Hear Oh People
In the year when the priest Hahmahn died, the breath of El Shaddai blew forth to cleanse the Land and the Heart with word and fire. Bearing with it the sweet fragrance of kinnaman, the potent spice of cedar and the sweet balsam of Bashan it fell upon El Shaddu, in the District of Argob. Bringing its sweet perfume to fling open the shutters of a room like any other, in an inn like any other, it fell with fresh anointing upon the servant of El who lay dreaming of auspicious things.
He woke with a start. Which is to say, the sun finally edged its way far enough past noon to lance his face with a nauseating glare. Hahniel groaned and covered his forehead with an arm to protect his eyes from the intruding light, but that only made his face hotter and did little to block the sun beams, which were becoming more intensely urgent by the minute. Rolling onto his stomach did little to help either, since this put his face in direct contact with the musty mattress and his mustier cloak. It was all too reminiscent of a boyhood spent chasing goats and watering camels in the blazing sun.
After a few minutes of twisting, it became obvious that he was going to get no more rest. This conclusion was punctuated by the sharp sting of an insect bite between his eyebrows. He rolled to his feet with another, louder groan and an even louder fart. His clothes were scattered about the tiny chamber. Despite the searing sunlight pouring in through the open window, he was inclined to let himself fall back into the bugridden mattress. But the reek of the chamber pot under his bed began to make him nauseous.
His mother had always said to say he would never have a pot to piss in. This was her unsubtle way of insisting he would never be a rich herdsman or great warrior. His mother had read to him from the Sefer Khayim every night. Daughter of a wizard and wife of the Adonai-Hadebir –which is to say the Lord of the Temple– she was steeped in the mysteries of the faith. His father, Yerulon, had been cruelly murdered by thugs in the employ of the king, and his mother had made it clear that he’d never have his birthright while his uncle, the king, remained in power.
She’d been partly right. It wasn’t his pot, it came with the room, though it certainly did cost a king’s ransom. The city, Bayt El Shaddu, had grown from a refugee camp where many Kanaani had fled to escape the oppression of the No-Amuni king. It was short on creature comforts and, rare though they were, they cost dearly.
He assembled his hodgepodge of clothing, scavenged from various rubbish bins and corpses, then carefully washed his face and hands in a basin set on the window ledge for that express purpose. Lastly, he took an ewer of fresh ointment, scented with kinnaman and kinehvos. This he sparingly poured over his tousled hair. From a pouch on his belt, he took a matching bronze comb and razor. They were delicately cast and bore decorative, abstract scroll work. He used the comb to carefully straiten his hair and remove any soil or insects he might have acquired during his repose in the dubious bed. Then he toweled his neck and hair dry, before styling it with the same comb. He used the razor to trim his mustache, careful not to cut the corners of his beard.
After he had carefully packed most of his few belongings, he pulled his most prized possession from under the filthy mattress. This was a staff carved from the branch of a pistachio tree and shod in bronze. Either end had a cap made of the hardest forged bronze and the length of the staff was clad in parallel rods of rare iron. The Iron had turned black with age and corrosion and the bronze had likewise become a dull black-green like algae in a pond. Weapons were not allowed in Bayt El Shaddu, unless you were a guardsman. But the staff was corroded enough to attract little attention and staves were the constant companion of the desert herdsman. It attracted little notice, but left him less naked and longing for the haft of a spear.
Still, he was, in fact, naked. His head remained uncovered. He picked up his tiara and settled it on his head, saying a silent prayer. Spirits of El my lord and master, preserve me and guide my steps this day. May the Serpents who soar above your holy throne be my guides and my salvation. For you are Divinity to Divine Beings and Prince of Princes and so may it ever be. So may it ever be.
The tiara consisted of a braided band of horse hair studded with copper rivets. From this hung an expensive hood of light black karpesh, covering his head and neck. It hung to his shoulders like the hair of a woman, with “wings” that draped to his chest in front. These could be crossed over his face and secured when operating a chariot or caught in a desert storm. His face was covered in a sheer veil of transparent organza, also died black.
A proper tiara was his only indulgence. The rest of his clothing might be ready to fall from his body, but he would live and die wearing a proper tiara. Ironically, his dramatic headgear, that would have made him conspicuous anywhere else, was unremarkable in the bosom of El Shaddu. Nearly every citizen of El Shaddu wore some form of headdress designed to hide the features. No one would choose life in El Shaddu if he had no reason to hide his face and his past.
Satisfied that his head was decently covered, he left the room and climbed to the roof of the small inn. The hostess was busily shoveling bread from a brick oven and several patrons were lounging about sipping thin sour wine or beer. Here the summer heat was scorching and the smell of bread reminded him of his own excess with beer the night before.
Beer is the water of conflict and wine is the sea of shame. Reciting the proverb mentally did nothing to alleviate the throbbing in his temples. He flicked his fingers and wiggled his arm sinuously like a houri dancing for her supper. Instantly, a bloom of blue white flame sprang up around his fingers, barely visible in the bright morning sun. His gift of miracles seemed more like a heavy curse than blessing sometimes.
He sighed and clenched his fist causing the flames to flare, then extinguish, lest unwanted eyes see them. He glanced around the roof and saw that he hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed. The hostess was eying him warily like a snake watching a mongoose for sign of attack. She had seen something of his fire but his hand no longer shone and his face, hidden deeply in the folds of his tiara, would soon lose its glow. After a frozen minute in tableau she suddenly remembered the rapidly cooling loaf on her spade and turned back to the oven with a muttered curse and a pagan sign against evil.
He chose to ignore the added insult. The Assuri had been trickling through El Shaddu on their way to Yevus for hundreds of years and their witchcraft had left a mark on the poor folk who traded with them. Occasionally, you saw a superstitious fool wearing a cast silver flame of Uhuru Mazda, or iron claw of Ahriman. Worst of all were the occasional prayers to Antsu the moon — which caused a wave of nausea to pass through him as the unclean spirit of the fallen one attended these prayers and conflicted with the Spirit of the Living Creator within himself.
It grated that an aspect of the enemy was worshiped as the Destroyer of Worlds. As he turned back to the street below, he hunched his shoulders and muttered, “All glory to the Name!” But he couldn’t resist a scornful snarl for the foolish woman. If she knew who she had guested, she would have pleaded on hands and knees for having tainted the air with her superstitions and witchery. He knew life in Shaddu had hardened him but you couldn’t survive if you bled for every lost lamb.
As he scanned the street, he saw a gleam of white in the stoop of the house across the street. The light had betrayed the skulker who watched his house. It would seem someone was wiser than his hosts, or perhaps the lord of the house was smarter than his drudge of a wife. He would have to move to another inn, and hope that the skulker gave up. The only valuable thing he owned was his own hide. Since the land had fallen to the lies of Ahmorah, even that was seldom sought after, except as a trophy. But the occasional thief still imagined he might be hording a secret cache of gems and baubles. Best to avoid confrontation altogether.
He took one last look at the street and then turned toward the steep stair ladder. As he passed, the mean-eyed hostess continued to glare. If looks could kill, an Ahripekh would have long since severed his spine. He moved with his usual stealth, attracting as little attention as possible as he climbed down the steps to the ground floor. This was devoted to a common room where patrons ate meals and drank during the day and slept at night when the doors were barred. The price of a beer or mixed drink was sufficient to pay for a spot in the old rushes covering the stone floor, at least till the doors were unbarred and the innkeeper propelled you into the street.
He stepped into the shadows and leaned against a door post, borrowing a page from the book of the spy across the street. He watched quietly. One thing he knew was how to keep still. The training he had received in Karkhemesh had been brutal, but it had earned him the place he’d wanted in the caravans of the Spice Road. Once he had even traveled the Silk Road Eastward from the Spice Markets. But the presence of the Enemy was strong there, and he had soon tired of the oppressive weight. He’d turned back by trading posts with a brother of the order, who was attached to a passing caravan returning to the western Spice Markets. The brother Ashashi had wished to hurry on to the land of the Han and retrieve a bride he had bargained for. The thought of traveling so deeply into the miasma of the eastern lands still caused him to shudder.
As he watched the street, his quarry peeped around the corner, exposing his position. Most of the local clothing was dyed blue or black to save money. The sun bleached that clothing faster than soil and sweat could darken it, but the war generally ended in a stalemate where the fabric disintegrated before it could lighten past a dull grey.
The lurker quickly pulled back, but that short exposure made it possible to distinguish his silhouette from the surrounding shadows. As Hahniel gathered himself to step out into the sunlight, a group of women approached, chattering. The lurker seemed to melt deeper than ever into the shadow as they passed; a wise precaution that he chose to emulate. This was not the sort of street where women generally traveled in small groups or without guards.
As the women passed on by, he spotted their guards following. They were two exceptionally well muscled men, wearing a hodge podge of scarce armor and carrying sharpened poles as spears. It would have been an impressive display of might for the city of El Shaddu, if the guards hadn’t spoiled it by missing the presence of both his watcher and himself, and by using their imitation spears as walking staves. As they passed him, one of the guards turned and blew his nose so that the output landed precisely between his feet. It fell on the line marking the end of the shadow he was hiding in, so that the shadow cut a sharp line through the gobbet. He looked up trying to meet the guard’s eyes, yet the guard swept his hiding place thoroughly without ever looking directly at him and without ever seeming to work at avoiding him. He re-estimated the guards. Perhaps they weren’t useless after all.
As the guard passed on, another figure dashed to the side to make way for the crowd of women and didn’t reappear until they had passed her. She appeared to be alone and looked anxiously up the street in his direction, as if checking for any other processions or perhaps thieves. She took another moment to straiten her shabby clothes, then began scurrying along after the crowd that had just passed, careful not to overtake them.
As she turned her back toward him, another lurker melted out of the shadows and began following the lone woman. It seemed the watchers might not be there for him today after all. He fought with himself for a moment, but wisdom lost the battle and he strode out into the street. As he approached, intentionally clacking his staff on the pavement, the stalker glanced over his shoulder and grimaced. At the next door, however, the figure turned in as if ready to knock and be admitted. With a snarl of his own Hahniel swept past the lurker in the doorway and barreled into the lone woman, knocking her parcel from her hand and dropping his staff with a great deal of racket.
The woman got up with a curse and began to berate him, till she saw his tiara. This close his face was visible, but the tiara was intended to instill fear more than anonymity and it did its work well. Her own face was obscured by a scarf that was wrapped to form a hood and veil. But her eyes widened with fear and darted about as if looking for rescue from him. If she cried out or resisted, his attempt to help her would be wasted. He began to apologize profusely and pretended to help her with her parcel, while he eyed the stalker. His first watcher was nowhere in sight, but the woman’s assailant was caught in the open and was forced to saunter on by with a look of promised murder, disappearing around the corner of a cross street.
The woman was getting annoyed by his “help” so he retrieved his staff and, with a last apology, continued on after the lurker. He passed a narrow alley cloaked in deep shadows but saw nothing moving, so he continued toward the corner where the woman’s lurker had turned. He intended to go the other way and keep going till he’d found a new inn with much less excitement, and hopefully, cleaner mattresses. As he reached the corner, he paused for a last look at the street that had been his home for the last five years. Sounds of a struggle drew his eyes like magnets. He saw the woman, being dragged into the alley by his first watcher. He growled in frustration and self disgust. It was careless of him to have lost track of a potential assailant, even one who obviously had no interest in him.
The woman’s struggles didn’t seem to attract any attention from the occupants of the nearly deserted streets. He knew he should continue on and give as little attention as the other fine citizens. No one was going to help her. He had already begun to think of the assailant as his, so with a muttered blessing he turned and ran back to the mouth of the alley. The woman was lying on her back with her skirts pulled over her head, baring her shapely body and firm hips. She was screaming incoherently, while lying perfectly still because the tip of the assailant’s knife pressed against her throat through the muffling fabric of her skirts. Her shift had been torn loose and discarded beside her. The assailant was fumbling with the ties on his wide trousers with obvious intention.
Without thinking, Hahniel silently rushed forward on the balls of his feet, falling into the familiar rhythms of the sword form Fire. Raising his staff, he swung two handed, ending with an overhand jerk, pushing with his right hand pulling with his left so that the last few inches of his iron shod staff connected with the temple of the assailant with the speed of a galloping horse. As he swept on past, the crunch of skull bone and wet thud that accompanied it were drowned by the redoubled screams and curses of the woman, as the body collapsed across her like a sack of onions. She quickly scrambled out from under the corpse, grabbing the knife and turning on him with her teeth bared in a rictus of fury and fear.
He paused a moment, then changed his grip to that of a man holding a walking stick instead of a headsman wielding an ahripekh. Holding one hand out in a placating motion, he began to inch toward the woman, speaking what he hoped were soothing words. His blood was boiling and his tongue prickled with the lightening and fire that always accompanied conflict. Another sort of fire burned in his chest, wanting to leap along the staff and strike the knife from the woman’s hand. He resisted both the urge and the inner voice that told him he should disarm her and punish her for the effrontery of raising a weapon against him. She had come close to losing her life and more at the hands of a vicious assailant. It was understandable that she be afraid. As he watched her bare breast, slick with sweat, heave with violent panting, he was very determined to be understanding and not frighten her any further.
A few strides brought him within reach of her, but she still held the knife like she knew how to use it. He decided he would have to disarm the woman after all, for her safety as well as his own. He adjusted his grip, two handed again so he could knock the knife from her hand, when the world virtually exploded in a concussion. He found himself suddenly sprawled on the ground, feeling of the back of his head. His vision was blurred and darkness was creeping into the edge of his awareness.
Hahniel heard a woman’s voice saying, “You fool! Don’t kill him.”
A man’s voice came from behind, “He killed Nahum readily enough.”
He turned his head, confused that his left leg wasn’t cooperating and looked behind him. Something he couldn’t quite place was familiar about the man standing there. He tried to puzzle it out as the woman said, “I don’t care two minot about Nahum. That fool was going to go through with the rape. Our friend here really is my hero, even if he did deliver himself neatly into our hands. Now get him bound and gagged so we can get out of this filthy alley. We need him alive.”
The man paused staring sullenly down at him, then finally shrugged. “You have been teasing Nahum for weeks, and you know he was here to avoid death for raping two women in Yerikho. Still, I suppose the pig got what he deserved.” The man sighed and his posture shifted from menace to resignation. In that moment, as consciousness finally escaped, Hahniel saw the man’s face clearly. It was the second assailant, the one he’d thought was stalking the woman. How foolish he’d been. He’d forgotten the first rule of El Shaddu. No one is innocent. It had all been a trap and he’d fallen for it like a sheep to slaughter. If he never woke up, it was no more than he deserved for stupidity.