© Copyright 2015 Richard Abbott.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.
p. In a Milk and Honeyed Land
p. Scenes from a Life
p. The Flame Before Us
p. The Lady of the Lions
p. The Man in the Cistern
p. Far from the Spaceports (in preparation)
Cover artwork © Copyright Ian Grainger www.iangrainger.co.uk
Original Matteh Publications logo drawn by Jackie Morgan.
Original photographs taken in Israel and elsewhere.
Cuneiform tablet jointly produced by the author and Ian Grainger.
[_ If the strong attack your strongholds –_]
[_ warriors your walls –_]
Interview – Labayu
Extract – The Flame Before Us
About the author
About Matteh Publications
|&And then came& Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred Philistine men with an ox goad…[ **][ **]In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,[ **] desolate were the paths,[ **] and desolate the settlements in Israel.|
&This is one of a series& of character interviews of individuals and couples from my works of fiction.
In this case we meet Labayu, a Kinahny man who grew up in Kephrath, but until recently was living among the northern tribes of the Ibriym, in the Galil region. He has recently moved back to Giybon, largest of the Four Towns. The story of his journey may be found in The Flame Before Us.
&I had been directed& to one of the houses in Giybon, but Labayu is not at home. His wife, Ashtartiy, makes me welcome with mint tea and some raisins, and then settles me outside. The corner of the house shades me from the afternoon sun, and a spreading rose curls above the door lintel. Ashtartiy’s mother is inside, together with two children, but it is clear that I am not to join them. Domestic conversation floats intermittently out of the door, and I drift on an autumnal reverie.
Finally I see Labayu approaching from the town gate. He strides up to me, welcomes me enthusiastically, and sits beside me. One of the children runs out to hug him, watching me covertly before dashing in again.
“Have you been here long, sir? I was setting snares along the ridge north from here and forgot the time.”
“Not long, and I have been made welcome.” I remember just in time that in his tradition, the house belongs to Ashtartiy rather than him. “Your lady wife has shown me the hospitality of her home. I was not sure if I would find you here. They told me in Shalem that you were often away from the town for weeks on end.”
“Not so much just now. Until early this year I was living north of here, in Ramath-Galil, west of Kinreth. I led a band of men who protected the northern borders of the Land. The Sons of Anath, they called us.”
“Your family were there as well?”
“But Ashtartiy hated it. The Ibriym tribes up there have no respect for our customs, and refused to give her honour as mother of the house. As soon as we heard the first rumours of trouble she came back here to her mother’s house. I persevered and stayed longer, but now here I am, as you see.”
“The trouble you mention: that was when the Sherden and their fighting cousins first came into the land?”
“No, no, it was before then. The king of Hatsor heard news of their approach before we did, and set out to scour the land for men to force into his army. Little good it did him, though, for the newcomers swept his troops away with all the rest. But Ashtartiy left at that early stage, in case I needed to escape in haste out into the wilderness.”
He paused, thinking back. Keen to keep the conversation going, I rush on.
“But when these newcomers arrived you were away from that village, I hear.”
“Yes indeed. The headman, Pedayah was his name, he led his people south to avoid the fight. I moved further north again, to find out what was happening. And also Abiy’el, who was the warleader of the Ibriym at that time, had asked me to see if a covenant treaty might be cut. We had no idea who these people were, you see, and no idea that they were made up of different tribes themselves. We had thought at first that there were a single united people.”
“Were you able to make such a treaty?”
“Not then. Not ever, with some of their tribes. But we came to an agreement with the Sherden, after a while.”
He pauses, apparently wondering if he should continue, and then rushes on.
“I was the one who was first able to come to peace with them. It was in Shalem. I had pursued a small group of them there with a handful of my men, thinking that they were the enemy. But the people I met wanted peace, and a place to settle quietly on the other side of the River. I spoke with them, and realised that we could find common ground with them. But as for their distant cousins, who fought the Mitsriy along the Sea Road and settled on the coastal plain, I fear that with them, there will always be hostility.”
“By the village cistern they told me that your men did not all agree with this treaty.”
“They did not. That covenant cost me the friendship of a man I had known all my life. Shimmigar, he was called. He could not forgive these newcomers for a particular act of cruelty, and he will not accept that they are not all alike. He has not spoken to me since the day we cut the covenant with the Sherden. He stayed in the north of the land, to carry on the fight. I hope he still lives.”
He falls silent for a while, and his face shows the grief of the broken companionship. I let him reminisce for a while before I speak again.
“Tell me of the Sons of Anath.”
“Oh, yes. It was Abiy’el’s idea in the first place. He wanted a band of hunters who would protect his people on the fringes of their settled land. North, south and west towards the sea. Not so much east, as many of his own kindred still live there. But so few of the Ibriym had any of the necessary talents to fulfil such a task, and so it fell mostly to Kinahny men who were their allies. Like me. He called this band the Sons of Anath, so that we would feel that it was our heritage as well as his. I was a hunter and trapper, and my father before me, and he chose me to lead the men in the north.”
“But here you are back in Giybon.”
He grins, and waves a hand at one of the passing village men.
“And very glad to be here. Ashtartiy grew to hate Ramath-Galil quicker than I, but I was not far behind her. It is no place for a man or woman raised in the Four Towns. But as I have already said, the Sons of Anath had been Abiy’el’s idea, as I said. Now that he has lost his place as warleader, the Ibriym do not know whether to keep the tradition alive or not. Some say one thing and some another, and until they are of one mind I have returned to my traps and snares. And returned to the home of my wife, who I came to miss very greatly in that time out in the wilderness.”
“Would you do it again, if they asked you?”
He pauses for a long time. His two children bring us each another beaker of mint tea. The sun slips down towards the wooded ridges. I look around, knowing that Shalem is away in the distance ahead of me, but unable to see any part of it.
“I maintain my friendship with the Sherden, you know. It was Towanos who first spoke with me, that day in Shalem. I had gone to that room all ready to oppose them, and to arouse the king of Shalem against them. My heart was changed there by all that I saw and heard. Towanos was the first of the Sherden to take the time to speak with me. We found that we shared a great deal in common.”
We fall silent again. Finally he returns to my question.
“I think not. I was willing to try it for Abiy’el, because I respected him. And he respected us. But the Ibriym cannot agree amongst themselves just now, and I do not know who will emerge as their warleader. We are their covenant allies, and at need we will fight beside them. But just now, I do not think that I would go out into the wilderness again as I did before. My place is here, I think.”
“So these last few months have changed you?”
“Beyond measure. Beyond anything that I imagined at the time. When I was roaming in the north of the land, looking for these strangers who seemed to be invading our land, and when I was rushing south to find Abiy’el and saw the tents and camps of the Ibriym who had fled their homes, something changed for me. There was one night when we saw the signs of a town on fire, my men and I. It was near to Shalem; we feared it might be our homes here in the Four Towns. In fact it was a small village of Shalem, set alight by desperate Ibriym men, and nothing to do with the newcomers. But after that night I decided that I would not leave my home town again except for the most severe need.”
He glances in to where Ashtartiy had come to the door to watch the two of us.
“I am content here, in a way that I never was before. But see, my wife has finished preparing our meal. You will join us, I hope?”
We get up and go inside the house, ducking under the limbs of the rose, heavy with the season’s hips.
|&And then came& Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred Philistine men with an ox goad…[ **][ **]In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,[ **] desolate were the paths,[ **] and desolate the settlements in Israel.|
&Labayu stepped from his door& into the early light. Now that the villagers of this clan had cleared the belt of trees just below the crest of the hill, he could see all the way south across the valley to the wooded ridge opposite. It was a magnificent view. Behind him and to his left, the houses swept in a arc either side of the track that led down towards the Sea of Kinreth. One day soon they would finish the circle and have a settlement that was more defensible.
The mist was hanging in thick swathes in the creases of the land, and the late winter sun was slow to warm it away. Normally at this time, he would be listening to the familiar sound of Ashtartiy starting the grindstone on its daily cycles. Around homes and behind doors, work was starting in Ramath-Galil, and he lifted his hand in acknowledgment as Shemiram went by the house to check his overnight snares for game. But Ashtartiy was no longer here.
He turned to go back in, when he was stopped by the sight of a youth running up the track. He was wearing the kef of the town of Merom, but tied around his arm just now so as not to restrict his movement.
He reached the open ground in the middle of the houses and stopped, catching his breath in great gulps of air. He looked round at the doors and windows, waiting for a response. There was a short pause, and then Pedayah, the village headman, walked over towards him, carrying the cup of welcome.
As Labayu joined the growing circle of curious people, the youth finished the cup and handed it back to Pedayah. He was breathing steadily now, and the flush of exertion was fading. He tied his kef properly and looked around the ring of faces, waiting for permission to speak. Pedayah nodded.
“A bright morning to you, lad.”
“And a morning of light to you, sir, and to your people.”
They exchanged formal greetings between Pedayah and the youth’s own headman for a short time. Finally that was done.
“Look now, what brings you to us today, and in haste?”
The lad looked down at the cold ground briefly, the better to remember the words he had been told.
“Sir, I have been sent around with a word from the clan head Shillem. The word says that the king of Hatsor is sending men and chariots both. Large numbers of them, far more numerous than your whole village. He is demanding more tribute, and he will also take some more of your young men with him as runners. He will be here on the third day from now, or perhaps the day after. The clan head Shillem says that each settlement is to make its own choice how to act.”
There was a ripple of discontent around the circle, but until the headman replied, nobody would speak aloud. Labayu waited along with the others. The news was not unexpected, and Pedayah had already sat with the elders to discuss their response. For a short time, only the breeze from the west stirred the hilltop village.
“I say that we will leave Ramath-Galil for the time being. We will move south for a time to be closer to the rest of our people. I will not give away our wealth or our sons to Hatsor.”
A collective sigh came from the group. Pedayah rounded on them abruptly.
“You all knew this would happen. We will leave now, but we will come back to these houses that we have built before the year is out. This is nothing new for us. I remember wandering as a child, and to wander was the life of our fathers. It is nothing new.”
He looked at Labayu.
“Is there any news from your scouts that would lead me to make a different choice?”
“Not yet, sir. I am waiting for Shimmigar to return from the north. There are odd stories we hear of new people arriving. Some say they come peacefully in ox carts, others that they form great bands to attack cities. But it is as you say: we cannot wait longer.”
Pedayah turned away. Labayu knew that he was disappointed by the response. There was nothing to be done – if there was no word from his scouts, he was not going to make one up just to make the headman feel comfortable Pedayah turned back to the youth who had brought the message.
“Take refreshment before you go, lad, and then take the message on to the other villages. Tell them that we will be moving down to Sychem. We will leave today, immediately after noon. When you return home, take my respect back to clan head Shillem, and thank him for his thoughtfulness. We will return to our homes here as soon as we can.”
The group started to disperse. Most families had already gathered their possessions together the previous night, ready to go. However, there were always a few things more to pack, and bulky items to be hidden away in the folds and creases of the land outside the sown patch. Two households had chosen to remain: the family who maintained the village shrine refused to abandon their calling, and their closest kin would stay with them.
Pedayah called Labayu over to him.
“If ever there was a time when your Sons of Anath plan was going to prove its worth, it is now. But you have brought me nothing. You give me no choice except to abandon the village.”
“If there is no news, there is no news.”
“No news is no use to me. I expected more. Abiy’el told me to expect great things from you.”
“I have no interest in rumour. From what we know, leaving here is the best plan. We always knew that. Your choice is the best one now.”
“So you have heard nothing at all?”
Labayu frowned, then decided against his better judgement that it was worth saying something.
“As I said, I am expecting Shimmigar in a day or so. He has been further north, past Hatsor on the west side, near Bayth Ma’acath, trying to find out more about these people I spoke about. He has been tracking a couple of groups here and there. See now, the groups in ox carts and those who plunder cities are the same people. The young men roam here and there in the land to raid: the women, the older men, and the children ride the carts behind them. If they have sacked cities then the king of Hatsor should fear them more than us.”
“Will this Shimmigar be back here before my people leave?”
“Most likely not. I will wait for him and catch you up on the way south.”
“So whatever news he brings, my decision is the same.”
“And can I know that these new people will be friends to us?”
“You cannot. But you should try to talk with them. They are the enemy of our enemy. There is hope here. They may become new allies; together we may be able to challenge the king of Hatsor.”
“Unless they see us simply as vassals of the king, and fair game for their hunt. I cannot take that risk.”
The headman turned away, then glanced over his shoulder.
“I suppose you don’t care much for the northern families. You should keep yourself in the south, where you belong.”
Labayu ignored his words and returned to his house. He had become used to frequent unpleasantness about his origins since moving up from his native town of Kephrath three years ago. He liked the region, which still had the wildness of a border territory. The hill country north of Kephrath was starting to fill with Ibriym settlements, and places that had been deserted for years now seemed crowded to him.
His people had been the first to cut a covenant with the Ibriym when they arrived. It was within Labayu’s lifetime, but only just, and he did not remember the time before they came. In the south of the land there were feelings of affinity, of acceptance, but not here. Once you journeyed north past Sychem it was always the same. The family groups which had settled up here seemed unable to remember that not all Kinahny people were the same, and that some had been in alliance right from the start.
He went back in to his house. It was almost empty. He had collected what few items remained from the two side rooms into the larger main area. Even within this, he only really used the half with the cooking fire now. The rest was so much spare space. It was stark, and unlovely: a fitting mirror to his own feelings.
He had heard of the king of Hatsor’s planned sweep around the edges of the Galil a half-month ago, and had sent his wife Ashtartiy, with their two children, back south to her mother’s house in Giybon straight away. The king’s soldiers would almost certainly seize him for their wars if they knew of his skill. He had wanted freedom to escape into the wilderness when they came, and sending Ashtartiy back to Kephrath was the simplest way to do that.
The children were more upset than either adult. Ashtartiy had never liked the north, and the marriage arranged by her parents had only ever reached mutual acceptance rather than fondness, still less love. She had only reluctantly agreed to come with him to Ramath-Galil when Abiy’el had asked him to go, and was more outspoken than he was about the regular hostility from the clan here, both men and women. It had always seemed like exile to her, and she had seized the chance to go south again with relish.
He wondered, again, whether his choice to bring her north was one cause of their estrangement. Not least among the differences between Kephrath and the settlements of the Ibriym was the place of a woman. Ashtartiy had grown up with the expectation that the household would be hers: a man would be invited in as husband, but the household passed from mother to daughter. The household stood or fell according to the woman’s management, and she established its place in the wider community.
But this was not so among the Ibriym, where sonship was all-important. Whenever Labayu, through force of long habit, introduced himself through his mother’s name, he met with looks of derision. It was worse for Ashtartiy, who was never acknowledged by others in her own house as anything other than Labayu’s wife. She felt her dignity had been swept away, and resented it bitterly.
Labayu went into the empty house. Not for the first time, he wondered why he stayed in this northern region. There were other men like him, others who called themselves Sons of Anath, who plied the same trade east across the River, or south where the land became arid and inhospitable, or west down to the coastal plain where the soldiers of the Mitsriy still patrolled. Each of those had its own challenges, but at least they did not face disdain and rejection every day. The northern settlements were the least friendly towards his people.
When Abiy’el had asked him, the task had sounded exciting, challenging. The idea of leading a small band of skilled fighters around the northern marches of the land had seemed inspiring. They would watch over the scattered villages of the Galil and the Merom hills and try to push the boundaries outward. But the effort was wearing him down like the grain that Ashtartiy used to grind every day. Perhaps he should simply tell Abiy’el he needed a change.
Labayu had wanted to talk the problem over with his father, but he had died three years before. He had worked his whole life as trapper and hunter, and had carried weapons in anger only a handful of times. Labayu had been inspired to defend the land against human prey, using those same skills to hunt and trap hostile enemies. But inspiration could only make so much headway against constant prejudice.
He looked around. Except for his pack of travelling supplies and weapons, there was nothing more he wanted to take with him. Ashtartiy had taken what she could, and he would simply leave the remaining pieces. The headman and his people would be expecting to return to fill the village again at some point, but he would not mind if he never saw the place again.
Richard Abbott has visited some of the places that feature in this story and others set in broadly the same region. As well as writing fictional accounts of the period, he has also participated in the lively academic debate surrounding it.
Richard now lives in London, England. When not writing he works on the development and testing of computer and internet applications. He enjoys spending time with family, walking and wildlife – ideally combining all three of those pursuits at the same time.
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This is one of a series of character interviews from The Flame Before Us. This interview is with Labayu, a Kinahny man who grew up in Kephrath, but until recently was living among the northern tribes of the Ibriym, in the Galil region. He has recently moved back to Giybon, largest of the Four Towns. If you like the interview and extract, The Flame Before Us is available as a full-length novel. The Flame Before Us: Conflict and commitment in the shadow of a city's downfall The raiding ships have come before, but this time it is different. This time the attackers are coming to stay. The great kings and their vassals collapse as the newcomers advance. Walk with refugees, migrants, and defenders of the land alike, as they struggle to create a different way of life beside the ruins of the old. Can alliance, commitment and love survive the turmoil?