Author’s Note: Just made it this week as I’ve been at the Milford SF Writers Conference, which is busy but enormous fun, and very very useful. Mood: Tired but happy.
Caked in stinking river mud the foreigner knelt among the rushes and retched up significant quantities of the Euphrates.
Beside him Banipal was equally wet and filthy. His body and clothes were saturated and reeked abominably, his sandals were somewhere at the bottom of the Holy River.
Too exhausted to move or speak, Banipal flopped beside the man he had just rescued. The scrawny foreigner looked uncomprehendingly at him. Drool and snot hung from his nose and mouth. He wiped his face with his hand then he too fell to the ground and curled into a loose ball.
‘You are safe.’ Banipal put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The stranger flinched, Banipal dragged himself onto his knees. The man beside him looked half-dead. Perhaps even after all his efforts he would still die. Out in the river there had been a long awful moment when he had thought they were both gone. He pushed the memory aside. The Gods would decide, all he could do was try.
He cleared a tangle of hair from the man’s eyes and wiped his face with a relatively clean corner of his robe.
‘You are safe,’ Banipal repeated. Pressing his palms together he bowed his head to the foreigner. ‘You are safe.’
The stranger understood his tone if not the words, for he gave a weary smile.
They sat in silence for several minutes, dripping and reeking on the black mud among last season’s rotted vegetation and this year’s new growth. Banipal watched the river flow and wondered just what the Gods intended. The stranger coughed, turned aside and was quietly sick.
When he was done Banipal stood and held out his hand.
The stranger took his hand and unsteadily came to his feet.
Banipal touched his own chest and smiled. ‘Banipal,’ he said. ‘Banipal.’
The foreigner looked back up the river towards the bridge and shuddered. Then he touched his own chest and bowed. ‘Asklepios.’
Banipal gestured towards the upper bank where a flight of stone steps led to the walls of Esagila. Together they slogged through the mud towards the steps.
‘Where do you think he is from?’ Ishkun was more intrigued by his friend’s fascination with the stranger than the man himself.
Asklepios sat silently beside Banipal in his rescuer’s warmest robes. The three of them shared a meal of dates, cheese, bread, and water.
‘I have no idea,’ Banipal said. ‘We have no common language, nothing at all.’
Ishkun reached across the table and squeezed Asklepios’ shoulder. ‘You look none the worse for your little swim. Marduk favours you.’
Asklepios smiled, spread his hands to show appreciation of the food and clothes, then bowed towards Banipal. Ishkun listened carefully to his speech. Despite having travelled widely he could make no sense of it. He had tried the languages he knew and Asklepios apologetically shook his head at each one.
‘He seems grateful enough,’ Ishkun observed. ‘And so he should, he owes you his life.’
‘And having saved it, I am now responsible for him,’ Banipal said. ‘Though you must share some of the blame, if you hadn’t taught me the trick of looking through a fist I would never have spotted him in the river.’
Ishkun was delighted. ‘I will make a hunter of you yet. What are your plans for this fellow?’
Banipal explained that when he first saw Asklepios he had been holding measuring instruments. ‘He is a scholar, I want to find out what he knows.’
‘How do you know he hadn’t stolen them? He was taken as a thief after all.’
‘They were made of a strange material. He must have brought them with him.’
‘And they were lost in the river?’
Left to his own devices, Asklepios amused himself by arranging date stones into rows and groups.
‘You see?’ Banipal laughed. ‘He is just like me.’
When he realised he was the centre of attention Asklepios smiled bashfully. Encouraged by Banipal’s gestures he laid two date stones next to each other, then three, a wider gap, then six.
‘He cannot even count,’ Ishkun crowed. ‘I can do better than that.’
‘No, he is multiplying not adding.’ Banipal made his own sum, multiplying three by three.
In turn Asklepios attempted three by six. But now he did not have enough stones. He took a whole date from the bowl, touched it to his fingers and thumbs on both hands and placed it beside eight stones.
‘Yes,’ Banipal clapped his hands. ‘I knew it.
Ishkun shook his head in despair. ‘Ninurta preserve me, I will never catch anything if I have to bring you both hunting.’
To be continued…