04. A Grand Decree
“My brothers, my sisters and my dear friends,” He-Xur began, with his trademark flair for the dramatic, “people.. of Nevalı Çori. I bid you all a good morning, and trust that in the absence of your fearless leader your needs have been well met, and your bellies filled. I thank you,” he turned to face Skara, and with his right hand outstretched bowed his head slightly at the other man, “and I salute you, who would rise to his duty and preserve order and balance to our home in my absence.” Skara, still confused but honoured nonetheless at the mention returned a bow of his own head, offering fealty once more to He-Xur amidst cheers and applause from the rest of the village.
“Though pleased as you are no doubt to see me,” he continued, “I am sure some of you question, ‘Why has our leader returned now, when two more Moons were promised first to pass’..?” He stepped down from the elevation and slowly moved closer before the crowd, whose excitement was clearly beginning to build. “Why has He-Xur (he would frequently refer to himself in third-person, an idiosyncrasy that had often perplexed Skara) come back to the Valley before his time..? I will answer you this, though it might surprise many of you to hear of what it is I have come to know from those learned and esteemed leaders of the capital,” Several villagers called out, “Tell us..!” and, “What of He-Tauhasa..?”
“People of Nevalı Çori,” he wasted no time then in cutting straight to the chase, raising his voice beyond a reasonable volume and bellowing with a fierce and resounding roar: “war is upon us..!” His eyes bulged from his head and the veins on either side of his neck swelled as he delivered his proclamation. Immediately, audible gasps, moans and murmurs erupted from the crowd. Several small children began to cry only to be hushed by their mothers, and voices could be heard exclaiming, “War..? War with who..? Who would declare war on us..?” The people of the valley had not been faced with any sort of conflict for generations, enjoying a remarkably long and prosperous season and none among them could have expected this now.
The chieftain went on: “I have met with our Divine King He-Tauhasa Ihreikas himself, and he has told me of the visions of the Seers of Çatalhöyük.” More murmurs, because if they were being honest, the townsfolk themselves were somewhat divided as to the true intent of those Seers, members of an order who claimed to be the divine interpreters of their Godhead. An order so many leagues to the west as to almost seem fantastic to those who had never made the journey.
“The Seers,” he roared on, desperate to retain control of the crowd, “have witnessed, as we all have that the Cygnet among the stars bleeds and has bled for a full Moon. They have seen the signs and warn us that an invasion comes from the west..!” This sent the crowd into a frenzy. Every man and woman of the valley and indeed the entire population of the Southern lands had been raised from birth to hate on instinct those that dwelt to the west. A barbaric, incestuous foreign tribe of murderers and usurpers, they were told, who in their godless lust for war were always plotting the downfall of the Eastern tribes. He-Xur knew this well, understanding that it would be all too easy to incite his people to rally behind him, should a war with the West be his banner. He knew now that to bring his people completely on-side, he need only offer them glory and security as reward for such a risk as an ingress into enemy territory.
“Brothers and sisters, the Seers have decreed that we of the East would be victorious against these marauders from beyond the lowly wastes,” he began to pace up and down in front of the crowd, their eyes following him as he went, “if we would strike first this serpent that threatens our kin, and cut off its head. The Gods favour us my friends, but more importantly, the Gods favour our honour, our power and our loyalty to those we call our own. Today I have returned to you to ask that you honour your king, and not just if it pleases you, for you honour your family, your kin and yourselves if you will follow me in this glorious campaign.” The crowd by this time had swollen to include almost every single man, woman and child in the village, their faces now reflecting soberly not only on what would be left behind should they follow He-Xur to the capital and to war, but what they might risk losing if they did not.
“If we do not strike at the serpent, the serpent strikes at us. Now is the time for us to make haste to the capital to meet our king, and to defend our homes and our lands, before it is too late. The Seers have foreseen our victory – the blood of the West must be spilled, their forces broken, their women raped and their villages plundered. It is the only way. Who will join us in this glorious fight..? Who among you would follow me now, your blood lord into battle and would see their oldest enemies crushed into the earth, once and for all..?” His voice rose with every sentence, the intensity in his speech and in his eyes increasing with every syllable as he paced before the crowd, staring piercingly into the sea of faces as if weighing the value of their very souls. The people of Nevalı Çori were not soldiers, nor were they warriors. They were not marauders nor killers – they were hunters, they were fathers and they were simple men of the East. But they had made up their mind.
With a thunderous roar that shook the ground, the villagers as one shouted for their lord, proclaiming their support for the coming war and giving praise to the Gods for the chance to honour them. It would otherwise have been an inspiring moment for Skara, to see his kin raise their fists and weapons high above their heads, clasping their brothers and sisters beside them were he not so recently made aware that the entire premise for the war for which they cheered had been a false one. He-Xur stood proud and defiant before them, returning their fealty with both arms outstretched and basked in the wave of support from his people. ‘His people’, he as all rulers through time had grown to believe this, never pausing to consider that there might be those among them less eager to follow their blood leader into the carnage that was promised. Skara turned and locked-eyes with the other as he tried unconvincingly to calm the throng about him, and he knew then that he must make a stand.
He knew only too well the price of disobeying his king, and until this time had sworn only complete and utter loyalty to He-Xur. Skara had known him since they were both children, and as far back as he could remember he had been entranced by the showmanship and passion the line of Xur had commanded, and the hold that it had had over his kin. He had also seen many a great man fall, stripped of titles, wealth and most often eventually executed in that very same plaza for daring to defy the one the Gods had appointed. It was with no small measure of faith in those same Gods that he stepped forward, and addressed his lord and the people of his village. Sura’s face dropped as he did, not trusting that her husband knew exactly what it was he was doing, and knowing the consequences that might inevitably follow if he failed to present a sound and acceptable argument.
“My friends,” he began, turning to He-Xur, “my lord.. I wished not yet to bring to you tidings from our most recent journey into the wilderness, at least not like this and I honour our blood-ruler for the wisdom he returns to us from the capital. However I feel I must speak now of those events that have transpired at that grassy plateau to the north which I have come to call Uru-Mah.” The crowd went silent as he stepped forward to speak, and now also seemed confused at the name assigned to what they knew to be a rather innocuous area of land, and hardly becoming of the label, the ‘Magnificent High’. He went on: “While we camped at the foothills to the south of the plateau, and as I stood watch over my brothers in the dead of the night I was visited by one of the order who call themselves the Watchers,” more murmurs and gasps from the women and children as he continued, “who bade me to speak with them at their council beneath the high-hills, in the city that is theirs. I have no doubts, as you might that these were indeed the Watchers of old, as he did reveal to me his face, and by his stature alone appeared as no man I have ever seen.”
“The next morning, while hunting the lands surrounding the plateau, my brother and I did venture north over the rise and into the flatlands beyond, where I took council with the Watchers, who told to me of the true meaning of this signal in the sky.” He-Xur scoffed loudly, interrupting Skara in the middle of his speech and roaring above him, “The Watchers, he says..!” Turning to address the crowd, “No-one has seen their kind in an age, and nobody would dare break the forbidding that I and the rulers of the East have put upon that place beneath the hills, a land forsaken by the Gods themselves..!” He then spat at the earth and pointed aggressively at Skara, “What right have you, Skara Tau to venture into those lands forbidden by your forebears, where no other has strayed, and pray tell us what your Watchers,” he sneered as he rolled the name distastefully on his tongue, “those freaks of nature, if that is who they really were, have told you of those signs, truthfully read and deciphered by our own Seers..? Come now, entertain us..!” Some in the crowd laughed, others muttered uneasily amongst themselves, knowing that the next words to come out of Skara’s mouth might well seal his fate. Skara went on:
“The council of the Watchers too have seen the sign, and in their wisdom have revealed a greater catastrophe that will take place than your supposed invasion from the west. The signs speak not of war, but of a great dragon which will fall from the sky, and burn the valley and indeed all of the Eastern lands to ashes. Those of the council have told me that in two weeks hence, if we are not safely within the high walls of their city, we will all be destroyed by this weapon which comes, and comes quickly.” More gasps, and the sound of several villagers booing could be heard from the crowd as he paused, but he went on. “Your war is a lie, the Seers have falsely interpreted the signs and would have our people spread far from safety where they would be destroyed by the dragon of seven tails. Listen to me brothers and sisters, my Lord you have been deceived..! We cannot march West, you must not listen to this madness..”
He-Xur roared, “Enough..!” His face had turned bright red at the assertion that he, the highest among them had been taken for a fool by the learned men of the capital. He moved towards Skara and proceeded to make an example of the huntsman, who now felt as though his legs would turn to jelly:
“To think that I should ever live to see such insolence, such wanton treason from you, Skara Tau. How dare you, a mere huntsman from the valley speak such heresy, such slander of the Seers, who are by divine decree the very voice of the Gods. And to defy me, your lord..! I will hear no more of your Watchers and their talk of dragons and other such nonsense – rescind those words that you have spoken, promising no further talk of those abominations to the north and by and only by the loyalty you have shown me until this day will I spare your life.”
Skara went white, knowing too that there would be no turning back, no second chances if he continued by Yamnaya’s directive. He looked down at his children, cowering by their mother’s legs and then at Sura, who herself did not completely understand what her husband was saying. Her features dropped as she looked deep into his eyes and saw in them the path he would take. Skara glanced too at his brother, Andar who gritted his teeth from across the plaza as if to say “Idiot – stop this madness before you get yourself killed..!” Skara however had made up his mind, and shouted once more to the crowd and his lord:
“I will not – the words of the Seers are false, the dragon arrives and the Watchers offer us salvation. I will not follow you, He-Xur into this war of your master’s making, and I would not condone the slaughter of our kinsman where such actions are unnecessary. I am sorry.”
The crowd erupted then, incensed by the tone of defiance in his voice and responded by pointing toward, shouting at and taunting the other man. He-Xur arched his back and threw his muscular arms wide, declaring, “So be it..! Skara Tau, this day you have defied your Lord and will be punished accordingly.” He wasted no time as the crowd swelled around them, threatening to stone him there and then. Several rocks flew at the huntsman as his lord barked his order; “Take him and tie him in the Northeast quarter. We will march at sunset for the capital so as to meet our King two mornings hence, and will take the prisoner to his divine court for judgement..!” Skara gulped, for he knew just what this meant. Justice in the valley was and had always been dealt swiftly and with mercy, however from the capital he had heard a great many tales of the maiming and execution of traitors in the public arena, purely for the sport and entertainment of its citizens as spectators.
Skara was stripped of any blades he carried, seized sharply by both arms by two of the more burly soldiers that had returned with He-Xur and as his children screamed and cried for their father, was led away to be imprisoned until the men of the village were prepared to march. Sura wept, and screamed clemency for Skara who could only look back at her for a brief moment with wide-eyes concerned and filled with fear before he was taken for his fate. She dropped to her knees in defeat, unable to believe how quickly her joy had turned to despair.
All Skara could think as he was led away to face his fate was whether he would have enough time and indeed be given the opportunity to convince his King of the folly of the Seers before it was too late. This, and of the small and mysterious vial provided to him by Yamnaya, which he had managed somehow to carefully keep concealed within his robes.
Skara was led away and bundled roughly into a small wooden enclosure that had been erected at the rear of the Lord’s quarters to house prisoners awaiting punishment. No family or friends were permitted to see the captured man, and as the hours wore on before his transport west he began to reflect on the events that had brought him to this point. He cursed himself for not waiting until a more opportune moment to come clean about his visit to the plateau, and for allowing Sura and the children to see him captured and taken away before the rest of the village. He could only imagine the worry that his wife had felt in the hours since he was imprisoned, and hoped dearly that Andar had intervened to ensure that they too came to no harm.
As the sun set through an opening in the rear of the enclosure, he heard footsteps outside the gate and a voice which called to him, “Come forth, Skara – it is time.” The latch was opened and he was removed from the chamber, and made to join a large group outside the Western edge of the village. Sura and the children were nowhere to be seen.
Before the group departed, He-Xur approached him at the rear of the party under heavy guard, and spoke in confidence to him; “I would have never taken you for a fool, Skara Tau. Not until this day. What events have truly taken place that would bring you to such an act of suicide as slandering the words of your lord and king I do not know. But know this; where I have a softness within me for you and your family, the Seers of He-Tauhasa have only the divine law, and for your actions this day I do not expect you will be let-off lightly.”
Skara raised his head to address the other man, but he had already left his side and taken up position at the head of the group. He-Xur surveyed the force of several hundred behind him – every able-bodied man and boy of age that could handle a weapon had been taken from the village and surrounds to join the soldiers of the capital, and only a handful of hunters including his brother Andar were allowed to remain with the women and children, promised to keep them from harm and hunger until their fathers and husbands would return victorious. He raised his right-arm to them palm lowered and hand outstretched in a gesture of solidarity and with a mighty yell, commanded, “People of the valley, we march west for Çatalhöyük..!”
The group moved, slowly at first and then finding a rhythm in their step began the long and arduous journey to the capital. The road ahead was better-made and less treacherous than others surrounding the village, and the journey would take no more than two night’s passage. As they left sight of their homes and loved-ones, the group took up another song, to fire their resolve and prepare them for the dark days that were to come:
“You cut them down in the fray of battle
With your fierce wings, O God of War
You tear and hack their throats like cattle
Disguised, a dark and raging storm
Growl and roar..! O hurricane
And yell as a tempest boldly yells
Thunder, rage, roar, and rain
Expel thy winds from seven hells..!
Your feet are anxious as they tread
Your lyre it wails and moans
We hear your loud dirge scream and cry
O monster, sing that we may go home
As thunder, you growl across the skies..!
All trees and creatures bow before you..!
You are blood rushing down a mountain
Spirit of hate, greed and anger
Dominator of heaven and earth
Your smoke, it hides our black banner
Riding-forth on a beast of war
With indomitable commands
You decide all fates to come
And triumph over our enemy’s lands
Who can explain why you go on so..
Nergal keep guide of our axes, sling and bow”
Skara recognised many items of weaponry borne by his kinsmen as they walked, battle-axes and barbed spears that had become little more than heirlooms displayed in the homes of his neighbours who had no use of such things until now. He shook his head and lamented the outcome of their participation in a full-frontal campaign against their enemies, who were by all accounts far better equipped and much less green on the battlefield. As the trip wore on into the night, he took note that the rolling hills of the valley lands had changed into a long and gradual descent, the landscape flattening out as they reached the lower ground which would eventually lead them to the tributaries and then the estuary which marked the entrance to the port-capital. They marched on through the night, finding their road with little difficulty and made great progress on the back of high-spirits and enthusiasm for what would be for many among them the first time they had visited the heart of their empire.
They group camped once by a riverbed in the early hours of the following morning, allowing for several hours’ sleep before they carried-on with their journey. Skara was tied to a heavy stake that had been hammered into the earth at the outskirts of one of many small fires lit to warm their numbers and his hands freed from thick leather straps so that he might feed himself. The group had brought with them much of a store of cured meats, roots and vegetables gathered at the village before departing, and had sent several small groups forth as they marched to hunt ahead, so that they might also enjoy fresh meat. As they ate, some members of the group had taken pity on Skara, bringing him cuts of game to supplement the bland vegetables that he had been rationed, and of this group three had stayed with him in spite of command and their better judgement to enquire as to his well-being. The three were in fact Gidri, Gizzal and a craftsman from the Eastern quarter who was called Bacchi, son of Stol. After they had eaten, he was the first to speak, asking Skara:
“You do know what they’re planning for you, at the capital, don’t you..?” He began, “He’s not commanded that we bring you with us to see you slapped on the hand for defying his decree, you know. What manner of madness possessed you, anyway..? Have you no regard for your own life, or the livelihood of your family..?” He shook his head in resign. “We all love you like a brother, and you’ve always done the best by us in return. Why did you take opposition to He-Xur in an open forum..? Surely you knew that this would happen.”
He spoke both as if he were chastising the other man, but also with a tone of genuine concern which softened Skara. He replied quietly, careful not to raise the attention of the soldiers closer by the fire, “Brothers, those words that I have spoken before are the truth. I have told no lies of the Watchers, and what they have shown to me calls for no delay in sharing it with you. Trust me when I say that the threat these signs have shown comes not from the West, but from the skies. You might well think me mad, but what I have done I have done for my family, and for the rest of you. Take heed that the words of the Seers are not entirely selfless, and that what they say may only be said for the benefit of their order.” He turned to the fire and gazed at the flames for a moment, before adding, “You will see when the time comes, and I pray to all the Gods that you come to your senses before all is lost.”
The three looked at each other and shook their heads, before gently patting Skara on the shoulder and moving back to join the rest of the group. Skara stroked his thick black beard, and thought at length of the hopelessness of his situation before violently casting aside the food he had been given, the taste of which had turned bitter in his mouth.
At mid-morning the group set off again, passing through the many green glades and grasslands now lush with the spring climate and by late afternoon began their final descent towards the lowlands. As the sun set on their second day of travel, the landscape had begun to change dramatically, and the dark silhouettes of isolated dwellings had begun to intermittently jut-out from the horizon either side of the road on which they travelled, signifying that they were at last leaving the wilderness between the two settlements and were nearing the more densely occupied lands surrounding Çatalhöyük. Above them, the Spring skies were blood-red and striking around the enormous descending solar disc and the heralds of He-Xur ordered the party to pause for a quick prayer to Anu, the head of their pantheon and of whom such skies were a blessing before they continued.
The throng carried-on through the evening, electing to make one final camp beside a copse of oak trees just east of the city before arriving at first light. Again Skara’s bonds were loosened so that he might feed himself, however He-Xur’s soldiers kept a closer watch this time. Word had travelled quickly through the group that some of his fellow valley-men had confided in him the previous night, and their leader was determined that his treasonous ideas would not be spread amongst his friends and neighbours, with whom he knew the prisoner had a greater rapport than he himself. Skara ate his fill, famished from the long and arduous trek that the group had made swiftly to make time and prayed a silent prayer of his own to the pantheon that he might find wisdom among his accusers when brought to trial. If indeed a trial was to be arranged, for he knew that those elders of the city had not endured for so long by entertaining dissident voices.
He slept warily through that night, ever watchful for those soldiers that might exact their own justice on the King’s behalf and at daybreak was yanked sharply to his feet by two of their number eager to press on and rejoin their brethren at the capital. The party marched a dozen men wide to the entrance of Çatalhöyük to meet the city watch, and Skara was awed by the great arch which surrounded the large wooden gates of the city. Massive oaken doors finished the road from the east, grand gates which stood almost twenty cubits tall and around the arch above it was carved the city’s grandiose claim, in great black symbols which read:
“HERE LIES THE GLORIOUS SPLENDOUR THAT IS ÇATALHÖYÜK; THE VIBRANT BEATING HEART OF SILUR-MAH WHERE EVER REIGN ANU’S DIVINE BLOOD-REPRESENTATIVES ON EARTH.”
After a quick exchange, the gates creaked open and the group were permitted entry into the city beyond. The capital itself was a vast collective of halls and dwellings built from an assortment of wood, stone and stretched animal skins, some carefully erected by artisans to the wishes of the more affluent and respected elders of the settlement and others resembling more the modest wooden huts of Nevalı Çori and the lesser villages to the east.
The city was criss-crossed with made and unmade roads, and plumes of smoke rose from many corners and hearths and clouded the sky above in a thick haze which choked Skara and others among them not used to such an atmosphere. They had been warned of this, and told that they would get used to it but Skara could not believe that he would ever come to prefer the smog of city life above the crisp, clean air of the valley. As the small army moved through the streets in the direction of the center of the settlement and towards the largest of its halls where dwelt the ruling family of Çatalhöyük, a herald from amongst them sounded two long and sharp blasts from his horn, intended to catch the attention of the household of He-Tauhasa Ihreikas.
The blasts prompted emissaries of the King to immediately march forth and confront the group, sharing a quick word with He-Xur before escorting them past a growing throng of onlookers, curious to see who had been welcomed into their city. Several dozen yards from the city square, the more distinguished among the group, including He-Xur, Skara and his minders were led into the massive Hall of Kings, and brought into a long space at the rear of the building. Skara was taken then before a large wooden throne draped with vibrant red cloth and decorated finery, where sat the king of the Southern lands, who was himself bare from the waist up save for several brightly coloured arm bands and other assorted adornments, and surrounded by handmaidens holding food, wine and other luxuries reserved for the ruler of their world. Skara was forced immediately to kneel in submission to the throne by a swift kick to the back of one knee, and He-Xur bowed his head in a gesture of respect before once more addressing his ruler for the first time since leaving the capital.