18

Five days later…

In Sumer, in the days before King Eridu died, Tammuz and En-hedu found each sunrise bringing some new challenge. The city of Sumer no longer resembled the sleepy trading village that bordered on the Great Sea. In the last five years, the city had grown faster than any other village in Sumeria. People from all over the region migrated to Sumer in search of a better life.

The steady influx of people had greatly added to King Eridu’s wealth. During his rule, he fed Sumer’s inhabitants with dreams of conquest and easy wealth. Over and over, Eridu assured them that only the city of Akkad stood in the way of Sumer’s greatness and prosperity. Once that barbarian-ruled city was swept aside, gold would flow to Sumer’s inhabitants from all the cities and villages of the land between the rivers.

Even as an outsider, Tammuz saw how Eridu’s stinging defeat had humiliated the people of Sumer. Dreams of conquest had vanished, replaced by a sense of gloom and worry about the future. Everyone now feared attacks from the north. Eskkar and his demon archers would invade and devastate Sumeria. Villages and crops would burn, farmers murdered in their sleep. The gods had turned their back on Sumer and its people. A feeling of dread replaced the giddy excitement of Sumer’s soldiers and its people.

After King Eridu’s ransom and return from Akkad, fresh rumors of a new war were on everyone’s lips. He increased the already heavy burden of taxes. Eridu One-hand, as many called him, remained full of rage and hatred for all things Akkad.

He seldom left his private quarters, and those few whose business took them into his presence reported a man seething with hatred and bitterness. Word soon spread that he wanted to create another army and take his revenge against Eskkar and Akkad. Once again, Eridu’s soldiers searched the lanes and alleys looking for any able-bodied men to conscript. More than once patrols stopped Tammuz on the street, until they saw his crooked arm.

Despite Eridu’s yearning for another march north, the mood in the city remained sullen. In Sumer’s defeat by Lord Eskkar, many men had died or been wounded. Neither the survivors nor the city’s inhabitants had any stomach or desire for more battles, not against an enemy that had done little or nothing to arouse them. Eridu’s claims to the contrary, most people cared little for the borderlands that until recently had been ignored and untouched by any of the southern cities. Faced with the prospect of another war, many men and older boys left the city. Those that remained did their best to avoid the lanes and marketplace, unwilling to be forced into the training camps by Eridu’s roaming gangs.

All this fascinated Tammuz, but he and En-hedu had plenty to keep them busy. As soon as they purchased the inn, they moved in and almost immediately trouble started. The following day, some local thugs decided to take advantage of the new owners, young and fresh from the farm. Three men entered the little tavern in the late afternoon and demanded payment for protection, as they called it.

The inn was almost empty at that hour, and the few patrons present, recognizing the men as troublemakers and thieves, scurried out as fast as they could.

“You’re new in Sumer, cripple,” the leader rasped, a burly man who carried plenty of muscles on his arms and chest. “You’ll need someone to make sure your inn is safe. We’ll take care of that for you.”

A scar marked his face, long black hair hung greasily around his face, and he was missing a tooth. The combination gave him a fierce expression that he used to intimidate those weaker than himself.

“But first we have to collect payment for your protection. One silver coin. Pay us now, or I’ll break your good arm.” He fingered the knife in his belt for emphasis, while his two companions smiled broadly at the new owner’s apparent helplessness. “After that, you’ll pay us the same every ten days, or you’ll find someone has pulled the inn down on your heads.”

From their private chamber, En-hedu took a step into the common room. The three men’s heads turned to give her a brief glance, but she stood there speechless, her hands crossed above her breasts. The gesture allowed her right hand to slip inside her dress and reach the haft of her knife.

Tammuz had expected something like this, though not on their second day. He took two steps back and to the side, so that En-hedu would be almost behind the three men.

“Why should I pay you anything?”

The one with the knife stepped forward. “Because if you don’t, you’ll wish you were back on — ”

But Tammuz used the backward steps only to draw the man forward. Now his foot lashed out with all his strength, striking right between the man’s legs with a swiftness that caught all three by surprise.

With a howl of pain, the leader clutched his groin. By that time Enhedu had slipped up behind the two henchmen, snatching the knife from beneath her dress as she moved. With muscles as strong as any young man’s, she struck downward with the weapon’s hilt on the back of the nearest thug’s head. He dropped like a sack of grain, caught unaware by the unexpected attack from behind.

The third man, still watching open-mouthed as his leader crumpled to the ground, reacted slowly. First he fumbled for his knife, then turned toward En-hedu as his companion collapsed on the floor, but by that time Tammuz, who had never stopped moving, closed the gap between them. Before the rogue could draw his weapon or even decide what to do, Tammuz had his own blade out, and he smashed the hilt into the man’s face. The thug stumbled backward, tripped over a stool, and crashed into a table before sliding onto to the floor.

Meanwhile, En-hedu slipped behind the leader, hunched over in pain from Tammuz’s kick, and struck again. This time the butt of her knife landed on the side of his head, and he lolled on the dirt floor of the tavern, too stunned even to groan in his pain.

The encounter had taken only moments, but Tammuz found himself breathing heavily from the brush with danger. “Better fetch the watch, before someone else sends for them,” he said, a grim expression on his face. “I’ll see what they’re carrying.”

“I hope none of them are dead.” She reached out and touched Tammuz’s arm for a moment, her eyes still wide with excitement. For the second time in their young lives, they had fought together.

“They’re breathing,” he said, glancing at the leader to make sure. His wife had struck with all her strength. The last thing Tammuz needed was a dead body on their hands. No matter what the reason or excuse, it would bring down too much trouble on their heads. Newcomers such as themselves couldn’t risk offending anyone, not until they were well established and known. But a few bloody heads meant nothing, he hoped, at least not to Sumer’s guards.

While En-hedu darted out to find the city’s watch, Tammuz went through the men’s things. Two of them had nothing of value, except for their knives. He tossed those into the darkest corner of the inn. He might be able to sell them for a few coins later. The leader’s purse held nine copper coins, a respectable amount for even an honest man. Tammuz collected his knife, too, and pitched it after the others. By then the leader had begun to recover. He groaned, and attempted to sit up, but slumped back to the floor, too dazed to move or grasp what had happened.

Tammuz slid his knife back into its sheath. He grasped the man’s right hand, placing his thumb on the back of the hand, and his fingers on the palm, just as Hathor had shown him. A quick twist, and the man’s wrist snapped. That brought another gasp of pain, but by then Tammuz had his knee on the man’s chest. He drew his knife again, and placed the point against the rogue’s throat.

“Move and you die,” Tammuz said. Not that he intended to kill the man, but the thief wouldn’t know that. Tempting as it might be, cutting the man’s throat would cause more problems than it cured, and might even generate ill will from the man’s kin or friends.

He remained on the man’s chest until En-hedu returned with two guards from the watch, both of them breathing hard. She must have made them run through the lanes.

“What’s going on here?” demanded the older of the two. He had at least forty seasons, and wore a sash of red across his shoulder that proclaimed him a leader of ten.

“I told you! These men tried to rob us,” En-hedu blurted out, her hands again clutching her bosom in her excitement. “They came in and demanded all our copper, or they would kill us.”

Tammuz rose. The leader of the thieves, his eyes filled with pain, tried to speak. Tammuz glanced down and kicked him in the ribs.

“Maybe you attacked them?” The younger guard said, his eyes first taking in the men on the floor, then settling on Tammuz. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Keep your mouth shut, fool,” the leader of ten ordered. “Do you think a man and his wife are going to attack three men? Besides, I know these scum. Thieves, all of them.”

“May I speak with you?” Tammuz said, bowing respectfully. He tilted his head toward the darkest corner of the inn and fingered the purse in his hand.

The older guard turned to his companion. “Watch them.” He followed Tammuz across the room. “My name is Jarud. What do you want to talk about?”

“Honored guardsman.” Tammuz used his humblest voice. “We have just purchased this inn with Merchant Gemama’s assistance. We are his clients and under his protection. It may be that, until we’re better known in the neighborhood, we might need extra protection from the city’s guard. Perhaps you or your men could stop in from time to time, even enjoy a cup of ale with our thanks.”

Tammuz held out his hand, with the purse taken from the thugs. “This would be for your trouble, Jarud. And each week, I might be able to give you another copper coin. And I should have some girls in a few days, to repay you for your help.”

The guard took the little sack of leather and hefted it, trying to guess how much it contained while he considered the offer. “Mmmn… everyone knows Merchant Gemama. A good man, or at least as good as any grasping trader can be. If you are one of his clients…” He made up his mind, no doubt influenced as much by the weight of the purse in his hand as Tammuz’s claim on Gemama’s name. “I’m sure we can stop in now and again. And your name is…?”

“Tammuz. And my wife is En-hedu. We are new to Sumer, and not yet used to the ways of the city.”

Jarud glanced down at the knife on Tammuz’s belt. “You did well enough against these three.”

Tammuz moved closer and half-whispered the words. “My wife struck two of them from behind.” He lowered his head as if embarrassed that he had to rely on his wife for assistance.

“We’ll take care of these thieves,” Jarud said. “The work gangs can always use some new slaves. A few months hard labor will settle them down.”

One of the first things Tammuz and En-hedu learned in Sumer was about the work gangs. Supposedly a punishment for petty crimes, few ever returned from their forced labor. With able-bodied slaves in great demand, only those whose friends could pay for their release were ever seen again.

The three men were dragged to their feet and shoved out the door, their former leader cursing as he clutched his broken wrist with his good hand. Tammuz went to the doorway. A small crowd had gathered, peering in at the little drama that had played out with a very different ending from what they had expected. Obviously, these new innkeepers, despite their youth, would have to be treated with respect.

“We’re still open for business,” Tammuz called out, flashing his white teeth in his best welcoming smile. “Come in and sample our finest ale.”

Two laborers looked at each other, shrugged, and stepped inside. “Are you under the protection of the Guard?”

“Of course, as you can see,” Tammuz said, clapping the man on the back. “Which means you may drink your fill here without worrying about thieves. And we serve the finest ales and a hearty wine as well. Come in, come in. Welcome to the Kestrel Inn.”

En-hedu had decided the inn should have a new name, to distinguish it from its former owner. The Kestrel, a small falcon that hunted during the day, killed its prey with its beak instead of its talons. Common enough in Sumeria and the northern lands, no one would call one a hawk, but Tammuz knew a kestrel could hunt as well as any falcon, despite its diminutive size. In a way, that’s how he thought of himself. A member of Akkad’s Hawk Clan, but who showed himself as small and agile as a kestrel.

The newly-named Kestrel Inn soon settled down. People came in to gossip about what had just happened. En-hedu served ale until everyone had a cup.

Tammuz moved beside his wife, both of them behind the table that hosted the stock of ale. “In a few days, word will spread through the neighborhood.”

She nodded. “We’ve passed the first test. But only the first. There will be many more in the coming months.”

E ven with a growing reputation as people to be left alone, Tammuz and En-hedu had plenty to do. Starting up an inn remained a difficult business. Customers of the previous owner drifted off to other haunts. The local wine seller tried to overcharge them, then attempted to pass off the dregs of his stock. En-hedu stood in the man’s shop and screamed in his face until he reconsidered.

Then problems started with the delivery. The wine maker’s slaves delivered two wine skins, one half empty, and claimed it must have been damaged when they picked it up. No matter that wine stained their chests and chins. En-hedu snatched up a cudgel and demanded they carry it back. She refused to pay for any of the delivery until it was replaced. The slaves no doubt received a good beating from the wine merchant, who found himself covering the cost of the missing goods.

Food, bread, ale, everything had to be haggled over and argued a dozen ways until the Kestrel’s suppliers realized that its new owners were anything but young fools fresh from the farm. And once the word got around that Jarud, a leader of the guard, had taken an interest in the place, the attempts to cheat the Kestrel faded away.

Three days later, En-hedu walked the lanes until she reached the marketplace, studying the women who sold themselves. Fortunately, Sumer had a plentiful supply of prostitutes. The recent fighting with Akkad had probably increased the number of women forced to fend for themselves. And just as in Akkad, girls fled the farms of their fathers every day to come to the city, where even selling themselves to anyone who could pay provided a better life than the absolute slavery of husband and farm.

The previous owner of the inn employed three girls who attended his customers, but En-hedu hadn’t wanted to keep any of them. They would be much too familiar with the customers, and as liable to cheat the new owners as any grasping merchant or conniving thief. As she strolled around the marketplace, En-hedu ignored most of the women offering themselves. Some were covered with as much dirt as the ground itself, others stank of cheap ale even this early in the day. Many appeared dull or unkempt or diseased, traits that often combined as the women grew older. Life was especially hard for those with no man to protect and provide for them.

At last En-hedu found two women searching for customers on the edge of the marketplace. Both appeared reasonably clean and presentable, though they looked as if they hadn’t eaten well for some time. En-hedu approached them. Since they were working the streets, they obviously didn’t have a tavern or inn keeper to shelter and look after them. “Are you looking for work?”

One woman had a few strands of gray hair sprinkled in amongst her dark tresses. She forced a smile to her lips and took a deep breath, pushing her bosom forward and nearly out of her garment. “Yes, mistress. I enjoy comforting a woman. What would you like?”

“Nothing for myself. My name is En-hedu, and my husband and I have just opened a tavern. I’m searching for someone to help serve the ale and take care of the customers.” No need to explain what taking care of the customers involved.

The woman bowed respectfully. Anyone who owned a business was entitled to a good deal of respect. “My name is Irkalla, and this is Anu, my daughter.”

En-hedu guessed Anu had fourteen or fifteen seasons. She looked much like her mother, except Anu’s eyes lacked the sharp wits that marked Irkalla’s. The two women resembled sisters rather than mother and daughter, but that made no difference.

“The tavern is called the Kestrel, just off Dockside Lane, opposite the shop of Dragush the carpenter. If you perform your duties well, you’ll have a place to sleep, and you can keep a third of what you make from the customers. All the copper will first be paid to me or my husband, of course.”

If you let the girls collect the coins, they would try and cheat you, or disappear one night with some man, along with the evening’s profits.

“A third is not much,” Irkalla said. “Many taverns let the girls keep half their fees.”

“If the girls are beautiful and very skilled.” En-hedu lifted her hands and let them drop. “Have you worked in a tavern before?”

“I have… but not for many years,” Irkalla answered, lowering her head.

En-hedu guessed Irkalla had thought about lying, but changed her mind. “Many taverns don’t give their girls a place to sleep, or feed them twice a day. That is my offer. If you’re not interested…”

“Forgive me, mistress,” Irkalla said, using the usual sign of respect for any head of the household. “Yes, we are interested, as long as I can keep my daughter with me. She gets frightened easily. We would work very hard to please your customers. When can we start?”

“Today. Now. My husband will want to speak with you as well. He will explain exactly what will be expected from you both.”

“Then we will follow you back to the… Kestrel, to meet your husband.” Irkalla took Anu’s hand, and smiled. “Give thanks to our new mistress.”

“We thank you,” Anu said, dutifully.

The poor girl didn’t appear very happy, despite the prospect of having a roof over her head tonight. En-hedu led the way back to the Kestrel, the two women, still holding hands, following behind.

D ay by day, the Kestrel took shape. An artisan sketched an outline of the bird on the wall next to the door, then finished by coloring it in shades of gray and rose, a splendid image of the small but cunning aerial hunter. Tammuz expressed his satisfaction by serving the artist a second cup of ale in addition to the supper promised for later that day.

A woman living down the lane agreed to bake bread for the tavern, and her two children fetched buckets of fresh water each morning. After a few days, the baker accepted an offer to come each day at sundown to cook the usual pot of stew, comprised of whatever En-hedu had bartered or purchased that day. With the wine and ale sellers finally delivering what they promised, the Kestrel once again began to attract a good number of customers. Two laborers arrived with a cart loaded with clean sand to fill and smooth over the floor of the inn, which had degenerated into a lopsided layer of dirt that had more rocks than soil.

The location, so close to the docks, naturally attracted plenty of river men, as well as those sailors who traveled along the coast of the great sea. The unruly crowd needed watching, of course, but Tammuz had searched the dockside and marketplace for days until he found a former soldier named Rimaud.

Big and strong, Rimaud had taken an arrow in his leg during a battle with the desert horsemen, and the wound had never fully healed. He walked with a heavy limp, and pain still crossed his face from time to time. Since he could no longer work all day, or even move quickly, he’d suffered in finding work on the docks. But for Tammuz and the Kestrel, Rimaud would have no trouble keeping order within its confines.

With Jarud and one or two of his guardsmen stopping by almost every night, word soon spread that the honest innkeeper and his wife provided good ale and decent food, in a setting where you could eat and drink without worrying about getting your throat slit or your purse cut.

A few evenings later, just as En-hedu and Irkalla finished serving the day’s stew, a man rushed into the Kestrel, and shouted that King Eridu had died, murdered by his steward. Over their ale cups, heads huddled close together. Many whispered words that expressed satisfaction about the death of Eridu One-hand. Not one spoke a word of mourning or respect for the dead man. “Maybe now we’ll have peace,” one man said, muttering into his ale cup.

No one from the city’s watch came that evening, and most of the customers left early, unsure of what the future would bring.

The next morning, Tammuz and En-hedu learned that Eridu’s son, Shulgi, had taken command of Sumer and its soldiers.

Soon messengers walked the city’s lanes, spreading word that King Shulgi had summoned all the inhabitants of Sumer to the marketplace at noon. Leaving Rimaud to watch the inn, Tammuz and En-hedu followed the crowd, and managed to secure a place just within earshot of their new ruler.

“A handsome man,” En-hedu remarked, as Shulgi stepped forward and began to speak.

“Not much older than we are,” agreed Tammuz.

After explaining how his father was murdered by his steward, Shulgi proclaimed that he would continue Eridu’s rule. Then he called for a time of peace and healing. There would be no further war preparations.

Everyone cheered, and words of praise and support for their new king echoed throughout the marketplace.

Shulgi explained that peace would allow Sumer’s people to work and plan for the future. No action would be taken or permitted against Akkadians, and trade would resume with the northern cities at once. King Shulgi also announced that he would send a deputation to Akkad, to inform King Eskkar of his desire for an end to hostilities between the two cities.

By the time Shulgi finished speaking, the throng voiced their approval for their new ruler. The war with Akkad was over, and a great weight had been lifted from Sumer’s inhabitants. Mothers would not have to dread their husbands and sons going off to war, and families could work their farms and shops without worrying about being conscripted. Again and again, the crowd declared their thanks for the new king and his policy.

To conclude his speech, Shulgi declared three days of mourning for his father. After which, he continued, there would be three days of feasting to celebrate the coming peace. Of course, the people ignored the first pronouncement and started celebrating. None concerned themselves about the demise of the unloved and aloof Eridu One-hand, who had brought them nothing but grief and disaster.

Tammuz and En-hedu joined in the cheering, waving their hands and shouting as loud as anyone. But that night, when the inn finally quieted down, they lay in their bed and whispered to each other.

“If there is to be peace,” Tammuz said, “maybe there will be no need for us to remain in Sumer.”

“Yes, if there is to be peace,” En-hedu said. “But men may say one thing while they think another. What better way to deceive your own people than to tell them what they want to hear? The next few months will tell us who this Shulgi is, and what he really intends.”

“Well, meanwhile we can enjoy ourselves while we wait,” Tammuz said. He ran his hand down her shoulder and across her belly, enjoying the smooth flesh that never failed to arouse him. There was a time for war, and a time for pleasure, and he didn’t intend to confuse one with the other.

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