I had come to Assyria to find the Magi. Masters of prophecy they were renowned throughout the world. Merchants pleaded with them to divulge if their trade would be successful. Mothers begged to be told of their children’s fate. Kings demanded the Magi tell them of threats to their rule. I just wished to know who my Father was. The Magi could be found in many places, but their gathering place was Assyria.
Senbi had told me that the Assyrians once had a great Empire with trading cities in the lands of the Hittites and the Babylonians. Renowned as merchants, hagglers and caravanners with skill second to none, perhaps the Magi had given them the advantage in knowing just the right goods to bring with them. In any case, the omens must have been bad since Assyria, like every other land, had more tales of past glories than present ones. The omens were bad for us as well. Senbi fell ill on our journey. We rode along the Tigris, our chariot making slow progress. Late one evening we arrived at the city of Assur, the sun at our backs as we crossed the bridge over a deep moat and rode through the West Gate. It took a lot of asking and bargaining to find a place to stay and to bring healers to help Senbi, but my efforts were paid back in another way when several hooded men approached me. Magi.
Their leader called himself Esar, an old sly man, the others did not give names. They asked for my assistance to help defeat an evil omen, and I agreed. In return I asked for them to read the entrails and the stars, to discover my fate. My task was not an easy one, but then, when is it ever easy? Esar spoke for the group.
“Several moons ago a great light appeared in the sky and our King, Ashrabi, asked us to interpret the omen. There was no mistaking this sign. It foretold great danger to the King, perhaps even his death. Nothing is absolute, but the King is panic-stricken and will not leave his palace. Our Kings are not as other Kings of the south. He is no warrior or general, he is the High Priest of Assur. Living conduit to the God of this city. He cannot be allowed to neglect his duties, indeed as King he must still organise the irrigation of the fields, the maintenance of the northern canal, forgive debts and enact justice. We are of the opinion that the King is in no danger from the Gods, but the King has mortal enemies too. These enemies will no doubt have deduced from the omen that the perfect time to strike is soon. We need to make sure the King survives any attempt on his life.”
“You wish me as a bodyguard? Very well, I can do that for you.”
“No Goliath, we need more than that. We need you to be King.”
My heart jumped as Esar spoke the words.
“I am no King. Nor would I know how to be one.”
“Fear not, it is a temporary thing, and you will have instruction. It is vital that the King makes the journey to the Temple of Assur to bring in the New Year. This is when our enemies will almost certainly strike. If you are King then you will stand a great chance of surviving. Ashrabi would die of fright before the killers struck. Once the New Year is started then you can renounce your kingship and Ashrabi will resume his benevolent rule.”
During Esar’s speech I noticed one of the other Magi was nervous. His stance and the way he avoided my eyes made me suspicious. Something was not right here, but I knew I wanted to find out more.
“Very well, I will help you if you in return help me. My friend here will need to be looked after, and I require a reading of my destiny.”
“Of course, of course. I will send our finest doctors.”
I agreed to go to the palace in the morning, and as the Magi left I held back the nervous one.
“What is your name my friend? I wonder if perhaps we have met before?”
He flinched at my touch. “My name is Nadin-shumi, and Goliath, we have never met. That I can assure you.”
I did not sleep well that night.
I made my way to the palace the next day. Senbi was still unconscious, but breathing a little better now that the doctors were chanting over him. There are three enormous buildings in Assur. At the curve of the river is the Temple of Assur (how annoying that their God has the same name as their city). Next to it is a Ziggurat, less impressive than ones I have seen to the south. Next to that is the Palace complex, painted with scenes of the Kings triumphs. I wondered if they would paint any scenes for me. Esar was waiting for me and brought me inside to a room with an altar at its centre.
“Our King, the beloved Ashrabi, second of his name, has descended to the underworld and will not return until you relinquish the Rod of Rulership.”
He handed me an engraved iron rod.
“By the way, you’re King now. Lets go through what you have to do.”
I did not leave that room for some time. Esar told me of my duties, limited as they were since I would not be King for long. He paid particular attention to the New Year ceremony. I was to lead a procession from the palace up to the top of the Ziggurat. At the same time the God Assur would lead a procession from his Temple. When we met I would make offerings and if the God chose to speak through me then I would say his words. Esar made it clear that the God would not speak through me and that I was to stay silent at that part of the ritual. Unfortunately I was not to stay silent for the whole time and so I learned the enormous amount of words I needed to know, sacred words that meant nothing to me.
On the second day of my kingship I explored the palace. It was woefully undefended, but I spoke with the palace guards and made some changes that would ensure a little more safety. I would rather not be killed by some sneaky assassin after learning all those rituals. The guards were good men and they enjoyed my questioning of their routines, for it seemed that the previous Kings had decided on a lot of their duties without regard for security. I decided to bring a couple of the guards with me as I explored so that they could point out any weak points in the palaces defences that I missed. It was during my explorations of the palace that I found Naqi’a.
I had walked into the women’s quarters and encountered King Ashrabi’s mother. She was a frightful presence with coal black eyes and a permanently furrowed brow. She made it clear to me that the wives and concubines of Ashrabi were not to be touched by an interloper such as myself. She followed me as I brought the guards around, just to make sure. The wives and concubines seemed to live a life of some hardship. I had thought that they would be pampered, instead they spent their time as women do everywhere, making textiles, weaving and sewing. The quality and quantity of the textiles was impressive, it obviously did the royal household well to have so many high class women working here.
I talked to some of the wives and they seemed only too happy to talk back. One in particular, a dark haired beauty with haunting eyes, caught my attention. I managed to speak to her away from the guards and out of earshot of the King’s mother. I noticed scars on the inside of her arms and wondered if the King took pleasure in cutting her.
“The King’s mother tells me you are called Naqi’a. She says she has great hopes of you bearing a grandchild for her.”
Naqi’a shook her head.
“I hope I disappoint her then.”
Her bearing was of one defeated. Worn down.
“I hope so too.” I did not know why I said it.
I left the women’s quarters then, but over the next few days I would return and speak with Naqi’a. Never for long, only a few moments. I found myself looking forward to our short meetings more and more, and she gradually opened up to me. Eventually she told me of how she came to be in the palace.
“I was never intended to be a wife of a King, though I am a princess, of noble birth. My father sent me to the Temple of Shamash to become a naditu. I was betrothed to Shamash, never to take a mortal man as husband. Unfortunately the high priest of Shamash wanted favours of the King and gave me as a gift. I have sinned by marrying Ashrabi and any children I give him will be cursed too. My fate is not an easy one to bear, yet you have taken my mind away from such troubles Goliath. Now I worry for you.”
“Why so? I am ready for the procession, I have made good plans to avoid any danger.”
“It is not the enemies from without that worry me. It is Esar. He will…” she paused. I could see conflict in her eyes. Then,
“He will have you killed as a sacrifice to bring back Ashrabi. I’m so sorry. I wish you didn’t know so that you did not fear, but I had to tell you. We know that Ashrabi is just hiding in the catacombs under the palace, but the people have been told that he has descended to the underworld. Without a human sacrifice they will never accept his return.”
She was crying now, and I placed my arm around her.
“It’s all right. If I have to die then I shall die. But I wont be anyone’s sacrifice.”
And I wouldn’t leave Naqi’a to be sacrificed to Ashrabi. Damn but that complicated things. Where was Senbi when I needed him?
Well it turned out that Senbi was busy sneaking past the palace defences. He got quite far before my guards brought him to me. I wish I could say he had returned to his full health but the guards had left some welts and blood from beating him. I had him brought to my quarters and tended to. There I explained all that was going on and for once Senbi refrained from interrupting, only rolling his eyes every few moments. I gave him the night to recover and in the morning we worked on a plan to leave Assur safely. Senbi headed out of the palace to gather the information we needed while I practised fighting naked with the guards.
Had I mentioned that I would be wearing nothing but a cape during the ceremony? No place to hide a blade to defend myself.
Our preparations went well, swift as they needed to be. On the last day of the old year I gave my final orders to the owner of the barge which carried the palace’s textiles, confirmed that the guards knew their places and disrobed. I put on the yellow cape that identified me as the High Priest of Assur and started the ceremony under the watchful eyes of Esar. My chanting was not the greatest but it sufficed and before too long we were ready to leave the altar in the palace and head out into the city itself. My retinue stopped when we stepped outside into the overcast day. It was tradition that I continue alone. There were crowds all around, kept back from the path I was to take, hot and sweating in the drizzle. My guards were stationed in the crowds just in case.
I stepped barefoot through the now muddy ground. My eyes scanned left and right in anticipation of an attack. My breathing was deep for I was still chanting the sacred words. I had just stepped onto the Ziggurat when the crowd surged from the right. My guards started pushing the people back but two men broke from the others and rushed at me, crossing the space between myself and the people in an instant. One had a knife. The other had a bronze sword. I had nothing but a flimsy yellow cape and my years of fighting.
I ran towards the one with the knife, screaming at the top of my lungs. This startled him and was enough to allow me to drop and slide though the mud into him. His legs gave way and he was too slow bringing his knife down, it slammed into the ground just before I wrapped some of the cape around his neck. I was up on my knees as I pulled tight and heard his death rattle. I had no time to savour my victory, the swordsman was nearly upon me. I only had time to grab the knife, no chance to throw the body of the first man at him. It would have to do.
His eyes met mine as I backed away quickly. But what I saw was fear. I knew as I avoided his attacks that he was no match for me and I smiled. My moves became more leisurely, jumping, skipping, always out of his reach. I only had to wait until…then, yes, he knew it too. His realisation that he would die by my hand. I let it seep into his bones, carry away any hope he had. Then, on his next thrust, I dodged, spun, moved in and stuck the knife into his ribs. I pushed him back and down into the mud, too close for his sword, my weight pressing down on the blade.
His eyes were glazed as I stood and threw the knife away. I let the light rain take away the blood that covered me and continued my way up the steps of the Ziggurat. The guards took the bodies away and the crowd was eerily silent. With each step the joy of the fight left me so that by the time I arrived at the top I was calm again. From the high vantage point I could see the Temple of Assur with its procession heading towards me. To the north I could see the docks and the textile boat waiting. I could just make out Senbi who was waving a blue cloth to say everything was in place.
The procession arrived, the statue of the God was impressive, though again I have seen better in my time. Assur’s other priests said their parts, and I said mine. As we neared the end I turned from the statue and addressed the crowd.
“People of Assur! Today I speak not as your King but as your God!”
I could not see Esar but knew he would be fuming about now.
“I am Assur and I have given and I have taken. Your King, Ashrabi, has descended to the underworld but I desire him to return. He cannot return on his own though, no mortal is so powerful. And so I will send my boat ‘The Hawk Who Sees’ northward until I bring it to the underworld. I send King Goliath, for no one other than my high priest can steer this boat into the underworld. I send the Magi Nadin-shumi, for none but a Magi can steer the boat back. And I send Ashrabi’s wife Naqi’a to entice him back from the world of the shades. So I have spoken, so shall it be.”
“Assur! Assur!” the crowd shouted in response.
I did not waste any time. I finished the ritual and bowed to the other priests then made my way directly towards the boat. I was not surprised to find Esar blocking my way at the docks. He approached and spoke quietly.
“I have no idea what you are doing, but this dangerous game stops now.”
“Don’t worry Esar, everything will be just fine. We will sail north and in a few days the boat will return with Ashrabi. We loaded him on this morning along with Naqi’a. Just give us Nadin-shumi and we’ll be on our way.”
“I think not, you have overstepped your mark young King.”
“You have overstepped yours Magi. I am still King and if I desire it I shall wipe all debts owed to you clean. I will ruin you. You gave me this power, how could you expect that I wouldn’t use it.”
His eyes narrowed at the talk of debts. Senbi had discovered that most of Esar’s wealth was owed to him and this had given us the crack in his armour. I didn’t give him time to think, I looked around and saw Nadin-shumi.
“Come, the God wishes us to go now. Quickly!”
Nadin-shumi climbed onto the boat with me. Esar did nothing to stop us and we launched northwards. I helped with the poles and pushed us away from the city that had given me so much while trying to kill me. Senbi looked pleased to see the plan had worked.
“That went well! Off we go with a boat full of textiles, two Kings, a Queen, a Magi and your humble servant.”
“Never my servant Senbi, always my friend. We’ll have to send the boat back with Ashrabi of course, but I think you should have the textiles to make up for that poor treatment you had with my guards.”
“Of course Goliath, and what about you? What is your reward? The young Queen perhaps?”
I smiled. “Perhaps. But I think first I will do what I came here to do, talk to a Magi. How lucky for me – I have one to hand, stuck on a boat with us for several days.”
So that was how we spent our time in Assur. Overall it went very well – I became a King, I rescued a damsel in distress, Senbi recovered from his illness and gained a large amount of cargo. I will stop my story there while it is still a happy one, for what Nadun-shumi told me that night in hushed tones still haunts me. Still keeps me awake. And what happened after that is a tale I will not tell until the horror has faded from my memories.