My fingernail that hurts is clutched in my embrace. My foot that hurts is in my sandal. But who will find my aching heart?
“…Nanna, his heart is broken,
His arrows are splintered,
His fields are salted,
Nanna’s fields are salted.
Nanna, his sword is rusted and brittle,
His throne is crumbled,
His crown lies bent in the dust,
Nanna’s crown lies bent in the dust…”
The lamentation did not include his father’s name, which both relieved and annoyed King Shulgi. He always appreciated a touch of subtlety and finesse, something that was lost on most people he met. Though the lyrics were somewhat dry, the singer accompanied himself on a lyre, his mournful dirge dripping with sorrow.
Shulgi appreciated the sympathy of his citizens, but more often than not, it seemed hollow. They didn’t know the man Urnamma, only the poems and stories. They saw his name imprinted on the bricks of the shining temples; they heard it pronounced with the laws of the land; they invoked it in the name of justice and resilience; they whispered it in their prayers and their legends of the Reclamation. They never considered that although he was Urnamma, governor of Urim, king of Sumer, hand of the gods, he was also Urnamma, father, husband, gardener, falconer, artist. This musician, at least, knew what loss was.
Shulgi’s mother, now the queen mother, stood by his throne along with her foremost guard, her hand grasping her son’s shoulder too tightly. Her icy glare softened to loving reverence as it fell upon her son’s face.
Siduri was a many-troubled woman, and it pained Shulgi all his life to see her state of mind turn all too often to paranoia and malice. The only time she ever seemed content was when she and Urnamma were together. Neither Shulgi nor his father were blind to the darkness that dwelled in Siduri’s heart, yet she was fiercely loyal and committed to them, and they loved her all the same.
Shulgi and his friends had returned to the city only yesterday. Since then, his mother had alternated between scolding him mercilessly and praising the gods for his safety. With some hesitation, Shulgi agreed to Siduri’s cover story about revenge for his father. There was no need for the world to know he had been caught off guard in the wilderness and captured.
When the song finished and the reverent nobles adjourned, one remained behind and approached Shulgi hesitantly. It was one of Urnamma’s most trusted generals, Adulshurasa.
“My king,” he began. He saw the sting on Shulgi’s face at being addressed this way, but pressed onward. “I am sorry to lay these worries upon you when we all grieve so, but there is the matter of retaliation against the Guti swine who committed this atrocity.”
Siduri responded before her son could open his mouth.
“They will be killed, one and all. One and all! I will tear them to pieces myself! I will… flay their faces! I will split their tongues and, and burn the eyes from their fucking skulls!” Her eyes welled up with intensity, and her fingernails bit into Shulgi’s shoulder. She finally relaxed her grip at the gentle touch of his hand.
The general, used to such outbursts, remained absolutely silent, hardly daring to breathe.
“Mother, I can handle this. Please, go and rest a while. I’ll have the servants bring you some honeywine.”
Siduri opened her mouth to protest, but merely nodded and walked away. She stopped and turned to her son.
“Your father… he was my light, and without him I see only darkness. I need to lie down. I have a lot to think about.” She wrung her hands absently as she walked stiffly from the room, eyes downcast but filled again with ice. Her young guard followed.
“The rest of you, give me some time with the general. We will be discussing sensitive information. And see that my mother gets her honeywine. She prefers the northern vintages.”
The three remaining soldiers silently vacated the room. Shulgi was alone with his general, who waited patiently with his hands folded behind his back.
“Tell me what you know about the ones who killed my father,” Shulgi said firmly.
Adulshurasa bowed. “They were reported to be Guti, as you know. Based on their past tactics, I suspect they are encamped on the far side of Tigris, and that the group which attacked your father was but a fraction of a larger invading force.”
“Were there any survivors from my father’s party?”
“Yes, the boy reported four soldiers were able to escape, and another witness from the scene gave the same story when questioned. However, we have been unable to locate any of them thus far. I have my best men scouring Lagash as we speak.”
“Thank you. Keep me up to date on everything you learn, as you learn it.”
“Of course, my king.”
“In the meantime, send envoys to the leaders of the region. I would seek council concerning our next move toward crushing Gutium forever.” The word tasted sour in his mouth. “We will meet here in three days, before the dawn. Each and every provincial king will send a general to attend, along with six hundred men armed with helmets, shields, spears and swords. As you know, that will be the evening on which half of Nanna’s light is withheld. I will hold a feast for my armies. They will march on our enemies with vigor and fury.”
“Consider it done. Is there anything else you might need from me?”
“That will be all, thank you. I wish to be alone now. Ah, but as you go, please tell the first servant you see to bring me a status report on my friends in the infirmary.”
“Of course. Good evening, King Shulgi.”
Alone at last with his thoughts, Shulgi closed his eyes and sighed. In his mind’s eye he saw his father seated upon that very throne, and at once he felt like an imposter. He stood up and paced, allowing himself a moment to feel the doubt and anger that burned in his heart.
He had expected his father to grow old and sage. Urnamma was meant to witness the fruits of his labor unfold through the ages, and pass peacefully surrounded by love and luxury. Instead he was struck from the earth by Gutium. No matter how many times they were smitten, the surly mountain people rose again, like a sickness that would not be quelled by any medicine.
His grandfather resurrected Sumer’s autonomy and drove them from the palaces, and yet could not keep them from crossing Tigris. His father cemented their defeat and saw them fall at his own hands many times throughout Shulgi’s life, and yet they claimed him in the end. He itched for their destruction, and he found himself empathizing with his mother’s furies more than he was comfortable with. The frustrating injustice weighed heavier on his chest with every second.
Some would have prayed to the gods, but Shulgi did not find cause to put his faith in them. Despite the stories his devout parents had told him, the world seemed to operate solely at the whims of people; the only input the gods provided were obscure and far-reaching in scope, such as the weather and the movement of the stars, left to be interpreted by men whose own ideas are overwritten by scripture and doctrine as a rule.
The rain fell and the sun shone, to be sure. The barley grew where it was planted with only sun and water provided to it, this he could not deny. The great rivers waxed and waned with the seasons – to claim this impossibility did not demonstrate the power of the gods seemed foolish, he could admit. Even his mother, for all her resistance to any path but her own, seemed to consider them with the same awe and reverence as anyone else.
Yet he never once heard a god’s voice, or looked upon a divine face. He never saw in any definite terms an omen or a sign that there was anything but emptiness in the starry heavens. He felt very alone in his beliefs, and as his station depended on his ostensible connection with the divine, he kept them to himself.
An elderly physician and his shy servant entered at that moment, and Shulgi found his composure. The physician stepped forward and bowed.
“My king, I have come from the infirmary. I understand you have some questions.”
“Yes, thank you for being prompt. Forgive me, what is your name again?”
“I am Rashugal, my king.”
“How are my friends, Rashugal? Will they be all right?”
“Aldu is in stable condition. He was developing a sickness in his elbow, but I have drained it hourly and I believe amputation can be avoided.”
“Good, good, and the others?”
“Kurzu’s nose is broken, but with a diet of herbs, fish and wine, inflammation will go down and I expect a full recovery with little disfigurement. Nirah is having a difficult time coming to terms with the loss of her fingers, though she tells me you saved their lives.”
“They risked their lives for mine. I would do the same for any person of such courage.”
“She very well may have bled out without your intervention, my king. I personally congratulate you on the clever sealing of her wounds.”
“I trust you will take every precaution to see their health restored. And listen now, this is important. I would like for you to place an order with the most talented artist you can find. You are going to work with that artist and create an elegant replacement for Nirah’s lost fingers, one she might feel comfortable wearing in the public eye. She will be there from now on.”
“My king, I will do my best in every one of those matters. I think I may know just the craftsman for the job, as well. I would ask you for, hmm… six weeks, and I can do this.”
“Take as long as you need to do it exactly right. Though obviously, sooner is better.”
“Of course, my king. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes, take me to see them. I would like to speak with them before I go to bed.”
“My king, I would love nothing more than to do so, but I must insist they rest. I have given them each a narcotic compound for pain, and they are now in a deep sleep.”
“Perhaps later, then. Please, go and resume your duties.”
“Yes, my king.” Rashugal bowed and made his exit with his silent assistant in tow.
Shulgi was alone again.