Merlin the Archer, part 8: The Bulls of Karpatha

The Karpathans were quite open and gentle, or so it seemed. They left us to wander on our word that we would not escape. The palace girls were free with their affections and quite pretty and well skilled in the arts of love. The men were content. I resisted their easy advances, since it had only been a few weeks since I had left the side of my Vila and our son. But I had no cause for complaint for the moment, especially as the west winds continued to blow too hard to let any boats out anyway, at least those headed west. Still, I felt a queasy uneasiness. I couldn’t get word of Herakul. All I was given were giggles and polite refusals to even talk one word about him.
But one lady of the palace was quite taken with me. She was a young, black-tressed girl of seventeen named Dalea, a handmaiden of Pasifa. One night she came, wrapped in a dark robe that covered most of her face, to my quarters and woke me. She put her finger to her lips to sing me to be silent and waved her other hand for me to follow her in the dimly lit hall. She led me through a maze of almost pitch-black tunnels and damp, narrow, stone- walled ways under the palace until I got quite confused. Without her to lead me through this warren of storerooms and dark doorways, I would have been lost trying to return, though I pride myself on my sense of direction.
After dozens of twists and turns and ups and downs, she turned, and in the darkness I could make out that she was silencing me sternly again, knotting her brows to show me how important it was that we not make a sound, and then she bent down and led me through a tiny square hole near the base of a wall and then on our hands and knees into a shallow, earth-floored crawl-space whose further end light filtered. It was barred with a low lattice-work through which we could peer without being seen. Though the light beyond the lattice was only that a few small torches and tapers, it seemed as bright as day after the dream-like darkness of the tunnels.
We seemed to be under some steps or a balcony of some sort; feet were scraping and moving right above our heads. The earth was dank and smelled like piss and cow dung. We peered through into a dim hall lit by low torches. A low wall bent around the oval-shaped open space beyond the lattice-work. The enclosed space was perhaps twenty paces across. Above the wall were three rows of benches, upon which sat two dozen or more cloaked figures. I figured them to be women by their size, though Karpathans are small in stature, and I could not be sure. Six priestesses, bare-bosomed as always, wearing the customary long, pleated flounces, twirled around the floor of the room, humming a repeating chant under their breath. In the center of the ring, there was a cleverly carved hollow wooden cow, whose hind-quarters were slightly raised. I nearly gasped out loud when I saw that there was a priestess nestled inside the open belly of this artificial cow. She held onto to a pair of short horns with her little painted hands, but her rear was shoved up into the open back of the wooden cow. Her legs were parted and she stood strongly with her feet planted in the earth of the ring. The dancers increased their tempo and volume. They spun and circled the offering cow-woman.
A gate swung open and two older priestesses, hauling strongly on ropes, dragged out of a doorway what looked like a half-man- half-bull, towards the painted cow. The huge, naked man, who staggered as if drunk, was wearing the mask-head of a great bull over his own head and was fully aroused. I knew at once it was Herakul. As the chanting grew in intensity, he was led to the wooden cow, placed his hands on the painted hindquarters and mounted the cow, and thus, the priestess inside. The chanting became trilling. The dancers banged rhythmically of tambourines. To one drunk or under the spell of a witch’s potion, it would have appeared that two strange god- animals coupled in great ecstasy. Both participants groaned with pleasure, the priestess crying out and Herakul roaring like the man-beast he appeared to be. The bull-man had his way with the offering until he was spent. Only then did the priestess release her tight grip on the short horns and slump forward. To my horror and surprise, I saw it was Pasifa. So the rumors were true in a sense: the queen did prefer animals to men. But this was the real truth of that story. I knew it could only be Herakul behind the mask. The bull-man seemed dazed, and I thought the witches must have given him a potion for endurance and madness.
Another priestess slipped into the offering cow, and soon the drunken man- Minotaur was aroused once again and the act was repeated. After this spectacle madness was repeated yet again, Dalea tugged on my arm and pulled me back from the lattice-work. We slithered on the cold earth back through the hole and into the darkness of the tunnels. She silently led us back through the labyrinth and to my chamber. When we were safely behind closed doors, she whispered tersely, “Don’t you see? You will be the next Minotaur. As each is used up, he is sacrificed to the Goddess. The priestesses have a magic elixir of the Egyptian lotus that makes the one they call the Minotaur mad with lust and able to perform until it kills him.” She looked down, coyly, but then serious. “Even if you don’t want me, for whatever reason, I still would see you escape that fate.”
“But why do you not follow this practice yourself?” I asked.
“I am from the land of the east called Kanaa. We do not follow the old ways of this goddess there. We worship Ea and Inanna and Astarte and Enlil. The bull sacrifice is sacred to Awa and Pozdaeon of the westerners. I am a slave who has lived freely enough in this land, but I fear for you.”
I took her hands in mine and thanked her, valuing her sacrifice for her love and her fearlessness of blind religion, and it ended up that night that we held each other, for I found her sweet and she swore that would not covet me, but only wanted to remember me. I thought of Vila, but a warrior far from home is used to such nights. Strangely, I was less than fully aroused after witnessing Herakul’s bull act, though as she was fully in the spirit, I did my best.
Before the dawn we wound our way back through the maze until we came again to the bull ring. I asked her to leave me by myself and she let her hands slip slowly and resignedly from mine and turned away, back into the maze. All was quiet. I found an open space in the lattice that lead out among the columned terraces, shining ghostly under the last of the pale moon. There was a light of a small fire in a grove beyond the buildings. I approached with stealth and saw Herakul, bloody, the bull head now removed, lying flat on his back, his long hair trailing in the blood of sacrifice over the edges of a huge, flat stone block in the center of a circle of gnarled, ancient trees. A fire burned low on a tripod. He looked to be dead. No one seemed to be there. I crept forward and touched him on the arm. To my surprise, he groaned and rolled his head to the side.
“Herakul! Scryonas!” I hissed. “Get up or die!”
He slowly sat up and began to mumble something, but I clapped my hand over his mouth and grabbed his shoulder. His eyes showed dull recognition.
“Come on, “I whispered, “to the harbor.”
I managed to get him to his feet. Though he was covered in blood, it didn’t seem to come from wounds of his; he seemed outwardly unharmed, except for the soreness caused by the combat of his bestial coupling. The blood must have been from animal sacrifices. I held him up with my shoulder and we hobbled off through the trees in the direction of the shore. It was chilly in the dawn and before too long he recovered enough of his senses to walk on his own. I told him what Dalea had said.
“By Perunas, Pelop! These witches and their brews!”
He held his manhood gingerly and grimaced. ” They scraped me raw. Worse, I can’t remember it!”
I had to laugh at my big friend’s sense of humor. Herakul could always make fun of himself, no matter what the circumstance.
It was fully light when we reached the port. We hid ourselves in some low bushes above the beach. There were a small boats tethered to the stone piers. No fishermen had been venturing out in the incessant wind. We made a dash for one that had a sail and oars, and quickly rowed out into the waving sea. The west wind was still blowing, though it was less this dawn it would rise to a gale later, to judge from the other days. I raised the sail and we were free.
I looked back at the low hill of Knossos, where the first light of the Karpathan sun god and his fiery chariot was tinting the wide stone terraces a rose color, and thanked Dalea with my heart. I hoped she wouldn’t suffer from our escape.
We passed a point and sailed on to the east as the seas rose around us. There was little shelter on this coast for many miles. It was tricky, but we were both good sailors and Herakul had recovered his senses and his strength, and I felt free, knowing that we should be able to make the last point and turn south into protected waters and even cross to the land of the lotus eaters in sand-land and then coast our way back west, eventually to Hedra and Vila and my son. Herakul had other plans, but was happy to go on adventuring with me for now.
He sat in the stern, manhandling the sweep, and mused. “They say there’s a land far beyond the pillars of the sea that mark the gate to the great ocean. They say it’s a green land, where the people paint themselves blue, and stones fly through the air by themselves.” He had a faraway look in his eyes.
“And do they have boars that walk up and eat out of your hand, and gods that have the sense to leave men alone with their scheming?” I laughed.
“Pelop, my little King, you had better watch angering the gods!” He bellowed at me. But I splashed him with a wavelet caught on the tip of and oar and laughed again.
“Men and women made the Gods, not the other way ’round, “I said.” Everywhere I go there are new gods, or people have given new names to things that seem should be godly. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s from a god. It’s mostly an excuse for greed and murder; that’s what I see.”
“Well, little King Pelop, you may be right, but you’d better keep your mouth shut around people. They’ll make a fine quick sacrifice of you, unbeliever.”
“And claim the gods demanded it!”
Herakul spat for luck, letting three big gobs drip down his beard in the time-honored way.” I agree there many bad priests and priestesses, but still, can’t be too careful.”

We coasted on the gale from two whole days and nights, staying far from the rock-bound shore with its dangerous current-swept islets and barren cliffs. The hills inland were lower as we went further east. The big mountain of Karpatha to the west, which looks not unlike a giant man or recumbent god sleeping on his side if one imagines it, sank under the sky. We passed one small hill-palace that looked not unlike a miniature Knossos, but the winds swept us swiftly by. We passed point after stormy point.
There finally came at dawn on the third day a row of low headlands, three in number, which barred our way. North lay two small islands, rocky and bare like the mainland. We sailed between the straits, racing past whirlpools and mounds of rising water from the churning depths, and looked away south. The coastline on our right hand stretched away almost back to the west again. Beyond this last headland we came into the lee of the land and the relentless wind died down to a more manageable breeze. We gave ourselves a little cheer and swung the boat south. We passed a couple of fine small coves with a few strange trees growing inland among the tumbled rocks of the dry shore.
“Date-Palms, like Egypt “said Herakul, “I’ve eaten the sweet fruit and seen those branches at market in Tirina.”
We were very hungry and debated about landing but since the morning was fine and it felt good to sail for the moment without having to deal with the gale, we decided to go on a bit further. A large headland loomed up. We thought there must be a big beach beyond it. We came slowly up on the point, for we hadn’t lost all caution. What we saw made us drop the sail and row backwards as fast as we could.
There was indeed a long beach around the point, and a perfect harbor with lush palm groves. But pulled up on the beach and riding at anchor were dozens of long warships with black sails. We could hear the clamor of hundreds of warriors and sailors, the ring of metal on metal. We pulled in under a cliff, climbed partway up the face of it and onto a small ledge under the overhanging cliff still above us, and peered around the corner. The soldiers were of a kind I had never seen. They were dark-skinned, with tight curly beards. They wore cone-shaped leather helmets and carried long spears and strange back-curved bows. Some of them carried maces tipped with bronze stars. Many wore red cloaks. Their leaders were barking a harsh language I’d never heard before. Other men, naked or wearing only loin cloths, dragged cargoes on the beach sands. They were obviously slaves doing the bidding of their warlike masters.
A shower of pebbles began to rain down us from the cliffs and suddenly the voices were right above us on the cliff face, screaming like crows. We looked up and saw a group of warriors, some with drawn bows and some with long spears. They dropped and clambered down the rocks toward the little flat place on which we stood. We backed up, but therewas no place to run. They had cut us off from our boat. Without a word, Herakul leaped forward and dove into the clear, deep water and sank out of sight in the masses of underwater rocks and waving seaweed. The warriors were furious and came at me. I just put my hand up and said nothing. One warrior stepped up and hit me across the side of face with his mace. Jarred by the blow, I fell backward and the last thing I felt was my head slamming into the rocks.

I came out of a confusing dream. Slowly I realized my face was flat on hard sand. I felt my hands in an all-too familiar position: bound tightly behind my back, tied to my ankles, hobbled. I felt a wound burning on my forehead. The sun was beating down mercilessly on it. I tried to roll over off my stomach onto my side. Each time I nearly righted myself I toppled back over, getting more sand in my eyes and nostrils. Flies buzzed around my head wound and my eyes. I desperately needed a drink of water. My eyes began to focus in the brilliant light and saw that there was a man, an Achaean to look at him, sitting cross legged a few feet away from me. He was wearing a rag of a once-fine tunic. His beard was turning gray and he wore an eye patch. He was smiling, like he had won a wager and was gloating.
“He’s alive, “he said to someone I couldn’t see, “He’s moving again. I told you.”
I couldn’t manage speech yet. The man leaned slightly towards me and whispered, “Let me give you a hint, my friend, “he glanced around to make sure he wasn’t spotted speaking to me, “Don’t let on you’re hurt. Don’t yell or make bad faces. You must act noble.” He paused, and then stuck out his hand.
”Or you’ll get this!” he whispered.
His little finger was a warped stump. “But that’s not the worst of it. Who needs a little finger? If you cry out when they cut that off, this is what you’ll get!”
And with that he lifted his eye patch to reveal a ragged, pus-dripping, red slit, raw skin and scabs.” I keep my mouth shut now, lad.” He poked at me with his bony fingers.
The he spoke again, quietly but with contempt in his voice. ”You don’t know me, But I know who you are; yes!” he almost spat it out. “You sacked us at Kerkryon. My kin died there. Did you enjoy the booty? My sister, only fourteen summers, was taken! Did you enjoy her?” he glowered at me.
“War is war, “I muttered, “I took no women except the queen, who came with me by choice.”
“After you had killed her King with your long bow, Pelop the Archer. War is war and shit is shit. Well, your fame and royalty won’t mean much to these fine warriors. To them, we are just dogs, pigs, rats, worse than beasts. They are Akkadians. They live in a vast city in the land of the great rivers, far beyond Kanaa and Hattu and Egypt itself. The Ziggurat of Enlil is as tall as mountain! This is the fleet of the Lu-Gal-Banda, the God on Earth, Sargon of Akkad. .” He slammed his hand flat down into the sand. Then he went on, more calmly.” You will be judged by your worth, by what you can do. If you can really fight, really build, maybe they’ll let you live, though they’ll cut off your hand if you steal a crust of bread or a look at their women – and their women are beauties, let me tell you! Truly, we men of these regions can’t do much compared to these city-dwellers of Sumer. Their Kingdoms go back two thousand years, to the time of the great flood of Utu-Napishtm! Back to the great lawgivers and Gilgamesh himself.”
“And what do you do that they keep you alive? “ I said, craning my neck to look him in the eye.
“Me? I sing tales of the old ones in their language – in many languages. The Empire of Sargon has many peoples in it. It doesn’t keep them from cutting me down to size, piece by piece!” Now he laughed at the irony.
There were dozens of other captives and slaves, most in rags and injured in some way or another. We were just under the edge of the great palm trees, but the hot sun was still beating down on us. Finally a guard came and cut loose my bonds and shouted something at me. I squinted up at the man, who was silhouetted by the blazing sun. I didn’t know what he was saying, though it didn’t sound good. My eye-patched friend spoke up.
“He says for you to get up and go with him.” My friend spoke to the guard, who grunted back. “I’m coming too, to translate.”
I crabbed with my tight legs through the hot sand to a black tent that was open to the north, away from the sun. The flaps were up on the corners, letting a cooling breeze blow through. Three curly-bearded men sat on low cushions .They were smoking something in a curious device made of a large bowl with a narrow opening at the top. Long reeds stuck in the opening and smoke came through them. The vessel made a bubbling sound like water in a brook. The three men eyed us coldly. Through my interpreter the one on the right asked me who I was, and who my companion was, the one who had swum away.
I saw no advantage in lying, and couldn’t have figured out a lie that would have worked in any case, so I told him my name and who I was. I did mention that my companion was a servant at arms, one Scryonas of Makedoi, a man who was a capable warrior.
“And you, little man, what are your talents?” Said the man in the middle. He had a most imposing beard with luxurious curls. His hair was black, framing his shining, oiled olive skin, and it was bound and plaited as well as was his beard. His eyes were dark and penetrating, but unfathomable, like a falcon’s. His eyebrows almost met above his long hooked nose. His presence was commanding; ruthless and condescending, but not without humor.
“I a passing shot with a bow, “I said. My new friend, who had introduced himself to the men as Anarkos of Messene, told them in their language.
“We’ll see,” said the falcon warrior.
He stood and we followed as he walked out on the beach. He had a bow brought, one of the recurve bows. I had never tried that kind, but I felt I could find the shot if I was given a chance. I held the bow lightly in my hands, feeling its balance. The arrows we long and true, with good feathers. The point was a fine flint. He turned to his guards, who carried the same bows, arrows already nocked.” Shoot him if he makes a move.” I couldn’t understand the words, but the meaning was obvious.
I looked at him as if to say, what target?
He gazed down the beach. There was an older man, no doubt a slave, carrying a bundle on his head. The weight made him hunch over. Even at a hundred paces anyone could see he was struggling. The man barked an order and smiled at me.
I glanced at Anarkos, who whispered, “kill that one!”
“What’s in the bundle?” I said quietly as I raised the bow.
“Only the gods know,” answered Anarkos.
I drew, took quick aim as always, and let the arrow fly. It sped in the familiar low arch and went halfway through the bundle, knocking it off the old man’s shoulders in the process. The old man fell and scrambled to his knees, unsure of what had happened.
I turned to look at Falcon Warrior and smiled. “I missed.” I said.
He was glowering, but without looking at me he growled out another order in his guttural language, all full of achs and haws.
Anarkos said, “Shoot that bird.” A gull wheeled about the surf line, dipping and gliding, skimming the water, rising up and then diving. I made my play and the gull suddenly spun sideways and tried to fly away, but its wing had my arrow sticking through it. My second arrow severed its neck and the bird fell into the shallow waves. Several warriors had gathered around as this was happening and some rattled their polished metal wrist-guards on their shields in approval. Falcon Man looked at me, shrugged, and then turned quickly away and made a hand sign of dismissal.
The slave camp acknowledged me with sideways glances of approval when I returned to my place at the edge of the palm trees, and Anarkos was almost giddy from this display of my shooting talent, whispering excitedly of my shots to the slaves who had not seen the brief test of my skill. They tittered among themselves in a half-dozen dialects, pointing at me and gesturing with signs the meanings of which could only guess at. I off-handedly cautioned them about getting too high-spirited. We were, after all, simply war captives with no current way to escape. When the sun was setting, I was summoned along with Anarkos back to the tent, where this time, there was only Falcon Man, still puffing on his bubble-pipe. He offered a reed to me. I had never smoked anything before; it’s not the custom where I’ve come from. It produced a heady sensation at first, like strong wine. He spoke at length, in a measured way, not as commanding as earlier, yet still as a king would speak to a subject. Then he settled down in his cushion and puffed.
Anarkos said, “This is Lord Lipit-Sin of the great city of Lagash on Ea’s River. He is a general of the Living God on the Earth Sargon of Akkad. Sargon is the most powerful of all the kings of the all the long lists. Under his banners, all of Sumer and the surrounding lands and peoples, limitless in number, have been brought together in a mighty empire. Sargon is yet young and wishes to spend his life on earth conquering his enemies and bringing all the people of the known world under his benevolent wings and stewardship, so they might serve the Great God Ea. Lord Lipit-Sin will let you live and bring you to serve the Lu-Gal-Banda Sargon. In any case, you are his captive and must serve. But you could achieve such honor such as a barbarian can attain.” Anarkos added quietly, “This is unusual,” and arched his one remaining eyebrow.
Lipit-Sin opened his eyes and launched into another, though shorter ramble. Anarkos waited until he was done and then said, “The Lu-gal has decided to make war on the Pharaoh and his lands, in order to cast down the false gods of Egypt and honor Ea, Enlil, Inanna and the other true gods of the land between the Rivers.”
Lipit Sin beamed munificently.
I had the wit to nod and bow at this news. I thanked him for his kindness, carefully not saying I wished to take on this role. Lipit-Sin stared at me. I couldn’t judge his face. He waved me away and the audience was concluded and the guards took me and Anarkos back to the slave camp. It was growing dark in the shadows of the thick, clustered palms. There were guards around small fires at intervals around the slave camp; a fire here, a fire there, but the camp extended back into the palm grove for a ways. I lay and waited until the last light had faded from the cloudless sky and all was as still as it would be, and then I began crawling toward the deeper darkness on the thickest part of the grove. I slid by measures, a foot further, a yard, and then I would lie still and wait. The other captives and slaves were huddled in their rags in clots of two or three or four in the gloom. They scarcely acknowledged my slow passing. At last I made it beyond the last of the guards. Ahead were tangled thickets of thorn bushes and who knew what else. I figured I had a chance to out run the armored guards in the dark if I kept my wits about me. Once I was free I would run deep into the hills. I pictured Vila and Aon waiting for me back home. I got set to get on all fours and slip into the bushes.
Suddenly there was a loud crashing and crunching of the trees and bushes right in front of me. I heard something roaring like a wild beast that has been trapped. There were many voices as well; harsh cries in the foreign tongue of Lipit-Sin and the others. Something or someone, I fancied it to be akin to one of the hill-boars of Hedra, broke through the wall of bushes right before me, and I scrambled to the side, trying not to get caught in the melee. It was a huge person, who got to his feet and spun around. I found myself looking right up in the palest starlight at the face of Herakul, who also saw me in the same moment. Herakul beamed.
“I found you! I’ve come to rescue you!” Just then, a large troop of spearmen emerged from the darkness, ringing us in.
“A good rescue.” I said.

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