a sample chapter
Early Bronze Age 1
Tanayt Asenath was not supposed to do housework. According to the marriage contract her father had insisted upon, Jacob could not ask her to do things like clean the home, cook meals, or wash clothes. Her father felt, and her husband agreed, that she was too great a scholar to devote her energy to such mundane activities.
She inspected the long beige skirt, pleased that the stains from this morning’s lesson were gone. Jacob had not asked her to hang the laundry on the roof, as she was now doing. He was dead, and the laundry needed to be done. Although her children were old enough to take care of these chores themselves, Asenath enjoyed doing ordinary things.
The Ebers looked to her as their leader because of her vast wisdom. Other people treated her deferentially because she was the head of the Ebers, or Clay People as others called them. People also treated her deferentially because she was stunningly beautiful. Tall, her full figure and long limbs gave Asenath a commanding presence. Both men and women were afraid to look past the long lashes into her violet eyes. Such beauty, people reasoned, could only be a result of divine favor. Her straight black hair was always covered by a kerchief and was said to possess mystical powers.
Asenath accepted her beauty, her wisdom as a gift. The former, she ignored; the latter, she nurtured and fed. She didn’t feel arrogant about either. “Tanayt” wasn’t a name, but a title her people had bestowed on her. It was reserved only for the greatest sages, for the most able of leaders, and hadn’t been given to anyone in hundreds of years. Certainly not to a woman.
Her father had been the community’s leader. After he died while fleeing an assassin, Asenath’s husband took his place. Jacob in turn was killed by a mysterious disease a couple of years later, after having spent a few days among the mosquito-infested marshes. Asenath had already been teaching in the Academy and was a trusted advisor to the community judges. Ordinary people, both Eber and non-Eber, came to her for advice, for counsel, for support. When Jacob passed away, it wasn’t even a question as to who the next leader, the next head of the Academy would be. It wasn’t a matter of nobility, of descent. Asenath was appointed by the love of the people.
The Ebers were tradesmen and merchants. They were also problem-solvers for the other inhabitants of the land: the Madai in the towns, and especially for the Marsh dwellers. These people were plagued by Sheyds, quasi-human sprites and troublemakers. The story behind them is that they were in the midst of being fashioned when the Source of Blessing hung the yellow moon in the sky, marking the end of the creation process. The Sheyds were there, but not fully. Resentful, they took vengeance by wreaking havoc on the lives of completely formed, fully sentient humans. Many Sheyds held the hope of taking over and retroactively changing things, so that they would be the solid ones. It was a battle that began moments after the dawn of man. The Ebers had devised a way to trap the Sheyds using specially inscribed clay bowls, giving the humans a decided edge. Sheyd trapping was a distraction, but they couldn’t refuse the pleas of people desperate for protection from hidden causes of trouble.
Asenath’s house was small: typical two-story wattle and daub. Its exterior was the rust color of the local clay. Corner posts supported a wood roof frame, with thick, square crossbeams that extended out past the walls. Many people decorated the protruding roof beams of their houses with carvings or hung beads and ribbons from them. Asenath’s roof beams were plain. There were no beads or ribbons; there were no carved hands on them. So why was there a hand on one? As she watched, a large, muscular arm covered with coarse hair swung onto the roof beam. A leg followed. A face and torso she didn’t know stood at the end of the beam, leering. The man balanced on one leg and scratched his groin.
“Your husband didn’t let you be a woman, didn’t even let you do the laundry like a woman is supposed to. I’m a real man, and I’m going to make you feel like a real woman.
“In the merit of the righteous, protect me. In the merit of wisdom, protect me.” Asenath’s whispers were inaudible to her visitor.
“Turn around for your own sake. Go away, and we will forget this happened.” She addressed him calmly. “I don’t allow you near me.”
“I didn’t ask for your permission.”
“Are you married? Do you live near here? You don’t look familiar.” She smiled.
“I just moved to Lagash with my family. We’re building our home on the eastern road. I heard about your body. I see the stories are true. Now it’s time for a closer look.” He took a step forward but stopped suddenly, as if he had walked into an invisible wall. Teetering from encountering something unexpected, he tried to steady himself. His foot slipped. Flailing, he just managed to grab the end of the beam with one hand as he fell to the side.
Asenath walked over to the fence surrounding her roof, and peered in his eyes. He leered at her again, his neatly combed hair and clean-shaven cheeks contrasting with the ugliness of his plans. He tried to lift his leg back over the beam. He couldn’t. He swung his other arm, to try to get a better hold with both hands. He couldn’t. He gripped the beam as hard as he could with one hand, digging his fingernails into the wood. Asenath noted the makeshift ladder he had used to climb up, that he was desperately swinging his feet towards but was unable to reach. He was hanging over her garden, where beans were held up by closely spaced wooden stakes. If he fell, he might end up like a sieve.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.” Asenath smiled at him. He swung his arm wildly, trying to get a better hold of the beam. He remained suspended by his one hand.
Asenath turned back to her laundry. She smiled at her children’s clothes as she clipped them to the rope; there was great satisfaction in simple activities.
There were just a few socks and towels left in the last basket when the man gave up on freeing himself. “Help me, please. I didn’t mean what I said. I was only trying to get your attention.”
Asenath took a dishtowel from the basket. She had to give a lesson in the Academy in the evening, and she wanted the clothes to be dry enough to take down and fold before then. She clipped the towel next to the shirts.
“Please, have pity; don’t leave me here like this.” There was an edge of panic to his voice. “I heard you are a wise and merciful woman. Please be merciful to me. I wasn’t going to hurt you.”
Asenath walked back over and glanced at him. Some neighbors had come out, and were looking to see what the commotion was about.
“Please, let me down. Undo your magic.”
“It’s not magic.”
“Asenath, are you all right?” her next-door friend called from atop her own roof. “I’ll send my daughter to the Academy, to let your children know what’s going on.”
She didn’t want her children to be upset by this, but she also didn’t want to keep them in the dark about something they were entitled to know about. “The situation’s under control. Thank you.”
Now the invader started to scream. “Mercy, help me!”
More people gathered.
“Look into my eyes, and tell me why you climbed up to my roof.”
He was sobbing. “I just moved to this town. I heard that you are the most beautiful woman alive, that looking at you was like looking at the source of all beauty. I realized that I had to have you. Please, be kind.”
Asenath spoke loudly, as much to the gathering crowd as to the man dangling by one hand from her roof beam. “A person who is kind when it is time to be cruel will end up being cruel when it’s time to be kind.”
“When will you let me go?”
“Why do you presume I will ever let you go?”
“Ja’ix will never let go of you, your children, or your children’s children. I curse you with my death,” the man screamed as he removed his hand from the beam. A gasp rose from the gathering crowd as the man remained suspended in the air, strapped in place by invisible bonds. Sweat poured from his brow as his hands and feet jerked around, trying to find a hold. He twisted and turned, he kicked and he cried. He could do everything except move from where he hung.
The crowd below grew, as Asenath returned to the clothesline. She hung up the garment in her hand, and turned to the sound of a pair of feet coming up the stairs. Her friend from the next roof approached her.
“I’m afraid. What if Chief Taiku comes, and brings soldiers? They might decide to kill all of us just to amuse themselves. What if one of the Sphere Travelers comes to free him? Asenath,” she whispered urgently, “what if every thief or brigand were to suffer such a fate? A quarter of the town would be in the air.”
“I’ll deal with the Chief when he comes. If more thieves and brigands were to suffer this kind of fate, maybe they wouldn’t make up a quarter of the town. And several Sphere Travelers are on their way now, bringing spirit rope-cutters,” she said without a trace of mockery. “One of them is actually climbing the stairs now.”
In fact, three people were coming up the stairs: Aua, a short, muscular and powerful shaman with a small, flat face, and slightly slanted eyes. Strangers from afar who mocked his appearance quickly learned to retract their words.
Most Sphere Travelers could get to only one other Sphere from the Abode of Life. Asenath suspected that Aua could reach more, perhaps the Sphere of Splendor, maybe even Strength. There were thirty-two mysteries, thirty-two pathways amongst the Spheres, and getting lost among them could be much worse than deadly. Wisdom and Understanding were near the top, and between them lay Knowledge.
Aua had his two frail-looking apprentices, Aleku and Geordi with him. Asenath was careful not to look in their direction until they had time to prepare. After a minute she turned to them, their faces on the floor in respect. The Traveler addressed her: “Teacher…”
“Please get up,” Asenath said. She was embarrassed every time they did this, but they would be humiliated if she refused to acknowledge their bowing and scraping before her. “I am not the One to whom you should bow. I am not the Source of Blessing.”
They got up slowly, holding their hands sideways in front of their faces, a sign of submission, of respect. The two apprentices kept their eyes downcast, looking only at Asenath’s feet. Aua slowly lifted his eyes to hers.
She smiled warmly. “You are here to free this man, who tried to steal my honor.” She gestured towards the side of the roof.
“Only if you will it. The man’s daughter suspected that he had gotten himself in trouble once again, and prevailed upon me for assistance.”
“I do not will that he be free, but I won’t interfere in your attempt to release him. Do as you wish.”
The three visitors fell on their faces again till Asenath finished descending the stairs. They began their drumming and chanting immediately. It was loud; it was annoying, as was their prancing on the roof above her. The moans from her attacker had already faded to background noise, and she now had to move the shaman’s performance away from her senses. Asenath pulled some manuscripts from a shelf, some tobacco from a jar, lit her pipe and began to read. All the sounds, the vibrations paled into nothingness as her mind dove into the texts, danced with the words and letters. Her heart flew as insights took to the air, soaring like a flock of swans rising as one from a marsh.
Students at the Academy had been shocked that morning when Asenath instructed them to carve flat oak staffs, about four spans long, and a hand’s breadth wide. They were to be a gift for the Chief in appreciation for his protection, she explained. The students nodded, understanding it to mean protection from the Chief himself. Handing out carving blades and long, straight planks, she told them to consider the assignment a meditation on wood and death. Their previous exercises had all been about knowledge, about ideas.
The whole person is capable of touching the Source of Blessing, Asenath explained; not just some intangible spirit. Human existence can be sanctified through study, honest business dealings, or weapon-making. She warned the students that any staff that wasn’t properly carved would result in its maker being expelled from the Academy and the community.
This was all strange enough, but they loved and respected Asenath. She then proceeded to add consternation to their feelings. Standing outside the Academy entrance, she took a carved staff like she had told them to make, but with obsidian blades embedded along the edges. With a couple of sudden overhead swings, she beheaded a donkey that was tethered there. The beast’s splattered blood was a large part of the reason for the laundry she was hanging to dry.
The lesson tonight was to be the value of life, and its cost. She read, she pondered, she meditated… Her students were counting on her for insight, and she in turn wanted to give them the life hiding in the texts, waiting to be released.
She became aware of the shadows in front of her. She lifted her head in acknowledgement, and gave her visitors time to prepare themselves.
“Is he leaving with you?” This time, to make a point, she didn’t tell them to get off the floor. Asenath knew that all the conjuring the three of them had tried wasn’t enough to undo the invisible bonds by which she had tied the man to her roof beam.
“No, Teacher, he remains as you left him. Chief Taiku is coming, with some of his soldiers. Word is that he’s furious.”
“Be blessed, and be wise, my friend,” she said. It would be rude to Aua to acknowledge his apprentices. “I am pleased to see you, and will be pleased if you leave in health.”
They scrambled off the floor, and left.
Asenath understood the warning about the Chief. She also understood the reason behind Taiku’s rumored rage.
He had been her best friend when they were both children. They played together, ran together, got into mischief together. She always won their foot races, he always sped past her on their math contests, calculating solutions to complex problems they made up together. When one had troubles, it was to the other that he or she turned.
It had been in the meadows west of town. They had both recently reached childbearing age, though neither was thinking of marriage. That would have meant breaking up their friendship; the Ebers and Madai married within their own people. Asenath had arranged to meet some girlfriends to pick raspberries together, but the others never showed. When she didn’t pass his window on her way home at the expected time in the late afternoon, Taiku quietly went searching for her. He found her lying on a flat stone at the far edge of the meadow, her clothes torn, her body bruised, her lips cracked and bleeding. The way she held her legs tightly together as she sobbed told him what had happened.
Asenath whispered the name of an older acquaintance of Taiku, a member of a related clan.
“Leave him to me.” Taiku took water from his drinking flask, and washed her as well as he could, without further hurting her body or honor. They were about the same height, so Taiku put his shirt over her, and knotted the remains of her clothes together, giving her a modicum of modesty.
“Can you walk?”
She nodded weakly.
They walked together, Taiku supporting her; at times carrying her in his arms. As they approached town he let her modestly walk on her own, though he was ready to jump to her aid if she appeared to stumble. A crowd, seeing her clothes, her bruises and black eye, gathered around as a silent escort.
Asenath’s mother saw them approaching, and with a wail ran to meet them. She took the weight of her daughter, and brought her inside to a couch. She began to minister to her as Asenath’s father came running in, alerted to the news.
“Who did this?” he asked Taiku.
Taiku repeated the name. “You leave him to me,” he said, holding back tears. “It’s my duty to protect— to avenge her.”
“How did you know where to find her?”
“She’s my closest friend.”
The next day, the rapist’s carcass was discovered on the rock where Taiku had found Asenath. He had been castrated, his mouth stuffed with the remains of his manhood, his hands and feet bound with twine.
Asenath went outside to wait for the Chief. They gazed at each other as he approached, no expression crossing their lips, a cloud of dust behind him and his soldiers.
“Chief Taiku.” She bowed her head as he dismounted, lifting her hands in front of her face.
Four of his soldiers formed an ominous semi-circle around her. Taiku stood at the apex opposite her, his brother Vlad next to him. “My Teacher,” the Chief said, nodding at her.
She walked up to him, eyes humbly downcast. She stopped an arm’s length away, lifted her head, and stared challengingly into his face. As he met her look she grinned, and then suddenly sprinted away, racing down the narrow road. Taiku laughed, and took off after her. His soldiers started to follow, but he waved them back. It didn’t take him long to catch her.
“You’re losing your racing legs.”
She smiled at him. “It’s not appropriate for you to discuss my legs.”
They both stood silently in the middle of the roadway, the perplexed soldiers and others watching from a distance. The sun hovered above the treetops in the distance, the long shadows creating a sense of mystery. Buzzing flies marked the rotting carcass of a hawk lying in the grass just to the side of the road. Taiku silently ground his boot heel in the dirt. Asenath stood stone still, the breeze afraid to move even a wisp of her hair.
“Eighteen point two,” she yelled triumphantly. Modesty said they were too old to hug, but that didn’t stop them from feeling the glow of the invisible bonds that joined them. They walked slowly back towards her house, ignoring the puzzled onlookers.
“What did you teach your students this morning?”
“The value of life. The cost of life. Kindness through cruelty.” She had a faraway look, as her mind drifted back to her texts. “I assigned the students a meditation on wood and death.”
“Simon’s designed a macana, a weapon good for slashing and chopping at enemies. That’s the meditation. I’ve got the Academy students making them. Will you have the obsidian blades I asked for? The students don’t know what they’re making; I don’t want them to panic.”
“Maybe they should. The rumors are true. Ja’ix is headed to Lagash.” Taiku reached into a pouch attached to his belt, and pulled out something small, wrapped in a cloth. He held his palm in front of Asenath as he uncovered a little hand, severed at the wrist. The person it came from couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.
“A refugee gave this to me. It’s his daughter’s. One of Ja’ix’s soldiers, a man named Omer, accused her of stealing something. This was her punishment.”
“How did such cruelty come into the world?” Asenath whispered. She walked to the side and leaned on a tree, putting a hand over her eyes. She took a few deep breaths, straightened, and turned back to Taiku. “No. You must not panic; you can’t let people who do such things intimidate you,” she said, a fierce edge in her voice. She took the handkerchief Vlad offered her, and wiped her eyes.
“You must return their cruelty to them, multiplied. Don’t be afraid of being like them. You’re not, no matter how vicious you have to get to stop them.” She pointed at Abner. “If you capture any of their soldiers, impale them and leave them to die at the side of the road. If that repels them, or even slows them down, it worked. And even if it doesn’t, you won’t be wrong to have tried.”
“What if we have to kill children to defend ourselves?” another soldier asked.
Asenath’s chest heaved as she took another deep breath. Her damp eyes were her only reply.
Taiku looked back towards her house. “Will you let your attacker go?”
“Had he come to steal my possessions I would have done nothing to him. But he came to steal my honor. You know I can’t let that go.”
“Release him, and leave him to me. I told you: I’ll protect you forever.”
Asenath paused, and considered his proposal. “As you will, it shall be done, Chief Taiku. But please first bind him with ropes, so he doesn’t ruin my beans.”
Taiku bowed towards her. “As you will, it shall be done, my Teacher.”
He shouted instructions at his men. The hapless attacker was soon standing before them on the road, his hands bound behind his back. Taiku held the bone handle of his long, bronze knife out to Asenath. “Return his cruelty to him, multiplied.”
Asenath frowned, and turned her head. “That’s your prerogative, my Chief.”
“You want cruelty? Ja’ix will peel you like an over-ripe fruit.” The attacker spat onto Taiku’s face.
Without another word, the Chief grabbed the man’s hair, dug the point of his knife into his throat, and sliced his head off. He had his men sit the corpse against a tree, and place the head on its lap.
“Bury him without a grave marker. Throw his head in the river so his name will be forgotten.” Taiku marched off without a backward glance at Asenath, the onlookers, or the corpse.