My tiredness was so overwhelming that I fell asleep on my cot at once upon returning to my tent. When I awoke, it was dark. I started up, for I had had been having a bad dream, in which I was trying to climb out of a hole in the earth. I was sliding back down in the depths when I woke. I remembered my summons and slipped on my sandals. The camp was mostly quiet, but for the usual noise of drunken revelry somewhere in the night. The insects were loud. I padded down through the palm groves to the riverside. There a slight breeze helped to lift the oppressive heat a little. I found no one waiting, though I walked the shoreline along the front of the camp. I was about to turn back when I heard a hiss coming from the shadows.
I peered into the blackness, for the moon was not yet high enough to light up the dark spots under the trees. I approached with caution; I didn’t know what waited for me. It could be a trap. The hiss came again. I saw a cloaked figure under the trees. Whoever it was was small; a woman, maybe even a child, I thought. I kept my grip on my dagger and let my eyes play out on the other shadows around.
“Who’s there? “ I said quietly.
The person stood, still wrapped in a long robe that hid the head as well.” Come with me,” said a woman’s voice. She sounded old. Her voice was raspy and uneven. She walked away at a surprisingly brisk pace through the grove. I followed at some distance, keeping her shadowy form in sight, but watching around me as I went. She walked along the river and came to a barge that was tied up. It was a wide vessel, the kind the Sumerians use for freighting loads or transporting animals across the rivers. It was made of wound, buoyant reed bundles and had at least four thirty-foot long hulls tied together. On its deck was a large rectangular cabin made of wicker. There was a gangplank that sloped up from the bank to the deck. I drew near the old woman, who stood by the gangplank. She lifted her hand to point at the barge.
“Achaean, she awaits you.”
I figured this be another of the bored Akkadian noblewoman, seeking my company for a tryst. I had refused several of these spoiled beauties before in favor of keeping my distance from intrigue and for the sake of my love for Vila, and I thought to say something about how I was worn out from the fighting or something else of an excuse, but there was something solemn about the old woman that made me hold my words. I hesitated for a moment and then walked up the gangplank. There was a light from an oil lamp or candle within the wicker cabin; I could see the flame flicker through the tiny spaces of the woven wood. The reed hull was soft under my feet and the big, sodden boat rocked almost imperceptibly on the ponderous current of the great river. A door stood slightly open at the front end of the cabin.
A woman’s soft voice said, “Enter, King Pelop.”
The sound of her voice was gentle and sensuous, like dark honey, no roughness or brittleness to it. I thought of the bowed string instrument that the Sumerians played with low notes that poured rather than sounded.
I pushed the door open. She sat on a cushion, her legs folded under her. The oil lamp was at her right side and lit one side of her face and body, throwing off moving shadows as the flame sputtered. The cabin floor was covered with rugs and cushions. A small, low table held the lamp and a jar and cups and a bowl of the nuts from Elam, the kind that break open when roasted and are bright green and tasty. I tensed, for this was the high priestess of Inanna, the daughter of Sargon, the Ensi of Ur. Enheduanna.
I had seen her from the across the hall in her palace in Ur, but I realized that I had not really understood her beauty. Her skin was the faint golden olive color of her race. Her eyes were dark, large, and lively, with high arched eyebrows above a long, slightly curved nose. Her lips were full and wide and her neck was long and elegant. Her robes obscured her body, but there could be little doubt that she was full and trim in the right measures. She had a very slight smile at the corners of her mouth. The lamplight danced in her eyes.
“I have sent my guards away. You have nothing to fear by being here.” She looked me in my eyes, unflinching, confident.”Sit and we’ll talk, “she said.
“I am your slave, Your Highness, “I said in my broken formal Akkadian. I was unsure just how to address a high priestess. I sat across the small cabin from her. My legs were sore and I must have groaned as I settled down on the cushions.
She smiled fully, suddenly easy and real.” No wonder you hurt. You fought well today. Your exploits are the talk of the camp.”
“Oh?” I said, “I did what was asked of me.”
“You took the city. Lipit-Sin was not pleased with you, or rather, he was unhappy with his own lack of glory.”
“His was the glory, “I said, “I am a slave, fighting to stay alive.”
She paused, the smile lingering on her lips.
“Come, I have brought some of your wine, it’s from Karpatha. You have been there.”
“You seem to know my story. I have been to Karpatha, but by accident. I was trying to get home and was blown there by the gods.”
“The gods.” She said. There was something wistful about the word gods in her voice.” I hear many stories. I am Ensi of Ur, by favor of my father. But I have other interests. Your people, interest me.” She pored two cups of red vanna. The smell was familiar for sure. “There are singers of tales in your lands. Have you ever heard them?”
“Oh, yes, “I said, “they’re called bards. We don’t have writing, you know, so they tell the histories of the old days. Some are good, all are entertaining.”
“I write songs, “she said. “ Outwardly they are about the gods. But inwardly, they are about me.”
“Your fame is everywhere, “I said, “the songs of Enheduanna.”
“Enheduanna is a title. My name is Lahalit. My mother gave me that name. It means little bird. My father chose my path for me. Even as a young girl I was trained to be who I am. But I will tell you something King Pelop,” She pointed her finger at me in a menacing way. I could see anger on her face,” I always hated it.”
She fell silent for a moment, hanging her head. Her long dark hair fell across her face and her shoulders slumped. Then she straightened up, though her eyes were closed, and took a deep breath and blew it out. She lifted her cup and drank deeply.
“Do you know, “she said quietly, almost in a whisper. She leaned towards me a little, locking her eyes with mine, “what it means to be a priestess, a hierodule?” he stare was hard, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Far from it, I felt that she was talking to me with less artifice than anyone had a in a long time; since Vila, really.” A priestess of the gods has to give herself to them in the sacred pavilion on the top of the ziggurat.”
I kept her gaze, for I felt she was baring her innermost being to me. I felt a strange bond with this woman, as if I knew her very well.
“The old priestesses say that in the time before time, the gods themselves came down on fiery chariots from the sky and gave their seed to the hierodules, the temple prostitutes. And that’s how men came into being. Before then, the race of man was like monkeys. They neither talked nor wrote nor ate cooked food nor made war or had kings.” She turned away from me and dropped her eyes for a moment, then looked back. They were burning with intensity. “But let me tell you, my king of Achaea, the gods come no more to the sacred temple. The priestesses and the youngest are the ones that are most desirable, lie there and await the embraces of old, disgusting men; the powerful, the connected. “She dug her nails into her cushion and looked away, “even their fathers.”
She raised her hands and covered her face. I could see tears slowly moving down her cheeks. They left trails of eye makeup. I reached out to touch her arm, but she drew back violently, twisting away from me and hiding her face in her robe.
“I’m sorry, I wanted…” I had no words to say that would help her. My heart beat quickly in my chest. I took a drink of vanna and breathed slowly to calm it. There was nothing but the sound of the night insects in the groves and the slapping of the river against the side of the barge.
In a moment she collected herself and turned back to face me.
“No, I am sorry, “she said, “this not your burden. Lahalit is Enheduanna. It is her burden. ” She shook her head quickly and tried to put on a brave face, though it was plainly a false one. She sipped some more vanna.
“I have had my women watching you,” she said calmly, “since last fall at Ugarit. The court, you know, is a place of endless gossip. The tales went around that you were bringing order and some sort of rightness to your slave camp. Also, I knew that you had refused women, even a priestess. I had the thought that here was a different sort of man. So I wanted to meet you and see for myself. But I’m afraid I have shown myself to you, but haven’t seen you at all!” She laughed.
“It has been my …how do you say it? My luck, no, that’s not right….privilege …to hear your story, Lahalit, if I may use your name. I will take it and treasure it and let no harm come from it. You have my word.”
There was a scratching sound at the door. Enheduanna looked slightly alarmed. “You must go now. But I hope you will come and see me again.”
“You need only send for me, Your Highness.”
“Call me Lahalit. “ She rummaged in a bag near her feet and drew out a tiny bird made of silver that was hung on a cord.” Wear this when you fight the armies of Susa. My wish is that it will protect you.”
I took it and put the cord around my neck. The bird was hidden by my tunic.” I thank you.”
“Go, quickly!” She waved with her hand as if to shoo off a fly. I got to my feet and left the cabin. A tall, muscular guard, a man with truly black skin, the likes of which I had never seen, stood on the deck. He said nothing and pointed the gangplank out with his spear.
I made my way back to our camp. The combination of the vanna with my battle weariness made my legs heavy and my arms weak. I lay down on my cot. I fell into sleep and dreamed that I was lost in a maze of tunnels. There were rooms opening up everywhere I looked but they were dark. I couldn’t find my way out. I woke late in the night and lay there listening to the uneasy sounds of the night, when, they say, the souls of the unmourned dead walk among the sleeping and whisper to them tales of darkness and sorrow.
Sargon rode along on a black charger. Two slaves rode alongside, carrying a shade pavilion held up by slim poles to screen the Great King from the sun. Lipit-Sin, Naram-Sin and other nobles trotted behind in a column, raising dust. The entire army of Akkad, over thirty thousand men, stood at attention in the blazing heat on the flat plain. Heat waves rippled across the blasted sands. Hattusans, Hurrians, Sumerians, Amorites, Kannaanites, Bedu, and our small band of Free Men, eight hundred in all, counting Herakul’s battalion, waited for the King’s inspection. Sargon wore the fore-and-aft to-horned royal helmet of Akkad. Naram-Sin wore a plumed helmet and his copper-and -boar’s -hide armor. Lipit-Sin wore a helmet of beaten copper that looked like bound hair. It shone in the sun, and I wondered how hot it must be to wear.
Out troop stood almost naked, the way Free Men like to fight. We had only the lightest of armor, and most men wore scarves tied around their heads instead of helmets. In front of our ranks were fifty men with attendant horn-bearers, blowing the twelve-foot-long great battle trumpets, which had enormous bell-shaped openings from which blared cacophonous sounds. The horns made every tone from high and whiny, like storm crows to gut-rattling low sounds, like the rutting calls of great bulls. Behind them a row of a hundred or more drummers pounded out a steady, martial thumping that rolled across the open plain.
The hills of Elam, birthplace of Enkidu the Wildman of the Tale of Gilgamesh, rose away to the east. Before the hills lay the mighty city of Susa, the Elamite stronghold. In that song, it was told how Enkidu came to challenge Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk to mortal combat. But in the course of their battle, they found neither could best the other. So they pledged friendship instead of enmity and thereafter were as brothers, until the gods took Enkidu to the underworld, leaving Gilgamesh to grieve so deeply that he searched the whole world for the meaning of life and mortality. He met Utu-Napishtim, the immortal who was the only man to survive the Great Flood and he found the pearl of immortality, only to lose it in the sea again. In the end, Gilgamesh was told by a god to go back to his Kingdom of Uruk, love his wife and family, rule well, and die like every other man. I thought it a good tale, though the nonsense about a flood that covered the whole world was, on the face of it, absurd. I could see how there might be a great flood in this flat pace, but not in the mountains of my homeland. People like to believe such stories, and it seemed that many Sumerians and Akkadians took the tale seriously. I thought it was more about the fact that each man has to face his death with courage and dignity, knowing that it was the fate of all who are born.
We could see the Elamites facing us across the sandy wastes, and their citadel rising up beyond. Their banners seemed to float above the heat waves. Their trumpets echoed ours and their drums beat. The two armies slowly advanced on each other. Behind us, across a shallow waterway, our camp waited for our return. I thought that should the day go against Akkad, there would be a great slaughter in our camp. Lahalit was there with her guard. They had swift onagers if the hour called for their flight. I fingered her silver bird-charm under my leather breastplate. I hoped it would bring me luck.
She had sent for me again the next night and the following. We had talked until dawn both nights, though we didn’t touch. We spoke of songs and legends, of Achaea, of childhood, of lovers, of freedom. She had never heard of the concept until recently. In Akkad and Sumer, all were slaves to the god-kings. She told me of the beliefs of Sumer and how the kings, who usually didn’t really believe in such things, used the fear and superstition of the people to rule as gods on earth. It was a dark vision of the society of men, but then much of what I had seen in my life was darkness.
It was on the third night, the one before the march on Susa, that things had changed. I was about to leave, as the hour was late and the march was to be early. When I put my hand down to help myself to my feet, she slid hers on mine and grasped me by the wrist. I should have resisted, but I didn’t want to. I felt a kinship with her. We had spoken of things beyond even those spoken by Vila and me. She pulled me to her and I went willingly, a lamb to slaughter at the hands of the goddess once again. She was the most accomplished of all the goddess’s priestesses, having been trained to it, and I had been alone for a long time. It was a dangerous thing we did, for each of us. Our union could never be, between goddess and slave, Princess and captive. In the darkness we clung to each other. In the end we both shed tears, tears that came from a dam being broken by a flood, tears that had been waiting for years to fall. When I left we said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. The days to come would bring death and glory, each in its measure as doled out by the gods. At least that’s what they say. We knew we wouldn’t see each other again for some time.
What I didn’t know was that we had been watched.
The Elamites before us had fielded a massive army, maybe even bigger than ours. In this setting on the vast, featureless flat plain, the war carts, drawn by onagers, could be used as the main offensive weapon. These were four-wheeled carts that could carry six men and a driver. Sargon had brought an astounding fifteen hundred of them out onto the field of battle. The Elamite carts lined up across from ours. The two armies advanced, with great cheers going up above the din of clanking metal and whinnying onagers and the tramp of heavy feet on the salt-sand earth. Clouds of dust rose about the battalions. Our front line was the carts, flanked by foot soldiers and lines of archers on the left side, and the mounted men on the right flank, two thousand strong. It was hard to tell in the dust, but it seemed the Elamites had a similar array. Sargon fell back to the rear, leaving Lipit-Sin in charge at the front. The two forces drew nigh, just out of bowshot. The commanders called out orders and encouragement to their squadrons. Both side yelled insults and jeers at the other, calling each other defilers of mothers and god destroyers and far worse. I led the Free Men in a wild Achaean battle song I had taught them, while Herakul bellowed like the man-bull he was, and his troops answered him in kind. The Hurrians and Skythians had come to revere their warrior leader.
With a great roar of thousands of voices and rhythmic clattering waves of thousands of spears, battle-axes, and swords being banged on shield, helmets, and breastplates, the carts suddenly swept forward.. We were right behind a double line of shield bearers, foot troops armed with battle axes. Their job was to protect us so we could fire thousands of arrows onto the enemy lines and chariots. We all ran as fast as we could, though our shield bearers were weighted down with their shields and axes. We could have easily outrun them. With a deafening thunder of crashing metal, wood, and horse, the two lines smashed into each other. We could see that it was about even. As we came up, Elamite horsemen rode down on the left flank of the carts. I called for the Free Men to draw swiftly to the left, Thus allowing the Elamites to converge on the carts, but that put us on their flank and we began bringing them down with deadly volleys of arrows from behind our lines of shield men. Some of the horsemen turned back into us and the battle became chaos. Onagers and horses, with or without riders, plunged into our ranks, knocking shield men and archers about like they were children’s play- soldiers. I kept rallying my salasas, pulling them back and then pushing them forward as the Elamites charged and fell back. At one point a group of Elamite horsemen broke through the ranks altogether, right past the position held by Lipit- Sin and his select horse-guard at the left flank, and started riding for the rear of our lines, where the Great King was. I jumped on the back of a riderless onager and chased after them. I thought if they got through, it would be my fault and my men would pay for it. I had just grabbed a fresh quiver from one the fallen men. The Elamite horsemen were riding down on the command position of the Great King, making for his gilded chariot from which he watched the battle. I kicked my steed into a flat-out gallop and charged down on the Elamites. I pressed my knees into the flanks of the onager and fired at the last man. My arrow caught him right between the shoulder blades and he fell, his foot catching in the saddle strap so that he was dragged across the sand. I shot another rider and a third. A few Akkadian nobles had sallied forth and were racing on horseback toward the Elamites, but one broke through their charge and headed for Sargon’s chariot. I could see Sargon’s archers firing, but they couldn’t hit the man, who was shielded by his horses’ neck from their arrows. He was closing with the chariot. He raised his battle-axe to swing it on the King, but I shot him through the back, so that the arrow stuck out through his chest. He tottered and fell heavily in the dust at the feet of Sargon. I rode up and saluted, and without slowing down, turned my onager and spurred him back to the battle.
Herakul’s Hurrians had pressed in on the Elamite riders and were routing them, pulling them from their mounts and slaughtering them with battle-axes. I stood in my stirrups and looked out across the plain. I could see that our mounted force had outflanked the Elamite chariots on the right flank. They were pinching in on the center, pressing the Elamite carts into a circle where they could be destroyed from all sides. It would be a rout for Akkad. Already the Susan carts were trying to flee. But these battle- carts are not fast or very maneuverable, and their warriors were cut down by the Hattusans at the center and right flank. The fighting was intense, but within a half an hour, the Elamites were falling back on Susa, across a wide, shallow river. Soon they were throwing down their weapons and running heedlessly through the knee-deep water. Carts foundered in the mud and sand- banks and were toppled by the river’s flow. Onagers cried out in panic as arrows struck their sturdy bodies. Lipit-Sin had now pressed forward, and led the rout, slaying fleeing foot soldiers as they ran for their lives.
Herakul and I found each other and drew apart from the fighting to confer.
“They’re going to be fleeing the city by the postern gate.” I said.
“I agree. “Said the blood- drenched giant, “We could slip around the city and enter without much trouble, I’d wager.”
“I’ll take your bet, my friend. Tell your men, no killing of innocents.”
“I swore them on a blood oath this very morning. The Hurrian’s quarrel was with the men of Lagash, not Susa.”
“Good. Let’s draw upstream and cross beyond that far bend, through the trees to give us cover.”
All across the field of battle the Akkadians and their levies were killing the routed Elamites and their hapless Sumerian allies. We were far from Sargon’s command, alone on the beyond the left wing of the battle. We drew our force back from the rout, though some wouldn’t come, intent on plundering the dead, and we led over six hundred men at a run along the near river bank. We waded across above a bend and went through palm groves and fields toward the far side of the city. Sure enough, the postern gate was open and citizens of Susa were running for their lives. Women dragged screaming children with them; the old tottered along leaning on sticks. Some carried a few meager possessions on their backs, sacks of grain and dates. There must have been five thousand refugees already strung out along the road through the fields that led up into hills to the east. A few Elamite guards tried to keep order, but plainly the flood of terror-stricken people was too much for them to handle.
We came along a canal, keeping below the embankment until we drew near the gate itself. Then we charged out and overwhelmed the guards, who mostly threw down their spears and ran. The refugees cried out in fear and fell at our knees, but we pushed past them and up into the city. One man, a priest by his robes, stood calmly as we ran up to the gate. He held his hand up for peace.
“These are simple people, “he said to me, “they are not warriors. Let them pass, please.”
I looked at him and said,” They are free to go.”
The streets were clogged with panicked Susans. I ordered a column of two abreast to move up the side of the main street, leaving the people to flee. We threaded the old alleys and streets and soon reached the base of the ziggurat, a fine one with four levels and steep steps leading up. Herakul and I climbed the steps. There was no opposition now, as the rout on the plains had been watched for some time from the walls of Susa, and all defenders and even the priests and priestesses had fled for their lives.
“Should we raise a banner from the top?” asked Herakul.
“I think not, “I said, “Slaves need to know their place. I was thinking about taking too much glory from Lipit-Sin and the other nobles. Let’s move on and open the main gates to let the army in.”
We surged with our troops through the emptying streets and came to front gates. We swung them open. I stepped out into a hail of arrows, and jumped back.
“Raise the Standard of Ur from the walls!” I yelled to my salasa.
I clambered up to the battlements and looked out to see Lipit-Sin leading the vanguard of Akkad up the slope of the tell to the gates. Beyond, the vast field was littered everywhere with corpses of men and onagers and wrecked, overturned carts. The army of Akkad had massed below the gates and the men were shouting to enter the city for plunder. We raised the battle flag of Ur to signal that we had taken the gates. It was met with great roar of approval from the army. I called to my troops to take to the walls and stay out of the streets. Most followed my order, though not all. You can hardly blame men for their weakness sometimes. I was pleased to see that more than half of my teams were mostly intact. I had them line up on the wide wall-top and report by salasa.
“ Eagles!” “Lions!” “Ravens!” And so on. Finally we shouted out, “Free Men!” and raised our weapons above our heads in triumph. I had the thought that we were being immodest, but my men deserved praise and reward after the battle.
The Akkadians were pouring into the city now, shouting and looting. The first fires sent pillars of black smoke above the mud-brick tenements. Soon, the city would lie in ruins, and the men and male children who could be caught would be beheaded, their bloody fear-wracked faces staring out for eternity from the gruesome pile before the city gates, a warning to all who might oppose the living god-on earth, Sargon the Great. Mothers, girls, and wives would rip their clothes and scratch their breasts and take their own lives with hidden knives. They would be raped, even in death by the animals who called themselves the gods who ruled the world. I wanted none of that. I hoped that many of the refugees had had a chance to escape beyond the fields and into the hills.
“What about plunder!” Someone shouted from the ranks, and was echoed by others.
I raised my hand for silence. “We who call ourselves the Free Men cannot plunder. Remember, we are still slaves of the Great King. We must await his largesse. I am sure he will recognize out contribution. Dion, I will see you get your fair share of bir and women!”
The men laughed. Indeed, Sargon hadn’t been tight with his share for my men. We lived well. Besides, as slaves, we couldn’t really own much. When we were freed, that would be a different story. For now, we needed to stay disciplined.
I looked toward the ziggurat of Susa, where smoke rose from the upper levels. Where had the gods of Susa gone? As with all gods, they had deserted the faithful of the city in their hour of need. I thought, if such gods exist, they are pitiful and weak, or cruel and uncaring. But I knew the truth, that the worship of these many-named deities was something that was used by the powerful to keep the common people in thrall of punishment in the next life. The next life! What about this one? I spat on the battlements, but not to ward off the evil eye, but rather in disgust at the greed and cruelty of men, men who created the gods, not the other way around.
Someone called to me and broke my thought.” King Pelop! “
Lipit-Sin, with Naram-Sin in his retinue, was entering the city on horseback through the ruined gate. I came to the edge of the battlement and saluted him from a balcony. “Hail, Lu-gal! You have taken the city!”
He looked up at me for a moment, but then turned away without a word of recognition.
When he had ridden on, Herakul came up to my side and said quietly, “We’re screwed.”
I nodded to him. “Withdraw the men; we make for camp.”