“The Wolves of Eridu” Part I: Chapter 21

The wild bull is taboo for the plough.

Sumerian proverb

The next day, Rashugal kept a close eye on his patients. The doctor decided to keep the boys for examination, as Kurzu’s nose was still too swollen to allow him to breathe properly. Aldu slept most of the day, kept sedated so that his arm could be regularly cleaned without causing him too much pain.

After examining her wounds thoroughly, and though they were still somewhat raw and painful, Rashugal concluded no sickness had manifested in her hand. He told Nirah she was well enough to leave the infirmary if she wished. Nirah spent the day wandering the palace and staring out the windows. When asked, she elected to speak with a priestess.

The priestess came in the evening to collect Nirah from the infirmary, and led her down the long splendid hallways, past unique and extravagantly furnished chambers of many shapes and sizes. She was still young, perhaps ten years older than Nirah. Her hair was grown past her shoulders and intricately braided, and she wore simple green dress robes. Nirah noticed as they walked that the priestess had a limp, but she was far too polite to address it.

They stopped near a well-lit balcony overlooking the city, which was dark except for trace amounts of torchlight here and there. Urim rested in the river bend where Euphrates flowed into the harbor, where dozens of ships and boats were docked and dozens more floated in from the river and the coasts each day. The royal palace stood on a hill in the heart of the citadel, an inner district which held all the important and holy buildings in Urim.

The glorious citadel was surrounded by the residential areas and farmland, which was then enclosed in rising walls of brick and stone. The enormous ziggurat with its shining temple crown stood like a proud mother at the far end of the citadel, towering over all.

“The second loveliest view in the city,” the woman said after a moment, walking out onto the balcony and stopping at the edge.

She waited, seeing if Nirah would take the bait, but the girl remained in the shadows, staring at the floor. The wind bristled through the palms in the courtyard below.

“Which view is the best?” Nirah finally asked.

The young woman chuckled and smiled, pointing across the city. “The view from the doors of the temple, way up there. It is absolutely breathtaking. The great king Urnamma rebuilt much of this city. We are fortunate to live in these times, when Sumer is born anew.”

“That’s nice,” Nirah said flatly, her arms crossed tight across her chest and her gaze averted.

The priestess smirked. “My name is Enthiavasa, by the way.”

“…Nirah.” Nirah approached at last and looked out at the extraordinary view. “You were right, this place really is beautiful. It reminds me of home.”

“It is wonderful to meet you, Nirah. I heard you are from Eridu. Is that right?”

Nirah nodded, her eyes upon the city. Somewhere below, a rumbling sound began to arise, almost like the sound of a distant waterfall. It started as a whisper, but slowly grew louder as the moments passed.

“I have been there once,” the priestess continued. “It was a very moving place to visit. You can truly feel the presence of Enki in the House of the Aquifer.”

“I agree. I get to go there once in a while. My friend Kurzu, the ugly one,” she giggled. “His father is a scribe there, and his mother… Do you hear that rumbling sound?”

“A scribe, you say?” Enthiavasa turned, interested. “Has your friend taken the occupation of his father?”

“I think he’s going to try. Why do you care?”

From far below came an authoritative shout as the rumbling peaked. The girls looked down to see hundreds of soldiers rounding the corner, coming from the largest gate in the citadel’s walls and surging through the street like a flash flood. Each man held a weapon and had been fitted with a leather and bronze cuirass, a helmet, a pair of leather boots, and a rectangular wooden shield bearing the lion’s head crest of the royal family. In front of the legion was a general and a collection of commanding officers, shouting indecipherably at their subordinates. They carried banners of white with blood red cuneiform letters spelling out the name of Enlil, patron god of Nippur, the holiest of cities.

“What are they all doing here?” Nirah asked. It was by far the largest force she had ever seen. Though they were allies, she felt a sting of terror at the sight of so much hardware made for death and violence.

“King Shulgi seeks justice for the murder of his father. He met with the regional governor-generals of the realm this morning, and it appears they have come to a decision.”

They watched in silence as the thundering army marched through the street, heading to assemble in front of the ziggurat. It was there that Engubanni, the high priest of the city, the Entu of Nanna, would descend from his smoky chambers in the temple and decree the will of the gods for men and kings to obey.

“Can I show you something, Nirah? Something very personal?”

Nirah hesitated, searching the priestess’s deep brown eyes.

“I guess so.”

Enthiavasa looked down to her feet and pulled her robes up to her knees, carefully slipping her left foot from her elegant sandal. There were dozens of thin, dark strips of leather webbed around her leg, leading to a prosthesis in place of her foot. It was some kind of imported wood, expertly shaped and polished, and matched her skin tone perfectly. One might not even see it if they didn’t look twice.

“When I was six, I lived in Larsa. My father used to take me to play with the other children, and more often than not, we would find our way into the hills. One day, when we were climbing a steep hill, there was a rock slide. A great boulder rolled onto my foot and crushed my toes. I had never felt such pain, and have not since, thank the gods. My bones were shattered to bits, and the priest said if my foot was not removed, it would take on a sickness that would spread through my body and corrupt me. So, they did what they had to do.”

“I’m so sorry.” It was all she could think of to say. How else could anyone respond to such a tale? Nirah gripped her bandaged hand and realized with some shame that she had been staring, looking away quickly.

“Will you tell me your story, Nirah?” Enthiavasa replaced her sandal and looked out over the balcony again, her hands folded.

Nirah felt some resistance to the notion, but remembered it was the point of this meeting. The thundering noise had faded, but now it started to build again. Were the troops moving already? She sighed deeply, her eyes scanning the black horizon.

“It was by the holy cedar forest in the valley up north, over the river. We saw Shulgi and the Guti, and we followed them… I actually thought we could help him. I was so, so stupid. I had never seen someone die before. I mean, my mother died, but not like that. Not… bleeding out in the dirt.”

Her voice broke. “And then they came out of the tent, and everybody starting fighting. I didn’t know what to do… One of them pinned me down, and he did this! I thought I was going to die. And then… he…”

Her eyes began to well as she dredged the memories up, and her voice died in her throat. She cradled her hand again and fought to draw deep breath, looking for something to focus on in the black city, something to draw her mind’s eye from that terrible night.

Below them, another regiment filed into view at last – this one just as large as the first, if not larger. It was being led by another group of officers and generals, and they carried the blue banners of Unug. Within the rows of soldiers there were slaves who pulled many carts filled with what appeared to be gold and silver.

“I know I should have fought harder, okay? Or ran away, or never followed them at all. I want it to be a bad dream, but every time I wake up, I… I don’t know… I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to be like this anymore! I want to be normal!” She threw herself at Enthiavasa, who caught her in a gentle embrace as the girl broke down in her arms, gripping her like some poor shipwrecked soul clinging to driftwood.

“My dear, sweet child, you are normal! You always were, and you still are. So many people I have met have endured the same evils, or worse, and they have prevailed. Hah! Look at me, I achieved all my success after my accident. Nirah, you can have a normal life, a happy life!”

“But I’m not a priestess! My father is a farmer and my mother is dead! I could never afford anything like what you have.”

“But, you… have you not heard?” Enthiavasa laughed and smiled tenderly. “I thought you would be the first to know.”

A flourish of hope filled Nirah’s heart, the first she had felt since the moment that barbarian’s weight had fallen upon her chest, and it must have showed on her face.

“Well, I am happy to tell you. The king has ordered that a device be crafted to fit your hand, just like mine. It will be made to look as natural as possible, and will be designed by the finest artisans this blessed city has to offer.”

Nirah could hardly believe it. Her emotions were already running high, and this news was surreal. Her gaze shifted between her bandages and the priestess.

“Really?” She managed, choking up again.

“It will takes some weeks,” Enthiavasa continued, “but in the meantime you are welcome to stay here in the palace. You are special guests of the king, and of the gods, and heroes to all. You risked your lives for my… our dear Shulgi.”

She thought of Kurzu, and his promised surprise.

“Kurzu, you idiot!” She giggled, starting to cry. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I’m feeling right now.”

Enthiavasa laughed and embraced her again.

“Perhaps now is a good time to learn the other bit of good news. According to Rashugal, you don’t need those bandages anymore. You can keep them on if you like, but all you need now is a daily salve to minimize the scarring.”

Nirah looked at her hand.

“Maybe just a little longer… No. I’ll take them off.”

She wiped away her tears and cradled her hand once more, but now began to unwrap it. The breeze was constant and refreshing at this elevation, and as the layers pulled away, cool air and mobility returned to her unbound fingers. She winced at first glance, but then, at last, she looked on the new form of her hand without fear of it, without wanting to hide it from herself. She let the bandages fall over the balcony, the wind twisting them through the air like a mad serpent.

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