Chapter Fifty-Four – Marsaxlokk
Max’ journey was full of hazards. He had to backtrack many times on his exploration of the tunnel system. Several times, he had nearly died from falls near rivers of lava, and other unseen traps. As he marked the safe route along the way, he discovered ruined ancient stone circles and old roads from another time, buried beneath the ocean floor. It was one of the latter which finally led him back to the surface.
Nearly three weeks after they returned to the depths below the island, and on the last night before they reached the safety of the landmass, Max and his young companions made camp inside the last of the stone Neolithic temples hidden beneath the seabed. Its ancient circle of megaliths, topped with horizontal stones, witnessed many strange sacrificial ceremonies over the seven thousand years since they were first dragged to their final positions, and placed upright to form the religious circle.
At one end of the stone circle, in a niche protected by a stone lintel from the rocks above, was a small alter decorated with carved depictions of running goats and ancient mountain sheep along its bottom. Just above the line of carvings, a small jagged piece of carved stone jutted out. When Max pulled it away, revealing the recess it protected, he found an obsidian knife that had been used to bring good fortune and abundant crops through sacrifices to the long forgotten people’s gods.
“I wonder who the people were. Were they farmers or cannibals, like my mother’s tribe?” Talia asked, as they looked at the knife. Its razor sharp edge reflected the light from the glow worms on the cave walls and ceiling above, as she turned it over in her hands.
“Whoever they were, they ate well – look!” Goran pointed to a tangled pile of bones caught in a deep water worn gully in another cave below the circle. Skulls of pygmy elephants, dwarf hippopotami, and deer lay in the tangle of sheep and goat bones, piled up by water from flash floods.
“I don’t think they ate these animals,” Max suggested, as they searched through the pile. “More than likely, these creatures were probably trapped when they fell from above and drowned. I read somewhere a long time ago, about a land bridge between Europe and Africa, thousands of years before the megalith builders arrived, and before the first great flood of biblical times, when the world was inundated. I think these bones belong to that time, long before men erected these stone circles.”
The next day they left the circle behind and followed Max along the long forgotten stone road. Its surface was scarred by deep ruts, as if many loads had been dragged along it on sledges or carts over the countless centuries of occupation. The stone road gradually ascended from the depths as they drew nearer to the southern landmass. “Not far now,” Max announced cheerfully, as the road climbed at a steeper angle. Goran and Talia were helping Shaila over a boulder that partially blocked the ancient thoroughfare when they heard Tihke running towards them, shouting and waving his arms, frantically trying to get their attention. Moments later, they felt a powerful blast of air coming from Tihke’s direction.
“Run, run for your lives! The sea’s broken through, we’ll all drown!” Tihke yelled, as he scrambled over the rock, dragging Shaila with him. The pressure of the trapped air being forced along the tunnel by the wall of seawater, knocked them down many times as they frantically ran along the remaining few meters of the tunnel. Max scrambled up and out of the hole, then turned to grab Talia’s wrist as Goran lifted her up. Tihke and Goran threw Shaila up to Max before frantically scrambling out themselves, moments before a geyser of seawater erupted out of the hole, drenching them in its foaming fury.They lay exhausted, watching the water slowly retreat, as the sea found a new level. The way back to Sicily was cut off forever.
Tihke reflected on what had just happened. He had hung back, fascinated by the hundreds of stone tools lying along the way, left as offerings, or discarded as useless by their owners so long ago. As Tihke slowly followed the others, his eyes caught the dull reflection of the eerie light on a flint arrowhead in the low ceiling of the tunnel. Curiosity overcame him when, just like his father Seti who still loved collecting shiny things, he set himself the task of retrieving it as a memento of their travels. The arrowhead was firmly embedded in the ancient sedimentary layers of seabed that made up the rocky surrounding walls and ceiling of the tunnel.
Tihke tried to jump up to grab the arrowhead without success, slicing his fingers on its sharp edges in the process. So he decided to build a small pile of rocks to help him retrieve it. As he was dragging the last piece of rock over to the pile, he felt water steadily dripping on his head and shoulders from where the arrowhead stubbornly remained. When he had tried to grab it, somehow he had loosened the whole area and it began to collapse, narrowly missing him as hundreds of tons of rock, and millions of tonnes of seawater, rapidly filled the space, forced down by the tremendous pressure from above. Now, as they all sat in the fresh air, gasping for breath, watching the seawater in the hole recede, Tihke quietly tucked the arrowhead into his loincloth, not daring to tell them they had all nearly died because of his stupid curiosity.
Their hurried exit from the dangerous subterranean system beneath the Mediterranean Ocean had brought them out into the ruins of what had once been the town of Zebbug on the northern coast of Gozo, the northernmost island of the former Maltese group. More ancient eroded stone circles were dotted across the landscape. And in some places, where the rock lay exposed, cart tracks like the ones back in the tunnel criss-crossed the exposed rocky ground.
The new southern landmass consisted of the three islands of Gozo, Comino, and Malta itself, expanding to include the Pelagian islands of Linosa and Lampedusa to the south west. To the north west it stretched to Pantalleria, and finally to the east across the old Medina bank, forming the area supposed by some to have been the mythical island of Atlantis in ancient times. For the next few months, the three men made a home for the group, while they waited for the birth of the two babies growing inside the protection of their mothers’ wombs.
Talia was the first to go into labour, assisted by Shaila and Goran, delivering a beautiful baby girl who she named Sefani. Sefani had her father’s olive complexion and her head was crowned with fine blond hair. She had intense hazel-green eyes like her mother. A few weeks after Sefani arrived, baby Melos lay crying in his mother’s arms, as Tihke proudly looked at his son for the first time. Melos was dark-haired like his grandfather Seti, with deep brown eyes, a berserker’s dark complexion, and cursed with a berserker’s temper.
Max was not left out of the happy events; both sets of parents asked him to be godfather, teacher, and protector of their children. For the next three years, the little group lived in peace in the hills of central Gozo, above its ancient former capital Victoria. It was the perfect setting for two young children to grow up in safety.
Sefani’s sweet nature and her blond good looks, won the hearts of everyone except for Melos. He was an angry little boy, always taxing his parents with his fits of uncontrollable temper and childish cruelty towards Sefani, but was loved just the same. The only adult he ever took notice of was Max. The pair had struck up a friendship when Max took young Melos on hunting and fishing expeditions around Gozo. They spent hours together staring across the swampland between the former islands of Gozo and Comino, towards Malta and beyond, wondering what lay over the hills in the distance. The whole area had been below the sea at one time, forming a channel separating the three islands.
Melos loathed his father Tihke for some reason. Not even Max could find out why. So when Max informed the others that he wanted to take Melos with him to explore the land to the south, their mixed feelings over his proposal were naturally influenced by Shaila’s concerns for the safety of her son. She knew Melos would be in good hands and Max’s steadying influence over him hopefully would dull his young temper. Perhaps it would be the making of him. When Shaila stood with the others on the edge of the marsh, waving a tearful goodbye, Tihke held her gently in his arms to comfort her as she sobbed her farewell. Little Sefani clung lovingly to Shaila’s leg trying to make up for her aunt’s loss, but at the same time she was glad that Melos was going away. He had made her cry many times in the past when they played their children’s games together. Now that he was leaving, she had two mothers and two fathers all to herself. She would miss the hugs and kisses from her darling uncle Max. Sefani stood beside Shaila sticking her tongue out in defiance at the retreating figure of her tormentor seated on uncle Max’s broad shoulders, as they made their way across the treacherous marshland towards Comino on the first leg of their adventure together, wishing she was going instead.
Max tucked a rough warm blanket around the tiny sleeping form of Melos and stirred the embers of the fire into life, exhausted by the journey from Comino and Melos’ incessant chatter and questions. The northernmost tip of Malta is a long ridge running east-west. From where they camped for the night, just below the southern side of the old ridge road, Max could make out the shape of the valley, which had once been Mellieha bay, on the eastern coast below, where he sat eating the remains of the rabbit they had caught, illuminated by the moonlight.
Over the seven thousand years of its continuous occupation, Malta had been invaded many times. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Greeks, Normans; they all came. The early Christian, St Paul, was said to have come there on a visit sometime in the first century AD. During the middle ages, Muslim invaders arrived from the northern shores of Africa, spreading their influence. Soldiers from the crusades in the guise of knights of the Order of St John were finally allowed to settle there, following a decree by the pope, allowing them a home, providing protection for the Maltese, and offering their services as hospitalers according to the edicts of their newly formed religious order. Over the years many other people, like the Spanish and Italians, came from Europe making Malta their home at one time or another, occupying this ancient land, leaving behind traces of their time spent there in the many different examples of architecture, and the exotic mix of Malta’s warm people.
All this was sadly now gone since the second great flood, when the Nephile used their deadliest weapon to rid the world of the Drana invasion, almost nine hundred years ago, and the world had once again been turned on its head, creating the new landmasses, where before, there had been shallow seas and a small cluster of islands.
Max sat in the moonlight, looking south across the ancient rolling hills towards a faint glow in the sky. He began to question his decision to bring young Melos along. Perhaps they weren’t alone after all. Perhaps there were more berserkers. The next morning, after they had both eaten, Melos began excitedly asking Max more questions as they walked south. He was fascinated by the migratory birds flying overhead in great numbers, heading north from their winter feeding grounds in the ancient African continent. At one time they were shot for sport by Malta’s inhabitants, but now they flew without fear on their way north to their nesting sites to bring young into the world, increasing their numbers and repeating the endless cycle of migratory renewal. As early evening approached, Melos and Max stopped on the eastern coast, near to where the town of Bugibba had once stood on the windswept shores of St Paul’s bay. “Uncle Max, can we go for a swim?” Melos pleaded.
Max welcomed the interruption to collecting wood for their camp-fire, and together they paddled and played for an hour, until hunger finally overtook them. Max had taught Melos how to fish, and their bellies were now full from the boy’s triumphant success, as they sat by the fire in the shelter of the rocky foreshore. Melos chatted incessantly about nothing in particular until he finally fell asleep in Max’s arms. He watched his young charge’s chest rise and fall as he slept, before turning in himself.
The next day they walked further south through ancient fields, past ruined farming villages, making their way across the hills to the high plain where the ancient silent city of Mdina and the cathedral dome at Mosta, still guarded the western and eastern approaches of the central part of Malta. By the time they had passed Qormi, they could see the outline of Malta’s former capital, Valletta, between the wide valleys of the old Sliema river and Grand harbour, now dry land after the upheaval. Each night, after Melos was safely tucked up for the night, Max kept a watchful eye in the direction of the glow from the south that steadily increased in intensity as they drew nearer.
The day finally arrived when they stood on the sparsely covered hill overlooking ruined Birzebbuga and the fertile valley that had once been the old port of Marsaxlokk, now several hundred meters above sea level. Max and Melos stayed on the hill for the rest of the day in the intense heat, hiding from the sun beneath the sparse shade of a few bushes.
“Uncle, I see people,” Melos shouted.
Max silenced him with his hand around Melos’ mouth. “We don’t know who they are, Melos; they may be bad,” he whispered. “Let’s play a game. Count how many you can see and I’ll count how many weapons they have,” he continued, trying to distract Melos. The little boy began counting out loud. “Shush,” Max said, holding his finger to Melos’ mouth, “count silently!” Melos pouted, then nodded happily when Max smiled. He began using his chubby fingers to record how many people he could see. Across the fields, on the eastern side of the dried up harbour below the old desalination plant and the ruins of an ancient coastal watchtower erected in the time of the Knights of St John, they could make out hundreds of people going about their peaceful business. They weren’t berserkers; they were Nephile.
When the Nephiles saw Max carrying little Melos on his shoulders, steadily advancing towards them, they ran from the berserker warrior’s path. Armed guards appeared and nervously surrounded them. “Who are you and why are you here?” demanded one of the guards. A crowd gathered behind the protection of the guards, anxious to hear for themselves.
“My name is Max, brother of Akhen and Khan,” Max said. “I’ve travelled here from Kirenia and Gilgama.” The news that one of the six berserker brothers had appeared in their midst brought the Nephile community out in their hundreds to greet the famous warrior. That night, after a banquet in his honour and Melos had been put to bed, Max was told about Marsaxlokk and the Nephile refugees who lived there. In return he told them about Sefani and her parents, Talia and Goran. In particular about Shaila and Tihke, and the reason why he had brought young Melos with him to give his parents and poor Sefani a break. The Nephile leaders understood his decision and promised him that when his friends eventually arrived they would be made welcome.
Max would be destined to stay there for the rest of his life dear reader. I became more unsettled by young Melos. I sensed something in him that would cause trouble for anyone who crossed him in the future.
Next time – Chapter Fifty-Five