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Authors: Sam Barone

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical

Quest for Honour (3 page)

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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“Let me examine the stones first,” Gemama said, settling in his chair with a deep breath of relief. He took his time unfastening the cord that bound the sack, then spread the opening wide. Carefully he removed its contents, each lapis stone wrapped in its own square of linen.

“There are twenty-eight stones,” Yavtar offered. “Not all the same size, but some are truly magnificent.”

Gemama unwrapped each stone, lining them up in three rows by approximate size. The intense blue color drew the eye, and the tiny gold flecks sprinkled within the stones glinted in the fading sun. “Incredible,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything of such excellence before. These came from the Indus, you’re certain?”

“Nothing of this quality is to be found in these lands,” Yavtar said. “You know Nicar the merchant? His son, Lesu, traveled to the east and back. Took four months. Lesu started with forty porters and guards, but lost almost half his men to bandits and thieves. Only twenty-two returned. Even then, he might not have made it, but King Eskkar sent soldiers to the edge of the mountains to wait for his return, and escort him and his goods back to Akkad.”

“How many stones did he bring back?”

Yavtar shrugged. “Nicar didn’t say.”

“Yes, I’m sure he didn’t. Well, as long as the Akkadian doesn’t flood the market with more gems, it doesn’t really matter.” Gemama returned his attention to the stones. He took his time, examining each, murmuring an occasional word of praise for every special attribute.

“These gemstones are worth the lives of fifty men,” he said when he finished his inspection. “When polished and set into amulets and pendants, they will make any woman willing, every man a rod. Anyone who can afford the price will want one. Even the grindings will be collected and sold, used to heal wounds and keep the limbs healthy.”

Yavtar knew the lore as well, though he had his doubts about the stones’ effectiveness as an aphrodisiac. Still, what a man believed often became the truth.

Gemama set down the final lapis with a sigh. “When you quoted your price on the ship, I had my doubts. But after seeing these, one hundred gold coins seems very reasonable. I would have expected to pay more, much more. Even after gifting a few of the finest to King Eridu, I’ll still earn a handsome profit.”

“Well, I can certainly raise the price, if you’re concerned.”

Gemama ignored the jest and raised his eyes to meet Yavtar’s, pulling his chair a bit closer to the table. “Perhaps there is something else you need. Something I can do in return for Akkad’s and your . . . generosity?”

Yavtar nodded. “Well, I would like to learn what I can about King Eridu and his plans for Sumer. If I had time to poke around the city myself, I would, but I see that Akkadians are no longer welcome here. Besides, I must leave Sumer by sunset tomorrow, so I have little time.”

The Sumerian lowered his voice. “King Eridu’s plans are secret. No one, not even the leading merchants, know all that he intends. And revealing what little I know could bring trouble down upon my house.”

“I understand. But a little gossip between old friends . . . and it might be possible to arrange another shipment of lapis lazuli in a few months. A more private shipment, one that perhaps will not pass through the eyes of the dockmaster.”

Gemama took his time thinking over this subtle proposition. The dockmaster had certainly noted the well-guarded leather pouch, hence the need to gift a few of the lapis lazuli to King Eridu. A private delivery, perhaps concealed within a sack of grain or jar of oil, would be even more profitable. He weighed the risk against the chance of future profits. “I suppose old friends could gossip among themselves. As long as it remained among themselves.”

“I will talk to Nicar about another shipment of lapis. It will be smaller, say a dozen stones, but I’m sure it can be arranged soon. And perhaps at a much lower price.”

Gemama smacked his lips, then took a deep breath. “You are wise to learn what you can. How else can an honest trader prepare for the future? But what little I know will not help you or Akkad. You arrive too late, I fear.”

“Too late? Too late for what?”

“By now everyone knows about the bandits raiding the borderland between Akkad and Sumeria. In the last few months, Eridu has assembled a strong force of well-armed horsemen. These are the ‘bandits’ pillaging the lands claimed by Akkad.”

Yavtar couldn’t keep the surprise from his face. As far as he knew, no word of this had reached Akkad. “Is King Eridu with them?”

“Who can say? Eridu dreams of conquest and loot these days. He might want to partake of the glory himself.”

“Well, I expect that any fighting will be over soon,” Yavtar said. “No doubt King Eridu knows by now that Lord Eskkar has marched south with a large force of archers and horsemen, to confront the bandits raiding across the Akkadian border.”

“Ah, the border that is in dispute. Who is to say where the border starts or where it ends? And perhaps your King Eskkar may find getting rid of the ‘bandits’ not such an easy task. King Eridu left the city ten days ago with over a hundred soldiers, most armed with spears and shields. Twice as many more are promised to join him within a few days, all recruited and armed from the other cities. With these men, and his horsemen, Eridu intends to establish a new border, one that places all the fertile cropland to the north under Sumer’s control.”

Yavtar’s eyes widened in surprise. A force of three hundred soldiers, supported by a large band of horsemen, would find Eskkar greatly outnumbered. If Eridu had departed ten days ago, the two forces might have already fought a battle. If not, the battle would be fought soon, long before Yavtar could return to Akkad and dispatch a warning.

He realized the silence had dragged on. “It was more than a year ago when Akkad established its southern boundary. No one in Sumeria disputed it then.”

“At that time, King Eridu was busy consolidating his influence over Sumer and the other Sumerian cities,” Gemama said. “Now that he has their allegiance, willing or not, the six cities of Sumeria now claim they need the rich northern farmlands to feed their growing numbers.”

Six large villages made up the heart of Sumeria. Not really villages any more, Yavtar knew, but full sized cities, each with at least two or three thousand inhabitants. Sumer had grown into the largest of them all, but Larsa, Uruk, Isin, Nippur, and Lagash all contributed to the wealth of the region. He hadn’t heard that the other cities had submitted to Eridu’s authority. Joined together, they would form a powerful trading region,
able to draw on trade from the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as the boats that crept along the coast of the Great Sea. If their fighting forces united . . . if Eridu had accomplished such a feat, the southern cities would present a formidable threat to Akkad.

“Hmm, do all the other cities accept Eridu as their king?”

Gemama chuckled. “Well, it’s only happened in the last few months, and it’s not something anyone talks about. Nor does Eridu claim to be their king, not yet, but as he says, he is now the first among equals. In truth, I think he feels a bit jealous at Lord Eskkar’s success. Too many people have been singing Akkad’s praises for driving off the barbarians, and some in the countryside, thinking they will better themselves, have migrated north to place themselves under Akkad’s protection. Eridu intends to put a stop to all that.”

“So it will be war then.” Yavtar shook his head in dismay. And this time the war would begin with Eskkar walking into a trap. “Trading will be the first casualty.”

“Not our trade to the east and west. That will continue without interruption. It will likely even increase. And once King Eridu establishes his claims over the disputed lands, the regular trade with the north will quickly resume, I’m sure. The crops and herds from those lands will then move south, not north.”

Rulers came and went, but the traders and merchants always found a way to exchange goods. Gemama spoke the truth. Trade would start up again sooner or later, no matter who won the battles.

“And the people of Sumer, are they as eager for war as their ruler?”

“The people do as they are ordered.” Gemama lifted his shoulders and let them drop. “For the last year, Eridu’s followers have blamed every shortage, every outbreak of disease, every problem on Akkad. The priests, seers, and even the merchants repeat the same message. By now, most of the city’s inhabitants accept it as truth. Eridu has plenty of lackeys in his pay to spread the word and enforce his will, all of them eager to partake in any profits that will arise. He has already promised much of the northern land to his supporters. War, I fear, has already come. It may already be over by now, if your King Eskkar doesn’t retreat to Akkad.”

Yavtar had much the same thought. “And you, friend Gemama, what do you think of all this?”

“I think that all this fighting is foolish,” the Sumerian said. “It would be easier and cheaper to trade for crops than wage war to seize the land
and then have to hold it. One lazy soldier costs more than ten farmers. But if King Eridu wins a quick victory over Lord Eskkar’s forces, then Eridu’s reputation will be enhanced and profits will grow for everyone in Sumer.”

“Quick victories are not easy to gain over Akkad,” Yavtar said. “I’ve seen Lord Eskkar’s soldiers fight.”

“Everyone knows of the skill of Akkad’s archers. But with all the resources of the six cities and their thousands of men at his disposal, Eridu will soon rule most of the land between the rivers, perhaps even as far north as Akkad. In time, it may be that your city’s new walls cannot withstand so many.”

“King Eridu is not at Akkad’s gates yet,” Yavtar said. with more conviction than he felt. “Those who wage war against King Eskkar may find themselves losing more than they could ever hope to gain.”

“Win or lose, I must take care of my trading house and my family. Like everyone else in Sumer, I had no choice but to give my full support to King Eridu. For which privilege I am allowed to continue my trading ventures, and permitted to give one tenth of all my profits to him.”

“A heavy price. What if the fighting continues and he demands more?”

“I pray to the gods for a quick end to the fighting. Though I warn you, old friend, that Eridu and his soldiers seem very confident of victory. His second in command, Razrek, knows how to fight. Apparently, they’ve been planning this for months, gathering men, weapons and horses, talking in secret with the leaders of the other cities. Even Eridu’s son, Shulgi, plays a role in all this. In fact, many of the soldiers trust the son more than the father.”

“Who is this Razrek?” The name meant nothing to Yavtar.

“A former bandit who grew powerful by killing all of Eridu’s enemies on the trade routes over the last few years. I was fortunate not to compete with Eridu in those days.” He sighed. “Hopefully the war will not last long.”

He noticed Gemama didn’t pray for any particular side to win. The merchant’s words conveyed a grim optimism about the war. Gemama was no fool, and he knew the numbers of soldiers Sumer and the other cities could field. That knowledge must have convinced him that King Eridu would emerge victorious.

Yavtar kept the growing sense of uneasiness from his face. Lord Eskkar had departed a few days before Yavtar sailed, expecting to confront bandits and marauders, not a well-trained enemy. By now defeat could
have struck Akkad’s forces, and the king himself might already be dead. “A war will provide profits for many.”

“Yes, for some,” Gemama agreed, “especially in the short term. But if the war drags on, Eridu will demand more gold from all of us, prices will rise, and the people will have less to buy goods.”

“I’m sorry for all this, old friend,” Yavtar said. “Should you need anything . . .”

“A few lapis lazuli will keep me in King Eridu’s favor, for now at least. But in the future, who can tell? Perhaps one day I may wish to move to Akkad myself.” He smiled at Yavtar across the table. “Well, there is nothing more I can tell you, but I think you’ve learned what you came for. At least our business is well concluded. Now it is time to feast. The lamb should be fully cooked by now, and there is some fine wine cooling in my cellar.”

“My thanks to you, Gemama. You will always be welcome in Akkad. Though I think I will return there with a heavy heart.”

“But with a full stomach.” The Sumerian extended his arm across the table. “And a head swimming in wine.”

Yavtar clasped Gemama’s arm, the age-old gesture of friendship. “Then let two old friends celebrate a successful voyage.”

“May it not be the last one, for either of us.”

2

That same day . . .

T
he afternoon sun drifted toward the horizon as Eskkar, ruler of the city of Akkad, galloped his horse down the gentle slope to rejoin his commanders and their men. Tall and powerfully built, he carried a long sword slung over his shoulder. Dark brown hair, fastened with a strip of leather, almost reached his shoulders. People seldom noticed the thin scar, scarcely visible after so many years, that marked one cheek. Instead their eyes were drawn to the broad face and strong jaw that marked him as a child of the northern steppes. His grim countenance and penetrating brown eyes tended to make strangers uneasy in his presence. They sensed a remnant of the fierce barbarian that still dwelt beneath the surface.

BOOK: Quest for Honour
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