“That’s the biggest one yet, “said Anarkos. He pulled his head-cloth down over his eyes to shield them from the blinding light of the desert sun. “I hope we can get under those trees.’
I looked at the immense ziggurat that rose over the date palms. Its base shimmered in the heat waves, and its top level seemed to float like part of a city of the sky-gods above the sandy, endless plain.
“When you have unlimited slaves, you can make big buildings, “I said. I brushed the sand-flies away from my face. “I’m for throwing myself in the river.”
The heat was truly repulsive. Spring had given way to summer. It had taken all winter to prepare for the campaign against the rebel cities of Sumer. The march over the mountains had to wait for the snows to melt, for they had been early and heavy, and Sargon had been content to keep the rebels in check with the use of home guards. But the cities, especially the Elamite city of Susa, had repelled the guards and declared independence from Sargon.
Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter, was in command of the home guards. It was unheard of for a woman to have this much power, but her reputation was such that men accorded her the leadership. Of course, everyone knew that to go against Sargon would eventually bring his retribution. Evidently, the Elamites thought they stand up to him again, though he had crushed them ten years earlier.
All this history I had learned, and more besides, while traveling slowly across the vast plains and deserts of Sargon’s empire. I had organized a company of slaves under my command, men who could shoot a bow and ride onagers. I was given some onagers and carts, as well as supplies and arms for my three hundred chosen fighters. They came from the four corners of the world: Achaeans, Hattusans, Thaki, Nomi, Skythians, Kannaanites, Macedoi, and unnamed tribesmen from the far north with fair hair and blue eyes like mine. Some were captured in war, some were criminals. Some were displaced men with nowhere else to go. I formed them into squadrons of thirty fighters a salasa – thirty soldiers- in Akkadian, ten salasas in all. I made the members of each salasa dependent on each other; self contained. Each had a name: the Eagles, the Hornets, the Crows, the Jackals, the Lions, and so on. In a campaign, each could take on a separate task, or fight together. We were to be fast strikers. The men had chosen Perunas of the many names; the Northman called him Tor, the Hattusans Tarhunt, Achaeans Dyaus, and the Skythians, Mirtas, to be their token god. I didn’t care what god they prayed to, I demanded their obedience. They had something much greater than a god to fight for anyway. Lipit-Sin had promised all our freedom. I hoped that was the truth.
It was good after all these long months to smell the sea again, for Ur sits near the sea, the Tiamatu of Dilmun, the Abzu, or deep waters where the Sumerians came from in the days beyond time. The date palms were thick like a forest here along the lower reaches of the wide river Purattu. The other great river of the land of Sumer, the Idiklat, meets the Purattu here. Local people poled along the muddy waters of the many canals and byways in boats made of tied-up bundles of reeds, with upswept prows and sterns. In some places there are islands made of these reeds anchored in the river, whereon grow crops.
At first I had been dumbfounded to think that anyone could live is such a flat, dry place as most of Sumer was, for the land had grown more desolate with each day’s march beyond the coastal mountains of Kanaa. In some stretches of our march, not a blade of grass grew, but tall ranges of whistling sand-dunes marched across the horizon, driven by endless, dry winds, and fantastic red-rock or black-rock cliffs stood like islands on a vast, dun sea. The soldiers said the dunes were the habitation of wily desert spirits called the Jinnu, and truly, one could hear strange sounds like singing coming from the distant dunes when the winds blew. In any case, there were certainly few people there, for men and beasts can’t survive in such desolation. At length, we came to fortified cities on the upper Purattu, Ebla being the first, then the strong citadel of Mari, and finally the king’s city of Akkade, across the river from an even greater and more ancient city called Sippar. Mighty temples called ziggurats stood at the heart of the huge, walled cities. At first I couldn’t understand how that much stone could be moved, even with all the wheeled vehicles of the Sumerians. But then I learned that they weren’t made of stone at all, but rather of mud-bricks, for dirt and straw, mixed with ditch water and poured into wooden molds to form the bricks, were readily available. Long canals and ditches brought the water of the Purattu to the cities, so that crops could be grown year-round. On the upper reaches of the Purattu there were dams that diverted part of the river’s flow into the canals, which then in turn bled into smaller and smaller ditches. The dams helped to control the yearly spring floods, which used to wash away many crops. Sargon himself had been a canal master and had rebuilt and added to the already huge system, bringing fresh water even to the fields here around Ur, which had long been a little too salty from the nearby sea-water for year-round crops, or so I was told.
In Akkade, where we stopped for a month of feasting upon the king’s arrival, armies of slaves were employed making mud-bricks and carrying them on angled shoulder –boards up long ramps to the highest level of the new ziggurat, dedicated to the Lord of the Sky, Enlil. I visited the brick yards and watched the building. Gud—Utea, the Sumerian foreman, explained how the ramps then were faced with steps and became the stairways of the huge temple, for ramps climbed from each side of the square-based, mud-brick mountain. While Sargon and his kin were olive-skinned Akkadians from the northwest part of the land between the rivers, much of the real work of the empire was supervised by the Sumerians, an older, black-haired, lighter-skinned race that had settled this land long before the Great Flood. Gud-Utea and his kind were everywhere, in shops, fields, canals, and the temples, where they kept lists of commerce and taxes on clay tablets in a strange script. We had no writing in Achaea, but I understood at once how useful it was for an empire to keep records. They wrote down all transactions between individual people and between city-states, and oversaw the workings of the empire, while the Akkadians led the life of kings, racing onager-carts and staging feasts. Underneath Gud-Utea’s businesslike behavior, I could sense that he was biding his time, waiting for days yet to come. I could see contempt in the eyes of the Sumerians for their Akkadian Lords.
But the Akkadians believed that they had finally achieved what was their right place as rulers over the shorter, more soft-spoken Sumerians. Princes like Lipit-Sin rode about the cities in umbrella- covered sedan chairs, born on the shoulders of slaves. They would beat Sumerians and others they thought of as of the lower classes. It’s true; they did look superior in many ways, being generally taller and more striking in their features than their Sumerian subjects. Still, the Sumerians had ruled here from time out of mind, and for now, they were content to wait.
The Elamites, across the Idiklat River to the east, were another matter. They were inclined towards war, being of a race of hill men, descended from Enki-du, the wild-man companion of Uruk’s great king of the time of the Great Flood, Gil-Gamesh. They had cities with ziggurats as well, but the Elamites were fiercely independent and strained under the yoke of the Akkadians, who they viewed as upstarts. Their strongest city was Susa, not far from Ur, but up over a range of hills, on the banks of a river that came out of the highlands to the east. They had broken with the high priestess Enheduanna while Sargon was in the west. Several smaller Sumerian cities had sided with the Elamites. Sargon’s great army was now assembled beneath the walls of Ur, from where we would strike out across the rivers and smite the rebels.
Lipit-Sin had us camp along the river, under the merciful shade of the date palms. The insects were terrible, but at least a slight cooling breeze came off the water. I had by now figured out a way of organizing my troops in camp. Our fires and tents were laid out in lines. My tent was in the center opposite the central cook fire. It was there that I held assembly morning and night. I had found an open field with a grove of trees a short distance away. There we practiced our war games and held shooting practice. I had found onagers, wilds asses, for my Skythians, who numbered almost fifty. The Skythians said these animals were akin to the big beasts called horses that they rode in their homeland. I added ten men who could also ride to their number. I told the men to take pride in their salasas, and in the whole troop. I called us the Free Men, which was good joke and made the soldiers feel a part of something.
We were drilling at taking a fortified position made of bales of reeds, using archers and horsemen in our field, when a dust cloud signaled the approach of a large mounted group. I called for cessation of practice when I saw the banners of the King. Sargon rode up at the head of fifty warriors in light armor and head-cloths. They seemed to be in high spirits. Two falconers rode behind the king: a hunting party. The king had a bow slung across his back and he carried a long spear. He trotted over to me, holding his spear down at the level of my head and chest. I bowed and saluted him, hand across my chest. I said nothing, for a common man may not speak first to the King.
He looked down at me and pointed his spear at my face. I didn’t move, but I slowly raised my eyes.
“I hear your slave army is well trained, little hill-king.” He said. There was a hint of laughter in his voice, and of condescension. I could see smirks on the faces of some of his party.
“We train to serve you in the coming war, my king, “I said.
“The Elamites will be hardier than your bales and straw walls.”
“Should we practice by taking the city instead?” I asked. A few of his warriors raised their eyebrows at this. Was the shit-king provoking the Great Sargon?
He looked at me and laughed. “That won’t be necessary. Just see to it that you’re ready when the time comes.”
“Practice makes a better soldier, “I answered.
“Prince Lipit-Sin told me of your bargain. I hope I won’t need to change the terms after I see you fight. ” He wheeled on his large and muscular onager, which flinched as it spun in the dust. The animal’s high spirit was evident.” Come to my palace tonight, little king.”
I saluted again. He rode off, throwing up dust. His troop raced off in chase of him.
“Impressive, “said Anarkos, who had come up after the king rode off.” I guess we had better be ready for the battle.”
“We must be beyond ready.” I said.
That evening, when the heat of the Sumerian sun had begun to lessen a tiny bit, I went to the city gates of Ur. I had not entered the walls yet. Ur was sacred to Nanna, or Sin as the Akkadians called the moon-god, and the goddess Inanna, who the Akkadians call Ishtar. I believe she is the same as Atena and Afroda of the Achaeans. “Awa by any other name,” I muttered under my breath as I saluted the guards and made my into the mud-brick city. There was a wide street for a bit, then a square with a large market. The houses were built together, as was the style with these grand cities, three stories high with windows and balconies built in a few places out of timbers. On the flat roofs were curious v- shaped crenellations. These were also present on the outer walls. An archer could shoot from behind the v’s. I knew that there must be other markets all over the city, as there were four main gates and at least three others. I had studied the walls and defenses of Ur as I studied all the cities of Sumer. I would soon have to be taking such cities in order to earn my freedom. The streets smelled, but there were small canals carrying water to wash away the excrement, and other canals and wells for clean water. As I went further into the city, I realized that the fact that the wide street ended in the market square instead of leading straight to the palaces and the ziggurat served a defensive purpose. An invading army would have to fight and wend its way into the heart of the city to take it, and could be cut down by archers and by common folk throwing stones from the rooftops. I quickly saw how to overcome that problem. I knew how we would enter and attack Susa when the time came.
Though I was dressed in my best tunic and sandals, which Lipit-Sin had gotten me before we left Kanaa, I was certainly an outlander in this most Sumerian city. But people largely ignored that fact. This was a port that saw ships from far Harappa to the east, and from the wide lands of the whole earth. Slaves and merchants of every color and type were here, and wares I couldn’t indentify were for barter on every corner. The Sumerians, being a circumspect people, didn’t make eye contact or smile. The women covered their faces, as Sumerian women will do until you get to know their families. The Sumerians are not the most jovial of peoples. But other races jostled by, talking and carrying on with the activities of the long, hot day’s end. One man even hailed me in rough Achaean, which I answered. He was from the north of Achaea. His speech reminded me of Herakul, and I wondered what had become of my companion. Lipit-Sin would say nothing of him, as if Herakul was a dead man about whom one shuts his mouth.
Sargon’s palace was alongside the great ziggurat, Eunir in Sumerian, of Nanna. This was truly the biggest and finest ziggurat I had seen yet. The ziggurats were temple mountains, made in three or more steps. The first step, two hundred feet wide, was as tall as the tallest date palms. The second step was nearly as tall, but it was set back thirty feet or so. The third step was the top. On the flat surface of the top step stood burning tripods and pavilions for the gods, who were said to come down from the sky in winged discs and visit the temple prostitutes. All this was beyond my caring. The ziggurat was dazzling, however. It was faced with fired mud bricks, which were glazed in many colors. Raised sections depicted lions and deities riding their fiery, winged discs. Long ramps with many steps led upwards from the square in front of the ziggurat. I could see how someone who had never been to the real hills might be impressed. I kept thinking that it must have cost the lives of many slaves to make and haul and set all those countless thousands of bricks.
Sargon was sequestered in the Palace of Inanna, where his daughter Enheduanna lived. It was a three story building with red and blue fired bricks around its main gate and the triangular crenellations on the roof. The gateway was guarded by Hattusan spearmen. Some of them recognized me from the archery contests and I was let in, led by an obsequious, bald-headed Sumerian, who held his hands to his chest in supplication, like someone with bound hands, as he walked hunched forward. The Sumerians dressed in loose robes, with one shoulder bare. They frequently, as did this man, have beards but shave their heads with sharp flints or bronze razors. I must have presented a fine contrast with my long brown hair twisted in a single braid down my back and my braided beard. They call themselves the sag-giga, or black-headed. He wore a white sea-pearl earring in his left ear. A line of dark paint under his eyelids gave him a somewhat effeminate air.
I was led into a wide chamber, two stories high, a great hall, truly, held up by thick, painted cedar columns made of whole tree trunks. Long, narrow, dark red curtains hung from the ceiling to the floor. Torches burned in slanted brackets along the side of the hall, which I noted had small windows near the ceiling out of which the smoke vented. There were three rows of long, low tables, around which perhaps two hundred loudly feasting people were seated on cushions. On the dais at the far end of the hall was the table of the king and his retinue. Hattusan guards in full battle armor stood at intervals along the walls. The noise of conversation was quite loud in the hall. It seemed that everyone was talking at the same time. The tables were loaded down with bowls of foodstuffs, fruits, barley cakes, vegetables, and boards with roasted meats. Tall bir and wine cups were set before each person. Stewards made their way along the rows, filling cups and bringing dishes to the feasters. The Sumerian clapped his hands once and announced me, though the sound barely carried above the din and no one seemed to take notice. Another Sumerian of a similar type to the first came, bowing and scraping in a most unseemly fashion and took me to a seat at the table on the right, or at the king’s left hand as he would look out from his dais. I was seated next to a heavy-set Akkadian with a long red beard and red eyes to match. He was stuffing himself on purple grapes, a fruit I hadn’t seen since Karpatha, and the dark juice trickled down onto his robes. He took a moment from his gorging to glance at me and said, “akalu,” meaning,” eat” in Akkadian. I looked up at the king, but he was deep in laughing conversation with some of the nobles at the dais and hadn’t seemingly noticed my entry. I picked at several delicacies, but mostly watched the room. My immediate dining companions looked like merchants, not nobles. They were dressed in robes of varying colors from white to dark brown. They were all gorging themselves in the manner of my neighbor. One caught my eye and nodded, a young, thin man with a long nose and piercing eyes. He was eating a leg of mutton, and didn’t slow on my account. The others ignored me completely. At the next row of tables sat military men, some of whom I recognized. Utu- Ninnhursag the Sumerian infantry general was sitting next to En-Neshaddon the Akkadian cart master. The latter had the bearing of a noble man and ate slowly, talking to his tablemates in a low voice. In the far row were young members of the royal family, princes and lords in fine white robes with a bare shoulder in the manner of the Sumerians, but festooned with flashy brooches and pins of gold, silver, and dark blue lapis. At the dais was the royal family itself, including Sargon’s favorite grandson, the fourteen-year-old Naram-Sin. There were few women in the hall, though some of the military men had their rather subdued wives with them. There was only one woman on the royal dais.
She looked to be about twenty years old. She wore the robes of an Ensi, a high priestess of Inanna. On her head was a sand-colored conical cap called an En, the cap of leadership. The king also wore a version of this, though his had two small, curving horns protruding from the front and the back, whereas the priestess wore a blue scarf wrapped around the base of her cap. Her hair hung down in two long braids that lay across her chest. Her hair was black but her eyes were brown or even green. Even from where I sat, all the way across the hall, I could see intensity there. Her lips were painted red and parted slightly. Her fine nose curved down from arched eyebrows. Her skin was a pale olive, not burnished by the sun like her father’s. Her robes did not disguise the curves of her body. I didn’t need to be told that this was Enheduanna, the high priestess of Inanna and the Ensi of Ur. The tales of her beauty and bearing had not been exaggerated. At her right hand sat Lipit-Sin, dressed in a deep blue robe with silver trim. He kept up with the conversation of the king and the other Lu-gals, but repeatedly glanced at Enheduanna.
She sat demurely, listening, but not often joining in to the animated conversations going on around her at the dais. Two female servants waited silently at attention behind her. From time to time to she would twist her head and one or the other of them would bend forward and listen to her whisperings, then stand erect once more. The king was drinking heavily, it seemed. His steward kept tipping the long jars of barley wine in his cup. Young Naram-Sin, a very handsome Akkadian boy who looked older than the fourteen years I had been told he had, sat impassively picking at his meats. The big man next to me belched loudly. His breath was terrible. I wondered why I had been summoned to this feast.
Then the thin young man across the table leaned over and said, “Aren’t you the archer, the Achaean?” he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He didn’t look particularly hostile.
The fat man next to me said, without looking up from his bowl or at me, “This is the celebrated Sar-Tabastanu!” And he laughed, as did the others within hearing. The thin man tilted his head as if to say, I wonder if he understood that?
I understood. I had been learning Akkadian and Sumerian for months now. Sar-Tabastanu. Shit-King. Indeed! It was one thing for Lipit-Sin, who acted as my patron, to call me that in jest, or another for the Great King to say it when he held the power of life and death and my freedom. But it was quite another for this fat man to call me the Sar-Tabastanu.
I took a deep breath and released it, and then I turned to the fat man and said calmly, “By your breath I know you, Sahu-kalbu-Nam!”
The diners looked stunned, and then started laughing loudly. The thin man stared at me in disbelief for moment, and then began to smile broadly, revealing poor teeth. The fat man turned slowly to look at me, his red face growing redder by the second. I slowly drew myself up and away from him as he came at me, a knife in his hand. The others rose almost in unison to grab him.
Sahu-kalbu-Nam! Lord Pig-Dog! They laughed in Akkadian, echoing my insult.
But Lord Pig-Dog had murder in his drunken eyes. I stood back, knocking away my cushion, preparing to take down the big man with a throw, but before I could make a move, the man was grabbed by someone who came running up from behind a curtain. There was no mistaking him.
“Herakul!” I shouted, suddenly grinning myself. Herakul quickly wrestled the fat man down and cuffed him once in the head. The fat drunk rolled away, groaning. Herakul looked up and laughed.
“Shit- king!” he roared, laughing.
This time it was no insult. I jumped forward and grabbed Herakul by the shoulders. There was a wave of laughter and applause from the hall. I looked at the dais. Sargon was sitting there, grinning and clapping his hands. Lipit-Sin laughed as well, as did most of the feasters, except for the generals, who looked disapprovingly at the scene, and Enheduanna and Naram-Sin, who still sat quietly showing no emotion. Naram-Sin looked decidedly bored.
I bowed and saluted to the Great King, who put his hand up to signal that no harm was done. He was still laughing hard. Too hard, I had the thought. Did he put this fat man up to this? My cheeks flushed as I realized I had been set up. Herakul grinned at me, his sweaty face glistening in the torchlight.
“It was a good joke!” He said. He leaned closer and whispered, “I think you passed the test, Little Pelop.”
Sargon went back to his food and drink and the commotion settled down. Herakul plopped himself into Lord-Pig-Dog’s place. Lord Pig-Dog had shuffled of to another table. The bowing Sumerian slave brought me my cushion and I sat back down. The thin man leaned over and said, “That was very good! You’ve learned our language well! I don’t think Ut-Saka will ever like you much, but it was worth it!”
I gave him a nod in acknowledgement and turned to Herakul.
“Well, “I said, “Where in the name of the gods have you been?”
He lifted a mutton leg to his bearded face and said, “It’s a long story.”
Herakul drank deeply from his cup. Our Sumerian steward refilled him again.
“After I killed the lion, I was called into Sargon’s presence. His pavilion was full of nobles and warriors, and you know, fancy boys and women. Pelop, I’ve been around, but this king has more than anyone in the world. They had good vanna and bir and lots of food. I was made to feel like an honored guest. Through an interpreter, Sargon told me that he had never seen a man kill a lion with his bare hands. He joked that he had a few enemies that I could deal with, as well. I took it to be a joke, but it turned out he wasn’t kidding. While I was treated well, personally, the king’s agent, Usul-Enki, took me aside and let me know that I was still a slave and that my life and yours as well – he called you the archer boy – were in the hands of the King. We rode away the next morning, me still hungover, and went over the passes to the east. It was a salasa – twenty-nine trained killers and me. We came after two days to a fortress town at the edge of the desert. We were received by the garrison commander, a nobleman who had some airs to be sure. His wife was a real looker. That night, Usul-Enki ordered me to kill the entire family. I refused, though I agreed to kill the nobleman; I wouldn’t touch his wife and children.”
Herakul tapped his cup loudly and the steward filled it again.
“I strangled the man. Usul-Enki and his men did the other part of the job. Made me sick, Little King, sick! But that’s the way it is with these people. We went on further east. I had to kill five more noblemen. I came to realize that they were all of mixed Sumerian and Akkadian race. Sargon doesn’t like Sumerians. It seems that the Akkadians were the slaves from old times here, and there’s a deep blood feud against the Sumerians. He wants to eliminate them all from the government. The trouble is, they run a lot of things.”
The steward stood at our elbows, not showing any kind of emotion on his face.
“I’m telling you, Pelop, the Sumerians hate this king. That’s why Susa and Lagash have rebelled. The Elamites have never really surrendered. And the Sumerians are waiting for Sargon to make a big mistake so they can rise up and take him out. They may look meek, but they’re shrewder than Tiranian vanna-merchants, and as cold as serpents!”
I didn’t doubt any of what Herakul was saying. I had seen that resentment in their eyes, behind the subservient smiles and clasped hands.
“There are other factors you may not know about.” He went on, “That pretty one up there, Enheduanna, was involved with the Lu-gal of Lagash. Then she spurned him. Maybe he wanted her to help destroy her father. That’s when this rebellion started. And one last thing,” he leaned over and whispered. “That boy up there, Naram-Sin? When did you kill your first man? He’s fourteen and has a taste for torture already. He’s the most dangerous of ‘em all.”
There was a rush of robes being rustled and Lipit-Sin stood at the dais and called for attention.
“In the name of our Lord and master, the slayer of enemies, humble servant of the great God Enlil, smiter of traitors, conqueror of the many lands, Son of the Moon and Sun, ruler of the four races and the four corners of the Earth, builder of many Eunir and creator of a vast empire, Sargon of Akkad, the Great King, I call you to listen, oh men of Akkad and Sumer.” He paused and then went on, “The wicked lands of Lagash and Susa, ungrateful for our Lord’s benevolence, have sunk into treacherous rebellion and must be crushed. Lagash has a short memory but will soon be reminded of the past when it is ground into dust. Susa is a land of dogs, who shall be slain, and their guts fed as offal to pigs and fowl. Tomorrow the army will march east across the river and take Lagash. Our Lord will reward bravery and take revenge on cowardice and treachery. The largesse of our Great Lu-gal is beyond the measure of heaven, but his justice is swift and merciless.”
I had heard diatribes before, but never anything as pompous, or as threatening. That was all right; I knew I was a slave. Lipit-Sin had said I would be free again. But I began to doubt that Sargon would set me free.
“So let us prepare our brigades,” continued Lipit-Sin, “let us sharpen our swords and spear-points, make heavy our maces and sharpen our arrows. Let none doubt the will of Sargon, our Lu-Gal! To Victory!”
“To victory!” We all shouted, some rather drunkenly, I thought. Herakul alone didn’t stop his eating and drinking. As the guests began to chatter away again, I heard him mutter, “Sargon can stick his victory up his ass.”
By the late hour when we finally left, many of the guests were so drunk they had to be carried out by Sumerian slaves. Several vomited as they were carried. Other slaves mopped up the vile-smelling puke. Fortunately, I had refrained from much drinking, and Herakul could drink three man-jugs without blinking. As we were being let out the massive front gate, the Sumerian who had led me in stood, hands clasped and bowing to the patrons as they walked out. Some had sedan chairs or chariots waiting. The Sumerian looked up and caught my eye for a moment but said nothing. Herakul and I walked back through the quiet city and back to the camp.
“I ride with the king, “he said as we parted at my camp.
“And I walk with my free men.” We laughed. It was good to have him back, not matter what circumstance we found ourselves in.
The night was stinking hot and wet and I couldn’t sleep, though we had an early summons for our troop. Tomorrow Sargon’s great army marched on Lagash and Susa. In my tent there was a raised bed of a wooden frame covered with a good rug and two skins of a spotted lion. But I lay there and sweated and tossed and turned. The camp was quiet; most men having fallen out to escape the heat soon after it grew dark. I could hear the sounds of a few men drinking somewhere, arguing over cards or lots or women, but mostly there just the incessant chirring and creaking of the day’s insects in the dark. I slipped out of my tent and strolled down to the river and sat in the shadows under a palm tree looking over the moon-drenched scene.
Presently I was aware that someone was sneaking up on me. I could hear the rustle of dead palm leaves and other dry plants. The steps would advance and then fall silent for long spells. I was sitting completely still on the sandy river bank. The moon gave enough light to make out shapes in the dark. When the sounds had come within a few sword strokes away, and I figured my life was in danger, I silently unsheathed my blade and waited. A man, it would seem, in a dark cloak crept into the small clearing by the river’s edge. I wasn’t aware if the cloaked intruder could see me, or whether he just guessed that this is where I would be. Perhaps he’d followed me from my tent. I slowed my breathing down and held motionless for some time, wrapped in the stark shadow created by the moonlight on the palm fronds. The cloaked figure stopped and squatted in the moonlight on the sand bank near the river’s edge. I could hear him breathing.
“I’ve been sent to pass along a message, “came a thin, quiet voice from beneath the hood. I couldn’t see any features, but at least I knew it was a man. He spoke in Akkadian, but he had a Sumerian accent. “Take care not to let yourself do too much at Lagash. There are those who seek glory who would be very angry if it were stolen from them.”
I stayed put in the darkness where I was. I answered, “I have no need for glory. I and my men seek something else.”
“That which you seek is a foolish wish. There are no free men here. We all are alive only to serve the King.”
I didn’t answer.
The man said after a bit, “You have certain talents that make you a good leader. There are people who have recognized this. Some wish you well and some wish you ill. Watch your back at all times. Not all your men are trustworthy. Be careful on the walls of Lagash and Susa.”
The man stood up and melted silently away into the night. I pondered his words. It was true that I had been taking the allegiance of my men for granted. Men are weak and greedy and will do much evil for a tiny reward or for jealousy. I wondered who the messenger was. The Sumerian from the palace? I couldn’t say.
I made my way back to my shelter and at last I slept for a while before blowing war-horns and the martial clatter of spears on shields in the sudden desert sunrise called me to arms.
The walls of Lagash were high and massive; built in the time of the early gods who came out of the Abzu, the deep waters that encircle the world. I couldn’t tell you about that, but I will say that they were substantial and I judged they had been rebuilt many times, in fact they were in need of repairs now, so the whole city sat on a low hill of worn mud- bricks. It stood near the junction of the Idiklat and Purattu, only a few leagues from Ur. Lagash was truly a bigger and maybe even older city than Ur the Storied. The people of Lagash were all Sumerians, with little Akkadian blood outside the viceroy’s palace. So it was a hotbed of feelings against Sargon and the Akkadians. Lagash had revolted early after its sack by the Great King ten years before. Sargon had sacked it again and burned much of the inner city down. It was quickly rebuilt but resentment still smoldered deep in its crowded city precincts. The walls had the v-shaped notches all around the tops, and even from a distance I could see hundreds of archers stationed up on the wall-tops. The weakest part of the city’s defenses was a section of wall that had never been fully rebuilt from the last sacking. The Lagashites had patched about fifty yards with rubble. It seemed an obvious place to attack, and Sargon drew many of his wheeled siege towers and great catapults there. Battalions of shield bearers protected the haulers, forming a turtle shell of interlocked shields above them as they strained to haul the war machines close. The Lagashites cursed them from the walls and showered them with arrows and hand stones, but there was little effect. Other detachments of Sargon’s huge army approached the three city gates. Hundreds of young soldiers carried pole ladders. Their job was the riskiest of the assault, for they would have to run up to the walls, lean their tall ladders, made of a single long tree-pole with tiny foot braces tied every two feet up the entire length, up onto the battlements. Then they would scale the rickety ladders, holding small, round shields above their heads. If they got to the top of the walls, they’d have to fight the defenders with hand swords, and daggers. The defenders were busy throwing down the ladders as soon as they were put up. Only sheer numbers of attackers allowed this tactic to work. I had seen this before in our small campaigns on the way from Ugarit against rebel towns near Mari and had adjusted my battle plans.
Lipit-Sin galloped along behind the fontal units, with a dozen warriors and the young prince Naram-Sin riding close carrying banners and spears. Sargon remained in the rear in his pavilion, watching the attack and sipping cool drinks against the heat of the Sumerian morning. I looked up and saw large numbers of circling vultures, already waiting for the fresh kills that would soon come. Lipit-Sin raced up and reined in. The dust rose about the horses. I let it fall on me without moving and I saluted him, helmet off, hand to chest, in the Akkadian way. He had on bright copper armor with overlapping scales and wore a helmet of copper plates sewn on ox-hide, with a single plume on top of tufted white horsehair. He carried the copper battle axe that was the favorite weapon of the Akkadians and Sumerians. I had my bronze sword and my bow and quiver. My helmet was one I had made of boars teeth, like the ones in Achaea. I had only a square breastplate of boar’s hide tied on with leather straps and my wrist-guard for shooting. It was made of a polished rectangle of a hard, black stone from the mountains of Elam. I had won it by winning a shooting contest. I wore a loin-cloth and sandals with leggings that tied below my knees.
Lipit-Sin grinned at me. “Hail, Shit-Ling! Fight well today!”
“We will die for the Great King and for your patronage, “I answered.
He laughed and said, “Draw the enemy’s attention to the second gate, that’s your job. We’ll take the city.”
I bowed my head. Lipit-Sin’s horse reared up and he sun and rode off, retinue close behind. As they turned, young Naram-Sin gave me a hard look. I thought, Herakul is right, that’s a mean one.
Herakul had brought his five hundred foot soldiers up into position to my right. We were assigned to attack one of the lesser gates. We had no siege towers. I concentrated my archers behind a row of shield bearers. On my signal, they began shooting flight after flight of arrows at the men on the walls, clearing a space at the top on either side of where the ladders were to be raised. The Lagashite archers fired back and others threw stones down, and we had to keep our shields up, knocking the shots out of the way. We were taking casualties, but they were being killed and toppling from the walls onto the slope below the mud-brick walls. We raised the battle cry and charged. We threw up dozens of ladders and our men began to clamber up and get to the top. They had their bows strapped to the backs. Though some fell, others gained the ramparts and they then shot along the walls, clearing out a bigger spot for many more ladders. Before too long, we had half our force on top of the walls. We secured the section of wall and the rest of us climbed up. Once on top, I led the men across the rooftops of the city, shooting down and across at the defenders, making for the near gate tower. Lagashites came out of doors on the roofs and we took them on with swords and battle axes. Anarkos pushed three men with one lucky shove over the edge into the streets below. Everywhere there was the sound of men shouting and cursing and groaning as they were wounded or killed. Women screamed and asses and horses whinnied and brayed as arrows thudded into them. Smoke began to rise from fires in the houses. I led the way, shooting and fighting off attackers with my sword when I had to. I stayed as calm as I could and directed my shots and those of my men into strategic positions as we progressed. Within an hour we had shot and fought our way to the neighborhood of the gate. There the resistance was fierce, but we had the high ground, and forced our way to the gate-tower and took control of the ropes that lifted the gate timbers and pulled them up. I jumped down off a low section of rooftop onto a cart on the street and ran to the gate. Anarkos and the others followed my lead. We pushed the enemy back and swung the gates open. Herakul was waiting a hundred yards away with a force of five hundred, mostly savage Skythians and Hurrians intent on plunder. They shouted a great war-cry and swarmed through the gate. The defenders fell back into the narrow, ancient streets, fighting corner to corner, house to house. But my salasas stayed up on the rooftops and by mid day we came to the city center, the square before the great ziggurat. By this time, Sargon’s main force, led by Lipit-Sin and the young Prince Naram-Sin, the latter riding on a white horse and wearing purple colored copper armor, had pulled own the rubble-patched wall and stormed the city, destroying the main Lagashite force in deadly fighting. Flames began to rise everywhere and the air became thick with smoke that smelled of human flesh and burning timber and straw. Women and children fled screaming into the square before the ziggurat. Herakul and I led our force across the square, pushing the women and children out of the way. The women fell at our feet, grabbed at our knees, and begged for mercy. We climbed onto the steps of the ziggurat. Only the presence of a line of priestesses above on the level of the sanctuary held back our charge. Out of respect for the Sumerian gods, for they are basically the same as the Akkadian gods, or rather for fear Sargon would punish our blasphemy, we backed down to a few steps above the square. Our men tried to calm the keening women, but there was no consoling them. They knew what was coming. Herakul and I shouted to keep our men under control. My quiver was empty and I went pulled a few arrows from the bodies of Lagashites who had fallen on the steps. One still groaned. I leaned down and said, “sorry, my friend”. He looked at me and gasped, “My son…” he had nothing more he could say. As I yanked the arrow out he exhaled and his life went with his breath. He was younger than me, maybe twenty years old, small, black-haired. I wondered if his wife and child were in the square. I climbed up the first flight of steps and stood there with Herakul.
“Well done, little king!” beamed Herakul.
“That’s one for the Free Men!” I yelled back.
The Akkadian soldiers converged on the square, and I thought we had carried the day and expected Sargon to show mercy, but it was once again not mercy’s day. As we stood there on the bloody steps, Lipit-Sin and the main force of Akkadians and Hattusans, urged on by Naram-Sin and the Akkadian nobles, plunged into the mass of civilians, striking down those who cried for pity. Herakul and I stood, utterly powerless, as we watched the soldiers snatch children from the arms of their sobbing mothers. Women were thrown to ground and raped right there next to their wailing babies. Sargon had ordered that all males of all ages were to be killed and their heads cut off and piled before the city gates. By dusk, the ghastly pyramid was over thirty feet tall. I called for my men to retreat. Across the square, Lipit –Sin glared at me from his horse, but didn’t stop me. Most of my Free Men fell back beyond the walls and headed for camp to tend to their wounds. But some got caught up in the frenzy of looting, murder, and rape and didn’t report back until the next morning. Herakul’s Hurrians took the opportunity to avenge some slight of the past and destroyed entire districts, burning the houses to the ground and killing all they found who were not of use to them as sport or slave.
I came back to my tent, at some distance from the city, and washed my light wounds. I had been bruised and had a few scrapes but had otherwise been lucky. Our losses were light, though I knew that at least one in ten of the Free Men had fallen. Men returning from the sacked city brought jars of bir and even some vanna of a kind I’d never tasted. There was nothing I could do about those who stayed to rape and pillage. Plunder was their recompense, though I had the thought that it could be used against us in our bid for freedom.
At dusk, Lipit-Sin and Naram-Sin rode before the main camp dragging the bodies of Utu of Lagash, a Sumerian who had killed the Akkadian viceroy, and the dead man’s wife and children, now headless, behind their gilded chariots. Lipit-Sin’s armor was blood splattered, but Naram-Sin, now wearing his grandfather’s two-horned crown of Akkad, as prince of the royal line, had blood up to his elbows and in his hair. His reddened eyes were wild, drunk looking. Three small bodies bounced in the dust behind his chariot and he waved a sickle sword above his ahead and yelled a battle cry as he rode. The soldiers, many of them drunk now, cheered him on, raising their spears and bir beakers to him as rattled past.
This gruesome spectacle, though common enough, sickened me. I thought of the dying Sumerian’s last words of his son. Both were now dead, a tribute to the Great King’s power. A warrior of Lipit-Sin’s command rode up and told me to attend the sacrifices. I knew this wasn’t a request. I drank some more vanna and put on my clean robe, though there was still blood on my feet and armor.
Herakul and I trudged with many of our men to the open field before Sargon’s pavilion. As I walked up through the throng of battle-scarred soldiers and camp followers, many of them drunk and reveling in their victory, a soldier grabbed me by the elbow.
“Watch your back” he whispered. Then he was gone off into the crowd of cheering soldiers approaching the sacrificial altar. Herakul, who was in my confidence, did guard my back, and I kept looking around nervously during the slaughter of the poor goats and dogs. The entrails were favorable and Lipit-Sin stood on a block of stone and told the multitude that after a day’s rest we would march of Susa and destroy the city forever. He shouted this out with much conviction, but to me it sounded like so much claptrap. There was a steady train of slaves and animals bearing the spoils of the city out to the king’s camp. Sargon sat on his red throne under his pavilion and gave gifts of largesse to the select noblemen, almost all Akkadians.
“That’ll be his downfall someday, “said Herakul quietly.
“Let’s us hope that we’re far from here long before his reign ends.” I answered.
Night was falling as we started back to the camp of the Free Men. I had gathered a handful of my salasa’s companions to guard me. Now another messenger came out of the shadows. As he reached me, his hand slipped inside his cloak. Herakul grabbed his hand and drew the man’s arm back behind his back in a lock. The man twisted forward in pain.
“I’m no assassin, “he said indignantly though gritted teeth.” I am a messenger. Search me if you like; I have no weapons. But I must have a word with master Pelop of Achaea.”
Herakul and Anarkos let the man go and he and I went a few paces to the side. Darkness had now fallen completely.
“There is someone who would meet you.” he said.
“And who would that be? “ I replied.
“Someone of great importance, but this person can’t be found out for… his… safety and yours.” This was a usual courtly way of talking: somebody’s wife, most likely.
“I can’t see anyone; we’re at war.”
“This will not take too long. it is not what you think. Be by the river in front of your camp in two hours.”
“I’ve been fighting all day; I’ll be sound asleep in two hours.”
But I knew I must be there. These palace intrigues could get one killed. I kept in my mind that I was still a slave. I needed to stay alive until I could gain my freedom. Then I would find a way back to Vila and my son.