My fame from the archery contest didn’t help me in the shit-trenches. Just like all the other captives assigned to this wretched duty, I had to wade in up to my knees in the foul excrement of the army. Our wooden spades would hardly break the dry ground enough for us to turn the shit into the earth. It was still hot, though one could sense the change of season coming, and the flies were as merciless as Sargon’s soldiers. I watched the different types as they paraded by. There were Akkadians, big, hooked-nosed, with dark hair, though some were reddish and others auburn. They wore braided beards and conical hats of a material I hadn’t seen before. Many of the men and women of this race were quite handsome to look at. They were haughty and clearly regarded themselves as a better race than the others. What rulers don’t? There were also many Sumerians, shorter, black-haired, obsequious, always bowing and scraping to the Akkadians, who had conquered them. Yet they, too seemed to have a secret air of superiority. They had long ruled the Land between the Rivers we heard about. The Akkadians were desert nomads from the west who had subjugated the Sumerians under Sargon. The Hattusans, from the north, were swarthy, hard-headed types who made up the backbone of the army. They were there by tribute and treaty, to fight for booty under the Akkadian Lu-Gal, which I found out meant Big Man – Sargon. They had better armor than the others and helmets with nose-pieces to ward off face strokes. They were infantry and marched in tight formations, shields locked together. I didn’t see how they might be beaten by any lesser force than their own. There were mounted warriors called Skthyans, who wore no armor and fought with short, recurve bows from horseback. My foe in the ring had been one of them. Desert tribesmen called Bedu’ who rode the huge, ungainly camels made a large part of the army as well. They wrapped themselves in long winding sheets. You couldn’t see their faces. They fought with sickle-swords, a wicked and efficient weapon. There were also Achaeans, Macedoi, Tarsans, Kannaanites, and too many other tribesmen and strange peoples to name. The slaves, who numbered in the thousands, seemed to be from the same nations as the army. Which camp one was in was a matter of fortune and circumstance, I thought.
The camp had a large number of women camp followers, cooks, serving girls, and prostitutes. They seemed a desperate, miserable lot, most likely recruited from the vanquished, for the custom was to kill all the males who were of no use to the Empire of Sargon, and force the women into bondage and servitude. There was no Achaean regard for women shown anywhere that I could see. The Lu-Gal Sargon seemed to have a household with many wives and other women. I judged him to be a man of about forty-five, still very strong and young- looking. His wives were kept within the pavilions, and could only be guessed at by the large number of female servants. Because of their religion, many priestesses were temple prostitutes, to be taken by any supplicant. I couldn’t understand this practice, but then again, the bewildering numbers of gods made my head ache. There were the main gods: Enlil, Enki or Ea, Sin the Moon God, Ishtar, also called Inanna- who was like our Afroda, Ninnhursag, not unlike Hera, Anu, akin to Dyaus, and so on. It was said the Sargon’s daughter was the high priestess of Inanna, and thus a sacred prostitute. She was also reputed to be the finest poet in the empire. Her name was Enheduanna, and I was told she was a great beauty, not that a shit-shoveling slave like me would ever glimpse her.
There was no sign of Herakul. His feat of killing the Lion was already the stuff of legend in the slave camp. I heard tales of how he had killed she-boars with his bare hands, killed a nine-headed monster, and defeated whole armies by himself; how he had gone to the underworld and brought back the cup of the dark river for some king. Wild tales, but people seem to like these. Unfortunately, many also believe them. I hoped Herakul was keeping his head, both figuratively and literally.
My own plan of escape seemed hopeless for now. Though there was a certain amount of freedom within the vast camp, there was simply no place to run to. The coast was one boundary, and the boats were always under guard, and in any case, the winds always blew in from the west. The wide plains of Ugarit stretched north and south and held the huge army of Sargon. Away to the east was the mountain range. East was not the right direction anyway.
I tried to keep as noble a bearing as I could for a man with shit up to his knees. As the days went by my fellow captives seemed to respond to my disciplined calm and clear-headedness. My archery prowess and the story of how I was once a king became known. Men began to bring me disputes, which I settled as best I could. Anarkos taught me Akkadian and Sumerian words, and I eagerly learned them. The guards came to view me as someone they could pass orders along through. The slaves were miserable, but there were thousands of us, and order had to be kept. Even the women started coming to me for advice. In this way I came to know prostitutes and cooks and healers who were once queens and priestesses in the own lands; individuals with pride and intelligence. In a way, I once again became a king of sorts, shit-king of the slave camp, because there was a need for me to fill. As time went by I could see respect in many of the captives’ eyes.
Of course, there were untrustworthy types as well, former thieves and brigands, usurers, drunks and gamblers, and treacherous, two-faced informants who would tell the goings on of the camp to the Akkadian and Hattusan guards for a favor of extra barley-cakes or bir. I had to watch my tongue, especially when people came to me with wild ideas about rebellion and escape. I had to counsel calm and reason. I could not have my word taken against me. But I listened to all the plots and strategies. I would laugh them off, telling the speaker that he had had too much bir. I secretly wondered about making an actual army of the slaves. Anarkos told me the Sargon himself was the mere son of a temple prostitute who was raised by a Lu-gal’s gardener. By his given talents and skill, he came to be in charge of the vast system of irrigation ditches that was the backbone of Sumerian and Akkadian life. From his ditch laborers, he had recruited his army and thrown down the King of Sippar and then had rebuilt Akkade, which was to be his capital city. He then went on to conquer the other cities, Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Mari, Ebla, Ugarit itself, He did not seek to destroy the cities, but rather became their greatest King. The city of Erech, home of the cult of temple prostitutes, backed him, as did the others.
I managed to organize the distribution of food so that all shared the same rations, and we made our own shit-trenches, so that we weren’t forced to sleep in each other’s excrement. I supervised the building of a stone-lined well that gave us clearer water. It was so good that the guards brought me over into the army’s camp to do the same. I garnered favors and was pestered by sycophants who sought the favor of me and the guards, but I turned away from every personal privilege and slept in a lean-to of dry branches and ate from a communal cook-fire like everyone else. The camp women let me know they would show me favor as well, but I kept to myself, thinking of Vila.
I knew if she still lived she would be in hiding somewhere by now. It had only been half a year. It made my heart hurt, and I sought solace in more work. I wondered when the Lu-Gal would move us south against the Pharaoh’s lands. Perhaps then I could make my escape. No one knew, not even the Hattusan guards, who knew everything else.
One night a prostitute named Magdala, a Hurrian who was a former high priestess of their goddess, came to my shelter. She was a dark-skinned beauty, with a long nose and fine features. She regularly joked that I should make her my camp-queen and we could rule the slaves. I enjoyed talking with her. She was smart and insightful, and wise to the ways of people. Tonight she whispered to me.
“Pelop. There is someone who would speak with you. Come with me.”
I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I followed her down into the area where the older women, who did the washing and cooking, lived. Despite my efforts, or because I chose to look the other way, these women were still living in the worst parts of the camp, near a tidal swamp that teemed with mosquitoes and sand flies. The stench was terrible, and I swore I would somehow help clean this up. We came to a little lean-to of sticks and rags. A tiny fire sputtered in front. The night was cold. There, sitting in the shadows was a very old woman, wrapped almost completely in filthy rags. She shivered and I wanted to give her my own worn tunic to warm her, but she turned it away.
“Sit down, my king, “she croaked. Her voice was raspy like old rocks grinding against each other. The fire barely lit her red eyes, which showed like tiny coals in her dark face. She smelled like the skin-rot disease and I instinctively sat a little further away than I might have.
“I know, I know, I smell,” she said softly. “Soon I will be no more and will only stink like a normal corpse,” she cackled. She spoke in a very old form of Achaean, mixed with words I couldn’t understand.
“It’s alright.” She rasped “Everything dies. Everything is born.”
I hoped this wouldn’t be more nonsense about the gods and goddesses and realms of afterlife and all that. I sat there, waiting, trying to show respect.
“Sari was our highest priestess, “said Magdala. “ She has the sight.”
Oh, no, seers and the soul and the dead journey to the river.
“No, not all that, “ the crone whispered. I must have looked surprised.” To spite the stupidity of others, you have turned away from things that are possible.” She coughed, and then had a coughing fit, which finally quieted.
“Whether there are gods or not is of no concern to you. That is your choice. But I will tell you what I have seen, “ she said. She paused and then went on. She looked straight into my eyes. Hers glowed with a strange intensity. ” Your wife lives, as does your son, though you will know her no more. But he will be your last companion.”
My heart leapt in my chest. How could she know? Fortune tellers could say anything. But I stayed quiet.
“Before you see them, you will see the world, king archer. You will learn what it means to truly rule with wisdom. You will finally be a king for many peoples, for ages yet to come. They will call you by another name, just as Pelop is not yours.” She stopped and wheezed again for moment.
Again I was surprised, for I had never revealed that I had borrowed the name, not even to Herakul.
“You will see, little Stek. Yes, that was it, wasn’t it? Stek, a nice name for a little boy of the mountains.”
I felt the hair go up on the back of my neck and I pulled up the neck of my tunic and wrapped my arms around my drawn-up knees. She grinned, her black and green teeth stumps barely catching the firelight, her mouth looking like the dark space below a swamp tree, and whispered,” You will someday see that others must have what you despise in order that they may live in less fear. And you will provide it for them because you are a good man. You live to serve lesser beings and they will serve you in turn. You are their protector and provider. You will speak for the gods you don’t believe in. Your journey will be long, yet not long enough. The great stones will rise. People will know them long after how they came to be is forgotten. Your name will be known to generations without end. But it will be a name not of your choosing. This is what I have seen. Now go.”
I sat unmoving, unable to think what to say to the old crone. How could she know my childhood name? It was as if she could see into my mind and pull out my thoughts and desires. It wasn’t possible. It was a mystery and it shook me. The fire had died down. Sari’s eyes were closed and she sat as still as if she was just a pile of rags. Magdala touched my arm and I got up. I looked at the old woman for a moment and made a silent vow to make conditions better in the women’s quarter. Then I followed Magdala back to camp. She took my hand as we parted and looked into my eyes. I wasn’t ready for anything except my own dark and wondrous thoughts. I squeezed her long fingers gently and walked away.
The old woman’s words made me feel uneasy, though I told myself they were the babblings of a demented old priestess, the same kind of nonsense you could hear all over camp, or all over the world for that matter. But the fact she had known my name bothered me, as did the part about not knowing Vila again though she lived. My head reeled a bit and I couldn’t sleep, so I sought out the guards, who had their usual big pot of strong barley wine.
I was awakened early by the servant of Lipit-Sin. Lipit –Sin had become a patron of sorts. He brought me out to take part in archery contests, which I rarely lost. He also did not treat me like a dog, the way some Akkadians did. He was from a good family, half Akkadian, half Sumerian, of the city called Ur, and I think he judged me to be capable and not just a wild hill-tribesman. He had actually helped me to get certain tools and supplies that enabled me to bring some order to the slave camp. He sat on a cushion under the shade of his pavilion, eating dates and yogurt from a gold bowl. He invited me to sit and join his breakfast. But I felt ill from the barley wine and only nibbled at a couple of dates.
“I have need of your bow, little shit-king.” He laughed.
“I am your slave, master, “I replied.
“No, not mine, you belong to Sargon the Great, as we all do. But For the moment, I can speak as his voice in this matter.”
It sounded like it must be a big contest, with high wagering. Other archers had died when they failed to win. I showed no emotion.
“I will do my best to be a worthy servant of the King.” I said.
Lipit-Sin dipped his left hand into the bowl and ate. “This won’t be a contest. Or it is, but we call it by another name. War.”
“Does the King attack Pharaoh?”
He took another date and dipped it in the yogurt. “The king’s daughter, Enheduanna, is the high priestess of Inanna in my city of Ur. She also serves as the King’s regent while he is here. Some of the cities have risen in revolt against her. Sargon will return and crush the traitors at once.”
My heart sank. East! The wrong direction again. And I had gathered that the Land between the Rivers was a long way away. I would have to escape right away somehow.
My thoughts must have been clear to Lipit-Sin. He laughed and said, “You can’t possibly escape. You have made yourself too important, shit-king! The King recognizes people of talent. That is why he has become the leader of the great kingdom. But I have a deal for you.”
He paused to bite into a date and chewed it slowly.
“Sargon has a vision of trading with the western sea-lands. When the traitors have been killed and ground into dust, he will send a fleet again to your islands. We know that tin and copper abound in your lands, and may be even more plentiful in the far lands beyond the pillars of the world. Sargon believes that you are a good leader of men in war. He wants you to take such slaves as you see fit and train them quickly. Archers, men who can travel fast and attack quickly. In return, he will allow you to act as his agent in trade with the sea-lands, and in this way return to your home. In a year this will be accomplished. “
He finished the date and took a draught of weak morning bir.
“You have no choice, but it is a great honor for a slave. I would serve my king well, if I were you.”
My head fairly swam. I could see that my escape would indeed be impossible. If this did work as Lipit- Sin was saying, I would return to Hedra and even Tirana as a big man and reclaim my place.
“You might find it hard to believe sometimes, but the Gods favor you, King Pelop, “said Lipit-Sin.