Son of Ishtar - Free Prologue

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Prologue

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Hattusa, Capital of the Hittite Empire
1315 BC

‘Last night I dreamt of skeleton hawks,’ said the bald, waxy-skinned priest. ‘They banked and swooped above the Storm Temple, clutching hale nestlings in their talons. Shrieking, maddened, they cast the young down, dashing them on the cold, hard ground. It was a dream of death.’
    King Mursili sank to one knee, deaf to the bleating words, every sense instead fixed on the ailing newborn in his arms. His long, night-black hair hung like a veil as he dipped his face towards his feeble son, his tears spotting on the babe’s blue-tinged lips. ‘Hattusili?’ Mursili said, his throat thick and raw. It was a name of strength, a name of famous predecessors. ‘Hattu?’ But the babe’s every breath grew shallower. The king looked up, towards the birthing stool before him. Slumped upon it was his beloved Queen Gassula, naked, skin greying and stained with her own blood, as frail as baby Hattu. Mursili had witnessed such traumatic births before… and the burning pyres that followed. ‘No. Not my queen… not my boy,’ he begged the ether.
    ‘My dreams foretold this, My Sun,’ the priest persisted, his eyes reflecting the light of the tallow candles and sweet frankincense flickering on the stone floor around the stool. The storm outside raged as if to underline the claim: lightning scored the night sky, thunder shook the heavens, a gale keened and rain lashed the purity hide sealing the stony birthing chamber’s outer door. ‘And Hittites should always heed their dreams.’
    The words tore Mursili back to reality. His head snapped round to pin the priest into silence, the winged sun-disc on his silver circlet accentuating his angered brow. Then he looked up and around the ring of others. The midwives gawped at him uselessly, their arms wet with blood to the elbows. The augurs too could only look on fearfully. ‘Do something,’ he growled. His gaze snapped onto the Wise Woman. ‘Repeat the prayer to the Goddess of Birth.’
    But the withered, yellow-toothed hag was impassive. ‘The rites have been recounted, Labarna. Repeating them will achieve nothing.’
    ‘Then slaughter another crow, another lamb,’ he demanded.
    ‘Those slain already were enough,’ the Wise Woman drawled. ‘The Gods will not be pleased at senseless butchery.’
    Mursili shot to standing. ‘The Gods? They have abandoned me.’ He stared at the high ceiling of the chamber, thinking of the skies above and the thousand divinities of his sacred land. ‘Is there none who will spare me this tragedy? None?’
    ‘Be careful, My Sun,’ the Wise Woman advised. ‘Such appeals can echo far into the void…’
    ‘I will give you anything,’ Mursili cried, ignoring her.
    ‘My Sun!’ the priest beseeched him.
    Mursili shouldered him away. ‘Spare their lives, spare them from the Dark Earth, and I will honour you.’ He lifted the ailing baby Hattu aloft like an offering. ‘My child will honour you. Hear me!’ he roared.
    Silence. Nothing but the pounding of rain. He slumped with a deep sigh. A midwife took baby Hattu from him and the well-meaning priest rested a hand on his shoulder. ‘You must entrust them to the healers now.’
    Mursili made to protest, but as he swung to the priest a fog of exhaustion passed over him. Spots swam across his eyes. He swayed and almost fell, only for the priest and others nearby to catch him.
    ‘My Sun! You must rest,’ the priest wailed. ‘It has been three nights since last you slept.’
    A fresh protest welled in Mursili’s throat but died on his tongue as another wave of fatigue washed over him. Steadying himself, he saw the asu healers lifting Gassula to a bed near the birthing stool, while a cluster of others placed     Hattu on a towel-clad bench edged with jars of curative waxes and potions. The Gods are silent, he thought, and so men must decide the fate of my beloved ones.
    ‘My Sun, please, take leave of this room and rest – for a time, at least.’
    ‘Perhaps,’ he snapped. Staring through the fog of exhaustion, he let the priest guide him from the birthing chamber and through the palace. ‘But you will summon me as soon as anything happens,’ Mursili said as they came to his     bedchamber. It was an order, not a request.
    The priest assured him, and in moments he was alone. Numbly, he lifted off his circlet, prized off his boots and cloak and lay down, beset with worry and uncomforted by the soft linen bedding. There was not a chance that he would sleep, he was sure. But when the tallow candle by his bed guttered and died, exhaustion crept up on him like an assailant, tossing a black veil of oblivion over his weary mind. It was a deep, dreamless, restful slumber.
For a time...

And then the dark oblivion parted like drapes. He realised he was standing on cold, rough ground, a finger of dire, grey light shining down upon him as if from an unseen moon. All else remained in shadow. Was this a dream? Was he alone in this strange nether-world?
    The answer came in the form of a growl. A deep, throaty, inhuman growl that dripped with menace. When a lion prowled across one edge of the gloomy finger of light, its leathery, black lips peeling back to reveal yellow fangs dripping with saliva, Mursili clasped in vain for the hunting spear he did not possess. He started to back away when a second growl from behind him turned his legs to stone. The two lions began circling him watchfully.
And then a third figure emerged from the ether before him: an impossibly tall woman, sun-kissed and naked bar a silver necklace of an eight-pointed star and a diaphanous scarf around her broad waist. Her dark locks tumbled around her heart-shaped face, then on to cover her bare and weighty breasts. But she was no woman, for her legs below the knee tapered into the gnarled talons of an eagle. And sprouting from her back were shuddering cascades of feathers – wings!
    At once, he understood. The goddess of many names: Inanna, Shauska…
    ‘… Ishtar,’ he whispered, wide-eyed, dropping to his knees. He thought of everything this goddess represented. Love, fertility… war. And of her reputation as the bearer of bittersweet fruits.
    ‘My-my pledge was sincere,’ he stammered, understanding this dream now. His pleas had been heard. ‘Save my queen and my child… I will do anything for you as will they.’
    With a glint in her cat-like eyes, Ishtar walked around him, hips swaying. Her talons clacked on the dark ground as she went. ‘Only one can live,’ she replied with a throaty purr.
    Mursili balked. Had he misheard her? ‘I… I don’t understand.’
    ‘I can heal Gassula or Hattu, not both. One must journey to the Dark Earth. So who is to die, King Mursili: your queen or your boy?’
    What had she said? The words stabbed like a knife into Mursili’s heart. The bittersweet fruit had been offered. ‘I will not choose,’ he said.
    ‘Then both will die… ’ she hissed, receding into the blackness.
    ‘No… no,’ Mursili begged, one hand outstretched. ‘How can a man choose between his wife and his child? Guide me, help me at least.’
    She halted at the edge of the grey light. ‘I see two futures,’ she said. ‘In one, your wife regains her strength and grows old with you. Yet her life will be an unhappy one, spent by the Meadow of the Fallen, weeping over baby Hattu’s bones. When she is on her death bed she will tell you she wished she had died along with the babe. It will crush you.’
    Cold pins pricked Mursili’s heart at the mere thought of his sweet Gassula in such torment. ‘And… the other?’ he asked cautiously.
    ‘In the other, Gassula’s pain will be short. She will perish, but Hattu will never have known his mother and so he will not grieve for her.’
    Mursili hesitated then whispered: ‘And if… if Hattu lives, will he lead a good life?’
    Ishtar remained silent for a moment, and Mursili thought he noticed something of a smirk on her lips. At last, she parted her arms, closed her eyes and began to sing in a voice of molten gold:

    A burning east, a desert of graves,
    A grim harvest, a heartland of wraiths,
    The Son of Ishtar, will seize the Grey Throne,
    A heart so pure, will turn to stone,
    The west will dim, with black boats’ hulls,
    Trojan heroes, mere carrion for gulls,
    And the time will come, as all times must,
    When the world will shake, and fall to dust…

    She opened her eyes again. ‘This I foresee, if Hattu lives.’
    Mursili’s eyes darted as he combed over the words of the song. It made little sense, apart from one line: ‘The Son of Ishtar, will seize the Grey Throne,’ he croaked. ‘You speak of Hattu?’
    ‘Yes,’ she purred, ‘it has been some time since Hittite Kings and Princes took up swords against one another. But if Hattu lives, he will be your fourth son. Four sons… and just one throne to inherit.’
    ‘Hattu would turn upon his own kin?’ he searched Ishtar’s face in desperation.
    Ishtar beheld him with a doleful look. ‘It will begin on the day he stands by the banks of the Ambar, soaked in the blood of his brother.’
    Mursili recoiled at the thought. ‘No, never.’ He raised a shaking hand, one finger wagging, briefly daring to show his anger to the goddess. ‘This is a trick!’
    She stretched to her full height, wings extending, lips receding to show sharp fangs and her eyes suddenly ablaze like coals. ‘Enough!’ the goddess bawled like a vengeful dragon so as to make the ether of the shadow-world tremble around him. ‘Make your choice, Great King of the Hittites. Who is to die?’
    There was only one answer, but the words stuck in his throat. Yet he knew in the pit of his heart that if Gassula was here in this foul dream, she would give that same answer.
    Heartsick, he whispered at last: ‘Save my boy.’

    He woke and sat bolt upright in his bed, lashed with sweat. A flicker of lightning illuminated his chamber for an instant, and he saw the ancient and vividly-painted carvings of the gods on the opposite wall, Ishtar amongst them. Nearby thunder pealed as the essence of the dream crept across his flesh like a winter chill. ‘A dream and no more,’ he muttered, before he remembered the words of the priest and that most ancient mantra: Hittites should always heed their dreams.
    Suddenly, the muffled voices of the birthing staff – raised and urgent – echoed through the palace. At once his head snapped round to the sound. In a panic, he rose and stumbled barefoot through the unlit passageways, jagged flashes of lightning his only beacon, until he barged back into the birthing chamber, eyes wide, maddened.
    All stared at him, all speechless. Gassula lay on the bed, her eyes gazing into eternity, lips blue, chest completely still. A crying midwife cradled baby Hattu – the babe equally lifeless.
    ‘Queen Gassula passed into the Dark Earth a short while ago, My Sun,’ she wept, ‘and the boy stopped breathing just a moment ago.’
    ‘No,’ Mursili whispered, stepping forward to take Hattu. He held the tiny form to his chest and stared at the ceiling of the birthing chamber. ‘This is not how it was supposed to be,’ he cried. ‘You made me choose. You made me ch-’
    Thunder cracked directly overhead, drowning him out and shaking the chamber. In the same instant, the gale outside gained immense strength, the purity hide stretched over the chamber’s outer door bulged inwards and then one edge snapped free, the pegs holding it there spinning across the room. The tallow candles roared and spat at the sudden intrusion of storm-wind and driving rain. The birthing staff shrieked in fright, their robes and hair rapping as they backed away.
    But King Mursili did not move despite the scourging rain, for the tiny bundle in his arms suddenly convulsed, then took a full gasp for breath.
    Baby Hattu cried out at last, in time with the storm.


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