Historical Fiction

Let me tell you a story, she begins, about a boy named Zot. 

Once, many years ago, in a village close to the great city of Ugarit, there lived a boy named Zot. He was a goatherd, and his family were farmers. Everyone in the little village were farmers, apart from the blacksmith and the local priest, who worshipped gods that are now long dead. One day, when Zot was maybe ten years of age, and had been given sole responsibility for his father’s herd, a man came to their village. The man claimed to be a tradesman, and he led a caravan of camels laden with goods, oil and myrrh and incense, cups and plates of tin and gold. He carried rare fabrics and silks, in every colour known to man. What was strange about the man was that he was alone. Normally, when transporting a train of such wealth, one would hire guards to accompany the camels, or, barring that, at the very least a boy or two to help with the animals. But this tradesman was alone. He said there had been a boy with him, but that he had died from an illness caught in another village, to the North. The man was tall, with long dark hair and delicate features. Still, the girls drew away from him, when he looked at them, and even the older wives were wary, as they browsed his goods. 

In the evening he was lent an empty hut on the edge of the village. The next morning he was gone, his train of camels sunken into the sand. To their horror, the villagers discovered a young woman in the hut abandoned by the tradesman, strangled to death. That young woman had been Zot’s sister. The villagers called a meeting and decided to send some of the stronger men of the village to find the tradesman, and bring him to justice. They talked and argued for three days and three nights. On the fourth day, as five men assembled on the outskirts of the village, a boy appeared in the distance, holding a wooden spear, black with blood. The boy was Zot. Zot had seen the way the tradesman had looked at his sister, the beautiful Pigat. He had seen how his eyes had flashed black with desire, and guessed at the truth. The tradesman was no man at all, but a demon. It was a time in history where people believed in many things they could not see or know, and it was known that gods and demons sometimes left their own halls to wander the worlds of men. 

Zot had followed the demon after his sister was found, tracking him through the fields and valleys he knew like he knew his own feet. When he caught up to him he waited. The demon lit no fire, so by the light of the stars alone, Zot crept up on the sleeping figure, and, in a single movement, thrust his spear through the throat of the demon, up into his brain, killing man and demon alike. He returned home. Of the camels and the fine goods there had been no trace, and Zot concluded, sensibly, that they had been simply conjurings. The village made much honor onto him, and he was held in high esteem by all who were told of his bravery. He was the boy who had killed a demon with just a stick.

During this time, I was passing through Ugarit on my way to Hattusa, where I had commissioned a large dwelling for me and my students, as well as visiting scientists and scholars. The story of Zot had travelled fast, and it reached the city of Ugarit at the same time as I did. Due to the nature of my work, I decided to visit the village, and meet the boy Zot. He was a boy of small standing, with bare feet and a vary expression, a distrustful nature he was too young to disguise. We talked for some time of demons and of spirits, and I, too, praised his bravery, because children must be praised, if they are to be brave, they must know that to do good is sometimes to attempt the foolhardy, or they will never try at all. After two days in the village I saddled my camel to return to Ugarit. I spoke to the boy Zot one last time. I told him that he should come see me in Hattusa, if he would learn of demons and how to slay them. If he wished to follow this path and grow from a boy with a stick to a man of power. He said he would, promised me that he would soon follow. I returned to Hattusa after two years of absence to find my house built and my students flourishing, and thought little of the boy Zoot. He never came to see me. Maybe he had decided that he wished to be a farmer, instead of a warrior, and maybe this was just as noble. I cast him from my mind. 

Nearly ten years passed, and I grew my flock and travelled far and wide to offer my assistance to kings and queens, as was the custom, in those days. My students grew into adulthood and left to offer their own aid, and we did good in the world more than we did evil. I had been invited to meet with the king in Nineveh, at the time an epicentre of power in the region. Before I could depart, however, I was assailed by a messenger from Ugarit, saying that urgent matters demanded my presence there. In haste I changed my plans, postponed my arrival in Nineveh, and rode for Ugarit. This action would later lead to the fall of my house, but that is a different story, for another time. 

In Ugarit I met with a Hatsud woman from the nomadic Hatsudi people, a small tribe even then, by now long since lost in the annals of history. She told me of her sister, Shaqilat, a young and beautiful woman betrothed to be married, who had been accused, and later put to death, for being possessed by a demon. The high priest who had condemned Shaqilat, the sister said, had wanted to marry her for himself, as she was pregnant and highly desirable. When Shaqilat had refused him, he had said the demon inside of her ruled her absolutely. She had been brought before the priest, and he had given his verdict, then killed her swiftly by pushing a spear through her throat, into her brain. The sister cried bitter tears as she told me this. 

The Hatsudi people worshiped an early incarnation of the trickster god Set, the Egyptian god born from the earth and the sky. Set gave unto the Hatsudi tribe many boons, though he demanded equal sacrifice in turn. If any Hatsud woman gave birth to more than one son, he must be left in a field as an offering. They could stay in no holding for more than a month, then they must move on, or illness and death would overtake them. They could do violence to no man, woman or child, not even in defence of their own lives. Such were the demands of their god. In return, Set granted to the Hatsudi people long life and good health. They had ease of childbearing and strong bodies. Like the people of Cain, other tribes let them be, and their lives, though transitory, were largely peaceful. The relevance to our story comes with the last boon from Set, granted no other tribe, before or since. Set gave unto the Hatsudi tribe the protection of their souls. Through his grace, no Hatsud person could suffer outside corruption. They were safe in Set’s hand. In life and in death, all Hatsudi people were his. So when the Hatsud woman told me of her sister Shaqilat, I knew, as the sister knew, that she had been possessed by no demon. 

In those days I was considered the foremost authority on matters of religion and spirituality. I settled disputes, performed rituals, and dealt with supernatural threats as far as I was able. My students were trained to do the same. I understood why I had been called to Ugarit, and, with five soldiers from the imperial guard, I had the woman take me to the village where the priest lived who had murdered her sister. It came as some surprise to me when I recognized the village as that of the boy Zoot, where I had visited once, more than ten years ago. The village had prospered some, and was bigger than it had been, and there had been constructed a temple of sorts near the entrance. The Hatsud woman told me of how her people had made their camp within view of the temple, and how the priest had stood and looked on as Shaqilat performed her prayers in the mornings and at night. As we entered the village, the priest was not to be seen, and we dismounted and walked our camels towards the town square. 

As I retell this story now, it strikes me that I should have known what I would find there, but I must confess that at the time I did not. Dressed in white and holding his black spear by his side, in the town square with the town behind him, was Zot. He had grown into a man, of sorts, but he had not grown well. He was still small in stature, and thin, but his face was displeasing to me. Where I had seen his scepticism when he was a child, I now saw hatred, hatred of his fellow man and of himself. His mouth was twisted in a grimace of anger, and his brows were low over his dark eyes. He asked me who I was and what my business was, but I could tell that he knew me, and knew my business likewise. He spat at the feet of the Hatsud woman, and she lowered her head, lest she look at him with anger. I have come, I said, to denounce the false priest of this village, and to bring justice to the Hatsud woman Shaqilat. At the mention of her name a shiver ran through him, and he clutched his free hand to his chest. You dare speak her name here? He asked me, fury lacing his words. You dare speak the name of the demon woman, who was cleansed at this very spot, of her sins and of her demonic life? He looked around the square for support, and found some, though I imagine not as much as he would have wanted. Most of the villagers were quiet. They knew me also. I speak the name of the Hatsud woman Shaqilat, protected by Set, the god of trickery and treachery, storms and the desert. The god of violence who will allow his children no violence. The god of fire, who has sworn to keep his children pure of all corruption. This is the truth of the Hatsudi people. This I said unto him.

As I spoke, the clouds gathered overhead, and thunder could be heard in the distance. Next to me, the Hatsud woman fell prostrate to the ground. The villagers began muttering to themselves, shuffling where they stood. Zot looked around the square again, uneasy, but still defiant. I am the boy who killed the demon that came to our village and murdered our sister! I am the man who has found countless demons since. I carry the spear of justice! He lifted his spear into the air and shook it at the sky. The storm clouds rumbled again, and it began to rain. I know you, Zot, I told him. I knew you when you were a boy and found the demon that killed your sister, the beautiful Pigat. I told you that you were brave, then. And I told you to come to my dwelling, and learn how to find demons and to kill them, so that you could protect your community and your village. But you chose not to. You chose to stay here, and be ignorant. A child that does a foolish thing is often praised if the thing turns out well. So you were praised. But a child must learn. A child that grows into a man and keeps doing the same foolish thing and expects it to work every time like the first time is himself a fool. I did not know that you were such a fool, Zot. I have failed in my duties to this village because I did not come sooner. I have failed Shaqilat, and I have failed you. But now it is done. Zot had huddled together under my onslaught, but at these words he sprang back up, brandishing his spear at me. The guards moved to apprehend him, but I waved them back. You wear the white robes of a priest, I told him, but you are just a child with a stick. Zot screamed with fury, and lifted his hand as if to fling his spear at me, but in that very moment lightning struck. Zot was flung back several feet, and landed in a crumpled, smoking heap. The villagers standing nearest him drew back in fear and disgust. 

Such is the justice of Set, I told the villagers, raising my voice. The rain had stopped, and the sky was clearing up. You are all guilty of worshiping false idols, of encouraging madness, of gross neglect. This fool desired the woman Shaqilat, and so he made her monstrous. You should all have seen that he was the monster, not her. Now she rests with her god, and her soul remains pure. I nodded at them, and they turned away in shame. I learned a year later that the village had been abandoned, the temple razed. The Hatsud woman thanked me and left to join her people in their serene migration. They would keep wandering the earth until about a hundred years later, when the last member of their clan would breathe their last. 

July 03, 2022 08:41

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