It’s been a while. I’ve been writing, but not posting. Something I should probably do.
I didn’t participate last year, but I decided to do NaNoWiMo this year. As I am still working on “Redeemer”, I felt it would be a good idea to continue with this book as my goal for NaNoWriMo.
In that vein, here is what I wrote today as part of Day 1 on NaNoWriMo. My daily goal is ~2,500 words, today I hit 3,100 (note: this is completely unedited, meaning there will be typos and other problems):
Abdi the Serpent
Mad Brayta’a Deqlaa B’yamt a’a D’tseayd D’khart a’a, the Tree Lake Provided by the Desert, Our Mother, had been Abdi Ab’um’s home since he first joined Mardukai’s Serpents when he was a young man. Always in the past he returned to the oasis in triumph – with a caravan of laden wagons and a retinue of victorious raiders. But not this day.
Today, Abdi arrived a defeated man. Less than a dozen of his compatriots caught up with him after the failed ambush. Lagesh and Khiptri, his friends, were not among them. And they had no goods to speak of, having abandoned the spoils of their raids against Nun-Ki in the confusion following the fight.
The normal throngs of people rushing to greet returning raiders were not at the entrance of the vast valley that led to the oasis, fortunately. It was odd, however. Abdi wondered if the news of the failed attack preceded them.
The normally blue waters of the oasis were brown following the recent rain, and the banks swelled. The reeds that normally stood proud over the borders of the water were all but hidden. The rainy season had begun. Between the date palms that studded the valley, the huts and houses of Mardukai’s semi-permanent camp all had smoke rising in the morning air. Temporary walkways of reed and wood connected the various buildings to allow the inhabitants a mud-free path.
Still, nobody greeted Abdi and his entourage. People stared at them from thresholds and some of the slaves briefly looked up from their various chores but, by and large, their passing was without incident. Abdi halted the troupe long enough to take int he scene before deciding on a goal: the center of the village, where Mardukai’s hut was located. The elders of the village and any of the tribal chiefs around would be there. He had to report to them – all of it. His failure could cost him his life. But Abdi was honorable and accepted that he had failed his men and B’Shab ad’Rab, his Clan-Chief. If death was to be his punishment, so be it.
News of their arrival reached the house in the center of the village. Gaol was waiting outside the threshold of the Clan-Chief’s home. The home itself was a mixture of tents and woven reed and wood buildings. The central hall of the home was a large Bedda tent. Mardukai was no fool and knew the power of symbols – of culture. Even though the oasis was a permanent home for the Serpents, having the centerpiece be a tent let all who wandered in know that it was still a Bedda home – and the Bedda were first and foremost the children of the desert. Nomadic, and as ephemeral as the winds.
Gaol smiled a sadistic smile as Abdi approached.
“Abdi Ab’um,” he spat. “Where is my cousin? Where are your spoils? Where are your men?”
Abdi frowned at the weasel of a man.
“I do not know where Mardukai is – the Great Fair, I would imagine. As to the rest of your questions, I will give the answers to the elders and chieftains – not to you.”
Gaol’s face darkened. He turned swiftly and stormed inside the tent.
“I hate that man,” he mumbled under his breath, and followed.
Within, the tent was brightly decorated and lit, belying its simple outward appearance. Gay tapestries and rugs, all spoils of prior raids, covered the walls and floor. Bronze braziers burned brightly. The thick, oily, smoke spiced the room with the scent of exotic incense. And, seated in the center of the round tent, were a half dozen men of varying age – all elders and chieftains in Mardukai’s service.
“My friends,” Gaol sneered. “Abdi Ab’um, servant of our Clan-Chief, returns.”
One of the men spoke up.
“Abdi, I see you return without Mardukai or any of the spoils of the Nun-Ki raids. Mardukai himself was here a few weeks back and said you would be joining him in Adummatu. Why have you not done this?”
“My brothers, I was given charge by Mardukai to find The Viper. I regret I failed in my task. My men and I were set upon by Igibarra. These, I fear, are the only survivors of that battle.”
“You lost a battle and fled? You have no spoils, no victories, to show us?”
Abdi glared at the man.
“Yes, we lost. I cannot deny this. I also must admit it was my decision to engage in this battle and had I not – had I instead followed the instructions of Mardukai to the letter – my men would still live and we would be with him in Adummatu right now.”
A murmur went through the seated men. Another spoke up.
“That may be as you say, Abdi. However, it may also be that your actions saved your life and the lives of those still with you.”
“How is this?”
“We have received word, from one of your men, no less, that Mardukai is dead. Killed in Adummatu at the hands of the eria udug you encountered in Nun-Ki.”
Abdi felt the color drain from his face. His knees began to shake.
The men nodded.
“Who told you this? I must speak to him.”
“Khiptri is resting from his long journey. We planned to summon him this evening so he could recount the entirety of the tale to us. You may join then. If what he says is true, tomorrow we must begin selecting a new Clan-Chief.”
“And punish those who caused this injustice!” Gaol growled. “To include those who may have contributed through inaction.”
Abdi felt the blood rising to his face. He looked away from Gaol and to the group.
“I shall return this evening.”
“Go, and rest, Abdi Ab’um. The coming days are likely to be taxing on us all.”
– – – – –
Abdi made his way to his own hut, a woven reed affair. Inside was his wife, an Amratian slave girl named K’trella. Abdi captured her when she was but a teen and chose to keep her on as first a slave, then as his wife. K’trella had no say in the matter, as is the Bedda way, but she could have had it far worse. Abdi rarely had to resort to violence with her and in her duties as a wife she was obedient, if not even willing.
“Ohot’uon Abdi,” she greeted, calling him by his title as the father of the household. Abdi and K’trella had no children, but the title of Ohot’uon – father of the house – was given to any married man in the Bedda.
“My wife. How have you been?”
“Well, Ohot’uon. I heard of your arrival and prepared a lunch for you. Will you be bathing and sleeping after?”
“I will try to sleep, at least. Have you heard word of Khiptri’s arrival? The elders told me very little.”
K’trella faced away, tending the small earthen stove.
“Only that he came in yesterday with a small caravan from the Great Fair. They rode hard to get here, and brought word Mardukai is dead.” She turned to face him. “Is it true, Ohot’uon?”
Abdi shook his head.
“I do not know. I came from…the Abraq region. Mardukai was alive when I last saw him.”
“What does that mean for you – for us?”
He shook his head again.
“I do not know that, either. I may be alive because I ignored Mardukai’s orders. That could mean death for me.”
Her eyes widened.
“And me? Death or given to another?”
“But if Mardukai is dead…I have heard before you are a favorite to replace him. Surely this means something?”
“It means some people like to talk. I would have to earn the position like any other. And, with my recent actions, it may not be possible.”
“Ohot’uon. What will we do?”
“I will face my judgment as it comes. And you will obey me as is your duty. And if I should die, you will obey the elders as you should.”
K’trella frowned. Perhaps she expected a more loving, more affectionate response. If she did then she learned nothing in her years as Abdi’s wife. Affection was a weakness.
The conversation died with that statement. Abdi went down to the brown waters of the oasis, stripped, and washed weeks of dirt and sand away. He returned to his house in the nude, unconcerned with others seeing him unclothed. Nudity wasn’t a big taboo for Bedda men. For the women, however, it was strictly forbidden. It only made sense, Abdi thought. Bedda men were warriors both on the battlefield and in the bed. Nude women roaming around would be too much of a problem.
K’trella had Abdi’s lunch prepared on the table in the center of the room. Flat-bread with dates, some mutton, yoghurt, barley, and tomatoes. He ate without a word while she continued about her duties. He finished, grunted his approval, and crawled onto one of the thin mattresses on the floor. Sleep came faster than he expected.
– – – – –
Inside the tent, Abdi found Khiptri waiting for him with open arms. The two friends embraced.
“Is it true?” Abdi asked, staring into his compatriot’s eyes.
“Yes, but there is more to the tale than any of us imagined. I have asked the elders to summon Uoren. Mardukai’s death raises questions only he may be able to answer.”
The old storyteller? Abdi wondered what could possibly have transpired to make Khiptri want to seek the wisdom of the keeper of tales. The Bedda had no use for the written languages and instead chose to keep their history orally. The storyteller was a position of great respect and esteem within the clans and tribes, and Mardukai insured that the Serpents had the most renowned and knowledgeable storyteller. Uoren was fabled long before he joined the Serpents – and he was ancient even before that.
The tent flap parted and two young boys led the old man inside. His body was twisted with the ravages of age, and his eyes had all but failed him. They sat him near the fire in the center of the tent and piled pillows around to comfort him.
“What is it the elders of the Serpents wish to hear?” He croaked.
One of the elders cleared his throat.
“Revered Uoren,” he addressed the old man. “Khiptri has asked for you to advise us. He says his tale of Mardukai’s fate will need your interpretation. We do not know why.”
The old man grunted.
“Indeed? That is interesting. So, where is this Khiptri and what does he have to say?”
Khiptri stepped forward and faced the semi-circle of men.
“I am Khiptri, Revered One.”
“Well, what do you want to know?”
“I think I should tell my story first, and let you decide what it means.”
“Do it then.”
Abdi moved and sat near the edge of the semi-circle.
“Abdi and I were separated when we attacked the Galkin of the Igibarra and King Ubaru’s Asipu, the dwarf,” He began. “When the Igibarra counterattacked, Abdi ordered us to retreat. When I attempted to do so, one of the vile Igibarra shot me with an arrow.”
He pulled his robe to the side to show a young scar, still red with anger, on his side.
“The Igibarra captured me and took me to Adummatu with them. I learned they were seeking the eria udug we fought in Nun-Ki. But when we arrived in Adummatu, we learned something else. The eria udug killed Mardukai, using her magick.”
Hisses went through the assembled Bedda. Magick was the lowest form of fighting – cowardly and without honor.
“But,” Khiptri continued, raising his hand for patience. “When she did she proclaimed she was in service to a Goddess – Erishkigal.”
A silence descended on the tent.
“I ask you this: if she serves Erishkigal, does that mean her actions are the will of Nergal? And, if so, does that mean that Mardukai was acting against Nergal’s will? Does that mean our alliance with the Ebru was an act of blasphemy?”
The elders immediately exploded into argument. Several shouted obscenities at Khiptri. Others agreed loudly with him.
Abdi sat in silence. Khiptri’s reasoning was sound. Erishkigal was the wife of Nergal. She had been imprisoned by the other gods – out of jealousy for their love. Nergal had spent his existence since waging war and trying to free his wife. It was the cornerstone of the Bedda traditions – their war against followers of other gods mimicked the war in the heavens.
Or, so the storytellers said. Abdi knew the tales but was smart enough to know he didn’t know enough to understand their meaning.
“Quiet!” one of the boys attending Uoren yelled. “The storyteller wishes to speak.”
The room quieted down and all eyes turned to the old man. He stared blankly at the flames of the fire.
“When The Viper first came to our camp with Mardukai, I worried. In all of the stories, I have never heard of the Ebru – or anyone – working with the Bedda since the days before the scattering of the tribes. When Mardukai spoke of the plans, I was both excited and afraid. I was excited for the riches that would surely come to us should the Ebru plan succeed. I was afraid of what working with those who worship a heathen god – a god who helped banished the beloved of our God – would bring.
“I told Mardukai these things. He assured me all he would do is raid. It would be no different than if the Ebru was not there, save that the Ebru would also benefit from the raids. I warned him that the Ebru God, El, was vain, jealous, and prone to insane decrees. Mardukai brushed it away. He felt sure Nergal would protect him.”
The man went quiet. The rest of the tent awaited his next word.
“There is a story I wish to tell.”
“We will hear,” the members of the tent intoned automatically.
“It is a lie.”
“We will not believe it.”
“It is the truth.”
“We will trust it.”
“It is all and it is nothing.”
“We will listen.”
The old man straightened up.
“In the long ago times, there was a great chief. He was a tall chief, a strong chief. He was a chief of his people. He brought them wealth. He fed them and protected them. He followed the rules of the Bedda and the laws of Nergal. But one day his faith and conviction faltered. In the south, far across the dunes, he fought a battle against a new enemy. A strong enemy. This enemy had with it warriors who were women. This was an insult to the chief and his warriors. To fight against a weak woman is to fight against nothing. But these women were not weak. They were not warriors. They were sorceresses. The chief called them ‘eria udug’, the witches of the desert. The chief fought these women and killed all but one. For the last one, fearing her own death, used her powers to ensnare the mind and heart of the chief. She bewitched him and he thought he loved her. And so, he spared her and took her as his wife.
“When they returned to their tribe, she bewitched them as well. The tribe welcomed the new woman as if she had always been a part of them. They ignored her use of magick. They trusted their chief, and he trusted her. The rule against magick was forgotten and time passed. It seemed as if the rule was absurd. The magick helped the people. It protected them when attacked, it made their crops grow high and the waters always flowed.
“But Nergal watched. Nergal saw. He saw his people become weak. He saw them rely more and more on the magick, and less on their own prowess. And he remembered. He remembered how it was magick and trickery that trapped his wife when she was at her weakest – when she let her love of Nergal lower her guard. And he remembered that the servants of those Gods and Goddesses still practiced magick. And this woman was one such servant. For she was trained by the Brides of Shamash, the women in service to Annanitu, the sister of Erishkigal whose jealously led to the war between the gods.
“And so, he set his vengeance upon the great chief. When the chief was old, and his sons almost grown men, a woman dressed in black arrived at the tribe. The warriors tried to stop her, but they were weak and she cast them aside. She went to the chief and his witch wife.
“’I am D’bratay Khyoyaa,” she announced. “A Daughter of the Serpent. My Father and Mother, the great Nergal and his beloved wife, Erishkigal, are displeased with you. You have brought and bedded a witch. You have become weak in the eyes of your God. You rely on magick to protect you, and so magick will destroy you.’
“With that, she lifted her arms to the sky. The fat warriors tried to stop her but the sand beneath their feet turned to mud and they sank. The witch tried to raise her own magick but her voice was lost on the rising wind. The chief, once a great and strong man, cowered in fear. For he knew the truth: he had abandoned Nergal and consorted with the prostitutes of another god. He stood and, remembering he was Bedda, accepted his fate. A great serpent broke through the sand beneath him and his wife and swallowed them whole. Then the rains came. The camp was drowned in a flood of mud and water. None survived, save the D’bratay Khyoyaa. She left the way she came.”
The room was silent.
“This is the story. I have set it free on the winds. Do with it what you will.”
Abdi cleared his throat.
“But, what does it mean, Revered One?”
The old man answered, “It means Nergal has used magick, and those who call themselves the Daughters of the Serpent – the servants of Erishkigal – before to punish those who defy him. It means Mardukai’s fate may have been the will of Nergal Himself and, if so, we are all fortunate to have not shared in it. It means we must make amends if we wish to be spared Nergal’s wrath.”