Ring Without a Stone

by Michael Lee
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Ordinarily, Anzu would not have tarried from the errand his master had assigned him, but there was something oddly alluring about the stranger performing magic tricks in the bazaar, something that wouldn’t simply allow him to walk idly past and go about his master’s business.

Try as he did to ignore the spectacle, his eyes refused to look away; his legs slowed, and before he knew it, he had ceased all forward motion and was staring, transfixed, as the stranger made fire dance in the palm of his hand.

Anzu slid his master’s satchel into the folds of his tunic and edged into the crowd for a closer view. A rare smile crept onto his face.

The stranger wore the vibrant robes and gilded finery of an aristocrat, and the goat-skin sack at his side was of the type commonly used by travelers to tote their belongings. Anzu imagined the man had come to Ur on one of the morning barges, perhaps from Uruk, or Kish, but most certainly from somewhere within Sumer given his mastery of the local dialect. It was clear, however, that he was not a local. A nobleman doing street magic in Ur was unheard of, any local would know that.

A cheer rose up as the stranger made a small token disappear and then reappear in the ear of an unsuspecting audience member. The crowd became louder still when he bent to scratch an itch and while doing so released a pigeon from within his tunic. Trick after trick elicited outcries of approval and demands for more, and the crowd grew ever larger.

Anzu remained quiet throughout the performance, his eyes wide with wonder. He risked a severe beating should he be late, but he knew such a beating was inevitable anyway, late or not. Hardly a day passed without a thrashing at his master’s hand.

The stranger looked about the crowd and his gaze fell upon Anzu. The boy quickly averted his gaze. Slaves never looked a nobleman in the eye, especially slaves who were supposed to be off doing their master’s bidding.

“You there, boy, Come forward.”

Anzu’s mouth fell agape.

“Come along, don’t be afraid,” the stranger called out.

“I shouldn’t,” Anzu stammered. He felt the eyes of the crowd on him, and his face drained of color. “I should be going.”

The crowd cleared the way, and to his astonishment, he was propelled forward until he stood in front of the man.

What manner of sorcery is this! He thought.

He stared at the packed earth in front of the stranger’s feet, careful not to look up. The scent of frankincense hung in the air about the man, reminding him of his father. It was that memory, not fear, which caused his eyes to well with tears.

He shifted nervously, allowing his hair to fall in front of his face. His knees trembled and his cheeks flushed. Slaves simply did not interact with noblemen in this manner. But try as he did he was unable to fall to his knees in submission.

The stranger took hold of his chin, and gently guided his face upward until their eyes met. Anzu quickly shifted his gaze, concentrating on the man’s bird-like nose, thin lips and powerful jaw-line, anything to keep from seeing those bottomless green pools the man wore for eyes.

“I should go. My master is waiting.”

“Why do you fear me so, boy?”

“He’s a slave and a cur, that’s why.” The words elicited laughter from the crowd.

Anzu turned to see who had spoken, and grimaced when he saw it was a boy from the temple where he prayed. The boy was younger than he, yet he bullied Anzu incessantly to impress his fellows. As a slave Anzu had always been powerless to fight back.

Anzu lowered his head in shame. Things were not always this way. A year earlier he had been the son of a scribe. He had status. A year ago this boy would have treated him with respect.

“It’s true, sir,” Anzu was forced to admit. “I’m an orphan. A slave until I’m old enough to enlist in King Elulu’s army.”

Anzu had no love for the king or his army. It was King Elulu himself who had ordered his parents’ executions, and his soldiers who had carried them out. Anzu hoped to one day enlist, true enough, but only for the chance to get close enough to kill the King of Sumer.

“So you would go from being the slave of a nobleman to the slave of a king?”

Anzu shrugged.

“An orphan.” The man looked saddened by this.

“Yes, sir. My parents were put to death.”

“Put to death? For what crime?”

“My father was a story teller. He told the old tales, those of the Anunnaki.”

The stranger smiled, but an instant later his look became grave. “And that is a crime?”

“Yes sir, of course. In all of Sumer I thought. How could you not know?” Anzu immediately regretted his words–he had forgotten his place. He looked down at his own feet, bracing for a sharp backhand. To his surprise, none was forthcoming.

“What kind of tyrant would pass such a law?”

Anzu’s eyes became wide, his jaw dropped. A murmur rose up and spread through the crowd. Onlookers began dispersing sheepishly. The demonstration had taken a treasonous turn.

“And how old are you, child?”

“Thirteen, sir. Yet I’m small for my age.”

The stranger smiled delightedly. “And you will be for quite some time, I imagine.”

“I should hope not,” Anzu said without thinking. “My master already thinks I’m a weakling.”

“Your stature will grow with time, dear boy. There are other strengths to be built in the meantime. Strengths your master cannot imagine.”

“Don’t talk to that cur,” the boy who had spoken earlier shouted. “Do more tricks.”

“Yes, more tricks!” echoed several young voices.

The stranger cast his eyes about the crowd, and one by one the onlookers that remained shuddered and hurried away. The boy who had spoken paled and ran off.

The stranger’s eyes had become dark and venomous, his face twisted into a horror. And then the eyes shifted, his face softened, and a smile returned to his face.

“What is your name, boy?”

“I am Anzu.”

The stranger’s smile grew wider. “A noble name indeed. Do you know that Anzu is of the language of the Anunnaki?”

Anzu couldn’t hide his surprise. He remembered the wondrous tales of the Anunnaki his father had once told. He cherished them all, reciting them often to himself as he worked. On occasion, when his mood was such that sleep refused to come, he would imagine his father recounting them as he and his mother listened, enraptured. These were stories of the old gods, those men of Sumer worshipped before the great deluge, the gods King Elulu had declared dead. Never in any of the stories did he recall hearing the word Anzu.

“No, sir. I know the stories. I’ve never heard my name in any of them.”

“It is a name to wear with pride. It means he who knows the heavens.

Anzu made no reply.

The man placed his hand on Anzu’s shoulder, and the boy felt a calm come over him. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Anzu. I am Alulim, of Eridug.”

Anzu laughed abruptly at the reference. Eridug was the First City. In the old tales, when the gods crossed the void from Nibiru to settle the earth, they built Eridug. Alulim was the first of the ancient kings of Sumer.

“I am sorry,” Anzu said, horrified that he had laughed at someone so clearly above his rank. “I meant no disrespect.”

“Of course you didn’t. You were just thinking how astonishingly healthful I appear for a man who has wandered the earth for a hundred thousand years.”

Anzu nodded, fighting back laughter. The idea that some of the ancient gods had survived the deluge was not foreign to him, but he had been taught they had slipped into anonymity to escape the wrath of those who blamed them for the disasters brought upon the earth. For one of them to suddenly appear in Ur, freely admitting his identity, was simply too far fetched to take seriously.

“And what have you got there, Anzu?” The man who called himself Alulim pointed to the bulge in the boy’s tunic where his master’s purse was hidden. On his finger was a golden ring. The setting was empty. It seemed the stone that had once been there was now missing.

Anzu looked around, fearful. The crowd had left them alone. He wanted to run off but was frozen in place.

“Nothing,” he finally said. “They don’t belong to me. They belong to my master. He sent me to barter some of his works for fish, and will be quite angry if something, or someone, should keep me.” Anzu hoped that would make things clear to the man.

“May I see?”

Anzu hesitated. If Alulim was a thief, and he lost the ornaments to him, his master would be furious. His knees shook as he handed Alulim the leather purse.

With a smile, Alulim opened the pouch and peered inside. His gaze shifted to Anzu, and he raised a single eyebrow. Frowning theatrically, he turned the bag upside down. Anzu scrambled to catch the ornaments, but nothing spilled forth. The bag was empty. The boy went pale.

He panicked and fled the market, only realizing he had broken the spell that had rendered him motionless when he was well away.

Anzu sat on the steps of the temple ziggurat beneath the carving of Nanna, god of the moon and the sacred god of Ur. Several peasants stood upon the steps nearby, playing music on a tinkling drum and harp. Worshippers came and went, leaving offerings of stale bread and wine, and all manner of passersby stopped briefly to pay their respects as they went about their daily routine. Anzu barely noticed them as he begged the gods for protection.

He feared there would be no answer. These were the King’s gods, and his father had rebuked them. Gods were a jealous, vindictive bunch; it would take more than simple prayer to win back their protection.

The sun approached its apex, and the blistering heat rendered Anzu parched and dizzy. He had no choice but to return to his master, fishless and late. He rose to his feet and bowed before Nanna. Then he made his way through the crowded central avenue toward his master’s sanctum.

As he hurried through the bustling city into the quieter eastern borough, he came across a procession of palace soldiers. He had little choice but to watch and wait as they passed. To cross their path would have meant running the risk of a dire thrashing. Rather than take the chance, he took refuge beneath a towering palm, which offered no relief from the heat.

The soldiers passed four abreast, their bronze helmets gleaming under the noon-time sun. They all wore bronze-studded leather tunics and carried shields. Most were armed with spears, others war-axes or heavy clubs carved of bone or wood. Citizens scrambled from the narrow avenue to let them pass; the slower ones were severely beaten.

Following the first platoon was a group of bloody prisoners. A soldier with a whip herded them forward with deafening strikes from a lash. A second platoon of soldiers took up the rear, their eyes scanning the crowd like vultures in search of carrion.

When the procession had passed, Anzu unclenched his fists, wiping the blood from where his nails had cut his palms.

Anzu stood at his master’s gate, gathering the courage to enter the courtyard. Voices came from within the brick and mortar walls of the home. He entered and crossed the gravel yard, listening intently for any signs that he might be the subject of discussion. To his surprise, the voices sounded strangely festive, however. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

There was no questioning the mood. Sounds of merriment were indeed coming from the kitchen. He crept silently down the hall and peered through the doorway.

His master stood at the butchering table in the courtyard just outside the kitchen, sipping wine and looking on as his pantry slave gutted one of the four plump fish piled before them. The stranger from the bazaar, Alulim, stood behind him, his eyes fixed on the spot where Anzu stood.

Alulim winked at him just as his master looked up and saw him.

“Anzu, what took you?” The joy had left his face. His eyes narrowed and his teeth clenched.

The man named Alulim stepped forward, winking at Anzu a second time.

“I was just telling your master how kind it was of you to offer to wait at the harbor while my belongings were unloaded from the barge. I couldn’t have withstood this oppressive heat much longer. I delivered your fish for you as promised, as you can see. I trust my belongings are safe?”

He placed a hand on Anzu’s master’s shoulder as he spoke, and the man’s face instantly softened. His eyes appeared to glaze over, and his posture relaxed.

Anzu stood speechless, nauseated. His head began to spin. The heat was suddenly overwhelming him.

Mulla xul,” he stammered, evil devil. His eyes rolled back and darkness took him.

Anzu woke to the smell of grilled fish. He found himself in his room on the pile of sheepskins he used as his bed. His stomach rumbled and an unpleasant sour taste filled his mouth. Bright sunlight filtered through the reed blinds covering the room’s only window, casting long shadows across the wall. This told him it was late afternoon.

Memories of the morning’s events came back to him, shattering his moment of calm. There was a devil in his master’s home.

Anzu bolted upright, and his head began to spin. Acid rushed up into his throat. A bowl of figs and nuts had been left on the floor beside him. A Single grilled fish head sat on a clay plate as well, drenched in olive oil and speckled with herbs. Flies crawled greedily over it. A clay saucer of water was beside that.

The devil would have to wait.

Anzu shooed the flies and attacked his meal, devouring the plump little eyes first, and then the fatty, succulent meat from around the cheeks. When he had finished the bowl of dates and nuts and drained the water, he stumbled out of the room to search for his master.

He could hear voices coming from the back patio, and decided it would be best to learn the devil’s purpose before deciding a course of action. So he crawled beneath the windows along the outer corridor and made his way to the far end of the courtyard. Once there he padded softly down the steps and squeezed into the crawlspace underneath the patio. Barely breathing for fear of alerting the men to his presence, he crawled ever closer to their voices.

When he was close enough to make out their words clearly, he peered through the reed skirt that divided the inner courtyard from the crawlspace, and nearly gasped out loud when he saw how close he had come to them.

From his slurred speech, and the nearly empty pitcher of wine at their feet, Anzu could tell his master was drunk. But, oddly, the stranger seemed no different. The devil was plying him with wine.

“The craftsmanship is inspiring, Enlil,” the stranger named Alulim was saying as he shook the throwing sticks and dropped them onto the table.

Master Enlil smiled, beaming with pride. “King Elulu himself owns one of my tables. It’s fair to say anyone who’s anyone in Ur owns one, whether in the form of a table or a board–the more important the man, the larger and more intricate the game. And those who don’t have one already are waiting.” He laughed heartily.

“I can certainly see why,” Alulim said, studying a design in the playing surface.

“Well, then you know quality when you see it. Not every craftsman rises to the rank of nobleman in Ur, you know.”

“I should think not.”

“I build the tables myself, and pound the copper and set the stones by hand. The playing pieces are handcrafted of copper and bronze, and the throwing sticks are carved from the knucklebones of sheep and oxen.”

“Your work is special, rivaling many of those from before the deluge.”

Enlil laughed as the man moved one of his pieces and scooped up the sticks for his own turn.

“Surely you’ve not seen game boxes that old, Alulim! What could possibly have survived the great flood and the many years that followed?”

“Indeed,” Alulim said absently. “What could yet remain from a time before the great flood? I admit it seems unlikely anything at all: the splendid and noble Island City, sunken into the depths, the glorious Golden City and all her wonders, half a world away and entombed forever beneath the ice. Yet here we sit, playing a game as old as either of they, and under nearly the same sky.”

Nearly? Have the gods replaced the dome of the sky without my knowledge?” Anzu had to stifle a laugh at his master’s wit. He did not often see him so drunk.

Alulim shook his head. “Alas, more has been lost of the past than I dare dwell upon. The stars, painted onto a bowl! There was a time when men knew the nature of the sun and her planets, Enlil, and of Nibiru, the planet of the crossing. But in the days since the flood, knowledge has been reduced to folk tales, and now even folk tales have become criminal. Truly mankind has forgotten the old ways altogether–we are a hair’s breadth from being back in the stone-age.”

“Those are ludicrous tales invented by savages!” Anzu’s master bawled. “Men have evolved. We have science, and science has taught us that the sky is a bowl placed over the disc of the earth by the gods to keep us safe from vile spirits.”

“That is not science, it is superstition! The earth is round and the sky is endless. And there truly was another world. And her children did cross the void to this earth in order to evade her destruction, which was so violent an event in the heavens that it was felt even here. It caused the great deluge and the shifting of continents, wiping out nearly everything that breathed. These are events so entrenched in tradition that even your science dares not deny them.”

Anzu remembered the tale of the destruction of Nibiru, the home of the ancient kings, the Anunnaki. It was what his father had called The Tale of the Great Irony, how the gods had fled their doomed world, only to meet their end in the cataclysm caused by their home-world’s ultimate destruction thousands of years later.

Alulim was treading on dangerous ground, as Anzu’s father had done, though he was going even further, claiming to be Anunnaki. He was sealing his fate, and seemingly oblivious to it.

“Your stories are for children and simpletons. The old gods are dead.”

Alulim smiled, and Anzu noticed his eyes. They were staring into his. He jumped backward, away from the reed skirt that separated them, and felt a searing pain stab his wrist, sending fire coursing up through his forearm. Before he could stop himself he cried out, and a scorpion scurried from underneath him and disappeared into a narrow crack beneath the patio blocks.

Anzu’s arm was consumed by pain. His body convulsed, his mouth went dry and his fingers began to swell. It became hard to breathe. Sunlight stabbed his eyes as the reed skirt parted. A hand took hold of his ankle and he turned to see his master’s drunken, scowling face. Anzu began to choke, his mouth foaming, and for the second time in one day, the world wavered, fading, leaving him in darkness.

Anzu thought he was dead. His head throbbed. He was soaked in sweat and wracked with the chills. His hand felt as if it were stuck in a hornet’s nest. Through his blurred vision he saw that someone had wrapped his injured hand in clean linens. The protruding fingers were bloated and purple. A face hovered over him. Dinger, he muttered. Anunnaki. Ancient god.

“Sleep child.” It was Alulim, he who fell from the heavens. Anzu slipped into darkness once more.

In his dream, he hovered in a shadowy place between worlds. His throbbing arm and raging fever were his only connection to the realm of the living. Someone chanted an ancient hymn, a healing prayer, but it was far away and ever so softly spoken. Wet linens mopped his forehead, but they were of little comfort.

He heard voices in the darkness. The voices of the dead, calling to him, beckoning from the abyss, and their voices became louder, drowning out the healing prayer. He knew he should follow the voices, but the face hovering over him commanded him otherwise. Emerald eyes glowed like twin beacons, and a dark umbilicus held him tethered to their owner.

He seemed to leave his earthly body, and coil about the ceiling like the smoke from a temple censer. Below him he saw the stranger, Alulim, surrounded by a healing light, performing incantations over his feverish form. His master looked on from behind, his aura dark with treachery. Anzu understood his intent, but was powerless to warn Alulim. He had been wrong. So near to death, the truth had become evident, but he was powerless to act.

Anzu traveled upward, through the ceiling, into the sky above Ur’s highest ziggurat. Even the palace seemed to be but a child’s toy. The great Euphrates River came into view, reflecting the stars and the moon back to the sky, stars above, stars below. He rose higher still, and the river’s verdant fringe gave way to a desert wasteland, and a vast gray ocean beyond that.

Higher still, the ocean curving away to the horizon, he saw many lands beyond Sumer that he never knew existed. He passed through a terrifying realm of spirits, the la’atzu, tortured faces filling the sky well above the highest clouds. Vaporous appendages reached for him, groping, swiping, but he was drawn higher still, beyond the reach of their ethereal claws.

He entered an endless darkness, cold and soundless and lonely. The world below shimmered like a jewel on one of Alulim’s rings. There were others in the distance, lifeless and desolate, some giant, turbulent, others frozen wastelands or terrible churning furnaces. When he saw the field of stones and rubble beyond the red planet he knew at once it had been another world, the emerald world.

“Nibiru!”

“It’s all right, child. The fever has broken.”

Alulim knelt beside him. His master was no longer in the room.

“My master,” Anzu said in a panic. “Where is he?”

“Shush, now.”

“No, you don’t understand. He’s gone for the soldiers.”

“I know, child.”

Anzu sat up. He had to get him to understand.

“You must go. Quickly, before he returns! Please.”

Alulim held a finger to his lips. Anzu saw the ring he wore there, the one with the empty setting. Each of the others had been set with stones that matched one of the worlds he had seen in the endless sky. In his mind’s eye he saw that stone, green as the purest emerald, now gone forever.

Alulim smiled as if he had read his thoughts. “I have spent centuries searching, never dreaming our kind would take refuge in Ur, a city which so despises us as to outlaw the mere mention of our existence. You are one of the last of us, Anzu. I have found no others.”

“What are you saying–last of what?”

In your heart, you know.

Anzu stared in disbelief. The words had been clear, though no sound had left the man’s throat, nor entered his ears.

“I am old, my child. The end is near for me. I was old when Nibiru met its end and the cataclysm shook this world.” He paused briefly, closing his eyes. “Such dreams we had. Such promise this world held. There is so much more that I could teach you, were there but time. But I cannot go on this way, and I fear I will lose much of what I now remember.”

“But–”

“I have prepared a thousand years for this day.”

“I don’t understand.”

The sounds of footsteps and hushed conversation came from outdoors. Anzu’s heart began racing. He started to speak, but Alulim shushed him again.

He removed the ring without a stone from his finger and slipped it into Anzu’s hand.

“Take this, child. Protect it, and keep it on your person. Through this ring, I will find you again.”

Anzu stared in disbelief. Why was he not fleeing?

Alulim smiled at Anzu one last time as Enlil and the palace soldiers stormed into the room.

“There! There is the heretic!” Enlil stood in the doorway pointing at Alulim. The soldiers rushed past him and fell upon the man. Alulim never made a sound as they beat him, and was all but unconscious when they dragged him away.

Anzu wept, and as he did his eyes fell upon his master. The man seemed delighted, his eyes glazing over as he watched the soldiers pummel Alulim with their clubs.

When they had finished, and had dragged Alulim’s battered body away, Enlil beat Anzu bloody. Afterward he accused Anzu of being possessed by evil spirits, and told him the beating had been necessary in order to set him free. He told Anzu the medicine that Alulim had given him was dark magic.

Anzu could not imagine that a healing energy could be evil, and told his master so. Enlil flew into a rage, and as he beat him again he shouted the words of the exorcism, “Edin na zu! Barra xul!

Though the pain seemed without end, Anzu refused to cry out. He clenched his teeth and covered his face with his hands, making himself as small as possible. There he lay, weathering the storm until his master grew too tired to continue.

Later, when Anzu asked his master what would become of Alulim, he was beaten a third time.

When he finally was able to sneak away to his room, Anzu lay curled up on his bed-skins, struggling to make sense of all that had occurred. One of the last of us, Alulim had said. Did this mean there were others? Nothing made sense anymore. He had always thought he believed the stories his father told. So why was it so hard to believe this? Perhaps his faith had been nothing more than hope.

He fell asleep staring at the ring without a stone, wondering how it could possibly help Alulim find him again. Anzu feared he might already be dead.

When Anzu next opened his eyes, he saw the light of day, and went immediately to find his master. It was common practice for the man to sleep in, but today Anzu found him dressed and ready for an excursion into the city. Anzu never knew him to go out so early. Invariably, his master spent mornings in the workshop, shouting to Anzu that he needed this or that, or that something needed a desperate and immediate cleaning. Anzu wondered why today was different, and feared it had to do with Alulim.

“I’m to witness the execution,” his master boasted to him as he left the house, all but confirming Anzu’s darkest fears. “I’m to be a special guest of his royal highness himself. Clean the workshop and organize the tools in my absence. And be thorough.”

Anzu’s mouth curled into a snarl that his master never saw, and tears welled in his eyes. He walked slowly back to his room, where he collapsed onto his bed-skins and wept. For a brief moment he had found the promise of companionship, only to have it stripped from him again. The new gods of Sumer had forsaken him as always; worse, they had dangled the promise of happiness before his eyes, only to withdraw it, cackling.

Anzu did nothing in the way of work during his master’s absence. So when Enlil returned, he was beaten severely and locked in the courtyard stall, the pen meant for dogs. Since his master had starved his dogs to death months earlier, rather than feed them, the pen had become a place to lock slaves in when they angered him.

He lay on flea-infested straw; the air was heavy with the stench of urine and dung. The heat was stifling in the small, windowless pen. Anzu held the ring with no stone in his hand, running a finger over its etched contours. He missed his parents gravely.

The stall door opened some time later. Anzu was near delirium from the heat; he hungered and his lips were cracked and bleeding. The sudden, intrusive light was blinding. The silhouette of his master filled the doorway, and Anzu crawled into his shadow to block the sun. His master had his hands behind his back, but Anzu knew what he had concealed there. He saw it in the man’s eyes.

Behind his master’s back, clutched firmly in his trembling hands, was his copper headed war-axe.

“I can see that the spirits possessing you are beyond my ability to exorcise, Anzu. You have brought evil to this house. You are not worth bartering with a kalum to purify your heart.”

The man inched closer, doing his best to hide his intent. But his eyes gave him away. In them, Anzu saw the man’s exhilaration, his wild anticipation. He tried to remain strong as his master approached. But as he drew closer, Anzu began to whimper uncontrollably. He slid himself backwards until the wall would let him go no further.

His only escape would be to go through the man. This was a daunting prospect, and as his master revealed the axe, bringing it to the ready, the only opportunity he had to do so slipped away.

“Please, master,” he whimpered. “Have mercy. I will work hard for you again, I swear it.”

Enlil’s exhilaration only seemed to heighten, as if the boy’s fear fed his blood-lust further. In that moment, seeing the perverse pleasure building in the man’s eyes, Anzu resolved not to die without a fight. He cast his eyes about the room, and to his right, mere inches away, found a fist-size piece of dung. As his master lurched forward, preparing to land the killing blow, Anzu scooped up the dung and let it fly.

To his horror, it missed its mark, just grazing his master’s ear. But in that instant the man hesitated, and Anzu instinctively brought his foot up and kicked out with all the strength he could muster, landing a blow on his master’s shin. The man’s knee locked, and he cried out and stepped backward. Anzu kicked again, and Enlil was driven back further, out of his range.

Anzu felt the ring grow cold in his grasp, and his resolve to live turned into rage. His master’s eyes grew wide as Anzu regained his feet, readying himself for the confrontation. A newfound courage coursed through his body. Who was this man to treat him so?

Icy tendrils spread outward from the ring, draining the heat from Anzu’s body and the air around him. The ring became so cold it burned.

Behind his master, a dark shadow passed in front of the sun. The man’s face twisted with rage, and he inched closer, his axe-hand twitching.

The sudden gloom intensified. Though moments earlier he had been near to heat exhaustion, Anzu now shivered from the cold. His master raised his axe, and then he froze, and turned to look into the darkness. And the darkness rushed at the man, consuming him, and Anzu could see him no longer.

But his screams would not soon be forgotten.

The cold retreated from Anzu’s body, and he fell against the back of the stall. What was this horror that had come to his rescue? But he already knew. Though King Elulu’s new, logical gods had forsaken him, there were older ones still. His father had been right all along, as had Alulim.

The darkness withdrew into the opposite corner of the stall, and his master fell dead at his feet, the copper-headed axe still clutched in his fist.

Do not fear,” the darkness told him.

Anzu stared at the form as it gathered into the shape of a man in flowing, princely attire. Almost as quickly as it formed it began to fade.

“I don’t fear you.”

I have left treasures untold. Take them. You must flee Ur.

“But where will I go? I know nothing of the world.”

The darkness dispersed.

At dusk each day the palace guard was changed, and the king of Sumer made an inspection of the ranks. This was a tradition that was more a spectacle than a function of necessity, and those with interest and enough gold to bribe the palace gatekeepers were admitted to watch. Though kept at a distance, and under the ever-watchful eyes of the king’s personal guards, it was the only good chance any potential assassin could get without infiltrating the ranks.

Anzu had paid his admittance with several gold medallions he had pilfered from his late master’s estate. It had taken very little convincing to land himself in the front row once the gleaming ornaments had been proffered.

By now Enlil’s body had surely been discovered, and though no wounds would ever be found on his person, the other household slaves had no doubt known of the struggle in the dog-pen, and Anzu would be blamed. Worse, with no apparent cause of death, sorcery would be suspected. This meant torture for the perpetrator, as the evil spirits had to be properly exorcised before the afflicted could be executed. Thus was the nature of King Elulu’s logic.

Dusk was nearly upon the palace and the small gathering of onlookers–many obviously tourists from Uruk or Kish–grew silent in expectation. Very soon they would glimpse the king of all Sumer. Anzu cast his eyes about, taking in every detail, noting every guard, every possible avenue through which to reach the king when he showed himself. It was becoming increasingly more apparent that his plan was flawed.

Just above the palace entrance, there was a catwalk, and this catwalk was lined with archers. Anzu had seen enough of the king’s archers to know his plan could never succeed. They would cut him down effortlessly if he attempted to cross the distance to the king. He would never get close enough to avenge his parents.

Just then the palace doors swung open and a procession of guards marched forth into the center of the courtyard, spreading out to form a wall between the spectators and the palace guards. When they had taken their positions, the royal personage of King Elulu emerged, chin held high. His robes were held aloft by a procession of fanciful young boys who walked with their noses nearly dragging against the ground. The entourage that followed seemed to be living sculptures of flowing silk and gilded finery that shimmered even in the twilight.

None shined as brightly as King Elulu. The gold he wore could easily have supported a man in luxury for a dozen lifetimes. His layered silk robes trailed far behind him, so that no less than ten boys were needed to hold it aloft. In his hand was a scepter of gold, and on his head, a matching crown.

“Is this truly what you desire, my child?”

Anzu looked up with a start. A stranger stood hunched over him, holding a reed market-basket. What little hair remained on the man’s head had gone white, and his skin hung loosely around his throat and under his eyes.

Anzu started to look away from the man, but glimpsed his eyes as they shifted from brown to glimmering green, and when he looked back the illusion was gone.

“Alulim?”

“That same,” the old man said, winking, and Anzu felt a chill come over him. The air around the man had become as cold as the darkest night.

“It doesn’t matter what I want. There is no way I can succeed.”

Alulim nodded.

“Unless…” Anzu said hopefully.

Alulim made no reply.

“He took your life, didn’t he? You must hate him as much as I do.”

The old man shifted his gaze back to Anzu, furrowing his brow. He looked around in confusion and shuffled off. His reaction had been evidence enough that Alulim had relinquished possession of his body. That the temperature had risen suddenly and dramatically left no doubt.

Anzu felt the anger renew within him. He might never get another chance. He edged closer to the invisible line the crowd adhered to, and as he did, a commotion rose up from the king’s entourage. He looked in time to see that a guard near to the king had broken rank, and in his hand was a bloody axe.

The king lay in a crumpled heap. The gown-boys were screaming and pointing as the guards rushed forward and fell upon the assassin. All at once chaos ensued.

Bodies raced in every direction. Guards who couldn’t get close enough to beat the assassin directly took out their frustrations on the onlookers instead. The palace courtyard descended into mayhem. Anzu stood motionless in the midst of it, and though guards and onlookers ran hitherto around him, none paid him any attention.

Anzu stood on the deck of the pontoon barge The Ninmulmulla, and looked across the sand-colored waters of the Euphrates River. He had never seen the great river except in his death-dream, not even from a distance. He had only ever seen the canals around Ur.

He wore the ring with no stone on a length of twine about his neck. It would be some time before it fit his finger.

Anzu watched the walled city, glorious Ur, as it shrank slowly out of sight. He missed his parents. He even missed his master, and Alulim, of course, who he had not seen since the king’s assassination the day before. There were worse things than being a slave, he now knew, like being alone.

Someone came shuffling up behind him, and a chill came over him where a moment earlier he had been sweltering in the morning sun. A faint smile crossed his lips.

“And is it as sweet as you had hoped, dear boy?”

The smile left Anzu’s lips as he turned to face the traveler. The man had black hair pulled into a ponytail, and walked with a limp.

Where eyes should have been, a glint of green.

“I thought I’d lost you.”

“Rest isn’t only for the living.”

Anzu feigned a laugh and looked out over the water. “No. I thought it was what I wanted. It had become my purpose for living. And now my purpose is gone and I’m left empty.”

Alulim stepped up beside him and followed his gaze across the river.

“Then let us rejoice that fact. It was a cold purpose indeed.”

“What am I to do now, Alulim?”

The man shrugged. “Only time will tell.”

3 Responses to “Ring Without a Stone”

  1. Em says:

    What a compelling, exciting story!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this story! I hope it’s part of a larger work because I would love to hear more about these characters. I also thought the mythology around the story was fascinating!

  3. Helice says:

    Exciting, confusing (in a good way), interesting! Would make a great first chapter to a book.

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