Pelop and Lahalit flee north, Herakul goes to the Land of Perseus, Cold Mountains, The Prophet Abraham
I looked at the priest. He was the one who had stood at the postern gate of Susa and asked me to spare the refugees. There were a dozen or so riders in armor of various types. They held extra onagers.
“My lords and lady,” he said in a most courtly and dignified way, “we have mounts to carry you away to safety as has been asked by our friends. Come at once, for the sorties of Sargon are searching the lands. We need to get into the hills.”
He turned to me, and said simply, “you have my thanks.”
I saluted him in the Sumerian style, hands raised in front of my chest. He bowed his bearded face slightly in the Elamite way. We mounted up and rode fast towards the looming hills.
The low desert ridges rose before us. Away from the great rivers it was a desolation, with hardly a living plant except for thorny, spare bushes in the dry watercourses. We followed one such wadi, which remind me of the name vodi back in my childhood home. The sand of the dry, empty streambed made a perfect road for quick travel. It wound in long flash-flood washed curves through the hills, which stood higher and higher as we traveled. Sometimes on the hills we saw solitary riders. They waved to us and we knew they were watching for pursuit. By the end of the day, we had crossed the first range and found a tiny pool in the sharp bend of the wadi that still held a little brackish water. The asses were thirsty and so were we. The Elamites had brought water skins and even a couple of vanna skins.
“A short rest, then we press on after nightfall,” said the priest, whose name was Shamash-El, “By the morning we’ll be beyond the reach of even the great Sargon of Akkad.” He spoke the name with contempt and spat in the dust, to rid his mouth of the mere mention of the hated Akkadian ruler.
We rested and then rode on. I rode next Shamash-El and Lahalit. The horses walked easily in the cooling night air, and the stars gave us a little light, for the sands were almost white in the wadi and reflected back the starry heaven’s ethereal light.
“My lady, “said Shamash-El. “What will you do? You are the King’s daughter and heir and the Ensi of Ur. How may we humble people of the east be of help to you? You know we hold the Goddess of Ur in high regard, though we call her by our own name.”
Lahalit thought for a while and answered, “The new Ensi of Uruk has usurped the real power. He sought to have me be his consort. I couldn’t do that for more than one reason.” She sat straight in her saddle.” Some of them are my own l, but in terms of the Kingdom of Akkad, a union of Ur and Uruk would threaten my nephew Naram-Sin and his designs to be King after my father is gone. He would strike at Ur and Uruk with the armies of Babylon, Kish, and Sippar. Lipit-Sin’s, with Ur and Uruk’s power would be too great. It would tear the empire apart. You know the curse.”
I said, “I don’t know of it, what curse?”
“ There is a curse, told of by the High Priestess of Ur at the beginning of Sargon’s reign, that the lands will dry up, the rivers will fail, and the cities will be destroyed by famine and disease, all because the house of Sargon has sinned against the gods. This has been taken to mean if the Akkadians turn against each other.”
I said, “surely, these things could happen at any time. Some years in doesn’t rain. I find it hard to believe that man as worldly as Lipit-Sin would be fearful of such superstition.”
Lahalit turned towards me.” Even great lords are subject to fear, especially when they have a kingdom to lose. Both my father and Lipit-Sin are fearful men. They are obsessed with the omens, with the sacrifices of the temples. Why do the fires of sacrifice and the red blood of animals run on the stones before the altars? The one who doesn’t believe in it at all is my nephew. That’s why he is so dangerous. He fears no gods.”
“Well, “I said, “If Naram-Sin is such a fool that he would mishandle the kingdom to its destruction, then the gods should punish him. But he is just a boy.”
“He is a cruel man in a boy’s body,” Said Lahalit. She cat sat, her head down, and I wondered what she knew of her nephew that she wasn’t saying. “In any case, my friend, “she said to Shamash-El, “King Pelop and I will go to the land of the Hurrians in the north. And I thank you for your aid. I will never forget it.” She sounded like a true Queen, proud and clear.
We crossed several ridges and came down into a narrow valley between steep mountains that held fingers of snow on their craggy tops. Though the hills were rocky and dry, in the valley was a lively, clear stream and green meadows and small irrigated fields, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a long time. Its melodious sound was a great relief to all of us after so much war and so many months in the desert. We camped under some tall trees in a meadow. There were Elamite Shepards in the hills, and they brought us fresh milk and mutton. We feasted and relaxed for a whole day. Sargon could not reach into these valleys and never would be able to. We held a council that night.
Urartu the Hurrian, who had been one of Herakul’s battalion commanders, told us of his lands to the north. The Hurrians had been conquered in part by Sargon, but now were in revolt in many places. They had no great king, but rather local chieftains of isolated tribes.
“All across the north, the tribes are rising against Akkad. The people live in narrow, cold, and poor valleys in the mountains and don’t have enough wealth to pay tribute. We can go there and I can say we will be safe as men can be in these times, though not all chieftains can be trusted. Some are tyrants in their own ways.”
Shamash-El told us the Elamites were in disarray. Their king, Nergal-Ninsa, had been killed before the walls of Susa in the battle. The refugees were hiding back in the hills, and many were starving. They cowered in terror and sadness from the desecrated and unburied dead of the battle, for they have a great fear of evil, wandering ghosts, as most people do, and they believed that the unburied men would never find rest, but would bring curses down on their relatives who had failed to give them proper funeral rites.
“So there is no power to defeat Sargon,” said Herakul.
“Only the Pharaoh in Egypt might have that power, and the Egyptians won’t go beyond their own borders, “said Urartu. Shamash-El agreed. The Perses beyond the mountains were a scattering of tribes, and kingdom of Dilmun in the southern sea was too weak now for a revolt.
The main question revolved around Lahalit. She and I had never had a chance to talk about what we might do; events had forced our hands. She had acted rashly, and I knew it was partially because of me, though not entirely. She despised Lipit-Sin, and his rise to power had put her in this situation. She would have been in exile even if I wasn’t there. She looked at me to see what I would say.
I said, “I say we go to the north and wait to see what happens next. Perhaps Sargon will choose a course of action that will suggest what we should do.” It wasn’t much of an answer. My plan had always been to return to Hedra, to Vila and Aon. But I didn’t know my own heart right now.
She said, “We will go north with you, Urartu.”
Shamash-El raised his hands above his head to call down the blessing of the gods.” May Enlil and Inanna and Nanna guide and protect you, “he said solemnly.
I thought we’d better guide and protect ourselves because the gods aren’t out there.
Herakul came to me as I sat by my small fire. My mind was full of thoughts and I was unable to sleep. He plopped down.
He stared into the coals, picked up a little rock and flipped in to the fire. A plume of sparks rose up and blew away. He didn’t speak. I watched him out of the corner of my eyes. He didn’t look at me, then shot me a short glance and quickly looked back at the dying fire.
“Not coming to the Hurrian lands?” I said.
“Didion and I are going to go east. They say there is a ruler name Perseus who rules a vast kingdom and has flying horses.”
I laughed, “that’s a good one! I hope they have extra big winged horses, if you want to fly on their backs!”
He kept staring into the fire.
“No, I’m serious, “he said quietly.” And then there’s Dilmun and Harappa far across the warm seas. The sailors tell of dark-skinned beauties there with round hips and bright eyes with dark brown pupils.”
“But how will we get along without you, my hero Herakul beloved of the goddess? Who will be our strength and warrior against the Akkadians?” I joked like a condemned man, but I was serious underneath. Herakul made our party strong, almost invincible against the mountain brigands and war-lords.
“Little King Pelop, you shall lead your flock. You’re brains are a better weapon than my muscles. Plus, a smaller party can slip by where a bigger one is seen as a threat.” He paused.
“So you mean to leave tomorrow? “ I asked.
“The road goes over the mountains here to Perse, the land of the Flying horses.”
“You mustn’t leave us, Herakul!”
“I’ll show up when you don’t expect me!”
He stood up slowly and looked down at me. He leaned over and gave me punch on my shoulder.
” You’ll be all right,” he said, “I’d watch out for the followers of your priestess, though. They’ll be needing her back.”
I said nothing. Herakul sloughed off into the darkness. In the morning, he and Didion and three Elamites were gone. They hadn’t taken nearly anything of food with them.
Urartu was angry.” We could have used his arms and back!” Mtombe‘s face was cloudy with doubt. Lahalit looked a little scared.
“He’ll be back, “I said. But I knew that Herakul heard his own gods drumming and singing in his big bear’s heart. If he didn’t want to be with us, he’d only be a weight on our shoulders.
“Lead us, Urartu our Hurrian guide!” I called to Urartu in mock gayety.
By the time we reached the Hurrian lands the season had begun to change from summer into fall. I had been in the east for more than a year. I didn’t know the day of my birth, but I thought it to be in this season, so I figured I was twenty-five years old. I had been a boy, then a slave, a warrior, a king, and then a slave again, though in some ways I was a king among slaves. Now I was a refugee, seeking shelter in the rugged mountains of this distant land with my companions of fate, one of whom was a princess and high priestess of great importance to the greatest King on Earth. We made our way slowly and carefully from valley to valley, crossing high passes where the wind was now cold in the nights and descending into uninhabited defiles where the lion, bear, and wolf reigned. The inhabited hill-kingdoms of the Hurrian lands were less safe than the wild places. Warlords led tribes of fearful, superstitious men who treated strangers with distrust and hatred. We had to fight our way out a few tough places. It seemed that each narrow vale had its own fortress and rough stone houses. Urartu brought a few Hurrians, some of who were former conscript soldiers of Sargon who had run away from the Great King’s armies and sought an outlaw’s life in the mountains, to our side, so that our company numbered eighteen. We were strong enough to defend ourselves against most bands of brigands and hill tribesmen. After all, we had Urartu, Mtombe, and me; no slouches when it came to battle. The Hurrians looked upon Mtombe as an evil spirit, a Jinnu. Just his presence frequently sent them running for their lives, spitting to ward off evil in the manner of ignorant people everywhere.
Mtombe, who came from the land south of Egypt, told us in his deep, booming, sonorous voice, strangely accented, about the great ziggurats of the Pharaohs.
“They are far taller than the brick buildings of your land, milady, “he said to Lahalit. “They are pure white and tipped with shining peaks that catch the rays of Re, the sun god. Their temples have columns of carved rock, inscribed with picture letters fifty feet tall, and statues of the Gods and Kings of the same size! The Great River Nile, filed with man-eating crocodiles and huge water pigs called hippos, floods the land every year, making the soil very rich, and the people live on barley cakes and endless bowls of fresh beer, of which there is never a shortage. The man- mountains are the eternal resting places of the Living-God Pharaohs and their mates and servants, who are buried with them, to serve them in their rebirth.”
“They are reborn?” I asked.
“They will someday be resurrected in their bodies, but meanwhile live in the underworld in the form of a double, which they call the Ka.”
That sounded more hopeful than the endless gloom of the Sumerian and Achaean afterlives. The man-eating lizards and giant water-pigs I put down as more tall tales. What else? I wondered how many living-god kings walked the earth; one in every country, no doubt.
“There are underground temples and long passageways through solid rock into deep caves filled with golden treasure beyond reckoning.”
More tales! Everyone loved a good story.
“There is one giant statue, the biggest in the world, of a man with a lion’s body. It stares at the river temple of Re near the great man-mountains. They say it comes alive at night and eats those who break the laws of the Pharaoh.”
“That’s a smart King who scares his people into submission!” I laughed.
“Oh, but they are a happy people, “said Mtombe seriously, “they serve the king with their hearts and bodies. They are prosperous and healthy. The kingdoms are very old. They originally came down from the skies.”
“On fiery chariots like the Sumerian gods?” I asked, mockingly.
“The same way.” he said.
Crazy fools. I thought if you told people they had come from monkeys they would probably believe that, too!
The mountains were sere and harsh, except in pockets where they reminded me of my boyhood home, with snow-capped peaks and meadows of wildflowers, though these were the last of the year before the snows came in earnest. Nowhere did we find a place that seemed good for wintering. Urartu kept urging us on over the next ridge; many times we came to passes where we could see for miles out into the plains of Sumer. Sometimes I saw a wistful look in Lahalit’s eyes, though she was strong and disciplined. She knew she could not go back unless things changed. We sought word of the court of Sargon, but could never get reliable news. There rumors of this and that, cities sacked, kings being killed by the armies of Akkad. We heard tall tales of the fall of Lagash and the defeat of the Elamites before Susa. It was said a seven-foot high giant and an archer from the sky had double-handedly taken the cities. The archer could kill a man from a mile with a single shot! The speakers often claimed to have been there. We didn’t disavow them often. But we never got word that The Ensi of Uruk had fallen in battle or had been disowned by the Great King.
We came at last to a small village, typical for those parts, with houses made of low stone walls roofed with turf and sod. It lay at the foot of a wall of snow mountains, on a high bench that overlooked a lower valley and a jumble of rugged mountains that were of lesser height.
“Ehru!” Shouted Urartu, “my home!”
He went ahead and brought back welcome news. The chieftain greeted us as guests and had a place for us, a half-ruined way-station for nomad caravans that came through in spring, when the wandering folk brought their sheep to the high pastures. They had gone back down to the plains now in advance of winter. We camped in the broken walls and huts of the station. We set about fixing up the walls, here made of stone, not mud-brick. Lahalit and I went with Urartu to pay homage to the chieftain. He was an old man, very old. He was himself a nomad, he said, but he had come here for a while. He would be leaving in the spring to go to Harran. He said he had been called by his god. We drank his fermented goat’s milk and munched his barley cakes and nodded, not knowing which particular gods he served. To me they’re the same, you know. He was a strange old fellow. He had a long white beard and he claimed to be over seventy years old! I had never heard of such a thing and thought that he was exaggerating the way old men will. He had a wife of our age, or maybe a few years older. She was a dazzling beauty, with long dark hair and flashing, playful eyes, though she assumed a most modest outward manner. I wondered how she would be with this old man, more than twice her age. He also called her his sister, though I gathered, that that was title the wife got from the husband’s father, who adopted his daughters-in-law for the sake of the family property staying in the same hands through the generations. This old man’s name was Abram. His wife was Sarai. He laughed to us that he had had to kill many men who had wanted to take Sarai from him for the sake of her beauty. I thought him an odd person, yet he owned many sheep and stores of grains and drink. He made us welcome in his village, so we thanked him.
Within a few days, the first snows came. Mtombe and Urartu and I had put up a lot of firewood; we and the Hurrian lads had gone up into the peaks to gather it and had stacked it high outside the walls of the huts. We chinked the stones with mud that quickly froze in the cracks. Abram made us a gift of six sheep and traded us several large jars of foodstuff, “for the sake of your company through the cold months” he said cheerfully. Again, we thanked him.
I watched the old man climbing up above the town onto the bare shoulders of the mountains carrying a staff and wearing just a cloak. His servant said that Abram went up to talk to God. When I asked which one, the servant just looked blankly at me and I took him to be a simpleton.
One cold morning, after about a month, Urartu came to me and Lahalit. His face was grim and his broad brow furrowed. He sat down next to our little hearth, where we sat huddled against the growing cold. He rubbed his hands and face and pulled his threadbare cloak up around his shoulders.
“Getting cold now!” he said cheerfully. But I could see something was in his mind.
I got out a vanna skin, for Abram had parted with a few skins. I think he had brought them over so that he could see Lahalit. The old man had a fancy for young women, that’s for sure.
“Here, old friend, let it out, it’ll be good for your soul.”
He took a long drink. The exhaled loudly and hung his head own a little. He looked at us sheepishly.
” The boys are thinking they’ll be moving on down to the coast or somewhere where’s there’s some action.”
I had seen it coming. This little hill-town wasn’t enough for a gang of young fighters. “But we’ll be undermanned if you go. What if the locals come against us?” I asked. I had half a jest in my voice.
“Don’t think they will, don’t think they will, “he replied, taking another pull. “Mtombe and I will be here with you. Old Abram has control over this place. We’ll be fine. Besides, we’re going to run out of food.”
“Well, tell them to go with the protection of the gods”
We went outside where the troop was waiting. Big wet snowflakes drifted down. The plains of the wide lands were only a three day march; the coast, maybe a month. They filed off down the mountainside. I stood there until the last one disappeared at a place where the trail dropped away into the lower valley. I went back inside and sat down again. Now we were defenseless against any large party that might find us. It wasn’t that far to the borders of Sargon’s empire lands. Lahalit brought another log for the fireplace. She poked at the coals with stick.
Lahalit and I were at a crossroads. Winter was closing in on us. The last news we had had was that Sargon still searched for her among the Elamites and even down to Dilmun. The lands of the Hurrians were safe enough for now, for the passes into the mountain strongholds were already deep with snow.
We didn’t talk too much about the future. For now, there was no place to go and no way to get there. I still held it in my mind that I would have to go back to Achaea, but I had strong feelings for Lahalit. We were very comfortable with each other. There was little tension, even though we knew there were unspoken and unanswerable questions between us. She was Sargon’s daughter and Enheduanna, Ensi of Ur of the Goddess Inanna. What would come of that?
She and I became almost a part of Abram and Sarai’s family, as were all the villagers. The old man knew how to do everything. He could doctor sheep and people, settle disputes, and oversee building projects. Urartu, Mtombe and I had begun to repair some of the more broken-down of the houses in the town for older people; old women without children mostly, because many of the younger men went off to the plains to work in the fields during the spring and summer, and some never returned. The village was slowly dying from attrition. Sargon’s vast army had opened another possibility of employment. Few came back from that. Urartu was an exception. The villagers came to Lahalit with their prayers and supplications, for the gods of Sumer are the gods of the northern mountains as well. Sarai plainly played a role in the spiritual life of the village women as well. She seemed the kindest and gentlest women I’d ever seen, always smiling and listening to people. But she wasn’t a priestess as far as I could tell, just kind-hearted. She had not had a child with Abram, which I put down to his age. But she hoped he would take a second wife, so that he might have a better chance at bringing a child into the world. There was a vision the old man had had about founding a line of heirs who would continue until the end of days, whatever he meant by that.
Now winter came on strong, with a series of heavy snows and weeks of harsh winds. The old folks of the village spat and said there had never been since bad weather in all their lives. Before long, fuel began to be scarce. The mountains in that region don’t have a lot of trees, for they are half desert. We had already taken most of what we could from the tiny stands of pines that grew along the rills and tumbling creeks. We burned dried sheep dung, but we could see that we would run out long before the thaws of spring, which the old-timers said, was as cold as winter sometimes. The people looked to us for help, and Urartu, Mtombe, and I gathered as much wood as we could. I suspect the villagers thought we had brought this curse with us, as well. Perhaps we did. We had a lot of blood on our hands. Maybe the spirits of the unburied Elamites had followed us and were casting spells on the clouds. But I had seen bad weather in other mountains. It came and went and finally a thaw would come and the world would be green and warm again. People would find something wrong with that, too. We made forays down the mountains, carrying loads of dead branches and twigs and whatever else we could find back up the steep slopes on our bent backs, but it was not going to be enough. Many of the villagers especially began to blame black-skinned Mtombe for the bad weather. It was so predictable. I had known Mtombe for a handful of months and found him to be a highly honorable and able man. But the color of his skin made these superstitious mountain-folk think of him at best as offensive to the gods or at the worst a demon. I worried about what might happen in the future.
In the third month of winter, when the days are shortest and the nights long and frigid, a storm of all storms came from the north. There had been a couple of days of fair weather, and we started making trails leading out from the village through the snow-drifts. If the weather held we could perhaps make a trail that would lead down the mountain, for this way had been blocked by drifts for some time now. But this storm was different. It howled in, bringing black clouds low, obscuring the peaks, even the nearest hills. The village was cloaked in darkness and falling snow. It quickly piled deep, filling in our little trailheads. And it kept coming. For days we were trapped inside our houses. The winds were merciless, too, blowing the snow into drifts higher than the tops of the flat roofs. Mtombe and I kept digging out with our wooden spades, but the village was basically under the snow. The houses looked like snow-mounds with tiny plumes of wind-driven smoke coming from them. We dug a snow-trench that led to Abram’s house, which was a warren of tiny earth-floored rooms. Several of the older villagers had come there; some of their roofs had fallen in from the weight of the snow and ice, and the place was crowded and dank and full of dung-smoke. To go outside was death for the older people now, so they had no choice but to defecate and piss where they were. The stink was horrible. Somehow, with the help of Urartu, who had bit by bit become rather smitten with her, and with the other similarly smitten village boys, beautiful Sarai kept the fire going and the pot stewing with dried herbs and the last of the mutton bones. The sheep that hadn’t been brought inside before the storm came were gone; either frozen in the drifts or escaped far down the slopes to be eaten by winter’s ravenous wolves.
Through it all, Abram stayed calm. He spent long hours sitting, staring into the space in front of him, not talking to anyone. Others kept hushed in his presence. Even once his house was full of unlooked-for lodgers, he had his own corner. Sarai kept other s from bothering him while he meditated. Sometimes he mumbled as he sat.
I asked Urartu what the old man was doing.
“He’s talking to God, “said the Hurrian.
“Which god does he serve?” I asked
“His servants tell me it’s his own God, the One God who has a secret name. Abram met him high in the mountains while tending his sheep.”
I nodded. People and their gods! Each place had so many, so what if an old man had his own?
“Well, I hope his god sends us a thaw!’
“Or a couple of sheep with wine-skins tied to their saddle-packs!’ Urartu laughed. We hadn’t had a drink in months.
“What will we do, Pelop?” he asked, serious again.
“We’ll have to make a trail at the next break in the storm and get everyone down into the plains, or we’re all going to die here.”
“I’ll send a prayer to the One God, “laughed Urartu.
“Whatever works.” I said.
By the ninth day of the storm, our snow-trench had become a tunnel. We were soon going to be without food and fuel. We had to leave or starve and freeze to death. I went to Abram. He was sitting in his corner as usual. Sarai had put a blanket around his shoulders. A tiny lamp burned in a niche of the wall. It lit his weathered, lined face with a hundred tiny shadows, making him look even older than he was, and he was the oldest man I had ever met. I sat down on the floor next to him and crossed my legs under me. He stared straight ahead and didn’t acknowledge my presence.
“Hail, father, “I said, using the local salutation for a patriarch,” We need your wise council. We’re out of food and wood. People will soon starve.”
Abram blinked, as if he couldn’t be sure what he was hearing. He didn’t turn to look at me.
“E–h?” he muttered. His voice was thick and phlegmy, as if he hadn’t talked in a while. His head turned very slightly towards me. His long white hair framed his thin face. His beard reached down across his narrow, bony chest. But his eyes were bright and moist. The lamp light sparkled in them. He looked as if he had been listening to a good joke.
“Father, “I started again. He put his hand up for silence.
There was a long pause. I held my tongue and watched him. He reached his hand out and slowly moved it in a circling motion, as if he were wiping a table with a cloth,
“The Lord has spoken to me, “he whispered raspily, as if addressing the unseen table and not me, “He has told me we must go to Harran at once.”
Then he turned back and faced the lamp again. His eyes assumed their vacant look.
I said quietly, “Abram? The Lord?”
He didn’t respond to me, but I saw his lips moving as if he were talking under his breath to someone; an earnest conversation. After a few more silent minutes, I got up and bowed to him and left. Sarai, who was, as usual, tending in her kind way to her aged and filthy flock, looked at me without saying a word. I opened the door, grateful to be free of the stench and pushed my way though the now partially collapsed snow-tunnel to our hut. Mtombe and Lahalit sat huddled in blankest around our tiny dung-fire.
“We’re leaving, “I said.