To Kanaa with Abraham..pursued by Akkadians..escape down the Jordan River…Jericho…Captured again…slaves of the Pharaoh
Lahalit, riding with the troop of Ninlil-Upishtim, looked back over her shoulder as they reached the low pass over the ridge. Behind lay the cliff-bound desert river valley and the ruins of the massive old bridge. She thought she could make out the Rumma camp, a scatter of dusty specks in the distance beyond the wadi and the maze of sere, dun desert hills. Her heart tightened in her chest and her eyes threatened to tear up. She wrapped her head-scarf around her face and turned back forward, head down. She gripped the wooden pommel on the saddle and slumped, letting her spine relax into the motion of the horse’s gait. Ninlil-Upishtim stared ahead, scouting the road. There were thirty riders in all; a strong troop, but not completely safe against a large band of Bedu brigands. He noted her posture and shrugged. His job was partially done. Now he must deliver her to the King on penalty of his life.
By nightfall Lahalit was outwardly composed. She was once again Enheduanna, High Priestess of Inanna and Ensi of Ur, the scared city. Ninlil-Upishtim was condescendingly obsequious, offering her the first food and the shelter of the finest tent. But she felt that her position was not secure. She guessed that her defection had caused some to question her legitimacy. It was a long way to even Mari from here. It would be weeks before she was back in Ur. And then, what would happen? Ninlil-Upishtim told her that Sargon and Lipit-Sin had ceased their hostilities and that Lipit-Sin was once again a great general of the mighty army of Akkad. But Lipit-Sin would still be her enemy. How would her father treat her? He could put her to death to make an example.
She sat in her small tent, cold and alone, and cried silently. She thought of Pelop the Achaean. It all seemed like a dream. Had she loved him? Did she love him still? Her choice had seemed clear, but now was cloudy. She would never see him again in this world. She had been taught that the world ahead was dreary and eternal, a land of shadows and sorrow. If only she could have been simple Lahalit. But she knew that Pelop had other people, another woman, a child. She herself had been sick for a few mornings. She wondered and worried.
A song began to form in her mind. It had been a while since one had come to her. She heard the harp music, felt its weight and the pressure of the strings on her fingertips, in her hands, in her mind. From the goddess, she said, but she knew otherwise.
Oh Inanna, why do you leave me, your poor servant
To die of hunger of the heart in this far desert….
I had to walk some distance away from the caravan, for fear of being caught out by roving bands of soldiers. They came from time to time from hidden forts, demanding a levy on the impoverished travelers. The soldiers were little more than brigands, but they were well armed, had camels and bows and spears. Abram accommodated them as he could, and he was masterful at satisfying them that the travelers had no food or valuables.
It was the truth. We were on the edge of starvation, as was the entire land. Winter would not surrender its grip, the snows didn’t melt on the unseen mountains to the north, and no rains fell. The wadis were dry, though it was s aid that they should be now in Spring flood. Sandstorms blew up from the southwest, stretching for miles in towering brown walls a thousand feet high. They came in silence, for the sandstorm is a sudden wind; it is calm before it hits. All the caravan could do was sit down where we were, cover ourselves with our head-scarves, and face away from the punishing sand-choked wind until the storm had passed. Children, their little, crusted mouths parched and cracked, cried for water, but there was too little for the mere slaking of thirst. A few drops were all that could be spared.
Mtombe and Urartu wandered around with me, seeking tiny springs and seeps. We found enough to keep going and at last a line of dull green on the western horizon signaled the wide valley of the tributary of the Purattu that held the town of Harran. The travelers threw themselves down and thanked Abram’s God, though they secretly thanked Enlil, Inanna, and all the other Gods of the wide lands and mountains, for their numbers and names are as endless as the fear that spawns them is universal. Abram himself stayed silent but waved the people forward towards the small citadel that rose above the fields.
The green proved illusory; the crops were just the stubble of last fall’s failed crops; shriveled melon vines, low, spiny plants that grabbed and stuck at your ankles, broken nubs of barley fields gone dry. As we approached the low hill of Harran, I could see the gates creak open. A small group of unarmed men came out and walked down to meet us. An older man, as thin as a stick, his drawn, pale face clearly showing the lines of his skull, held up his bony hand and said to Abram, who stalked, heron-like as always, at the head of the line.
“Peace be with you, man of God. We know who you are, O Abram of Ammurru. We ask you to come no further, not for any harm you have done us, but because we have no food or water to share with you. We are starving. Many here have died. The gods have turned their backs on us here for two years and our crops have failed. The river has not run. It seeps into the ground some miles north now and we have to carry all our water in jars across the wasteland. Turn away and go to some mother land, for the land of Harran is barren.”
He was grave and earnest. I felt for him. Obviously, he was master of the town and the town was dying. Abram said nothing, but Sarai came forward and smiled sweetly at the man.
“We have brought the blessings of the Lord with us, and all will be well. We will camp away from the walls of your city. You will see. Abram is the prophet of the Lord.”
The man looked at Sarai, still radiant in her beauty, despite her own thinness and her rags. The man looked again at Abram, who remained silent.
After a moment, the man spoke quietly. “Then go down by the wadi. And may your God provide for us all, for we are forsaken.”
He turned and dejectedly trod up the dusty path to the gate in the crumbing mud wall. As he reached the gate he turned as if to say something, but then lowered his head and entered the walls. The gate was pulled closed.
We made our way along the edge of the wadi. I could see it had run deep in earlier times, the sandy cliffs were twenty feet high in most places. But now, there was only a stretch of flat sand across the rover-bed. Here and there, thorn bushes clung stubbornly to the crumbling caked dust.
Abram went off as he always did, into the desert. We made camp, though I slipped away to get a look at the town with Mtombe and Urartu.
The old walls circled a hill about a half-mile across. There was one large fortified gate on the south side of the hill, but the others were in bad disrepair. We entered the city, bearing no weapons but our small knives, and went through the dusty streets. Much of the city was similar to other Sumerian tones, to-story mud brick houses on ancient alleys, but there were also strange dome-shaped houses that looked like the hives of wasps. There was waste and refuse everywhere. Donkeys and onagers, and even dogs and rats, had died and had been stripped of their meat. They were dried-out, just bits of bone and leathery skin with patches of grey fur. Flies buzzed around piles of human shit. The inhabitants quickly knew of our presence and hid themselves inside their houses, closing their doors. We saw some looking down at us from rooftops and second story windows; furtive glances, the curious scurrying away at our approach.
“What a wretched place, “said Urartu, screwing up his face to indicate the smell.” Why did the Old Man want to come here? It stinks worse than the slave quarters of Sippar.”
“He’s hard to figure out, “said Mtombe.” I’m not sticking around here long.”
Neither will I, I thought. Urartu looked angry.
I woke in the night to raindrops on my face. The whole camp was stirring, people putting up lean-tos with blankets and rugs. The rain fell harder and by dawn the water was running off down side wadis into the main river bed, which remained dry. The air began to warm. It was humid, too, as if the dryness had been broken.
Around mid-day Abram came walking out of the desert. He was wet, head-to-toe. His beard dripped. But his eyes shown like lights in the dark.
“God has saved us and Harran. The river will run!” he beamed
And it turned out to be true. The rain came and came and came, until the river itself began to show a trickle down the middle of its wide bed. That night there were fierce thunderstorms away to the north and I knew it was raining and the warm air had reached the snow-bound mountains beyond the horizon. By the next evening, the river was in flood, a rushing, grey flow of mud carrying along sticks and bits of thorn bushes and other flotsam at a high rate of speed two feet deep all the way across the hundred yard channel. The Harranites came out of their stinking city. The skin and bones people fell on their knees and thanked Abram, but he shook his head and said, “It is God’s will, not mine. Believe in the Lord and He will protect you.”
Many swore to believe in the nameless God from that time forward. They set about clearing their unused ditches and planting seeds kept from two year’s ago harvest. It would be a long summer, but they would have a harvest by early fall and more would live than die.
However, the optimism that we all felt with the rains and the rising river didn’t solve our current problems. We had no food left. Our Bedu traders packed up suddenly and left without us, no doubt to save their own dwindling provisions. Abram called for one of our last goats to be sacrificed, so that the omens could be read. For while he believed in a new god, the old ways were still the same. The goat was killed and Abram and two holy men from Harran read the entrails with great interest.They would not share the reading, which was not a good omen itself. At least the meat was cooked in a stew, which fed children and mothers. The bones and s kin were offered to the nameless One and the other Gods of Harran. The rest of us went hungry. Urartu, Mtombe and I could even find a hare or a snake to kill, though we spent our days from dawn to dusk hunting far afield. After two weeks, the Lug-Gal of Harran came out, looking even thinner than before, and begged us to move on. He kneeled before Abram and asked for his blessing and forgiveness; there was nothing else to be done.
We set out across the now ankle-deep river and into the desert, heading west. I longed for the coast and thought only of getting back Achaea now. I knew Ugarit and the other coastal towns were less than three weeks away. My heart hurt at the thought of Lahalit, heading the other way, towards her uncertain destiny. But her sacrifice for her people inspired me, and I swore that I would always remember it. If one is a leader, one’s people come first. I drew additional inspiration from Abram and Sarai, who led their flock with such determination and resolve. Though I couldn’t swallow the tale of the One Lord God anymore than I could give myself over to believing in any such thing, I could see how it was of benefit to those who could.
The famine was relentless. Though we crossed a wide desert, crossed the Purattu, and went into mountains and through valleys, everywhere the story was the same. The Gods have deserted us! People were starving. Everyone seemed to recognize hat Abram was a spiritual leader, and as we passed through the wretched lands, all came seeking his favor and supplication. But truly, he only had one answer: God will provide. And so we moved on.
We came after two weeks to the great citadel of Khalpe. WE could see it rising above the valley for some distance. It was sais that Khalpe was one of the oldest cities in the world, being built by Jinnu and titans before the time of man and other such nonsense. There was natural hill that quite naturally had been fortified since earliest times, the way people do everywhere. In addition to the citadel, there was quite a large city around the hill, with a great area watered by canals and ditches that contained runoff from the western mountains. I knew that beyond those mountains lay Ugarit. But Locals told me that the better route to the sea ran from Ebla, few miles south – two days travel. I also learned that there were not only troops of Sargon in large numbers if Khalpe, but there were agents who spied on everyone. For Sargon, like many another king, fears rebellion and secret plots against his rule and person. I could understand, having been betrayed by my own people for their personal gain.
A friendly sheik, or tribal leader, who held no great allegiance to Sargon, told me, “ Your name is well known here as the seducer of the Goddess Inanna in her human form as Enheduanna! WE worship Astarte instead, so you secret is safe with us!” He laughed a toothless laugh and I drank vanna with him and smoked a bubble pipe.
But I fled that night up into the hills, even leaving without telling Mtombe and Urartu, so as not endanger them. But they found em out and came along, which turned out to be a very thing, as we were attacked by a large mounted troop of Akkadian mercenaries, soldiers who were really Hurrian like Urartu, but in the employ of the Great King. We killed three of them and rove the others off and then ran up into the crags of some desert hills south of the city.
I was growing extremely tired of being trapped in these lands. We made a plant to sneak away from Abram and Sarai and the rest and make a run for the coast and steal a boat. We could take Mtombe south to the borders of Egypt, where he could regain his freedom, that land being used to his kind, and fro where, Urartu, who had pledged to come with me to Achaea and I could figure out how sail on an Egyptian ship back to Karpatha and then on the Achaea. The hope began to grow in my heart that Vila and Aon might have survived, though the better part of three years had passed. Vila had family, and not just in Hedra. She might have gone across the straits to Karfu or even all the way the land of the God’s smoking mountain, Messene. I could almost taste the sea and my freedom. I could almost see Vila’s strong, Achaean face. Almost.
We snuck back into camp to get our weapons, for I had a fine Akkadian bow and bronze-tipped arrows and a good sword; things I’d never get back in Hedra. Mtombe had a couple of ritual amulets he carried, for he feared the evil eye deeply and worried about not pleasing the gods. Urartu had a different problem. He wanted to glimpse Sarai once more.
They came face to face as she we cooking at a fire. Abram had acquired some barley and onions in a barter for some supposedly magic stone he carried.
She looked up at handsome Urartu, who said nothing. Her smile was as radiant as always, but then it dropped, and she looked quickly down and stirred the pot.
“We are going, “he said in whisper.
She shot a glance at him. Her normal bearing was reversed and her face showed pain and sorrow. I had not known. I backed away into the shadows. She stood and gave the wooden spoon to an older woman. She and Urartu went off into the darkness together. I sat at the edge of the cook-fire, my cloak wrapped around my head. The old lady stirred the pot and kept looking out into the dark. At long last Sarai returned by herself. Her smile was gone. Her eyes showed red and she wiped them with the backs of her hands. When anyone came near, she turned away and feigned having something in her eyes, sparks from the fire, sand-flecks from the breeze.
I stood and slipped away to the edge of camp. Urartu and Mtombe were there. Neither said anything. We vanished like ghosts into the night.
We felt our way along the base of the sandy ridge we had decided on during the daylight hours, above the dry farms and fields, just barely budding with the first green after the endless winter. There was open land, scrub grasslands mostly, dry above the ditches, desert. Off in the distance we heard the tinkling of a sheep bell twice during the night. Far below, as we climbed higher, there was a wink of a fire or two in the valley. We rested before daybreak under a small tree that grew out from a rock outcropping. Urartu stood first guard, as he couldn’t sleep. I lay down, and before I closed my yes, I saw him standing, leaning on his spear, looking down and back from where we had come.
At first, these lands were more populated than the desert had been. There were tiny villages here and there, and wandering shepherds could be seen from time to time. We gave them all a wide berth. There was a road in the valley to our left. We had to lay low in the scrub once when a large patrol of armed horsemen rode north up the valley. We headed southwest. We crossed one low, sandy, scrubby ridge and then another. We came upon an old apple orchard in one of the tilled valleys between the hills and found a few dried apples that fallen into the ground the year before. The centers were still edible. We found no game to hunt. Though the air was warming, there was no rain, the villages disappeared, and the empty, dry air of famine pressed down on the Earth.
At dusk on the second day, we came to the top of a crumbling cliff of loose rocks and sand and looked down into a wide valley to the west. Snow mountains stood above it, and I thought I recognized some of the peaks I had crossed in my enslaved march to the lands of the East the year before. Beyond I knew lay Ugarit. Our hopes were only half-formed; we thought there would be ships and boats along the coast. There was no way of knowing if there were armies anywhere; for now the land seemed quiet and dead, as if abandoned by all living things. No birds sang, not even any lizards scuttled in the dry rocky cliffs. It was cold that night, and we made camp and slept thinking that the next day we would cross the valley and try to reach near the ridge tops, twenty miles away.
When I woke in the dawn, Mtombe was lying on his stomach, peering into the valley below the cliff. He turned and whispered.
“There are many men down there.”
Urartu and I slid on our bellies to the edge and peeked down. Where had they come from? We had seen no fires of a camp. There were thousands of warriors marching in columns. The clatter of weapons and the drum-beat of horses could be heard clearly in the still morning air. Dust rose along the long train of men and animals. We lay still, for they would soon pass only a few hundred feet below our cliff-top perch. Scouts were riding out ahead and there were hundreds of horsemen further back as well. Ranks of archers and teams of slaves hauling catapults groaned in the valley. Plainly our way west was cut off for now.
Then we saw it. The great war chariot of Lipit-Sin. He rode in the red-painted four-wheeled wagon, a slave holding a parasol over his head an archer standing behind him and the driver. His team was four onagers. Around him was the mounted guard; his hand-picked elite warriors, armed with spears and bows.
“We need to get out of here,” I said quietly.
We crept back from the cliff edge and gathered our cloaks and weapons and ran, crouching, toward the east through the sandy hills. We didn’t stop for at least a mile, and when we did, hiding behind a boulder, we could see mounted men where we had slept. Were they looking at our sign in the sand? We had made a fire ring the night before, thinking the land deserted. We ran on, keeping to the little valleys under the sand hills as much as possible. By mid-day, we must have come ten miles. We climbed a ridge and once again we stood above the wide valley we had left before. Two days before it had been empty farmland. Now we saw a different sight.
Spread out on the track that marked the edge of the shallow river in the valley, there was an endless string of refugees marching south. I couldn’t see any sign of soldiers, just women and children, a few donkeys, and few carts and crude wagons. People were carrying everything they owned on their backs. It looked to be a general flight before an invading army. There were thousands of refugees, just as there had been thousands of warriors in the western valley.
“ There’s safety in numbers, “ I said, “ If we get caught out here, the soldiers will think the three of us rebels or traitors or who knows what. Let’s go become wretched refugees.”
Urartu and Mtombe agreed. We hid oor weapons under our cloaks and blankets. We came down out of a small valley and walked up to the road and joined the others. A cold north wind had picked up, a last vestige of the winter that had mostly passed. I was grateful, for it meant we could pull our hoods and scarves around our heads.
The procession seemed to stretch for miles both before and behind us. We said nothing, but listened to the moaning and grumblings of the weary travelers.
“ As if starving wasn’t bad enough, “ said one old lady, who bent her ancient back under a load of a shawl full of cloth and who knew what else, tied around her forehead, “ Now they have to kill us, too!” She spat in anger in the dust of the track.
“Shut your mouth, Beth-el, “said another woman, “The gods are already angry enough at us. It’s your new god that’s brung us this ruin!”
“My God will protect us, “said the old one. She cast her eyes down and trudged along, tears in her eyes.
I listened to the rising anger of the crowd as the day went along. The refugees were painfully slow. I knew they had no idea where they were going and didn’t know what they’d do to eat or how to find water when they got wherever they were going to be even tonight. But I wanted to go faster. The three of us could move more quickly than the others, though we didn’t try to impress others with that fact. But we were younger than some, and not burdened with children. We had others like us, younger men, mostly, who wanted to make better distance by nightfall. From them we gathered that Khalpe had been attacked by Akkadians and sacked. The citadel had been taken and all within killed. Apparently there had been a rebellion afoot, or so thought the Akkadian governor, who had written Sargon. The army of Lipit-Sin and three other generals had suddenly appeared. They were sweeping the land clear and looting, and plundering in the common fashion.
“Where is everyone going, “ I asked one older boy.
“I don’t now, “he said, Hama? Damas? Laish? How far will the armies push us? We can not fight. they are too strong. All the little kings and families have run away or fallen in with them. This is the third time they have come is since I can remember. Every time it is the same. What will become of us?”
By the end of the day I knew what I would find ahead. It was dark when I came upon them. Abram stood half a head taller than other men. Sarai was cooking a meal for as many as she could feed. If they were surprised to see us, they gave no sign.
“Welcome back, little King Pelop, “said Abram.” I hope you have brought an army with you.”
He smiled as if there was nothing wrong in the world. I thought his god had made him go mad.
“Greetings, Shepard Abram, “I answered, bowing, “and where does your flock roam now?”
He looked at me with an incredulous smile, as if I had no brains at all.
“Why, the lower land of the Pharaoh, of course.”
Mtombe, who kept his face shrouded in a piece of a blanket to conceal his black skin, sat down and took an offered small bowl of soup from a smiling Sarai. “That’s where I am going, too, old man. That’s where I am going too.”
Three days later, the mounted troops come over the top of the low hills to the west. There were thousands of refugees straggling along the road. There had been constant rumors that the Akkadians were about to strike. We had passed the burned-out and sacked citadel of Ebla two days before. As always, the Akkadians left the bodies of the vanquished on the fields and drove the mourning families away, so that but their reckoning, the shades of the dead would eat ashes and drink putrid animal piss in the underworld forever, since their bodies had not been properly buried or burned and no survivors had the means to offer sacrifices for the dead. The mean sadness of the living made them seem as if they had already entered the dust and mud halls of death.
There was nothing to do but go on towards Laish and Karkamesh and Homs to the south. It had briefly rained a miserable cold rain that turned the dust into thick mud that stuck to our sandals. Many people had wrapped their feet in rags to ward off the cold, but the mud pulled the rags from their feet and they struggled along as best they could, often knee deep in the gray and brown slime. For the most part, people were silent as the y trudging the cold muck. Only the pitiful sounds of exhausted, starving children crying and sharp barking retorts from hungry, angry parents broke the thin chill dawn air.
To the east a hundred yards away lay a shallow, meandering stream, running a turgid brown with runoff from distant snow hills, along whose banks grew thorn bushes and scrub trees. As the horsemen came down the hillside, Urartu, Mtombe, and I ran for the river. We reached the banks and threw ourselves into the brush. I tumbled down into the icy water and turned to look back. Akkadian warriors were riding up and down the line of refugees, striking with whips and spear butts. I watched as several young men were taken out of the line and slaughtered, throats cut. Women fell, wailing, and were beaten by the Akkadians. Two came riding towards the river. I knew our footprints in the mud be easily visible, and had the presence of mind to signal the others to work their way upstream instead of downstream. We got under a thicket of thorny bushes and held onto the tailing roots, our faces only out of the frigid water. The water was over our heads, and we were under a cut bank, so the only way the horsemen could have seen us was to have entered the river, but they turned away after a few moments.
I pulled my way up the muddy bank by grasping onto tough roots that made my hands bleed and peered out through the bushes. A group of horsemen were around the tall figure of Abram, who was gesturing with his long arms and walking stick at them. The faces of the warriors were hard to see at this distance. I didn’t recognize any of them. Lipit-sin was certainly not there. As I watched, a column of foot-soldiers came over the hills and marched down toward the refugees. My heart sank. I had hoped the riders might just raid and loot and move on, but the addition of this column meant that the army was here to control those wretched, cold, and hungry refugees. We were trapped, and the chill of the water would not allow us to stay immersed all day. We kept working our way upstream under the cut banks and bushes. This River, The Asi, flowed north, so as we pushed against its cold current at least we were headed towards The land of the Pharaohs, though Mtombe said it was weeks away.
I cursed the gods, even though I didn’t believe in them. Where was Abram’s god now? The refugees had basically no food, the spring had regressed into winter, and now the armies of Akkad held the lands. I wanted to help the refugees, but I knew that our lives would be forfeit if we were caught. Lipit-Sin would have an especially good time with us, no doubt, before stringing our heads up in trees under which he could picnic.. We knew from the people that the citadel of Ham lay ahead on the Asi, and I could see dry badlands rising to the east. Without weapons and water-skins, we would have to flee into them at night and hope for the best.
After full darkness, we crossed to the far shore and clambered up a steep muddy bank. We had watched the lay of the land and figured we could make a gap in the hills in short order. The problem was, we didn’t know what lay beyond. We could be walking into an Akkadian outpost or the empty desert. One thing was for sure, we had no food or weapons, and we needed both to survive.
My plan was still to get further south and cut across the mountains to the west and find the coast. On any coast there are always men willing to take on strange cargoes or boats to be stolen.
“Three days, that’s all, by my reckoning, “I said. Mtombe and Urartu were less sure.
“Many miles -many enemies “said Mtombe in his low voice.
We could still see the refugees off to the west and wondered where Abram and the rest of his flock was. They were too far away to see clearly, way down across the river valley. But we could catch the glint of pale sun on bronze and knew the soldiers still marched with them. They were also headed south.
“Where do they go, Mtombe?” I asked
“Towards Damas,” he said, “Then Jerusalem, after that, it’s desert all the way to the land of the living gods. To get there we will need camels or a sea- vessel.”
By luck or by the god’s intervention, we came across a wounded antelope. It had been injured somehow and was limping painfully down the dry trace of a wadi. We killed it with stones and dressed in out with flint knives. It had long, slightly curving antlers, which I set about to make a bow of. The bow was short, but strong, antler and wood from a juniper tree that grew, grasping like a wrestler into the rock above a tiny waterhole in a cut bank of the wadi.. I bound the layered pieces of the bow with strips of hide and sinews and hardened and dried the ties over a small fire we built by striking flint into dried grass and twigs. I made a string of woven cactus fiber and gut sinew, and fashioned arrows from fresh thorn trees. I chipped some flint arrowheads in the way I had since childhood and tied them on with the drying antelope gut, which makes a taught string and tying material. It wasn’t the bow of even a Greek Hillman, but it would do for me if I got close enough to either animal or soldier. Mtombe made a flint-tipped spear, as did Urartu We looked like brigands, and I over the next three weeks I guess that’s what we became. We raided small farms, just taking some apples and figs and bread. We stayed to the east, since we could see the army of Akkad across the wide valley by their camp-fires. I wondered how Abram and Sarai and the others were faring. I had a certain fondness for the crazy, wily old man and his beautiful wife. I could see that Urartu was suffering deeply, but Hurrians are tough, and he wasn’t about to talk about it or show it much.
We lost ourselves in the wilderness beyond the Asi river valley. It was an open region, some grassland plains, cut by wadis and sometimes encroached upon by high sand dunes. In the distance to the east, we could see the heart of the true desert, with red-rock cliffs and standing, strange man-made looking towers of stone. There were a few antelope and hares here and there among the nearly dry wadis. The animals, like the refugees, had little choice but to make for the few sources of water. We made fast time south, skirting the cities of Homs and Damas, cutting across the main road to go west of that large town, since the desert becomes most oppressive to the east of the city, whereas the more verdant, though stony-soiled, mountains to the west, with a small river the at the base of the north-south range offered us cover and game.
We found the refugees kept up a good march as well. At all the major fortresses and citadels, Akkadian or their levies had large, fresh garrisons and we knew that to venture too closely was death. So we moved like hunted animals, mostly by night, staying to the ridge tops and resting during the bright hours under stone outcroppings or in patches of uncut trees. There were magnificent, dark-topped and deep red-barked cedar trees there in large forests. They were said to be the realm of demons, but we found nothing but animals and birds and frequent fine, clear springs. Perhaps the tales were told to keep people away from a good thing. We did see signs that some big trees had been felled recently, most likely by or for the Akkadians, for their tall palace halls. I had seen the cedar columns in Ur and Uruk and other cities of far Sumer and Akkad. Without the tall tree trunks, the big halls would have been impossible to build. It had been sung that the great King Gilgamesh, the well-builder and slayer of the dread ogre Humbaba, had cut many trees down for the great halls and temples of Uruk, which was certainly the most well- built city of Akkad.
We found no ogres, thanks to Gilgamesh the Great King, but we did find some nicely built wells. Perhaps part of the legend was true. Mtombe said he was told that upon his death, Gilgamesh had been made some sort of king of the dark, gloomy Sumerian afterworld. Supposedly if your children offered you sacrifice, your shade would be better treated than if you were left to be plucked at on a battlefield by black-headed vultures.
I could never answer for these superstitious tales, but I did note good roads and small dams and good wells in the hills. Someone had once lived here and had worked hard to make it a better place for others; my kind of man.
“Probably the Dread Humbaba! “laughed Mtombe and Urartu, which I took well.
Humbaba must have been a hill chief. Gilgamesh, who supposedly had only lived a few hundred years ago- the tales said he lived one hundred and twenty-five years, a ridiculous story- was one of the first great kings of Sumer. It was said that may of the lonely wells along the caravan routes that led from Mari to Ebla and Damas and other such place far cross the inhospitable deserts were of his building. The liberation of great cedars would have been a Kingly accomplishment. Most of his story dealt with moral issues of good rulership and self-knowledge. The temple hierodule, Shamahat, who Gilgamesh sent to seduce the wild man Enkidu, reminded me of Enheduanna, my little Lahalit in her independence and intellectual acumen, as well as her sexual charm and persuasion. Still, the story was ridiculous with its claims of the manipulations of the gods and of the length of age that some characters lived. Utnapistim, the survivor of the great Flood of Shurrupak, was even made into an immortal by the gods. In the end, after I had heard the story ten times, each slightly different, by the way, I had the thought that this story would be passed down for generations without end, much as Abram’s god has promised him sons and daughters without end. So far, he had none at age seventy.
We passed south of the great snow mountains of the Canaanite lands and came to a lovely wide valley and a large lake with beautiful hills, now bathed in green spring growth. There were relatively many shepards here, and we feared for our safety. But we son found that there was such enmity toward the Akkadian conquerors that people were willing to hide and feed us most nights.
We got some good news one night as we sat with a young shepard at his fire in the hills.
“The scum are only as far south as the lower river, “he said. He told us that there was a river that flowed out of the wide lake below the hills. “Far down, there is a city called Yeriko. We believe that city is still free of both the Akkai scum and the stinking Pharaoh pig-fuckers of Gazah.”
The shepherd spat three times. “This is Kanaa, “he said, stirring the fire with a stick. “ We kill invaders here.”
It was brave talk, as easy for a hill man to say, far from any Akkadian army. We had not seen any of them in days, nor had we seen the lines of refugees.
“May your gods help you stop them, “I said. The hills of this land were big and round, with valleys that were both fertile and desert in spots. There were stony heights and canyons that could shelter locals against an army like the Akkadians, who were more used to sacking towns and citadels and defeating armies. This was wild country, with no obvious rich cities.
“If we were to get to this Yeriko, could we then make it to the coast?”
“You could go to the coast even from here, but it is said the enemy is in Tabor and the valleys around it. That lies west of here. It would be safer to go around the little sea to the east, the down the river to Yeriko. From there, there is a way to the great sea.”
We made our way along the heights above the east side of the little sea and then followed the meandering course of the river Jordan further south, still staying in the hills. There were villages in the valley, though as we went further south, the land became more and more desert. The shepherds had told us that Yeriko lay westward before the Sea of death, a salt lake. After a few days, we came to the end of the Jordan and saw the long outline of the Dead Sea and headed west, crossing the muddy and slow river. We made our way towards the hill of Yeriko. It was a walled town at a crossroad. The locals said that if you went south, there were cities called Sedom and Gemoruh. West was the hill country, and three days distant was the Great Sea.
Yeriko was an ancient place, with sections of new walls, though not really of fine workmanship, built on the rubble of old. People said that men had lived there from time out of mind. From the refuse and rubble, I could easily believe it. We were plagued by flies and fleas and left as soon as we could. It was true there were no Akkadians there, for Yeriko doesn’t offer much more than dust and a few date palms along ditches from the river, but it was said that Sargon’s men had reached Isqalluna on the coast. The road led there, so we would have to be cautious, since there could be Akkadian spies or scouts anywhere in the hills or in the towns of Yerusalem and Bet Lam. If we could get past the frontier, there were troops of the Pharaoh in the great city of Gazah on the sea south of Isqalluna. Mtombe said he knew of the place. He refused to talk about it, though. He got a look in his eyes that I couldn’t quite identify; was it fear, or anger?
The people here were suspicious of us, three young, dangerous-looking men, dressed in rags, armed with our hand-made weapons, one black-skinned. The hills were rugged and stony to the west. An old man told us that there were bandits and brigands in the road to the coast.
“It will be dangerous. The Akkade’ are coming from the north, the lotus eaters from the south. Even the brigands are caught I a hard place.”
The language was a real problem, too. Urartu spoke a tongue distantly related to the local dialect, and Mtombe could speak with those few ho would speak with him who knew the language of the land of the Pharaohs. But I was without words, except for a few common Akkadian words. Most people wouldn’t talk to us anyway, and made signs to ward off the evil eye when they saw Mtombe. On the outskirts of the city, we began to be followed by a group of young toughs. They cursed us, we didn’t need to understand the exact words to know that. Then they began to throw stones. We ran off towards the hills and climbed up away from the salty, dusty valley into the rock-strewn hills. There were many goat tracks and little rails. A main caravan road wound around the sides of the hills, but we kept clear of it, only using it to guide us in the right direction. The going was slow. Twice we saw bands of brigands before they saw us and we avoided them. We found a sheep that had wandered off from its flock and quickly killed and butchered it, wrapping the meat in its skin.
On the third day, we passed the hill town of Yerusalem, or so we guessed from the description the old man in Yeriko had given us. It was a fine location on a series of hilltops. I thought it would make a good fortified city someday. We moved on, going carefully through the rocky hills towards the coast. I could smell the sea when the wind was from the west. I pictured sailing out over the dark waves. I knew it would be hard to get home, but I would find a way.
Vila, I miss you! My heart called out. It was like an almost empty jar. Dregs of hope and fear mixed in together. I used my soldier’s resolve to push down the fear as best I could. She would still be alive, somewhere up in the hills. She would have fled with Aon. I would find her. And I would take my revenge on Andros and Brukos and the others. If I had shown no mercy to enemies I had never known, who had never done me any offence except to confront me on the field of battle, then these treacherous dogs deserved no mercy. They had cost me two years of my life.
But I had grown in those two years. I was a seasoned warrior now, not a boy. I was leader of men. I was fit to be a real king now, to wisely lead people who needed my skill and judgment and arrows. Now, I needed to get my kingdom back. I knew the way; the question was how to get a boat and maybe a few more sailors. Mtombe wanted to somehow travel down the great river of the land of the sands, called the Nile, until he came to his land, which he called Nubit or Punt. Urartu was sick with lonely desire for Sarai; I knew I couldn’t count on him to go with me.
We came out of the hills into a wide, wind-blown plain, with patches of desert and some low hills and ridgelines. The sea was close now. We saw no one, and we thought that was strange, because the the land was good in spots, with small rivers and recently tilled fields. But it was deserted. Tiny, rock and mud walled houses stood empty, the sea wind blowing grit and sand through the cracks in their crude walls. Little ditches we neglected, the head gates had been left open or closed, leaving bogs and cracked, arid dusty earth in kind to the sate of the ditches. There was only one answer. The Akkadians must be close. We snuck along, lying low in the day under scrub trees or in creek beds and wadis.
At last we saw it through a fold in the rises and dips of the land: the wide, blue sea, wind-blown and wave tossed with onshore winds, but I knew it was the road home at last. We carefully picked our way down through the dunes and to the shore, but then it hit me. As far as the eye could see, there was just a long, straight stretch of sand beach. Not a harbor anywhere. No boats, no villages. The land looked more desert to the south, so we struck north, keeping to the low dunes that waved with saw grasses that kept us hidden. We came over the top of a sandy hill and saw a wide city spread out before us. It had to be Isqalluna, one of the great five cities we had been told about. There was a man-made harbor, with a breakwater of built out of giant rocks jutting at an angle into the pounding sea. There were dozens of boats there, and a few larger brakkas with masts and galley oars. But to get to the boats we would have to wait for night. Te breakwater was surrounded north and south by the walled city. We would have to sneak in and steal a smaller boat. I was unsure my companions had any clue how to sail at all. But that was something I had to figure out myself.
There was a much bigger problem. Encamped before us, south of the city walls, was a great force of Akkadian tents and horses. I recognized the pavilions of Lipit-Sin at their heart. That way was barred. We lay in the saw-brass, whispering about the disposition of the camp, nothing the officer’s fine tents and the camps of the foot soldiers as well. There were sentry posts all around the camp, from the eastern side of Isqalluna to the sea. We’d never get through unless we were disguised as Akkadians soldiers. Even if we got hold of armor by waylaying a patrol, the chances of being recognized and caught were too high. Mtombe would be a dead giveaway, and I was all too well- known among Lipit-Sin’s men myself.
I turned and looked south. It seemed there was another town or city there as well, though at some distance, lost in the sea haze. Mtombe said this was likely Gazah, the northernmost city under the sway of the pharaoh. A few miles away I could pick out what looked like a river that emptied into the sea. We decided to head that way to see.
The land was rough and uneven; sand dunes mixed with low scrub brush and thorn bushes. Each little hillock gave us a short view and each depression between took it away. That’s why we didn’t see the horsemen coming until they were almost on us.
“Akkade’!” yelled Mtombe. There were more than a dozen of them, fancy-dressed. Not a war party; a hunting party. I saw Lipit –Sin at the same moment he saw me. He spurred his horse forward. He stood in his stirrups and shouted, “Kill them!” His falconer rereleased his bird, which took to the sky. The rest yelled war-cries and charged at us a fast as they could.
We had no defense against such a large troop. They were less than thirty yards away, riding hard.
I nocked an arrow and shot it at Lipit-Sin. I didn’t miss. He threw up his hands and his neck twisted backwards as the arrow pierced his throat. His horse stumbled and fell sideways, throwing him clumsily, like a child’s doll, onto the sands. The others kept coming. I shot another man through the chest. They closed with us. I heard a whistling sound right by my ear. A hissing that grew. A rain of arrows came down on the riders from the dune behind us. Several fell. Horses fell, too, whinnying in fear and pain, legs broken. The others turned and rode off hard, back over the hillock over which they had come. The ground before us was like a field of arrows, stuck up at crazy angles. Seven Akkadians were down, some of them gasping and crying out. I spun around and saw the Egyptian bowmen running down the dune towards us. I dropped my bow. Mtombe and Urartu dropped their spears. The Egyptians slowed and pointed their arrows at us. Their leader, on foot, distinguished by a blue head cloth with a gold circlet around his forehead, put his right hand up.
“Nubit-Kah!” he pointed at Mtombe. He had a broad face, eyes far apart, a large nose. He was powerfully built, though not tall. Thick around the middle, but strong-looking. The men behind him, there were more than thirty, looked like peasants. They carried only simple, single-curved bows of wood, quivers, and wore loin cloths and head cloths, though of undyed, rough cloth. They were sandaless.
“ Ah-Kut-Sha putshet.” Said Mtombe. Mtombe said in a desperate whisper to us, “Kneel down, now!”
We knelt and bowed our heads. The headman walked over and stood a few feet away. He picked up my horn-and –wood bow and inspected it. He barked something at Mtombe, who answered in the harsh language, full of kas, pi-tahs, and kuts. I kept my head down, but peered up, trying not to catch his eyes. He held a stick with three cords tied on one end; a lash. He walked slowly around us. He called fro one of his men, who came and took our weapons and then gestured at Mtombe, who whispered again to us to slowly stand.
The leader gave an order and several bowmen cam and made a circle around us.
The leader said something to Mtombe.
“We’re his prisoners. We must go with them now.”
Mtombe looked distressed. Urartu and I remained silent and started walking, the band of bowmen around us. Others went to gather their shot arrows. The arrows were long, made of hard reeds, with flint arrowheads.
One of the Akkadians groaned. The leader took a bow, walked over, and stood near him. He shot him through the neck and then kicked him in the face and spat on him. He turned and stared hard at us. Nearby, Lipit-Sin’s body lay in a grotesque twist in a sawgrass plant. The leader looked at my arrow sticking out of his neck. He looked at me and then at my bow, which was held by one of the men. He said nothing.
They marched us up the dune and we headed south. The sea lay off to the west, not a mile away, but I was one again a prisoner, most likely to be killed or made a slave, and my plan for taking a boat and going back to Vila was finished.