A lame man spoke: “Oh feet of mine, walk!”
Kurzu stood alone on grey sand at the edge of a vast, murky lake, one that seemed to reach forever beyond the sunlit horizon. At his side appeared Imdugud, vibrant and terrible thunderbird who was the enemy of Enki. His body was that of a great yellow and white eagle, and his head was that of a lion. At Kurzu’s other side appeared Inanna, beautiful and powerful beyond measure. Her fearless golden eyes met his, and at once he knew what she meant for him to know.
Imdugud flew out across the lake, from which arose a great churning wave that darkened the sky and swallowed the beast in its depths. Inanna, too, was gone, but Kurzu felt no fear. He knew this wave was the beginning, not the end, for the wave was Enki himself. He closed his eyes and felt the immutable power engulf him, the wave crashing deafeningly around him in brilliant splashes of white light.
The noise faded, the light faded, his body returned. Kurzu opened his eyes in an unfamiliar room. Utu’s fire was gone, but there was no way to tell if it was the evening or the morning. His body felt incredibly heavy, and with some effort he managed to pull himself up to his elbows. Beside him was Aldu, but he did not see Nirah. As he sat up and rubbed his eyes, his memory began to return. He had collapsed from exhaustion just outside the city, and the last thing he could remember was the soldiers carrying him through the gates of Urim.
Though he still couldn’t breathe through his nose, the pain was all but gone. He took a closer look at Aldu, who was still fast asleep. His arm was bandaged, but the redness and swelling seemed to have gone down considerably since the last time they spoke, out beneath that tree at the riverside. He saw the image of Inanna from his dream, epiphanic and fleeting, and he shuddered. His fingers found his precious amulet, and he breathed a long sigh of relief.
An elderly man entered the room, holding a small knife and a handful of cloth bandages. He was accompanied by a younger man carrying a plate of food.
“Ah, good, I thought you might be awake by now. After all, it has been almost two days. Eat this. It will help you recover your strength, and the use of your nostrils, gods willing.” The young servant brought the plate to Kurzu’s bedside, bowed, and departed quickly. Something about the older man seemed familiar.
“I remember you! We passed you on the road last week! You had your granddaughter.”
The physician smiled. “That’s right. Your memory seems to be fine, at least. That’s a good sign. Many who endure what you have aren’t so lucky. It seems you’ve covered a lot of ground over the last few days, haven’t you, Kurzu?”
“You know my name?” Kurzu asked.
“Yes, and I am Rashugal – now you know mine.” Rashugal approached the sleeping Aldu and began to carefully remove his bandages.
“Where is Nirah? Is she okay?”
“Yes, yes, she is doing well for someone in her condition, as is your friend Aldu. Now, he is one fortunate boy. Another day out in the sun and his arm might have been lost, but I am sure it can be saved.”
“Where is she?” He repeated the question.
“She is outside getting some fresh air. The air at night is more pure and helps to heal the body and the soul. When you are strong enough to stand, you may do the same. For now, eat that food. It is part of your treatment.” He carefully bled Aldu’s arm through a thin reed straw into a bronze pan for a few seconds. Kurzu could hear the tink, tink of the blood dripping into the empty pan. Rashugal then wiped the wound and the knife clean.
Kurzu started to struggle to his feet, but collapsed back onto the bed, breathing heavily. For some reason the effort exhausted him, and he broke into a cold sweat. It was embarrassing and frightening to be so feeble.
Rashugal sighed as he cleaned the sleeping boy’s wounded arm, looking sidelong at Kurzu as he worked. “Don’t make me stand here and watch you. Your body has endured much on very little, and you need to eat. If you don’t like it, well, that does not matter to me one bit. This is what you need, and it’s what you’ll get. Orders of your friend the king.”
Kurzu looked at the plate. It did look appetizing – a freshly roasted fish fillet, expertly seasoned, with grilled leeks and a piece of buttered bread. A small cup of red wine sat next to it on the tray. He groaned and fell back onto the bed.
“The priests don’t eat the offerings of fish or leeks, which means neither do the gods, so there is plenty to go around for the rest of us. Lucky for you, it’s perfect for reducing swelling from smashed faces.” Rashugal inspected Aldu’s arm carefully, checking his work and listening to his heartbeat. He wrote something on a small clay tablet he held on a thatched reed board. “Not bad. I’ve seen worse, no doubt. Not bad at all.”
Kurzu looked at him blankly for a moment, trying to process all the new information. This doctor loved the sound of his own voice, it seemed. Maybe it was the headache.
“Why do I feel like this?”
The doctor finished wrapping the new set of bandages and wiped his brow. “I gave you some sedatives so I could treat your wounds without causing you too much pain. The same goes for your friends.”
“…Thank you, Rashugal. For everything.”
“Think nothing of it. Eat everything on that plate. I’ll come back later to check on you.”
Before he left the room, he turned to Kurzu. “Oh, you will be happy to know the king has ordered a piece be made for Nirah to wear on her hand. I believe he wants to tell her himself, so keep it a secret for now.”
Kurzu ate in silence. The food was delicious, even if the strange drugs Rashugal administered suppressed his appetite and made all the textures feel strange in his mouth. He realized it was the first thing he had eaten in days that wasn’t jerky or nuts and berries scrounged from the environment. He felt his face again. The swelling did seem to be going down, and his nose didn’t sting so much at his touch.
Nirah wandered into the room, lambish and sullen. She noticed Kurzu was awake and stalked over to the beds, sitting down on the one she had occupied.
“I, um… Can I have a piece?” She was withdrawn, demure, still not making eye contact.
Kurzu offered her the plate without a word. She grabbed a piece of fish. They sat in silence, eating together as they had so many times before.
“Kurzu, I don’t like this,” Nirah sighed resolutely.
“It’s all they have,” he shrugged, picking up another piece for himself.
“No, I mean, I don’t like the way things are between us right now. It’s too strange. Can we please just move past this?”
“… I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Nirah stood and began to walk away.
“Nirah, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just… all this has been so much more than I ever expected. I never meant to… you know, drive you away. You are my friend.” His gut was in his throat.
Silence, and then she spoke at last.
“Thank you, Kurzu. I’m sorry, too.”
“Hey, it’s probably supposed to be a surprise, but…”
“Hmm, what is it?”
“Well…” He drew the word out, savoring her interest.
“Come on, tell me already!”
“Actually, I shouldn’t spoil it. You’ll just have to wait.”
“No, seriously! It’s a real surprise, and I’m not going to tell you what it is.”
She narrowed her eyes and frowned, studying his face. For the first time since the fight beneath the cedars, her eyes held the spark of life.
“Okay, fine. I can wait. You had better not be fooling me.”
“I swear on the gods, you’ll be glad you waited to hear it from someone other than me.” He smiled genuinely at her, and she smiled back – something he’d recently thought would never happen again. Despite his better judgment, joy found him in this moment.
“Well, we made it to Urim,” she said, looking around at the medical room. Urnamma’s palace was new and clean – so new, in fact, as to be unfinished in some areas. Such was the fate of many ambitious projects the late king had begun. Kurzu reflected on this sobering point and took in the surroundings himself. The architecture was familiar, but the atmosphere of the place was different – Urim was alive in a way Eridu had lost centuries ago.
“I know Shulgi offered, but I don’t think we should stay here,” Nirah said. “Our families are in Eridu. I can’t just leave my father behind, and you and Aldu can’t just leave your parents, either.”
“Nirah, this is embarrassing, but would you help me stand up? These drugs have taken my strength, and I’d like to see more of the palace while we’re here.” It felt strange being vulnerable in front of her again.
But, with a simple joy that warmed his heart to see, Nirah nodded and walked to his side. She wrapped an arm around him and dragged him only a few inches.
“Wow, you really are weak.” She hoisted him to his feet and helped him keep his balance, then reached over for another piece of fish and popped it into her mouth. “I didn’t think you could be any more disappointing.”
“The serpent strikes again! That’s cold, Nirah. Cold.” He chuckled and took an uneasy step forward.
“Hmm, I think I like that name. The serpent strikes again!” She giggled and pulled him forward. “Come on, you idiot. You have to help me here. Get your legs working so we can go home.”