, or at least to be too wounded to follow me, and I turned and ran forward again, heading for the ravine. I looked to see a way down and took my eyes off where I was running for a brief moment and suddenly I lost my footing and fell sideways, scraping my ankle badly, but I felt it was not broken. I pulled my leg up with my hands and craned my neck to see the cut on the back of my ankle. To my right I heard the sound of small rocks falling over the rim. I spun my head around and looked up into the face a thin, young black man. He raised his bow, a big grin on his face. I knew I was a dead man, at last. Strangely, it didn’t matter that much. I had come so close so many other times; I didn’t now why I wasn’t dead already.
But his shot didn’t come, for an arrow point came bursting through his chest and he dropped his bow to grab at the shaft. He spasmed forward as another arrow hit him from behind. He staggered, his eyes glazed, slipped, and toppled over the edge of the rim and fell out of sight. I heard his body thump once, and dust rose from where he had fallen. Down the rim a short distance was Sadik, sporting a wide smile. He rushed up to me.
“We disobeyed your orders, my master. Let’s go.”
He helped me to my feet. I was in pain, but my blood was racing and I was able to walk. The Nubians and the other men were waiting at the base of the line of cliffs. We rode away as fast as the donkeys could carry us. The weight of Mtombe’s head in the bag was a burden, and I gave it to one of the men to carry. As I passed it to him I saw Mtombe’s eyes were still open and I turned my gaze away.

By the time we reached Senet and the camp of the army, I was starting to feel feverish. I hadn’t paid attention to a minor wound on my leg and it had turned ugly; red, black, and blue, with pus crusting along a three inch gash. I had other nicks and many bruises, but one gets used to that in war. I rode on the donkey, my head hanging down. Sadik walked alongside me and caught me twice when I almost fell off the animal’s back in my stupor. My head swam, and I felt the weight of Mtombe’s severed head, in the bag tied to the saddle, bumping rhythmically on my thigh as we walked along. It smelled terrible, like the ghastly thing it was, and made my stomach turn. I knew I was part way to the land of shades myself and would likely die if I was not tended to soon with healing herbs and rest.
My heart was heavy and angry with the pain of having to kill my friend, a man who meant much more to me than any of these Egyptians. I felt revulsion for their smug arrogance, their easy way of life. I thought of Vila for the first time in months. She must be dead by now, or another man’s wife. She must believe I was dead after these years of being gone. There would be little likelihood that any tales of Pelop the Slave King would have reached the faraway mountains of the western lands and tiny Hedra on the olive- groved ridges overlooking the wind-blown straits. In my fever it all seemed like a dream, a vision, something I could barely remember, lost in a pearly sea mist mixed with the golden dust of the endless deserts of Sumer and Egypt, with blood and death.
When we reached the camp, a large group of soldiers came forth, silently lining the way. I rode my little donkey to the pavilion of Weni. He sat in the shade underneath the tent-flap on a fine chair made with carved wooden wings for arms and a high back. He wore a yellow head cloth and a freshly-pleated linen kilt. I stayed on the donkey’s back, holding on with one hand to its meager mane to keep myself from falling off, and reached into the bag and pulled out Mtombe’s stinking head. Flies had been at it for three days now. The eyes were black and red with crusted, dried blood and stared lifeless at eternity. I held it out at arm’s length by the hair for all to see and then tossed it in the dust, where it rolled like a child’s ball near the feet of the Great Commander of the army of the Two Lands.
“Here’s his head, “I said.” Is it not a thing of beauty? He didn’t like the terms.”
Weni said nothing, but just looked at me blankly. Then the world spun and I fell off the donkey into the dirt.

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