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.

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