Sid Hamer
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Before the great flood, in the time of Jared, greed like the breath of a viper snaked through the city of Eridu. An unfulfilled lust spread over the hearts of men, as dark as the clotting shadows of nightfall. Hul, reluctant lord over the wealthy House of Arad and kinsman redeemer for two widows, a fact that enrages his wife, struggles with a household of dour women and the murder of his uncle and a five-year-old boy, an event instituted by his mother and carried out by his slave.

His affluent life is complicated by a beautiful woman he can’t have and who lives in his quiet moments, the scent of her lingering like a siren song, drawing him to her camp. Evil surrounds her but he chooses not to see it until the obsession puts his survival and the lives of his family in question.


Note From Sid:

I fell in love with Hul from the moment he came into being in the first book in the Poison Jar Series and realized I needed to tell his story. He wants to do the right thing for the women in his life but a part of him also wants what is forbidden and dangerous. Hul struggles with decisions he has made and decisions he must make. And I love him for it.

Semjaza’s City

Chapter One


Fingers of evening stretched across a fiery sky sending black birds into nearby trees screeching and fighting for a place to sleep. Evil seemed to be winning as the stink of death settled on Hul, permeated his clothes and made his chest burn. The boy he had buried in a father’s arms and the two dead men strapped to their horses would be with him always. A burden made more devastating by his slave’s actions and his own mother who had put the massacre into motion.

The slave eyed the weapons and worked at his restraints, his horse tethered to a line being led by his master. “If you take me to council, I will make sure your mother dies with me.”

Hul’s mount danced sideways as he glanced back and pulled on the reins. “You should have come to me with her plan. My uncle and his child are dead and now his widow clings to my back.” He felt the woman turn her head to look at the slave.

“What was I to do? Refuse her? No one refuses Mistress Cassia…not even you.”

The slave’s observation was partially correct. He didn’t know Hul had left his mother confined to her room and guarded by a manservant who was, more than likely, castrated and hung upside down from a beam in the ceiling.

The young widow pressed herself against his back and whispered, “Kill him.”

Hul looked down at her diminutive arms and delicate hands wrapped around his waist and then stared over his shoulder. “What?”

She met his stare with large honey-colored eyes fringed with moist lashes. “Kill him before we get to the city gate.”

Momentarily stunned, he didn’t know what to say. The woman had been silent the whole trip from her dead husband’s camp, quietly sobbing and banging her head against his back. Hul looked away because her son’s eyes, the image of hers, milky in death and too big for a child’s face, flashed through his mind and brought bile to his throat. The boy’s head had almost been severed leaving his spine exposed and blood flowing into the ground. “No, Milpah. That would be too easy an end for Ziba.”

In answer she resumed her head banging. He didn’t have the heart to make her stop. If this was her only comfort then so be it. No matter that he would have a permanent bruise dead center of his left lung. Maybe it felt a little like punishment for his failure as head of the family, a position he never wanted and a responsibility looming in his nightmares.

As they topped a rise the city of Eridu spread out below, oil lamps were being lit across the city, children were called in for supper, doors locked and cattle folded their legs onto beds of straw. Hul smelled smoke from cook fires mingling with baking bread and simmering stew and scratched his head. He needed a bath, a night of uninterrupted sleep, and an explanation for his wife, one that would be hard for her to hear. He would soon have three wives, Timea, Reumah, his brother’s widow, and Milpah, the head banger demanding revenge. As kinsman redeemer he was responsible to produce offspring for the dead, creating a continuation of their line, heirs of property and position in the family. It was the law and he was a law abiding man.

The horses clopped through the South Gate, their hooves loud on the cobbles in the stillness. Heads hung over roof tops to see who had entered the city so late. Hul stayed in the shadows, prolonging the rumors that would fly like crows at first light and deposit the stink of gossip. He directed his horse down the narrow ally beside the family compound and dismounted in the stable leaving bodies, horses, and his slave with a manservant. The widow grasped his cloak as if deep waters were pulling her under and moved in tandem with his steps.

“I’ll be back to handle this.” Hul said gesturing at the slave and the bodies of the murderer’s associates. “Take care of the horses.” He moved Milpah to his side so he wouldn’t step on her and walked her through the back of the house, past the kitchen where servant girls scrubbed the day’s pots and pans. The hallway opened to an opulent courtyard complete with soft couches laden with pillows, three dining tables, and a round fire pit in the center, its glow bouncing off rich brocades and two women whose faces were a study in contrasts, one concerned and one tight with anger.

Hul spoke to the concerned one first. “Reumah, Milpah’s husband and child have been killed. I’m sure you know what to do.” After prying the woman loose he passed her off. “I’ll talk to you about her situation tomorrow.”

Reumah wrapped the grieving woman in her embrace and led her down a passage and into another life. The next problem could not be ignored. Timea would never let him out of the room without an explanation.

Her face contorted from anger to stubborn insistence. “Why is she here?”

“Were you listening? Her husband and child…an innocent child…are dead at the hands of my mother and slave. That makes me responsible.”

Timea stomped a bejeweled shoe. “How does that make you responsible?” she asked through clenched teeth. “When has your mother asked your permission to do anything?”

Hul fell back onto the nearest couch as if the weight of the past few days was too much of a burden. “You are right. I am not the man my father was. He would have known what they were planning and stopped them…before anyone got hurt.”

Now standing over him and glaring, his wife had grown another chin. Impossible because Hul had only been gone two days but there it was, perfumed, powdered, and covering the hollow of her throat. “Happy?” He stood up. “I’ve confessed all.” At the door he said, “Not all. I am Milpah’s kinsman redeemer. When her year of mourning is over, she will become my third wife. Be careful that you treat her with kindness.” He could see Timea weighing her answer, wanting to ask, “Or what?” but realizing the answer might not be one she would like. Better to let his mother tear into him, which was where he was headed next.

Hul pushed through the door to his mother’s wing of the house and took purposeful strides toward her chamber. The manservant left guarding Cassia sat with his back against the door, legs extended, ankles crossed, and dosing in the light of flickering oil lamps. Hul nudged his foot. “Get up.” The servant scrambled to his feet and stepped aside, bowing in submission as his master brushed past and opened the door.

His mother appeared to be asleep with her back to the door. Hul moved into the room and walked around the bed. It was not Cassia’s face that peered from the pillow. The maid opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and stared at him thin-lipped.

Squatting, his nose a hand's breadth from hers and punctuating every word as if the slowness would increase her understanding, he asked, “Where is my mother?” The girl mutely shook her head. He rocked back on his haunches and ground his teeth. “I am tired and hungry and my night is not over. The longer it takes to find out where she is, the more consequences you will face.”

Light from the oil lamp glistened the girl’s eyes as she answered in a whisper, “Your father’s chamber.”

How careless his mother had been with other people’s lives and how out of control she had become. Is there insanity in my family? Hul stood and turned on his heels, blood racing. When he arrived at his father’s chamber, light and a one-sided conversation filtered under the door. He rested his forehead on the jamb and took deep breaths. If there was a way to reach his mother he didn’t know it. Women were a quagmire of emotions and hidden agendas, saying one thing and meaning another. Who knew how to decipher their intent? Ordering them around only brought anger or tears and sometimes both.

Hul ran his fingers through his hair to straighten it and pushed the door open. His mother, dressed in mournful grey, lay prostrate on the bed talking to the soul of the deceased, Arad’s presence still obvious in the well-worn boots pushed to the corner, clothes still in the chest, and the ebony staff he carried leaning against the wall. Also in the room were the pans and linens used to bathe his father’s skeletal body, the olive oil used to lubricate tender skin, and the stool Cassia had used when singing to and praying for the man she loved. The heat of anger cooled and pity took its place as he offered his hand. “Mother, let me walk you back to your room.”

Cassia rolled over to face him. “So you can lock me in again.”

A sigh deflated his chest. “I’m tired of…you’re out of control. Stop and consider the consequences of your actions.”

She sat up and hung her feet over the side of the bed. “I have only done what my sons could not. Consequences?” she barked. “The consequences of Atarah’s actions and the seed she spawned have brought a great evil upon us.” The pitch of her voice rose. “I only wish I had killed her and her child when I had the chance.”

A flush of heat reddened his face. “So instead, you sent Ziba to kill her father! You missed the mark. In addition to Emil, Ziba killed a five-year-old boy. I closed Caleb’s eyes myself and buried him in his father’s arms. I must have missed something, Mother. How much of a threat was he?”

“Was I holding the knife?” Her sharp chin jutted forward. “The guilt for that is on Ziba.”

“My slave is ready to tell the council that you ordered him to kill them all!”

“Ziba is alive?” The skin around her eyes tightened. “I thought…you would have….”

Fierce loathing washed over him. “I am not a murderer. Where is your spirit of kindness, of compassion? Because of you, I am now responsible to produce heirs for my uncle. At the end of Milpah’s year of mourning I will take her to wife.” Cassia opened her mouth to speak but swallowed her words when he raised his hand. “I don’t want to hear anymore.” He pushed out into the hall and marched toward the stable. The heat radiating off his skin could have melted iron faster than a blast furnace.

Hul found Ziba still on the ground and sitting next to the bodies of his friends, guarded by the manservant whose folded arms and face, filled with revulsion, revealed his distaste for the slave.

The feeling was that Ziba had failed Hul’s younger brother, Naaman and cost the man his life. The slave claimed Naaman’s first wife, Atarah and her then four-year-old son, Ohya had knocked him unconscious and hacked Naaman to death. But both men outweighed the woman three to one and the only person to come home alive was Ziba. In retribution, Hul had reduced the servant’s status from employee to slave.

Hul motioned to the bodies and asked the manservant, “Do you know these men?”

“Yes. They live down by the tannery.”

“Get a wagon and another servant to help deliver them to their families.”

The servant grimaced. “What should I say to their families?”

“Tell them the truth. Their men killed and in turn were killed. A life for a life.” Hul pulled Ziba to his feet. “The sorrow you caused will be wide spread this night. I should make you go with them to explain but you are not penitent nor are you trustworthy.” He walked the slave to a windowless storage room at the back of the kitchen and pushed him inside. “Your new home.”

“Will you send word to my wife that I am alive?”

“Tomorrow you can tell her yourself.”

Hope flickered through Ziba’s eyes. “I can go home?”

“Did you think of your son when you slit the boy’s throat?” Hul asked studying the man’s face. “Did Milpah watch you do it? Did she watch her life evaporate? No. You cannot go home. Your family will no longer live in a house I own. I am sending them away, possibly to Larak or Lagash. You will never know. Tomorrow you will give them an explanation and say your goodbyes.”

Hunched over, sweat tracking from his hairline down a dirt-caked brow, the slave sat heavily on a sack of grain and held up his wrists. “I’m not going anywhere—and neither is my wife. She will take this injustice to council and they will stop you.”

Hul flipped his knife out of the sheave and cut the rawhide bonds. “Then the whole city will know you are a murderer and demand your life.” Hate deadened the light in the man’s eyes. “Are you ready to die, Ziba?” Hul shut and bolted the door before his prisoner could answer.





Chapter two


Ohya felt his stomach clench as the tunnel widened and he approached his father’s chamber. Torch light bounced with each step making the damp walls glisten and sending nocturnal creatures scurrying. He examined every waking moment; searching for the reason Father would summon him. Was it the chair sent flying in his nanny's direction? Or maybe the night he and his friends climbed a ventilation shaft and visited a neighboring village? The damage was minor and villagers got their sheep back so what was the problem? Ohya could come up with nothing.

His friends, Gilgamesh and Mahway followed, subdued but lending support, a tight group, forged together by their alienation from mankind, a brotherhood of junior warriors, and the seed of angels sown into the fertile fields of Earth’s most beautiful women.

At times his friends weren’t enough and the longing for his mother swept over him. He missed her patience and kindness, the feel of her arms around him, and the way her hair smelled of lavender. Months after the birth of his brother, Atarah ran from the underground city Semjaza had built, fleeing them all. She would come back. Father would see to it.

At the door, his friends hung back, their bravado evaporating because friendship didn’t include stepping into the blast of parental rage. Ohya handed the torch to Mahway. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Probably nothing,” Mahway repeated, taking it.

Gilgamesh backed down the tunnel. “I’ll wait in the dining room.”

They watched him lumber back down the tunnel, swinging his torch, dropping cinders that glowed briefly then sizzled and died on the damp stone.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Ohya mused.

“Another couple of years and none of us will be able to squeeze through the passages.”

He wished that time had come and by some miracle his seven-year-old body wouldn’t fit through the door to his father’s chamber. But neither fate nor luck was with him so he summoned his courage and stepped into the cavernous space. A bluish glow emanated from massive orbs hanging from the ceiling and cast a light that lent a cold dimension to the already frigid space. The walls were polished to a pewter sheen and the floor mirror smooth. Contrasting the slick surfaces and surrounding an expansive round table were eight elegantly carved chairs.

At the far end of the room, Semjaza rose from his bed and motioned for Ohya to sit. “Your friends have deserted you.”

Ohya fidgeted on the edge of the chair. “They…had to….” The rest of his words faded to a whisper.

Semjaza glided toward Ohya with the look of someone bearing grave news. His father wore a subdued blue coat belted with a shimmering sash reminiscent of distant lightning. His shoulder-length hair bleached in the artificial light from its wheat-color to match the sash around his waist. With folded hands, Ohya looked up at Father through white lashes, and tried to gauge his level of trouble and imminent pain.

“Father, I’m sorry. I will try to obey you next time. Mahway and Gil followed me. It was my fault because I told them what to do. I won’t disappoint you again.”

Semjaza held up a hand. “Son, stop rambling. You sound like your mother.” His eyes narrowed and a smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “I would hope that you consider my instructions and hold your friends to the same standards.”

“Yes sir.”

“So you’ll never do it again?”

“No sir.”

Ohya’s skin tingled with the closeness of the current which emanated from his watcher father. He wondered if he would also have it when he got older. At times he coveted the powers Father possessed and wished to see heaven’s glory, although Ohya was pretty certain his birthright did not include that privilege.

Semjaza bent at the waist to be eye to eye. “Well…If you promise, then I suppose all is forgiven.”

Relief raced through Ohya as he stood up. “Can I go back to my friends?”

Semjaza put a hand on his son’s shoulder and pushed him back into the seat. “Not just yet.”

“Sir?”

“Although your confession is interesting that is not why you are here.” He lifted Ohya’s face to his. “Your grandfather has been murdered.”

Comprehension dawned slowly to Ohya’s immature brain. For a moment Father’s words didn’t fit with the expected events. Discipline wasn’t the reason he had been summoned but for tragic news. He loved his grandpa, the only man who cared for him, the only man to shelter him when others would have labeled him as unclean, a product of evil.

He stood, his legs scooting the chair back, and faced his father. “Why?...Who?” he asked, fists clenched and body rigid.

“Humans desiring revenge.”

The junior warrior brought his fists to his temples and pressed. “He didn’t do anything!”

Semjaza adjusted the collar on his son’s shirt. “A senseless, vindictive act by the house of Arad.”

Through the blur of tears he looked up at his father. “I will kill them all!”

“You will taste the blood of your enemy, my son. I promise you. But first your courage must be tempered by the fire of experience. You are still a boy.” He held his son’s shoulders and focused the current full blast at Ohya’s face. “Blood will flow in the land of your enemy. Their flesh will feed the dogs and their bones will bake in the noonday sun. Use your grief and train with new vigor.” Semjaza turned his son toward the door. “Go tell your friends so that they can support you in this.”

Ohya hesitated at the door needing more information but afraid to ask.

His father assumed the next question and spoke up, “Your mother and grandmother were spared…this time.”

Tears rolled as he stumbled down the passage toward his room. His friends would not understand the grief brought on by the death of a human, even if the human was his grandpa. Besides warriors didn’t cry and certainly didn’t cry over a man’s death because mankind was a sub-species, mere insects, unfit for the new kingdom of invincible and wise giants, all with immortal fathers. Didn’t Father say so?

He stopped short at the sight of his bedroom door ajar. Someone had invaded his territory! Everyone knew of his need for privacy, his intolerance for unwelcome visitors. He pushed the door all the way open with his foot. Goose down, like frothy seed heads, swirled as if caught in a whirlwind. At the center of this vortex, his brother jumped with all his two-year-old might on Ohya’s bed, stabbing the mattress every time he landed.

“This is my room! And that’s my sword! Get out!”

Hahya jumped higher and sliced patterns in the storm of feathers, his hair in spiky black stems supporting a halo of white. Flat eyes absorbed Ohya’s horror, enjoying it and showing mild surprise, saving this knowledge for another time.

“STOP IT!”

The toddler grinned with sharp baby teeth and flung the sword at his brother’s face.

Ohya ducked as the blade slipped past, hit the wall, and skittered across the floor. Ears burned as he picked up the sword, his hand shaking. “You are the reason Mama left. She hated you. If I kill you she would come back!” He lifted the weapon shoulder level and straight at his brother’s gyrating throat.

Hahya dropped to all fours on the deflated mattress, grabbed a handful of feathers and flung them. “No! No! No!”

Edges of the room disappeared. A distant forest slammed Ohya’s senses with pine scents that mingled with the smell of blood, pungent and sweet. Towering sentinels bordered the clearing, obscured the sky and created a killing room. His mother, on her hands and knees with Naaman’s foot on her back, begged for life, her former husband telling the servant to hurry up. Ohya felt the slap of tree branches as he rushed from his hiding place and made a full body tackle on the servant. Then he felt the satisfying scrape of metal to bone and memorized Naaman’s expression at the turn of events, the blade in his chest not possible. With each thrust anger dissipated and blood painted the surrounding greenery. Threat eliminated. Problem solved.

He refocused his attention on the interloper. “You are a problem.”

Hahya scooted to the other side of the bed and kicked a flurry of white into the air. “No! My room!”

Ohya leaned in on his right foot and swung. Baby brother flattened himself in the nick of time, the blade shearing a few black hairs and tip scraping the stone wall sending sparks into the blizzard. He climbed on the bed, grabbed Hahya by the front of the shirt, and lifted the weapon ready to send this irritation back where he came from, relief just a swing away. Ohya wanted to. Really wanted to. But the temperature in the room had gone up a few degrees and that current he knew so well began to fry the feathers, zzzzzzt  zzzzzt  zzzzt. One by one, flaming out, leaving trails of smoke.

His father’s voice sucked the air out of the room. “Having fun boys?”

Ohya simultaneously let go of his brother’s shirt and hid the sword by his leg. “Yes sir.” Father appeared at the foot of the bed and held out a hand. Reluctantly Ohya surrendered the weapon, fervently wishing his father would use the door like everyone else.

“Zelel!” Semjaza boomed.

Through the opening slid a frail woman, out of breath and eyes wide, her appearance like that of a refugee. “I’m sorry. Hahya is very fast. I turned my back for just a second.”

“Are you making excuses? Because if you are…”

“No. No I’m not.” She rushed over and picked up the toddler, who protested by kicking her bony legs through her dress. She held his legs away which only enraged him more. “It was my fault. He won’t leave my side again.”

Semjaza’s chin came up, his face angular, and eyes thin slits. “How to be sure you remember?”

“I’ll remember,” Zelel whispered, her life force coming out in puffs of quickened breaths.

The watcher towered over her, his essence filling the room. “Zelel, where is your beloved?”

In fascination Ohya watched his father’s manipulation, not touching the nanny physically because she would need her strength to care for his brother but using what she cherished most.

Her eyes lowered. “My child died.”

“Are you sure?”

Her gaze darted around the room as if searching for the right answer. “Yes.”

“Curious.”

Ohya could smell Zelel’s fear, not that he cared. Mahway called her Queen Bug because giant insects followed her, waiting for a morsel to fall from the food trays she carried to the cells of people entombed in miles of tunnels running through the city in every direction. Mahway was good with words.

An acrid smell of decay filled the room as if aged spectators lined the walls and waited for the show to begin. “I know right where she is and I must say Joanna is growing into a beautiful young woman. Ripe, if you get my meaning.”

A flash of anger betrayed the woman, so brief Ohya wondered if he imagined it. The cruelty in his father’s voice was not new, only the use of her fear. He was certain his mother would have attacked Father regardless of the consequences. He had seen her back down a slaver with the best weapon in her arsenal, her mouth. Zelel was another story and would always be Father’s victim. The scene playing out only made him miss his mother more.

Zelel backed to the door with the struggling toddler serving as a shield. “I understand...and I won’t forget,” she said, her tone as flat and cold as the water in the deepest well.

As the nanny slipped away and Hahya’s cries echoed down the tunnel, Ohya became painfully aware he was alone with his father. Standing on the bed brought them eye to eye and staring into Father's identical blue eyes was like looking into a clear lake, the reflection Ohya’s own. But in the depths behind the blue, dark horrors came to the surface and then darted away. His heart pounded. He wanted to look at the bed or the floor or even the ceiling but the chance of detecting some new power or ability that would be his someday kept him locked in.

A smile broke the plane of Semjaza’s face. “You’re going to need a new mattress.”

Ohya’s face tingled. “Yes sir.”

“We’ll get one.”

His father’s image lightened until the room was visible through him as if viewing it through an apparition. The current intensified. Ohya held his breath.

“Killing your brother is not an option.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ohya said shaking his head.

“You wanted to.”

Lying to Father was not prudent. “Yes sir.” Then Semjaza was gone. Ohya trembled with the release of highly charged energy, the drain of adrenaline and the surprise he was still alive.





Chapter Three


Crying women had filled Hul’s week with recriminations, headaches and enough chopped wood to feed a smelting furnace, work done to relieve the tension of living in a household of dour women. His slave’s wife and children were being escorted by a manservant to Lagash. His mother had been chastised to the amazement of the servants. The head banger, who in a year would be his third wife, no longer had the dazed look of tragedy but her grief had taken the form of wailing at any hour of the day or night. The thought occurred to him to put Milpah in a room next to his mother and he would have done that but didn’t want another murder to explain and wasn’t sure whose funeral he would have to attend.

Hul escaped to his bedchamber to hide and eat breakfast. He envied his younger brother’s decision to move his flock to the hills of Larsa where he and his wife, Mara and his herdsmen and their families lived in relative peace, a small close community. Raamah had realized long ago that being the oldest son was not something to be coveted.

The juice of a strawberry lingered at the back of Hul’s throat while outside his door the household quieted. Finally. He tore a piece off the end of a loaf, and spread it with soft cheese, saliva forming as he lifted the morsel to his lips but before tasting the goodness, a knock at the door interrupted his reverie. “What?”

Timea stepped inside. “There are men at the door…from the council.” She moved closer and invaded his space, spreading her perfume over his food. “They want you to bring Cassia to the ziggurat to answer accusations.”

 “Could you step back?” he asked, his breakfast suspended a hand’s breadth from his mouth.

She ignored his request and said, “What are you going to do?”

He put his bread down, pushed her aside and stood up. “Go to council.” Timea hadn’t taken her eyes off his food since coming into the room so he handed her the tray. “Take this back to the kitchen…or eat it yourself. And tell my mother to get dressed.” Hul knew this day might come and although the men involved were not victims, their families would want restitution. It was understandable. They were now without resources and he was a wealthy man.



Chapter two


Ohya felt his stomach clench as the tunnel widened and he approached his father’s chamber. Torch light bounced with each step making the damp walls glisten and sending nocturnal creatures scurrying. He examined every waking moment; searching for the reason Father would summon him. Was it the chair sent flying in his nanny's direction? Or maybe the night he and his friends climbed a ventilation shaft and visited a neighboring village? The damage was minor and villagers got their sheep back so what was the problem? Ohya could come up with nothing.

His friends, Gilgamesh and Mahway followed, subdued but lending support, a tight group, forged together by their alienation from mankind, a brotherhood of junior warriors, and the seed of angels sown into the fertile fields of Earth’s most beautiful women.

At times his friends weren’t enough and the longing for his mother swept over him. He missed her patience and kindness, the feel of her arms around him, and the way her hair smelled of lavender. Months after the birth of his brother, Atarah ran from the underground city Semjaza had built, fleeing them all. She would come back. Father would see to it.

At the door, his friends hung back, their bravado evaporating because friendship didn’t include stepping into the blast of parental rage. Ohya handed the torch to Mahway. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Probably nothing,” Mahway repeated, taking it.

Gilgamesh backed down the tunnel. “I’ll wait in the dining room.”

They watched him lumber back down the tunnel, swinging his torch, dropping cinders that glowed briefly then sizzled and died on the damp stone.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Ohya mused.

“Another couple of years and none of us will be able to squeeze through the passages.”

He wished that time had come and by some miracle his seven-year-old body wouldn’t fit through the door to his father’s chamber. But neither fate nor luck was with him so he summoned his courage and stepped into the cavernous space. A bluish glow emanated from massive orbs hanging from the ceiling and cast a light that lent a cold dimension to the already frigid space. The walls were polished to a pewter sheen and the floor mirror smooth. Contrasting the slick surfaces and surrounding an expansive round table were eight elegantly carved chairs.

At the far end of the room, Semjaza rose from his bed and motioned for Ohya to sit. “Your friends have deserted you.”

Ohya fidgeted on the edge of the chair. “They…had to….” The rest of his words faded to a whisper.

Semjaza glided toward Ohya with the look of someone bearing grave news. His father wore a subdued blue coat belted with a shimmering sash reminiscent of distant lightning. His shoulder-length hair bleached in the artificial light from its wheat-color to match the sash around his waist. With folded hands, Ohya looked up at Father through white lashes, and tried to gauge his level of trouble and imminent pain.

“Father, I’m sorry. I will try to obey you next time. Mahway and Gil followed me. It was my fault because I told them what to do. I won’t disappoint you again.”

Semjaza held up a hand. “Son, stop rambling. You sound like your mother.” His eyes narrowed and a smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “I would hope that you consider my instructions and hold your friends to the same standards.”

“Yes sir.”

“So you’ll never do it again?”

“No sir.”

Ohya’s skin tingled with the closeness of the current which emanated from his watcher father. He wondered if he would also have it when he got older. At times he coveted the powers Father possessed and wished to see heaven’s glory, although Ohya was pretty certain his birthright did not include that privilege.

Semjaza bent at the waist to be eye to eye. “Well…If you promise, then I suppose all is forgiven.”

Relief raced through Ohya as he stood up. “Can I go back to my friends?”

Semjaza put a hand on his son’s shoulder and pushed him back into the seat. “Not just yet.”

“Sir?”

“Although your confession is interesting that is not why you are here.” He lifted Ohya’s face to his. “Your grandfather has been murdered.”

Comprehension dawned slowly to Ohya’s immature brain. For a moment Father’s words didn’t fit with the expected events. Discipline wasn’t the reason he had been summoned but for tragic news. He loved his grandpa, the only man who cared for him, the only man to shelter him when others would have labeled him as unclean, a product of evil.

He stood, his legs scooting the chair back, and faced his father. “Why?...Who?” he asked, fists clenched and body rigid.

“Humans desiring revenge.”

The junior warrior brought his fists to his temples and pressed. “He didn’t do anything!”

Semjaza adjusted the collar on his son’s shirt. “A senseless, vindictive act by the house of Arad.”

Through the blur of tears he looked up at his father. “I will kill them all!”

“You will taste the blood of your enemy, my son. I promise you. But first your courage must be tempered by the fire of experience. You are still a boy.” He held his son’s shoulders and focused the current full blast at Ohya’s face. “Blood will flow in the land of your enemy. Their flesh will feed the dogs and their bones will bake in the noonday sun. Use your grief and train with new vigor.” Semjaza turned his son toward the door. “Go tell your friends so that they can support you in this.”

Ohya hesitated at the door needing more information but afraid to ask.

His father assumed the next question and spoke up, “Your mother and grandmother were spared…this time.”

Tears rolled as he stumbled down the passage toward his room. His friends would not understand the grief brought on by the death of a human, even if the human was his grandpa. Besides warriors didn’t cry and certainly didn’t cry over a man’s death because mankind was a sub-species, mere insects, unfit for the new kingdom of invincible and wise giants, all with immortal fathers. Didn’t Father say so?

He stopped short at the sight of his bedroom door ajar. Someone had invaded his territory! Everyone knew of his need for privacy, his intolerance for unwelcome visitors. He pushed the door all the way open with his foot. Goose down, like frothy seed heads, swirled as if caught in a whirlwind. At the center of this vortex, his brother jumped with all his two-year-old might on Ohya’s bed, stabbing the mattress every time he landed.

“This is my room! And that’s my sword! Get out!”

Hahya jumped higher and sliced patterns in the storm of feathers, his hair in spiky black stems supporting a halo of white. Flat eyes absorbed Ohya’s horror, enjoying it and showing mild surprise, saving this knowledge for another time.

“STOP IT!”

The toddler grinned with sharp baby teeth and flung the sword at his brother’s face.

Ohya ducked as the blade slipped past, hit the wall, and skittered across the floor. Ears burned as he picked up the sword, his hand shaking. “You are the reason Mama left. She hated you. If I kill you she would come back!” He lifted the weapon shoulder level and straight at his brother’s gyrating throat.

Hahya dropped to all fours on the deflated mattress, grabbed a handful of feathers and flung them. “No! No! No!”

Edges of the room disappeared. A distant forest slammed Ohya’s senses with pine scents that mingled with the smell of blood, pungent and sweet. Towering sentinels bordered the clearing, obscured the sky and created a killing room. His mother, on her hands and knees with Naaman’s foot on her back, begged for life, her former husband telling the servant to hurry up. Ohya felt the slap of tree branches as he rushed from his hiding place and made a full body tackle on the servant. Then he felt the satisfying scrape of metal to bone and memorized Naaman’s expression at the turn of events, the blade in his chest not possible. With each thrust anger dissipated and blood painted the surrounding greenery. Threat eliminated. Problem solved.

He refocused his attention on the interloper. “You are a problem.”

Hahya scooted to the other side of the bed and kicked a flurry of white into the air. “No! My room!”

Ohya leaned in on his right foot and swung. Baby brother flattened himself in the nick of time, the blade shearing a few black hairs and tip scraping the stone wall sending sparks into the blizzard. He climbed on the bed, grabbed Hahya by the front of the shirt, and lifted the weapon ready to send this irritation back where he came from, relief just a swing away. Ohya wanted to. Really wanted to. But the temperature in the room had gone up a few degrees and that current he knew so well began to fry the feathers, zzzzzzt  zzzzzt  zzzzt. One by one, flaming out, leaving trails of smoke.

His father’s voice sucked the air out of the room. “Having fun boys?”

Ohya simultaneously let go of his brother’s shirt and hid the sword by his leg. “Yes sir.” Father appeared at the foot of the bed and held out a hand. Reluctantly Ohya surrendered the weapon, fervently wishing his father would use the door like everyone else.

“Zelel!” Semjaza boomed.

Through the opening slid a frail woman, out of breath and eyes wide, her appearance like that of a refugee. “I’m sorry. Hahya is very fast. I turned my back for just a second.”

“Are you making excuses? Because if you are…”

“No. No I’m not.” She rushed over and picked up the toddler, who protested by kicking her bony legs through her dress. She held his legs away which only enraged him more. “It was my fault. He won’t leave my side again.”

Semjaza’s chin came up, his face angular, and eyes thin slits. “How to be sure you remember?”

“I’ll remember,” Zelel whispered, her life force coming out in puffs of quickened breaths.

The watcher towered over her, his essence filling the room. “Zelel, where is your beloved?”

In fascination Ohya watched his father’s manipulation, not touching the nanny physically because she would need her strength to care for his brother but using what she cherished most.

Her eyes lowered. “My child died.”

“Are you sure?”

Her gaze darted around the room as if searching for the right answer. “Yes.”

“Curious.”

Ohya could smell Zelel’s fear, not that he cared. Mahway called her Queen Bug because giant insects followed her, waiting for a morsel to fall from the food trays she carried to the cells of people entombed in miles of tunnels running through the city in every direction. Mahway was good with words.

An acrid smell of decay filled the room as if aged spectators lined the walls and waited for the show to begin. “I know right where she is and I must say Joanna is growing into a beautiful young woman. Ripe, if you get my meaning.”

A flash of anger betrayed the woman, so brief Ohya wondered if he imagined it. The cruelty in his father’s voice was not new, only the use of her fear. He was certain his mother would have attacked Father regardless of the consequences. He had seen her back down a slaver with the best weapon in her arsenal, her mouth. Zelel was another story and would always be Father’s victim. The scene playing out only made him miss his mother more.

Zelel backed to the door with the struggling toddler serving as a shield. “I understand...and I won’t forget,” she said, her tone as flat and cold as the water in the deepest well.

As the nanny slipped away and Hahya’s cries echoed down the tunnel, Ohya became painfully aware he was alone with his father. Standing on the bed brought them eye to eye and staring into Father's identical blue eyes was like looking into a clear lake, the reflection Ohya’s own. But in the depths behind the blue, dark horrors came to the surface and then darted away. His heart pounded. He wanted to look at the bed or the floor or even the ceiling but the chance of detecting some new power or ability that would be his someday kept him locked in.

A smile broke the plane of Semjaza’s face. “You’re going to need a new mattress.”

Ohya’s face tingled. “Yes sir.”

“We’ll get one.”

His father’s image lightened until the room was visible through him as if viewing it through an apparition. The current intensified. Ohya held his breath.

“Killing your brother is not an option.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ohya said shaking his head.

“You wanted to.”

Lying to Father was not prudent. “Yes sir.” Then Semjaza was gone. Ohya trembled with the release of highly charged energy, the drain of adrenaline and the surprise he was still alive.



Chapter Three


Crying women had filled Hul’s week with recriminations, headaches and enough chopped wood to feed a smelting furnace, work done to relieve the tension of living in a household of dour women. His slave’s wife and children were being escorted by a manservant to Lagash. His mother had been chastised to the amazement of the servants. The head banger, who in a year would be his third wife, no longer had the dazed look of tragedy but her grief had taken the form of wailing at any hour of the day or night. The thought occurred to him to put Milpah in a room next to his mother and he would have done that but didn’t want another murder to explain and wasn’t sure whose funeral he would have to attend.

Hul escaped to his bedchamber to hide and eat breakfast. He envied his younger brother’s decision to move his flock to the hills of Larsa where he and his wife, Mara and his herdsmen and their families lived in relative peace, a small close community. Raamah had realized long ago that being the oldest son was not something to be coveted.

The juice of a strawberry lingered at the back of Hul’s throat while outside his door the household quieted. Finally. He tore a piece off the end of a loaf, and spread it with soft cheese, saliva forming as he lifted the morsel to his lips but before tasting the goodness, a knock at the door interrupted his reverie. “What?”

Timea stepped inside. “There are men at the door…from the council.” She moved closer and invaded his space, spreading her perfume over his food. “They want you to bring Cassia to the ziggurat to answer accusations.”

 “Could you step back?” he asked, his breakfast suspended a hand’s breadth from his mouth.

She ignored his request and said, “What are you going to do?”

He put his bread down, pushed her aside and stood up. “Go to council.”

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