10. The King’s Last Stand
The Watchers at Uru-Mah had worked tirelessly in the days since Skara’s last visit, making final preparations and completing modifications to their compound in anticipation of the arrival of the free men and women of the valley. Despite the fact that much of the former knowledge and wisdom of their order had been lost or forgotten in the many centuries which followed their hubris, awareness of the coming disaster had long been documented and steps carefully taken to ensure that no matter what, they would be ready and able to defend mankind against it.
For his dedication, Yamnaya had been granted absolute sole direction over their efforts, and when those that laboured had finally reached a point in their work that he might be able to complete all remaining tasks alone, the rest of his order bade him a brief and ritualistic farewell before they gathered whatever tools and equipment were needed and departed to a massive underground bunker, older than any of the other structures at the settlement and all but buried at the far eastern edge of the compound. Within this bunker was housed a strange and mysterious machine from the ancient world, a vehicle of incredible power and engineering crafted by sciences that even the Watchers themselves no longer understood entirely. Oddly shaped, not unlike a bottom-heavy zeppelin in appearance but without any obvious method of propulsion save for a wide, cylindrical hollow which extended from point to stern, the vessel had not been activated since most of their earliest memories (we are reminded that the Watchers were not bound to the same fleeting mortality as men), from the time of first contact with the Clovis, across the seas. And in this hour of desperate need it was to them that their order would return.
Soon after they had all entered the hanger and boarded the vessel, for the first time in an age a warming hum like the charge of a massive build of electricity filled the chamber as the great and ancient Vimana began to slowly draw its energy from the very air surrounding it before it would eventually take to the sky in a fluid and soundless motion. Secretly Yamnaya had envied the journey that his brethren were about to embark upon, however he knew that at least one must remain behind alone to ensure the eventuation of their masterplan. After he stood and watched them ascend into the heavens on a column of pale blue light, silently following the craft with his eyes as it diminished into little more than a tiny speck on the horizon, he turned to resume his duties, working to realise the final blueprint for their last work of manufacture which they had aptly named ‘The Defender.’
As he moved silently about the compound, he was for the first time struck by the cold sterility of the surroundings of what had become his home. Not a day had gone by since his brethren had first settled atop the plateau that there hadn’t been at least a few others present to give life and company to its halls and to his efforts. Now however, stone, silent calculation and a growing uneasiness akin to the calm before a storm seemed suddenly to encase him like a dark cocoon of trepidation and dread. He mused emotionlessly on the feeling for a moment, tracing the path of the sun between the canopy above and reckoned that Skara and the villagers should arrive at their city by nightfall, all things going well. “Best get back to it, else we’re caught by surprise,” he muttered to himself, before returning to his work.
Shortly after noon, Skara and the men and women of the valley finally reached the base of the plateau, where after only a short climb they would eventually ascend to their final destination. The journey had been arduous, and due to the difficulties of travelling with women and children had taken much longer than he might have anticipated. Still, they appeared to be on track to reach the end of their travel within the given window and hopefully then would find safety in the surrounding mountainside. As the golden disc of the midday sun burned hot overhead, they picked up the pace and found renewed spirits with the end of their travels finally in sight. No sooner had they taken to the last leg however, settling into a steady rhythmic march to the summit than the shrill blast of a hunting horn sounded from somewhere far off in the distance behind them, cutting through the balmy stillness of the early afternoon and splitting Skara’s consciousness like the fell strike of a newly keened blade.
The rest of the villagers too had been startled by the sound, and as one stopped dead in their tracks and turned to try and locate the source of the noise. Far off in the distance, barely discernible and only at the very lowest hills proceeding the flat they could just make out a wide, shapeless cloud of moving bodies, clearly an army or some sort of migrating force, that seemed to slowly course in their direction. Squinting as best he could to make out the identity of what he irrationally supposed might be another large group of tardy travellers from the valley, Andar turned to his brother and asked, “Who are they, that follow with such haste..? Have your Watchers promised sanctuary to others from the surrounding lands..?” To which Skara replied, “Not that I am aware of. What I do know, however, is that that herald was not meant as a salutation – the hunting horn would never be used in such a fashion, even under duress. Come, let’s encourage haste and keep them moving. We don’t have time to stop, for whoever it might be.”
Quickly, Skara and Andar clapped loudly and yelled at their kinsmen to snap them out of discussion regarding their pursuers, commanding that they make haste to reach the summit without delay. While the two of them had led the group to this point in the journey thus far, they now deliberately eased their way to the rear of the procession where they might shout encouragement while also keeping a close and watchful eye on those who followed, and were now closing in with clear haste and an apparent fierce resolve. The villagers stumbled over thick clumps of dense grasses and scrambled over loose rocks as their passage steepened, and as the day’s heat began to melt the snow atop peaks far beyond their line of sight, small streams and rivulets which coursed erratically down the slope turned much of the fertile soil in places to mud, making the going ever more difficult.
Eventually, just as the group had the summit within their sights, a second, louder blast of the same hunter’s horn rang out, almost deafening and from much closer this time, prompting them all to immediately stop and turn. As they did, they were finally able to clearly identify the other party, and as he recognised the deep red banners they held fiercely aloft Skara’s blood ran cold. His massive bulk positioned astride the largest royal ox he had ever seen, He-Tauhasa Ihreikas and the entire capital army that had departed Çatalhöyük in pursuit of their prisoner stood armed to the teeth before them and incensed that Skara’s heresies remained unpunished. Their king had swiftly commanded his emissaries to assemble those fighters he had called to the capital for his campaign against the West to instead pursue Skara, and the advancing army had already begun ascending the foothills as he cursed himself immediately for revealing the whereabouts of their destination when pleading for clemency so many days earlier. “Surely such a force is far beyond anything those left of us can resist – do they plan to slaughter us all..?” He thought to himself, suddenly feeling all at once frightened, deflated and desperate.
Realising that they would not all be able to completely clear the lip of the plateau before they were caught from behind, Skara sprang quickly into action, separating all of the men and boys from the women and children and commanded the latter continue on ahead without them. As those unable to fight reluctantly resumed their ascent, he and Andar quickly distributed what few weapons they had brought with them and set about formulating a strategy for defending and, if they could not be successful, at least slowing down their pursuers. By his estimation, the people of the valley were easily outnumbered five-to-one, odds that left precious little hope of any victory should worst come to worst. They formed a defensive crescent across the low of the final hill, and waited nervously, shoulder to shoulder, for the inevitable.
Within minutes, He-Tauhasa’s army closed distance and halted some fifty meters short in front of them. Skara could now finally make out the identities of his close guard, and was surprised to find He-Xur occupying the right hand command position of the King’s forces. He and Andar traded nervous glances from the head of their group as the opposing force merely stood silent for several moments until He-Tauhasa’s inevitable challenge boomed forth in a commanding tone; “Skara of the Valley, it is no small feat that you have managed to slither from the clutches of your King, and the final justice which now awaits you. Nor, sadly, does it come as any real surprise that with your poisonous, treasonous words you have been able to coerce those that have remained in your home into joining you in your misguided quest toward the forbidden city in the hills, where those worms of a vanquished foe reside. Know now however that the chase is won, and I have come to, and by the gods will, see justice done.”
“Justice..?” Skara called back scornfully, “What justice would you see done here, my King..?” He bravely spat the title at the other man, as if the word no longer held any value, and went on; “I have brought you tidings of the only true prophesy which comes from those that know. I have proven my belief in your arena, and would now lead those that I love to safety. I have reasoned, nay, pleaded with you and your council to see the truth, but you would still prefer only to listen to the words of madmen, ghosts who,” he scanned the rest of He-Tauhasa’s forces, not finding a single seer among their ranks, “who would not even join their people this day. If you still choose to believe in the fearful offerings of witchdoctors and would oppose us so close from completing our journey – then go ahead and kill us all. We’ll stand our ground, much as the alternative is death anyway.” The rest of the defenders found their courage then and cheered, raising aloft their axes and spears in solidarity as He-Tauhasa digested Skara’s reply.
Slowly, and even before the events in the sky had come to pass, He-Tauhasa had felt his power over the men and women of the South beginning to wane, and his grip over those assembled to weaken. There had been talk in darkened corners of his soft touch regarding those to the West, and even the occasional whiff of conspiracy borne on the winds and whispers of his court. He had resolved upon their departure to take a stronger stance, to stand by the aggressive precedents set by his forebears and in Skara’s case, make an example of all traitors and challengers to his authority wherever they might be found. In his own mind, he had never had a choice. “Absolute rule must be maintained by absolute means.” Raising a heavy, knotted staff he grasped in his right hand, he signalled his forces to advance on the defenders, only bellowing a loud and terrifying war cry as he spurred his awful beast into a slow trot.
Skara was stunned that it had actually come down to this, that his king would command the armies of the South to attack their own flesh and blood. A vivid shock ran down his spine, and he fearfully gripped his long spear tightly with both hands. Just as the remaining villagers too had readied themselves for what was about to come, and those women and children further up on the hillside stopped and turned to witness the violence that threatened to unfold, a loud and familiar voice rang out unexpectedly from He-Tauhasa’s own ranks, bidding the army to again halt its approach at the final moment. The voice belonged to He-Xur who, with two trunk-like arms outstretched ahead of him first turned to the army of Çatalhöyük and then to his leader, demanding; “Ihreikas, my king – you must stop this madness now..! These people that you would war with this day are our brothers from the Valley, do you not recognise them..? Has the hateful shroud of blind vengeance so clouded your mind that you would cast down your wrath upon those who call you their champion..? Many men amongst us have called them neighbours, friends and family for our entire lives. I will not fight them, not like this – we will not slay our brothers..!”
Murmurs of agreement swelled among those closest to He-Xur, and it became clear that while many of the King’s own men might have followed him blindly into the fray, the menfolk of the Valley, particularly those with their own loved ones, lovers and children so very nearly within their reach would not be so easily led to betrayal. Very quickly a division broke within the ranks separating those who sided without question with their ruler, and those unwilling to participate in an inevitable slaughter. He-Tauhasa’s eyes bulged as the breadth of He-Xur’s treachery hit home, and he turned to face his subordinate; “Such insolence I would expect from those lowest among us, such that I might find leniency knowing that it came from a place of ignorance, but from you, He-Xur – such defiance will not be tolerated. So be it..!” He rallied what was close to two-thirds of the number that had followed him east then, and He-Xur likewise and with only a slight gesture of his right hand brought his soldiers quickly in line to oppose him.
Skara could not believe what was happening. So suddenly had such overwhelming odds been dramatically lessened that he managed to afford himself a quiet sigh of relief, though the situation was still far from positive and odds nowhere near in their favour. He-Tauhasa slowly rode the length of his line, quietly delivering stern words of encouragement to his soldiers as he did so while He-Xur and those who remained loyal to the Valley stood stoic and silent, merely waiting for the signal to attack. There had not been any kind of real civil conflict among the people of the Southern Lands in many years, with most of those soldiers comprising the King’s army too young to have seen or even remembered the horrors of war. Nervous though they were, for the time being the penalty for desertion was repeated enough that they would rather fight than bring down the very real wrath of Ihreikas and his guards upon themselves. A few moments later, He-Tauhasa once more took his place at the fore, and with another short blast from his hunting horn and no further discussion, the battle was begun.
The fighting commenced ferociously as those closest to He-Tauhasa felt compelled, as much out of fear as anything, to prove their loyalty to their leader. The larger force ran recklessly across the hillside all but ignoring Skara and his villagers and crashed haphazardly into those of He-Xur, breaking apart and almost swallowing them up in a loud and frenzied skirmish. Against the cries of the women and children above but without hesitation, Skara beckoned Andar and the rest of his company to descend into the fray, and they too engaged in a wild offensive against the pursuing army, the sounds of shield, spear and axe being splintered, shattered and smashed ringing out loud and constant over the lowlands beyond.
From among the villagers, Sura could only stand helplessly and spectate, and hope that the gods would protect her husband. She brought their children close, shielding little Kirti’s eyes from the bloodshed below and prayed a solemn prayer; “Sky Father, Enlil, your head lifted high in princely worth and who loves righteousness and truth. Named with an august name, for whom Anu has determined a great destiny, and Ninlil..! The valiant Ninurta is your helper. In the E-kur, Nuska the august minister of Enlil, the assembly leader of all lands, is your foremost palace superintendent. Throughout your reign, may you carry your neck high – in princely manner may you lift your head high..! Protect him to whom my heart is promised, prolong the days of his life for Samsu-iluna.” She could now no longer bear to watch, and holding her son and daughter against her bosom turned and crouched away from the scene, hiding her tears lest Skara find distraction in her distress.
So many bodies fell in those first few seconds, succumbing to the sheer horrible might of He-Tauhasa’s forces as they hacked at, slashed and hurled their axes and spears into the unprotected heads and quivering bellies of their enemy. It was by all accounts a complete and utter massacre, and despite Skara’s aid it quickly became clear that without some sort of miracle, the defenders would soon be overcome to a man, leaving the women and children of the village defenceless and without hope for the coming days’ events. Skara looked out across the fray as he held back several of the King’s guards just in time to see both Gidri and Gizzal, brothers he had hunted with and known a lifetime, overrun by his soldiers, beaten down and hacked to bloody death without hesitation or remorse. Throwing his attackers back with a mighty heave of his powerful arms, he called out desperately to Andar and the rest of his hunters to rally and join him in one final push – one last retaliation for those that waited in fear above.
As the hunters of Nevalı Çori fought their way together once more, they soon realised that their time had come. Bodies continued to drop all around them, the forms of adult men that finally cried maternal as their lifeblood drained away from savage wounds while they lay broken and prone on the slope. Even He-Xur, who at the height of battle threw Skara violently aside in order to spare his friend the brunt of a wayward spear, caught the jagged point of the weapon dead center in his own chest and crashed to the earth, the vibrant life in his once fearless gaze extinguished as it searched the skies in sorrow for reprieve. For his part in everything that had brought them there, he had never truly lost touch with his own past, nor abandoned affection for those that made the village he so loved what it was. Skara prayed quickly under his breath for favour in the great judgement beyond, and swore to himself to fight until his dying breath. By both blood and honour, to avenge his friend and to defend his lands and people.
He and Andar spent the next several minutes fighting back to back, Skara parrying a hail of blows with both ends of his spear while Andar brought his own monstrous club raining down again and again onto the heads of his assailants, crushing their exposed skulls into jelly with mighty strikes and sending shards of bone, scalp and brain matter bursting out in all directions. Bloodlust quickly took hold of them both as the enemy continued to advance and they began to chance two, three and even four of their number at a time forward in an attempt to tire out the hunters in the hopes of eventually finding a gap in their defences and bringing the brothers to their knees.
Stones and arrows fell like hailstones around them, and before long Andar had caught a half-dozen shafts in his back and shoulders which slowed his attack and severely limited his movement. Skara too found himself racked with pain as a lone archer at higher ground took careful aim and loosed three bolts at once into his chest which, while narrowly missing his heart and lungs, caused him to double over in agony and forced him to struggle to defend himself as he was made to take a knee. Soon enough, the crimson clouds at the corners of his vision blended with hot blood that cascaded from an open wound in his forehead, and as his ability to make out the forms of those attacking gradually diminished he knelt still and simply closed his eyes, and waited for the final deciding blow that would send him into the world beyond.
Chaos whirled all around them like a maelstrom, and just as the rest of the hunters found themselves completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered on all sides, ready to face fate in a final offensive push, an unexpected and incredible boom accompanied by a fierce and persistent flash of white light suddenly erupted violently from between the warring parties and their kin. The sudden explosion stopped everyone dead in their tracks and caused He-Tauhasa’s great ox to buck the mountain of a man from astride its back before it carved a path through the ranks and fled from the battlefield to safety. A thick, grey cloud of smoke appeared to billow out from the very earth itself, choking everyone near enough to breathe it in and fearful and unsure what exactly was happening, both forces stood perfectly still and stared wide-eyed at the heart of the plume until the reason for its appearance could be distinguished.
It was as though time stood still then, and for all those locked in combat a strange catharsis appeared to washed over them like a mountain of cold blood. The lingering cries of the dead and dying seemed to fade into white noise as the fog of war was lifted, and the deep red-green hues of the fresh and shallow lake of blood upon which the opposing forces stood grew to taint earth and sky in a sickening tableaux of wanton death and human suffering. A moment of clarity was shared by all in those seconds, and even He-Tauhasa was compelled to re-evaluate in a flash every action that had brought him and his own to the abattoir of mortal carnage in which they now found themselves. “The gods have surely left us,” his mind silently cried as he looked around, “for this day, we shame them all.”
Out of the thinning haze, Yamnaya then appeared with a darkness on his face that could have swallowed the Sun. Everyone but Skara immediately took several paces back in shock as the veritable giant of a man strode toward them without so much as pausing, and held aloft a thick leather belt to which more than a dozen glistening vials were strapped, not unlike those that Sura and Andar had used to persuade their kinsmen to join them in their exodus. He stopped several yards short of the closest among them, and without blinking removed and cast a second vial down at his feet which too erupted, birthing a wall of intense white fire several feet tall that coursed linear in either direction, quickly separating the Watcher from those in the fray. After allowing the barrier to burn for a few seconds, he raised a lithe right hand toward them, and spoke in a tone that caused the very earth beneath them to tremble:
“Children of the Valley – stop this madness at once..!” Yamnaya admonished the crowd with a low, booming roar. He-Tauhasa struggled to raise himself out of the mud, propping his torso up on both elbows and stared incredulously over his ample belly at the Watcher and while many in his army could only stand rooted to the spot, dozens more immediately dropped their weapons and ran blindly away from the imposing figure in a mad dash, abandoning their leader without so much as a word and sprinting desperately down the hill to safety. Although Skara could not make out the figure of Yamnaya through all the caked blood and matted hair that covered his bashed and swollen face, he recognised the voice of the one that had sent him on his quest and in spite of himself managed to smile and allow a short and delirious laughter to leave his lips. Andar held his club tight and merely stood warily gazing at the figure standing before him, and not a single soul dared make a sound as Yamnaya regained his composure, and prepared to deliver the remainder of his admonition.
A chill wind whipped suddenly down from the mountains, causing everyone to immediately shiver in spite of the season and although dusk was still many hours away, the shadows at the feet of all who stood before him suddenly were lost to a lightless moment. Yamnaya took several deliberate paces forward, and as the fierce wall of flames began to subside, he continued; “Long into the day have I toiled, for you all, in anticipation of the arrival of your kind. Without rest I have devoted the days and nights since last I spoke with the one whom I trusted to deliver our warning to readying the stronghold at Uru-Mah to withstand the coming curse from above, and now..” he paused, his chiseled features transforming into a mask of dark disdain, “now that all has been completed so that I might finally find a moment’s rest, I am assaulted in my peace by the clash of weapons and warfare on my very doorstep..!” He bellowed the final observation with such unbridled anger that those closest to him either jumped out of their skin or dropped whatever weapons they held and ran to find safety at the rear of the remaining brigade.
After again working to placate his rage, Yamnaya squinted out from beneath the thick hood he perpetually wore and scanned the crowd of cowering men in front of him, as if seeking out a familiar face. His gaze eventually landed on Skara, still crouching in the thick mud of the battlefield and a just for a moment, an almost perceptible flush of panic washed over him. Without speaking, Yamnaya strode through what was now little more than a shallow trench of embers where the earth itself had been scorched and walked over to Skara. As he neared the other man, those forces that still had him surrounded, and Andar too, quickly backed away to clear a space some several yards around them both.
He-Tauhasa could be heard raising his vast bulk back on its feet with an audible grunt from somewhere behind the lines as Yamnaya knelt down and cleared away the thick, bloody mess that covered Skara’s face. Immediately he could see that the valley man was in mortal danger; in addition to a heavy gash that ran across the length of his scalp and continued to bleed profusely, the tails of several arrows protruding from his chest rose and fell in a slow, rhythmic shudder with every desperate and agonising breath he took. Skara was dying, and Yamnaya knew that if there was any hope in saving the man that he had grown to know as a friend, he must act quickly.
Without wasting another breath addressing the crowd that were now looking around at one another with confused expressions as if to ask, “Well, what do we do now..?” Yamnaya scooped Skara up in his arms and quickly turned toward the rise, just as Sura and their two children broke away from the villagers and descended in a half-panic to join him. No sooner had the Watcher taken his first step toward them, however, all were halted by another voice that called out boldly from the throng. He-Tauhasa had watched cautiously up to this point, careful not misstep in deciding how to address Yamnaya but as he turned to leave with his quarry could no longer contain himself. “Wait, Watcher..!” the great man yelled as he pushed his ample girth through the crowd to approach Yamnaya who, sensing the situation that was about to unfold, lowered Skara gently to the ground once more just as Sura, Harna and Kirti arrived to administer as best they could to his wounds.
The Watcher turned slowly to face He-Tauhasa, who cleared the wall of opposing forces in a huff and continued, challenging the Watcher for possession of the fallen hunter. “This man you would so casually steal away from his fate, this man belongs to me. For his heresy, his treachery and crimes against his king, I have pursued him from the capital to the valley, and to these hills and for that, I claim him. I, and no other. You will leave him and return to your hovel in the mountain’s side, such as it is. I’ve no quarrel with you, whatever it is you claim you are – but I warn you,” he stepped toward Yamnaya, and perhaps not so much for lack of wisdom as an abundance misplaced anger made the mistake of thrusting a single fat finger in the Watcher’s face, “contest me if you dare. Know that with my first command, however, those men that still surround you will exact my will in earnest, and will have no need for a second. No amount of magic vials and parlour tricks will outweigh the authority of the line of Ihreikas. Not now, and not so long as there is breath in my body.” No sooner had the challenge been set than the skies seemed to darken still more, and Yamnaya rose to his full imposing height, suddenly seething with anger at the insolence of the gluttonous and poor-mannered man that would issue such a challenge.
No-one upon the hillside dared move as they awaited the response. Sura knelt and cradled her husband close like a crippled child, whispering loving sentiments as tears rolled softly down her porcelain cheeks. In spite of his wounds, Andar stood tall and ready to resume the fight as soon as He-Tauhasa’s order was given, and once more the grey fog of war descended upon the battlefield as the gravity of those next few moments finally dawned on them all.