Saturday, 15 May 2021

Mother of Words


I mentioned last week that I had been shortlisted for the inaugural Bet Tuppi’s Ancient Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize.

Well - I won.

Read The Mother of Words

The story was selected from ten amazing shortlisted stories, all of which you can read here

Public feedback:

We love the unique take on Enheduanna, the first named poet. The story really encapsulates the essence of Mesopotamia, which is known not only for its empires and violence, but also as the birthplace of writing and literature.

Notification feedback from judge 
Matthew Parkes, MPhil in Assyriology at the University of Cambridge:

We specifically loved how you drew upon the source material. For instance, considering the namelessness of many of Mesopotamia's authors whilst also exploring the power that writing brought to these early civilisations. It was truly a pleasure to read your story!

I just want to take a moment to explain why this means so much. 

As regular readers will know, I have been writing a novel about the Akkadian Empire for the past year. It's very nearly coming to a close. The story began as the telling of Enheduanna, but, in order to get there, I needed to retell The Legend of Sargon, her father. What was supposed to be a background chapter soon ballooned to over 100,000 words and became a full-blown novel of its own.

I've been working closely with Leif Inselmann, a wonderful research scholar at the University of Göttingen. Leif also happens to be a German author and you can find his books here. He has been incredible in helping to clarify things and preventing me from wandering into the absurd. Although, he didn't proof the story I submitted to the competition, which is why there was a slight metallurgical historical slip-up in there. I wrote it late at night and in a hurry to hit the deadline.

But, just pause for a moment and consider what it was like, having been completely obsessed with the Akkadian Empire and ancient Sumer for over a year, to suddenly see a writing competition specifically asking for Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian historical fiction? I mean - what were the chances? I almost didn't enter because I thought, how gutting would that be if I didn't even get placed? 

Well, I'm glad I did enter, and I'm absolutely blown away and very thankful to have impressed the judges. I do occasionally think that Enheduanna glances over the shoulder of every writer from time to time. We've swapped clay and stylus for paper and pen, but we're all just continuing her 4,000-year tradition of writing down our thoughts. 

I'll sign off now, but it's always an incredible boost when a story you write connects with its readers. As writers, we're used to rejection and it's easy to feel overlooked and to doubt ourselves, but one win wipes away all of that. If you're a creator, keep creating. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep spinning stories and breathing life into them. Eventually you'll catch a little luck in your web. 

Sinjye wahera hahera Enheduanna.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Francis Cameron

Just saw the sad news that the wonderful Mr. Francis Cameron has passed on. A talented, well-travelled and wonderful man, and a respected member of the British Pagan community. 

I have exceedingly fond memories of the PF Conference in Tintagel years ago, of wandering the lanes of Oxford and stopping for tea and cake, and the time he officiated at a friend's handfasting. He was an accomplished pipe organ player who spent time on walkabout down under in his youth. A truly lovely and beloved individual. 

He kept a blog from 2007-2017, which you can find here.

Merry meet, merry part, and - I am certain - merry meet again.

I'm sure we'll share a cup again someday. 

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Untamed

Behold, the Tortoise of Slaughter!

I am totally and completely smitten by this. I've taken a detour away from Korean films and found my way to C-drama. The Untamed is basically what would happen if Hogwarts, Game of Thrones and live-action Spirited Away collided - in Chinese. It's flipping fabulous. The costumes, the characters, an epic musical score, and the hair - oh, the hair!

Ziyi Meng as Lady Wen

There's also a small splash of Jim Hensonesque puppetry going on. It's a bit mad in that respect. Korean dramas are smooth as they come, all super-slick CGI, but this one flicks between CGI and the occasional random giant puppet wolf or Tortoise of Slaughter. It's quite fascinating and absolutely adorable. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way - it really is utterly charming. It's like a hybrid between 21st century and 1980's FX. I completely love it. You feel there was probably more planning, skill and effort involved in the puppet characters than the computer stuff. 

I have to admit, I didn't really understand what was going on until the middle of episode three, when they arrive at Cloud Recesses. Give it until at least then. I also know I spoke before about how Korean soaps are epic in length compared to British ones, either in the number of episodes or in the length of the episodes, which regularly run to one-and-a-half hours. The Untamed also adheres to this trend. The episodes are only an hour long, but there's fifty of them. I know that sounds a lot, but I'm already past halfway and rationing my daily allowance because I don't want it to end. I watched a Neil Gaiman interview recently in which he talked about the way people are starting to 'treat television novelistically,' where we're consuming visual stories like we would the chapters of a book. I think this is a prime example. Each episode is like a chapter in an epic fantasy story. It's so much fun.

I'm watching it on Netflix, but someone's also put the whole thing on YouTube, here with English captions. I have to say, I do wish Netflix would rework the timing of their subtitles. I find that the subtitling on many of their Asian series go by way too fast in places, but it's worth the slight inconvenience of sitting with your finger on the pause button.

It's just wonderful, and surprising, and full of glowy goodness, mythology and tears. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Akkad at 100k

So, yeah... made it to 100,000 on the WIP yesterday.

Thought I'd post this for kicks.

About 500 of those 100,000 do involve baby Sargon high on ganzigunnu (ganja).

Thinking I might be in a little bit of trouble. I've still got quite a way to go with this one. I reckon it'll come in somewhere around 140k.

Writing a book this length is honestly like drawing one of those concertina pictures, where you can see the face really clearly - the first few chapters - because you're constantly editing them, and you can see the boots - the last chapter you just wrote - but everything in between is folded out of sight and you have no clear memory of what it contains. I'm excited to finish and dive into those forgotten parts. 

I've put aside the next few weeks to just write and I'm feeling really good in myself. I haven't left the country in three years, and was just about to book a holiday home to see the folks when the pandemic hit, so, if I can't physically go anywhere, at least I get to go to ancient Sumer every day and take a cup of coffee with me.

Although I have the whole day to write, I don't push myself too hard. I get up late, write for a bit, watch Netflix (I'm currently obsessed with The Untamed - more on that soon), do a bit more writing, make some food. I try to aim for a word count rather than keep writing until I die. I like to be able to end on a scene I'm excited about, so I can come back to carry on the next day. 

Little by little, we get there.

Today I'm hoping for between 2,500-3,000. 

Just about to head into battle with the Sumerian forces of Lugal Zage-Si. 

Time to strap on my armour.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The Redemption of Althalus


Picked this up because I liked the cover colours and I was in the mood for epic fantasy:

It would be sheer folly to try to conceal the true nature of Althalus, for his flaws are the stuff of legend. He is, as all men know, a thief, a liar, an occasional murderer, an outrageous braggart, and a man devoid of even the slightest hint of honor.

Yet of all the men in the world, it is Althalus, unrepentant rogue and scoundrel, who will become the champion of humanity in its desperate struggle against the forces of an ancient god determined to return the universe to nothingness. On his way to steal The Book from the House at the End of the World, Althalus is confronted by a cat - a cat with eyes like emeralds, the voice of a woman, and the powers of a goddess. She is Dweia, sister to The Gods and a greater thief even than Althalus. She must be: for in no time at all, she has stolen his heart. And more. She has stolen time itself. For when Althalus leaves the House at the End of the World, much wiser but not a day older than when he'd first entered it, thousands of years have gone by.

But Dweia is not the only one able to manipulate time. Her evil brother shares the power, and while Dweia has been teaching Althalus the secrets of The Book, the ancient God has been using the dark magic of his own Book to rewrite history. Yet all is not lost. But only if Althalus, still a thief at heart, can bring together a ragtag group of men, women, and children with no reason to trust him or each other. Boldly written and brilliantly imagined, The Redemption of Althalus is an epic fantasy to be savored in the listening and returned to again and again for the wisdom, excitement, and humor that only the Eddingses can provide.


People talk really highly about David Eddings's earlier work, especially the Belgariad series, but this is the first of his that I've picked up and it didn't really chime with me. I found myself rather agreeing with this Goodreads reviewer:

I like the evil side to be just as intelligent as the good side; an even match so you question the ending... The "bad guys" as they so often refer to them are, well, stupid. They're incompetent bumbling fools held together by an evil god who never makes an appearance. - Adam Reinwald


I suppose the best way to describe the book is 'jaunty.' Everything's very upbeat, the main characters face few real challenges, their success is never in question and, as Reinwald put it, the bad guys are stupid. There's nothing about them to fear. All of that probably wouldn't be so bad if the book wasn't twenty-seven-and-a-half hours long. That feels like a lot of time when there is little happening. The characters spend most of it discussing battle tactics and talking about what they are going to do, and far less time actually doing what they've just said they're going to do. It's a lot of tell with little show. 

There was also quite a bit of roll-your-eyes-aren't-women-funny moments, where the lead character addresses the all-powerful female goddess (in the non-threatening form of a cat) as 'yes, dear,' repeatedly and makes uncomfortably too much out of one young female character having 'daddy issues' and calling him 'daddy' all the time. That was just weird. Neither the baddies nor the female characters seem to have much substance. It's all just very jolly. 

I did think the opening couple of chapters were excellent, but, like The Hummingbird’s Tear, it just didn't maintain that level after the initial opener. People who have read more of his work say that the characters in this story are diluted versions of characters from his earlier books, so perhaps he got caught in a trope and couldn't shake it off. That happens sometimes.

I very rarely speed up a reading, because I feel guilty for all the work that's gone into it, and the narrator, Dennis Holland, did a really great job, but it just wasn't what I was looking for in high fantasy, though plenty of other people loved it.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Introduction to Literary Perspective

A beginner's introduction to literary perspective. I'm putting some of my old lectures online on my website. You can find the rest of the Literary Perspective unit here, and more writing units here.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Sex at Dawn

I picked this up because it sounded interesting:

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science - as well as religious and cultural institutions - has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jetha's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.

A very enlightening read. I certainly wouldn't say I'm surprised by the findings, but there were some really interesting facts in there that I'd never heard before. I particularly liked the look at other, non-monogamous cultures in the world, which is something never discussed during sex-ed at school. There was one culture in China, the Mosuo, where women have their own bedrooms with a door onto the street and they can invite any man in that they choose, provided he is gone by morning. Any children conceived are brought up in the woman's household, removing male rivalry over lineage. It sounds like a very nice idea, and a peaceful way of life. 

There's a tribe in South America which believes the more sperm a woman receives whilst pregnant, the more skills and strengths a child will develop from each of the men. There's the first father, who plants the seed, and the other fathers who contribute to stirring the pot. In tribal cultures, children raised in non-monogamous families, where many men, rather than one, have a vested interest in the child's wellbeing and growth, have better survival odds than when only one man is there (or not) to help raise the child.

"Yes, but we're living in the modern world," you might say, "not in a tribe!" Well, we might think we are, but our physiology says something very different. From the size and shape of our genitals, through to why women are louder than men during sex, it all points to our biology being more closely matched with non-monogamous primates than monogamous ones. Far more similar to the bonobo than the gibbon.

Something else that was fascinating - and tragic - was the effect of the contraceptive pill on women's sense of smell. I remember watching Dr. Winston perform the T-shirt test on TV when I was in my teens. This is where he sniffs a bunch of T-shirts that women have been wearing, and orders them by the smell he most prefers. At the end, it's revealed that ranking them by smell also ranks them, almost exactly, as the most genetically compatible for producing a healthy baby.

Women have the same ability to sniff out a genetically compatible mate - unless they're on the pill. Then, apparently, it reverses the attraction. It's one theory for why so many women go off their husbands after childbirth. Whilst on the pill and looking to get laid, they like the smell of him, but once they come off the pill to get pregnant, the reality hits their nostrils. As the book asks: how many women have only just realised they're not compatible with their partner once it's too late? That's quite something to think about.

Anyway, a really interesting read, which makes a lot of logical connections when it comes to male infidelity, mid-life crises, female attraction and sexuality, and a host of other important points. Definitely worth a look. Though, if you're in a relationship, it might not make for easy reading.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Akkad at 90k

I'm taking a couple of weeks off work to focus entirely on writing.

Just taken Akkad over the 90,000 mark. That, to me, is the baseline for a solid novel. I can now call it 'my novel.' However, there's still a substantial way to go. I sensed this would be a long one when I started. I began playing with the idea almost two years ago, but didn't start writing seriously until October last year. It's come a long way since then, although progress has been slow as I've been fitting it in around work. 

As with any work in progress (WIP), I know the first three chapters really well, and the last couple of days, but, over the span of six months, I've forgotten most of what happens in the middle, so I'm excited to start the edit and remind myself. 

The longest novel I've ever written was Children of Lir, which is about 120,000 words. I reckon this will be similar or a little longer. For those who know Sumerian history, I'm building up to the final showdown between Sargon and Lugal Zage-Si. Sargon is widely known as the first man in history to found an empire, but he did that by defeating another man, Zage-Si, who was already well on his way to doing the same thing. The records don't really explain why Sargon and Zage-Si fell out, so I'm having fun inventing that bit. 

On with the writing...

Monday, 3 May 2021

Ancient Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize Shortlist


I received the lovely news the other day that I've been a little bit shortlisted for the first ever Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize:

Congratulations, your entry has been shortlisted... We had a large amount of submissions for our inaugural competition (we have spent the last month reading countless stories) so this is a real achievement, well done!

I'm having a lovely time reading the other entries, which have been published on their website. Love Roxanne Gregory's futuristic evolution of Google and Wikipedia merging into Ooogle-iki. That needs to be a thing.

Now the hardest part of all, trying to put this out of my mind until the winner is announced later in the month.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Descriptive Writing

A little lecture I gave on descriptive writing. If you'd like to take the whole descriptive writing unit and do the exercise that goes with it, head over to my website. I'm putting a few of my creative writing units from the university online under the WRITING101 heading.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Mansfield Park


Amazon were giving this away, so I took a copy. It's still in my library, but when I click on it to copy the blurb, I now get, 'We're really sorry, this product isn't available.' So, I'm not really sure what happened there. Here's the blurb from another copy:

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle's absence in Antigua, the Crawford's arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation. Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen's first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.

I am not a massive Jane Austen aficionado. Like everybody, I do like Pride & Prejudice. Like many, I prefer the screen adaptation more than the book. Unlike many, I actually prefer the 2005 film to the 1995 TV series. I was 14 when the TV series came out and vividly remember my mum telling me to hush as I came into the living room just as the pond scene was about to take place. I did not understand it at the time, but came to in later life.

Other than that, I really don't know much Austen, which is shown by the fact I chose this one because I got it confused with Northanger Abbey. I really loved The Jane Austen Book Club, I mean, hugely so, and that made me want to read Northanger - but it quickly became apparent, this wasn't it.

And, on that total tangent, it was because Grigg read The Mysteries of Udolpho in The Jane Austen Book Club that I fell down the rabbit hole of Ann Radcliffe and picked up a copy of The Romance of the Forest. So, y'know, stuff leads to other stuff. 

Anyway, back to Mansfield Park.

Oh, no.

This one really wasn't for me.

Fanny Price and Edmund Bertrum just didn't seem to have anything about them that was interesting. I'm wondering whether the copy I received is an adaptation or unabridged, but either way - just no. A friend said it was a comedy, but I didn't laugh once. 

It didn't feel entirely developed. Henry Crawford seemed to go from being just a bit of a gadabout to being the worst kind of man in a couple of pages, doing a Wickham and running off with a married woman. Yet, I couldn't help thinking it was actually Crawford who dodged the bullet there. Fanny was just so boring.  Meanwhile, there's no reciprocal spark of romance from Edmund until five pages from the end when he suddenly declares his undying love. I mean, what now?

Bit of a snooze fest, sorry Austen. 

I loved P&P, the chemistry just sizzled through it, but this was a bit of a wet fish in comparison, and came right on the coat tails of the former's success. 

It's kind of put me off reading any more Austen.

[UPDATE: I feel slightly vindicated on this one, since apparently Asuten's own mother called Fanny Price 'insipid'.]

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Levenshulme Little Free Library

When COVID took over the world, my lovely friends Paul and Jeremy decided to set up a free library in their garden, in the  Mancunian suburb of Levenshulme. Paul is a writer and artist, who you might remember from booQfest, where Percy met Art Critic Panda.

In his own words (and art) this is how the library came about. Click on each image to enlarge:

We started it because we feel that books need to keep moving, in circulation, passed from hand to hand. I say this even as the world's worst hoarder and from inside a house heaving with books. But... in the summer last year we visited a new, local Free Library in Burnage - and just a few moments browsing some shelves that weren't mine - so deep into the pandemic and lockdown - well, it felt like bliss. I knew we had to help out creating a string of these LFL's across South Manchester. People need to be given books and they need to spend time with books. Just the act of rummaging and browsing and deciding what to read next feels very restorative and cheering, I think. And we love having the bookcase and the boxes outside our house. People stop by and they talk. Real people. I really do think books bring people together. - Paul Magrs
It's such a lovely idea and I would encourage anyone reading to consider starting a little local library of their own.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Where to Find Cover Art for your Book


Here's a little bit of information on my favourite place to find cover art for your books.

Check out The Book Cover Designer and Ghostwood's article on how they made the cover for Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Electronic Dreams



From the ancient world to the modern, I picked up a copy of Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer:

Remember the ZX Spectrum? Ever have a go at programming with its stretchy rubber keys? Did you marvel at the immense galaxies of Elite on the BBC Micro or lose yourself in the surreal caverns of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum? For anyone who was a kid in the 1980s, these iconic computer brands are the stuff of legend.

In Electronic Dreams, Tom Lean tells the story of how computers invaded British homes for the first time, as people set aside their worries of electronic brains and Big Brother and embraced the wonder technology of the 1980s. This book charts the history of the rise and fall of the home computer, the family of futuristic and quirky machines that took computing from the realm of science and science fiction to being a user-friendly domestic technology. It is a tale of unexpected consequences, when the machines that parents bought to help their kids with homework ended up giving birth to the video games industry, and of unrealized ambitions, like the ahead-of-its-time Prestel network that first put the British home online but failed to change the world. Ultimately, it's the story of the people who made the boom happen, the inventors and entrepreneurs, like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar, seeking new markets, bedroom programmers and computer hackers and the millions of everyday folk who bought in to the electronic dream and let the computer into their lives. 

Really entertaining read and highly nostalgic. I spent many happy - and exhausting - hours wandering around Olympia with my dad as a kid, visiting the huge tech Expo they used to have there each year. I think one of my strongest memories was being captivated by the graphics on Kings Quest Seven and thrilled to go home with a copy.

Computers were such a huge part of my childhood. My dad was an early enthusiast, so I played Paddington Bear, Paperboy and other games on the ZX Spectrum - he still has a working one. My Uncle Clive was big into computers and had an early Mac. I remember spending hours playing Shufflepuck Café on that and being so disappointed that there wasn't a version for PC.

Before all that were the text-based games like Escape from Titanic, The Hobbit and that one where you played Denis Thatcher, trying to find a drink in 10 Downing Street without getting caught by Margaret. That game was actually mentioned in this book. Then, in my teens, discovering MUDs and losing myself in those for hours.

There were a couple of things I felt it missed out, which played a huge part in my experience of computers growing up. The first was the switch from CGA to VGA monitors. That had a massive impact on gaming. I remember playing Lemmings in magenta and cyan, then seeing it in full colour on a VGA. That was quite something. 

The other thing I was surprised didn't even get a mention was Fidonet. I ran up huge phone bills dialling international BBSs, such as Demon's Domain and Carnac, searching for the esoteric.

Just reading the book brought back so many memories of random games like Pipe Dreams, one where you used the mouse to shoot targets, and one with a cat called Niko who went from window to window. So many I remember playing but don't entirely remember the names of.

I bought dad a copy of this, and he loved the nostalgia too:

Just started but really well researched/written. Remember the Speccy (still have it) n was saving up for a Dragon when Amstrad hit the market 😊Also brought back memories of early Leicester making a bit of extra cash punching data cards to input into early academic puters. Loved the bit about the role of early Dr Who in demonising computers 👿😄

I've always credited a love of RPG games, such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and early involvement in MUDs as being a key driving force in my own desire to write and create stories. Whereas I completely understand parental concerns over kids playing computer games for hours on end, I was like that, and I think I turned out okay. RPGs were great for teaching you problem-solving skills and introducing the entire concept of worldbuilding. MUDs were just amazing for that. When you saw people walking around and interacting with a room you'd built, it made you want to write better, and to imagine bigger things. 

I'm sort of bummed that I missed the really early days of BASIC and learning to code. I recently tried to find a decent Python course online, but it was dreadful. They basically took a programmer and sat him in front of a screen, explaining what he knew. There was no awareness of where beginners are starting from or how people learn. Apparently, it's rare to find a programmer - or a programming course designer - with experience of teaching. I've always had a passing interest in coding, but always felt I was too far behind to catch up. If a better course presents itself, I might give it a go, so please do drop suggested links below.

Anyway, really enjoyed this book. If you're British and grew up in the 80s and early 90s, you'll recognise a lot of what's in here, and hopefully it'll bring a smile to your face.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Akkad at 80k


The Great Ziggurat of Ur by Tony Caruana


Haven't done much writing lately because of work, but finally found some time to push Akkad over the 80k mark yesterday. Another 10k and it can respectably be called a novel, but I reckon it's going to be quite a bit longer than that. 

Anyway, here's a real roughshod excerpt. Apsu (baby Sargon), learns to fight in the Ebla-Mari conflict. Already King of Kish by 22, but a late bloomer on the battlefield. Good practise for the forthcoming showdown with Lugal Zage-Si.

In the north, fighting was fierce. Ibrium took the blunt force of the Mari army. Scores of his men were felled by arrows as they attempted to cross the Euphrates. Alongside sharp metal, the Mari filled clay pots with burning tar and launched them through the air with slingshots. Men ran flailing and screaming, trying to put themselves out, whilst the thick scent of charred flesh filled the lungs of survivors.

To the east, Apsu and Aba rode abreast with the mighty Astabil. Whereas Ibrium was in the prime of life, his skin taut over toned muscle, hair knotted in a fist at the back of his head, Astabil was what Ibrium might someday become. He was a grizzled old warrior with a beard of brittle grey. He bore scars on his face and his arms, several of his teeth were missing, and he wore a cloak of fur over his armour which seemed to double his size. He looked fearsome beneath a pointed helmet, trimmed with leopard skin and scarlet feathers.

“One feather for every kill,” he said. “This is my fifth hat.”

 The first day, they had ridden to a village not far from the border. The place was completely deserted, just a huddle of houses on a grassy plain.

“The people here,” Astabil explained, “are tired of war. First, they were Eblites, then they were Mariotes, then Eblites again, and so on. They were forced to change direction so many times, they no longer knew which way they walked. They got lost out there on those phantom-haunted steppes, and now this is a ghost village. Some nights, the wind rips through so strong you can still hear the screams of babes on the birthing bed. And you stop to listen, because you know those babes long-since grew to be men, and went to war, and will never come home again. Yet still, it was here they first opened their eyes on the world. It is here they return to in death.”

During the two days they spent there, allowing time for Ibrium to travel north, Astabil and his men tried to teach Apsu and Aba about warfare. It began good-naturedly, in a teasing, cajoling sort of way.

“Hey, Kish boy,” one of them addressed Apsu, knowing full well he was a king. “How’d you get a throne without ever learning to fight?”

Apsu smiled and joked in return, and the training had been light, almost a game.

Then their faces hardened, and the blows grew firm, and the two friends understood that these were lessons that would keep them alive.

“Don’t you dare go playing the hero,” Astabil warned. “If I see you ahead of me in the charge, or if I tell you to stay put and turn to find you’ve moved, I will haul you out of there and kill you myself. A battle is never about one man. Certainly, it may look like each man for himself, and your sole purpose is to stay alive, but it is to stay alive so that you can continue to fight beside your brother. Because you can be damned sure your brother is fighting for you, so that you both get to go home to your wives. You are not a single person out there, though you will never have felt more alone. Each action, each reaction, each breath that you take is on behalf of the beast. We move as one, ferocious, monster and we do not stop until we have devoured our prey. And I am the head of that beast. You take your orders from me, King of Kish, you do as I say – and we live. But should you be foolhardy enough to think for yourself, I will not slow down to save you. I have all of these men, all twenty thousand of them, to think of, and you are only one tooth in my jaw. Do you understand me?”

“I understand,” Apsu replied.

And he did understand.

In fact, he understood three things in that moment. The first of those things was that Astabil was possibly the most frightening man he had ever encountered. More so even than Zage-Si, for Zage-Si restrained his emotions. You could never tell what the King of Uruk thought by the expression on his face, and what’s more, he kept his face well-groomed and his armpits oiled. He was a warrior, certainly, but he had an air of civility about him. With Astabil, no such civility remained. He was a man who had grown up on the harsh terrain of the north, who had wandered the wilderness with the nomadic Didnu, and broken bread with Anubanini, the legendary King of the Lullubi. He was known to worship Sakkan, god of wild animals, and it was said in hushed tones about the fires at night that he could himself turn into a wolf at will, and frequently did, leaving late at night beneath a moonless sky, and returning in the morning with the head of his enemies between his teeth. Apsu did not doubt those stories for a moment.

The second thing that he knew was that, upon the roiling belly of this beast, which was limbering up to devour the hell-fiend of Mari, he was not the only flea. Even if Astabil would not wait for him, even if he trampled over Apsu with a thousand of his men, he, Apsu, would always look behind to see where Aba was. Of all the twenty-thousand men spread across the plains that night, eyes shining up at the stars shining down, he and Aba were the only two who had never charged headlong into battle. He wanted it to be thrilling, he wanted to savour the moment when all the world stood still, as the men assured him it would, yet he also knew that it would be terrifying, and that it would change him, and that there was a very real possibility he might die. Whatever happened, he would not let go of his friend’s hand. Aba was a simple saffron picker from the mountains, filled with fresh air and glossy with evening dew. He’d be up there still if the two of them had never met. If Apsu hadn’t spent a season there as a boy, and persuaded Aba to sample the temptations of city life. However much Aba had enjoyed those temptations, Apsu was determined that his friend would live to stain his fingers gold again. He would not die this day in the arid earth of a foreign land.

And finally, should every thread slip from his grasp, and should he no longer be able to weave his own destiny, Apsu knew, as surely as he knew the first two things, that he would fall into the arms of the woman he loved. The woman whose figure still paced the empty hallways of his heart. Whose steps still echoed through his mind, as he raced to catch that simple scrap of blue skirt, disappearing between the trees. Masarru would come for him. She would know where he lay, and she would reach down to pluck him from this messy, mortal world where shattered dreams slid like splinters into the joy of youth.

He was ready.

Should it come to pass, he would embrace death as a lover’s kiss.