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Authors: Nicholas Guild

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The Assyrian

BOOK: The Assyrian
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The Assyrian

Nicholas Guild

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2011

Dell Paperback Edition

Copyright 1988

Atheneum Hardcover Editon

Copyright 1987

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Chapter 1

At night outside my sleeping chamber the wind
moans in the trees. The great firs, as old as the foundations of
the world, high above us their needled branches are pulled about by
storms that rise as the day perishes. I turn on my sleeping mat,
awake and listening, for an old man finds little rest. Others hear
only the wind, but I the speechless words of the Lord Ashur, King
of Heaven. The wind is his messenger and in it I hear the voices of
the dying.

Even here, at the edge of the world, the
smell of corpses is in my nostrils. Among these people who know not
the flint hard sun of my birthplace, no one speaks of omens, and
yet I know. In the east the earth in which my fathers lie buried is
soft with blood. The gods are carried off into slavery and their
cities burn at their backs. The rich fields of barley, the swaying
grass, all are waste. I see all this. I have only to close my
eyes.

Yet are these phantoms only restless dreams?
Are they nothing more? As a man’s life decays, day by day,
sometimes his mind fills with shadows.

I believe it is more. Even while I was still
a boy the god Ashur thought fit to open the future to my sight. He
has not deserted me now. The walls of Nineveh are broken, and her
people perish by the swords of foreigners. It was all foretold, a
secret I have carried in my breast these many years, a black vision
of what must be. That which I see with the soul’s eyes has
happened—or will.

And if the end has come, if the throne of
empire is cast down and the mighty are dust, then who but I, who
have made my home among strangers, whose grandchildren speak with a
borrowed tongue, can recall its beginning?

So let me open my tale, for the god, who
rules in this life and the next, sets our feet upon strange paths.
I am Tiglath Ashur, son of Sennacherib the Glorious, Terror of
Nations, and my words ring with truth like silver coins.

My mother was Merope, a woman whom one of the
seven kings of Cyprus had given to the King of the Earth’s Four
Corners as an article of tribute. The king, being already in the
afternoon of life, sent her to his son, whose two lawful wives had
yet given him but few male children such as the gods did favor.
Thus it was that this foreign woman, this stranger to the king’s
city of Dur-Sharrukin, carried me in her womb through the halls of
the house of women in the palace of the heir and prince, the Lord
Sennacherib. She waited there, big with her burden, while the god
perfected his design.

And as my mother approached her time, the
great king, Sargon, Lord of the World, my father’s father, was
making war in the land of the Kullumite, fighting against a people
who lived in tents, wandering from one watering place to the next.
In the mountains of the east, Sargon led the armies of Ashur so
that these nomads would taste of our might and be sent limping back
into the wilderness, never again to trouble the rich lands of Akkad
and of Sumer, of the swift flowing Tigris.

It is a bitter place where the Kullumite
dwells. Scarcely a blade of grass can force its way between the
sharp stones. There is no comfort, neither for men nor beasts. It
is a land of mountains, where the king’s chariot must be carried on
the backs of his soldiers and he himself must abandon the saddled
war horse for his own legs and climb the hard, rock strewn trails
like any goat. And the Lord Sargon was already old.

On the twentieth day after his armies had
last wet their sandals in the great Turnat River, the king ordered
that a camp be struck in a plain beneath the nameless cliffs of
shale and limestone, near a spring of living water that forced its
way up through the ground like blood from a fresh wound. He decreed
that all should rest there through two nights to refresh their
spirits and find strength. The king pitched his tent and sat down
before it, his hands resting on his knees, while the host of Ashur
made themselves easy in his mighty shadow. The cooking pots were
found and men who had forgotten the faces of their wives and the
taste of fresh killed lamb stripped off their armor and washed the
sweat from their faces, dancing in the cold, clear pools like
children. A soldier is pleased with little and takes comfort when
and where he can, and the king smiled upon them like a father
remembering his age.

The Lord Sargon had ruled the wide world for
seven years and ten. The kings of Tyre and of Sidon at the edge of
the Northern Sea, the rich cities of Carchemish, Aleppo and
Damascus, all wore his yoke. He had taken the hands of Marduk and
made himself king in Babylonia. As far away as Egypt and Lydia and
the wastes of the Arab desert, men sent him rich gifts and trembled
at his word, for he was mighty and his anger had a long reach. The
Land of Ashur had seen many great kings, restless conquerors who
had made the earth quake under the feet of their armies, but Sargon
was far the greatest. On his hard old body were the scars of many
wounds, for his campaigns reached back to the days of his beardless
youth. He was brave as the wild boar and cunning as an adder, and
his soldiers loved and worshiped him as though he were the bright
god in his own person.

And yet he was old and tired, and the joy of
war had left him. Death circled around his head like a black
bird.

That night he feasted with his officers,
sharing out bread and dark beer, listening to the storytellers and
waiting for the time to close his eyes and sleep. The campfires of
the army burned while men played at lots and laughed and forgot the
hardships of campaign. But in the mountains the Kullumite watched,
numbering the hours.

I cannot account for all that followed. The
annals, which in any case are always full of lies, are silent here,
and memories had grown clouded with the years before I knew to ask.
The survivors of that terrible night were few and—who can
say?—perhaps reluctant to talk of such things. Who, after all,
would speak ill of the Great Sargon, and to the king his son’s own
son? But men who have not seen the enemy in many days grow
careless—this I have seen myself—and it is easy for the army of a
great nation, at war with savages, to imagine itself invincible.
Whatever the reasons, there were no scouts sent out to search in
the mountains and the sentries of the king’s mighty host were deaf
and blind.

And in that dark hour just before the dawn’s
first stirring the Kullumite riders came, carrying fire. They had
painted their faces black as they rode through the camp, trampling
down the tents where our soldiers lay sleeping and setting them to
blaze with their torches. Men rushed into the darkness, fresh from
their sleeping blankets, blinking like owls, and were killed with
their hands empty. They hardly knew what was happening around them
before they were struck to the ground, their breasts torn open and
their brains scattered. Many a brave soldier of Ashur fell before
the long spear with its copper point and the curved sword that
knows no pity. The horses screamed as if they were devils and beat
the hard earth with their hoofs so that it trembled like a
drumhead. There were battle cries and shrieks of panic and the
groans of the dying. There was blood for the ground to drink. The
cruel goddess Ereshkigal, Queen of the Dead, grew sated with
carrion.

“And then it was over. As swiftly as they had
come, the enemy withdrew, riding back into their mountains, the
spoils they had captured slung across their saddles, happy in their
riches and glory. We few left alive looked about us, our minds
clouded with confusion and fear. We under¬stood nothing except that
we had come within a whisper of death. We could think of nothing
except that—it was almost like being dead, that panicked
helplessness. The brain and the senses throb like a wound. The
world in its solid shape seemed almost to vanish, as if we had
become ghosts. And then we found that which brought us back to
life, for behind them, lying in the dust, his night clothes
spattered with gore, they had left the corpse of Great Sargon,
hacked like a joint of meat and run through the body with a spear,
his death the work of many hands. For one blow, Prince, could never
have killed him.”

So the story was told to me, many years
later. So it was that there, in the mountains, he died. He fell in
battle, cut down by bandits whose highest arts were thievery and
the herding of goats. His son, my father, had to buy back his body
from his murderers.

I will not trouble myself to recount how the
remnants of the king’s grand army found their way home, how they
were harried by raiders, how they starved and suffered and died.
Theirs is not my story. It was many weeks before those in the Land
of Ashur knew of their fate, and of the death of the Lord Sargon.
They did not know, the subjects of the king, but they guessed, for
the gods from whom nothing is hidden had sent them a sign. On the
night of Sargon’s death a star was seen in the east, hanging low
over the mountains. When men saw it they trembled and hid
themselves inside their houses, muttering prayers to turn away evil
from the land, for it was a star of ill portent and as red as
blood.

On that night, in the house of women in the
palace of Sennacherib, the marsarru, the heir, who was king now
without knowing it, my mother brought me wailing into the world,
and thus my birth cries were the first lamentation for the dead
lord.

. . . . .

“See, my little Lathikadas. you can do it.
You can do all things. All mysteries are open to you. See how easy,
my sweet little prince. . ?”

My mother’s voice, as she taught me to walk
on my hands over the cool brick floor of the arcade around our
garden—I speak of it as ours and remember it so, but it was common
to all who dwelt in the house of women, all the wives and
concubines and the king’s children. She had to hold my feet to keep
me from toppling over, but I could support my own weight and walk
in a straight line until we drew abreast of the great fountain
whose falling waters seemed to laugh. She wanted me to have strong
arms. She said the god had set his mark upon me and I would need
them. I was perhaps four or five years old.

“The star is the token of Ishtar, Goddess of
Lust, Queen of Battles, and red is the color of mourning. It is a
bad omen your little boy carries in that birthmark of his.”

Naq’ia smiled, narrowing her eyes as if to
measure me for my grave. She sat at the fountain’s edge, resting
her hands on her elbows like a man and watching us. She was one of
the king’s two legal wives and his favorite by all accounts, though
not yet Lady of the Palace—the mother of the heir yet lived. It was
said that beauty such as Naq’ia’s could melt the bowels within a
stone idol, but a child does not see this, so I was merely
frightened of her. She was ambitious for her own son and hated me
and Merope for bearing me. Little Esarhaddon stared at us from
behind his mother’s skirt. I stuck out my tongue at him and he hid
his eyes.

“Let the child down, woman. See how the blood
rushes to his face?”

My mother released my legs and I tucked in my
head under and rolled, just as she had taught me. I sprang to my
feet like a trap snapping shut.

“Anyone can see he is an Ionian, woman. A
foreigner, like yourself. He will end his days making mud bricks
for the city walls.”

“A slave, like all of your family,
Zakutu?”

Because, of course, everyone knew that Naq’ia
was a Babylonian freedwoman whom the great king Sennacherib had
purchased from a tavern master in Borsippa. In the days of her
glory it was not safe to speak of such things, nor to remember that
the Akkadian name the king had given her meant “the freed one,” but
they were no less true for that.

The smile faded from Naq’ia’s lips like
melting frost.

“My son, Zakutu, will be a great man in the
land of Ashur,” Merope said, picking me up in her arms and holding
me to her. She took my hand, covering the star shaped birthmark,
red as fire, that glowed on the soft white flesh of my palm. “This
is prophecy. This is written in the hour of his birth, for the god
favors him.”

I always loved my mother, but I knew even
then she was not always wise.

BOOK: The Assyrian
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