The Space Between Worlds is the sequel to Lake Caerwych. One twist is that Bridget and Celena visit not only ancient Wales, but Sumer in Mesopotamia. And yes, they also go to the space between worlds, as the title suggests! In this book, Bridget finds out why Paul hates her so much. It’s probably the last thing you’d expect. Here are the first two chapters so you can get a feel for the story.
Chapter One: Iltani and Raia
Bridget looked around and tried to get a grip on who she was, where she was and when she was. Directly in front of her were the high, sand-colored, mud brick walls of a great city. She was struck at once by its immenseness, the simple yet clever architecture and the vastness in either direction. It made the hill fort of Kassrikmagon seem like an animal paddock. The buildings were the color of sand and seemed to be interlocked with one another. Occasional small windows dotted the smooth surface. She scanned the wall tops for any sign of banners or insignia and found flags above the gate. They were deep purple, bearing a thin, upside down crescent with a six-pointed star above it. Behind the star was a six-pointed cross. All three symbols were dyed bright golden-yellow, a sharp contrast against the royal purple background.
Palm trees were planted at regular intervals in front of the wall, and as Bridget looked above and beyond it, she could see a great temple with three levels of terraces. She recognized the ziggurat. That felt familiar, and at first she didn’t know how, until she realized she had seen it recently in her history book. It looked almost identical to the artist’s rendition, except that now it was there in three dimensions, massive and utterly real!
She blinked and started to slowly get her bearings. She looked at the temple with its smooth sides, scanned all along the wall and noted the position of the sun. The ziggurat was oriented true north, so if she was viewing it from the front that meant she was facing south.
To the west, she saw rows of crops a little distance away, behind which stretched a vast desert. There were mountains at the horizon to the north and east. Turning to the right again, and toward the southwest, Bridget saw more cultivated tracts fed by irrigation channels and could just make out people in light-colored clothing tending them. A light breeze gently swayed the branches of fig trees. Another field seemed to be planted with wheat, still months away from harvest by the greenness of it.
Bridget inhaled deeply to find that the air was stifling and hot. The sweat was starting to drip off her brow and she wiped it. It must be upwards of one hundred degrees; in fact, she couldn’t remember a time when she had ever felt such a temperature, not even on the hottest day of August in St. Louis. She was about to dry her hand on her clothing when she noticed the color of her skin – warm olive brown! Not expecting this, she jumped and blinked, holding out her arm for a better look. The hand was decorated by a golden ring with an indigo stone and there was a blue and purple beaded bracelet at the wrist.
Her other hand held the reins of an onager, and behind it was another like it, attached to the first by a long rope. This sight, along with everything else, was starting to bring to mind some things. She seemed to get some recollection of her father and brother bringing them from the steppes and taming them not that long ago. These were what her family used for transportation, these once wild donkeys that had since been domesticated.
Looking down, she saw her sandaled feet poking out from beneath a pink dress. She felt the fabric with her hands and determined it was made of linen; it was amazingly smooth, comfortable and extraordinarily woven, with a shift underneath. There was red embroidery near the slanted neckline and her right shoulder was bare. A wide, red belt encircled her waist. Something told her that a dress like this must have cost a fortune.
Bridget felt for the pendant but she gasped – her bronze necklace was gone! In its place was some other necklace made out of a dark silver metal. A few red beads hung from its chain…
* * * * *
Bridget Holland’s journey began last year, in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. Bridget, who was sixteen, met Celena Blake at school and they had been inseparable ever since. Experiencing déjà vu and a connection they couldn’t explain, Bridget discovered an ancient, Celtic necklace in a jewelry store by the riverfront – something that seemed too familiar to both of them to be a coincidence. This caused them to research and begin the process of tracing their faint memories back to the source. Summer found them taking a holiday in Snowdonia, a beautiful national park in north Wales in the United Kingdom. Here, by means of the mysterious pendant and a Bronze Age ring cairn – a portal – they learned of a past shared twenty-five hundred years ago in 500 BC. And, as fate would have it, they also met Paul.
At first, Bridget and Celena were intrigued by him. Paul was Welsh, attractive and had lived in rural Snowdonia all his life. He was a new friend who showed them around the lake and countryside they wanted to explore. Unfortunately, they learned that not only did he brutally murder them in another life, for reasons unknown, he wanted to do so again – now more than ever.
By mastering a few secrets of the portal system, the girls were able to bring objects from the past into the present. These were two bronze chests, pulled out of Lake Dywarchen, which they donated to the Gwynedd museum, and the greatest prize of all: a small, grey piece of slate. It was actually a “key” to the portal, and according to Paul, enabled one to go to any time and place. With so many unanswered questions, the only thing they knew for sure was that they must keep the key out of Paul’s hands.
After getting a news clip on BBC1 for recovering artifacts from Wales’ prehistoric days, the girls returned to the States and felt like local celebrities for a time. Then the next school year started and life returned to normal. But they still hadn’t heard a thing about what the chests contained. So naturally, when Bridget had finally received a call from Ms. Surrey, the curator from the Gwynedd museum, she was thrilled.
Bridget wrote down everything as Ms. Surrey told her about what was found in the chests they recovered from the lake. One chest was empty; the other contained Celtic “ring” money, two ornate electrum daggers, a small bronze plate and gold artifacts. The gold artifacts seemed to have once been in the form of a ball which had been sliced six-wise like fruit. Ms. Surrey would email Bridget photos of their incredible find.
The museum curator told her, “There was one more thing, but hardly worth mentioning. We’re still trying to figure out why it was included – a little piece of slate, only about five centimeters long. It looked as if at one time it had been inside a little pouch. Or shall I say, we think it was a pouch, but the fabric was mostly disintegrated, so we couldn’t tell definitively. We found it remarkable that someone would want to include something so common and of no value in a chest full of treasure.”
“Yes,” Bridget said, frowning. “That is remarkable.”
That got Bridget thinking, so before they said their goodbyes she politely asked Ms. Surrey if she could please send her the small piece of slate as a souvenir. It wasn’t valuable, after all; it was only a rock. Ms. Surrey had consented to this idea.
About fifteen minutes after getting off the phone, Bridget received the photos as Ms. Surrey had promised. The money she spoke of looked like small, verdigris rings. The forms were crude and imperfect, but nonetheless they were all roughly the same size. Bridget saw that the daggers were every bit as incredible as the curator described. Being formed of several different metals, they did look more silvery than golden. Each had a hilt that spiraled at the end, with raised circles running up and down the length of it. The daggers were complete with electrum sheaths as well, engraved with lines and dots in symmetrical patterns. It was surprising how untarnished and perfectly crafted they were.
Bridget looked at the photo of the plate and saw that it was also impressive. Naturally, the bronze had turned verdigris from enduring so much time, but it wasn’t the usual dullish green. It was almost blue, like the blue of a tropical sea where one could see all the way to the bottom. She zoomed in on the plate to see its designs more closely. The edge of the plate was slightly raised and lined with spirals and small circles, much like the daggers. As Bridget examined the relief portion of the artifact, she could see what Ms. Surrey had meant when she said that it didn’t resemble traditional Celtic artwork. Though she was certainly no expert in prehistoric art, the style reminded her of something from the Renaissance Period. It was just the flow and curve of the lines and the ornate detail. She thought it had a different feel to it somehow. There was the perfectly sculpted tree bearing a plentiful amount of fruit and there could be no doubt that those were apples dangling from its branches. Her eyes followed the trunk down to where the tops of its roots could be seen just above the grass and a little way below was the stream or other body of water. There were little lines and waves in it, as though it had a current, which made Bridget think that it was more likely to be a river than a lake or pond.
Lastly, Bridget looked at the photo of the little, grey piece of slate. Though not identical, it was very similar to the “key” that Celena kept, being about the same size and shape. It was definitely no accident that such a thing had been placed in the chest with the rest of the treasure. If it was in fact another portal key, then that would make it the most valuable treasure of all. Two weeks later, the small rock arrived via Royal Mail, in a brown box on Bridget’s front porch.
As could be expected, the girls wanted to see if it was really what they thought it was. Within a short space of time they decided to test it. Bridget and Celena clasped their hands over the key, concentrated and told it to send them back to 500 BC. It worked! But that experimental trip didn’t go well. They ran into trouble and lost their second key in ancient Wales, near one of the lakes by their old settlement. If not for Celena possessing the first one they found, they wouldn’t have been able to get back to the States. They would have emerged from the ring cairn in Snowdonia, being able to return to St. Louis only by plane or ship.
The only good thing to come of that venture was that they learned about a new property of the pendant and key. When Bridget moved the rock close to one the pendants, the slate began to pull toward the bronze disk. The little stone left her hand and was stuck fast to the metal.
She had never heard of “magnetic” slate, which seemed impossible, but maybe it meant something and could help them later.
With that disaster now a week behind them, the last thing Bridget remembered was attending a field trip for World History class with Celena. They were at Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, and their guide showed them, of all things, a circle of cedar boles. It didn’t take long before they inched away from the rest of the class and explored Woodhenge.
Both girls were wearing their necklaces and Celena had the key in her pocket. When they passed through the tree trunk circle they found rushing winds all around them, beating at their skin, tugging at their clothes and whipping their hair around. There was no rolling moorland, no little stone cottages or a great hill fort. In every direction there was only a greyness and roaring wind. Bridget had looked beneath her and it seemed that the very ground was made out of the greyness as well. She knelt and pressed her hand against it. It felt like stone – slate, to be precise, the type of stone from which the key and ring cairn were made.
Finally, after walking a little way out into the greyness, they came to the menhir they had seen before in the otherworld, in their life in ancient Wales. Bridget stopped short and stared at it. It looked identical in every way to the stone marker in prehistoric days. Among other things, she and Celena had learned that the stone had the quality of being able to exist outside its own time.
They walked away from the menhir in a straight line until they could just barely see it when they turned around, then they looked in all directions. It was all the same, just rushing wind, greyish, swirling fog and the stone floor. There was nothing. Then they went back to the menhir and walked away from another side of it and did the same thing. After doing this four times they decided they had seen all the nothingness they wanted to see.
“So that’s it then,” Bridget said. “We have discovered ‘The Place of Nothingness’ at Cahokia Mounds.”
“Yeah,” said Celena. “Weird. It’s interesting, but seems kind of useless.”
Bridget placed her hand back on the standing stone and slowly and carefully recited the lines that should take them back to the “real world.” She wondered if they would ever come back to this place and explore it more, though she couldn’t imagine why they’d want to.
A few moments later they both stood once again in the center of the cedar bole circle at Cahokia Mounds. The cool air felt soft and comforting after the rushing winds. The grass looked unusually green and lush, and in the overcast sky Bridget noticed shades of blue and green amongst the clouds. She was amazed at the quiet of everything.
When they returned home that afternoon, she and Celena had something like a slight argument on what to do next. Both of them were ready to move forward and choose the next course of action. Before she knew what was happening or could protest, Celena took the key out of her pocket and commanded it to show them what they needed to know.
* * * * *
Now the sun was glaring down on the sand and Celena was nowhere to be seen. Bridget realized that Celena wasn’t here and actually shouldn’t be, due to some reason she couldn’t remember yet. Bridget would have to go find her. And it didn’t take a genius to notice the fact that Bridget wasn’t “Bridget” any longer. Unlike the first time she visited the otherworld while on vacation, concepts of her identity in this place were forming rapidly.
“Iltani, remember your promise.”
Bridget paused, frowning as the strange words came to mind. She didn’t know what they meant, but “Iltani” must be her name.
Once, during a conversation she and Celena had with Paul, he told them there was something in the past that he wanted to change. He said he didn’t know where he went exactly (or wouldn’t tell them), but that it was somewhere in Mesopotamia, and that he “died” in the otherworld fifty or more times trying to right some wrong from long ago. She looked again at her dark skin, the onagers next to her, the parched earth beneath her feet and the walled city before her with its majestic, royal purple banners flapping in the arid breeze.
She shook her head. There could be little doubt that this was Mesopotamia, but was it Paul’s Mesopotamia? Was this the same place to which he traveled that he seemed so guarded and secretive about? There might be no way to know, and it might be irrelevant to her purpose, but she wondered all the same. It was her only frame of reference. For the time being, though, she told herself it would be best to figure out exactly where she was in Mesopotamia, and what she was supposed to do while she was here. She did have one advantage: she had studied this place and time in school. She never had that luxury with ancient Wales.
She looked at the ziggurat again and tried to recall the section in her history book that mentioned it. A heading came to mind that read “The Great Ziggurat of Ur.” That would mean, of course, that Ur was the city-state she now beheld. It appeared to be at the height of its economic and cultural splendor; the living, beating heart of the ancient world. She searched her memory further and recalled that Mesopotamia meant the “land between two rivers,” the rivers being the Tigris and Euphrates. The particular part of Mesopotamia in which she found herself situated was the ancient civilization of Sumer – a region, not a country – but no one called it that here. In this time and place it was referred to as Kiengir, “Land of the Civilized Lords.” Ur was but one of the city-states in Kiengir.
Placing the year was more difficult. Iltani couldn’t yet remember what calendar was in use or how time was measured here. She brought to mind Bridget’s history class again, the sections in her book about the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and decided that by modern reckoning the year would be somewhere around 2100 BC. If study served, then King Ur-Nammu was in power at this time, meaning it was his purple and gold standard which flew proudly above the mud brick wall. Not only was she sixteen hundred years earlier in history than her life as Enid, Iltani was also visiting what would one day be considered Biblical times! This was the period of the Old Testament.
As she led her animals toward the entrance to the city in front of her, thoughts of the twenty-first century gradually faded and she became immersed in the present, which only moments before had been the long-gone past. She was journeying somewhere, which was why she was outside the city wall instead of within it. Of course: she was on her way to Eridu and she needed to get moving if she wanted to arrive back home at a decent time. Her mother wouldn’t want her taking overly long at the fair. She got on the onager, turned him southwest and they started off, with the second animal tagging along willingly behind.
As she rode, Iltani reflected that she often wished she could be just like everyone else. Speaking with her sisters before they had married and left the house, or accompanying her mother to the market, it struck her from an early age that she wasn’t like other people. They did not wonder why things were the way they were. They did not question the priests or their interpretation of the gods, and they seemed to not wish, particularly, for a better or different lot for themselves. She had never asked why others didn’t question things as she did, as here again, “asking why” was something she felt someone else would not do. But Iltani had always secretly known that others did not see the things that she saw – they must see something else.
When someone from the lower class was beaten or starved to death, people may have felt a bit of sorrow, shaken their heads and said it was too bad, but had they really understood what occurred? When captives of war were made into lifelong slaves as a matter of course, did anyone wonder if this was necessary or was just degradation? Then there was the matter of her own upcoming arranged marriage to Etirum, a man she barely knew, a metal dealer from a good family. Her father had worked very hard to secure that deal and Iltani knew she should be grateful (not all women were so lucky). Instead, she just felt empty inside. She felt her disagreement on that point was pretty much self-explanatory.
Metals were scarce in Kiengir, which meant that anyone who did have a share in the gold, silver or copper that was available was as good as wealthy. This was definitely the case with Iltani’s father, Sabum.
His corner in the silver market made his family’s lifestyle quite comfortable, affording among other things the beautiful dress Iltani found herself wearing.
About three months ago, however, Sabum’s success and lifelong security came to a screeching halt. The mine which had served him and his workers well for so many years collapsed and became completely useless. It would take a year to re-dig the tunnels – maybe longer – and that was if it could actually be done given its current hopeless state. The mines were buried under a hundred thousand tons of rock and sand. This put her family in quite a bind – until Sabum had his brilliant idea. He knew Etirum’s father, Luga, from being familiar with others in the metal industry. Luga imported precious metals and stones and made them into jewelry to be sold locally. He knew also that Etirum wasn’t married and was barely older than his youngest daughter. Why not speak to Luga, secure work for himself and a husband for Iltani at the same time? It might take some doing, but if he could pull it off it would benefit all concerned.
And that was exactly what Sabum did. He arranged to speak with Etirum’s father and the negotiations began. Sabum would lend his experience, team of associates and slaves to Luga’s business in exchange for a share of the profits, while providing his last unmarried daughter to be Etirum’s husband. Naturally, Iltani would also come complete with a dowry of money, furniture, her own personal attendant and a skill set befitting a woman of her rank. The whole arrangement was ingenious, but also vital to Sabum’s family as it ensured the continuance of the upper class lifestyle to which they were accustomed.
Behind Iltani’s futile thoughts on the state of her primeval world was the one basic thought: the idea that maybe there was a way to change things, if she could just meet the right person or managed to go about it in the correct way. It was this notion that filled her head that morning as she headed out, off to procure a personal attendant at her mother’s bidding. She would need someone to take with her into her new life, not to mention an extra pair of hands for the move.
A little over two hours later, Iltani arrived at the slave fair in Eridu and tied the onagers to a tree. Eridu was Kiengir’s oldest city-state, built on the sand dunes along the Euphrates river. It was not enclosed by a wall like Ur, but bore similarities. It had a temple dedicated to its own god, Enki, Lord of the Earth and Waters. Eridu had its own mud brick buildings, irrigation canals between fields of crops and thousands of inhabitants. And though the city may be a fine place to visit under normal circumstances, Iltani dreaded the fair. She had been to one five years before with her mother. It was an event of the city which she had inwardly deemed the stinking, rotting cesspool of human suffering, though no one else would have called it that. Many of the slaves were healthy, well-groomed and even looked happy, but Iltani wasn’t fooled.
Iltani walked past many people, barely seeing them, when she finally saw her. A girl of about fifteen stood behind a makeshift wooden fence, tied to the upper board by the wrists. She had dark skin and black, matted tendrils of hair that resembled muddy river reeds more than something belonging to a young woman. Both wrists were stained with dried, crusted blood, and she made no attempt to free herself, only clutched the top rail. Iltani could distinctly make out the bones in the girl’s face, shoulders and arms. The garment she wore was like a rag, something fit only to sop up the muck in an animal pen. From the look of it, that may have been its history.
Iltani’s chest tightened as she approached the young slave. Slavery was an accepted part of life in Kiengir, and it was true that her family owned its share, though she had never participated in the purchase of one. However, slaves in aristocratic families often had it better than free men and women in the lower class. That was not the case with this girl. As Iltani drew near, she saw that the girl before her had eyes as black as the night sky, but without the spark of so much as a single star. The young woman did not look up as Iltani approached. She instead kept her hollow gaze on her thin, dirt-streaked hands above the chaffed wrists.
This is the one, Iltani thought dimly. She didn’t know why, but felt that this young woman was the sole reason she came here. Now that she had found her, they could go. Hopefully neither one of them would ever have to return to this wretched place.
Iltani pushed open the gate of the enclosure. There were two other slaves inside, though until now she hadn’t noticed them. One was male, approaching twenty (and in far better condition, she noticed) and another woman, around twenty-five, was in a similar state as the young woman who interested her. Iltani was seventeen, her parent’s youngest child, but also the one who would be married at the latest age. Her sisters and brother had all obtained their first personal attendants by fourteen or fifteen.
Looking at the pathetic garment that hung loosely down the slave’s back, Iltani could see that she had been brutally whipped on several occasions. The oldest scars were ropey and white, overlayed by newer, pink lines which had recently begun to heal. Judging by the color, Iltani estimated that the girl last felt the sting of the lash about three to four weeks ago. Just as Iltani suspected, the garment bore its stains of brown and black, in testament to the fact that it had not been changed in at least that amount of time.
In Kiengir, slaves were tolerated and usually well-treated. A well-fed person with clean clothes and quarters was healthier and worked better, but this wasn’t the only reason. Unlike in some other societies, slaves did hold a few rights. They could own property, borrow money and even buy their freedom. Although a member of the lowest caste, slaves were still considered people and not completely condemned. However, there were always exceptions which could come about in any number of ways. It was this exception that Iltani now beheld with a knitted brow.
She set her hand upon the girl’s gaunt shoulder and felt her flinch.
“It is all right,” Iltani said. “I am not going to hurt you.”
Iltani knew that this was not the kind of slave her mother meant when she told her to go to the fair and select an attendant. She might even be punished for bringing her back, this wilted shell of a person who needed much care and attention. Still, if she was picking out her own attendant, someone to live with her in the new house with her soon-to-be husband, what difference did it make what her mother thought? Iltani hastily looked around for someone to negotiate with, but didn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” she called loudly.
The other two slaves in the pen stirred and looked back at her, then quickly dropped their heads when they saw where Iltani was standing. She felt the stab of empathy again, but had brought enough money for only one.
Iltani mumbled, “I am sorry.” She meant it. She didn’t know if she was heard or not.
“Hello?” she shouted again. “Is anyone here?”
Now she saw a rustling motion a little way off. There was an ox hide tent about twenty paces away. A head emerged from the front flap and an arm pushed aside the fabric, revealing a richly dressed man in splendidly colored clothing. As he neared, Iltani studied him. His dress garment was stained deep blue and rows of tassels adorned its entire length. Every piece of jewelry he wore was made from gold, except for an electrum bracelet. That was the most costly since it wasn’t produced in the city-states, but had to be imported. He had long black hair and a beard to match, both meticulously groomed and curled. His eyes were rimmed with black and his eyebrows painted the same, as was customary for a man to paint his face. But Iltani didn’t want to think of him as a man. Not everything that walked on two legs was human.
As he walked to where she was standing, his eyes swept over her pink dress and healthy female shape beneath it. She ignored it, and with no introduction or greeting, Iltani asked, “How much?”
In a smooth, deep voice he answered, “Fifteen shekels.” It reminded her of the feeling of lamp oil on the hands.
Iltani nodded and drew her bag from its resting place at her hip. She counted out fifteen of the silver coins and being careful not to touch him, dropped them into his hand. Without saying thank you, she turned her back on him and began to untie the girl.
“You will need a rope for that one,” he said. “She tried to run away last month.”
Hence the whip marks, Iltani thought bitterly.
“She is mine now,” Iltani said coldly. “And I will do what I want with her. Leave me.”
There was a slight, nervous sinking in her gut as soon as she said it, but she didn’t care. By the way she was dressed it was clear that she was a member of the upper class. If he laid a hand on her he could be punished – that is, if she was clever enough, said the right words and procured the right witnesses. But the man only gave her a condescending look and walked away. No doubt he was going back to his tent to hide from the sun, appropriate behavior for any ground worm.
Iltani gently and patiently undid the many knots tied in the filthy cord that bound the girl’s wrists and let it fall to the ground. She would not pick it up and it would never touch this girl again. By this point, the slave was looking at her a little, but just barely.
“Are you ready?” Iltani asked. “I am taking you out of this place.”
The girl looked up at her with slightly less apathy. Even through her hopeless demeanor it was clear that she wasn’t used to being spoken to this way. The girl didn’t follow at once, but looked at Iltani as though she still didn’t fully understand.
“Come,” Iltani said. She picked up the girl’s hand and was sickened as she felt how shockingly lean and gaunt it was. The girl allowed herself to be carefully led out of the pen by what she surely thought was her new master. Iltani noticed sadly that the other two gazed longingly after them. They had no doubts about what was happening.
Despite the man’s warning, the slave girl seemed to have no desire to run whatsoever. She followed along perfectly and obediently at Iltani’s side. They walked toward the market area of the slave fair. No matter what else happened today, she would make sure the girl would eat.
“What is your name?” Iltani asked.
The girl murmured something and shook her head. Finally she forced out, “I have had many.”
“I see,” said Iltani. “Well, perhaps we can find a new name for you then, one you will like.” She smiled, trying to be positive, but shuddered inside. She could only imagine what the girl’s “names” might have been.
The girl nodded distantly and looked at the ground. Iltani stopped at a booth in the market and bought bread, cheese, smoked meat and two pears, all of which the merchant handed to her in a sack. They walked away from the tents and sat beneath a palm tree.
Iltani took some bread and meat for herself, then handed over the bag containing the rest of the food. The girl took it into her filthy hands and stared at it for a few seconds, then looked at Iltani. She pulled out the meat and began to devour it ravenously.
Not knowing where to begin, Iltani said, “My name is Iltani. I am going to be married in a few months.”
The girl nodded and continued eating. Iltani went on. “My mother thought I should have an attendant to bring with me into my new house. It will not be so bad. We will take good care of you.”
The young woman stopped tearing into the food and looked up, as though the realization finally dawned on her that this complete stranger seemed to have good intentions. “Why?”
Iltani wasn’t entirely sure. She knew that everything was determined by the gods – everyone from Egypt to India knew that. Yet there was more to it, Iltani had to admit. She could have chosen anyone at the fair.
“Why not?” Iltani laughed.
She thought the girl tried to smile a little, but it fled her face quickly. Though Iltani knew nothing of the girl’s history as of yet, it was plain that this young woman had endured a life of purest hell and understood nothing of basic human compassion. The idea that one person could help another was truly unreal, and therefore suspicious. When the girl finished consuming all the food, Iltani handed her the water flask and it was promptly drained dry.
They walked back to where Iltani had tethered the onagers. The girl looked surprised to see two animals.
“Have you ridden before?” Iltani asked.
“Only a few times,” the girl answered. “But I know how.”
Iltani’s new companion appeared not to mind spending two hours in the blazing hot sun on the trip back to Ur. She seemed very interested when they approached the walls of the city. Even from outside, they could see the mud brick ziggurat with its long staircase towering above the wall.
The girls entered the city and meandered through the sandy lanes between many well-kept homes and shops. Green plants and flowers of red and yellow grew in pots beside many doors. Men and women bustled through the streets, leading donkeys or pulled in carts behind them. The animals were laden with crops or sacks of goods. In open squares, booths were set up in small clusters as marketplaces. One could find anything from jewelry to medicine, leather items, exotic clothing, scented oil and soaps. Ur traded with surrounding city-states as well as other lands, and even across the sea. There wasn’t much that couldn’t be obtained here.
Iltani came upon a woman selling small jars of healing ointments. In light of her new friend’s condition, it was the best purchase she could think of besides food. The young woman watched as Iltani exchanged a few coins for two jars, wondering what they might be for.
They passed row upon row of houses made of mud brick and plastered with adobe. Many of the houses had reed-thatched roofs, while some of the two-stories had solid roofs with a sky light in the middle. Iltani’s home was one of these.
She opened the door and peered inside, finding to her delight that her mother wasn’t home. Things were already starting to change in her favor. There was a lot to do in a short amount of time and the girl’s hair in particular would be a task all by itself, if in fact it could even be saved.
“My mother is not yet here,” Iltani said, smiling at her good fortune. “She must still be at the market or with my father. We must make you presentable.”
The door opened to a wide reception area that had white-washed walls. Several red upholstered benches rested against the walls to the left and right. The floor was covered with reed mats as were all the floors of the home. On each side of the room, beautiful tapestry depicting animals and scenery adorned the walls.
To the left, this reception area opened to the dining and relaxing room, where a richly carved table of dark wood stood in the middle of the room. There were also more upholstered benches (closely approximating small couches without backs) along the walls, and a thick, soft rug underfoot.
The next room was the household chapel with a shrine to the city’s deity, Nanna, god of the moon and creator of all things. His image, a seated man with a moon carved on his chest, was made of reddish clay and placed near the wall. A bowl encrusted in gold filigree sat at its base, to be used for burning offerings. Dried plants and flowers were strewn about his feet as well. Folded linens on the floor served as a kneeler.
The open doorway to the left led out to the family’s sunlit courtyard. It was completely tiled and had a drain in the center to take care of rainfall – not that it rained often. It was also where guests’ feet were washed. Poppies of red, yellow and pink were planted in thirteen pots along the edges of the square-tiled area. There were four stone benches, one placed along each wall.
Exiting to the right of the courtyard was the long, narrow kitchen. It contained a brick oven and shelved recesses on the walls to hold plates, bowls and cups, all made of smooth, reddish-brown clay. There was a plain table for preparing food and two brick pedestals near the wall opposite the oven, which held bowls of fruit and jugs of water. A smaller table with several levels stood beside the larger one. On this one, knives, ladles and other cutting and cooking implements were stored. On the back wall of the kitchen was the door to the storage room.
After the kitchen was a small hallway which led to two bedrooms. One of these was used by Iltani’s parents. The other had been used by her brother, Namhu, before he was married. There was a bathing room that way as well, but Iltani didn’t need to show her guest this section of the house. She led her up the wooden stairs to the second floor, to her own quarters and bath area.
On this level, there were four bedrooms. One was Iltani’s, two had been for her older sisters, Sin-nada and Ku-aya, who both were now married, and one had been for servants. Now the servants were spread out between the three bedrooms.
When Iltani and the girl appeared on the second floor, two of the female servants, Nuratum and Arwi-a, popped out of the room nearest Iltani’s. Both wore off-the-shoulder dresses, had red lips, black-rimmed eyes and neatly braided hair. Nuratum took one look at the young woman and gasped.
“This is the girl?” she asked. Panicked, she offered, “I will come help you.”
“And I as well,” Arwi-a said.
“Thank you,” Iltani said. Although she felt completely responsible, getting help wasn’t a bad idea. “I will finish showing her around the house first.”
The women nodded and headed down the hallway. Besides Arwi-a and Nuratum, there was one other female servant, Humusi, and two male servants, Palusum and Mezizi. Humusi and Palusum were married, and occupied the room directly across from Iltani’s. Mezizi had his own.
Iltani showed her new friend where she would be staying. “And here is our room,” she said.
She drew aside the blue linen curtain and let the girl look inside. A thick fur rug had been placed on top of the reed mat. There were two beds, each about a foot high. They consisted of hemp material stuffed with broken straw, overlayed with animal skin, then linen blankets. Heavier, wool blankets were folded at the edge of each, but those weren’t needed in summer. There was a small, low table between the beds that held a lantern, small jar of water and two cups. Near the left wall was another, larger table (closer in size to a desk) with a stool. There was a large, bronze hand mirror fitted through a slat toward the back. This table was covered in jars of cosmetics, small brushes, combs and hair ribbons. A small reed basket held Iltani’s jewelry. The large wooden chest at the foot of one of the beds was where Iltani stored her clothing.
Iltani pointed at the vacant bed and told her, “That one is for you.”
The girl nodded politely but was lost for words. Iltani set the healing ointments on the table and they made their way to the bathing room.
This chamber was a wonder all by itself. It consisted of a grey floor made of limestone and an asphalt-like material, which sloped inward to the drain in the center. Water went out the drainage hole and then through a pipe of baked clay that ran down the side of the house. There was a large stone seat with several buckets of water next to it. Four towels hung on the wall. Two shelves held sponges, cloths, a brush for scrubbing and bars of soap. It wasn’t customary to have such a room on the second floor, but Iltani’s family could afford it. As her guest looked around, Iltani took a step back and considered the task at hand.
Arwi-a and Nuratum appeared with more buckets of water and smiled in a friendly manner, though Iltani knew that what they really felt was sympathy and concern. Iltani had never known what it was like to be in such terrible condition. Her own body was clean, her clothes were well-made and properly dyed, her hair was glossy and black, pulled into a braid today, but worn at other times in ornate twists atop her head. But Iltani resolved that if caring for this girl was what the gods wanted, then they had better get busy and do what needed to be done.
About an hour later, the young woman was clean and wrapped in a towel. Iltani gave her one of her own expensive dresses, a light yellow one with green embroidery that hung off one shoulder, and a pair of sandals. The girl had been barefoot before. She sent the servants away and considered what to do next.
“Now for your hair,” said Iltani. She tried to put from her mind how easy the job would be made by a pair of shears.
They sat on the thick fur rug in her room and Iltani patiently worked away. After another hour, one side of her hair was done. Iltani sighed and began the other. When she had that side about halfway finished, her mother walked in. She looked stately in a white, draped dress with a blue border, her hair put up exquisitely with bronze clips.
“Iltani,” she called as she stepped into the room. “Oh! You have her. Well, hello. My name is Alittum. I am Iltani’s mother.”
Iltani heaved a sigh of relief. Thanks to all their hard work, Alittum wasn’t displeased by her choice of attendant. Though the girl was as thin as death and still had some tangles, compared to how she looked two hours ago, she was a queen. The girl stood up and bowed politely.
“And what is your name, child?” Alittum asked.
The girl paused. “I am – I am –”
Iltani knew that she had better act fast. If it came to it, there was no telling what her mother might name her, but it would probably be something long and ill-suited. A few shafts of sunlight came through the skylight at that moment and illuminated the bright silk of the dress, bringing out the trails of green embroidered flowers. The combed hair on the right side shone blue-black and flashed silver when she moved.
Rays of the sun, Iltani thought quickly. Sun. Ray. Rays.
“Her name is Raia,” Iltani said brightly. But Raia did not mean “rays” or “sun” or anything like that at all. It was not even Kiengirian, it was a Hebrew name that meant “friend.” Not only that, Iltani didn’t pronounce it correctly. She made it “Ray-uh,” whereas it should have been “Rah-yah.” She couldn’t even remember where she heard the name, only that she liked it and it seemed appropriate. To her surprise, the girl came to life almost at once.
“Yes, my name is Raia,” she agreed. Raia readily took to using the incorrect pronunciation as well.
Alittum looked back and forth between the two of them. “Raia. Raia from Canaan?”
“No,” Raia said. “I am from here in Kiengir. I was born in Eridu.”
“Oh,” Alittum said. “Very well. Welcome, Raia. We hope you are happy here.” She glanced down and saw the wrists, then looked at Iltani again. “Iltani will help you and get you accustomed to everything. You will only be here a few months, then Iltani will move to the new house with her husband.”
“Thank you,” Raia said. “I am sure I will be quite happy.”
Iltani laughed out loud. If she had known it would have been that easy to raise her spirits, she would have named the girl on sight.
Raia was presented to Iltani’s father, Sabum, later that night. Sabum was a couple inches shorter than his wife, had a stocky, solid build and eyes that always seemed to harbor some stress or concern. There was something about him that let one know he meant business. Raia had looked terrified at their meeting, but with Iltani’s prompting she pulled through just fine. He, like Allitum, also seemed happy with his daughter’s choice of attendant.
Iltani reflected that Sabum was a good provider and had always been fair to her. She recalled that when she was a child, he would usually give her a stern look or a talking-to rather than resort to physical punishment as the first action. But, it was also made clear to her from as far back as she could remember that she didn’t have a great deal of room for error either. When the sharp frown appeared on his face, that was her cue to get herself in line – and quick. Though Sabum was known throughout Ur for his equitable business dealings and high moral character, he was also known for his incredibly quick temper. That was not to say that he had ever been abusive or overly harsh with her. It was just that Iltani had always nursed the idea, in the back of her mind, that he had the potential for it if the right (or wrong) situation ever presented itself. Therefore, Iltani made it a point to always do as she was told and conduct herself as appropriately as possible. She wasn’t perfect, born in sin like all people, but she could still try.
She could have introduced Raia to her brother, Namhu, and two sisters, Sin-nada and Ku-aya, but all three were already married and out of the house, though they lived nearby and Raia would meet them soon enough. Iltani was the youngest and her mother seemed never to tire of reminding her that she was getting quite a late start at seventeen. At this Iltani could only sigh.
As the week passed, Iltani found that Raia’s company made existence bearable. She found that she could tell Raia her thoughts and share things with her that she had never imparted to anyone. Raia always seemed to understand. She was willing to listen. Iltani tried asking Raia what she went through before her new life in Ur, but Raia didn’t seem to want to talk about it much. Iltani could only gather from the little she did say that she was generally uncared for, slapped for the slightest mistake and beaten for the bigger ones, and fed only once a day. But these things Iltani had figured out already. She would have liked to know Raia’s complete history, but didn’t want to push her if it was too painful to talk about. Maybe one day Raia would be able to tell her everything, and if not, that was fine too. What was really important was that her situation was better now, even if it wasn’t as good as being free and having her own home.
Iltani was pleased to see Raia getting on very well. Already she was starting to gain weight, and the hollow, starved look in her eyes was fading. Iltani gave her five of her own dresses, two pairs of shoes and a cloak. The rag she originally wore was burned on the first evening (Iltani poured lamp oil on it and thought of the man at the slave fair. She would like to think that a little piece of him went with it.). Raia carried herself better and Iltani worked tirelessly to get her to stop looking at the ground as though she was going to be punished at any moment. There would be no punishments here, Iltani told her. She was safe and only needed to help with the household duties and do her work to have their protection.
At the beginning of the second week, Iltani, her parents and all the servants worshiped together in their little shrine for Nanna. They never went to the great ziggurat; only priests and priestesses were allowed there. For the most part, Raia just went through the motions the best she could and looked awkward. It was obvious that she had never done this before. Iltani dropped her family’s offering in the golden basin and thanked the god for helping her this past week, but for some reason she never felt a connection to the deity Nanna. When she prayed and awaited an answer, if she heard anything in return it always seemed like a woman’s voice which spoke back to her. But it could just be her imagination. She wasn’t a priestess, so there was no reason to think she had any divine insight.
There was a lot to do before the wedding in two and a half months. One day, Iltani bid her parents farewell for a few hours and she and Raia wandered into the marketplace. She needed more linen material for the trim of her gown and wool thread for the quilt she was working on, which was to be a gift for her husband on their wedding day. Her family was wealthy enough that she could buy the thread, material or clothing she wanted instead of having to make it herself. For these projects she would do a bit of both.
As they approached the merchants in the square, something caught Iltani’s attention and she soon found her eyes locked on an odd-looking man about her age at the bronze dealer’s booth.
“Look at that, Raia,” she couldn’t help but say, and both of them stopped abruptly.
The man was dressed in what Iltani could only think of as an incredibly peculiar and barbarian-like manner. He wore some animal skin as a sort of cloak. It was a soft tan color and went almost to the backs of his knees. He wore a dark blue tunic which was probably wool from the look of it. His hair was nearly black and quite long, gathered in the back at the neck but not braided, and he had no beard. He wore no cosmetics at all – not that he needed any, with that lurid, shockingly white pallor. His fair skin looked as though it had never seen the sun and yet didn’t look sickly. It suited him somehow. And speaking of the sun, wasn’t he suffocating under that animal hide and wool? Iltani placed him between seventeen and twenty, not that she gave her guess any real merit. She couldn’t make any sense out of him in the first place.
“What is he?” Raia asked.
“I do not know,” said Iltani, shaking her head. She was curious though, so they walked a little closer to the bronze merchant’s display. They heard the man speaking to him in a stilted half Kiengirian and half the-gods-know-what language. It was very hard to understand. As they stood and eavesdropped quite nosily, Iltani gathered that he was asking for some kind of metal that the bronze smith didn’t carry. He mentioned some nonsense about magnetic gold. And the idea of a non-magnetic metal being magnetic seemed familiar to Iltani, despite the fact that it was completely ridiculous. Staring at the scene in front of her, the man actually seemed a bit familiar too, but how was that possible?
Iltani drew in for a closer look with Raia nearly pressed up against her back, probably horrified at the thought of meeting yet another man, and one she couldn’t classify at that.
“Excuse me,” Iltani said. Some reason was needed to speak to him or it would seem improper. “I believe I have seen you somewhere. Are you a friend of my father, Sabum?”
The bronze merchant looked down his nose at her. Even with the excuse, Iltani’s address seemed out of place. Then the fair, oddly dressed man began to turn toward her, and as he did so her head began to spin, so full of some emotion and crudely formed images that she almost reeled backward. It was a good thing Raia was right behind her.
“I do know you!” Iltani burst out. She shook her head. She still didn’t know how that was possible, only that it was somehow correct. He looked down at her with his stone white skin and piercing eyes above the high cheek bones and she realized that she found him striking and beautiful in some distant, ethereal way – like something out of a half-remembered dream – and she at once felt embarrassed and ashamed of herself.
The strange man shook his head and it looked like he was about to start backing away, but something about Iltani struck him too. “No,” he returned in his tongue-defying accent. “I do not know your father.”
He nodded to the merchant and was preparing to depart when Iltani did the unthinkable. She reached out and grabbed his arm to stop him from leaving!
Raia gasped behind her.
“Wait!” Iltani cried. “I do know you. I know it. I am sorry, but – I just know it. What is your name?”
From the corner of her eye, Iltani could see the merchant staring at her with his cheeks on fire.
But the foreigner didn’t seem upset at all. He allowed himself to be stopped and answered, “Relan.”
Relan, Iltani thought. Now that is a strange name if ever there was one, but that is his name. I am sure of it. She had no idea how she knew that. Iltani recalled her mother’s words during Raia’s presentation and asked, “Relan. Relan from Canaan?” It was wrong of course, but she had to ask something just to continue the conversation.
The merchant made a low growling sound and turned his back on the whole scene. He fiddled with some crates toward the back of the display.
“No,” he replied. “Relan from Widalo Enissi.”
There was a fluttering sensation deep within her chest. She knew that place. Of course she knew it. Widalo Enissi. Yes, she had always known it. But, its essence and full meaning was lost to her, just as this stranger of whom she had recollection but couldn’t place.
Iltani stumbled over the bizarre sound of the words. “Widalo Enissi,” she imitated. They stood looking at one another. “I am Iltani and this is Raia, my attendant.” She motioned with her head to the young woman still at her back.
The man nodded, bowed a little and began to move off. “Su din.”
Iltani didn’t understand, but knew that it must have been some way of saying goodbye. She said farewell in the formal way too. But it took both of them a few seconds, and a definite effort, to break away from the other’s eyes. Even though she knew it was wrong in so many ways, she vowed that she would see him again.
Later, as she and Raia looked over a skein of bright blue thread, Raia leaned in close and said, “I have seen him before too.”
“Do you know him?” Iltani asked. She felt a little jealous and knew it was irrational.
“Yes,” answered Raia. “I think so, but I do not know from where. I think – I think you should please be careful.”
Iltani was moved that Raia would be concerned for her safety. “Oh,” she laughed. “Do not worry about me.” But she told herself that Raia was right. She sighed. It felt like her heart was turning to lead. Deep down, she wondered if the truth of the matter was simply that she wanted someone to appear and take her away from it all. That was probably all she saw in the stranger, merely someone different who reminded her of the thoughts she dare not share with anyone but Raia.
The days passed, as did more wedding preparations along with the mundane. Just as Iltani had secretly hoped, she caught sight of the man again. This time, it wasn’t in broad daylight in the clamor of the common market area. She saw him through the kitchen window, right there in the lane outside her own house. The man was pacing back and forth. Did he know that she lived there? How could he?
The sun was setting, turning the sky rose-gold behind the mud brick buildings of the city. There was still daylight by which to see, but not with the same accusing glare as on the first occasion.
“There he is,” Iltani whispered to Raia, who busily shelled peas at her side. “I am going out there.”
Raia nodded. “I will come with you.”
“Oh – um, no, I think it better that you stay here. So if I anger my parents, you will not also be a party.” Iltani winked. Something told her though that if she were ever in a pinch, Raia would help her. “But I will be back soon.”
She slipped out quietly and felt a little rush of excitement and freedom. Her blood quickened and her senses sharpened as she greeted the cool evening air. The penalty for secretly meeting with a man when she was already engaged could be severe – though she would be doing nothing immoral. She wanted only to speak with him. But the meeting, itself, could be enough to get her whipped.
“Relan,” Iltani called.
He stopped his pacing and turned to look at her. “Iltani,” he said in recognition.
Now that it came down to it, she didn’t have a thing to say to him. She noticed that he didn’t seem to think it odd for her to just come out and address him again. She wondered why. Perhaps in the strange land he came from the rules were different, but she doubted this.
She finally managed, “It is good to see you again.”
He laughed, a soft, musical laugh that again made him seem familiar. It was a little cold and sad, but there was nothing evil about it, nothing that she should fear. He answered, “And you as well. We should walk together.”
Her hopes lifted at once. “Yes, I would like that.” She pictured Raia peering out the window at them, probably thinking she had lost her mind as she followed alongside the foreigner. “You will have to tell me more about the place you spoke of. I have never been outside of Kiengir. Is it far away?”
Relan laughed again. “Oh yes, it is far. Far and far. It would probably take you a year to travel there. Not many here in Ur know of Widalo Enissi, and not many would be able to make the journey, or want to.”
“Oh. Well, how did you make it?”
“I just know the way. That is the difference,” Relan answered. He looked down at her and smiled.
Iltani blurted, “Could I learn the way?” What he must think of her, this strange woman asking him if she could learn the way to his city-state as though it would be perfectly fine for her to just up and go there.
“Yes,” he said, nodding slowly. “Maybe. And I suppose if you did come through – I mean, travel there – you would probably like it. It is much different for our women.”
Iltani wondered what prompted him to tell her that. Her interest piqued and she stopped. Frowning, she asked, “Different? Different how?”
“Well,” he began, observing her unblinking stare, “It is acceptable to speak to me there as you are doing now, only there you would not have to do it in secret.”
Her eyes widened and she confessed, “I am to be married in two months.” She wanted to kick herself. How stupid to bring that up now!
“And?” he asked.
“And, well – and, my father took great care to find someone suitable. Etirum is in the metal business, and his family has eight servants, and I am sure it will be a suitable arrangement, and if it does not work out I can marry his brother, and I just need to –”
“And?” he asked again. She still hadn’t answered the question.
“And – and – I do not want to do it!” The last word seemed to bounce off the mud brick walls of the houses to either side of them. Now she had completely crossed the line.
But Relan only laughed again. “Then do not.”
“That is not how it is here,” said Iltani. “I must. It would be different if I came from a poor family, or maybe just a different one. But my family really needs this.”
“I see,” he nodded. “That is exactly what I mean. Where I come from, you could marry anyone you choose – even someone like me,” he added with a mischievous grin.
Iltani gasped and tried to laugh in return, but she was a little alarmed. It was harmless, but still caught her off guard. Then, perfectly timed with that awkward moment, a voice roared out of the growing darkness and made her jump.
“Iltani!” It was her father. He didn’t call her name again; he didn’t need to. She turned to see him and her mother standing in the lane. Thankfully, Raia wasn’t with them. Hopefully none of this would affect her.
Without saying a word to Relan, Iltani turned and walked in the direction of her parents. Their faces were hard and serious. Sabum’s arms were crossed and her mother looked mortified. All the love and affection seemed gone from them as though it had never been. Well, that is that, she thought. She had been curious, shared that curiosity with another person and it came to harm. Now whatever miniscule bit of happiness and freedom she had was gone. Maybe having it at all was just an illusion. It was her own fault for wanting what she could not obtain, for always thinking differently.
Inside the house, Raia was still in the kitchen. She was seated in a chair, hands folded in her lap, with tears streaming down her face.
“Raia!” Iltani said, rushing to her friend’s side and kneeling beside the chair. “Are you hurt?”
Raia shook her head. “No, but I told Sabum I will take your punishment if there is to be one.” She tried to take Iltani’s hand, but Sabum roughly pushed his daughter away before she could receive it.
“Silence!” Sabum shouted at both of them, then turned to Iltani. “She will get one lash for every two of yours, for not coming to tell us of your whorish ways!”
Raia sat up straighter, her body stiffening into a rigid board. Her face was expressionless for a moment, then the tears began to stream with renewed vigor.
Iltani stood up and looked her father straight in the face. Raia wouldn’t suffer for her stupidity – she had suffered enough for ten people already.
“No. I will take hers too, every one of them!” she screamed. “Just give them all to me and see if I care!”
“Insolence!” Her father grabbed her arm around the bicep and shook it ferociously, like a dog whose teeth bore down on a rabbit. “That is exactly what you will get! Worthless girl, with everything your mother and I have done for you, this is how you repay it – speaking with a man in the street like common trash!”
His entire face was flame red and his body shook with each syllable. This was it.
With one swift movement, Sabum flung her against the wall. Her shoulder took most of the damage, knocking down the tapestry, then her foot upset the bronze floor vase. She didn’t cry out, but was breathless from the shock, and she couldn’t keep her footing. Iltani saw a blurred vision of Alittum pointing to Raia and then the door, in indication for her to leave the room. From the floor where she landed, she saw her mother follow her friend, then reappear a moment later with one of the short whips for the onagers. She had been swatted a few times before for misbehavior, but nothing like what was about to come. That she knew.
Iltani didn’t know how many lashes her father planned to give her, only that it would be hers plus Raia’s. As he came over with the whip in his hand, she still said nothing and made no sound, merely looked up at him and held his gaze. He reached down and grabbed her braid, and by it heaved her to her feet. Then he turned her around by the head so that she had her back to him. Sabum ripped the top part of her dress straight down the back to the hip, took a step back and began the beating.
Though probably nothing compared to what was used on Raia by the cruel man at the slave fair, the lash end of the whip was about one foot long, more than enough length to leave a streak of red across the breadth of Iltani’s back. Sabum pulled back his arm and lashed Iltani with the first stroke. It stung so much she had a delayed reaction, paralyzed and shocked by the pain so that she didn’t scream until several seconds later. Then her father whipped her bare skin the second time and she let a somewhat smaller cry escape. By the third, she gritted her teeth and growled, but didn’t scream again. He couldn’t win entirely, he couldn’t make her guilty of a crime she didn’t commit, or make her into something that she wasn’t.
Iltani was counting, and the fifth lash hurt more than the fourth, probably because now the new lashes were tearing into the previous ones. But she silenced herself completely this time, which meant only that he dealt number six with more force. She gritted her teeth again and prepared for number seven, but her father had stopped.
“When you admit that you acted in sin and decide that you are ready to be a proper woman befitting of this house, then the punishment will be over. Do you admit?”
Through her vague thoughts of pain and betrayal, Iltani felt the little flame of rebellion, that tiny spark that could never quite be extinguished. She would do no such thing.
“No,” she spat.
He brought down the whip for the next blow in the series – hers, plus Raia’s, she reminded herself – and her father lashed her twenty-one times before he was finally finished. Exasperated and huffing at her audacity, he told her to go to her room. She held her ruined dress over her chest and stood up straight, turning to look him in the eyes.
“Do not come out until you have repented and purified herself,” he said. His daughter didn’t answer.
Iltani forced herself to walk slowly. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her run to her quarters like a little girl. No, she would make each step up the stairs careful and deliberate, holding her head high even if she couldn’t stop the tears. Finally, she reached her door’s curtain and pushed it away to enter her room. Raia was already sitting on the bed with a lantern burning on the side table. When Iltani sat down beside her she could hold it no longer. She burst into wild sobbing and completely forgot herself. She was so upset and hurting that she was almost unconscious. Iltani was vaguely aware of Raia hugging her tightly and apologizing, Raia telling her that everything would be okay. Besides her grief, the only thought that filled Iltani’s mind was that she was grateful for Raia’s presence. Raia was the only one who truly cared for her. Even her own mother had brought the whip. A lifetime of good behavior, playing by rules with which she disagreed because that was the “right” thing to do, now reduced to nothing by one mistake.
“Thank you, Raia,” Iltani managed. She tried to hug her back. The shadow of the flickering flame seemed comforting for a moment, the yellow-golden light blanketing them in the dark and stillness of the room. She blinked at it a second longer, then fell into a dreamless sleep.
Chapter Two: The World is Round
The next morning dawned as fair and bright as any Iltani could wish for, but as she opened her eyes and looked around the sunlit room, she didn’t see any beauty in it. She had slept later than usual; it must be getting on toward mid-morning. Raia was not with her now. She must be working with her mother in the kitchen.
Iltani sat up and felt the soreness in her back and the bruised shoulder which had struck the wall. Her dress had twisted during the night and stuck to the dried blood and ooze. She had not bothered to wash and change into her nightclothes before collapsing into sleep. She took the jar of water from the side table and poured it straight down her back. The icy chill of the water made her wince, but that was the only way the garment was coming off. After a moment, she was able to peel it away from the wounds. She went to the bathing room and scrubbed herself without the aid of a servant, cleaning her back the best she could. Then she dried herself, changed into a fresh gown, brushed her hair and applied her cosmetics. She would have to face her parents at some point. There was no sense in putting it off.
Raia was with Alittum just as Iltani had thought, grinding spices at the table. Her eyes were red and puffy, her face drawn and haggard as though she hadn’t slept a wink. But oddly, when she looked up from the bowl full of coriander leaves, there was a spark to her that Iltani had never seen before. For once she actually looked alive, and not just in the way she had when she was named, but really alive, like a wild bird that was so aware of itself and its freedom that it was forever out of reach and uncatchable.
Raia had assumed the presence of an independent being, one who may actually have some fight left in her. Iltani didn’t know what could have brought about this change. She thought it certainly could not be the barbarism of the past night. Whatever it was, she was glad to see it. She wondered if her mother noticed it too, but didn’t ask or call attention to it.
“Good morning,” Raia said cheerfully, despite her exhausted condition. “I made breakfast for you. It is in that bowl.” She nodded toward a dish on the table that was covered with a red cloth.
“Oh, thank you,” Iltani returned. She revealed the three boiled eggs dusted with fresh ground spices.
Alittum heard Iltani enter, but did not turn around. She didn’t greet her as Raia did, nor inquire if she was all right or ask to see the welts on her back. She did, however, give Iltani very clear instructions at once.
“You are not to leave the house until your wedding day with Etirum. We have everything we need here and if not, one of the servants can go out for it. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” Iltani said. She couldn’t expect much more. Yet irrationally, especially after what she had brought on herself, it hurt that she couldn’t see the man again – Relan. She felt a pull toward him that she couldn’t explain, a connection that couldn’t be purged with the lash or further threats. Again she cursed herself for not being like everyone else, her own unique and tragic flaw that she would never be rid of. It was idiocy to think of him.
She ate the eggs hungrily since she had eaten nothing the night before. She went about her day and forced herself to not think about what was coming in just over two months.
By the evening, Iltani was growing increasingly curious of the transformation that had befallen her friend overnight. When they were finally alone in the little room, Iltani couldn’t stand not knowing for an instant longer. At that moment, Raia had the traces of a cryptic smile on her face.
“Raia, what has happened to you?” Iltani asked at last.
At first, Raia only laughed.
She laughed! Iltani thought, wanting to squeal with delight.
“You happened,” Raia said. “No one has ever done anything like that for me.”
Iltani didn’t know what to say. It was touching, but unreal. She couldn’t believe that anything from last night’s ordeal could have to do with Raia’s happiness. “But, are you not tired? You look like you have not slept one wink.”
“I did not. Not at all,” Raia laughed again. “At first, I was so sad about what happened. I thought it was all my fault. Then, I was selfish and I felt so good – good for myself, for not getting whipped. I kept thinking about what you did, about how much courage you had, to take my part of the punishment too. I have never had a friend before and I –” Her bottom lip trembled, but she took a deep breath and stopped it. “When you first named me, I was grateful, but I did not know that you meant it. I did not think it could be true until last night when you proved it. Then I knew. I am a different person now. Now that I have you, I do not have to be sad or afraid anymore.”
Iltani sniffed and swallowed hard. In the back of her mind all she wanted was to help another person and make everything right, even if she didn’t know why. Now here was Raia having said that in a little over two weeks she had actually helped someone. Iltani had made a little bit of change in the world, a little bit of difference, starting with Raia, her new friend – her only friend.
“Do you know what your name means?” Iltani asked.
“Yes!” Raia exclaimed. “I overheard women speaking of the name at the fair, the day you bought me. Someone was to name their baby.”
Iltani giggled softly and shook her head. “Raia, I did not buy you any more than I could buy the sun. But I am glad you heard it.”
“Me too,” said Raia.
They fell silent, listening to the sounds of the city through the window. Although Iltani knew her parents loved her despite their methods, she wasn’t used to having real closeness to someone. Even with her sisters and brother, it sometimes seemed more business oriented than familial.
“I do not want that marriage,” Iltani said out of nowhere. “But I know there is nothing I can do.” She didn’t know why she was telling Raia. She couldn’t do anything about it either.
“There is something you can do,” answered Raia. “I mean, there is always something. Right?”
Iltani wished she could believe that. “No. Not always. Not with this.”
Raia sat down next to her and looked her in the eyes. “We could run away.”
It hit Iltani hard and made her feel uncomfortable. Raia tried to do that once before and failed, or so the man at the slave fair claimed. And compared to the scars on her friend’s back, Iltani’s marks from last night’s beating were nothing.
“But,” Iltani began slowly, “run away to where? There is nowhere to go.”
Raia said, “There is always somewhere.”
Raia didn’t, however, name anywhere specific. If they were seriously considering such a thing, it would take more than a one-minute conversation and a whim to drive them that far. They would need much more discussion and careful planning.
As Iltani lay in bed and tried to think of where Raia’s “somewhere” might be, she was certain she heard soft tapping sounds on the roof above her. It startled her and she slid out of bed. She went up the staircase in the hallway and peered up through the skylight. Maybe it was just an animal. The sound could have been a rat trying to get in. She heard the noise again and thought that it sounded like knocking, very soft, yet persistent.
“Iltani,” whispered a voice. She could only hear it because she was now standing beneath the opening. Her heart started pounding and she was about to go wake her father, when she heard the voice again. “Iltani. It is me, Relan.”
Now she was certain that her heart skipped a beat. How could he do this – a man she barely knew? How could he put her in danger like this?
Iltani took the remaining few steps that took her through the skylight. There he was, standing on her own roof in the dead of night.
“You could get us both killed,” Iltani whispered fiercely, but secretly, Relan appearing for her in private was the best thing she could have hoped for. She noticed that his long hair wasn’t pulled back, but hung down his shoulders against the cloak he wore.
“I know of what happened last night,” Relan said. The small bit of moonlight just brought out the features in his pale face. “I am sorry, I –”
“Do not be.” Her demeanor softened a little. “You have done nothing wrong.” She stared at him, wondering what to say next. Just the fact that he had come to see her made her feel better.
“I want to show you something,” he said. “Do you see this?” He raised his closed fist, fingers up, and then opened his hand. In his palm rested a small, grey rock about two inches long. There was nothing special about it. It looked like a fragment, a rough sliver of a larger stone.
“It is a rock,” Iltani said.
“No,” he replied. “Not just a rock. It is a key. Take my other hand.”
Her brow furrowed and she looked down at his extended hand. “A key to what?”
“A key to something wonderful, a gateway that can take you and me from one land to the next. You will see. Just take my hand.”
Despite her initial gratitude for his visit, she doubted him suddenly. Was he actually saying that a stone would take her to another place by some magic? She started to back away from him when Relan said, “Watch. I will show you.”
His fingers closed around the grey stone, he closed his eyes and within seconds disappeared!
Iltani gasped so loudly she was certain that Raia could hear from the level below. She was definite that he didn’t just duck out of sight quickly or jump off the house – she would have seen
him doing that. No, he was there one moment and gone the next, as though he had never been there at all.
Several seconds later he appeared again in the same abrupt manner in which he had departed.
“What – what –” Iltani stammered. “How did you do that?”
Relan smiled. “With this,” he said, showing her the little stone fragment again.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“To my home. To Widalo Enissi.”
The idea frightened her (and she would have been a fool if it didn’t) but she did want to see this new land, a place where Relan said the rules were different. From the little she knew of him, it seemed that he was very good at breaking the rules.
“Take my hand,” he said again.
With a nervous trembling in her limbs, Iltani did as she was instructed. She tried not to consider the penalty for what she was about to do. He clasped his hand over hers and held it there. Iltani couldn’t move. She was overcome by some strange emotion that she didn’t recognize, but felt that it was one she intensely liked. His hand was warm and enveloped hers completely, and whatever this feeling was, she welcomed it.
“Good,” he said. “Now, close your eyes.”
Her heart pounded, but Iltani forced herself to comply. She held her breath, not knowing what she expected to happen. After a few seconds, she felt a cool breeze and opened her eyes.
There were no words for the incredible change that had taken place all around her. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She was still facing Relan and holding his right hand as she looked in all directions to make sense of where – and when – she was.
It was not yet nightfall. In the west was a golden and magenta sunset, the few clouds above the horizon lit up with an iridescence as though illuminated from within. The smell of rain and damp earth was strong in the air. The ground beneath their feet was wet, something Iltani noticed immediately because she wasn’t wearing her shoes.
To their right was a cluster of three small, round houses. They had bases made of stone, upon which wooden, upright poles had been placed, the gaps between them filled with some type of dark, pasty mortar. For roofs, each little hut seemed to be covered with layers of animal hide.
To their left, Iltani could see a wide area of cultivated land. She didn’t know what crops grew there, but could see they were green and thriving, and at a stage not yet ready for harvest. The land in general was alive, lush and rolling, with sloping hills and depressions occasionally dotted with stones. There were trees here and there, of types Iltani couldn’t discern because of the fading light, but for the most part this tiny settlement was located on a vast plain. Some distance away there appeared to be the beginnings of a forest. To Relan’s back, a small flock of sheep were clustered near a small hill. There were a few lying on the ground, while most of them stood nearby and grazed.
Iltani could just make out some low, fog-shrouded mountains in the distance. She wondered how far away they were and how long it would take to walk there. Something was glistening green and gold at their base and she thought it must be a lake or stream, but she was too far away to tell if it really was a body of water or just a trick of the light. The landscape was so immensely different from Kiengir. It was so uncivilized, wild, untamed and barely farmed, but perhaps this was what made it so breathtakingly beautiful.
The wind blew again and though it wasn’t severely cold, Iltani suddenly realized she was wearing only her sleeping gown. She was embarrassed and let go of Relan’s hand to wrap her arms around herself.
“Oh, here,” he said. He took off one of the animal hide wrappings he wore and slung it over Iltani’s back and shoulders.
“Thank you,” said Iltani, trying to situate the awkward garment over her finely-spun nightgown. She didn’t know the best place to start with her questions, so decided to begin with the obvious. “There is still sunlight here. Why is it not dark yet?”
“It is because of where we are in the world, compared to from where we just came. The sun here follows Kiengir by three hours.”
Iltani didn’t understand at all. “What? That does not make sense.”
“It does if you know that the world is round,” he said.
Iltani shook her head and looked around at the primitive landscape. From what she had seen so far, her people were centuries, if not a thousand years, ahead of his in terms of architecture, textiles and general advancement, yet here he was telling her the “world was round,” a bizarre concept she’d never heard before. Everyone knew that the earth was a flat disk, and she had always believed it with certainty – for it was true. Why shouldn’t she believe it? For the first time in her life she questioned it.
Although she wasn’t as educated as her father and brother, being born to a family of high social status meant that she was schooled in certain areas. In addition to learning how to grind grain, cook, make clothing, perform household tasks and raise children, she learned how to read and write when she was a child. Scribe school was expensive, but just as her family could afford a bathing chamber on the second story of their home, so could they afford to see that their youngest daughter wasn’t illiterate. Iltani also received lessons from her mother, an intelligent woman in her own right, on subjects that Alittum considered appropriate. The gods, life after death, social dealings and conduct, haggling in the marketplace and of course, the concept of the world as a flat disk, all fell under this heading.
“Round?” she asked. “Round like a ball of yarn?”
“Yes,” Relan said. “Exactly. And if we were far, far east of here, near a sea which you have never seen before, it would be past dawn.”
She looked at him and tilted her head. “I see. And where would Kiengir be on this ball?”
“Kiengir is to the east, though not nearly as great a distance away as the land over which the sun is now rising,” he said. “That is what makes the difference.”
Iltani nodded and tried to take that in.
She looked toward the three little stone houses to see that a man and a woman had emerged from one of them with firewood in their arms. They were clad in simple hide garments. Compared to them, Relan was dressed like a king.
“Of course,” he continued, indicating the couple who placed their kindling within a stone circle, “They do not know that. Only I do, because of this.”
He raised his hand briefly, showing the fist containing the rock.
“Because of your traveling,” Iltani agreed, and before she could reflect on it much she had another question. “Why are the people here so fair?”
“That again is because of where we are on the earth. In the cooler places, people tend to be pale, and in the warmer ones, like Kiengir, they tend to be darker, like you. It is not absolute, but close.”
“Oh,” Iltani acknowledged. She only partially understood, but it seemed plausible if it had something to do with how much sun one saw in a given day. “And do your people know that you can do this – travel by magic?”
“Yes,” Relan said. “But I am the last. I am the last person who knows about the gateways and how to use them and –” He stopped suddenly and lowered his voice, even though the man and woman probably couldn’t hear, let alone understand the broken Kiengirian he was using. “There was a war not far from here and we moved. Many people died, as did all the initiates – except for some of my family and me. I have to find someone to give the sacred knowledge to, but the priests are dead. It is now only I who can teach it. That is not the way it is supposed to be.” He shook his head and looked at the ground, then back at the man and woman who still seemed to be having difficulty getting a spark.
Iltani just stared at him.
“But that is too much for your first visit,” he said. “Shall we help them to start their fire?”
Iltani realized she had been holding her breath again and let it out with a nervous laugh. “Sure. You will have to teach me how to say, ‘Hello.’”
“Su writ-ouxsero,” Relan said. “That is ‘Good evening.’”
“Su writ-ouxsero,” Iltani repeated. She said it a few times, with Relan laughing at her. “Not bad. Nice accent too.”
“Ha, yes,” she agreed. “And may I add that you have an – what do you call your language?”
“We call it ‘Enissi Liguru.’ In your language that would come out to something like ‘Island Tongue.’ But we do not have written symbols as in Ur. It is forbidden.”
“The name seems fitting,” Iltani said, allowing herself to smile and relax a little. She didn’t know how it was possible that he had managed to learn her language. It must have taken him a long time.
They started toward the huts and as they walked, she asked, “So why Ur? You must have been visiting for quite a while.”
“Well, I first found it by accident, but when I had a look around and saw your writing, that was reason enough to continue there. I need someone from an advanced society who can preserve the knowledge I give them. There is no use in knowing what I know if I cannot pass on the knowledge. If I die, the sacred knowledge dies with me. Did you know that we do not have a word for ‘writing’ in my language?”
“That is most unusual! I have known how to read and write since I was young,” Iltani said. She had to admit, that was one of the benefits of coming from a wealthy family, even if it carried its burdens too. “Are you saying that I have been chosen for this?”
“Perhaps,” answered Relan. “But it may be too soon to be sure.”
“And tell me again. Why did you bring me here?” She added “again” only to be polite. He had never given a reason why he wanted to show her this primitive, yet strangely beautiful part of the world.
Relan stopped for a moment. “Do you really not know?”
Iltani felt her body come to a halt beside his and she was glad of her dark complexion in the waning light. He couldn’t see that her cheeks burned with crimson. She had to admit, he was right. There was that part of herself that she never wanted to listen to because it wasn’t prudent or didn’t fit her parents’ wishes. That awareness told her exactly what was happening and why.
“Well, I suppose I just did not want to assume,” she started. “We hardly know each other.”
“And this Etirum you mentioned. Do you know him?” Relan countered.
“No, that is not the way it works where I am from. My parents have –”
Relan interrupted, “How much time have you spent with him?”
Iltani had to pause and think. “Well, we spoke a little at the engagement party and last week we talked near the marketplace.”
She knew where Relan’s logic was leading. “I suppose I do know you a bit more.”
He laughed and told her, “Like I said, things are different here.”
Then she felt guarded again. “And what about you? Did you never marry?”
The smile quickly fled his face. He wasn’t angry, only distant. “I did, once. She died.” He glanced at her to see what effect it had, or maybe he wondered if he should elaborate. She wasn’t sure.
“Oh,” Iltani said. She quickly apologized.
“It is all right. It was a long time ago.”
She didn’t understand what he meant by that; he wasn’t much older than she was. Perhaps he was only married for a short time? She left it alone, not wanting to pry into a painful subject.
Relan introduced her to his sister, brother and their families. She greeted them like she had practiced, but when they replied she had no idea what they were saying. Their language was tribal and obscure, though they were pleasant and bowed their heads politely. Relan acted as translator back and forth as they exchanged friendly words. None of them seemed to think it the least bit strange that a dark-skinned, young woman from another land had come to visit them, although the two women there marveled over Iltani’s gown and seemed never to tire of touching the fabric.
“Tell her we make it from the flax plant,” Iltani told Relan. She had to explain what it looked like so that he could find the word for it in his language. When the women heard this, Iltani saw their eyes light up at the knowledge that perhaps they too could make such clothing.
“And this, of course, is what we live in,” Relan said, indicating one of the little stone and wood houses. “But I will show you that on another day. It will be much more interesting in daylight.”
The sun had dropped below the horizon, with the bright colors softening into pale pink and blue, and above that the cobalt of oncoming night. Relan seemed a bit uneasy, as though he didn’t want to linger too long.
“And tomorrow,” said Relan. “What time can I come for you?”
This delighted her. “Perhaps after dinner? But how will we meet?”
“I will appear on the roof, just like today,” he said.
Relan took her hand and within moments they were in Ur again. The air was warm and dry, and sunset had long since passed. Above her was the deep night sky with its dusting of stars. She could see most of the city from her vantage point, and beyond it the arid lands. Relan stood across from her and carefully withdrew his hand. He nodded, and without another word was gone.
Iltani caught her breath. She laughed quietly to herself and started to descend the stairs that led to her floor. She felt good, she realized, better than she had felt for a long time. When she lifted the curtain to her room, she saw Raia sitting upright in bed, her eyes huge and gleaming white in the lantern light. It seemed that she had been up for a while. Raia looked a little frightened, but smiled all the same at the sight of her friend.
“I do not know where you went, but I am glad you are back,” she said.
“How long have you been awake?” Iltani asked.
“Not that long. Maybe an hour.”
“Thank you for not going to look for me,” Iltani said gratefully.
“Well, I did go look, actually,” Raia said. “I saw you go up to the roof and I heard voices. I went up to see, but you were gone. So I wondered.”
She told Raia about what she had experienced, her unexplainable journey to another part of the world where the people were primitive. Adding to that the little she knew about the small grey stone and some ancient bit of secret knowledge, it actually came to be a remarkable story.
“Do you believe me?” asked Iltani.
“I do,” answered Raia.
Iltani explained that she would go again tomorrow evening and that she would need Raia to cover for her if her mother happened to come to her room and find her absent. Raia said she would.
“Are you sure it is safe?” Raia asked.
Iltani shook her head. “No – not sure. But I think Relan is who he says he is; better than Etirum and certainly safer than spending a lifetime in misery. Would you not agree?”
Raia nodded and slid back under the covers. She knew what misery was. “I would. And this is what you want?”
Iltani was thoughtful for a moment. “Yes. I believe it is.”
“Good,” replied Raia. “Then that is what I want for you too.”
Iltani wriggled into her own bed and put out the light. A mixture of excitement, fear and the new, unfamiliar, pleasant emotion threatened to keep her up all night.
She finally did drift off. The silhouettes of round huts with deerskin roofs against the sunset were the last images before sleep took her.