In the 15th century B.C. aggressive Egypt is at the peak of its power. However, the vassals of the conquered Canaan are making plans to throw off the yoke of the hateful pharaohs. Aberes (Pearl) - a beautiful girl from an ordinary family is married by the king of the most important cities of Canaan. Among great passions and ruthless politics, her beloved husband is offered an opportunity of uniting the whole country under his rule. Aberes doesn't share his ambitions and only wants to live a peacuful life with her husband and have a long-awaited child. Little does she know, however, how much her husband's thirst for power will affect her and the ones she loves. She is unaware that behind every earthly power there stands a spiritual might that will do everything to reach its goals.
Pearl is a thrilling, passionate story by Rafał Kosowski about the times when people surrandered their lives to cruel "gods" and unbridled desires. It's a story of a woman who loves life and tries to find her place in a society that consistently loses all its moral constraints. Fate gave her more than she could ever expect but there came a time when it demanded a price she was unable to pay. Demons showed their clows.
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1. A Voice
2. Shadows in the Dark
3. The City of the Book
6. The Predators
7. In the laps of the gods
9. Anath, Mot and Baal
10. The Oracle
11. The Visit
12. A Swordsmaker
14. When Angels Cry
15. Hidden and Ready
16. The shepherd
17. Shilea, Which Means a Rose
18. The City of the Dead
20. The Beast
Dozensof black trails of smoke sloped down to the ground like long spears piercing the sky over the Jordan Valley. High up, from where they came, the dark indigo of the sky gradually transformed into the black void that stretched over the planet, but down on the ground, where their heads had hit, hell was burning, furious and merciless. Sand and rocks were boiling, melted by the uncontainable heat released by the falling stars, precisely guided with the Creator’s hand. The deposits of petroleum, asphalt and sulfur stored under the surface of the ground instantly went ablaze like a volcano and the flames started to devour what for a long time merchants and nomads had enviously called the “Paradise Valley”, the “Second Egypt.”
A moment before the whole area really had looked that way—a green garden of abundance strengthened by the life-giving waters of the Jordan. That was all that human eyes could see here as they took delight in the beauty of the valley, but how different it looked in the realm of the spirit, where nothing could hide the truth. From that perspective, all the surrounding area was a crater filled with abominations and filth, the dwelling of vice and immorality, which scale and intensity had marked new and unmatched boundaries of human degradation. All the space around both cities located amidst juicy greenery was dense with personified evil. It had ruled here absolutely and was incurable. The same contrast characterized the First World, before the water apocalypse destroyed it—beauty and evil intertwined with each other and indistinguishable for most of observers. Then time and again punishment had come but evil was still able to find the way to another “Paradise Valley”. The history repeated again and again as evil still hated beauty, and down through the ages the missed decisions willingly taken by the fallen creatures led them to the point in which every kind of order, even the most perfect, eventually yielded to chaos.
Hell was ablaze, burning the remnants of rottenness and decay. The punishment had to come for the perverted people had rejected the last chance of salvation. When the two Messengers had arrived at the city at dusk, after a while they didn’t have any illusions as to the conclusions from that inspection. Dressed in human bodies they saw it for themselves what the locals were capable of—both adults and youth. They saw clearly the dark figures of their spiritual adversaries surrounding and permeating the people’s hearts and minds. The faces of people and demons warped with the same grimace of animal lust and cruelty. Mingled with their victims, the soldiers of the Bearer of Light were mocking the Angelos and taking delight in their power over that place; their laughter passed by human larynxes proved unbearable for the holy messengers of the Highest One. And then it was clear that there was no way to meet the condition for which the place could be saved, the condition that the Speaking-One’s friend had begged for. That evil had to be burnt to the core, before it started to boast with its impunity and poisoned the whole land. Didn’t the One-Who-Is say so?
The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great,
…their sin is very grievous.1
The white-burning meteors had hit right on time and none had missed the target. They brought payment—precise and fair. Within minutes the “Paradise Valley” started to turn into a lake of boiling lava. Buildings sank under the ground and the greenery got scorched, animals and people burnt as they personally paid the debt they had been taking with the Creator for years: the debt of patience abundantly shown by the Lord of Heaven and Earth, whom they had disregarded and instead took delight in satisfying their perverted instincts.
The heat was devouring not only their bodies, which were rolling on the scorched ground in dreadful convulsions—each of the condemned ones had finally felt what kind of poison their hearts and minds were saturated with, each of the satisfied lusts was coming back to them from the depths of the past and burnt them more acutely than fire. With all their beings they participated in settling the accounts of their lives, with all their senses they read the extensive obituary that showed the reasons for which they had to die.
The last righteous man, still bewildered by the painful events of the previous night, was already safe in Zoar. According to the command he hadn’t looked back and with trembling he covered his head with the hood of his robe, not to share the condemned one’s fate. He was too terrified to feel regret or despair having lost all he had possessed…
The Highest One’s friend didn’t sleep that night either, still bearing in his mind the conversation he’d had with his God, and in his thoughts he kept rebuking himself for the excessive boldness and obtrusiveness with which he bargained with the Lord of Heaven and Earth for the conditions on which the sinners could be rescued. But he couldn’t do otherwise. He couldn’t just listen indifferently of the destruction that had been decided, the destruction to befall also his nephew and his family, and maybe other righteous ones lost in the maze of evil.
But some voice in his heart kept telling him that all that bargaining was in vain, for the wise God knew everything and none of His decisions was taken in rush. Eventually, he rose from his bed and at dawn he went to the place, in which he spoke with the Lord a few hours before. Covering his eyes from the sharp rays of the morning sun, he nurtured illusions that his requests would be met. But what he saw shook him through. Helpless as he was, he fell to his knees and watched Sodom and Gomorrah, a plume of smoke above them like they were enormous furnaces for melting metal. The Speaking-One was standing next to his old friend, whom He had visited the day before in the form of the Son of Men together with the two Angelos. NowHe was with him again. Tears of sorrow were rolling from the old man’s eyes.
“Not even ten of the righteous, my Lord? Not even a handful as small as that?!” Avraham sobbed. “Why?”
“Evil shall never be satisfied with thousands of victims, Avraham.” In His words one could feel regret mixed with determination. “It shall not rest before there are ten, even three righteous men calling upon My Name.”
The Speaking-One looked at His servant, aware that it was just him and Sarah—The Father of Many and his Princes2, that’s whyHe had to trust them and protect them in that difficult way, before the Promise could finally come true. The couple of the righteous had trusted the Highest One that they would become a family, which had to survive to eventually become a nation. And that nation would have to be threshed and sifted, melted and tried, almost wiped from the earth and then renewed, they would almost drown in the flood of evil before the Mediator of the Covenant could come from it. And it was still a very far way to go…
“Remember, Avraham, even the smallest remnant, even ten, even three righteous men persistent in prayer before my Face are powerful might, unbearable for the enemy, that’s why the forces of hell would try to destroy them by any means. Now listen, Avraham, for the evil shall surely be reborn, if the inhabitants of this land fail to obey Me. Even though Sodom and Gomorrah shall always be the warning and the example of punishment for the ungodly, you are the one to become God’s messenger for the peoples of this land, for there is nothing more important than to know Me as God of mercy and faithfulness, who does not want shedding of blood or revenge.
“I have chosen you to teach your sons and the whole family to be righteous and honest, so that I can fulfill what I have promised you, Avraham. Through you, Amorites shall see what it means to walk with God. Be faithful and testify with your deeds that whoever serves Me, shall be blessed forever.”
And after a moment of silence He added with distinct sadness in His voice,
“But if they disregard your message and reject the One who lives and works in you, then the evil shall grow strong again, even more malicious and treacherous than in Sodom and Gomorrah… And then they shall have to die!”
Whether it speaks this only time,
Whether it comes back in a year, ten years,
Never pretend… that you cannot hear it!
It was breaking through her dreams until she couldn’t ignore it any more. On the verge of reality she listened carefully for its meaning and understood that it was an imperative. But it surely wasn’t coming from the world of humans. It wasn’t her beloved that was trying to wake her from dream. She would have recognized it at once. She focused on the person sleeping next to her. The man’s breath was still deep and regular.
Only she could hear THAT.
The Voiceignored her chaotic attempts at understanding; it still remained unknown, still unrelenting. At last the girl opened her eyes but before she ventured any movement, she looked around carefully, as much as her position on the bed allowed. The chamber was sunken in darkness but it looked normal. No one seemed to be there.
“Aberes, get up and go downstairs” again sounded the words out of nowhere.
“Who’s that?” she whispered shyly in the darkness, careful not to wake her husband. “Who’s there?”
“Get up and go to the vault.” Now it sounded even more urgent.
She moved the blanket aside and rested her hand against one of the wooden poles supporting the bed’s canopy. She rebuked herself for that carelessness. Under the hand the wood creaked threateningly. She quickly moved the hand back. She looked for the slippers and with some difficulty slipped her numb feet in. The leftovers of the sleep hampered her movements but a moment later she was ready to go.
Wrapped with a velvet cloak against the chill of the night she didn’t question her courage to go at night to those parts of the castle in which even during the day chill and paralyzing fear were overwhelming.
From the foyer outside her chamber she walked several steps and turned left towards a staircase. Then she fingered the banister and carefully went to the ground floor. It was lit by torches fastened with brass fittings to the walls. The flames were calm. She cheered up.
Past the bend of the hall she saw a black recess in the wall where there was the staircase to the vault. Curious enough, it wasn’t guarded by even one soldier.
“Where are the sentinels?” she thought. “The priest always wants to know if anyone’s coming. Guards change day and night.”
At that moment she realized that she’d never step willingly onto the forbidden ground—an uninvited guest, even as important as the khazanu’s wife, wasn’t welcome in the dungeons often visited by the messenger of gods and his hound. He was surrounded by an aura of fear and a look in his dark eyes meant one was far too close.
As if answering this hesitation, the Voice spoke with a warmer tone.
“Do not fear, no one knows you are here.” Astonished, she found herself believing unreservedly and continued down the winding stairs. The steps were fitted into the wall of a circular shaft drilled in the granite of the rock the castle was built on. From the inside the stairs were not supported by any structure, so in the middle of the shaft there gaped a circular three-feet hole. A low banister was the only protection from falling down to the very bottom of the shaft.
Carefully making her steps she went down. There, still guided by the mysterious call, she turned left, where she heard a murmur of voices about a dozen steps away.
She couldn’t recognize them from afar so she came closer, to a heavy wooden door. The narrow gap underneath the fittings of the door only let out little light from the chamber. It only illuminated a small part of the stone flooring.
The mysterious Voice didn’t speak any more, so she decided she should stand right there.
“But why am I here?” she wondered. “This must be a dream!”
The doorframe was fitted between two wide stone pillars with a simple triangular tympanum atop which almost reached the arched ceiling. The wide pillars could easily hide a person like Aberes and with a bit of luck a passer-by wouldn’t notice her at all.
Apart from the light there was also an emanation of a bizarre presence from the chamber, so hideous that the girl quickly looked elsewhere. She felt weird, as if standing on a narrow rock ledge over a hundred-mile deep precipice, in which a vociferous seven-headed hydra lay in waiting to drag a daredevil down.
She rebuked herself for that rampant imagination and instead focused on the conversation she couldn’t easily make out. The tone of the speaker’s voice made her tremble, so she fearfully pressed all the body hard against the rough wall. The man’s presence in the city surprised her.
“Someone must have brought important news” she thought. “That’s why they’ve met.” The priest would always stay in the temple west of the castle but the meetings always took place in this chamber.
The girl understood she had to ignore the fear, otherwise she wouldn’t understand a thing of this conversation. This time an older man spoke, increasing the fear in her heart. His tone emanated with a sense of power and cold self-control.
“The recent change on the throne of pharaohs seems to be favorable to us. On the one hand, Egypt still holds Mitannia in an iron grasp and the princes of Naharin have to send carriages and carriages of valuables to Egypt and thus they deprive the North of support. For a long time they shall not pose any threat for our plans. On the other hand, Mencheperure and Nebmaatre have been the least militant of all the pharaohs so far and sooner or later Syria and Hittites shall claim what is theirs. If we conduct our policy wisely and exploit all the circumstances, the matters shall go as we plan.”
“I’d like to know your shall concerning the fugitives, Master” spoke another voice unclearly.
“We shouldn’t have devoted so much attention to them and I do not wish to be bothered with them any more. For over thirty years they’ve been marching the desert, without a permanent home. I would like to believe that they shall become another nomad tribe without land and king and eventually they shall fade away among the dunes of the desert…” He walked a little in the room, fortunately far enough from the door. “It’s significant that they had come so near, to Kadesh-Barnea…”
“Aren’t you troubled that we still don’t know what part they shall play in our plans?”
“Leave that to wiser and more powerful ones than you are, Hetammu” the impatience in the man’s voice was all too distinct.
“We can finish it on our own, Master. Even their gods deemed them useless” said the younger voice. “It’s enough to wait for an opportunity…”
“I can see the constant fire of revenge burning in your soul!” the tone grew colder, which was felt even outside the chamber.
The girl trembled.
„In that game your feelings are meaningless, so do not even try to impose your will on me, eleve!” A respectful silence was the only answer so he continued. “The Masters command us to wait. I sense a breath of their unrest and although it is barely noticeable, for mortals it should sound like a roar of a thousand thunders! The Enemy is unpredictable, I know something of Him. That old restless El, who cannot wait to rule over this land again…” He paused for a moment. “Once He was content with worship of just a few mortals. Now He is served by those whom He led through fire and water leaving nothing but ashes and dead bodies behind.”
“So much greater His fury when they have turned out to be a band of cowards. It may be their death sentence—they shall perish in the desert, should they make Him angry again.”
“You are looking too shallow inside the matters, which I find disturbing after I’ve taught you so much.”
“Forgive me, Master, but my father left me the legacy of those unpaid debts and if only there came an opportunity… Since the chase of Chorma I’ve been dreaming of dealing that final blow!” The man loudly banged his fist against the wall. “I wish I could charge on them with my jackals.”
“Your imaginary debts mean nothing. The Amalekites keep trying to destroy them but Habiru are still fortunate. I saw it with my own eyes and drew proper conclusions. Unlike your father! Do not forget that this ambition destroyed him. To repeat the same mistakes and yet anticipate desirable results is folly, and I shall not tolerate that in you! Besides, without the support of all your tribe there is nothing you can do. It is still too early.”
“Forgive me, Master” the voice of the younger man was confused but soon his doggedness prevailed. “I shall keep waiting until the right time comes, then I shall satisfy my revenge. If the gods allow me to.” He laughed with his characteristic reptile hiss, to which Aberes threw to the side like she had been touched with hot iron. He hated that snigger. Immediately in her mind she saw his eyes, equally reptile-like and treacherous.
As she moved, the cloak slid down her shoulder and when she leaned again on the pillar, the long silver buckle that pinned both halves of the cloak grated against the stone like a saw cutting hard oak wood. The echo reverberated off the arches of the corridor while the voices in the chamber grew silent immediately.
A frightened Aberes could hear nothing but her heartbeat and had to cover her mouth with the hand to muffle the intense hiss of breathing.
“You stupid! You are noisy like an old pulley!” she clenched her fist, furious at her own carelessness. “Be quiet, Aberes, or you shall pay dearly for that!”
She knew they didn’t even have to check that. The priest was renowned for his gift of seeing. He could see the person or object he was looking for even from afar, despite obstacles between. The gods showed him everything like it was on the palm of his hand, be it across walls or rocks. He was said to have a horde of ghouls at his command. In his presence everyone was on vigil, wearing protective amulets, which didn’t always help anyway, as the messenger of the gods could even hear someone’s thoughts, especially when he needed to know their intentions. He was greatly feared.
The girl was trembling all over her body, while seconds dragged like dunes moving in the deserts.
The Voice returned immediately and calmed her down.
“No one shall see you. Trust me! Listen carefully. It’s about your life…”
As if answering those words, the older man spoke.
“It must be rats. I do not sense anyone’s presence. Speak, Hetammu, what news are you bringing?”
Aberes took a breath of relief and almost got glued to the wall to hear better. But the words of the younger man got her freeze with fear.
“What I have to say cannot be heard even by spiders and cockroaches, so will you close the chetah, Master?”
She was sure to be lost. Closing the chetah meant spreading a protective shield around the people, usually sorcerers, who wished to remain unheard and unseen by strangers. It was tremendously powerful protection, possible to be broken only by a mightier magus, yet between the ominous ruins of Shir-Ihen in the south and the fortified Megiddo in the north there was none mightier than him…
A moment later she could hear the men unanimously pronounce the magical formulae. They were such a complex and inhuman sounding system of guttural syllables and umlauts that listening alone was a torture. But Aberes was aware it wasn’t the worst. She knew that if someone unwanted was too near and tried to eavesdrop the people who used the incantation, they felt like they were cast inside a fiery furnace—the wretch could only run as far as possible and thus reveal his presence or—if they decided to retreat too late, they were caught by madness that wouldn’t pass for a few days, leaving the mind scarred permanently.
Aberes felt her mind being torn by two opposite forces. On the one hand she remembered the reassuring promises of the Voice, on the other hand she knew that the time to get to safety would run away in a few heartbeats.
Instinctively she looked at the gap beneath the door. The color of light turned jade and grew more intense but besides that nothing dangerous happened.
Minutes were passing. The guttural voices behind the wall subsided and she was still breathing and felt nothing but trembling of the hands, then she calmed down.
“It must be a dream,” she thought and began listening intently to the conversation behind the door.
“I think we can get to the point,” she heard the sound of the magus’ staff move across the stone floor of the chamber. “All the kings to whom I have talked seem to favor our plans. However, they have the same objections towards Gemre. Those are their conditions in fact. You know well what conditions those are and soon they shall have to be met. Still, we have worked on Gemre for so long that I do not anticipate any obstruction…”
Aberes quivered at the sound of her husband’s name.
“…That man still remains a mystery to me and I do not like secrets of human nature—too many unknown factors. That is what I think of Gemre…” he took a deep breath and exhaled for a long while, as if getting ready for meditation. “His virtue and steadfastness do not pose a threat anymore as we have been slowly burning out them with the fire of ambition, the fire still fanned with the sense of his self-greatness. He begins to believe that. He does not protest when I spread before his eyes a vision of ruling over the entire South and maybe the whole Canaan some day. The poison is beginning to work, pushing him into sweet numbness. Watching his dreams every now and then I notice more and more often the numerous images of splendor brought by reign and power. He pays less and less attention to what used to be so important to him even a year ago.”
The girl admitted he was right. Under the influence of those two demons her beloved one had stopped caring about the affairs of Debir and didn’t look after the prosperity of the people so much. Also towards her he was different. The conversation interrupted her thoughts.
“That insolent lass can still threaten our plans” Hetammu hissed hatefully. “Whenever I want to talk to him about our affairs, immediately she is near. And she still has strong influence on him.”
“It depends what you talk about when she is near.” The tone of the priest’s comment was very suspicious.
“Of course, I’m not so stupid as to reveal our secrets in her presence. Still I think that he shares his doubts with her, for whenever we start to discuss any matter only vaguely related to the change of powers in Canaan, she moves near him and starts to listen intently like she was afraid I could turn into a cobra and kill her beloved one.”
“What you say I find very disturbing. What do you intend to do about it?”
“Either I shall get rid of her myself or Gemre shall, when I show him the evidence of her alleged treason.”
“I shall tell you in a moment, if you allow me. Now would you, please, look at this, Master.”
Aberes could only imagine what he was about to show.
Hetammu got a little leather sack from behind his belt. It contained a clay tablet, small enough to be covered with two hands. He handed the tablet to the priest, who instantly read the dense cuneiform writing and looked with astonishment at the impression of the roll seal showing the identity of the author.
With yet deeper astonishment he looked again at the letter, then at the seal, and asked with a voice full of emotions.
“Is this an authentic letter?”
“It looks authentic, Master, doesn’t it?”
“If so, then we were both mistaken about Gemre, and I cannot admit such a thought.”
“Don’t be afraid, Master. He’s neither so stupid or shrewd. Let me tell you where I’ve got it from.”
“Speak! You have intrigued me.”
The eleve’s eyes shone with pride at those words.
“Even the biggest villains and scum can be of some use.” He showed him a cylindrical seal, around which there ran a relief of a distinct crest. “The servant of ours, Glisha, useful though wicked, didn’t hesitate too much when I asked him to copy the king’s seal. This is the result of his work.”
At the mention of Glisha, Aberes clenched her fists. For almost two years, the city had attracted all the scum of Canaan or it debased its inhabitants, while the righteous were leaving the place and went as far as possible with no intention of returning.
“Amazing accuracy,” admitted the old magus, not even trying to find out how his protégée had been able to get hold of the original cylinder even for the time needed for copying it. But he’d been trained for such purposes.
“According to this letter, false though convincing, our king has been treating with the kings of the Retenu behind the Alliance’s back and without the knowledge of the most of his faithful counselors.”
The magus’ eyes shone.
“Were we to reveal that during the session of the Council of the South, Gemre would be finished and the price on his head would have him banished for ever. We keep a tight rein on him!”
„Exactly,” Hetammu said with a proud voice. “I can show a similar letter to his wife and with an authentic care open her eyes to his allegedly real plans towards her. She shall surely think I’m her friend and so she shall be doomed.”
“But we must find something against her as well. Have you thought of that?”
There was no answer, instead she heard the characteristic melodious rasp of two clay tablets rubbing against each other. The girl felt the worst was still ahead. She was right.
“Now, Master, you shall read a letter written by a person from the king’s closest circles—that is a spy of the North—snatched in the last moment before one of caravans carried it to Tell Al Amarna.”
There was a moment of silence, then she heard someone take a deep breath and exhale for a long while.
“I have failed to appreciate your ingeniousness, Hetammu. You have acquitted yourself very well. Should pharaoh learn about our plans we would have to seek refuge, which would never be safe enough. This letter distinctly shows that near the king there is a traitor.”
“Needless to say, such news would affect Gemre’s feelings to his spouse, ha, ha” he chortled cynically. “We can also bring a scribe who shall confirm under oath having been dictated the letter and using the king’s seal she stole. Of course he’d be forced by her to do that.”
“She would be finished. Although I grow furious at the thought that so much effort is needed to secure ourselves against a girl from nowhere, not even a legitimate queen. At dawn I am going to Ashtaroth to win the support of Bashan. They surely know that Sihon has proved to be a far-sighted ruler and wants to cooperate. That is why they should do the same. I shall be back for the festival. And you must at all cost refrain from any action against the fugitives. Besides, the roads shall get filled with travelers, rich ones too, but primarily influential ones. Especially now, the Khetu must stay out of sight! Remember that. And you must fuel Gemre’s suspicions. Suggest skillfully that the plans are endangered and in Kiriath-Sepher there are spies from other cities. They might have gotten in the king’s nearest environment—you know to what conclusions he shall come, when there is time to dispose of the unwanted persons? But for now do not reveal your main assets. We do not know how the news of the wife’s perfidious treason would affect Gemre. It is still too early for that.“
Aberes crouched at those words. She couldn’t listen any more and got a notion, as clear as the words of the Voice, that she had heard enough and being there any longer she risked being exposed.
As silently as possible she moved away from the door and walked towards the stairs, yet the dreadful meaning of the conversation together with the gloomy scenery of the vault aroused in her a claustrophobic feeling. The corridor seemed narrower and narrower, like the closing mouth of a crocodile. A few steps away from the stairs she suddenly heard the magus’ door opening.
The space under the ceiling trembled as the beings that held the chetahrealized they hadn’t fulfilled the task properly. Something was effectively limiting their vision, moving them to fury. They struggled wildly trying to free themselves from that veil but the adversaries were much stronger and utterly controlled the situation.
The echo of the opening door rushed after the girl and the torches around the stairs fluttered with a troubled flame. Her heart stopped for a moment.
“There’s no time, run!” she thought and quickened the steps. Fortunately, the soles of her slippers were soft and made hardly any sound.
Though unaware of the struggle raging around her, she utterly sensed the danger chasing her. Finally, she got to the stairs and rushed up.
Now! Her invisible guardians released their grasp for a short moment and let the dark shapes catch up with the would-be victim. The air whirled and whipped the flames of the torches.
The girl was half way up the stairs but she was climbing too quickly and incautiously. At one moment she stepped onto the outskirt of her cloak. The fabric tore with a loud crack, the cloak slipped knee-low and almost jammed her steps. Aberes lost balance and had to put her hand on a stone step. A silent swearword came out her lips but it sounded more like a fearful groan.
With panicky movements she tried to free herself from the coils of the coat but she was all shaking and did that too impetuously. The buckle tore the fabric, the cloak slipped from her hands, flew through the poles of the banister and like an owl sailed down to the bottom of the shaft. The girl lunged forward to catch it but came short by half an inch. She was sure she heard someone’s malicious snigger behind her back…
Enough! The mighty messengers stopped them again.
Aberes was shaking like a leaf. There was no time to go down as the men would surely have gotten to the stairs by then. She must be far away and safe. Not good! Leaving any evidence could prove fatal. She prayed that no one saw the coat on the floor. With a bit of luck the dark fabric could remain there unnoticed until the end of the world. But if she wasn’t so fortunate and someone noticed a short flicker of a torch reflected off the silver buckle? What then?! There was no time to think.
“If you trust me, everything shall work out fine” the Voice whispered.
“But if they find it, I shall be finished!” she snapped with the last gasp.
She got to the ground level of the castle. She looked around and calmed down—the hallway was still empty. She rushed upstairs and soon was safe.
“For now, at least” she thought fearfully of the evidence she’d left. Gemre was still fast asleep so she slipped under the blanket, nestled into him and tried to fall asleep. But she couldn’t. She’d heard too much. So far she hadn’t realized in what danger she was, but if nothing changed in Kiriath-Sepher, there was much to be afraid of. On the other hand, she wasn’t ready to run away and didn’t even consider such a move.
She waited for the Voice. It may again tell her what to do…? But there was silence around. For a long time she tossed and turned on the bed in anguish. Eventually, when the sky outside turned grey, she fell asleep.
The Voice didn’t speak that night and for many more nights to come.
A troubled mind and a doubter’s heart
You wonder how you ever got this far
Leave it to me
I shall lead you home3
The pink sunshine spilled lavishly all over the hill slopes. It slowly reached deeper and deeper to the hidden valleys and gorges and woke the life sleeping there. Low mists were still covering most of the fields and the opposite hills that blended into the distant grey background looked like the sails of a ship sailing towards the sun on the dark sea. Even in the midst of the buildings their beauty attracted the gazes of the inhabitants making their way towards the market square.
The windows of a temple situated on the hill west of the city gave off chants of monks and priests celebrating the morning ceremonies to worship the gods. But the tones of music didn’t reach very low—at the height of the trees they mixed with the twitter of birds, and when they reached the roofs, they were attacked by the rattle of carriages and human clatter until there was nothing worthwhile left of it among the streets.
The market place was a world of its own. Shoppers streamed among the stands, their sharp eyes searched for the best goods, under the feet after rolled there rotten fruit thrown aside by the sellers as they sorted them earlier that morning. A homeless dog somehow managed to snatch a piece of meet dropped accidentally by someone and now the animal was running away in zigzags trying to avoid the stones hurled at him. The owner left his wife and kids at the stand and tried to chase the four-legged thief but the more he was losing distance, the worse were the swearwords with which he commented the dishonorable origin of the canine lineage. Several children, whose parents were working at the market, watched that comical scene and laughed heartily holding their bellies. Such amusement was scarce. At last the man stopped, cast a few more words at the kids and at the sight of their laughing faces he cheered up, smiled widely and returned to work.
The streets running off the market square like pokes of a wheel were full of the servants carrying the bought goods, sedan chair bearers were rushing around after their business or politics.
Aberes woke suddenly as if emerging from deep water with barely any air in the lungs. She struggled hard to calm down her shaking nerves, then she looked at her husband. He was still lying still. She couldn’t see his face as he was turned the other side. She bent over him to try to wake him gently. She couldn’t possibly wait any longer to talk to him. She had to be the first to do so. He had to hear from her and no one else about what had happened last night and what the two villains had been scheming behind his back. She felt like in a race against Hetammu, where Gemre was the prize and the loser lost everything. Before she had a very clear dream, in which she ran out of the castle to catch Gemre. Her husband was leaving far, far away, unaware they were both doomed. She shouted at him but he failed to hear that, he kept riding his way. And a moment later, like from nowhere, Hetammu turned up, joined the king and said something to him as he looked her way with a cruel grin. Then she woke up.
Despite the Voice’s assurance she was still afraid—in the daylight it seemed so unreal, while her fears intensified. She was afraid that somehow those two would learn about her night escapade, find the coat, do some magic and even from among the moss-covered stones of the walls they would extract the name of the lonely person who had visited the forbidden place last night. Then they’d have no other way than to reveal the evidence of her assumed betrayal. She’d lose everything.
The man was breathing deeply. She touched his arm. He twitched.
“Wake up darling, we must talk” she whispered loudly. „Darling…”
He took a deeper breath then exhaled loudly. He’d always do that when waking. She stroked his cheek. The roughness of his skin surprised her. She felt strange dust on her fingers. She looked at them fearfully. Fine dust of the desert crunched softly, being ground between the girl’s shapely fingers.
She looked at her husband again. Surely he was waking for good as she noticed him trying to open his eyes. He turned his face towards her. For a moment she forgot about the mysterious dust and smiled beamingly waiting for him to open his eyes. She longer to talk to him, feel the warmth of his arms, return to the real world again. Then she saw who he was… And she couldn’t stop herself from screaming!
A young girl put the basket on her head and turned into the street that led towards the castle. In the gate she did her best not to pay attention to a group of guardsmen but they kept staring at her with lustful gazes and commenting the shapely figure and alluring movements of the hips. One of the soldiers started to imitate her walk and proud face and he did it with great exaggeration. The girl just snorted, craned her head even higher and walked into the yard.
“Don’t you leave us, Padriya. Without you the watch is torment. We are withering without you!” They pretended to be begging her desperately and the loudest was the handsome captain. “Don’t you leave me, flower. I want to make you happy, sister of the gods! I dreamed about you all night. It must be a sign of some kind…”
“I also dreamed about you, Pa-Dyeku.” She turned for a while and the surprise on the young man’s face was the proof that he didn’t suspect the cruel tease. “I dreamed I was carrying a basket full of cabbage heads. One of them was yours, even its gaze was as pathetic as yours! It really must have been a sign of some kind, my pitiful admirer.“
A burst of wild laughter of the guardsmen resounded behind her.
“What a witty way to win women over! We must teach our officer some courtship, he’s doing so poorly.”
“Shut your mouths, if you want to keep your teeth! You shall see she shall be mine.” Despite the embarrassment he kept a straight face and watched Padriya walking away. “Old Melcha foretold that and the temple fortune-teller is never wrong.”
He was still looking at her and got rewarded for that. Just before she entered the door, the girl looked at him coquettishly and smiled mysteriously.
“Did you see that, you scoundrels?!” Pa-Dyeku was triumphant. “You shall be drinking wine and dancing at my wedding, though I don’t know if I should invite you, sons of bitches. But the drinking after the watch shall be on me. We shall drink for the charms of sweet Padriya.”
“Now you’re talking, cabbage head… captain I mean.” One of the guardsmen clapped his hands out of joy but the object of his mockery clenched his fist and pretended he wanted to punch him.
“Forgive me, I was only joking, oh dignified captain!” The soldier moved back at a safe distance.
Pa-Dyeku’s prospective wife walked along the corridor to the castle kitchen and together with the other cooks took care of the breakfast for the court. When the bowls were full and ready to serve, she went upstairs to let the khazanu’s wife everything was ready.
Carefully, she entered the vestibule of the chamber and called the young queen. At the same moment she heard her horrible scream. It pierced her through and through. Her first reaction was to run away but the loyalty, or rather hearty attachment to the queen got the better of her. With trembling hands she opened the light door and entered the room imagining some unearthly things that could be awaiting her inside.
Her lady was kneeling at the verge of the bed with a wild expression on her face, her gaze fixed at the crumpled sheets like there was a venomous snake lying there. She was all tense and ready to run, like a bristled cat.
“Lady, what’s happened?” The servant got to Aberes with one leap, knelt on the empty side of the bed and took the queen’s sweated face in her hands. “Easy, my lady, easy. It’s just a dream! You’re safe! It’s alright.”
At least there was some reaction. The eyes slowly returned to the reality but the face was still pale, like covered with mist. The tension started to leave her body. Only now did she feel how exhausted she was. She fell to her side on the bed, gasping heavily.
“I dreamed that I wanted to wake the king. He turned his face to me but instead of him… There was that… That repulsive…” The memory returned. Aberes’ eyes again took on that frightened expression. She couldn’t cough up any word.
“The king got up an hour ago” Padriya again tried to calm her down. “Whatever you dreamed about, it was a nightmare. It’s gone now.”
“Instead of Gemre, in the bed was that hellish Hetammu…” she spoke with her eyes fixed at some indefinite point ahead. “He was all covered with the dust of the desert… Before I woke, he managed to hiss it out that…”
“What did he say, lady?” asked Padriya to interrupt another moment of nervous silence. Now she was afraid too.
“I don’t even remember his words exactly…” She sat up and moved her feet closer to her side and embraced her legs with the arms. With her face pressed against the knees she made another attempt at saying what she’d heard. “That was a short sentence in some foreign language but it carried so much evil and hatred that at the memory of it my blood runs cold in my veins!”
“Don’t you think about that, lady. You’d betted not recall the words of the people from your dreams. It’s a new day.”
Padriya moved the curtains aside. The light of the morning flooded all the room. From the walls the women were being watched by Ball’s divine wives. They looked as if they’d just stopped the gods’ dance to see the reason for the commotion in the chamber. The naked goddesses looked captivating and Baal was the embodiment of masculinity and desire. The paintings were so true to life that a person looking at them would unintentionally be carried by thoughts and emotions to the hot and passionate rituals of love that were held every month around the numerous temples and sacred groves all around Kiriath-Sepher.
Every time Padriya visited the queen’s chamber and looked at the walls she regretted not being able to pay more attention to them. Now she felt the same way but suddenly she remembered the handsome Pa-Dyeku who almost ate her with his eyes whenever she walked past the gate during his watch. She chased away the lascivious thoughts. He’d rather visit the throne room, where on the walls there heroes were piercing grotesque monsters with their swords. And she would also love to stay in the chamber for longer to learn those interesting stories but the throne chamber, like the royal bedroom, was for the royal couple or could sometimes be visited by the court officials. Padriya’s visits were usually very short. She thought this time it would be the same.
“Your highness, it’s time for breakfast. Everything’s been prepared.” She wanted to leave, when she heard the answer.
“You needn’t to call me that way, you know that. Wait a minute, Padriya.” The woman’s tired voice stopped the servant half-step. “I don’t want to stay alone. Maybe it’s just another dream, like in old stories.”
“Or maybe I should call some older woman? She could examine you, make you some herbal brew. Maybe the bad dream came out of some disease?”
“Herbs shall do me no good, my dear.” She looked at her heartily, grateful for the care the girl manifested. “Is King Gemre in the castle? I must talk to him!”
“No, lady. At dawn he departed to the barns with a hundred men detachment.” Padriya was taking Aberes’ clothes out of chests. “He should be back at dinner.”
“Yes, the shipment of homage to Egypt. It’s late summer already, this heat shall kill us at last… The festival of the Hurting Anath is in three days’ time. I feel her pain all around.”
At last she dragged out of bed and with a tired pace walked up to a small altar and lit some incense. With her hands clasped she asked the gods for purification from the night’s fears and for safety. In the middle of the litany she felt painful emptiness, like her prayer got stuck at the ceiling and hung from there like cobweb together with other unheard invocations.
“How many such empty words and orations are stirring under the ceiling?” she thought disheartened. It showed on her motionless face.
Padriya was unsure about what to think of the queen’s sudden pessimism. Always smiling and bursting with energy, even when troubled, now she was on the brink of depression.
“Soon, early rain shall come and everything shall turn green again.” The servant tried to chase away that gloomy mood but Aberes seemed deaf to all that.
“Was anyone with the king apart from the commander of a hundred?” she asked as she bent over a bowl of water.
“I don’t know, they set off with all the detachment, still well before dawn.” She suddenly understood who Aberes was asking about. “As far as I know, the Khetu are due to come back in autumn.”
“You know a lot, Padriya.” Aberes started to dry her face with a towel and scrutinized the servant girl from under her long eyelashes. Her wet hair got stuck to her cheeks and deepened the anxious expression of the face.
“The kitchen is a very chatty place, your Highness, and you can hear a lot about a lot of things, not just cooking dishes…” she replied as she handed Aberes a dress. “And we all know what haunts the castle, well, the entire city, when Hetammu and his demons are coming. Like a hail cloud was coming.”
“This time it shall be a hail of stones” she thought miserably and then added aloud, “Hetammu has already arrived, so either he’s left his gang near Beer-Sheba and soon he shall go back there or they shall follow him here. Last autumn they spent over a month in the city. Many families are still mourning.”
The servant shuddered and said with a fearful voice,
“I saw the Amalek rush after Gemre. But I don’t know if they met before the king’s departure.”
Aberes bit her lips and her pulse quickened suddenly.
“I heard him last night but no word to anyone about it, do you understand?!” she looked tensely at Padriya. “It may be a short visit an soon he shall be gone but I doubt that. Let me go and eat something. I may feel better then.”
Padriya sighed and followed Aberes.
He felt he had to see him immediately before it was too late. He stood up before he’d finished his meal and ran out of the chamber. A few monks followed him with their eyes and then looked at each other meaningfully—a “desert devil”, for them he shall always be one.
The command was still resounding in his mind, like it reverberated furiously off the hills surrounding Nunkur. He sensed them around, more numerous than usual, so unfailingly the time for action was coming. How he longed for it to go as planned, instead of being thwarted unendingly, impeded on every step by some petty unexpected obstacles.
A few invisible shapes were moving ahead and behind him. The others were still quarter a mile away. They were surrounding the target that was making his way towards the gate of the castle. They were trying to influence his thoughts and make them flow peacefully, so that the more and more submissive mind could be ready to take the seed, like fertile soil. But again something was thwarting them. Despite the intense efforts the man was still disturbed. His thoughts were running towards an urgent task, insensitive to the messengers’ suggestions. Such lack of effectiveness could mean only one thing.
The commander’s quick thought was received by the other demons from the host. Drunk with fury they left the target and started looking around vigilantly. The Adversary had either arrived there before them and distributed His troops or They were just approaching like a white avalanche. Instinctively, the demons waited for a sudden blaze that had always accompanied the Adversaries’ appearance, painful and paralyzing. Sometimes that one short moment of shock proved decisive.
“Sebaoth, the host of the One-Who-Is! I can sense Them!” quick words-thoughts, then a rush of others followed. The evil beings were flinging accusations at each others like thunderbolts.
“Where are our guards?” The pitch-black shadows roared and tossed around the man, who was just stepping onto the square in front of the castle. “Those blind fools should have let us know immediately and counteract!”
The demons from the detachment were mere legionaries, thus unaccustomed to use the cool, superior tone of the hellish aristocracy, who despised primitive offends and swearwords. The upper classes were fond of sophisticated euphemisms, which cut deeper than fiery swords. They took delight in the art of biting criticism, the art of lawful derision, the art perfected for countless centuries. If aimed at the foe with right force and at the right moment, it was able ruin a lot of careers in the courts of the satanic duchy. Rank-and-file demons, on the other hand, loathed that pathetic rhetoric and chose to use more direct means of expression. Harsh curses and offences proved more useful especially at the moments of failures, when one had to defend himself against accusations. Then it was most important to achieve an instant effect in the eyes of the comrades.
“We didn’t notice them, so shut your ugly mouths!” The guardsmen tried to mask the fury that vibrated in their voices. “They haven’t been seen for a long time here.”
“You lousy liars! For weeks something’s been thwarting our plans. It must have been Them from the start.” They spat with concentrated hatred at the very thought of the Adversary. They resembled furious hornets. “The Host always appears out of nowhere, especially at such important tasks so you should have sensed Their presence from dozens of miles away!”
“But it’s you who are allegedly that famous special task force!” The guardsmen were striking back as they warped their jaws in hateful grimaces. “The elitist detachment of damned losers! That’s what you are!”
“Silence!” roared the captain and paralyzed the demons using all the authority he’d been given. The subordinates went silent, suddenly lost for words like pounded with a mallet. With satisfaction he observed their helpless fury. Reprimanded with his power they found themselves unable to make a slightest movement, they only stared at him hatefully, while he prolonged that torture of idleness, making them keep quiet and wait until he graciously spoke. “That game can still be won. Has Kab-Seqnu departed from Gaza yet?”
The captain had at last released the grip and allowed them to speak.
“We’re still waiting for the news” the fury was slowly subsiding in their voices. Again they focused on the task. “He should be on his way, of course under escort. He responded to our suggestions seriously and became suspicious.”
“Perfect. Make sure He arrives here before the end of the preparations, and thus make our man return to the castle very late…” He cast a venomous look at the man but he dared not approach him, deterred by the power of the Host shielding him. They must have been very near, he sensed that. “We must make sure he’s be too tired and furious to speak to her. And for days to come it shall only be worse. But don’t you spoil anything now!”
Hetammu had an impression that something was going wrong but now again he focused on the task. He quickened his pace as he walked across the monastery’s large yard towards the stables built into the outside wall. Through the open gate of the stable a stable-boy noticed Hetammu appear in the side door of the main building that lead to the yard straight from the kitchen and the dining-hall. He was walking with a brisk pace, almost ran, bent slightly. He was looking around vigilantly like he sensed a faint scent of prey hidden somewhere outside the walls of the monastery. He resembled a desert predator on hunt and despite his age of almost fifty he looked twenty years younger. He emanated with stamina and energy. But the slim silhouette masked a body was tough and muscular, hidden underneath the dark robes. Every muscle or sinew was ready to execute an order quickly and determinedly. He was like a steel spring wound up to the limits.
The desert jackal Hetammu set off for a hunt, and the servant knew such pose and was aware of the consequences if he happened to be slack in executing his commands. So he cast the brush and started to put on a thick blanket on the back of a pitch-black mare called Serpeth. Hetammu dashed inside, pushed the servant away and fastened the last straps himself. Then he jump-mounted the horse and made a short whistle. The steed rushed out of the stable almost as fast as their invisible guardians.
Hetammu saw Gemre mid-way from the castle. He hit Serpeth’s sides with his heels to catch up with the riders as fast as possible. Khazanu was just riding passed the gate ahead of a hundred soldiers. The king was saying something vehemently to the commander of a hundred, who was riding by his side. He almost shouted. Hetammu couldn’t hear the words but from Gemre’s face and gesticulation he understood they were in a hurry and the king was in a bad mood.
“Damned homage” he said to himself as he rushed towards the street that led towards the north highway. “Soon Nebmaatre won’t dare send even the whole army to get our wealth. Yahaaa!” The horse quickened even more.
When at last he caught up with the two men riding in the front, he slowed down so violently that both Gemre’s and the commander’s horses got startled. The men eyed him down with angry looks.
“I salute you, king of Kiriath-Sepher!” the salutation wasn’t faked. Deep in his heart Hetammu still liked his peer. “I’m glad I managed to meet you, Gemre. We must talk.”
“I greet you, Hetammu. I don’t find the time very fortunate to talk.” His tone sounded annoyed. “Today we have to send that damned duty. All day wasted. I trust that only one day, if the gods are gracious. But when the rabišu arrives and starts sniffing around to find quarrels in a straw, it shall all take much longer. And the festival of Anath is in three days’ time. So let me go about my business and if you wish, you can visit me tomorrow. But next week is even better! So go your way, unless it’s something very urgent.”
Hetammu, still undiscouraged, grinned secretly as he looked at Gemre, who was looking ahead with a grim face.
“As you wish, my lord.” He replied with faked indifference and turning his horse he said nonchalantly. “Our old magus must be exaggerating his worries. We can talk about that even after the festival.”
“Ullisukmi?” Gemre frowned at him and twisted the reins around his hands harder. He always did that whenever he was worried. Hetammu noticed that and grinned ugly. The horse also sensed the rider’s disturbance and threw his head. “Wait, Hetammu! What matter can make the great master so worried?”
“I’d prefer to talk without witnesses” he said with a hushed voice and looked meaningfully at the commander riding on the other side, so the king told the man to go to the back of the column.
They had some free space around and a little time to talk. They were headed for Nun-Hatti—a village located almost two miles away from the city, in the north of the valley Nunkur. Every year it was the place where the king met the chiefs of villages and settlements subject to the king of Kiriath-Sepher as well as supervisors of a few mines of gold, copper and precious stones spread across the whole mountainous area, together with elders of the major houses. They all brought the declared amounts of agricultural produce and treasures of the land to be meticulously counted by accountants and chiefs in the king’s presence. As early as in the spring, an official letter had been sent to the pharaoh, in which it was solemnly declared that in that year the city would again be able to meet the required amounts of duty to be sent to Egypt, as the expected crops were rather abundant. The gods hadn’t failed and had blessed Kiriath-Sepher again.
It was late summer. The grain had been stored in barns for a few months now, fruit harvest was almost finishing. Also first olives were picked and a lot of superb quality oil was pressed, which was very valued in the west, so was the ruby-colored wine maturing in gigantic tubs. Sheep and horned cattle were good-looking like every year and even after the shipment of a few herds to Gaza more than enough of them would be left. The seaside Egyptian garrison was rather numerous, because that city, like Jaffa, which was located forty miles away, was an important administrative center, thus the vassals had the duty to cater for their needs.
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