Merlin the Archer, part 9: Slave of Sargon of Akkad


    There was no more talk of hiring on with the Akkadians as a mercenary. I was now, along with my foolish and deeply chagrined friend the great King of Tirana, Herakul, he who was blessed by the goddess and gods, chained to the galleys as an oar-slave. And we were no longer going back to Achaea. We were sailing due east, with the strong west winds driving the black -prowed ships before the white-capped waves.

My heart sank as I thought of Vila and my son. How long would they be able to hold out against the combined strong families? Andros and Brukos and the others would supplant them, claiming I was no doubt dead. Vila would be fortunate to live, and our son’s life would be in the gravest danger from the families. It truly always had been; only my presence had held it all together. I hoped Vila would flee. Where? North, east, somewhere. Seek protection of a temple of the goddess, become a priestess, take a vow of chastity, raise our boy within the precinct walls, in a fragile safety from the flint daggers and copper axes of assassins.

The twelve lashes I had taken from the whip of Lipit-Sin had not hurt any worse than my anger at my own judgment, but I couldn’t stay angry at Herakul for long. The big man was just not that bright, but he had a good heart. Still, if he hadn’t come to try to rescue me, I would have gotten away, most likely. Eventually I would have found a way back across the seas to the free lands. Now there was nothing but uncertainty. The slaves, who came from all corners of the world and spoke a confusing babble of tongues, said we were heading back to Kanaa, and then would join with Sargon’s army and fleet at the great fortress of Ugarit, on the coast. There, the Emperor was assembling the greatest army in the history of the world to march against Pharaoh in Egypt. War had never been made been made between Akkad and Egypt since the dawn of time. But Sargon was the greatest king in Sumer and Akkad’s history, which they reckoned as going back countless generations to the time of the great flood of the north, which made the inland ocean called the Black Sea. The slaves told fabulous and unbelievable tales of the lands to the east. They said there were towers and even mountains made by people, or some said by gods, which reached to the clouds. In Egypt, these mountains, called the pyramids in our tongue, were the biggest buildings in the world. In the land between the Rivers, the land of Uruk, Lagash, Ur, and Sargon’s new city, Akkade, there were pyramids called ziggurats that rose above the flat desert plains, where vast systems of canals carried water from the distant mountains to dry fields and made them flower all year long. There were vessels made of glass and gold, and the kings had their drinks cooled with mountain ice, brought by slaves who ran all the way from the high snow peaks. Kings and Queens didn’t touch the earth, but were carried about in special chairs made of inlaid wood. It was said that the gods themselves came down to the tops of the ziggurats in winged chariots and slept with the temple priestesses.

This last thing made me laugh, for now. I was used to so many tall tales told by ignorant people. It seemed that almost everyone wanted desperately to believe in this nonsense. Perhaps that was the key to the success of the priesthood and the gods and goddesses. People believed because they couldn’t understand the world, and didn’t want to try. I felt a little sorry for them, but on the other hand, I couldn’t fall for all this dung. It was just more of the same. But I felt I was the only one who saw things this way, so I shut my mouth. My foremost thought was still how to escape. I counted the days of sailing, noted islands we passed, watched the currents and winds and all else. I would know the way back home when the time came. I would find a way to get free and I would come back to Vila and Aon and save them, if it took me the rest of my life.

It took nine days to reach Copper Island, called in Achaean Cypros. This island was large, though not the length of Karpatha. It was in the control of both Sargon and the long-established mining families. There were ships from everywhere there. Heavy ingots of smelted copper, shaped like small oxhides that could easily be carried by two men, were loaded on the ships. Woe be to the boat that ran into bad winds while carrying that load. A wrecked copper ship would soon sink forever into the dark seas among the rocky islands of the coasts. We pressed on and soon crossed to Ugarit.

Herakul, as always, made a name for himself for his size and strength, as well as for his gregariousness. Even though we were now slaves, he carried himself well. He rowed with the power of three men and he kept our spirits up with his banter about our captors.

“I’ve seen roosters with bigger balls,” he joked in Achaean, talking about the captain of the ship’s guards, a small, wiry man dressed in flashy red robes and shiny show-armor with earrings and ribbons tied in his long hair. The remark was passed along, being translated in the rowing benches into twelve different languages. It finally made its way somehow to the soldiers, some of whom laughed themselves. But the captain glowered at Herakul. Still, no action was taken against Herakul, for the captain didn’t want to lose a prize bull like him.

There was another huge man, a Hattusan, who was as slow-witted as an ox. Anarkos, rowing six benches away said loudly he didn’t think Herakul could take him. This was a prod, guaranteed to goad Herakul into making a challenge in return. There was quite an uproar over the prospect and the captain shouted for order. His soldiers lashed out at three men to quiet them. When the cause was reported to the captain, he called out, “Very well.  Tonight we’ll settle it.”
At dusk, when the winds were light and steady, Herakul and the Hattusan were unbound and taken to the back deck. The soldiers oiled them, barrels and bales were rolled out of the way, and the two glared at each other across the planks. The captain and his guard, their bets made, stood back, but with spears at the ready. Herakul and the Hattusan, called Niku, circled each other. Niku dove at Herakul’s knees, but he sidestepped that move and boxed Niku’s ears with a powerful fist. Then Herakul kicked, but Niki warded it off and caught Herakul by the leg and they went down in a writhing, punching, biting, and flailing heap. The oarsmen, me included, stood at our benches and cheered them on, shouting encouragement, laughing, and groaning as the match swung first in one’s favor, then in the other’s. There seemed to be no winner forthcoming from the titanic struggle, until at last they broke free and stood, crouched over, a few feet from each other, sweating and panting. Blood oozed from a dozen small cuts and scrapes. The Hattusan’s eye was swollen and Herakul’s nose bled. But then he laughed loud and charged in again. This time knocked Niku backwards against the thwarts and the Hattusan’s breath wheezed out of him. Herakul caught Niku’s face in his huge hand and raised his fist to administer the last blow. But then he laughed again and let his fist drop. At that moment, Niku kneed Herakul in the balls. Herakul’s face went red for a second. Then he grabbed the giant Hattusan in his hands, lifted him right over his head, and threw him into the sea.

The men cheered, fists raised. The soldiers used long hook poles to grab Niku before he could float away and dragged him back on board, though it took four of them to heft what Herakul had done by himself.

This was one of the events that led to Herakul’s enhanced reputation. As the years went by, that story would spread, along with the others, until Herakul was as famous as Sargon himself.

 

The shore of Kanaa came into view. It was a wide plain with gradual mountains inland, rising above a hazy sky. On the plain was a low hill topped with a giant fortress. Its summit was topped by a stepped building taller than any I’d ever seen. Plainly, this was a city beyond the scale of any of Achaea or Karpatha. Little did I know then what lay ahead.

“Ugarit,” said Anarkos.

On the plain there were countless tents and pavilions, as far as the eye could see. I thought at first it was a huge city, but Anarkos and the others told me.

“The army of Sargon, from the four corners of the earth.”

And truly it was beyond my thinking. There must have been twenty-five thousand men or even twice that number. I had no way of counting that high. Hundreds of cook fires sent spiraling twists of smoke into the sky. Just north of the cove where we were headed, I could see soldiers riding the ass-like beasts they call onagers in formation. There seemed to be hundreds of onager drawn wheeled carts.

“War wagons. Each carries four men, “said Anarkos.

My head was dizzy. My thoughts of escape seemed as puny as those of a flea, of an ant. This was bigger than I could imagine. On the slope below the citadel stood bright pavilions of red and gold cloth. The glitter of polished metal flashed in the sunlight. I could hear the neighing of war-steeds and the shouts of warriors as they wheeled about, raising dust at their war games on the field below. Once again my heart died as I thought of Vila and Aon. But there was no time for that now. We were hustled into the shallow water, still bound, and led to the slave camp. Without rest we were put to work chopping wood and cleaning the armies’ shit-trenches. As I worked, I kept glancing up at the pavilions and wondering what kind of man commanded such a force. Compared to this, all I had ever known was the world of rough hill-warlords and petty bandits. Perhaps at last this was finally evidence of the Gods at work.

As the sun set into the western sea, we were brought to the slave camp for food and rest. The day had been hot, but now cooled nicely. I was just settling down, when suddenly there came a commotion. All the captives were stirring. There was the sound of thundering hoof beats on the hard ground coming down from the citadel. I pushed through the throng of men in time to see a detachment of warriors, spears held out on front as in a charge, coming through the camp towards the sea at a full gallop. There were at least fifty mounted chargers. In the center rode a fine-looking warrior on a white animal, bigger than the onagers the others rode. It was a horse, a great, white horse. The warrior’s armor was brighter than the others. His long, auburn hair flowed out from beneath a bright copper helmet. His long beard was braided in many twists. His dark eyes seemed to burn. His gaze met no one’s. The Warriors shouted as they thundered by.

“Sar-Gon! Sar-Gon!”

Just as they passed where I was standing with the others, Sargon turned and looked right at me. It seemed our eyes met, though I thought I must surely be imagining it. Then he raised his riding crop and switched his charger and galloped on with his companions to the sea.

The camp calmed down, like a quieting beehive after the swarm is over. I felt humbled. Herakul was pleased by the horses.

“Little Pelop, did you see that fine animal!” He said.

There was a martial sound of metal on metal. We looked up and there were six guards with a captain standing over our cook-fire. They pointed their spears at Herakul and motioned for him to come. I called to Anarkos to ask them what they were doing. One of the guards stepped over to me and knocked me into the fire with the butt of his heavy spear. Anarkos grabbed my arm when I tried to spring up.

“Don’t get killed, my little king, “he said tensely.

He was right. I stayed down and brushed the ashes from my filthy tunic. Herakul shrugged and got up. He looked at us, managed a smile, and said.” Keep my food warm.” Then they led him away.

We slept on the hard ground that night, but at least the food had been plentiful and good: barley cakes and onions and even a soup of mutton, with a weak bir to wash it down. The next morning we went back to work cleaning the camp and digging holes for refuse. At mid day we were ordered to clear a wide space below the King’s pavilions in a great circle and line it with a chest-high fence of thorny branches. It formed an enclosed field about two hundred paces across. The army began to come and gather behind the fence and we, for there were thousands of slaves, were permitted to stay in the quarter across from the pavilions. There was an opening about thirty feet across at the north end of the enclosure. The King came down with his retinue and sat on horseback looking down on the ring. A herald called out something I couldn’t understand.

“Watch this, ‘said Anarkos. “ The King likes a good show.”

A group of about twenty horsemen, wearing all different kinds of garb, from armor and robes to leggings and wound skull-caps, entered the ring at a fast run that at once turned into a full gallop. It was a tight circle to run on a big war-horse and there was plenty of jostling as they raced. Riders and horses fell and were run over by the ones next to them. They ran the circle until only five riders were left, whipping each other and trying to run each other’s horses into the fence. Finally, the King raised his mace. An olive-skinned young man with a wispy beard and strange, slit-like eyes was clearly the fastest and finished the course by standing on the back of his charger saluting the King, who applauded, along with his followers. There was sustained cheering. Next came what someone called a buzkashi – a game with two teams of ten riders, each of which tried to get a goat carcass and drag it through the opening in the north end. The carcass was dragged back and forth, one champion and then another wresting it from his enemy and sprinting away, only to have the same fate befall him. It was good fun, really. We all cheered and moaned in turn. At last a big Hattusan hefted the bloody goat above his head and rode past the others out the gate to great applause.

I felt a point stick me in the back and whirled around to find, to surprise, Lipit-Sin holding a spear and bow. He grinned at me and thrust the bow and a quiver at me. He spoke sharply to Anarkos, who turned to me.

“Get out there! You’re going to shoot! Hurry, Lipit-Sin orders you!” His voice was frantic. “He’s bet heavily on you, “Anarkos hissed, “don’t lose!” Perhaps Lipit-Sin had also made it worth Anarkos’ life, or mine. I followed Lipit-Sin’s guards around  to the opening and walked cautiously out into the ring. There were two other archers there, from nations I had never seen before. One was heavy-set and dark, with his hair up in a top-knot. His bow was very long. The other had pale hair and was tall and thin; a northerner of some kind. I knew not from where. I looked up at the King, who waved his hand. A vulture was released and flew up on the far side of the ring, above the heads of the crowd. I shot without thinking and took it with my first arrow. Another bird rose. The heavy set man missed. Immediately, guards ran out and grabbed him and dragged him out of the ring. I stood there, my heart pounding. The cheering of the throng was loud in my ears, yet somehow distant. I watched the third bird fly up. The pale man raised his bow and cleanly hit it and it fell into the dust. A cheer went up. I heard a flutter of wings behind me and spun to see a smaller bird, of what type I couldn’t tell, right over my shoulder. I drew and let fly. My arrow pinned both wings and the poor creature fell heavily into the crowd. There was a roar of approval. I glanced at Sargon, who was smiling broadly and drinking from a horn. Another fat bird rose from its perch and was nipped by my competitor. Then I caught sight of a tiny swallow dipping above the ring, picking insects from the evening air. I didn’t have time to tell whether this was a target bird or just some unfortunate creature trying to feed itself.  I made a brilliant shot and the little bird dropped, neatly skewered, near the foot of the King. A roar and much laughter went up. A flock of starlings flew over the ring. The pale archer swung his bow around and loosed. The arrow flew over the head of King into the growing dusk. A startled groan and hush came over the assembly. Sargon sat implacably on his charger, eyeing the pale man, who seemed to know his fate. The King raised his finger and pointed and five, six, seven, eight arrows flew from the edge of the ring and went into and through the man, dropping him to his knees. I could see blood pouring out of his nostrils, his eye sockets, his mouth, his neck. He toppled over and shook hard once and then was still.

Slaves ran out and dragged him from the ring. Lipit –Sin rode out and bade me follow him to before the King’s place across the ring. He bowed to Sargon while in his saddle and pushed me low with the butt of his lance and addressed the King with a lot of words I couldn’t understand, except that at the end I heard Pelop Lu-gal Hedra or something that sounded like it. There was a roar of laughter and applause. Sargon looked hard at me and signaled me to come closer. I did, but I kept my head down and avoided looking right at him. I was stopped by a guard, and then to my surprise my three birds were dropped at my feet, even the little swallow. The king reached out his hand in a gesture that indicated that I should take the birds. I bent and picked them up. I had a quick thought, bowed, and offered them to him, extending my arms and looking at the ground. He stood in his stirrups, clapping and smiling. Then he waved me off and guards came and led me carrying my birds back out of the ring. I brought the birds around through the slaves, where I got lots of claps on the back and broad grins. I took my place at the fence once again.

Now a handful of warriors rode out and a group of slave pulled out a cart with cage on it. Inside was an enormous lion. Not like the wiry mountain cats of Achaea, but a huge, tawny-colored beast with a great mane of dark hair and eyes the size of apples. It slunk from one end to the other in its cage, growling in its deep and noble voice. They pulled the cage out into the center of the ring. Guards pulled in closer to Sargon. The warriors stayed mounted and patrolled the edge of the ring, their spears pointing at the ground. At the north entrance a single large man, dressed in the skin of some animal and holding a short war club or mace, stepped in. the fence was pulled close behind him.

Herakul. This is why he was taken. Dyaus and Perunas! He was going to fight this lion. I knew by now that Sargon cared for sport, but had no care about who lived and died. A hush fell over the crowd. The slaves pulled a rope and opened the cage. At first the lion stayed inside. The great beast sniffed the opening, wondering what kind of trap this was. He had been caught before; he didn’t want to be caught again. Herakul came a little closer, maybe thirty feet and eyed the cat, shifting back and forth on his feet in the manner of a wrestler, ready for the first move. The lion saw Herakul and tensed. It dropped out of the cart and roared its defiance. It looked proud, and Herakul saluted it, bringing the crowd’s voice to life. They cheered and shouted. Someone threw a stone which hit the cat and it jerked and started forward toward Herakul. He stayed put, watching. It was like watching two great lion kings sizing each other up. The great cat seemed to figure out that he must make a move. Perhaps he sensed his fate. He suddenly charged at Herakul, who waited until the last second and rolled away from the lion’s claws. As he rolled to his feet, his swung hard and hit the Lion’s back leg with the club, plainly causing the cat pain. The cat spun and leaped on Herakul and we gasped all at once, but once again Herakul, moving faster than I’d ever seen him, dodged the claws and hit the cat on the side of the head as hard as he could with the heavy club. The hit was so direct that the cat seemed staggered. But it spun and closed with Herakul. Herakul dropped his club and charged right inside the claws of the cat, grasping the lion’s head with his mighty arms. Herakul’s face was buried in the thick mane of the great beast, his massive arms around the cat’s neck. The crowd roared loud. Surely the cat would maul Herakul to death. But no, Herakul’s grip was too much for the lion. Herakul made a quick move to stand up and you could hear, plain as a stick breaking in the forest, the sound of the lion’s neck snapping. The poor beast’s back legs faltered and it toppled over. Herakul stepped back, panting, trying to catch his breath. Blood came from a big scratch on his side and one on his leg. Then he raised his arms in triumph. The assembly of warriors and salves alike went berserk. The King sat, as wide-eyed as the next man for a moment, then waved to quiet the men and called Herakul over. A slave ran out and cut the lion’s heart from its deep chest and handed the bloody mass to Herakul, who in turn offered it to the king. The King raised his mace above his head and the throng cheered again. Then the warriors rode in on Herakul. He turned to look at us slaves across the bloody field and grinned. I don’t know if he saw me. Sargon turned his horse and rode up the slope to his pavilions, retinue in tow. The crowd dispersed, still buzzing over the spectacle. The name of Herakul was everyone’s lips. Darkness began to fall. The warriors had led Herakul away again and we were taken back to our camp, where Anarkos cooked up my three birds. Though I didn’t believe in it, I made an offering of the swallow to Perunas the striker. Someone brought skins of bir and we drank and ate. In the morning we’d clean the shit trenches again, but tonight was ours.

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