Chapter Forty-One – Calm Before the Storm
“Khan,” Seti began.
“What is it?”
“Something’s bothered me since we first came to Gilgama,” Seti continued, swinging the bag containing Ranek across his shoulder.
“Only one?” Max interrupted narrowly sidestepping Seti’s kick to his shins and laughing as the brothers began their journey east to the Shatt–al–Gharraf and south-east to Ur.
“Why didn’t Shu destroy us? She could have done so at any time; I don’t understand it,” Seti said, shaking his head and frowning.
Khan answered Seti’s question as he looked his troubled brother in the eyes. “Because she’s like a cat playing with a mouse. She likes to wound her prey, let it crawl away then strike again, wounding it a little more each time. Killing outright is too quick for her! Sporting with her helpless prey is more entertaining. That she-devil coldly stood by on the sand dune, content to let her berserkers slowly slaughter all our brothers and sisters!” he growled, still angered by the senseless carnage.
“But I still don’t understand why she didn’t finish us when Akhen challenged her,” Seti replied. “She’s far more powerful than we are. She could have simply used the red crystal at any time to destroy us. She could have blown the planet apart with Kalki instead of landing here. Why didn’t she?”
“Who knows how her evil, twisted mind works,” Akhen roared. “There’ll be time to argue about these things after she’s dead!” They drew near to Qal-at-Sukkar, and turned south to follow the river towards Ur. By nightfall, they camped in the ruins of Ash-Shatrah, still blackened from the devastating battle months earlier.
By the light of a small fire, they made their final preparations for the deadly encounter with Shu. Silence reigned over their camp. No more jokes, insults, or smart comments were passed between them as they solemnly applied ancient frightening designs to their bodies, using their fingers as brushes dipped in a mix of goat’s blood and soot, enhancing their fearsome berserker frames, turning themselves into gruesome black and grey apparitions.
Before dawn, Seti put his culinary skills to work one final time, completing the last steps laid down in the ancient weapon’s instructions. Picking up the quiver of arrows and the bag containing Ranek, he silently withdrew and went to a ruined house at the southern edge of the old town. Building a fire, he took a broken clay pot from the wreckage of the house and placed it beside the stones surrounding the fire. Turning to the eastern horizon Seti murmured an incantation in the ancient tongue of the Sumerian’s ancestors, while he opened the bag and pulled the terrified Khaz out by his neck. Drawing his sword, Seti ritually put Ranek to death according to the ancient rights he recited. Picking up the clay pot, he drained Ranek’s body of all its fluids and placed the pot to simmer near the edge of the glowing embers before throwing me dead cousin onto the fire. Adding crushed petals of certain desert plants to the mix in the pot, he continued reciting the incantation. From time to time, he stirred the foul liquid as it simmered gently. When the concoction was ready, he took each arrow and dipped its barbed razor sharp Nazpa arrowhead into the sticky residue. Careful not to touch it, he put the prepared arrow aside to dry close to the fire. When he had coated all the arrowheads he recited the final words of the ancient incantation and placed the arrows carefully back in the quiver.
When the dust settled from Seti’s retreating feet a black desert scorpion stopped for a brief moment on a broken clay tablet, partially covered by sand on the ground beside the fire. It flexed its poison barbed tail before scuttling off into the space between the stones surrounding the dying embers, ahead of the sun’s rays that slowly crept across the ground driving the last remaining shadows of night away. In the sunlight, the rough hieroglyphs on the discarded clay tablet were illuminated. At the centre of the tablet, surrounded by the words of the incantation, was a small area listing the ingredients for the recipe of the deadly cocktail that Seti had used to coat the arrows. At the top of the base-relief carved list, a hieroglyph crudely representing the principal ingredient stared out from the sun-baked clay. Even the Sumerian’s ancestors had encountered us, but at least they had found a good use for the loathsome creatures we had become…
The six berserker brothers ate a simple breakfast of dates and unleavened bread washed down with water from the river. Akhen used his mighty sword to draw a map in the sand showing Ur and the surrounding region. He gave his brothers their final orders then after embracing each in turn, he slung the quiver and bow over his shoulder hidden beneath his red crystal covered shield, and sheathed his sword. Turning one last time, he waved as he headed south-east towards As-Samawah. Arming themselves, the brothers watched him effortlessly crossing the desert until he disappeared over the horizon, and then they turned south following the river through vast reed covered marshes.
When they finally arrived in An-Nasiriyah, once again they looked towards the ancient ruins of Ur, patiently waiting for Akhen’s signal to attack. (Tuluk, Lek, and Brak hid in the wreckage of the battleground and watched.)
Shu and the berserkers who made up her personal guard sensed danger in the air. Despite their fearsome strength and frenzied state, they were uneasy. Shu shivered, despite the heat from the sun. Beads of sweat ran down her flawlessly beautiful body smudging the henna coloured designs on her skin and staining the white silk of her thin loincloth and cape in a muddy brown colour. She unconsciously fingered the red crystal in its filigree cage between her breasts. Her heart pounded so loudly that the sound in her ears of blood coursing through her veins deafened her. Her breathing increased as the tension felt by her and her guards mounted. She drew her sword and held her shield in readiness. The guards closed ranks around her, forming a wall with their swords at the ready.
Shu’s stallion reared up on its back legs, his front legs striking at an unseen enemy, his ears pricked and searching for sounds. His nostrils flared. The whites of his eyes showed his overwhelming fear. With one last tug of his strong neck the rope around it finally parted as he galloped like the wind towards the south, his tail and mane flying as he rapidly disappeared into the emptiness of the desert.
Flies and other tiny biting insects danced around the dust devils kicked up by the gentle desert winds of the morning. Marsh dwelling birds rose into the expanse of blue sky, twisting in lazy clouds above the scene before landing once more to feed on small freshwater fish and crustaceans along the marshy river shallows. Small herds of goats nibbled at fresh green shoots in the tough grass along the edge of the swampy reed beds. Camels wandered in search of figs that had fallen to the ground, dried and turned brown by the sun’s heat.
Then, all took fright and fled. A sound more terrible than the combined voices of the six million frenzied berserkers of Shu’s former army split asunder the tranquillity of the peaceful scene, filling the air with the violent reverberation of a thousand thunderclaps. Akhen’s spine tingling, terrifying voice echoed around ancient Ur, bouncing off the ruins in massive bone jarring, ear splitting shock waves. Shu’s eyes opened wide in sheer terror. Khan, Max, Seti, Akkad, and Besal slowly moved towards Ur. With their shields and swords glinting in the sun they once again answered Akhen’s call to arms with their own frenzied berserker war cries.
Next time – Chapter Forty-Two