“The Wolves of Eridu” Part I: Chapter 23

The battle-club does not find out his name, it just finds his flesh.

Sumerian proverb

His beard was long and ornate, and he wore a complexly woven wool hat with gold leaves and swirling cosmic trimmings. His shimmering white robes fell over his feet, causing him to drift weightlessly over the ground, as if he was only a dream, a phantomlike avatar of some divine being. This was, in fact, exactly the intention. Engubanni, the Entu of Nanna, had come down at last from the House of the Great Light to meet the king’s horde that stood patiently awaiting his prophecies. As he reached the appropriate step of the ziggurat, he stopped and raised his hands, calling for silence. He spoke with a loud, resonant baritone which needed no repeating.

“My children, the gods have spoken to me. They bless King Shulgi and install their full power across his back and within his hands. Enlil, crown of the pantheon, speaks of a great change coming to the world. Anu, whose ancient house lies beyond the stars, now makes known his unshakeable will. Enki, who knows all there is to know, has shown me visions of what is to come. Nanna, whose great light pierces the darkness, has illuminated the true path. Inanna, whose potency carries our feet forward, makes the way clear. King Shulgi shall rule! He shall lead us to holiness and glory, and his efforts shall be without reproach! So it has been told to me by the gods, and so it has been told to you. Praise be to the gods!”

The Entu bowed his head, and every person present soon did the same, including King Shulgi, who stood at the bottom of the steps with his generals, arms across his chest.

“We thank you, lords of the earth, sea, and sky. Your blessings in this troubling time grant us deliverance. May King Shulgi see only victory, and may Urim stand strong for thirty-six thousand years!”

Engubanni turned abruptly and began to ascend the stairs back to the temple. The soldiers murmured their private prayers while Shulgi took his place on the steps.

The king’s cloak, like the robes of the Entu, draped to his feet. He moved slowly on the stairs, to demonstrate resolve and power, but also to keep from taking a false step.

The soldiers filled the area beyond capacity, spreading through the square framing the ziggurat and down through the streets. One of his generals, Adulshurasa, cupped his hands to his mouth and screamed over the mass.

“Attention, now, for the king! The king speaks! Attention!”

A full-fledged army stood before Shulgi, their clubs and spears clattering against their shields as they cried out his name and cheered their support. As the noise died down, he knew it was time to address the crowd. He had given speeches before, but never with absolute authority, and never to such a number. It still felt strange not to have anyone to turn to but those who would serve him. He felt his father’s absence now more than ever, but his voice did not waver.

“By now you all have heard the news. It is the news that brought you here, that brought me here. The injustice, the travesty of my father’s death. Murdered by Guti cowards as he passed through the storied city of Lagash, where the great King Gudea once presided! King Gudea held strong, nearly fifty years ago, before the Reclamation led by my grandfather, Utu-Hegel, when the Guti scum held the land of the gods in their grip! He kept our ways sacred and safe behind his walls, when the raiders crept down from the mountains and burned us in our sleep! When they took our children and our wives, and drove us from our lands, from our homes, with clenched fists!”

Boos and scorn filled the air around the king, his heart galloping as the wild horses of the southwestern steppe.

“You all know the pain that wicked nation has laid at our feet. They have trampled our fields, they have killed our families! They have crumbled the statues of our gods beneath their wretched heels! They have brought evil and death to our houses! But no more! No more! Gutium is banished from the land of the black-headed people! They will be smitten across the mountains and the deserts, across the rivers and the seas!”

The soldiers cheered in a deafening roar, crashing their shields. The generals nodded, stern and silent.

“In the days before the Guti first came against us, there ruled that great king of Old Akkad, that grandson of Sargon the Great, Naram-Sin. He was the first mortal man to be granted divinity, and he sits now among the gods themselves, the eternal king of the four quarters of the universe. When there was yet unending war between the city-states, Naram-Sin kept order, and expanded our influence in all directions. He marched with his troops from Elam to Kemet, from Urim to Urkesh. Think of Naram-Sin now, as I speak to you, and remember the glory of Sumer!”

Cheers arose, especially among the older soldiers.

“When death found Enkidu, that fierce and feral man of Enki, my ancestor who is the great King Gilgamesh sought to the ends of the earth, and even into the afterlife itself, for a way to bring him back. I wish for the strength of King Gilgamesh now, for I would gladly undertake the same journey to bring my father back.”

Shulgi paused, but now there was only respectful silence, or as much silence as can be had from a throng of battle-armed soldiers. There was some solemn murmuring after a few moments.

“Seven years ago, King Urnamma destroyed Gutium. We imagined their destruction would be permanent, but they arise again and again, like strangling weeds in our garden. Many of you fought in that campaign, and your return to service is more valuable to me now than all your weight in silver and gold. I see you here now, one and all. Eriduan, Kishian, Urimite, Unugai, Lagashi, Larsan, Nippuri, Isinian, Babylonian – no matter from whence you hail, you stand here with me tonight, and I thank you. In fact, I have prepared a feast in your honor. Let every man eat and drink his fill tonight!”

The legion cheered again, and there was some applause.

“My father, King Urnamma, the great shepherd of Sumer, will not be forgotten. He will be avenged! I know not all of you come to me now as true soldiers. You are farmers, smiths, canalsmen, bakers, clothiers, tax collectors…” This last remark earned a smattering of light-hearted boos, and Shulgi grinned for a few seconds.

“But, each and every man here with a lust for vengeance and righteousness, hear me now! Find in your hearts the strength to defend with blood and bone your homes and your families! Descend on those lowly posts where Gutium still resides, and drive that scourge from our kingdom! Carry the peace of the gods to your homes, and plant it there firmly! Carry the wrath of the gods to your enemies’ homes, and plant it there firmly! Send every Guti you find across Tigris, and if they do not go…”

Shulgi raised his hands and bowed his head.

“Send them instead to Arali.”

The army howled their approval to the heavens. Shulgi could swear he felt the stone steps of the ziggurat shaking behind their vigor. The sheer energy of the moment gave him chills, and he found himself smiling as he waved to the crowd, looking at each of their reverent faces. They began to chant his name once again, calling for his eternal life.

Adulshurasa approached him as he stepped down from the stairs, the concern on his face apparent even in the moonlight.

“I am sorry, but I bring a great burden to you. My king, I have just been informed of a Guti attack on Lagash, committed only last night. Dozens of farms have been burned, and hundreds have been killed. We believe they have spies reporting our troop movements, and they are attempting to capitalize on your father’s death.”

Shulgi covered his face with his hands, exhaling a deep sigh and walking a few steps. “So, my first days as king are to be red days.” He looked out on the vast force assembled before him, which was now starting to calm and break into its units, the officers leading them like shepherds through the winding streets. Before they dispersed, before they retired to the feast awaiting them, they needed to know. It wasn’t right to keep it from them another second.

“Friends, wait!” Shulgi yelled as loud as he could, and he heard his own words echo back from the distance – a curious sensation, to be sure. Now that they knew his voice, every soldier within the considerable earshot of the king’s shout turned back, and soon the ocean of bronze and leather flowed back toward its host.

“Friends, I have just learned even more terrible news. The gods stack burdens upon burdens for us, and deliver death to my kingdom once again. Lagash, that fortress of Sumerian order, has been set to the torch. Its fertile lands have been razed. You can guess who is to blame! Yes, gutless Guti scum! Perhaps the same band of murderers who felled my beloved father, King Urnamma. This injustice makes my blood boil! It makes my stomach turn! I speak to you now from the heart, as I do in all matters. Go now with renewed vigor! Let the embers of our vengeance glow white hot! Let our blades taste blood, and our clubs crush bone! Let your arms and your legs deliver the fiery wrath of the gods unto them!”

The forces stirred and grew restless as anger and discontent swept through the ranks. The officers regained their hold, and once again the roiling mass was moving back through the citadel, on the first steps of its war path.

Shulgi turned away and approached his prime general again, speaking low when he was close.

“I must return to the palace. Take a regiment and plan a counter-attack immediately. Begin training anyone who needs training, and get the veterans into officer positions if you haven’t already. We are going to war, and if history can teach us anything, Gutium will not fall without a bloody fight. I can attest to that personally.”

“Yes, my king.” Adulshurasa beckoned two officers and began to explain the situation as they walked away together.

Shulgi approached one of the palace guards who had accompanied him to the ziggurat. The king’s face up close showed a young man already world-weary, but he yet held ferocity behind his brown eyes, slightly misshapen as those of his father, and which in this dire moment were equal in temper to those of his mother.

“Have someone tell my Eriduan friends in the infirmary to meet me in the throne room as soon as they can. They are probably asleep, but this matter cannot wait.”

“Yes, I will fetch them right away, my king.” The guard bowed and hurried away to fulfill his task.

Clubs, swords and spears clacked against shields in the distance, and thousands of rowdy voices carried over the citadel walls and into the night.

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