The Blood Star
The western lands—the pale sun which warms my face, the soft blue sky, the wind and the shining water, these are the gifts of their openhanded, childlike gods. It is a place of vines and fruit trees, of stone farmhouses and earth that turns black under the plow’s iron blade. It is a place a man might love if he did not chance to dream of his distant home. If he were not a sojourner in the midst of another’s garden.
I am such a one. As a boy I did not know the taste of olives or the murmur of the wine dark sea. Yet, although I was not born here, it seems certain here I will finally die. And that time is not far distant, for I have grown old in this place of strangers—I, the son and grandson of kings, rulers of the wide world. Yet that grandeur is past. The story I tell is of my own life, which even now the god cradles in his hand.
Ashur, god of my fathers, he who is called by many names, who is lord of heaven, the master of this world and the next, he whose will is fate has chosen this path for me, and I take up my pen again that his glory may be known, that his purposes may be seen and understood by men. I am Tiglath Ashur, the god’s servant, whose name was yoked with his in the hour of my birth, who survives perhaps as the last to honor him.
Though she be but a shadow in my own brain, a poor dream of memory, once more my eyes fill with the sight of mighty Nineveh, envy of the world, queen of cities. I am five and twenty. What have I not known already of glory, wealth and power? What have I not known of emptiness, of despair, of jealousy, of the bitterness of lost love? My brother, who is king now in our father’s place, turns his face from me. Esarhaddon, who was once my friend, has pronounced my sentence of banishment, that I will be forced to wander in the distant places of the earth, forever a stranger, forbidden to return lest I die for it. Nineveh, which once held all that I loved, now I must flee from you like a slave guilty in his master’s sight.
“Let him pass forever out of the Land of Ashur, and all the lands where the might of Ashur’s king is felt.” So spoke my brother, the mighty king, lord of the earth’s four corners. “Let him hide himself in the dark lands beyond the sun. Let him be taken from my sight!”
The guards escorted me away. I did not resist them. They took me by the arms and led me stumbling from the king’s presence, for I hardly had wit enough left to walk by my own will. My mind was dark. It seemed to me that I had already died.
They took me to a room in my father’s palace—my brother’s now, as now were all things under the bright sun—and servants stripped me of the silver robes which were marks of my princely rank and I was given a plain soldier’s tunic. I put it on, hardly knowing what I did. I sat down. Someone brought me a cup of wine, but I did not drink from it. Does a corpse drink the wine offerings meant to quiet his restless soul? I had no taste for wine, no more than if I were dead and the clay had stopped my mouth. At last the soldiers returned and led me away again.
Where would they take me? I knew not. I was no longer one of the Lord Sennacherib’s royal sons—I was a stranger here now, and his heir and successor hated me. Perhaps they took me to my death. It hardly seemed to matter.
But it was not death which awaited me. Instead, I found myself in the palace gardens, where I could hear the sound of the swift flowing Tigris, mother of rivers, where I had so often seen my father, grown old, resting upon a stone bench as he fed bread crumbs to his birds.
The soldiers departed, without speaking. I was alone. It did not oppress me—I had spent many days alone, in an iron cage in the dungeons of my brother’s palace. What weighed upon my heart were the memories stirred within me by the sight of this place.
My father, the king, struck down by an assassin as he knelt to pray before the Lord Ashur. We had avenged that, my brother Esarhaddon and I, and then we had turned one against the other—or, at least, he had turned against me. And only because my father loved me and would have had me succeed him as king, even in defiance of the god’s will. Yet I would not put myself up against the god and my brother both. I made my submission to Esarhaddon—let him have the glory of a king’s crown, I thought—and for this he could not forgive me.
For this, and for other things.
It was the month of Nisan, when winter begins slowly to die and the world is reborn. Still, it was a bleak world. The flower petals had long since been swept away, but snow still hid in the shadow of the wall. There was no moon, no stars overhead, only the dull black of a cold, cloudy night sky. One needed only to look about to believe that the world had stopped forever.
I sat down on the bench, merely because I had grown weary of standing. I cannot claim that I was waiting for anything—or expecting anything. The future had been annihilated for me.
The past, however, would not allow itself to be pushed aside. It kept rising before my mind’s eye, unbidden, of its own will, or perhaps because I seemed to belong to it so completely.
My father, sitting on this very stone, old and defeated, knowing that all his hopes for me had come to nothing. How he had hated Esarhaddon, and for no sin of his own. Old men make mischief when their hearts are dark.
And love. Esharhamat, my brother’s wife. I could see her face, the tears in her eyes, and hear her voice. . .
“Have you not made my heart a widow?”
“I would be king for your sake,” I had told her once, while we still knew hope. “For your sake, and to change the world.” And she had answered, “Would you, my love? But the world will not allow itself to be changed.”
And other voices. . .
“You will be great in the Land of Ashur,” my mother had told me, since the first days of my youth.
“Do not think that happiness and glory await you here, Prince, for the god reserves you to another way.” The counsel of one wiser than my mother.
Words—words that filled my mind and made it ache like a wound in cold weather. I had seen so much, heard so much, and I had been made blind and deaf.
But perhaps not so blind at last.
Gradually, as happens sometimes with a memory that forces its way into the center of one’s brain, I became aware that I no longer had the garden entirely to myself. I shared it with another visitor, someone as out of place there as I had become myself. I glanced about, wondering who this intruder could be—perhaps, finally, an assassin sent by my brother to ease his mind by slipping a dagger in under my rib cage?—I was almost disappointed to see merely a small boy in a soiled loincloth, his hands clasped behind his back as he watched me through large, intelligent, untrusting eyes.
He stood beside an arbor covered with dead and withered vines—it struck me that the boy must be cold, but if he was he gave no sign of it. He was perhaps six or seven years of age, one of the army of raw little urchins who hung about the docksides and the wine shops of the city, turned loose by parents who could not afford to keep them. It was a life that doubtless taught many hard but useful lessons. I was not offended that the child regarded me with such suspicion.
“What do you want?” I asked him—presumptuous of me perhaps, but I had difficulty believing that this ragged boy had merely blundered into the sacred precincts of the king’s palace.
“Are you the Lord Tiglath Ashur?” he inquired in his turn, as if the idea seemed unlikely enough to him, “he whose palm is crossed with the blood star?”
“I was until a few hours ago.”
I opened my hand, holding it out to him. Even in the dim light of a moonless evening the birthmark was visible, dark red and lurid, as if it were a glowing coal—the god’s indelible brand upon me.
“Then this is for you.”
He stepped forward and at arm’s length held out to me a strip of leather, rolled tightly and tied with a thread. I undid it and spread the strip out across my knee, squinting at it in the darkness. I was not even surprised. The message it contained was written in hasty, slanting Greek, in a hand with which I had long since become familiar.
“Dread Master, your guards have been bribed to bring you here. Be pleased to follow where this child leads and it is possible we may both find deliverance from the king your brother’s wrath.”
My former slave Kephalos, a fat, luxury loving rogue, a thief and a coward, a scoundrel upon whose word neither man nor woman could rely. And yet, for all this, my friend, the one soul in all the winding labyrinth of Nineveh in whose love I had any confidence.
I rose from the stone bench, my knees stiff with the night cold I had not until then even noticed, and wrapped my cloak about me.
“Then you shall be my guide, boy,” I said, attempting to smile but no doubt making a bad job of it—the little urchin stared at me with cynical astonishment, as if he thought perhaps my wits had gone rancid. “Come, let us depart. There is little enough to hold me here.”
A door stood in the garden wall, concealed behind a vine arbor. I had never noticed it before, nor had my father ever mentioned such a contrivance, but perhaps, since even kings must have secrets to keep, it had served some purpose he did not care to have known. In any case, the boy knew of it, and now so did I.
He pushed the door open and we entered into a tiny courtyard that had the look of having been long since forgotten. We stole across it as silently as thieves, and then through a warren of little alleyways filled with trash and broken oil jars until, quite suddenly, we were somewhere down by the water.
The place was deserted and dark. The pale moon had drifted behind a bank of clouds. I heard no murmur of voices, only the whisper of the swift flowing Tigris, and there were no lamps throwing pools of yellow light onto the brick street. These were the docks, at night as quiet and empty as any mountain waste.
And then, all at once, not ten paces from where I stood, there was the scrape of flint against iron and then the crackling sound of a pitch torch coming to life. As it burned brighter it revealed the shape and at last the face of the worthy Kephalos.
My former slave was one of those who seemed to acquire riches the way other men do bad habits. His wealth would have done credit to the king himself. He kept gold and silver with the merchants of distant cities. He probably owned the very docks upon which we stood. And yet now he was dressed in the faded, dust stained green and white tunic of an Amorite caravan driver, and his great brown beard, usually combed and perfumed like a harlot’s nether hair, was a greasy tangle. His broad face was creased with dirt and worry. He had the eyes of a man who had not slept for many nights.
He looked at me, somewhat mournfully I thought, and then turned his attention to the boy, whom he motioned toward him. The boy extended his hand and Kephalos dropped five copper shekels into it, slowly, one after the other, and then, at last, when the boy did not move but still held out his open hand to him, he grunted, as if he expected no better from the wanton world, and added a sixth. Instantly the hand closed into a fist and the boy disappeared into the darkness on naked feet.
“Come, Master, we must leave at once,” Kephalos murmured. “There is no honor among outcasts, and that lad, if he is half as wicked and clever as he looks, is this very moment on his way to sell our lives to the king’s watch. We cannot be gone too quickly.”
With a suddenness of which I would not have imagined him capable, he was on his feet, and before I knew what was happening he had his arm through mine and was leading me, almost dragging me, along the quay.
“I have chosen a boat for us to steal,” he whispered tensely, almost through his teeth, as we hurried along. “It is a poor thing and thus the crime is less likely to prey upon your conscience.”
“A poor thing” hardly described it. It was barely even a boat at all but that flimsiest of all river craft, known as a gufa. Kephalos and I—and he the size of two—were to make our escape on a circular platform of bundled reeds held together with twine and bitumen and supported around the sides by some ten or twelve inflated goatskins. I was reasonably certain the currents would tear it to pieces before we were out of sight of the city walls.
Yet what was that to me? If I drowned, and my corpse were carried downstream by the tumbling water until, bloated and unrecognizable, it came to rest in some tangle of riverbank reeds, why should I care? Yes, I would as soon meet death this way as any other.
I shook off Kephalos’ grip on my arm and stood there on the pier, looking about me, trying through the darkness to fill my eyes with the sight of all that I must now leave behind forever.
“We have until sunrise,” I said—my voice sounded hollow, even to myself, like the murmur of an intriguer overheard at a distance. “My brother says I have until then to be gone from the city. How many hours has the night left to it?”
But he did not answer. He only watched me, as if waiting to have his worst fears confirmed.
At last he shrugged his shoulders and allowed his hands to drop to his sides in a gesture of resignation.
“My young fool of a master, have you not yet learned from life the folly of expecting all men to be all that they seem and to act in conformity with their words?”
“My brother would not. . .”
“No—but it would be greatly to the Lord Esarhaddon’s interest if you could be prevailed upon to disappear forever from the world of men, and you will recall that the king has a mother. And the Lady Naq’ia has pledged her word to nothing and, as you have reason to know, fears neither god nor man. My Lord, let us be gone from this place!”
Esarhaddon, Naq’ia—they were merely names belonging to some life I had left far behind me. They could do me no harm, even if they took my life, so I had nothing to fear from them. I was too caught within myself even to understand what fear meant.
Yet it was easier to yield than to resist. To resist meant to make choices, to act, to behave as if life somehow mattered, and I was still too hidden inside my own mind for any of that. So I allowed Kephalos once more to take my arm and lead me down the stone steps of the quay to where our little boat was bobbing in the water like a piece of tethered cork. I sat down in the front, facing away from the river, and watched as my former slave, now my accomplice in flight, untied the rope. The current took us at once and we began drifting away, out onto the bosom of Mother Tigris as we left the shore.
An hour later, in the first pale gray light of dawn, I could just distinguish the outlines of the watchtowers. My last glimpse of Nineveh, I thought. It had actually happened. I had fled the city and was now an exile, a man whom no land welcomed, who must learn to forget that he had ever belonged to one place.
For three days we let the river carry us. On the first day, late in the afternoon, we passed under the walls of Calah, where my brother had lived as marsarru, as the king’s first son and heir, his mind slowly poisoning with distrust and fear, and on the second we saw holy Ashur herself, city of the god, mother of the race.
“You will speak ‘farewell’ until your tongue sickens of the sound.” Such had been the maxxu’s warning, and it had all come true. It had come true long since.
And at night, since Kephalos was in mortal terror of capsizing in the dark, to be swept away by the black water, we would drag our gufa up onto the shore and build a small fire. Then Kephalos would bury himself under a pile of reeds and fall asleep, snoring like a water ox, while I sat by the red embers of the fire, tormented by dreams that held sleep at bay like prophecies of death.
Dreams? Worse than dreams. One wakes from dreams. Memory is not so easily dismissed. A dream is a phantom—or, perhaps, at best, a warning from the gods. It can be turned aside. But prayers cannot prevail against what has been done and seen and heard and is therefore fixed and solid as the earth itself. The past is unalterable and memory, its image, will not yield even to our most pious supplications. Memory catches us in its net like fish.
At night I could not sleep. Only in the daylight, with the shoreline floating by and the sun shining in my face, could I close my eyes and, as I listened to the lapping water, sink into the arms of weariness. And while I slept my soul was at rest, for I did not dream.
Thus we lived for three days, drinking the cold swift water of the Tigris and eating out of a bag of dates Kephalos had been wise enough to buy in the bazaar. It was left to him to do everything—I merely slept and ate and stared back toward Nineveh, as if I still hoped to catch one last glimpse of her. I hardly spoke during that time—except to curse Esarhaddon, and myself, and the malevolence of the god who, it seemed, had abandoned me. These were the themes around which my every thought seemed to revolve, like a kite circling in the air above a wounded animal, waiting for it to die.
Above all, hating the god for having shown me favor only to render my exile the darker. I had been called “he whom the god loves,” and I had struggled, even against myself, to be his servant. Yet he had made a joke of my devotion. It seemed to me sometimes that I could hear his laughter.
Kephalos, who feared that my brain might have been curdled by misfortune, attempted from time to time to draw me forth, to distract me from these bitter reflections, but his words were no more than the buzzing of flies in my ears. I hardly even heard them. At last he gave up and left me in silence, since I seemed to have decided to bury myself alive—if ever in my life I have been mad, deserted by reason and lost to the world and myself, it was then.
But the race of men would have died away long ago if their sorrows could hold them forever, and so it happens that, when at last it is healed and ready, the mind is called back to itself by the small, thin voice of some trivial emergency. It was thus with me when, the fourth morning of our flight from my brother’s wrath, the sky lightened to reveal that our gufa had disappeared.
It was a common enough sort of catastrophe. As she is wont to do at that time of year, when the snows in the northern mountains have already begun to melt, the river had risen during the night—this we could see plainly, for her shore was now within three or four paces of our cold campfire—and, silent as the hand of death, had carried away with it our little reed raft.
Perhaps I had fallen asleep without knowing it, or perhaps I had been too distracted in my mind to notice, but this turn of our fortunes was as much a surprise to me as to Kephalos.
“We shall have to walk,” I said, perhaps a little startled by the sound of my own voice. “If we follow the river we must come to a village, or perhaps a farmhouse, where we can purchase horses. I assume, my friend, that you were wise enough to provide us with money?”
I smiled at him, but he only stared at me as if at a conjuring trick. I almost laughed out loud, for suddenly I felt the return of hope and life. We were marooned in the midst of Esarhaddon’s realm, where my life was forfeit should I be recognized and taken, but this was merely one more difficulty to be overcome, which was, after all, no more than the business of living. I had almost forgotten. I was glad that the gufa had been carried off, for now I remembered that I had blood in my veins and not river water.
“Money, Lord? What. . ?”
And then I did laugh, and then Kephalos, slapping his thighs with relief, saw the joke and laughed with me.
“Yes, Lord, plenty of money—all the money in the world!”
And we laughed and laughed, rich men stranded on a muddy riverbank.
. . . . .
Even though we stood on the river’s western shore, I had but to glance about me to know where we were. I had passed this way many times, a soldier in the king’s army on the way to Khalule or Babylon or some other place where men left their bones to bleach white in the sun. The Tigris has a different look after she is joined by the Lower Zab, as if somehow she has grown lazy on her journey south, as if she misses the sight of the mountains she is leaving behind and does not care how sluggishly she creeps along towards the lands of Akkad and of Sumer, mud brown and flat as a threshing floor for as far as the eye can carry.
“Yesterday, did we pass a city by the left hand? Did it have walls of red painted brick, and were the watchtowers close together like vine stakes?”
“Yes, Lord—an hour or two after midday.”
“Then we have left Ekallate behind already.” I looked down river, with my left hand shading my eyes against the rising sun. “It is well. The garrison there is full of soldiers impressed from Borsippa and Dilbat, and they think they have found their champion in Esarhaddon. I would not care to hazard showing my face there, but in Birtu we will be safer.”
“Soldiers are soldiers—I do not see. . .”
Kephalos made a despairing gesture, as if he thought I must still be unsteady in my brain to speak of safety under the eyes of the king’s army. I could not blame him, yet safety is always a relative matter.
“I know the commander,” I answered. “I do not believe he would betray us. It is best not to tempt him, for in times like these all Esarhaddon’s servants are anxious to prove their new loyalty, but Zerutu Bel was always an honorable man. At least in Birtu we can buy whatever we need. And, if my brother has seen fit to keep his word, we are still a day or two ahead of the riders from Nineveh.”
“How far to Birtu then, Lord?”
“Two days’ march, if we set a good pace.”
“All of that, and on a few dates rattling around in an empty bag?” My former slave sat down on the pile of reeds that had only lately been his bed and covered his face with his hands. “Two days’ march, and I a man of education and culture—Kephalos of Naxos, sometime physician to the royal house of Assyria! May the gods curse the hour that tied my destiny to that of a dust stained soldier.”
For several minutes he would not be consoled, nor could I induce him to begin our journey on foot, but he continued as he was, chewing his nervous way through our depleted supply of dates. It was only when they were almost gone that, having breakfasted himself into a better humor, he consented to rise.
“Well, if it must be, then it must,” he said, stretching himself like an overfed cat. “I expect to die of exhaustion before nightfall.”
Kephalos did not die, of exhaustion or anything else, but neither did we set a good pace and reach Birtu within two days. For this the blame is as much mine as his for, if he was fat and unaccustomed to the rigors of a forced march, I had spent most of the past month in a cage in the royal dungeons, waiting for my brother the king to decide what to do about me. By sundown there were blisters on my feet as well, and I imagined, as I plastered them with the river mud to take away the soreness, that perhaps I had crippled myself for life.
Still, when the dawn came and we awoke to a spring morning that still felt cold enough to be winter, it was better to be moving than to stand still. And in an hour, when the stiffness had at last left our joints and we could feel the heat of exercise in our bodies, for a while even Kephalos stopped complaining.
It was late afternoon of the third day, the sixth since our flight from Nineveh, when finally, with weary limbs and empty bellies, we came within sight of Birtu, a market town hosting a small garrison of soldiers, with mud walls that were hardly more than a formality—no enemy army that had penetrated so deeply into the homeland of Ashur would have been stopped by them, but it had been over four hundred years since one had even tried. In the evening, just at dusk, we passed under the main gate, in a crowd of city folk and foreign traders and farmers with their goats and their oxcarts so that the guards in their watchtowers probably did not notice so much as our existence.
“Let us find a tavern,” I said, “where we can buy a basin of hot water and space on their floor for a sleeping mat.”
“Yes, and where we can eat fresh killed goat and drink wine, and where the harlots are pretty.” Kephalos smiled in anticipation. “I doubt if tonight I could do any woman justice, but there will be tomorrow—and it will give me something agreeable to think about while I grow bloated on food and drink.”
“Better if the harlots are not pretty. Better a humble place where even common soldiers would be ashamed to go. I have no wish to run afoul of some old campaigner who would know me by sight.”
“Rest assured, Lord. Your servant, as always, considers your good above all else and has hit upon a contrivance which will prevent any such unfortunate reunions.”
He smiled, seemingly unwilling to enlarge upon his plans, and touched my shoulder to guide me into a side street—Kephalos had a nose for such places of resort; we had not walked a hundred paces before he found as pleasant a wine shop as ever I had seen, even in Nineveh.
As we entered, our legs covered with dirt, brushing the dust of many days’ travel from our garments, the mistress of the house was less than welcoming. A foreigner from the look of her—my own guess was that she had been born in Musri or Tabal and brought here as a slave by some caravan, for her face had the sullen cast one sees in those races—she was well past her youth and wore no veil, but the corner of a shawl covered her hair to show that she was or had once been some man’s concubine and must therefore be respected over the tavern girls carrying wine and food to men who felt free to caress them in any manner they liked. She crossed her arms over her huge bosom and regarded us from beneath heavy, lowered eyebrows, as if prepared to bar a pair of obvious vagabonds like us from intruding any further on her hospitality or the freshly swept tiles of her entranceway.
But Kephalos, who understood every refinement of this sort of negotiation, was undismayed. He merely took his hand from a secret pocket in the bosom of his tunic and allowed a shower of tiny silver coins to fall through his fingers to the floor below. In an instant the woman was on her knees making her obeisance before this mighty lord who, for reasons best understood by himself, chose to be disguised as a beggar and, at the same time, gathering up his bounty with a single deft movement of her right hand.
“A clean room, woman,” he said, in Aramaic—so his conjecture about her origins had been close to my own—“and hot water for my servant and I to bathe in, and fresh clothes, and food and such wine as can be had in this dog hole. Are we to be kept waiting forever?”
“Yes, Your Excellency—I mean, no!” She scrambled to her feet and immediately took Kephalos by the arm, leading him through a curtained doorway as delicately as if he were an invalid as well as rich. I, largely ignored, was left to follow if I would.
A few minutes later, stripped naked and lying on a pair of thick, sweet smelling reed mats, we were sponging our faces while four giggling harlots in flimsy linen tunics busied themselves with rubbing fragrant oil into our backs and limbs. There was a pitcher of cold Lebanese wine on the floor between us and I could already detect the scent of cooking meat.
“I have a razor in my bag,” Kephalos said, inclining his head toward me confidentially—why I cannot imagine, since he spoke in Greek, which certainly these women had never heard before in their lives. “That is my contrivance. We will shave off our beards. A man is unrecognizable without his beard and, since a smooth face is not the fashion here, everyone will take us for foreigners. In my case, of course, it will be no more than the truth, but they will believe it just as quickly of you—do not take offense, Master, but the fact is, half Greek as you are, you have not truly the look of an Assyrian.”
One of the harlots, all smiles and dimples, a chubby little thing who was massaging Kephalos’ massive rump, tittered as if he had made a joke. He reached back and pinched her knee and she laughed all the louder.
“You see, Lord? It is a great protection to be a foreigner.”
“Yes—I can see that plainly.”
“Then it is settled about the beards, though I shall hate to part with mine. It was ever a great attraction for the women, but perhaps I have reached the age when I should begin to grow indifferent to such things.”
While he was thus resigning himself, our hostess entered with a bowl of pomegranates, red as blood, and behind her a servant carried a large plate heaped with chunks of roasted lamb on a bed of millet. She smiled at Kephalos, giving the impression she would have found him a tasty enough dish by himself, and, after waving away the dimpled girl, herself squatted down on the floor beside him to stroke his hair with the tips of her heavy, ring laden fingers. These attentions seemed to please Kephalos.
“Your Eminence must forgive our poor house for misjudging appearances and not seeing the lord beneath the muddy rags. Your Eminence met with some misadventure?”
“We were set upon by robbers who stole our horses and pack animals,” he replied, rolling over onto his back and thus displaying, in the size of his erect manhood, that such comforts as her “poor house” could provide had not been lost on him. “They were as numberless as flies in summer, the coarse, cowardly devils. It was nothing except our stout resistance that kept them from stripping us of our lives—and discovering, when they searched my corpse, that they had in fact missed the greater share of their spoils.”
“The brave man is safe in any danger.” She knelt down and lowered her mouth to kiss him upon the brow. “You honor us, Eminence. All that we have is yours. My name is Kupapiyas, should you have need of me. I was born in the Land of Hatti, where women are taught what value must be put on a lord’s comfort.”
So—at least I had been correct on the one point, for the kings of Hatti had ruled in Musri and Tabal for as long as men could remember.
“Do you enjoy much custom from the garrison, Lady?” I asked.
It was the first time she had heard my voice, and the sound of it did not seem to please. Kupapiyas of Hatti twisted her head to look at me, her eyes narrowing as if she fancied herself insulted in being addressed by one as low as myself.
“My servant is doubtless thinking that we will need horses,” Kephalos added quickly, intervening on my behalf. “Perhaps, since we are strangers here, you could tell us whether the commander would regard it as an affront if we approached him on the matter. I have heard men mention the name of one Zerutu Bel. . .”
“The rab abru? Hah!”
She sat up suddenly, and her great backside settled on the floor to spread out like a split grain sack.
“You will need to go farther than you might find convenient to do business with him—his throat was cut by command of the king in Nineveh and his body left outside the walls to be eaten by dogs. That was nearly a month ago. There is a new rab abru now, a rogue named Dinanu, who would sell you his mother if you wanted her. Speak with him if you have need of horses.”
. . . . .
I cannot claim it was not an unpleasant shock to hear of the death of Zerutu Bel. He had not been numbered among the rebels at Khanirabbat, nor, so far as I know, had he had any hand in the conspiracies of my royal brothers Arad Malik and Nabusharusur, but it seemed that mere innocence was no protection in the reign of Esarhaddon. His throat cut and his corpse left to the dogs—that a brave man and loyal soldier should suffer such a death at the hands of his own king was as shameful a thing as I could imagine.
Yet why should I have been surprised? I too had kept faith with Esarhaddon—and with far greater provocation to contest his right to our father’s throne than could have heated the imagination of the rab abru of Birtu—yet I was now a fugitive, a man whose life was forfeit even to the meanest of my brother’s subjects. Had I been fool enough to suppose that Esarhaddon’s wrath would reach down no lower than myself?
Zerutu Bel was a skeleton which the crows were picking clean outside the walls of Birtu. To the king in Nineveh my head was worth its weight in silver shekels, and every soldier in the garrison would know it. There was no one here whom I could trust as a man of honor—not if the reward for honor was the fate of Zerutu Bel.
Kephalos and I must be off as soon as possible.
The next morning was a market day, so I was up early, early enough that the mistress of the house, Kupapiyas of Hatti, was still snoring quietly next to Kephalos. I washed my face in a basin of water—last night, in conformity with his plan, my wily servant and I had played barber to one another, and now it felt strange to be rubbing my hands over a naked chin.
I heard a grunt behind me and saw that Kephalos too had roused himself. He sat up, loudly cleared his throat, and rubbed his eyes with his fingertips—he too, when he felt the smooth flesh of his jaw under his hands, seemed startled.
There had been a girl on my own sleeping mat last night. She woke quickly enough and with a bright smile, as if mightily pleased with herself and all the world, inquired of me if our eminences would care for breakfast. I sent her off in search of raw figs, bread and beer.
“That one will not be so agile,” Kephalos said, pointing back towards his sleeping mat after the girl had gone. I could believe him. Kupapiyas, with her backside rising like a mountain range and her thick cheek pressed against the floor, never stirred. “I put something in her wine at dinner. It was not only courteous but also wise of me to go into her last night. The thoughts that find their way into the mind of a spurned woman are dark, and ours is not a situation that allows us to invite much scrutiny. Yet I did not anticipate finding her companionship so amusing that I would wish very much of it. Look at her, dreaming of youth and beauty—as ugly and mean tempered as a brood sow. What is it in me, I wonder, that such women find so fatally attractive, even without my fine, handsome beard?”
“Let us be gone from this place, Kephalos—I feel danger.”
It was a moment before the lover of Kupapiyas could be summoned back from the pleasure of his own reflections, but at last he fixed me with a frowning stare, as if I had suggested something indecent.
“This haste is most unseemly, Lord. We have been many days exposed to all manner of hardships—we need to recover ourselves.”
“Kephalos, we are in the midst of a garrison of soldiers, and their commander is a dog who begs scraps from Esarhaddon’s table.”
“Yes, but we are safe enough within these four walls. . .”
“These are the walls of a wine shop, dolt! Soldiers come to wine shops, to drink and to gossip with the harlots. Do you imagine we can remain undetected for long?”
“Yes but, Master—a day. One single day? I am tired. My bones ache, and I have need of a little comfort!”
He was begging me. His eyes pleaded for that one day, almost as if he would die without it. And had he not saved me in Nineveh? Had he not stayed behind to rescue his ruined lord when he could so easily have fled to safety? And did I not owe him this small thing?
“One day then. And we leave tomorrow morning, as soon as they open the gate.”
“Yes—yes! I will prepare everything against tomorrow morning. You will be safe enough if you stay inside this room. I will do everything. I will purchase the horses. . .”
“You will do nothing of the sort. Kephalos—what do you know of horses? Some farmer will sell you his broken winded old mare, and you will pride yourself on your guile, thinking you have robbed him. No, it will not do. I will purchase the horses.”
“As you wish,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders, happy enough, I think, to have carried his main point. “I will attend to the provisions, and I need to find a few items for my medicine box. The horses will be left to your more expert eye, but perhaps it would be well if they remained your one task outside this room—no one will know me in Birtu, but the Lord Tiglath. . .”
“Your wisdom is not lost on me, Worthy Physician.”
It was not until the girl had returned with our breakfast, and we were nearly finished with it, that our hostess, the Lady Kupapiyas, at last returned to life. Eventually, after a few groans and several clumsy, strengthless attempts, she was able to sit up, her elbows resting on her knees as she stared straight ahead, seemingly at nothing, an expression of the most malignant resentment upon her face.
“I will provide a remedy,” Kephalos murmured to me, mixing a greenish powder into a cup of beer and stirring the whole with his finger.
“Here you are, my little river swallow! A little something to return the twinkle to your bright eye. Drink now. . .”
With hands that seemed to have forgotten how to grasp, she finally took the cup, Kephalos guiding it to her lips lest she drop it. The effect was astonishing. In less than a minute our hostess was nestled next to her great lord, smiling and cooing like a fifteen year old virgin, stroking his arm as he skinned a fig for her.
“And now, my little duckling, you must enlighten my servant here concerning how best to proceed in the matter of horses. . .”
. . . . .
Dressed in the clothes Kupapiyas had found for me, I ventured out into the streets of Birtu. I had never felt so much a stranger anywhere. The very dust under my sandals seemed strange.
Birtu was like a thousand other towns within the borders of Ashur’s empire. It was like Amat, where for four years I had been garrison commander and shaknu of the northern provinces. Yet as I looked about me, I found myself hardly able to believe that I was here and that this was what the world looked like.
I kept expecting people to stare at me in astonishment and fear. They did not. As I walked along, men brushed by me, hardly noticing my existence. Why should they? I was no longer a prince. I was not even the king’s soldier. I might look like the servant of a Lydian merchant, but even that was a lie. For the first time in my life I was required to face the world stripped of rank and position, alone. I had become no one. I was now merely myself. It was an odd sensation.
The bazaar was busy and noisy and as anonymous as an ant heap. Everything was for sale: melons, rugs, jewelry, live geese, great mounds of dates and onions and dried fish. Scribes wrote letters and copied deeds for local farmers and merchants from Lebanon and Egypt. A physician was treating a patient for an eye infection under a tavern awning. There was even a slave auction, although the three or four girls who sat around disconsolately on the block were not comely and attracted few bidders.
At one of the stalls there were weapons for sale, a common enough thing in a garrison town. Javelins, bound together with a string like a shock of wheat, were leaning against the reed mat wall. I motioned to the trader to show me one—it was sound and straight and had good balance, and it was tipped in shining bronze.
“Your honor has been a soldier?” he asked, smiling, showing me a mouthful of stained teeth. He was a wizened little creature, as old as the world, and his hands moved tentatively about as if of their own volition, like spiders feeling their way in the dark. Yet if he had made this, he understood his craft.
I rolled the shaft between my palms, watching to see if the point would twist and betray a kink in the wood. It did not.
“No—I want them only for hunting. My master and I travel the caravan routes, and a little fresh meat is a blessing. I will take six of these, and a leather quiver for them. And that sword over there, provided the blade is not hacked. How much do you want for all that?”
“Five silver shekels, if Your Honor pleases?”
The pouch Kephalos had given me bulged with coins, and I was on the verge of paying the man what he asked until I remembered that I was supposed to be the servant of a traveling merchant, who would be expected to bargain.
“I will give you two,” I said.
“Your Honor beggars my wife and small children. I could not sell so much for two silver shekels, for that is a fine sword—an officer’s sword—and you will not find such javelins even if you were to go to Nineveh for them. Yet I will part with them for three silver shekels, although my children will go hungry and my wife will curse me.”
I let him wait for an answer. His eyes begged pity of me.
“Two silver shekels,” I answered at last. “And six of copper.”
“Your Honor is cruel to a poor man. Yet I need money to buy food for my babies. Two silver shekels then, and eight of copper.”
I walked away, carrying my weapons with me, wondering by how much the man had cheated me.
In the town’s central square, in makeshift stalls fashioned of hemp and reed mats, were the livestock that were to be sold that day. There were some ten or fifteen horses, most of them half dead, not even fit to limp along in front of a plow, but I saw two I thought might serve: a pale brown gelding with good legs, and a stallion, black as death, made nervous by the crush of people—the man who held its halter looked as if he feared to have his arm torn from its socket. I would buy those two and, since our lives might depend on them, I did not care what I had to pay.
I feared it would be no small sum, for there were others who were interested. One of them wore the uniform of a rab abru.
I could not remember ever having seen Dinanu before, although that meant nothing. It was possible we had been in the same room together a dozen times, since in recent years Esarhaddon and I had not been on such good terms that I would have paid any great attention to the members of his entourage. Yet there was no mistaking that this was he, sent down from Nineveh with the king’s commission to assume command of the garrison and to visit a shameful death upon Zerutu Bel. He seemed the type for such work.
He was standing with five or six of his junior officers, a squat, thick, clumsy looking man with heavy eyebrows and a face that seemed to narrow to an edge like an ax blade. His hand was on the black stallion’s fine arching neck, attempting to calm it—without noticeable effect it seemed, since the beast capered and snorted, as if it could hardly wait to trample him into paste beneath its hooves. It would have been wiser simply to withdraw, but that was not possible. I could tell, from the way Dinanu looked at it, he meant to have this horse and no other, and I could not allow such a thing. This animal did not like him and would surely, one day, leave him with his neck broken. The prospect did not disturb me very much, except that they cut the throats of man killers.
“This one will serve very well,” the rab abru said—in Aramaic, since he was treating with a foreigner. “I will give you ten silver shekels for it. Have it sent around to my headquarters by midday.”
“My master will give you twelve silver shekels—unless, of course, you have already closed your bargain.”
Dinanu glowered at me from beneath his massive black brows, his eyes burning like hot coals. Yet I do not think he recognized me—if he did, he did not show it.
At last he turned to the horse dealer, who wore the elaborately curled beard of an Harrian, men notorious as sharp traders. The horse dealer’s nostrils were flaring slightly as if at the scent of unexpected profit.
“I think you have hit upon a stratagem,” the rab abru said to him, seeming, for the moment, to have dismissed me from existence, “I think you have hired this villain, that he might bid against me and drive up the price. If I find this to be true, I will order your right hand to be cut off as an example.”
“My master is not this man. My master is the caravan merchant Hugieia of Sardes. Having lost his own to bandits, and trusting my judgment in these matters, he instructed me to purchase him a mount suitable to his wealth and dignity.”
I stepped forward and placed my hand upon the horse’s nose. I have a way with horses, and at once the great stallion quieted down.
“It would appear I have found something worthy.” I smiled at the rab abru, as if to annoy him. I was a crafty foreign servant, out to wrest my little victory from one of the mighty of the earth. “It only remains to be seen which of us has the heavier purse.”
“Let me see the color of your money, slave.”
He put his hand on the hilt of his sword and, although I was carrying one myself, I thought it more prudent simply to take the bag of coins from my belt and open it for him. Dinanu’s mouth tightened when he saw the glint of so much silver.
“These foreigners are all rich,” one of his officers said, in Akkadian. “They are all—what is this?”
The man reached out and grasped my wrist, yanking it toward him so that the bag slipped from between my fingers and fell with a soft clink to the earth. He held me so that my palm was up, and they could all see the birthmark there, red as blood and shaped like a star.
“It is not possible! It can’t. . .”
“No, it is not possible.”
Dinanu stooped down and picked up the bag of coins, returning it to me.
“The king’s traitor brother is in a dungeon in Nineveh,” he went on in Akkadian, speaking only to his officers. “Either that, or he is dead by now. Look at this one—he is no prince. Any man may have a mark upon his hand.
“It seems you have bought a horse.” The rab abru looked at me with cold, appraising eyes. “May you ride far on it, and never return to Birtu.”
He turned on his heel and walked away.
“Twenty silver shekels for the stallion and the brown gelding both—quick, man, yes or no?”
I grabbed the Harrian by the neck of his tunic and shook him, for he seemed to be in a dream.
“Yes or no!”
“What?—yes, Excellence. Twenty silver shekels, yes!”
I counted out the money for him, took the horses by their lead ropes, and went on my way. I wanted to find Kephalos. I did not trust to luck.
I had not gone a hundred paces from the main bazaar before I knew I was being followed.
It was perhaps two hours to midday. People flowed past me on their way to the shops. I had two horses in tow and thus trod cautiously along the center of the street.
Three times I had glanced back and seen him, always the same distance behind me—his back to me as he paid a vendor for a cup of beer, turning abruptly into an alley, now idling in the doorway of a brothel. His face was in shadow, but he wore the tunic of an officer and I was sure he had been one of those with Dinanu.
There was a public stable near the main gate. I took the horses there rather than back to the wine shop, where Kephalos would be waiting. The garrison at Birtu had no business with Kephalos, whose existence they did not even suspect. There was nothing to be gained by leading them to him.
The stable keeper showed me his stock of bridles and saddle blankets—I took my time choosing. I had yet to make up my mind what to do about this second shadow I had acquired.
And when I turned to go, there he was, standing in the doorway, no longer even attempting to conceal himself. He was waiting for me.
I stopped when I saw him. We stood staring at one another for a moment and then he glanced about, almost seeming to fear that someone might have been following him, and then approached me as warily as if I had been an adder.
“What do you want of me?” I asked.
“You are the Lord Tiglath Ashur,” he said, as if this constituted an answer. “You need not dissemble—even without the god’s mark on your hand, and though you have shaved off your beard and dress now like a foreigner, I would still have recognized you. I saw you once when I was still a boy. You came to Arbela, where my father was an omen reader at the shrine.”
He was hardly more than a boy now—perhaps sixteen, perhaps younger. Perhaps as young as I was when I first went to war and put my boyhood behind me forever. He was still as beautiful as a girl, and his eyes were large and dark. He had yet to learn guile.
“I ask again. What do you want of me?”
“Not to betray you, Dread Lord. I was sent by the rab abru, who is a man without respect for the gods, to follow behind and see where you dwell. He plans to wait until after dark and then come and arrest you—he will not take the risk in daylight, for he fears a disturbance if it became known that you. . . Also, he does not trust his own soldiers. There are many in the army who believe that you are he whom the Lord Ashur loves, the true king.”
“Esarhaddon is the king.”
“He wears the crown—yes. But the god has always put wise and noble men to rule over us in the Land of Ashur, and you would never have turned your face from your brother as he has from you.”
What could I have said? Nothing, in that moment. My heart was too full. I felt humbled by the unsought loyalty of this stranger, for in those whom they would follow men always see what is finest in themselves.
“What do you want of me?”
“To do your will, Dread Lord. Whatever you require of me I will do, even to the forfeit of my own life.”
He meant what he said. I could see it in his face.
“Do you know the wine shop of Kupapiyas of Hatti?”
“Then tell the rab abru that I dwell there—it is the truth, so you will have fulfilled your commission. Yet you might wait a few hours before you tell him.”
“It shall be as you say, Dread Lord. You had much business in the bazaar and were a long time about it.”
“What is your name?”
“Ishtar-bel-dan, Lord—named for the patron goddess of my city.”
“Ishtar-bel-dan. It is a name I will remember all my life.”
There was no more to be said between us. He turned, as if to go, and then came back to kneel before me, taking my right hand in his and touching it to his forehead, as if I were the king in truth.
Then he rose and left. I never saw him again, but I will not forget him until I am dust.
And there were but a few hours left in which to purchase my life.
I did not return to the wine shop of Kupapiyas—there was nothing to prove that Dinanu had no other eyes with which to watch me. But the stable keeper had eyes only for the silver I counted out into his hand. He was willing enough to carry a message for me.
“Find me a fat Ionian who will know you are from me when you say it was the son of Merope who sent you. Tell him to come back here quickly, as he values his life. Tell him not to leave anything behind.”
The stablekeeper hurried off, promising he would be back with my Ionian before the day was a quarter of an hour older, but the time seemed to stretch on endlessly. I bridled the horses and put blankets over their backs and then went up to the hayloft, where I could watch the street. It struck me as an even wager which I would see first, Kephalos or a patrol of soldiers come to carry my head back to Nineveh in a jar.
I could hear the sounds from the peddlers’ stalls and the low, busy murmur of a thousand voices. All of that would be hushed if the soldiers came. I would hear that stillness long before I saw them, or heard the tramp of their sandaled feet. I waited for that.
But it did not come. Only Kephalos came, almost running but not quite, bustling along as fast as his bulky dignity allowed. I went down to meet him.
“My Lord, if this is some prank I will not be amused—by the time that ruffian barged in affairs had reached a very delicate state between myself and the lady. . .”
“They know I am here—they know it, Kephalos.”
If it is possible to change in an instant from wrath to fear, as a man may be living and then dead, with no line between that the mind or eye can see, this is what happened in Kephalos’ face. Not a muscle altered, yet he seemed stricken, as if all strength had left him. I put my hand on his shoulder lest he fall, but he did not fall. He was still as death.
“I must flee,” I said. “You will be safe, my friend, if you will but stay behind. Yet do not return to the wine shop, for they will search for me there. I only could not leave without saying goodbye.”
“There can be no thought of my staying behind, Lord—I have not come so far as this to abandon you to your own foolish whims. We must be gone at once.”
With a leather strap I tied together his bag and his medicine box—all the luggage we had between us—and threw them across the neck of the black stallion. Then I held its bridle, waiting for Kephalos to scramble onto its back, but he was not eager.
“It is a fearful looking beast, Lord, and, as you know, I am no very enthusiastic rider. Perhaps you—and it—would be better pleased if. . .”
“You are a wealthy Lydian merchant,” I answered impatiently. “Would you mount your servant on a better horse than you rode yourself?”
“Yes. Of course—what is so. . ?”
“Get on, Kephalos. Throw your leg over its back and let us leave this place!”
I mounted the brown gelding, clutching the quiver of javelins under my arm. No one stopped us in the street. At the city gate the guards let us pass unchallenged. Even as we headed west, away from the main southern road, the dust kicked up by our horses settled quietly behind us. We rode until the walls of Birtu sank from sight behind us, and we saw no one. There was no sound but the whispering wind.
An hour passed, and then two. We slowed our horses to a walk. It became possible to think of something besides the fear of death. The afternoon grew hot and quiet. The wide plain stretched empty around us, and I began to believe we had made good our escape.
Yet what does a man escape in his life? As the sun began to slide down towards the western horizon, and Kephalos and I felt the first hint of the night’s cold, I glanced over my shoulder and saw behind, just far enough back that the sound from their horses’ hooves failed to reach us, a troop of cavalry, perhaps ten riders, coming up at a trot.
I pulled the gelding to a halt.
Kephalos looked, and his heart died within him.
“We have at least a quarter an hour’s start on them,” he said. “Perhaps more. It will be dark in two hours—perhaps, if we can lose them then. . .”
“There is no escape. This gelding of mine will be no good against army horses, and the stallion is made for speed, not distance. It would wear its wind out before you had gone half a beru. I would as soon die here as anywhere, and I will not be chased down.”
It was the wisdom of my ancestors that a man meets his simtu, his fate, the end of his days, when and where the god wills. This he cannot evade. I got down from the gelding and allowed the reins to drop to the ground. I took a javelin from the quiver and weighed it in my hand. Let them come, I thought. Let them come.
“They are not interested in you, Kephalos—they will not pursue if you escape alone, and it is a fool who throws away his life for nothing. Be off now.”
“Lord, this is madness! This is. . .”
I did not wait for him to finish, but struck the stallion on the rump with the tip of my javelin, yelling fiercely. This was enough to make it bolt forward at a gallop, with Kephalos, in terror, hanging on to its neck like a leech. They would go far together before that horse could be brought to a halt, and by then my business would be finished.
It is astonishing how calmly a man can wait to die. I was not afraid. I was even, in a curious sense, relieved, as if some conflict within me were finally resolved and I could at last act with the perfect freedom of a mind untroubled by doubt or hope. I waited, standing well away from my horse so the inevitable shower of arrows would not kill it as well. I watched them come.
It was not the first time I had faced mounted soldiers with a javelin in my hand. It had been just so in the first battle of my life, on the plains at Khalule, when I was but fourteen years old and first knew that ecstasy which makes a pleasure even of fear itself. Yet I did not feel ecstasy now—only a cold resolve to meet this too with honor, and to avenge my own death.
“If you must turn your thoughts to death, Prince, let it not be your own but theirs,” his voice said—perhaps nowhere else but in my mind. “Did I not ever instruct you that a soldier’s first duty is to kill his enemies? Death comes of itself, so you need not invite it into your heart.”
I was almost tempted to look behind me, so real did that voice seem. Tabshar Sin, who had taught me the craft of a soldier, dead these three years, killed by a Median lance and buried in the rock filled ground of the Zagros Mountains.
“I hear you,” I said, aloud—perhaps he only spoke to me because now I was almost a ghost myself. “I am not afraid.”
“I believe you, yet fear does not enter into it. I speak of wrath. And of my own shame if I raised you up to forget you are a Man of Ashur.”
The troop had seen me by then, of course. They knew they had me and were in no hurry. Perhaps it had not yet crossed their minds that I would fight back. So I waited while they made their leisurely approach. I waited for the lead rider, wearing the blue uniform of a rab abru, to come within range. I did not have to be told that he was Dinanu, whom I would kill because I would avenge Zerutu Bel, and myself, and because he was not the king my brother and could therefore be killed without impiety.
They came, it seemed, with no suspicion in their hearts, believing that death was theirs alone to dispense, like copper coins to beggars. I would acquaint them with their folly.
“You shall witness, Tabshar Sin, that I brought no shame upon your ghost.”
“No, you shall witness, Prince—which is more to the point.”
At last, when they were close enough, I swung back my arm and then let my body uncoil like an adder striking. The javelin flew from my hand—it seemed to have its own life.
If ever the god was with me, and gave strength to my arm, it was then. I knew, even before my fingers had opened, that the dart would find its mark. It rose, arching through the air, higher and higher, and then dropped like the hunting falcon.
Dinanu was a corpse even before he pitched backwards over his horse’s rump. My javelin had taken him square in the breast—he did not even have time to try to shield himself. It was not a man that fell to the earth, but a load of carrion.
I took a second from my quiver and steadied myself for the throw. I had enough for a few more before they rode me down and cut me to pieces. They would charge now. . .
But they did not charge. Dinanu’s men reined in their horses and then, after what seemed a few moments of confusion—I could see one or two of them making excited gestures in the air—they retreated the fifty or so paces that carried them out of range.
What were they waiting for?
Perhaps they did not know themselves. I could see them pull together into a tight little circle—it appeared they felt the need to parley concerning what they should do now. I could not hear them across the wide emptiness of the plain. I would have to wait and see what they decided about the manner of my death.
There was no wind. There was no sound. There was only the oppressive silence.
Enough, I thought. Finish this. Let us have our fight and make an end of it.
They forced me to wait. That was the hardest thing, the waiting.
Let me embrace my death, I thought.
But they did not take up the challenge. In the end they rode away, without hurry, as if nothing had happened, leaving their commander’s body where it had fallen in the dust.