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Shala-ummi, Shimat-Shala

Listen when the Listening is Easy

By Kait ThursdayPublished 2 years ago 21 min read
2
Photo Created with DALL-E 2

"The storms flooded the narrow streets.

Cobblestones became spillways.

Villagers slid, then drowned.

Buildings slid from cliffsides.

And the oracles promised:

"More will follow."

Did you slide too? Drown too?

Were there moments in the rain-drenched night

that tore you apart as you watched them pass?"

The trees watched her as she stumbled and tripped over their roots. They judged her and whispered to one another, "Does not belong," "She's an interloper, a trespasser," and "Ill-adapted to traverse our forest." Had she heard them, she would have agreed. Her delicate sandals covered little more than her heels, and her exposed toes blossomed with dark bruises. Her thickly-tufted kaunakes, which started at her waist and fell to her ankles, caused so much stumbling she thought of cutting it off at the knees. The matching woolen cloak covered only her shoulders and was damp and uncomfortable. Her many gold necklaces seemed to freeze against the bare skin of her chest and the lapis lazuli crown on her brow seemed to have tripled in weight over the course of her journey. Had she had time to prepare, even one moment's notice, she would have borrowed or stolen more practical clothing. But she'd had no warning and fled in only what she wore with a ceremonial throwing axe strapped to her hip.

The dim light of the setting sun provided little warmth as she trudged along. She thought of making camp but was uncertain how such a thing was done. The chill of the whistling breeze caused her to attempt to tighten her cloak unsuccessfully. Her fine clothing was so useless in these frigid woods it was laughable, and indeed as she thought this, a strangled cry of a laugh escaped her lips. She wondered if she was going mad, and again, she laughed a high, slightly insane cackle. The cackle became sobs as she thought, "I will go mad and die in this forest." Her sobbing was cut short as her mind was touched by the mind of someone, or something, else. "Help!" The thought hit her with such intensity she drew her axe as though she was being attacked.

"Mountains are living creatures, walking here and there with forests on their backbones," she remembered her former mentor's words as she cast her mind about for the source of the mental cry. Before she located it mentally, the forest seemed to split with a deafening roar. The ground shuddered and trembled as she attempted to run toward the source of the noise. Finally, the watching trees took pity on her and lowered their roots, saying, "She's running towards her death. It is the least we can do." A high, piercing shriek caused her head to pound, and she realized she was hearing two separate creatures crying out. There were other noises as well, tree branches snapping, rubble crashing to the ground, and the wail of a crying child.

As dusk bathed the forest in indigo, a bright streak of lightning came, and a terrible clap of thunder immediately followed. The lightning struck so close to her that she could feel its heat and was momentarily distracted by the thought, "Warm for the first time since entering this cursed forest." The realization that the lightning had set a tree ablaze forced her to concentrate. The tree's tortured howl reverberated throughout the forest, and the other trees fell silent, wondering if they were next. She passed the blazing tree and was sure that madness had finally taken her.

The two figures danced in the sky above the canopy. The mušḫuššu, a horrendous flying serpent with sharp horns on a lion's head and eagle talons on the tips of its jagged wings, circled high over the trees, diving and dodging an enormous figure. The other figure had no name in her head but was by far the largest creature she had ever seen. It was nearly the size of her ziggurat, three stories tall at least. It had gigantic silver wings and was covered with pale green metallic scales, the circumference of battle shields. Some spots on its back were a darker green. The creatures did battle overhead, screeching and snarling, and though they were both enormous and fierce, they were not equally matched. The unnamed creature opened its maw and released another streak of lightning directly from its rumbling throat. The mušḫuššu temporarily alighted with electricity before its wings folded over its head, and it plummeted to the ground, dead.

"Tertu, show me my path," she asked as the old woman closed her eyes. "Child, you are dreaming," the oracle said with an exasperated sigh, "you do not need me to tell you that your immediate path is to open your eyes and awaken. From there, I will only say you should listen when the listening is easy and listen harder when it is not." She awoke to the smell of smoke. The light from the distant stars and silver moon showed her the forest's canopy as it swayed in a lazy breeze. No giant reptiles impeded her view. "It was a dream," she thought as she closed her eyes to return to sleep. The oracle's wrinkled old face swam in her mind, "Listen when the listening is easy." With a flicker of annoyance at her Tertu, she found herself listening. The trees whispered again; their gentle rustling lulled her until she heard the other noises. Two snoring sets of lungs breathed a discordant rhythm nearby.

She sat up quickly, which caused her head to spin violently. Every part of her body ached, and she groaned as she moved her legs to stand. She murmured, "You walked without stopping for a day and a half. What do you expect?" The lightning-struck tree was smoldering in front of her, and its embers emitted a soft and flickering glow. "At least it's warm near the tree," she said aloud as she stretched her arms and legs. She untied her long braid and ran her fingers through her hair as she began to search the ground for her crown. Finally, she spotted it and bent to retrieve it. As she did, she became aware that one set of the dozing lungs had awoken. She looked up slowly into the gigantic moss-covered face of the nameless creature. It gazed steadily back at her.

A rumble and a humming passed through her mind before a voice in her head said, "Little one, do not cry out; you will disturb the child's sleeping." The words' shock kept her from screaming, but panic ricocheted inside her as she tried to think of a way to escape. She reached out with her mind. This form of communication was familiar to her, though she was not exceptionally skilled at it. She located two sleeping minds, a child and a small animal. The animal dreamed abstract images of trees, bird nests, and eggs falling to the ground. The child's dreams were more obscure: a ship on the sea, an eagle diving from a cliff, bright gold and silver jewelry glistening in the sun, and the singing voice of a woman. But the reptilian creature's mind was wide awake, actively forcing her away from its thoughts. The voice filled her head again, "What is your name, small one?" She answered aloud, "Entu Sybella, who and what are you?"

The creature's hot breath blew over her as though it were sighing before it said, "I am a dragon, and my name is Enlil." "Enlil?" Sybella said skeptically, "The Mountain God?" She did not know what the word dragon meant, for it was unfamiliar to her, but Enlil was the name of the mountain she had been walking towards since leaving civilization. A deep rumble escaped the dragon before it said, "Some have called me a god because of my size and age, but 'mountain' is a mistranslation of an ancient text describing me. You call yourself 'Entu' I believe that means you are a priestess of Shala and your accent suggests you come from Isin." This accurate assessment of herself stunned Sybella into silence. The dragon went on, "Your clothing and jewelry are of fine make and are wildly inappropriate for walking in the forest. This tells me you are running away from something. As King Iser intends to summon Shala to trap her and force her to do his bidding, I assume you overheard his plan and attempted to stop him, which forced you to run away and seek support from foreign city-states. If I have assumed anything inaccurately, correct me at once."

Sybella said nothing but thought to herself, "He is a god. He knows all." This wasn't true. Enlil was like the judgmental trees, which made canny assessments based on logical observances. But Sybella was religious and prone to attributing mystical qualities to things she could not explain otherwise. "Sybella," the dragon said, "there are many things we need to discuss. I need information from you, and I will share what I have already learned. I also need your help with another matter." As he spoke the last word, he lifted his left wing and revealed the two dreamers.

The child snored quietly and peacefully. His clothing was strange to Sybella. She was not used to seeing anyone wearing so many garments at once. He was covered from neck to foot in several layers of brown and tan clothing, including pointy-toed shoes and a cotton dhoti. On his head, his hair curled from beneath a green hat. He lay on his side, his arm around a cat-like creature. The caracal looked extremely bedraggled. Its tan fur was missing or singed in several places, and half of its right ear was missing. Nevertheless, the caracal snuggled against the boy, and they snoozed peacefully together.

Sybella said to Enlil, "I know nothing about the care of children, and this boy looks as though he's no more than three years old. I am a priestess, poet, and academic. I am totally unqualified to care for either a child or a cat." She looked down at the boy again and continued, "The boy looks foreign too. Where is he from, and where are his parents? And why is he with you?" She had several more questions, but she paused to give Enlil a chance to answer. He grumbled for a moment before saying, "The mušḫuššu ate the child's parents. I was meditating before my evening meal, and the child's cries interrupted my solitude. Then I heard the roar of the mušḫuššu. I was too late to save the father. His feet were disappearing down the monster's throat when I arrived. The mother crawled on the ground toward the crying child. She was severely injured but still alive. I attacked the mušḫuššu. It flew into the sky, and I thought it was trying to escape, but it was feigning. I landed back on the ground, and the mother had her hands on a tree, murmuring words I could not hear. The tree opened its trunk, and the mother tucked the boy inside. The moment he was hidden, the monster swooped down upon the mother. It swallowed her in one bite and again attempted to fly away, but this time I gave chase. I believe you saw the result of that encounter." He swung his enormous head toward the dark mound that Sybella knew must be the body of the mušḫuššu.

"While you were sleeping, I finished my meditation and then ate the remains of the pack animal that belonged to the family. After a few hours of peace, the tree released the boy. He crawled towards me with no fear whatsoever. I can only guess as to the origins of these people. I have reason to believe they must have come from the place you would call Sindhu though they would call it 'Bharata Ganarajya' in their language. It is the land on the other side of the great sea, Marratu," he said, "I have no hands to hold a child. I cannot feed, bathe, or clothe him. Therefore, I ask for your assistance in exchange for mine. I will help you carry out your plan to go to Elam and warn King Zimrilim of King Iser's plot if you help me care for the child until we can find a permanent guardian for him. As to the cat, he follows me around for reasons I do not understand and cares for himself. His name is Kingu, and though I have often thought of him as a wily and tempestuous beast, he seems to comfort the child."

Sybella knew she would care for the child, but her head was so full of questions that she could not decide where to begin. Finally, she said, "Why is the caracal named after a demon?" "You shall see when he awakens," was the dragon's only reply. Sybella said, "Where are we to get food and supplies? I have not eaten in two days. I may not live long enough to care for the child." As she spoke, the truth of her words showed on her face; she was injured, hungry, and very, very thirsty. She said, "I have only a fragment of hope that I will reach Elam in time to warn King Zimrilim. This mission was doomed from the beginning, but it is my duty as an Entu of Shala to try, even at the cost of my life." Her face fell, and Enlil saw tears sparkling on her cheeks.

Enlil said, "Beyond these trees is a stream. Can you hear it? It flows down from the mountaintop, and its water is clean and refreshing. On the bank of the stream is the camp the child's parents made before they died. Go there and see if there are enough supplies to feed yourself and the boy. Then, I will teach you to ride on my back. Kingu does so at every opportunity, and it cannot be so different for your kind. Once you are comfortable flying, it will be a day and a night until we arrive at Elam. I met King Zimrilim in his youth, and I am certain he has not forgotten the experience. I will help you convey your message to him." These last words startled Sybella, for she knew King Zimrilim was over 300 years old. "How old is this creature?" She thought to herself as she walked to the place he had indicated.

As soon as she was dressed and packed, she walked through the small patch of trees to fulfill her duty of caring for the boy. The dragon's attention was focused on the boy as Sybella approached, so he did not notice the silent form of the mušḫuššu slithering towards him. "Enlil!" She yelled with her mind and her voice as she ran forwards. The monster and dragon turned to look at her at the same time. Moved solely by instinct, Sybella freed her axe from its strap and ran headlong into the tail of the mušḫuššu. She skittered sideways to dodge its spiked tail but was caught in the forehead by its talons. Blood poured into her eyes, and a wild, primal scream ripped through her vocal cords. She spun, dodging the backswing of the claws, but tripped in the attempt. As she fell forwards, she raised the axe high over her head and broke her fall by driving the axe down between two spines on the tail. She heard a loud, fleshy ripping sound and saw the ferocious lion-like head of the mušḫuššu rushing to devour her.

She stood atop the ziggurat, looking over the kingdom of Isin, her home. She saw the weavers in a nearby street, gossiping as their hands deftly laced intricate patterns into baskets. In front of them, inside the temple complex, priestesses pressed their seals to authorize documents for shipments of grains, spices, and nuts. A warm hand entwined with hers, and she turned to look and saw the temple's qadištum, Zakû. Heat flooded Sybella's cheeks, and she looked away quickly. "You are so shy with me, my Entu, but I see you looking my way when you think I cannot see," Zakû's voice was mild but steady, "Will you look at me now?" Sybella turned to look at Zakû but saw the teeth and jaws of the mušḫuššu instead.

Sybella awoke beneath the tree that had been struck by lightning the previous day. Her neck was stiff, and her head ached. She was aware she was being sat on as though she were a chair. She looked down to see the caracal Kingu sitting on her lap. He looked worse up close. His face was extremely scarred, and one of his pupils was considerably more dilated than the other. She felt his mind gently probing hers for a moment before he said, "Some dream you were thinking." The tone and inflection of his mental voice were peculiar, as though his mental voice had an accent. The caracal kneaded her lap gently, and its eyes were locked on hers, "You did not want to see what you most wanted to look at, what curious propensities you have." And with that, he leaned forward and licked her bleeding forehead. She was paralyzed for a moment, but the pain all at once vanished.

Kingu leaped lightly from her lap as she stood. "You healed me!" She cried as she inspected her once battered body. Kingu did not respond but slinked toward the trees. She turned to Enlil and yelled, "You threw its gigantic, decapitated head at me!" Enlil shuffled his feet and said plaintively, "You are so small I could not see you!" Just then, the boy yelled, "Head!" Sybella and Enlil both turned to face the boy, who laughed with delight as he shouted again, "Head!" "He can speak," said Sybella and Enlil simultaneously. Sybella walked to the boy and said to him, "Hello, my name is Sybella. What is your name?" The boy smiled at her and said a word that sounded like "Falling." "Falling?" She repeated, and the boy clapped his hands together. Confused by this strange turn of events, she held her arms out to Falling. He immediately walked into them, and she said as she scooped him up, "Nice to meet you, Falling. Let's clean you up and get you fed."

After the child's needs were met and the packs were loaded onto Enlil's back, Sybella fashioned a makeshift saddle out of the clothing that had once belonged to Falling's father. She threw it over the dragon's back before climbing a wing with Falling in her arms. She used three dupattas and a dhoti to create harnesses to strap herself and Falling to the neck of the dragon. Kingu leaped atop Enlil's back, lifted a scale, and squished most of his body underneath it. This sight made Sybella laugh uncontrollably for a few moments until Enlil started to laugh, nearly shaking her off his back. Then, Kingu sent her a mental image of herself falling from the dragon's back. The caracal laughed at her.

They did several test flights to prepare. Before they took off, Falling got her attention by showing her a mental image of a beautiful woman wearing a lehenga choli with a dupatta. She had a jewel on her forehead and a piercing in her nose. The image enchanted Sybella for a moment before realizing the woman must be Falling's mother. He confirmed this by saying, "Mata?" He then showed her the picture of a handsome man wearing the green sherwani she now wore as he rode an unfamiliar pack animal. "Pita?" Tears filled her eyes as she answered, "No, Atmu, they are not coming." She used the same pet name her Tertu once used for her. It meant "My Hatchling." Falling also began to cry, and they clung to one another as they both wept for his grief. Finally, the brisk breeze swept away their tears as Enlil took flight.

On the flight to Elam, Sybella used her body to shield Falling from the biting cold. When at last they landed, ice caked her hair, and her body felt so rigid she could not move any of her limbs. The ziggurat at Elam was smaller than the one at Isin, but Enlil touched down on it with no problems. Kingu healed Sybella again but sent her a mental image of herself frozen in a block of ice. A man was running toward them, and a group of people chased him. They yelled in a language Sybella did not understand, nor did she try to. Instead, she untied herself first, then Falling who was asleep. She cradled him to her chest and slid down the dragon's wing, landing awkwardly on her bottom. She stood, dusted herself off, and began tying the dhoti around Falling to harness him to her chest the way Zakû and the other qadištums often did. "Zakû," she thought mournfully, "if only you were here." She snapped to attention as the man joined them on top of the ziggurat.

King Zimrilim loudly said, "Shala-ummi, Shimat-Shala!" Sybella was surprised to hear the king uttering the prayer she prayed every morning, meaning, "Shala is my mother. She determines my fate!" She inclined her head slightly and replied, "Shala-ummi." The king went on in her language in the same loud excited tone, "Beautiful priestess, welcome to you as well and to the babe you swaddle." She again inclined her head as the king continued, "Why have you traveled so far to see us?" She frowned, and he saw that she had bad news for him. He said, "Well, I am certain you could use refreshment after your long journey, come let me get you any and everything my kingdom has to offer."

Once Sybella was dressed in more familiar attire and again wearing her lapis lazuli crown and gold necklaces, she joined the king for luncheon on the temple grounds. They sat in a secluded area so that Enlil could join them. A priestess cared for Falling in a nearby nursery, and Kingu was with him. Sybella finished eating and proceeded to speak first, "King Zimrilim, why did you speak the prayer of Shala? Is not Napirisha the god of your city?" The king laughed and said, "Shala is the mother of Napirisha. Did you not know?" She shook her head. "Yes," he went on, "10,000,000 years ago, Shala found a mate and later gave birth to the primordial waters, which went on to create humanity. The primordial waters took a physical form in Napirisha. So, he blessed this city-state, where he first appeared, while Shala blessed Isin." He looked sideways at Enlil while Sybella vaguely remembered a song from her childhood, "Napirisha blessed the citizens of Elam with long lives, while Shala blessed Isin with flowing waters that will never run dry, Enlil blessed the mountain in between them." She almost asked Enlil about this but reconsidered as she remembered the reason for her journey. "King Zimrilim, I have come to tell you of a plot I overheard." Zimrilim raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Sybella felt inexplicably nervous. She cleared her throat, took a sip of wine, and said, "You see, due to my position, um, that is to say-" She broke off and fanned her face with her hand. Her vision swam, and her head grew heavy. She stammered a few incoherent sounds before gasping out, "Poison!"

As she fought unconsciousness, she saw dozens of men attempting to strap Enlil to the ground. Zimrilim let out a maniacal laugh before saying, "Idiotic woman! Did you think Iser had no allies? He sent a messenger to me the moment you left Isin. Our plan was simple: capture Shala first and then capture the other two," he gestured to Enlil, "I thought Enlil would be the hardest to find, but you brought him straight to me! Look how easy he was to muzzle!" He turned to Enlil, "Shala will be enslaved alongside your son, and you will be powerless! Iser and I will conquer the world using the might of the last three dragons this side of Marratu, and then all dragons will die!" He turned back to Sybella and said, "And the boy! The runaway prince of Sindu, you brought him to me as well! He will be used as a bargaining piece against the dragons of Sindu, and then he will die alongside them. Then, when Iser and I are the undisputed rulers, I will betray him and take all the glory for myself!"

"Listen when the listening is easy. Listen harder when it's not," Tertu said to her. Sybella held her hand as the old woman, her teacher, and mentor who smiled and then drew her last breath. She knelt beside her to pray. “Karābu my Tertu, Shimat-Shala.”

The tree outside the window whispered to her, "Awaken Entu Sybella of Isin! Someone is coming!" For the first time in her life, Sybella heard the speech of a tree. She lay on the ground in a small holding cell. She listened as her Tertu once did, with her eyes closed and her hands lifted. Then, she heard two sets of quiet footsteps, a door opening softly, and a hushed giggle. "Giggle?" She thought as she opened her eyes and sat up. There she saw the outlines of Falling and Kingu in the open doorway. She ran forward, gathered them both in her arms, and kissed their tiny faces. Kingu hissed.

They led her to the dark shade of a nearby tree that said, "Look about sharply." She did and saw men and women running here and there on torchlit streets. She heard Enlil roar and ran towards the sound, still carrying the caracal and child. "It is not Enlil!" Kingu said inside her mind. She stopped running, and he leaped from her arms. Just then, a massive white pearlescent dragon took flight. It opened its mouth, and clouds emerged from its throat. From the clouds came heavy rainfall accompanied by fist-sized hail. Sybella followed Kingu to stand beneath a nearby awning. The dragon dove from the sky, and sheets of rainwater poured from its wings, knocking several people to the ground. The dragon landed in front of Sybella. A figure stood and leaped down from the dragon's back and moved towards them in the darkness.

"Zakû!" Sybella cried as she ran forward to embrace her. As she did, she noticed that Zakû was dry and protected from the weather. When she stood close to her, she was covered as well. Nerves overtook Sybella, and she stammered, "Shimat-Shala." "Look into her eyes, blockhead!" Kingu shouted abruptly into her mind as he came to stand between her legs. She looked at Zakû, who was laughing and reaching for the child. "You must be Falling," she said as she secured him to her back with a long piece of cloth. Sybella wondered how she knew the child's name, but it was hardly the most important thing at that moment, so she said, "How? Why?" Zakû said, "I followed you! Soon after you found your dragon, I found mine! She took me to find Napirisha before I could talk to you. We couldn't find him, so we came here to find you. First, we will free Enlil, then we will look for Napirisha together." "No," said Sybella, "first, we kill King Zimrilim." And then she leaned down and kissed Zakû while they both smiled.

The white dragon made a noise like a sigh, and they broke apart. Zakû said, "I forgot to mention, this is Shala!" Sybella stared into the dragon's face with wonder as she dropped to her knees, "Shala-ummi, Shimat-Shala!" "Stand up! We must get out of here!" Zakû said laughingly as she pulled Sybella towards the dragon. They climbed Shala's wing and sat atop a saddle with straps that held them securely to her back. "How did you get this saddle?" Sybella called over her shoulder. "I'll explain later. It's a long story!" Zakû responded. Kingu leaped into Sybella's arms as the dragon lifted her wings and took off. From the sky, they saw the rainwaters flooding the streets, washing soldiers away as they struggled against the current. They saw Enlil tied to the ground behind the ziggurat, struggling against his bonds. Shala landed next to him and began snapping the ropes with her teeth and claws. When he was free, he opened his mouth, and bolts of lightning flew from his throat and split the sky with wicked veins of light. He roared loudly as he shouted into their minds, "He has our son!"

In the sky far away, Napirisha flew hard against the rain with the evil king on his back. His shape was illuminated by Enlil's lightning. Her mental voice was high and clear as Shala said, "Peace!" At once, the clouds quieted and rolled away, bathing the world in moonlight. Bodies lay in the streets, face down in the receding waters. "We must go!" Enlil said with a roar. "And so we shall," said Shala, "when the little ones are ready, and we have healed those we injured." "You want us to go with you?" Sybella said incredulously. "You will need a saddle for Enlil and some warmer clothing," Zakû laughed. "Yes," said Shala, "we will prepare, and we will go together." "What will we do with Falling and Kingu?" Sybella said in a nervous voice. "They will come too," said Zakû, "and we will care for them together." "I do not need to be cared for," said Kingu in a dignified mental voice, "but we should stay together." "Yes, we have work to do," Sybella said as she took Falling from Zakû, "and we should do it together." And they all listened for a moment as a nearby tree sighed, "Finally some water after a long drought."

FantasyShort StoryAdventure
2

About the Creator

Kait Thursday

I'm a poet and a novelist, but my friends call me a starving artist. I've been writing for twenty years and have no plans to stop. I post new content to Vocal every month, but I have ADHD, so remind me if I forget.

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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