A Slave No More: Return to Vila
By daybreak, Finn, Sadik, and I were half a march north. We slept in a cave above a wadi, deep in the desert badlands. Urartu had stayed behind. I stood with him apart from the camp. The fires still burned in the east, though we could only see a dull red glow through what must have been thick smoke. The wind brought us a horrible smell later in the night, like that of rotting flesh. Lot said it was brimstone, and I thought that must have been the source of the gigantic fire. Lot said it was the Lord smiting the wicked men of Sodom. But it reminded me of the mountains of fire in the islands of the dark sea of Achaea. They smoke and smell, too. And there are springs of hot water in the hills that have a similar smell. I don’t believe in superstition. It had been a huge earthquake. Small ones and even striking big ones were common in Achaea. But this one was the biggest I had ever felt by a long march.
Urartu said, “I will lead the men back to Hebron, and there I will stay, as a servant to Abraham if needs be.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “My brother, I wish you well. We have been through the underworld together, and I will never forget your friendship.”
I knew he could not bear the thought of living without Sarai, now that he had seen her again, and knew that she lived. I bid him a fond farewell. He had been my brother in arms for these last years and it was a sad parting. But such partings are the very nature of the world. For me there was no choice but to escape if I wanted to live. I had no bonds to Egypt and its culture, though I looked fondly on its people for the most part, and would miss the easy life there. But for men like Tanisre, who I had killed, and Nefer-Kah, who had treated me like a prize bull, and the man-god Pepi, for whom I had no reverence, I had little regard. I had earned my freedom. If I had ever not deserved it for some reason, that reason was known, as they say, only to the gods. To me, I had been imprisoned by chance and by the vanity and treachery of greedy and power-seeking men.
The mystery of a strange man like Abraham puzzled me, as did the awesome power of the earthquake and firestorm that had torn the heavens asunder. The air was thick with haze and smoke and the ground still rumbled beneath our feet as we marched north. At times the earth shook and rocks tumbled from rimrock ramparts above us and we had to plot our course as best we could to avoid being under cliffs. We felt small; the earth felt gigantic and alive and powerful.
If this was indeed the striking power of the living, personal hand of Abraham’s God or of the other endless gods that men worshipped, then I was indeed in trouble; for I could believe only in what I saw. I had walked through the night and had never seen a spirit or a ghost whose head faced backwards, or a demon or were-wulfen or any of the other countless scary things that drove people to spit on themselves and slaughter animals for sacrifice or close themselves up in filthy houses to keep out the dark unknown. I knew where these fears truly lived: in the mind and heart. I found it awesome when the sun rose again each morning, but there was nothing that its light chased away except for the darkness of the mind itself. Men, on the other hand, were indeed fearsome. For they, with their black, cold hearts, tied to greed and power and depravity by fear of death and fear of their own feeble mortality, would do anything to anyone. Why did men need gods when they could themselves kill, rape, sack, or torture others? The gods that people invented did these very things as well, giving people the excuses they needed for their dreadful actions. I had myself had killed far too many men to reckon. No doubt many of them were fine men with families and other lives away from war.
Yet there were good people too. In fact, most people were basically good and wanted only the same basic things for themselves that others wanted: food, shelter, safety for their families and communities. But they acted like cattle, afraid of the whips of men who merely claimed to be stronger than they were. I had watched the cattle count in Egypt and had marveled how the huge, horned beasts clopped docilely along, driven by the shouts and prods of a few skinny boys carrying thin sticks. If the cattle had only realized their strength and power, they could have run the herders over and had their freedom. But they allowed themselves to be driven to pasture, where the calmly ate until the day of slaughter. People were cowed by the men who made the gods and called themselves gods. If they could but rise up, they could bring down these imposters. I myself seemed to have been born to be the slave of those with power, though I had also been a king of sorts. I vowed now to never again be a slave to any man. I would die first. I had no god to swear on, but I held that to myself and made that promise. I was now on the road of freedom and would never be taken from it.
So we left the lands that were under the power of the Pharaoh of the Two Lands, the Red and the Black, the Living God-King. I hoped that we wouldn’t come upon that other God-King’s servants, for I feared that if we got too far north, Sargon’s men would catch us. We would thread the needle between the Egyptians and the Akkadians and make for the sea and steal a boat. At least Finn and I would. Finn was the last of the northmen to survive, his fellow countrymen having died in Kush and of illnesses. Sadik swore his loyalty to me, but said he would not set foot on a boat.
“My people are sand-people. I will stay here in the desert where I belong. I wouldn’t want to freeze, anyway.” He laughed, as we took a rest under a lone tree in dry wadi. Finn had been telling tales of the Green Isles where he was from, of how cold it was and cloudy, and how it rained all the time if it wasn’t snowing. His Egyptian was stilted and his accent outrageous, plus his sense of humor was contagious. He joked about women so skinny you could tie them in knots and then have your way with them and the like. He was full of tall tales. He said in his country there were little men who had great treasures hidden under the ground. The little men could grant you a wish if you could catch one, but they were a clever race and the wishes usually came back to haunt you. There were also night witches called ‘Shees, which could chill the heart of the bravest man.
“But I’ve been out of many night, and I ne’er seen one.”
Sadik said, “You two look like foreigners here. Kanaanites are suspicious people. There are many villages on the way to the coast. But I know a way to help disguise you.”
We came westward through the desert hills until we came to the Yeriko road. There we hid in a cave above the road while Sadik went on ahead to Yeru- Salem, the fine-looking town I had noticed on the first journey through this land. There was something about this town and the hills around it that pleased me, though I couldn’t fix the reason why in my mind. I fell asleep in the afternoon and had a strange dream, in which the hills were on fire, and I awoke with a start, but all was still and peaceful. Sadik came back later with a small sack of a dark powder, which we mixed with water into a paste, with which we painted our beards and hair to turn them dark. That would help, though both Finn and I were far taller than the average Kannaanite. Sadik had also stolen three blankets, which we wore as robes. The weather was turning towards winter now. We covered ourselves and walked hunched over like sick men as we went down the road, leaning on staves. We carried hidden daggers, but I had no bow for the first time in a long while, and it bothered me greatly to feel so unarmed. We kept to ourselves and often hid when we saw a large caravan approaching. On the seventh day I smelled the unmistakable salt of the sea. We were following the main track along a small river that flowed out of the hills. Ahead was a sizable town with a fine harbor. We looked it over from a hill. I knew that the winds often blew from west to east on the coast, but we were in great luck, as a storm was approaching, bringing wind from the south. If we could steal a boat we could get away toward the north. Of course, in that direction lay Ugarit, which Sadik learned was still in the hands of the Akkadians.
“Perhaps we can work as sailors on a ship to Cyprus, the copper island, “I said. Sadik set off into the town to see if any ships were going that needed extra hands.
He returned late in the night. “If you come now, I think you may be in luck. I found a captain in one of the taverns in the harbor. He seems a bit rude, a huge man with rough ways. But he said he could use two hands. He sails at dawn. He’ll be up all night drinking as far as I can tell. He’s that kind of man.”
We stole through the dark streets of the town, called Yaffo. We hunched over even more than usual and even passed a patrol of armed men, who crossed the street rather than be near a coughing man. Sadik took us to the quays and we waited behind some bales of stuffs on a pier while he went to the tavern, the only business still open at this late hour of the night. I noted the sound of snoring coming from the deck of the ship, a sixty-foot galley of the usual coastal trader type, a ship I knew well. There was a guard who woke and barked at us, asking our business. He spoke a rude Achaean, so I answered him in a mix of languages that we were hands waiting for the captain and that seemed to satisfy him.
At long last, we heard the sound of loud, deep voices across the harbor, in the direction of the tavern. There was an argument of the drunken type, and calming voices mixed in. Then the drinkers broke into a bawdy song about a tavern-keeper’s daughter, an old one every sea-man knows. The party wandered around on the sea-front for a few minutes and finally two men came down the quay. One was Sadik. The other presented a large silhouette in the dim light cast by two torches back over by the tavern. But the stride, size, and bearing were unmistakable to me. I stood up from behind my bale and stepped out, pulling back my cloak. The big man stopped and seemed to peer at me from under his dark brows. Then he leaned his head back and laughed a great roar of a laugh.
“Two hands, you said! But you didn’t tell me one is my King! “
“Hello, Herakul.” I said.
We embraced, a long hold, in which he nearly crushed the breath out of me with his powerful arms.
“I heard you were an Egyptian general!” he said excitedly. “But let’s rouse some oarsmen and clear the harbor now. There are Akkadian informers here. I gather you would need two heads to satisfy the angry kings you have left behind!”
By the gods, as those who believe in them say, it felt wonderful to be on the rolling green sea again. The oncoming storms brought a strong wind from the south, and we had no need to break our backs pulling the oars as we sailed for Cyprus. Herakul’s ship carried a load of planed cedar logs, most prized in the world of all woods for their strength and length for building, to a Cyprian merchant. Herakul planned to exchange the wood for oil and wine to trade further west along the coast of the great land of the Hattusans, Kappodikians, Lydians, and others all the way to Troja.
“After that, I will give you to command this vessel wherever you like, “he said.
The sailing was fine through the rolling swells. I had not been on a ship on the open sea for nearly six whole years now. I had been a slave, but now I was a free man. I drank wine with Herakul and Finn, who became instant brothers, being of the same kind of men: bold and fearless and not moved by the opinions of others. I felt like one of those black midgets that noblemen of Egypt kept in their households for entertainment compared to these giant men, though I was not a short man. Herakul told us of his life of the last three years. He had gone to the land of the Perses, the children of Perseus, he of the flying horses.”
“And did the horses fly?’ I laughed.
“No, but they run fast and they race them. They have the fastest beasts I’ve ever seen, far faster than any onager. The Perses are ragged, squabbling tribes with no great kings. But someday they will be a mighty nation, for everywhere there are very proud people. And their women are as handsome as any I’ve seen. Didion stayed with them. He became a retainer to a tribal leader who had a beautiful daughter. I grew bored and tried to make my way to Harappa, far to the east, but the desert was impassable and I finally came to the south coast and rode a ship called a dhow with a pearl merchant back to Dilmun. From there I needed to hide from the Akkadians and sought refuge among the Bedu’. I crossed the great sand sea on strange animals that are like horses but have huge humps in which they hold enough water for two weeks without a well. At long last I came back to these lands and was nearly captured by the forces of Sargon. They decided to take the whole coast back there, and would have except for the resistance of the locals. No one will ever defeat such fearless men as the kanaanites. They are sworn to defend their land to death and for generations untold yet to come. Your Egyptians won’t hold them for long. If Sargon couldn’t subdue them, the faroe never will.”
I agreed. Plus, the land itself was difficult, with so many ridges and steep-sloped, wooded hills and narrow defiles. A small army could beat a large one by ambush.
“I decided to become a trader after that. I got this boat in a roll of bones. I haul tin and copper, wine, oil, timber, people, anything I can find to carry from island to island. Troja is a great city, there is gold there form the great sea north of it. My old country of Thrace is west of there, but I dare not return there unless I have, like you, an extra head or two to give to some pissed-off old kings!”
We had a laugh and another draught or five. Herakul! My blood companion and I were on the sea again. But this time, I knew where I wanted to go.
“Oohh, I don’t know about that, little king Pelop. It has been years now. Do you think she yet lives? “
“If she does or not, I will go there and find out. If she has died, there are those who will pay for that. I will go by myself, if needs be, though I would think that here are three men who never turn from an opportunity to have a little action.”
Finn and Herakul grinned and rank.
“Count me in, “said Herakul.
“And me, said Finn”
Troja was a fine city for these parts, with walls around walls. The people were proud and hardy for city dwellers. They raced horses round the walls for sport. It would have been very hard to take in war.
“I would say it would take years.”
“And every man you could find, “said Finn.
“You’d need to fool the defenders into opening those gates or you’d never get in, ‘ I said.
We traded goods for trinkets of gold and wool bales. The weather had turned cold, and wool would be good demand in Atena.
“Too close to Tirana,” said Herakul. “I will trade this in the land of the Iberians, far across the endless sea, or maybe even in the land of our friend Finn.”
“The people of my land “said the big red-bearded man, “have wool growing out of their anuses! They eat it for breakfast! They fart it when the get under their sheepskins themselves at night!”
We had a good laugh.
“Before we sell this to people who don’t need it, first we’re going to see about a queen I once knew, and her boy-child.”I said.
But for now, we were free men at last and we felt the wind of freedom blowing behind us. We made our way from island to island, some of them of the smoking mountain type. I thought of the inland sea and the great fire of brimstone, but put it out of my mind. We traded and bartered, got drunk, got chased out of port twice by angry locals, and generally behaved like dogs that had been locked in cages for a long time; we took what we wanted of the food and drink and women of each port. So we ruffled a few cock-feathers of the locals. No matter, we were the biggest cocks everywhere we went. But after two weeks of living like drunken young sailors I decided to sober up and took command of Herakul’s crew and vessel and made a course that would take us south, around the lands of Mykenai and Tirana; beyond the western lands of Itak and Lefkata and to the coast of fine Epirus. Hedra was to the north. I knew the land now, and made for a sheltered, secluded beach where we could safely beach our ship. We had forty men with us. They had been with us from the start in Yaffo and had shared in our fine ramble. Some had been sailing with Herakul for more than two years. They swore loyalty to our venture. Ten would stay with the ship, to keep her from falling into the hands of pirate and warlords. The other thirty and the three wild men equipped ourselves with the weapons we had and headed north to the sanctuary of the goddess at Dodona, under the mountain. I knew the priestesses there were incorruptible. If I was to get the truth it might well be there. It was a thirty mile march. Once again I had a bow, a fine Akkadian recurve that had been lifted by one of Herakul’s shipmates from a nobleman in Ugarit. It was the very kind of bow I was most pleased by, and it had a quiver of well made arrows, some even with real copper points.
We crossed the ridges and headed for the great mountain Tomaros that stands above the sanctuary of the Three Goddesses at Dodona. We came over a spur of the mountain and looked into the valley. It was a peaceful winter scene; snow on the hills and wisps of blue smoke rising from the village near the sanctuary at the foot of the mountain. I bade the men stay where they were and went unarmed down through the leafless woods. I came upon the ancient standing stones that encircled the Goddess’s sacred place. Within were the temple grove and the temple itself, a rectangular building that looked like it needed repair. Behind it was a collection of small dwellings of the usual kind: stone-walled, roofed with woven branches and sod-earth. An old crone sat on a block of stone before a fire, stirring the contents of a large cook-pot. Her hair was white, but bound up in the back in the manner of the young priestess of Afroda. I thought she must at this late time in her life make her offerings to Hera, since Hera was the oldest of the three Goddesses. I approached softly, not wishing to startle her in this quiet place.
Without looking up she said, “You will find her. But will you not want to see her, nor she see you.”
I was startled by the strength in her voice; it was that of a younger woman.
“Excuse me, mother, “I said, “But how do you know who I seek, or who I am?”
She now craned her neck up and looked me in the eye. She had only one good one; the left was cloudy and light blue. She had only a few stumps of teeth and her skin was worn like old leather, with so many wrinkle lines that there was no smooth skin at all, only lines and folds. But once she had been beautiful, I could still see, and she smiled at me with a knowing twinkle in her one eye.
“You think she doesn’t know, but your mother knows, always, she knows. She cares for you, little slave boy, little king. She knows why you come like a supplicant to her sacred grove and old stones.”
I was stunned, but thought: I won’t show it. It’s the usual witch-talk, everyone comes seeking something, and she’d be bound to know that.
“I am a wanderer here and seek only the blessing of the Goddess of this place on my journey.”
“Then what is your offering?” She asked, “Why do you come empty handed? Bring the Goddess something to offer and we’ll see what she knows about you and your journey.”
She turned back to her cooking, “Now, begone!” She spat.
I backed away and left the grove. My mind was confused. What was happening? I shook my head to free it from the spell. Witches. I should have stayed in Egypt. I went back to the men on the hill and got my bow and went out hunting for some game with which to make an offering. I wandered over the wintry slopes of Tomaros, slipping along as quietly as an animal myself, an arrow on my string. I came to little creek that tumbled out of the mountainside. It flowed over white boulders topped with patches of snow, between the stark slender tree trunks of ash and poplar and dark evergreen cypress. I moved silently along it, following it down, knowing that deer and rabbits came to drink and I would have a shot if I was lucky.
I heard a sound of a branch cracking from a footfall ahead, and I crept forward around a large rock to see into the next pool below. To my surprise, instead of a deer, there was a young boy there, probably eight or nine years old. He held a bow himself. He had fair hair and was tall. It made me smile. He looked like a young lad I had once known in another lifetime; a boy named Stek. Then I saw another figure; someone wrapped in a cloak of grey wool, a tiny person, on his or her haunches, crouched down by the stream. The figure’s hand reached out and I drew my breath in when I saw the skin of the hand was also grey, and hardly more than bones with dark skin stretched over them. In spite of myself, I flinched, and stepped clumsily on a stone and fell on my behind, my feet sliding out from under me so that I slid forward on my backside in a clattering of loose stones from behind my rock and stopped right at the feet of the boy. He had drawn up his arrow and it pointed at my face. He was resolute and steady. I had the feeling he had already known killing of men.
“Don’t move, “he said calmly.
“I won’t, “I said, “I mean no harm. I was hunting for deer, much as you are, perhaps.”
He didn’t say anything. I eased my hands out, putting my elbows to the earth to show him I had no weapon in them. The figure in the grey cloak shifted and slowly turned.
I had seen death since I was a child. I had looked at the faces of men and women who had been mercilessly slaughtered. I had witnessed starvation, seen bloated carcasses of men and beasts in rivers, the butchered bodies of the mutilated warriors of Kush and Elam. But the face that looked at me was a dead face with eyes that yet lived. Her flesh was eaten away around her mouth, and her gums and teeth were black. There was a huge hump protruding from below her right ear that grew to her shoulder, which was drawn up by the growth towards her head. Yet her neck itself and every other feature was as thin as dried- out reeds, the skin pulled tight in lines. If she had hair, it was far back on her head, for under her cloak only her wide forehead was visible, littered with red, bulbous growths that were joined by a stitchery of veins that stood out and showed violet against her ashen skin. One hand stuck out, like it was a forgotten thing, bony and trailing in the muddy snow on which she crouched. The other hand was only a stump, the fingers having the look of having been worn down to bloody knobs. With that wretched hand she drew her cloak more closely around her and she shrank back from me, drawing up to herself like a snail drawing into its shell, a tiny, fleshless ball of filth and decay wrapped in a dirty woolen rag.
But I knew her eyes. They still shone with that piercing intelligence that had moved me from the first time I set my gaze on her, when I followed her down the hill at Hedra ten years before.
“Do you not know your father?” She said. Her voice was thin and reedy, like wind blowing through dead stalks of grass in a winter field.” Put down your bow, Aon. This is your father, King Pelop.”
I forced my eyes to keep her gaze. I wanted to snatch the boy up and run; just run away and fly into some other world, far from this bewitchment. There was absolute silence, except I could now hear her breathing, a dry, wheezing sound like sand blowing across rock. Aon lowered his bow and stepped back towards her. I pulled myself up and knelt in the mud, looking into Vila’s yes.
She broke the gaze and lowered her eyes and said to the ground, rapidly, as if she wished to get rid of the words as quickly as she could.
“They threw us out. Andros and Brukos. Andros… he…we went into the hills and finally came here. That was six years ago, or seven. I lost count. The priestesses took us in. But I began to get sick a long time ago. The mothers said they could not heal me, that it must be a curse of the Gods. But then others got sick, too Aon, I thought he…. But he got better. Many people died across the whole of Epirus.”
She looked up again at me. I had not looked away. I wanted to reach out and touch her, take her in my arms and hold her.
“I have this thing growing in me. The mothers told me you would come. Ephratae saw you in a vision sent by the Goddess. You would come and take Aon with you. You will do something for the Gods. Something for the people who need the Gods”
There was no point in my saying that this is what the Gods give; disease and death. This is the Gods’ gift to men.
“You must help me, “she whispered.” Aon must go now and you must help me. Then you must go. I have been waiting for you for a long time. I fear not, my love. I only am so tired. You must help me go.”
“But, I cannot.” I said.
She spoke forcefully. “Aon. Go now and wait near the stones below. Wait for your father.”
Aon stood, still as a hunter. Tears rimmed his eyes.
“Please my little one, please go now. I love you and I will see again someday, if it pleases the gods.”
“Momma.” He said. But I could see a steadiness in him. He was wise; he had seen this coming for a long time. He knew the path ahead of him. I was actually there. I doubt he had thought that would really happen. He bent down and kissed his mother’s cloak and rested his small hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then he turned and walked away, as if he had never been there at all.
I had drawn up close to her. She looked me. Her sorrow was like waves washing over me coming from a far place of long storms.
“Do you know why? “ She asked softly” have you found out why we live, why we are born to this suffering?”
I shook my head. “People say they know, but it’s all the same. I have been to the ends of the earth. I have been a slave for the last six years. Only just now have I gained my freedom. I was held in the land between the rivers and then in the land of the pharaoh. I always was coming back to you. We were betrayed by those men in Hedra. They will pay for their treatment of you. “
I paused, then collected myself. Now was no the time for anger. That time would soon have its day. I said, “I have seen men and women do terrible things, and then call on the Gods for help and mercy. But I have found no one who knows why we live and die and suffer. It’s all….it’s just what people want to believe.”
She looked down for a moment and then back up at me, a deepness in her eyes. “I have watched the flowers and trees here in this sacred place. They grow and bloom and then they die and other flowers and trees do the same. It never ends, but it never stays the same either. I fear not what might come. I will die now. And other girls will be born and live and die, until the end of time, if there is such a thing.”
I reached out and gently touched her cloak, brushing it so slightly it might have felt like a breath of wind and nothing more.
“Of all the people in the world, my sweet Vila, you are the wisest one I have known. There are no Gods, or they wouldn’t let this happen and let bad people live and grow old. “
She breathed out, a long sigh.” I am so weary, my Pelop. You must help me now. Give me your knife and put it in my hand.”
I slipped the bone-handled dagger between her bony fingers so that it pointed towards her chest.
“Now, my love, my king. Take good care of your son, our son. I will see you someday, perhaps.”
I held her bony hand in mine and she just leaned forward. The blade entered her as if it were cutting through delicate linen. She collapsed on the point and let out a long low breath mixed with a wet sound and fell into my hands, rolling over, her tiny legs unfolding as she gave up her shade to the gods. She shivered and then her life went out of her and she was still.