Content Warning: Suicidal ideation, discussion of slavery, ableist language, violence, law enforcement brutality, oppression, imprisonment, gendered insult, depiction of physical wounds, war
I would drown, she thought to herself. Of course I would drown.
Staring into the dark, blue-black depths of Lake Van, she swallowed the prickling of fascinated dread in her throat and tried to banish the thought of casting herself into the still waters, of letting the ripples close over her. Sinking down into the darkness, silence enveloping her and cutting her off from the world, she could find rest and peace below, if only for the last few moments preceding her inevitable death.
Yes, inevitable death.
The crunch of stones under foot recalled her to the cold, dry air that still filled her lungs, and to the arrival of the man she had come to meet. Turning, she advanced to meet him, leaving the yawning mouth of the lake behind.
“You are a long way from your camp,” he said, smiling as he extended a hand toward her. “I could kill you now, and end this conflict.”
“Leave the strategies to me,” she said, clasping his hand briefly, then releasing it. “You are better on the field.”
His smile grew a little broader. “And will you, then, leave the field to me? Cast aside your weapons and put this foolishness behind us?”
Her shoulders stiffened, and she took a half-step back from him. “What has changed, that makes my ‘foolishness’ less foolish?”
“If you would just return with me,” he said, taking an eager step toward her in turn. “If you would just turn back from this futility. All can be well between us again. Just come back—”
“You’re doing this badly,” she broke in, her jaw hardening.
“What was best of us went with you,” he said, adopting a conciliatory tone. “You were right—I see now that you were right. I don’t know how to survive without your presence, your wisdom, your—”
“You can find a way forward on your own,” she said. “Step outside yourself, and you can see the way.”
“No, you were my eyes,” he said, spreading out his hands in appeal to her. “I am wounded without you. Lamed, crippled, like an ox who can’t plow because his partner will not pull.”
“I did my best to plow with you,” she said, heat rushing into her face. “But you decided to go your own way. How could I create anything of value without cooperation?”
His voice rose as he pointed a finger at her face. “You are the one who has destroyed what we built,” he said. “You were the one who crippled me, and I won’t let you bring a whole city to its knees.”
“Did I cripple you, or was it losing your slaves that upended your world?” she accused in turn. At the word slaves he opened his mouth to retort, but she cut him off. “Did ‘we’ build, or did I build, while you inhabited? Now is the time for you to find out. Go back to your crippled city and teach it to walk. If you come out against me tomorrow, I will make you only a memory.”
They had sailed back into the port of Eridu together, she and he, triumphant from thrusting back one of the nomadic tribes that had begun to infringe upon their land. The crowds that greeted them had thundered as they disembarked and began the climb back up the long stair into the city. Those nearest him had shrieked with adulation and stretched out their hands to brush even their fingertips against the skirts of their king, and she, walking only one step behind, had smiled as he spread out his arms to accept their adoration.
He was at his best like this, soaking in the worship of his subjects and radiating it back out to them amplified—elevating them, if only in that very moment, to something like his own divine status. They would return to their homes with renewed reverence and loyalty for their king, their war leader, who defended their city and ensured their safety. Their labors in the following days would redouble, prospering Eridu yet further above the other cities of the land between the rivers.
As the king reached the head of the stairs, the clamor of the multitude increased sixty-fold, and she saw that the twisting streets between them and the king’s house had also filled with welcoming and exhilarated citizens. The king paused to throw up his arms once more in greeting, and while the assembled masses roared back their joy at his homecoming, she turned to gaze out across the bay.
The waters shimmered white with the reflected light of the morning sun, casting a pale glow on the houses that lined the banks, and on the small craft that were beginning to fill the long inlet again now that the king had landed. Watching them cast off from the rows of docks spread out along the length of the bay, she allowed herself a moment of satisfaction at her foresight in building up this part of the city’s infrastructure. Had she heeded the doubts of the merchant class about the necessity for expanded access to the river, the fishermen would now find themselves perpetually deadlocked, wasting precious working hours arguing over who should next be allowed to embark or disembark.
With another small smile, she turned back to the king, who cast a glance over his shoulder at her and grinned before beginning his procession toward the palace. The king’s own guards stepped forward to clear a way for them, but the admiring throng, undaunted, closed in behind them and swept them onward with ever-increasing exuberance.
Nonetheless, the nearer they drew to the gates of the royal residence, the greater grew the disquiet in her mind, from a vague, half-perceived sense of unease to a certainty of menace. She slowed her steps, lagging behind the king as she scanned the crowd for the source of her dread. Below the din of their cheering and admiration, she could now detect an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, of anger, of hostility—of rage. She raised herself up onto her toes and gazed out over the heads of the masses, scanning each street and byway she passed for any possible source of the discordant note, but each alley flicked past too quickly, and one screaming face looked much like another. With only a few streets left between herself and the gates of the house, she strained her eyes to peer into the darkest corners and most remote edges of the crowd, but she saw nothing until she had nearly passed into the king’s courtyard. Then, with her foot upon the very threshold, she caught a brief, exasperating glimpse of what she sought.
Three streets away, past the wall that surrounded the king’s house, clustered a small group of men, but their faces were turning away from hers even as she spotted them. With the king disappearing into his own gates, they were withdrawing from the edge of the crowd, but they did not depart back down the street to where they might dwell. Instead, they vanished one-by-one into the alley that bordered the palace, each casting a glance of furtive caution over his shoulder before disappearing into the shadows.
At once, she turned aside from entering the courtyard and began to fight her way through the adoring crowd, who now thronged the gate as it closed upon their king. With bodies pressing in on her from three directions at once, she ducked her head down and thrust forward with her elbows extended, forcing her way through the teeming masses as their cries deafened her ears. Gradually they began to part before her, and she gathered speed as she reached the street beyond. She burst through into the open space beyond with a gasp of relief.
Turning toward the alley that held her suspects, she found it now filled only with the echoes of the crowd’s jubilation, but she stepped into its narrow embrace without hesitation and soon found herself at the far end, looking down an adjoining lane. It stretched away to the right and to the left, but in neither direction did anyone or anything manifest itself. Nothing betrayed the presence of those she pursued; they might have disappeared into the very dust at her feet.
Cursing the impediments that had prevented her from following more quickly, she turned back in the way she had come, but a small flash of red on the wall of the house adjacent caught her eye.
Looking up, she saw that someone had painted, scarcely more than a hand’s breadth across, a small pictographic symbol: a rough triangle with a tail extending from its left side like the shaft and feathers of an arrow, and inside it, three small semi-circles.
“Gemé,” she said under her breath, and turned up the alley once more.
When she had returned to the palace, she went at once to her counting room, calling out to the scribes with mischief in her voice, “Very well, you’ve had your time to sleep over the tablets while I’ve been gone, but it’s back to work now, and if I find even one—”
She rounded the corner into the room and saw them already standing in respectful poses, heads down in an attitude of deference she rarely saw and never required. She was just opening her mouth to question their unexpected reverence when she saw that a stranger stood by the table at which she performed most of her calculations and tabulations.
Round-bellied and bearing a self-satisfied but amiable smile on his broad face, he wore a skirt of luxurious blue with ornate, petal-shaped fringe at the hem, and his sun-bleached shawl bore a similar fringe. He stepped forward as she entered, and he bowed from the waist before speaking.
“Lady, allow me to congratulate you on another successful campaign,” he said. “The people of Eridu rejoice to know that our king ventures forth with such a counselor by his side, who will ensure his triumph and safe return.”
“I thank you,” she said, “Your praise is very generous.”
“My name is Melem,” continued the man. “I have been awaiting your homecoming with considerable anticipation. Might I have the honor of a private audience?”
He glanced at the three scribes standing on the other side of the room, and she nodded, sending them hastening from the room.
When she had shut the door behind them, she gestured to a stool that stood at the near side of the table. “Won’t you sit down?” she said, before crossing to the other side of the table and taking her own seat. “What can I do for you?” she asked when both had settled themselves.
Melem lowered his voice. “I represent certain interests in the city,” he said, “men with wealth and influence, who have contributed greatly to our prosperity. It is no secret among those in the know that it is your genius for administration, and your wisdom in governance, that have kept Eridu on a steady course to becoming the true power in the land between the rivers. Our king is a great warrior and a fine man, but I and those for whom I speak know that he would be but a tribal chieftain without your guidance and sound counsel.”
He paused, as if waiting for her to indicate awe or flattery, but when her face remained immobile, he continued undismayed. “Nonetheless, not all has been well with us of late. Since you—that is, the king—placed the responsibility for administering the buying and selling of all produce, whether of the field or of the river, in the hands of the merchants, much discontentment has arisen among the peasant classes. They don’t understand the complexities of our trade, and they blame us for this temporary decrease in their prosperity.”
Again he paused, and she said, “It is a great responsibility.”
“Exactly,” said Melem, smiling his broad smile again. “But as a result of our new regulations, we have seen an increase in theft at the docks, when goods are brought in, and some of our warehouses have even been plundered. Malcontents have been gathering in the streets outside our counting houses, and sometimes even our homes, rioting and threatening our safety. Moreover, it is clear that many of our suppliers are flouting the law, circumventing the legal markets, which are in place for their own safety. Our profits have fallen dramatically, and many formerly prosperous merchants are in danger of bankruptcy.”
“What is it they dislike about your system?” she asked, fixing him with her eyes.
“It is claimed,” said Melem, rather deliberately, “that we have placed our sale prices too high, much higher than the prices at which we purchase from the farmers and fishermen, and that they could make more money by selling directly to the buyers themselves. Of course, you and I know that we can’t allow that, for the safety of all concerned, to guard against dishonest dealings.”
“We wouldn’t want dishonesty to flourish,” she said.
“Exactly!” said Melem again. “If only everyone understood the matter as clearly as you do.”
She smiled and repeated, “So, what can I do for you, then?”
He shifted in his seat, leaning forward and lowering his voice once more. “My partners and I have tried everything we know to make peace with the peasants,” he said. “But things have only gotten worse. The king, meanwhile, has done little to keep the troublesome element in line, despite your good advice, I am sure.”
She waited, saying nothing, and he continued. “We are tired of waiting for things to improve. Those who have still some wealth remaining fear to lose it, and some have precious little left at all. While we can afford it, we will seek another place in the land, farther up the river, to found a new city—a new kind of society, where good sense and good trade will be the foundational principles.”
Her mouth fell open at this, and he hastened to reassure her. “We mean no ill to the people of Eridu. We will not go with violence, and we will not cause unrest, but we will go, and we want you to lead us out from here.”
“What could you think would entice me to do such a thing?”
Melem sat up straight again, his smile returning. “You must tire at times of increasing another’s fame and prosperity at the expense of your own,” he said. “You have built our city up from nothing, but who outside of the elite few has ever heard your name? But if you partner with us, you can build something new of your own. You may not be a king—for we will be a free city, a society of equals—but you will have the highest esteem, and your wisdom will be valued most of all, because of your great experience and success.”
“A society of equals,” she repeated. “So you will take with you no slaves?”
“Well,” said Melem, spreading out his hands in an appeal to her common sense, “the free will be equals.”
She nodded, lips pursed in silent thought, and Melem held his tongue as she considered his words. At last, she said, “Please give me three days to consider your proposal. It may be, too, that in that time matters will improve, and you will not feel compelled to leave Eridu.”
“Oh, that is doubtful,” said Melem, rising. “I have seen no sign that the king understands our predicament.”
Bowing again, he turned and left the room, and she heard his footsteps fading into echoes outside.
She found the king lying in the inner courtyard of his house, a lush garden sheltered from the heat of the sun by the branches of a tall tree planted in its center. Beneath it, on a low couch, lay the king, eyes closed in rapt attention as a lyrist played upon his instrument nearby.
“Your people grow restless,” she said as she approached, and he sat up, opening his eyes.
The annoyance melted from his face when he recognized her, and he sank back upon the pillow again. “Have you not rested? How often must I beg you to take your ease from time to time?”
“Much was neglected in my absence,” she said. “including the upheaval in our city’s marketplaces. The merchants are fearful; there have been riots, and theft from their storerooms, as the farmers and the fisherman grow desperate.”
“This will all make itself right eventually,” said the king, his eyes still closed. “For Marduk’s sake, come and sit down. Close your eyes and listen to this fellow—he’s extraordinary.”
He patted the edge of the couch near his leg, and she obeyed, seating herself next to his knees with all the relaxation of a spear in a warrior’s hand.
“Ever since we gave the merchants control over trade, discontentment has grown,” she said, and the king groaned. She continued, undeterred, “Those who produce—who grow crops and fish the river and husband livestock—their return for their labor has diminished. The merchants are prospering at their expense, and—”
“The merchants know best how to govern trade; it’s what they do,” said the king, sitting up again. “Instead of consulting with them constantly about it, it’s better if they have a free hand, to do what is most advantageous for the city.”
“Most advantageous for them,” she replied, and he waved his hand in dismissal.
“Every growing city has a prosperous merchant class,” he explained. “The more prosperity they bring to Eridu, the better off even the peasants will be. They’ll see this eventually, and they’ll be grateful we took this step on their behalf.”
She bit her lower lip as he lay back down and closed his eyes again. The music droned on in her ears, and she drew a deep breath to clear her mind.
“You’ve always said that I was invaluable to you,” she said, in a slow and measured tone. “I’ve done well for you—been with you and guided you for years, since you first set your sights on Eridu for your own.”
“Of course,” said the king. “None of this—” he waved his hand above his head to indicate the garden, the musician, the rest of the house, and the city in general “—would have happened without you.”
“You used to trust my wisdom, to accept my advice,” she began, and he sat up again.
“Of course I do,” he said, softening his voice and placing a hand on her shoulder in comfort. “You have my gratitude, for all you’ve done, and for all the guidance you’ve given. I could never have taken the kingship, or established myself so securely here, without you. But I now am the king. Should I not have the final authority in deciding how to rule? Can’t I disagree with you from time to time, or think that—in this case—your soft heart is clouding your judgment?”
Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to protest, but he hastened to correct himself, “What I mean is,” he said, “you care about the needs, the well-being, of those in your care, and in my care. We have a responsibility toward all our subjects, and you may be—in your desire to protect and prosper the poorer laborers—you may be losing sight of the good that we are doing for all.”
She shut her mouth again and took another deep breath, and the king continued, “But you are right that something must be done. I do not like these reports you are bringing. We should take some action, something that will ensure order and peace during a time of difficult change and confusion.”
Swinging his legs around to set his feet on the ground next to hers, he stood up and began to walk back and forth about the garden as she watched. “We need to show that order is still kept, that we will not tolerate theft or disturbances or cheating. You should double your patrols on the street. Instruct the guards to arrest any who start riots or lurk outside storehouses to break in. Post men at the docks and at the gates, to make sure no one smuggles in goods to sell outside the authorized markets. Any who disregard the law shall be imprisoned. Any who gather together to spread unrest or stir up trouble should be treated the same. They must learn that my word is unassailable.”
“That the word of the merchants is unassailable,” she said, unable to keep the contempt from her voice. “They at least will be pleased with your heavy-handedness, I’m sure.”
“You’re unhappy with this, I know,” he said, returning to stand in front of her, and grasping her hands in his. “But can’t you just trust me, as I’ve always trusted you? I have learned much from you.”
She looked up from their clasped hands to meet his eyes, and they shone with an earnest vulnerability she could not disregard. “Yes, I’ll trust you,” she said. “We will do as you wish.”
“Excellent!” he cried. “But not now, I beg of you, for the last time. Will you please end your labors, just for a few hours? The time for the evening meal is at hand; eat with me. I have missed our quiet dinners together while we’ve been out chasing away those troublesome sheep-herders.”
“Very well,” she said, and he led her out of the garden, calling loudly for the servants.
The stink of fish rose up from below, filling her mouth and nostrils as she stood on the roof of the palace, looking down at the turmoil filling the city. Mottled green and brown and silver carcasses covered the streets in every direction, dumped there methodically by a near endless stream of the men who had caught them and refused to sell them at the low prices offered to them by the merchants. Her guards, rushing to and fro to chase after the recalcitrant fishermen, slipped and floundered every few steps, cursing and growling out their planned retribution. She might have laughed to see it, except that whenever a guard did lay hands on one of them, he made sure to beat the fisherman into senseless compliance before hauling him away to the now-overflowing prison.
Still, the delivery of unwanted and rotting fish continued, with new carts arriving every few moments from she knew not where; the fishers had obviously planned their protest well and did not intend to let the threat of imprisonment deter them.
The supply must run out eventually, but she knew it would take some time, for ever since she had posted guards at the docks, as the king had instructed, no fish had been sold on the secret, unofficial markets—or on the official markets, either. The community of the fishers, finally disgusted with the rigged system thrust upon them, had colluded to store up their product rather than sell at a crippling discount. The farmers, meanwhile, had complied, shuffling in through the checkpoints she had established with only the occasional mutter of rebellion, but even their numbers had decreased. Her informants had brought news that many were consuming their wares themselves, or engaging in trade with each other outside the city, since in this way they would lose less of their profits. After only three days of the king’s restrictions, those within the city, who relied on produce from outside the walls for survival were already beginning to grumble. Soon she would have to call upon the merchants to ration sales of food as the supply dwindled.
The additional guards she had assigned to patrol the districts that housed the storerooms and warehouses had caught only a few suspicious folk lurking as if with intent to steal, but as no further thefts had occurred, the king had expressed himself satisfied. He had grown even more triumphant when she tallied up the number of potential rioters now occupying the prison, for she had made a discovery that had led her, time after time, to uncovering the locations of their secret meetings.
On the first day after the king had ordered the new restrictions and increased oversight, she had accompanied a patrol to one of the merchants’ warehouses. She had given them explicit instructions to arrest any loiterers or suspicious persons, then turned to make her way back to the palace. Almost at once, though, she had caught sight of the small arrow-shaped symbol she had seen the previous day, this time painted above the door of an small tavern. Entering, she had thrust her way past the landlord, ignoring his protestation of her womanhood, and marched toward a door at the back of the large public room. Upon opening it, she had found a gathering of five men who stank of fish and froze on her entrance, guilt etched across every one of their faces.
She had turned at once and summoned three guards from her nearby patrol to arrest everyone present. One of the men had escaped, but the other four now occupied a crowded cell together. More importantly, she had found the same symbol scratched, painted, or scrawled in the dust outside countless other buildings dotted around Eridu, and over the past three days had effected many arrests simply by setting a watch over them.
Another bellow of pain from below pulled her thoughts back to the present, and she looked down to see another fisherman being caught and beaten. As the guard who had apprehended him exhausted his frustration and began to haul the unfortunate laborer back through the morass of fish toward the prison, she took a deep breath, then gagged as her lungs filled with the stench of the rotting fish.
“Madam,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to see one of her scribes waiting by the stairs that led up to the roof.
“What is it, Ishu?”
“The man who came to see you three days ago has returned,” said Ishu. “He asks to speak with you alone, as before.”
“Send him up to me here,” she said, and Ishu departed with an expression of relief.
She turned back to the scene of the protest below, wondering if she could ever expunge the smell of fish from her nostrils. The deliveries of rotting fish corpses were beginning to slow, leaving her guards less confused and more able to apprehend the culprits. She watched as two more unfortunate fishermen slithered over their own catches toward the cells, then called over her shoulder, “Come and join me, Melem.”
The spokesman for the would-be emigrants approached slowly, holding the edge of his shawl over his nose and mouth. “Could we not have met inside?” he croaked. “Surely you do not enjoy the stink of rotting fish?”
“I like to watch my own handiwork,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“I… I wouldn’t know, Lady,” he said, gagging a little over his words.
“You must be pleased with the outcome of the past few days, at least,” she said, turning to smile down at him. “We have made many arrests, and ensured that goods will only be sold as you have decreed.”
“But look what follows,” said Melem, gesturing with his free hand out at the silver streets. “Valuable goods left to rot, or worse, used to disrupt trade even further. Not to speak of the shortage of food. Can you not put a stop to the illegal trade going on outside the walls? The farmers must bring their produce into the city to sell.”
He shook his head, as if to dispel a nagging fly. “It matters not. Soon we will depart, and leave the unfortunate people of Eridu in the hands of the king. And you—you will go with us? You must see how futile your efforts have become. Join us, I beg you, and we can build a new, better city of our own.”
She looked out across the city, casting her gaze beyond the streets full of fish to the Euphrates where it flowed past the mouth of the port. The sun sparkled on its waters as they danced away toward the south, and she followed the course of the river with her eyes to where it joined the horizon in a haze of blue. Tearing her eyes away from its beckoning shimmer, she turned her attention back to the scene below, and the streets seemed to contract by contrast with the wideness of the world outside.
“Tell your people to gather provisions and supplies,” she said to Melem, and his countenance brightened behind his makeshift veil. “The journey will be hard, even by ship—and we must have ships, enough to transport every man, woman, and child who will go, along with all the stores.”
“All is nearly ready,” he said, with eager pride in his voice. “We have been preparing against this day for some time.”
“Then do whatever you must to turn ‘nearly ready’ into ‘ready,’” she said. “Assemble everything into a location near the port, so when the time comes we can quickly transport all our goods to the boats.”
By nightfall the fish had been removed from the streets, their guts and oil deposits washed away, and the horrible smell had begun to dissipate. Still looking out from the rooftop, she watched the streets gradually fill with people again, then empty as the light faded and most returned to their homes. Long after the sun had set she let her eyes wander about the city, marking the patterns of what traffic remained and noting the clusters of men that gathered, then dissipated, secure—as they thought—in the anonymity of darkness. When even these had dwindled and disappeared, and all but the most nocturnal had extinguished their lamps, she descended back into the house and navigated the barren halls to her own chamber, her steps but soft and furtive echoes even in the still emptiness of the night.
Her own lamp had gone out long ago, or never been lit; she required little of her servants. She moved about the room without the aid of light, stripping off her clothes and tossing them into the hallway to be washed. From a small chest at the foot of her bed she took a single long garment of dark gray, which she pulled over her head and fastened with a belt about her waist, so that the hem of the garment fell halfway down her thighs. Then she opened a small box of carved cedar wood and took from it a piece of reddish clay and a mortar and pestle of stone. After grinding up the clay, she took a small jar of oil from the table and poured a few drops into the mortar, then mixed the two substances together. Finally, setting the mortar back on the table, she unbound her braids from her head and shook them loose, until her hair fell about her face. Then she took the mortar, along with a small, fine-pointed brush from the cedar box, and returned to the passage outside.
She emerged from the main gate of the house and turned at once to the right, quickening her steps to leave behind the worst of the fish odor. Before long she had melted into the darkness of the city. She had left her sandals behind and moved from corner to corner with scarcely a sound on the soft dust of the road. None challenged or even observed her, but still she felt her heart slow to a normal pace only when she neared the border of the city and looked up at the surrounding wall, towering black above her and blocking out the light of the rising moon. She glanced back up the street before her and closed her eyes, mapping out in her own mind the path by which she must return home. Then, taking the brush from her belt, she approached the corner of the nearest house, which bordered a narrow lane running parallel to the wall.
Dipping the brush into the paint she had mixed, she passed a few quick strokes over the wall of the house, at about the level of her own eyes. With one more dip into the mortar, she completed the work, then took a step back to examine it. The paint glistened faintly, its wet surface reflecting the dull light emanating from a window two houses away, but when dry it would fade well enough into the background of a growing city, only visible to those already seeking it.
Satisfied with her work, she turned away again and disappeared up the street and into another alley. Another few turns brought her to her next stop, where she painted the same symbol under the window of a small bakery, with the triangle pointing toward the door of the establishment. Then she disappeared once more into the adjacent alley.
She darted through the streets and byways of Eridu, taking a circuitous path home. Occasionally she stopped to place the same mark upon a nearby house or business, and by the time she reached the king’s residence, she had nearly exhausted her supply of paint. As she passed in through the gate again, nodding a silent greeting to the guard who admitted her, she allowed a smirk of satisfaction to pass over her lips before she reached the end of the courtyard and entered the house.
On her way back to her room, she passed by the king’s own bedchamber, and she saw that he was sitting at the window with only a single lamp burning, gazing out into the night sky. He turned as her footfalls sounded within, and called out to her.
“You’re awake! Come, come inside. I too am watchful.”
Setting her mortar and brush outside the door, she joined him at the window, and he smiled up at her from his seat.
“Don’t you feel overwhelmed sometimes by the night?” he asked. “It’s a vast, pressing mystery, full of secrets.”
“Like much of our existence,” she answered.
“Hmm,” said the king, turning again to look out of the window. After a moment, he said, “You don’t usually wear those clothes inside the city; have you been spying on someone?”
“I was laying traps for the unwary,” she said, letting her body relax and leaning against the edge of the window as she looked out.
“You have done well,” said the king. “You have shown that our word and our law must be obeyed. I expect that order will be restored soon; what would you do next to ensure that it continues?”
“The prisons are over-crowded,” she said. “Keeping so many people locked up will breed more bitterness among their families and friends, and even many who trade with them. Besides, we need their labor. They are producing no good for society sitting in prison cells, and we are already suffering from a shortage of food.”
“So you would release them after only a short time of punishment? This counsel sounds much like your advice of a few days past.”
“Yes, release them,” she said. “But have them flogged first, only a few stripes—enough to show our determination and authority, but not so many that they will be unable to return to their labors.”
The king looked up at her again, quiet satisfaction creasing the corners of his mouth. “Yes, this is good counsel. We will give the order at first light.”
They flogged the men one at a time, so that a scream of pain broke through the hum and tumult of the city every few seconds for the better part of the morning, while she sheltered within her counting room and tried to concentrate on the tallies and records the scribes kept holding in front of her face. Occasionally, when she did manage to scrape some sense from the tablets and begin to consider its implications, another cry would burst in on her afresh, and she would wince, her hands rising involuntarily upward as if to cover her face. After only a short time of this erratic behavior, she had thoroughly unnerved her scribes. They appeared as relieved as she when Melem presented himself and she dismissed them to work that would not require her unimpeded faculties.
“All is in readiness,” said Melem when the door had shut behind the retreating scribes. “Our supplies are gathered in one place, as near as may be to the port. Upon your order, they can be loaded onto our waiting ships within a single watch. Our people, likewise, have made themselves and their households ready to depart at nearly a moment’s notice. We wait only at your pleasure.”
“Good,” she said. “We leave in two days’ time; instruct everyone to gather at the place you have appointed after the moon has risen on the night following this one.”
Melem smiled and bowed. “With pleasure, Lady.”
He turned and left the room, and she followed him into the hallway. Beckoning to Ishu, who had lingered outside, she waited until Melem had disappeared around the corner, then instructed him in a low voice, “Have some of the guards follow him to his co-conspirators. Arrest them all for treason, and make sure to find out where they have hidden the supplies. Put a watch on the place so we can round up any we don’t find today.”
Nodding, Ishu hustled away, and she slammed the door of the counting room shut behind him as another shriek of agony echoed up from the streets beyond.
When evening fell, she took with her a large contingent of the guards and set out across the city. Marching their way through the still-crowded streets, they thrust aside any who blocked their way, knocking over merchants’ stalls as their owners scrambled in vain to clear a path and sending others scurrying back into their homes or down nearby alleyways that offered their protection. After a few blocks, she cast a glance over her shoulder. While a few of the braver folk had returned to the streets once her entourage had passed, most seemed to prefer concealment. This pattern continued even as they reached the outskirts of Eridu and drew to a halt outside the first building she had marked the previous night.
Shouldering her way through the waiting guards, she told their commander, “I will enter first; wait for my signal.”
He nodded, and she stole down the alley, vigilant for any sound or sign of the conspirators she had enticed to gather there. The background noise of the city faded into mere whispers as she crept forward, but no betraying murmur or whisper made its way to her; no surreptitious movement bespoke the presence of rebellion. She had nearly reached the end of the alley, and was preparing to turn eastward in search of her quarry, when high above her head she heard a thump, as of a fist being pounded into a table. Twisting around to look in in the direction of the noise, she saw a face briefly appear at a window in the house opposite the one on which she had painted her sign. She shrank back around the corner to avoid detection, and after a few moments she peeked out again. The face had disappeared.
The window stood several times her own height from the ground, and the alley was too wide to climb with a hand on either wall. Hiking up her long skirts above her knees, she took a few steps at a run, then leaped up toward the wall opposite the window. As she sailed upward, she released her skirt and used her hands and feet to propel herself away from that wall and upward again toward her target. She thudded into the wall face-first, but her fingers had found their grip on the ledge of the window, and she pulled herself up and into the house before any inside could have identified the source of the sound.
Six men stood together around a small table littered with disparate objects, as though they had been mapping out a plan using whatever articles came ready to hand. Stunned into momentary inaction by her sudden entrance, they stared at her in silence. She noticed in the stillness that two of them bore the fresh marks of the cane that had been used to flog them.
She fixed one of them with an appraising eye. “Have you given thought to your future?” she asked him.
He made no reply. As if her words had broken a spell, all six of them burst into action, scrambling toward the door on the far side of the room. She reached her hand out through the window behind her and snapped her fingers. Then, as the sound of the commander’s shouted order rang out from the street below, she flung herself across the room and wrenched the door out of the hand of the man who had opened it. Slamming it shut, she thrust him backward into the arms of his comrades.
“I swear to you, I am worse than prison,” she said without hostility. One of the men with stripes on his back charged her anyway, and she dodged to one side, seizing him by the arm and ramming his head into the wall. The bricks crumbled, and he fell down senseless. The rest backed away again, and she opened the door for the guards, whose footsteps were already pounding up the stairs outside the room.
The prison reeked of filth, even from the outside. Turning the corner from the back of the building and striding up the alley that bordered it on the northeast side, she wished that she had given thought to its administration earlier and arranged for more sanitary conditions. At such a troubled time, when the cells held far more occupants than usual, proper drainage and higher standards of cleanliness for the guards who watched over the building might have made her present task less nauseating. Still, she did not intend to spend much time inside.
Rounding the corner to the street-facing side of the prison, she stepped forward and presented herself to the two men guarding the door. They bowed on recognizing her, and one of them turned to unlock the door. As soon as he showed her his back, she brought the heel of her hand down on his neck, stunning him to the ground. The other, mouth agape, had barely registered the unwarranted assault before she grabbed him by the throat and rammed his head into the wall at his back. He also fell, unconscious, and she picked up the keys dropped by the first guard.
The third guard, manning the interior to keep the rowdier prisoners in check, was just rising in alarm when she burst through the door. Bewilderment replaced relief on his face as she crossed the space between them in a single leap and knocked him against the wall with a fist to his jaw. He groaned as he struggled upright again, and reached for her, but she smashed her forehead into the bridge of his nose, and he slumped over.
Before examining the cells, she dragged the unconscious guards inside, lest they draw attention on the street. Then, poking her head out of the door, she listened for any sign of disturbance. Hearing only the soft sounds of the city’s fitful slumber, she withdrew inside, closing the door behind her before turning to the single long hallway that housed the prisoners.
Even that single breath of fresh air had re-calibrated her senses, and she gagged as her mouth and lungs filled with the thick, rotting atmosphere of the prison. After a few steps, she had mastered herself, and she looked in at the door of the first cell. Through the tiny window she could see little but dark shapes clustered on the ground—unfortunate would-be rebels huddling together in sleep. None of them stirred, and she turned away to the next door.
Before she could reach it, though, a voice hissed at her from the opposite side of the passage. “You!” it cried. “Filth!”
Spinning around, she saw a face mashed into the window of the first door on her left. Despite the limited visibility and the distortion of rage on his face, she recognized Melem. She approached him as he continued to berate her.
“You betrayed us! How dare you—I’ll have you carved into pieces, bitch!”
“Ssh, Melem,” she said. “Ssh, quiet. What good does this do? Hush now, I know you’re angry.”
His vitriol subsided, but he still glared at her through the one eye not closed by the massive bruise that covered the left side of his face. “That’s better,” she said.
“Why?” he demanded. “We trusted you.”
“I hope you’ve learned better, then,” she said. “But this was all part of my plan—a plan I couldn’t reveal to you, but it’s nearly complete. Just watch.”
Leaving him to agonize over this dark hint, she turned again to the second cell on the right and peered in through the window. Even in the darkness, she could see that everyone inside was standing, facing her, and the nearest of them took a step forward when her face appeared. A faint ray of light fell on his features, and she recognized the man she had knocked out during her earlier raid.
She stepped away from the door again and sorted through the keys she had taken from the guard. After several tries, she found the right match for the door, and she unlocked it and swung it open, stepping back to allow its occupants to emerge. The man she had recognized stepped out first, and he walked toward her, slowly putting one foot before the other, until he stood within arm’s reach of her. The others followed, issuing one by one from the cell and spreading out to fill the corridor around her. Looking from one to the other, she saw that many carried the marks of their floggings, and even the others bore grim determination on their faces. Silent and wary, they gathered about her in expectation, and when all had liberated themselves, she looked at the man in front of her.
“This city is not worthy of you,” she said to him. Then, taking her eyes from his astonished face, she looked at each of them in turn as she continued, “You have proved yourselves willing to face torment and imprisonment, desperate to take hold of something better than those with power would offer you. It would be easy for me to congratulate myself on choosing you, but really you chose yourselves. I only showed you the way.”
So saying, she pushed aside the strap of her dress and lifted her shoulder out of it to show them, scored onto the skin below her collarbone, a scar shaped like a triangle, with a tail like an arrow and three semicircles inside it.
They flowed down the stairs to the port, she and the men she had liberated, and the families they had summoned from their beds in the dead of night—nearly three hundred of them, carrying together the spoils of their raid on the warehouse where Melem had stored supplies for the journey north. With such a surplus of willing hands, they had soon loaded all their cargo onto the waiting ships, which those with the greatest skill among the fishermen made ready to depart. Before the moon had even begun to sink, they boarded together, some weeping to leave the only home they had known, but most turning their eyes toward the river, which glittered in the pale light.
As they rowed out toward the mouth of the port, she turned to the pilot of the lead vessel, and said, “Take us south, to the Tigris. If we are to build our own world, it must be far from any world of theirs.”
The waters of Lake Van shone still and clear as the sun rose over the mountains. She gazed one last time into its bright blue depths from high up on the slopes of Bol Daği before turning her eyes southward, to where the army of Eridu had encamped in the valley below. Bel had amassed a mighty host to meet her in battle, a well-armed and well-fed military at least three times the size of her small band of starving farmers and fisherman, armed only with sharpened tools and a few bows she had managed to craft for them in the short time since the outlying villages had alerted her to the invasion. Soon they would attack, and she could feel the dread of their onslaught permeating the ranks of the men behind her.
Glancing to the right and to the left, she saw whitened knuckles gripping sickles and mattocks, determined even in their terror. She turned and surveyed her meager army, and all eyes shifted to her, hope flickering like a guttering candle on each panicked face. Taking a deep breath, she raised her voice to address them.
“I know you are not warriors, but you are also not slaves. Even if we die today, we die on our own land, as our own masters. You have all shown you were willing to do anything to be free, so you have only to continue as you have begun. I will go before you, and one way or another, the Hay will have victory.”
Even as she spoke the final words, the clash of weapons and the cries of charging warriors sounded from below, and, turning, she saw Bel running toward them at the head of his army. Though still far away and far below her, she saw the wild joy of battle igniting in his eyes, and she reached into the quiver at her back to draw forth an arrow.
“Stand and wait!” she called to those behind her. “We have the high ground, and we will not give it up until we must.”
She fitted the arrow to the string, then reached back for another and laid it beside its sister. When she had nocked a third arrow, she raised the bow and sighted along the triple shaft toward Bel. As yet so far off that she knew he could not yet have identified her face, he thundered forward at the same determined pace, spear flashing back and forth in his hand as he ran.
“Stand!” she cried again to her men. “Wait for my command!”
Still following Bel with the points of her arrows, she forced herself to concentrate on his steps, to take in the rhythm and power of every footfall, to slow time for herself so she could calculate the speed and angle and direction of her missiles, could will them to find their long-awaited home in the heart of the king she had served and deserted. With a hasty, half-thought prayer to the Lady of Heaven for victory, she loosed the shafts and watched as the arrows sped away into the emptiness that lay between her and the charging king.
Bel came on, the battle-fury consuming his whole mien as he ran straight and true. He never noticed her single shot, nor observing her arrows in flight. He only sped forward, straight forward, until some flicker of movement or sound of feathers in the air caught his attention and pulled his eyes upward. His steps faltered, the spear in his hand froze, his eyes widened in surprise. Even as his foot turned to leap to one side, three arrows thudded into his chest, penetrating the tough leather of his cloak and embedding themselves half-deep into his body. He tumbled back without even a single cry, and fell to the ground, dead.
The army of Eridu wavered, and stumbled, fear and doubt gripping them as their king fell upon the grass, and she looked over her shoulder at her own men. Thrusting an arm forward into the air, she cried out, “For Hayk, and for the Haïer! Forward!”
Hurtling down the side of the mountain, she heard the thunder of their feet behind her, and as they raced toward their bewildered foes, they cried out with a single voice, “Hayk! Hayk! Hayk for the Haïer!”
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed "She Names a Nation", check out the other stories in the series.