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Between the Rivers

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Between the Rivers

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Tor, 1998

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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At the sun-drenched dawn of human history, in the great plain between the two great rivers, are the cities of men. And each city is ruled by its god.

But the god of the city of Gibil is lazy and has let the men of his city develop the habit of thinking for themselves. Now the men of Gibil have begun to devise arithmetic, and commerce, and are sending expeditions to trade with other lands.

They're starting to think that perhaps men needn't always be subject to the whims of gods. This has the other god worried.

And well they might be... because human cleverness, once awakened, isn't likely to be easily squelched.


Between the Rivers


Sharur was walking back toward his family's shop and home on the Street of Smiths when a fever demon that had been basking on a broken mud brick soaking up heat sprang at him, its batlike wings glistening in the sun. He leaped back so it could not breathe sickness into his mouth and pulled out an amulet marked with the eyes of Engibil, patron god of the city of Gibil.

"Begone, foul thing!" he exclaimed, and made the lefthand gesture every child in the land of Kudurru learned by the age of three--every child, at any rate, that lived to the age of three. He thrust out the amulet as if it were a spear. "Greater powers than you protect me."

Screeching in dismay, the nasty little demon fled. Sharur strode on, his back straight now with pride. He returned the amulet to its proper loop on his belt. The belt, which also bore a couple of other amulets, a bronze dagger, and a stylus, held up a knee-length linen kilt that was all he wore between stout leather sandals and a straw hat shaped like a short, broad cone. Slaves--and some freemen of a class poorer than Sharur's--dispensed with shoes and sometimes with kilt as well. No one went without a hat, not in the land between the Yarmuk and the Diyala.

The streets of Gibil were narrow and winding. Sharur's sandals scuffed up dust and squelched in muck. A farmer coming at him leading a donkey with baskets of beans tied to its back made him squeeze up against the front wall ofone of the two-story mud-brick homes lining both sides of the street: a prosperous home, because that front wall was whitewashed. The shiny white coating did not make the sunbaked mud any less rough on the bare skin of his back. Farmer and donkey plodded on, equally oblivious to having annoyed him.

His grandfather's ghost spoke in his ear: "You should follow that fellow and break a board on his head for the bother he caused you."

"It's all right, father to my father. He's on the way to the market square; he had to get by me," Sharur answered resignedly. His grandfather had been quarrelsome while he was alive, and was even more bad-tempered now that no one could break a board over his head.

"If only that fellow had known me in the flesh, I'd have hit him myself," the ghost grumbled. "He deserved it."

"It's all right, father to my father," Sharur repeated, and kept walking.

His grandfather's ghost sniffed. "All right, he says. It's not all right, not even close. Young people these days are soft--soft, I tell you."

"Yes, father to my father," Sharur said. The ghost, he knew, would keep on haranguing him and trying to meddle in his affairs as long as he lived. He consoled himself by remembering that it would have no power over his children, whenever they might be born, for they would not have known his grandfather alive. And when I'm a ghost myself, he thought, I hope I don't plague the people who recall me.

He turned a last corner and stepped onto the Street of Smiths. It was probably the noisiest street in all Gibil, but he found the racket familiar, even restful, having lived with it all his life. Smiths banged and tapped and hammered and rasped and filed. Fires crackled. Molten metal hissed as it was poured into molds of wet sand.

Behind the racket, power hovered. Smithery was a new thing in the land of Kudurru, and thus in the whole world, however big the world might be. In the days of Sharur's grandfather's grandfather, no one had known how to freecopper and tin from their ores, much less how to mix them to make a metal stronger than either. These days, smiths stood on an equal footing with carpenters and bakers and potters and those who followed the other old, established trades.

But smiths were different. The other trades all had their old, established tutelary gods, from Shruppinak, who helped carpenters pound pegs straight, to Lisin, who got spots out of laundry. Smithery, though, smithery was too new for its great power to have coalesced into deities or even demons. Maybe it would, in time. Maybe, too, the smiths would keep the power in their own merely human hands.

Whenever that thought crossed Sharur's mind, it frightened him. If Engibil saw it there, or, worse, if one of the greater deities--sun god, storm or river goddesses; the ugly, sexless demon that squatted underground and caused earthquakes with its quiverings; many more--did so, what would they do with the smiths, to the smiths, for seeking to gain power thus? Sharur neither knew nor wanted to find out.

At the same time, though, knowing himself to be a worm in the eyes of the gods, he longed to be a strong worm. His eyes traveled down the Street of Smiths to the lugal's palace at the end of it, the only building in the city that came close to Engibil's temple in size and grandeur. Kimash the lugal gave Engibil rich presents, of course, but he ruled Gibil in his own right, as had his father and grandfather before him.

One or two other cities in the land of Kudurru had lords who were but men. The rest were about evenly divided between towns where ensis--high priests--transmitted the local god's will to the people and those where the gods ruled directly. Sharur was glad he did not live in one of those towns. Everyone who did struck him as a step slow.

Thinking of power, he almost walked right past Ningal without seeing her. "Well," she called as he went by. "Don't say hello."

"Hello," he said, and felt very foolish.

Ningal set down the basket of eggs she was carrying back to her father's smithy: had she kept holding it, she couldn'thave set both hands on her hips to look properly annoyed. "Sometimes," she said, "I think you live too much of your life inside your head instead of in the world out here."

"Not when I look at you," Sharur said. Ningal's smile said he'd gone partway toward redeeming himself. Like other well-to-do women of Gibil, she wore a linen tunic that covered her from the neck almost to the knee, but it clung to her in the heat and did little to hide her shapely figure. Her eyes sparkled; all her teeth were white; her hair fell to her shoulders in midnight curls. Sharur went on, "With the profit I make from my next trip to the mountains, I'll have enough to pay bride-price to your father."

"How do you know I'll want you to, when you don't even notice I'm here?" she asked with a toss of her head that sent those curls flying.

Sharur felt his cheeks heat, though he doubted Ningal could see him blush. Like her, like everyone in the land between the rivers, he was swarthy, with dark hair and eyes. In Laravanglal, the distant southeastern land whence tin came, the people were the color of dark bread, and men grew beards scanty rather than luxuriant. A few of the mountaineers of Alashkurru had eyes of green or even gray, and hair that might be brown or even, rarely, the color of copper instead of black. More, though, looked like Sharur and his countrymen.

He said, "Well, if you don't, you can always tell your father."

"Do you think he would listen to me? I don't. He's set on marrying me to you, to join our houses together." Ningal's smile showed a dimple in her cheek. "And so I guess I won't bother telling him that."

"Fair enough." Sharur tried hard not to show how relieved he was. He very much wanted the marriage to go forward. As in every other marriage in Gibil, the partners would join at their families' instance, not their own. But Ningal and he had known each other since they were toddlers playing in the dust of the Street of Smiths. They'd always got on well, even as children. And ever since he'dthought of marrying anyone, hers was the face he saw in his mind.

"'Fair enough'?" she mimicked, exasperated at him again. "Is that the best you can do?"

He knew she wished he were more demonstrative. He took off his hat, then stooped, picked up a handful of dust, and let it fall down into his hair, a gesture of mourning and contrition. "O gracious lady, please forgive your slave," he wailed, his voice cracking convincingly.

Ningal made as if to throw an egg at him. Laughing, she said, "I may--eventually." She carried the basket into her father's smithery. Sharur watched her hips work under the clinging linen.

Once she was out of sight, he went on to his own house. His father, Ereshguna, was counting leather sacks of ore. "Seventy-two, seventy-three ... Oh, hello, son." He got to his feet and bowed to Sharur. The two of them looked much alike, though his face was more strongly carved by the years and gray flecked his hair and elaborately curled beard.

Sharur's younger brother, Tupsharru, also bowed. He held a tablet of damp clay in his left hand, a stylus in his right. "Do you want to finish this lot now, Father, or shall we set it aside for a while?"

"It will keep," Ereshguna answered. "That tablet's not going to dry up if you set it on the table. You'll still be able to write on it after we all have a cup of beer." The jar of beer and several earthenware cups sat on a small table made of golden, fine-grained wood brought down from the mountains of Alashkurru. Only palms and poplars grew in Kudurru. Their lumber, while cheap, was neither lovely nor particularly strong.

Ereshguna poured three cups full. He and his sons murmured thanks to Ikribu, god of barley, and Ikribabu, goddess of brewing, before they drank. The sour beer washed some of the dust from Sharur's mouth. "That's good," he said, and praised the god and goddess again.

"Here, give me a cup, too," his grandfather's ghost said.

"Yes, my father." Ereshguna held the jar over an emptycup and tilted it, not far enough to let more than a couple of drops of actual beer come out. Symbolically, though, it was full. Ghosts dwelt more in the symbolic world than in the material one, in any case. The efforts of Sharur's grandfather's ghost to drink the actual beer made the cup quiver on the table, but that was all.

"It is good beer," the ghost said, judging by the essence, "but I remember a jar I drank when I was a young man. It--"

Ereshguna rolled his eyes. He'd heard that story more often than Sharur and Tupsharru put together. It had been boring when his father was alive. It was deadly dull now. At last, the ghost finished and fell silent.

Trying not to show how relieved he was, Ereshguna turned to Sharur and asked, "What do the harness makers say?"

"They will have the new straps ready when we need them, at the price on which we already agreed. I can lead the donkey train to Alashkurru when the goddess Nusku carries the boat of the moon a couple of days past full, as we had planned."

"Good. That's good," Ereshguna said. "We don't want to run low on ore." He and his family brought more copper and tin into Gibil than anyone else, along with whatever other interesting things they found along the way. When Sharur laughed and pointed to the sacks he'd been inventorying with Tupsharru, he shook his head. "Those will go soon enough, my son. Almost all of them are already spoken for. We need more. We always need more."

He pointed toward the clay tablet and stylus Tupsharru had put down. His younger son picked them up again and said, "The last one you counted was number seventy-three."

"Yes, that's right. Seventy-three. It was this one right here. Then Sharur came in." Ereshguna pointed to the next sack and resumed his count: "Seventy-four, seventyfive ..." Tupsharru made fresh tally marks in the damp clay.

Sharur listened to the reckoning with half an ear. Inventory was necessary, but not exciting. He was about to go upstairs when a customer came in and gave him something to do. Bowing, he said, "How may I serve you, honored Irmitti?"

Irmitti was a plump man who looked as if his stomach pained him. "I've come to give you another payment on those dozen fancy lamps and the perfumed oil that goes with them you sold me," he said, and tossed Sharur a gold ring. "It should be the last."

Sharur caught it out of the air, hefted it, bit it, and nodded. "It is good gold." He walked over to a small balance and set it in one pan. In the other, he set weights that he took from a cedarwood box. "It weighs one keshlu, and a quarter part, and a half of a quarter part. Let me examine your contract, honored Irmitti. If it is too much, I shall repay to you whatever the excess weight may be."

He rummaged through a basket of clay tablets till he found the one he needed. Syllable by syllable, he sounded out the words written there. The polite smile faded from his face, to be replaced by a polite frown.

"I am sorry, honored Irmitti, but the amount you still owed was three keshlut of gold. The writing is very clear. That means you have left to pay"--he worked out the answer on his fingers--"one keshlu's weight of gold, and a half part, and a half of a quarter part. When I have it, I will give you the tablet, and you may break it."

"I will give you the rest of the gold when I have it," Irmitti said. "One keshlu, and a half part, and a half of a quarter part." He repeated the amount several times so he would remember it. Having done that, he went on, "Truly I thought I owed you only this smaller amount."

"Memories can slip," said Sharur, who thought Irmitti was probably telling the truth. He added, "Mine often does," which was not true but was calculated to console the customer. He hefted the clay tablet. "The writing here, though, is the same as it always was. It does not forget. It cannot forget."

As he spoke, he wondered whether writing might not prove an even greater creator of power than smithery. Prayers, invocations, spells ... all centered on words. And writing pinned them down. It made them stay as they had always been. And it let a man command more of them than he could hope to do with even the capacious and accurate memory Sharur enjoyed. If that wasn't the raw stuff of power, what was?

Irmitti's thoughts had run along different lines. A discontented look on his face, he said, "My great-grandmother's ghost tells me that, in her time and the time of her father, only a few priests scratched marks on clay. A man's unaided memory was enough to take him through his whole life, and a tablet did not strike like a snake and make him out to be a liar."

"Honored Irmitti, I do not take you for a liar, only for a man who forgot," Sharur said. "We have more things to remember than they did in your great-grandmother's time."

"Life was simpler then," Irmitti said. "Life was better then, I think. I mean no offense to you and your family, but are we better for having so much bronze in the city? The smiths make it into knives and swords, and we kill each other with them. A wood sickle edged with polished stone was good enough for my great-grandfather. Why would anyone need a bronze tool now, when you metal merchants have to travel to the ends of the world to find the stuff the smiths use to make it?"

"You may be right," Sharur said with a small bow. Never insulting a customer was a merchant's first rule. But he did not believe what he was saying, not for a moment. Where new things seemed to frighten Irmitti, they excited him. He could hardly hold still, he so much wanted to point out all the interesting, useful, beautiful things that were easy to accomplish with metal but slow and difficult if not impossible with stone.

After grumbling a little longer, Irmitti left. Ereshguna looked up from his counting and said, "You did well there,son. The worst sort of fool is a man who does not know he is a fool."

"Irmitti could be worse," Sharur said. "Some forget they owe us anything, not how much they owe us. Then the lugal's men have to remind them."

"Oh, yes, I know that, and you are right," Ereshguna said. "But when he talks about sickles edged with stone, from where does he think the stone came? It did not come from the land of Kudurru. Here between the rivers we have water and mud and the things that grow from them, not much else. Merchants brought the stone here, as we bring in ores today. But he does not want to think of that, and so he does not."

"If he wishes for things to be as they were in the time of his great-grandmother ..." Tupsharru let that hang, for what he meant was unquestionably something like, He would wish Engibil ruled the city in his own right once more. Saying such things aloud was dangerous. The god might be listening. If he was, he might choose to punish the speaker in any number of unpleasant ways. Or he might even decide to overthrow the line of lugals and resume his direct rule. That was the last thing Sharur and his family wanted; they had gained too much from the changes over the past couple of generations.

Engibil might also be listening to Tupsharru's thoughts. If the god chose to do so, he could go through a man's mind as Sharur had gone through the basket of tablets looking for what he wanted. Engibil had no particular reason to be listening to Tupsharru's thoughts, but that did not mean he wasn't.

Sharur took from his belt the amulet with which he'd routed the fever demon. He covered Engibil's eyes with his own two thumbs for a moment, symbolically masking from the god what was passing in this house. His father and brother imitated the gesture. Each of them looked nervous. They did not know for certain whether the charm bound the god, or merely distracted him, or in fact did nothing to restrain him. They did not want to find out.

Ereshguna said, "Sometimes I feel like an ant in a line of ants crawling up a wall inside a house. We think we are doing something fine and grand. But one day the kitchen slave will notice us crawling there and smash us with her hand or sweep us away with a broom."

"We are ants who know copper and tin," Sharur said. As his brother had before, he spoke with great care. One of the things for which metal was better than stone was making weapons. But he had not spoken of fighting the gods, nor even come close. "We are ants who write down the way to the dates in the larder. Even if the kitchen slave smashes us, our brothers will know where they are."

"We are still ants," Ereshguna said. "We would do well to remember it."

For the late meal, Sharur, a hungry ant, ate locusts. The cook, a slave woman captured from the nearby city of Imhursag, had roasted them with coriander and garlic and now served them up on wooden skewers along with thin sheets of barley bread, onions, melons, and dates preserved in sesame oil.

Sharur's mother, Betsilim, was not in a good mood as the kitchen slave brought in another tray loaded with sliced onions and melons and set it on a stool. "We should have had beans, too," she grumbled. "I told her three different times to put them in the pot, but she forgot."

"I'll whip her, if you like," Ereshguna said. "Will that make her remember?"

"If I thought it would, I would tell you to do it," Betsilim answered. "But I do not think she is lazy. I think she is stupid."

"Remember, Mother, she is without the voice of her god in her ear, too," Sharur said. "Enimhursag rules his city himself. He has no lugal, he has no ensi. He watches over all his people all the time."

"He can't do that in Gibil!" said Nanadirat, Sharur's younger sister.

"No, he can't, and he never will," Sharur said. Now, instead of trying to conceal his thoughts from Engibil, he wanted the god to know he was glad Engibil still protected Gibil even if he no longer directly ruled it. Gibil and Imhursag were neighbors and rivals in Kudurru. Engibil and Enimhursag were also rivals. Each god wanted more land and more worshipers. Over the years, Engibil had succeeded at Enimhursag's expense. Sharur knew how jealous the other town's god had to be, and how angry.

Ereshguna said, "Imhursag would be more dangerous to us if the town god let his people be freer. They would soon think of ways to fill our canals with sand."

"Yes, but Enimhursag fears they would think of ways to fill his canal with sand, too," Tupsharru said.

Giving his brother a reproachful look, Sharur took out his amulet again and covered Engibil's eyes. Ereshguna did the same. A moment later, so did Tupsharru himself. He put on a shamefaced expression. If Enimhursag's people might trouble him on being given more freedom, what of Engibil's people, who had gained more? Would they now trouble their god as a result? Those were not the sort of thoughts any man who valued such freedom as he possessed wanted the city god having.

"Let us drink some wine," Betsilim said hastily, and clapped her hands. "Slave, bring us the wine and cups and a strainer."

The kitchen slave--she had no name, not in Gibil; it was left behind in Imhursag--carried in the jar and the cups and the bronze strainer. "Ha!" Tupsharru said, pointing to it. "I'd like to see Irmitti make a strainer out of stone."

"What did they used to be before they were made of metal?" Ereshguna asked the air. No family ghosts answered. They were all off doing something else. That gave supper an unusual feeling of privacy.

Timidly, the slave said, "In Imhursag, the strainers are made of clay and baked like pots and dishes."

"Ah. Well, there you are," Ereshguna said. The slave poured the thick fermented juice of dates through thestrainer into the cups. Twice she had to rinse the strainer in a bowl of water to clear the sticky dregs from it.

Like anyone well enough off not to have to make do with water, Sharur drank beer with almost every meal. Date wine was for more special occasions. After pouring out a small libation to Putishu god of dates and to Ikribabu's cousin Aglibabu, who made the dates into wine, Sharur sipped. The wine was very sweet and strong and made his heart merry.

He and his family drank the jar dry. The kitchen slave cleared away the bowls and pots in which supper had been served. As she carried them out of the dining room, she hummed a little hymn to Enimhursag. Sharur did not think she even knew she was doing it; no doubt she had been doing it all her life. It would not help her, not in this city where the people worshiped Engibil. Hum, speak, scream: her god would not hear her prayer.

"When will you be leading the trade caravan to the mountains?" Nanadirat asked Sharur.

"A few more days," he answered. "I was seeing about donkeys today, before I came home and saw Irmitti. Why? Do you want me to bring you back something special?"

"A ring or a bracelet with the blue stones they have there," his sister said at once. "They're pretty. I like them."

"I'll see what I can do," Sharur told her. "They know we like those stones, and they want a lot for them."

Betsilim said, "I'm going up on the roof."

"I'll come with you," Ereshguna said. Nanadirat nodded and got to her feet, too. After supper, most families in Gibil, as in the other cities between the Yarmuk and the Diyala, went onto their roofs to escape the heat that lingered indoors. Most of them slept up there, too. Sharur's blanket was there waiting for him. He would lie on it, not under it.

He and Tupsharru rose at about the same time. Sharur was about to follow his parents and sister when Tupsharru touched him on the arm. Sharur stopped and lifted one eyebrow, a gesture he shared with his father. Tupsharru asked, "Were you going to have the kitchen slave tonight?"

"Ah." As the older brother, Sharur could take her aheadof Tupsharru, just as Ereshguna, if he felt like putting up with Betsilim's complaints, could take her ahead of him. "No--go ahead if you want to," Sharur said. "I've taken her once or twice, but I don't think she's anything special."

"I don't think she's anything special, either," Tupsharru said, "but she's here and I feel like it, and this way I don't have to go out and find a harlot and pay her something. So if you're not going to, I will."

With purposeful stride, he headed off toward the kitchen. Sharur went up the stairs and onto the roof. Twilight was fading. As he watched, more and more stars appeared in the darkening bowl of the sky. He murmured prayers of greeting to the tiny gods who peered out through them. Most of those gods were content to stay in one place in the sky day after day, year after year, accepting the absentminded reverence people gave them.

A handful, more enterprising, moved through the heavens, some quickly, some more slowly. They were tricksters, and had to be propitiated. Sharur, who was going to move over the land, reminded himself to offer to them before he set out.

Ereshguna had carried a lamp up with him, and used it to light a couple of torches. More torches and lamps and thin, guttering tapers burned on other roofs in Gibil, making an earthly field of stars as counterpoint to that up in the heavens. Somewhere not far away, a man was playing a harp and singing a song in praise of Engibil. Sharur nodded. The god, who was vain, would like that.

Catching himself in a yawn, Sharur shook out his blanket to make sure he would not be sharing it with any spiders or scorpions. He took off his sandals, shifted his kilt so he could piss in the old pot the family kept up there for that purpose, and lay down.

He was just about asleep when Tupsharru came up onto the roof. His brother whistled a happy tune. As Sharur had done, he shook out his blanket, eased himself, and lay down, a man happy with the world and with his place in it.

Down below, in her sweltering little cubicle, the kitchenslave, like the rest of the slaves Ereshguna owned, would also be going to sleep. What she thought, what she felt, never entered Sharur's mind as he began to snore.

A line of donkeys, each but the leader roped to the one in front of it, stood braying in the Street of Smiths. Sharur went methodically down the line, checking the packs and jars tied to the animals' backs against the list written on two clay tablets he held in his hand.

"Linen cloth dyed red, four bolts," he muttered to himself. He counted the bolts. "One, two, three, four ... very good." He used a stylus to draw a little star by the item on the list. The clay was dry but not baked, so he could incise the mark if he bore down a little. "Wool cloth dyed blue with woad, seven bolts." He counted, then frowned. "Harharu! I see only five bolts here."

If a donkeymaster was a good one, he knew where everything in the caravan was stored. Harharu, a stocky, middleaged man, was the best donkeymaster in Gibil; Ereshguna would have settled for no one less. He said, "You're talking about the wool dyed blue, master merchant's son? The other two bolts are on this beast three farther back."

And so they were. "I thank you, Harharu," Sharur said, bowing. He set the star beside the item. On he went, making sure he was in fact taking all the date wine, all the fine pots, all the little flasks of the rock-oil that seeped out of the ground near Gibil, all the medicines and perfumes, all the knives and swords and axes and spearheads, and all the other things on his list.

"Always strikes me funny, taking metal things up to the mountains when that's where we get our copper from," Harharu remarked.

"The Alashkurrut have plenty of copper," Sharur said, "but they have no tin. Our bronze is harder and tougher than any metal they can make for themselves, so they are happy to get it. They give five times the weight of copper or fifteen times the weight of ore for good swords."

Harharu grunted. "And sometimes, when they feel like it, they use their good swords to take whatever a caravan brings, and they give nothing for it but death or wounds."

"We are not going by ourselves, you and I." Sitting in the shade of a wall, talking or dozing while they waited for the caravan to get moving, were a dozen stalwart young men who had proved themselves with spear and sword and bow in the latest war with Imhursag. Along with trade goods for the men of the mountains of Alashkurru, the donkeys carried their weapons, their shields of wickerwork and leather, and their linen helmets with bronze plates sewn in. When the caravan left the land of Kudurru, the guards would carry their gear themselves.

Seeing Sharur's eyes on him, the leader of the guard contingent asked, "How much longer, master merchant's son?" Mushezib might have been carved from stone, so sharply chiseled were the muscles rippling under his skin. The scar on his cheek above the line of his beard and the bigger scar that furrowed the right side of his chest might have been slips of the sculptor's tools.

"It will be soon now," Sharur answered. His bow and spear were packed on a donkey, too. He had never yet had to fight up in Alashkurru, but that he never had did not mean he never would.

When he'd satisfied himself nothing was missing from the caravan, he nodded to Mushezib. The chief guard growled something to his men. They got to their feet and swaggered over to take their places on either side of the donkeys. There were caravans where the guards ended up running the show, they being both armed and used to fighting. That had never happened to any caravan Sharur led. He was determined it wouldn't happen this time, either.

"All right, let's go," he said. "May Engibil give us a profitable journey." Several of the guards took out their amulets to help ensure that the city god heard and heeded the prayer. So did Harharu and a couple of the assistant donkey handlers.

Sharur gave Harharu the lead rope for the first donkey,committing the caravan into the donkeymaster's hands. But before Harharu could take the first step, ram's-horn trumpets rang out on the Street of Smiths. In a great voice, a herald cried, "Behold! Forth comes Kimash, lugal of Gibil! Bow before Kimash the mighty, the powerful, the valiant, beloved of Engibil his patron! Forth comes Kimash, lugal of Gibil! Behold!"

The trumpets blared again. Drums thundered. Surrounding the lugal were warriors who made the men Sharur had hired seem striplings beside them. Even Mushezib looked less formidable when set against their thick-thewed bulk.

Sharur's grandfather's ghost spoke in his ear: "All this folderol over a mere man is a pack of nonsense, if anybody wants to know. The lugal in my day, Kimash's grandfather Igigi, didn't put on half so much show, and the ensi before him didn't put on any at all, to speak of."

"Yes, father to my father," Sharur answered, wishing the garrulous spirit would shut up. His grandfather's ghost often started chattering at the most inconvenient times.

Besides, the ghost wasn't so smart as it thought it was. The ensis who had ruled Gibil before Igigi had had no need for fancy displays of power, not with Engibil speaking directly through them. The lugals, on the other hand, were faced with the problem of getting people to obey them even though they spoke for no one but themselves. No wonder they made themselves as awesome as they could.

Sharur bowed low as Kimash's retinue came past the caravan. He was not altogether surprised when the procession stopped. Kimash favored smiths and merchants and scribes. They brought new powers into Gibil, powers that might be manipulated against Engibil's long-entrenched strength.

Kimash's guards stood aside to let the lugal advance. He was a man in his early forties, not far from Ereshguna's age, still vigorous even though gray was beginning to frost his hair and beard. He wore gold earrings, and bound his hair in a bun at the back of his neck with gold wire rather than a simple ribbon. The hilt of his dagger was wrapped in gold wire, too, and gold buckles sparkled on his belt and sandals.

"You may look on me," he told Sharur, who obediently straightened. The merchant reached out and set his hand on Kimash's thigh for a moment in token of submission. The lugal covered it with his own hand, then released it. He said, "May Engibil and the other gods, the great gods, favor your journey to the mountains, Sharur son of Ereshguna."

"I thank the lugal, the lord of Gibil," Sharur replied.

"May you be fortunate in bringing back ingots of shining copper; may your donkeys' panniers be laden with heavy sacks of ore," Kimash said.

"May it be so indeed," Sharur said.

Abruptly, Kimash abandoned the formal diction he used when speaking as lugal--the diction handed down for rulers since the days when the lords of Gibil were ensis through whom Engibil spoke--and addressed Sharur as one man to another: "I want that copper. We cannot have too much of it. Imhursag is stirring against us once more, and some of the towns with gods on top of them may send men and weapons to help in the next war."

"If I can get it for you, lord, I will," Sharur said. "I wouldn't be heading off to the Alashkurrut if I didn't think they would trade it to me."

"I know. I understand," the lugal answered. For all his power, for all his vigor, he was a worried man. "Bring back curiosities, too, things never seen in the land of Kudurru. Let me lay them on the altar in Engibil's temple to amuse the god and give him enjoyment."

"Lord, I will do as you say," Sharur promised. "The god of the city deserves the rich presents you lavish upon him."

He and Kimash looked at each other in mutual understanding. Neither of them smiled, in case the god was keeping an eye on Kimash. But they both knew how venal Engibil was. Igigi had been the first to discover that, if he heaped enough offerings on Engibil's altar, the god would let him act as he thought best, not merely as Engibil's mouthpiece. Kimash followed the same principle as had his grandfather. The god remained vastly stronger than thelugal, but Engibil was distracted and Kimash was not.

"I shall have Engibil's priests pray that you enjoy a safe and successful journey," Kimash said. Sharur bowed. Some of the priests, no doubt, resented the lugal for ruling, but, with the god content to suffer it, what could they do? And some, the younger men, served Engibil, aye, but served Kimash, too. The lugal said, "My prayers will go with theirs."

Sharur bowed again. "I thank the lugal, the lord of Gibil."

"One thing more," Kimash said with sudden abruptness. "Whatever word of Enimhursag's doings you hear in the wider world, bring it back to me and to Engibil. That god hates this city, for we beat Imhursag and we prosper though men rule us."

"I shall do as you say, lord," Sharur promised once more.

Kimash nodded, turned, and went back to his place among the palace guards, who fell in around him. His retinue started down the Street of Smiths once again, the trumpeters blowing great blasts of sound from their ram's horns, the herald announcing Kimash's presence to everyone nearby as if the lugal were equal to Engibil when the god (or, these past couple of generations, a statue of him) paraded through the city on his great feast day.

Harharu and Mushezib, the assistant donkey handlers and the guards, all looked at Sharur with new respect. Harharu had surely known Kimash favored Ereshguna's clan. Mushezib probably had known it, too. The others also might well have known it. But knowing it and being reminded of it were not one and the same. Everyone in Gibil knew the lugal's power. When he walked with guards and trumpeters and herald, he reminded people of it.

"Do you see, father to my father?" Sharur murmured.

He'd really been talking to himself, but his grandfather's ghost heard. "Oh, I see," it answered. "That doesn't mean I like it." The ghost left. He could feel it go. He smiled to himself. His grandfather hadn't liked much as an old man, and liked even less now that he was dead.

Sharur didn't suppose he could blame his grandfather's ghost. When the last person who remembered him alive died, the ghost would no longer be able to stay on earth, but would go down to the underworld and dwell in shadows forever. No wonder he reckoned any and all change for the worse.

One day, Sharur thought, that fate would be his, too. But he was young. Strength flowed through him. He hadn't yet married Ningal, and had no children, let alone grandchildren. Life stretched ahead, looking long and good. He did not intend to become a ghost for many, many years.

"Let's go!" he said. Harharu, as he had been on the point of doing when Kimash came over to Sharur, pulled on the lead donkey's line. The donkey stared at him with large, astonished liquid eyes: the idea of actually going anywhere had long since vanished from its mind. Harharu pulled again. The donkey's long ears twitched. It brayed indignantly.

"Give it a good kick," Mushezib suggested.

"Patience." Harharu's voice was mild. He tugged on the lead line again. The donkey started forward. That took up the slack on the line connecting it to the next beast, which brayed out its own protest before reluctantly following. The hideous clamor ran down the line. Here and there, a donkey balked. The handlers encouraged the animals to go, sometimes gently, sometimes by methods akin to Mushezib's. At last, the whole caravan was moving.

Dimgalabzu the smith, Ningal's father, came out of his house as Sharur led the caravan past it: a tough-looking, wide-shouldered man whose bare belly bulged above the belt upholding his kilt. He was carrying a big wicker basket full of rubbish, which he flung into the street. "Going off to get more copper for us, are you, Ereshguna's son?" he called.

"Just so, father to my intended bride," Sharur answered. "And, when I return, we shall talk about payment of the price for your daughter."

"You think so, do you?" Dimgalabzu said, not as a true threat but because he enjoyed making his prospective sonin-law squirm. "Well, we shall see, we shall see." Hewaved to Sharur, winked, and went back inside.

Mushezib chuckled. "I hope for your sake, lad, the girl takes after her mother."

"In looks, you mean? She does," Sharur answered. Ningal also had a good deal of her father's bluff, sometimes disconcerting sense of humor. Sharur said nothing about that. His fiancee's intimate personal characteristics were not the concern of a caravan guard.

He had turned off the Street of Smiths and was well on his way to the western gate when he led the caravan past a family who were knocking down their house. That happened every so often in Gibil. The sun-dried mud brick of which almost everything in the city save Engibil's temple and the lugal's palace was built was hardly the strongest stuff. Sometimes a wall would collapse under the growing weight of the roof as one season's mud chinking went on top of another's. Sometimes a wall would collapse at what seemed nothing more than the whim of a god or demon. Sometimes a whole house would fall down. When that happened, people often died.

No one seemed to have been hurt here, not by the cheerful way in which the family and a couple of slaves were biting chunks out of the one wall still standing with hoes and mattocks, and spreading and pounding the crushed mud bricks to make a floor for the new house they'd soon build on the site of the old one. They'd carefully saved their poplarwood roof beams and set them in the street next to the stacks of bricks from which the new house would arise.

The street had been narrow to begin with. Wood and bricks slimmed it further. And, of course, a crowd of people had gathered to watch the work and offer suggestions. "After you're done with your house, why don't you knock down mine?" somebody called.

"Knock down your own house, Melshippak," the man of the laboring family answered, in tones suggesting that Melshippak was a close friend or a relative. "Me, I'm going to enjoy being on a level with the street for a change, instead of taking a big step up every time I want to go out my ownfront door. This is the first time we've had to build in more than twenty years."

Over twenty years, a lot of people had, like Dimgalabzu, pitched their trash into the street. No wonder its level had risen in that stretch of time.

Sharur, however, did not care how high the street was, only how wide, or rather, how narrow. "Please move aside," he called to Melshippak and the other spectators. When they didn't move, he shouted, "Make way!" That shifted a few of them, but not enough. He nodded to the caravan guards. They swaggered forward. Even without any weapons but fists and knives, they were large, impressive men. With them at his back, Sharur shouted, "Clear out, curse you! Stop clogging this canal!"

People stared at him as if they hadn't had the slightest idea he or the donkeys or the guards were anywhere nearby. Slowly, grudgingly, they gave way. One after another, the donkeys squeezed past the bottleneck. As soon as they had gone by, the crowd flowed back.

Like the god's temple, like the lugal's palace, the city wall was built of baked brick, far more costly than the sun-dried variety but far harder and more nearly permanent. In the Alashkurru Mountains, they made houses and walls out of stone, but in Kudurru that would have been even more expensive than baked brick.

"Engibil's goodwill and all good fortune attend you, son of Ereshguna," one of the gate guards said. They were Kimash's followers to a man, and so well inclined toward traders and smiths.

Sharur led the caravan down the low hill atop which Gibil sat and onto the floodplain at the base of that hill. He had descended the hill countless times, never once thinking about it. Now he looked back and seemed to see it with new eyes. Had it always been there, a knob sticking up from the flatland all around? Or had Gibil-that-was started out on the floodplain and slowly risen, one basketful of trash, one knocked-down house, at a time, till now it stood some distance above the plain all around? If that went on for anotherthousand years, or two, or three, would Gibil end up sitting atop a mountain? Maybe it would, but not with him here to see it, nor even his ghost.

The road that ran west toward the Yarmuk River--a beaten track in the mud--passed any number of small farming villages. A few of the better houses in them would be made of sun-dried brick, like those of Gibil. Most, though, were built of the reeds that grew along riverbanks and, where untended, choked canals to death. Those huts resembled nothing so much as enormous baskets turned upside down.

"I wouldn't want to live like that," Sharur said, pointing toward one such hut in front of which a couple of naked children played. "You couldn't go up to the roof to sleep without rolling off on your head."

Mushezib's laugh bared a fine set of strong, yellow teeth. "I grew up in a village like this one, but, after I'd gone into Gibil a few times to trade, I knew that was where I wanted to live out my days."

Harharu nodded. "My story is the same. So many people, though, are happy to stay in the fields all their lives." His wave over the landscape encompassed farmers weeding the growing wheat and barley, their wives tending garden plots of beans and onions and cabbage and melons and cucumbers, a couple of men digging mud from the bank of a canal and plopping it into square frames to make bricks, a woman spanking a child that had been naughty, and a fellow spearing fish out of a stream with a sharpened reed.

Sharur would have bet all those people would stay in their village till they died. He was lucky enough to have been born in Gibil, in a city that traded to east and west, north and south, and that boasted whole streets not only of smiths but also of potters and dyers and basketmakers and other artisans. Had he not been born there, he knew he, too, would have found a way to make it his home.

Then he thought again of Gibil-that-was, the town he imagined down on the valley floor rather than standing tall on its hill. In the time of his grandfather's grandfather's grandfather, would it not have been a village much like anyof these others? He wondered what had made it grow while they stayed as they always were.

Engibil, he thought. The god had always dwelt there. People who came to petition him would have stopped to trade and simply to gossip with one another. That alone might have been enough to push Gibil ahead of the neighboring villages. Sharur smiled nervously. He, a modern man, tried to stay out of the god's shadow and stand in his own light as much as he could. Strange to think he might have been enabled to become a modern man because Engibil caused a city to come into being.

That night, the caravan camped by a village still in the territory ruled by Gibil. One of the donkeys carried trinkets to trade for supplies along the way. A few necklaces strung with pottery beads, brightly colored stones, and small seashells from the Sea of Rabia (into which the Yarmuk and Diyala flowed) got Sharur enough bread and beer and sun-dried fish to feed his men. He unrolled his blanket on the ground and slept till sunup.

"Come on," he said as he splashed water on his face from a canal to help wake himself up. Several of the donkey handlers and guards knelt by the edge of the water with him, doing the same. Others, a little farther downstream, pissed away the beer they'd drunk the night before. Still yawning, Sharur went on, "This was the last night we'll be able to rest without posting sentries. By tonight, we'll be in the lands that belong to the city of Zuabu. Nobody with any sense will trust the Zuabut: they're thieves."

"That's Enzuabu's fault," Harharu said. "They used to have another god there, a long time ago, but Enzuabu stole the city from him and chased him out into the desert. Of course the people take after their god."

"I heard it the other way round: that the city god takes after the people, I mean," Sharur said. "I heard they were such thieves that they raised a power of thievery in their land, and that was how Enzuabu got to be stronger than the god they used to have."

"It may be so," the donkeymaster answered with a shrug."It's not the tale I'd heard, but it may be so. Whether it is or it isn't, though, you're right--they steal."

The caravan came to the border between Gibil's lands and Zuabu's not long after noon. The two towns, the two gods, were at peace. No guards patrolled the frontier, as they did between Gibil and Imhursag to the north. A bridge of date-palm logs stretched across a canal. Once over it, Sharur went on down the road to the west through Zuabu's land.

Before long, Zuabut, curious as crows, came flocking to the caravan. They were as full of questions as they were of gossip, which was very full indeed. As they chattered away, they eyed the donkeys--and the bundles on the beasts' backs--with bright, avid eyes. Mushezib and the rest of the guards all did their best to look fierce and vigilant. Sharur was mournfully certain something would turn up missing; he hoped it wouldn't be anything too valuable or important.

You never could tell how much attention you ought to pay to anything the Zuabut said. Sharur listened to the story of Nurili, the ensi of Zuabu, impregnating all fourteen of his wives on the same night with the amount of incredulity he thought it deserved. "The god spoke through him," insisted the man of Zuabu telling the tale.

"The god poked through him, you say?" Sharur returned, pretending to misunderstand the hissing Zuabi dialect. His own men laughed. After a moment, when they realized Enzuabu wasn't offended (or, at least, hadn't noticed), the Zuabut laughed, too. Sharur went on, "That's what it would have taken, I think."

But not all the tales were tall ones. Another man of Zuabu said, "Three days ago, a caravan from Imhursag came through our land, also heading west. If you meet on the road, I hope you do not fight."

Zuabu was at peace with Gibil. But Zuabu was also at peace with Imhursag. Sharur said, "We will not be the first to fight. But if the Imhursagut quarrel with us, we will not be the first to leave off fighting, either."

"That is good. That is as it should be," the Zuabi said, nodding. "It may be, too, that you and the Imhursagut will not meet."

"Yes, it may be," Sharur agreed. "Whither are they bound?"

"To the mountains of Alashkurru, even as you are," the man of Zuabu replied. "Still, it may be that you and they will not meet. Three days is much time for travelers to make up on the road."

"This is also true," Sharur said. He did not believe it, though, not down in his heart. Had he had a three days' lead on the men of Imhursag, he would have been sure they could never catch him up. Being three days behind them, he reckoned it likely he would pass them on the road. People from towns where gods ruled directly never seemed to move quite so fast as those who did all their own thinking, all their own planning, for themselves.

The Zuabi pointed. "Look there in the sky!" he said, his voice rising in excitement. "It is a mountain eagle, flying to the west. This is bound to be a good omen for your caravan."

For a moment, Sharur's eyes did go to the sky. Then they swung back to the man of Zuabu, who was stepping rapidly toward the closest donkey. In his hand he had a little knife of chipped flint, the sort of knife everyone had used in the days before bronze. Sharur reached out and grabbed his wrist. "I do not think you would be wise to cut any bundles open. I think you would be wise to go away from this caravan and never let us see your face again."

"This is how you pay me back for warning you of your enemies?" the man said indignantly.

"No. This is how I pay you back for lying to me about the omen and for trying to steal my goods." Sharur spoke without heat. The people of Zuabu were given to thievery, and that was all there was to it. "Put away your little stone knife and go in peace. That is how I pay you back for warning me."

"Oh, very well," the man of Zuabu said. "You should have been fooled."

"I have been through Zuabu and the lands it rules before," Sharur answered. "I know some of your tricks--not all of them, but some."

The donkeys plodded on. Toward evening, they approached the city of Zuabu. Only one building was tall enough for its upper portions to be seen over the top of the city wall: the temple to Enzuabu. Sharur knew the ensi's residence was only a small annex to the temple, not a palace in its own right, as Kimash the lugal enjoyed back in Gibil.

"Shall we go up into the city for the night, master merchant's son?" Harharu asked.

Sharur shook his head. "I see no need to pay for lodgings, not when the weather is fine and we can sleep on our blankets. We have not been traveling so long that we stand in need of special comforts. On the way home, maybe we shall bed down in Zuabu, to remind ourselves of what lies just ahead."

That satisfied the donkeymaster. It also satisfied Mushezib, who, from everything Sharur had seen, liked going out on the road better than living soft in a city, anyhow. If the assistant donkey handlers and ordinary guards had different opinions, no one bothered to find out what they were.

Some time in the middle of the night, one of the guards, a burly fellow named Agum, shook Sharur awake. The moon had risen not long before, spilling soft yellow light over the land between the rivers. Sharur murmured a prayer of greeting to Nusku, then said, "What's wrong?"

Agum pointed toward the walls of Zuabu. "Master merchant's son, I'm glad we're not in that city tonight. Look--Enzuabu walks."

A chill went through Sharur. As gods went in the land of Kudurru, Engibil was a placid sort. Had it been otherwise, he should never have allowed merely human lugals to rule Gibil these past three generations. He was content, even eager, to accept the offerings the lugals gave him, and to stay in his temple to receive them. He had not gone abroad in his city since Sharur was a boy.

But, as Engibil had once done, other gods played more active roles in the lives of their cities. And so, his eyes wide with awe, Sharur saw Enzuabu's moonlight-washed figure, twice as tall as the walls of Zuabu, go striding through the streets. The god's eyes would have glowed whether the moon was in the sky or not; looking at them put Sharur in mind of the yellow-hot fires the smiths used to melt bronze for casting.

Across a couple of furlongs, those eyes met Sharur's. To the merchant's horror, Enzuabu paused in his peregrinations. He stared out toward the caravan as if contemplating paying it a visit. If he did, Sharur did not judge from the way his great form tensed that the visit would be a pleasant one.

Sharur's hand closed over the amulet he wore on his belt. "Engibil is my lord," he said rapidly. "Engibil has no quarrel with the lord of Zuabu."

For a moment, he thought Enzuabu would ignore that invocation and reminder. But then the god lowered his burning gaze so that it fell within the city once more. He reached down onto, or perhaps through, the roof of one of the houses there. When he straightened, the hand with which he had reached was closed--on what or whom, Sharur could not see. He thought that just as well.

Agum's voice was a bare thread of whisper: "If we'd been in there, he might have grabbed us like that."

He might have grabbed me like that, Sharur thought. For whatever reason, Enzuabu had taken him for an enemy, although, as he'd said, Enzuabu and Engibil were at peace, no less than their cities were. Sharur scratched his head in bewilderment. He'd come through Zuabu and its hinterland several times, going to and from the Alashkurru Mountains. Never once had the god of Zuabu taken the least notice of him.

A thought much like that must have crossed Agum's mind, for the guard asked, "Did you somehow anger Enzuabu, master merchant's son?"

"Not in any way I know," Sharur answered. "Come the morning, though, I will make a forgiveness-offering even so."

"It is good," Agum said. "I do not want a god angry at us."

"No, nor I." Sharur watched Enzuabu until the god shrank down to accommodate himself to his temple once more. Only then did the merchant think it safe to lie down and go back to sleep.

He greeted the rise of Shumukin, the lord of the sun, with a prayer set to the same music as that for Nusku the night before. Shumukin was, without a doubt, the most reliable god the folk of Kudurru knew. His one failing was that he sometimes did not know his own strength.

After telling Harharu and Mushezib what Agum and he had seen in the night, Sharur said, "I will buy two birds for the forgiveness-offering," and started back toward the village closest to Zuabu.

"Why not go into the city?" Mushezib asked. "It's right here before us."

Sharur shook his head. "I do not wish to enter the stronghold of Enzuabu on earth before offering to the god, not when I do not know how badly I may have offended him." Mushezib ran a hand through his thick, elaborately curled beard before finally nodding.

Having traded jewelry for a pair of trussed doves, Sharur carried them to the caravan. He laid them in a fine bowl, one for which he had intended to gain a high price from the men of Alashkurru. No help for it: an offering of his worst would have inflamed Enzuabu against him had the god not been angry before.

He held the bowl with the two doves out toward the walls of Zuabu and humbled himself before the city god: "Lord Enzuabu, if I have enraged thee--forgive, I beg! Lord Enzuabu, if I have affronted thee--forgive, I beg! Lord Enzuabu, if I have insulted thee--forgive, I beg! Lord Enzuabu, if I have offended thee--forgive, I beg! Lord Enzuabu, if I have slighted thee--forgive, I beg!"

After running through a long litany of the ways in which he might have incurred Enzuabu's displeasure, he twisted off the doves' heads and let their blood fill the bowl. Then,using only the first two fingers of his right hand, he sprinkled the blood on his chest and his kilt. He beckoned first Harharu and then Mushezib forward, and did the same with them. Last of all, he sprinkled the lead donkey with the doves' blood. The donkey snorted and twitched its big ears. It did not like the smell of blood.

"Lord Enzuabu--forgive, I beg!" Sharur cried. "May thy wrath be shattered like this bowl I give to thee!" With all his might, he dashed the thin, lovely bowl against the hard ground. It smashed into a hundred pieces. The doves' blood made a red star on the dirt.

"It is accomplished," Harharu intoned, almost as if he had expected it would not be. "Now let us continue."

"Now let us continue," Sharur echoed. Harharu pulled on the rope to get the lead donkey moving. But, as the caravan passed Zuabu by, he got no sense that Enzuabu had in fact forgiven him. True, the god did not rise up in fury, as he might have done, but he yielded nothing, either. He simply bided his time.

Copyright © 1998 by Harry Turtledove


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