PART 3 - Chapter 1 - Flight
(1161 BC Earth Time)
The horse dove headlong toward the outskirts of the army camp, ignoring the shouts and startled looks of soldiers and slaves alike. Talmido dug his heels into its flanks, spurring it on with anxious haste. He needed to escape and warn the fleeing caravan of the imminent pursuit from the Assyrian army. After dodging campfires and knocking over racks of spears and swords while trampling tents and cook shacks, Talmido fled as if Kunara was biting at the horse’s hooves, looking intently for his liver.
With the wind whipping through his hair and the mane of the horse, Talmido kicked the horse on toward the southeast, away from the caravan, to throw off any pursuing parties. Soon, froth whipped from the mount’s mouth, slapping into Talmido’s face like a downpour of rain or hail. He did not want to kill the animal through exhaustion, so reining it down to a slow trot, he slipped his pursuers and was safely on his way. The wind whispered through the sycamore trees, goading Talmido to dare the gods one more time. Death was nothing new to him; instead, it was a daily way of life, and he had teased his way through countless death-defying situations in the past, but this was different. He had no nation or army to back him up except the men of his company under his command and the accompanying slaves and families. As the horse walked, he contemplated this responsibility. He had made the original decision while Sapalulmea was alive, yet he hesitated in following it through now that she was gone.
He shook his head, trying to knock out the treasonous thoughts of abandonment. He was not a coward or a liar. He found it impossible to ignore the fact that he could not lie to himself or to his men. They were his family. Those men were his only and last hope for freedom and the only semblance of family, he felt, he would ever have for a long, long time to come.
He journeyed southeast for five days and five nights, extending the distance from the Assyrian army camp by seventy to eighty leagues a day. He made sure to walk on hard ground to cover the horse’s tracks. He did not make a fire, as this would give away his position, and made sure not to break branches, knowing the army had some of the best trackers available. At times, he would walk the horse down through creeks or rivers to throw off any trackers following him.
On the sixth day, he waited. He hobbled the horse out into a meadow to allow it to graze, and he watched. His senses reached out with tendrils of longing that swirled among the trees and along the breeze to catch any sound or smell a pursuing party of men would naturally make. A man is a very noisy creature. His level of hearing is so finite that most forest animals would hear him traveling, talking, or eating from leagues away and have moved on long before he had arrived. Talmido knew this and could sense the forest animals quietly walking away from him once he dismounted from the horse. He climbed a tree at the edge of the meadow and waited, watching the horse for any telltale signs of movement outside of his ability to sense.
The horse grazed with a calm ignorance. Talmido laid back against the tree high up on a branch, with a clear view for leagues. He needed to know if he was, in fact, being pursued and who was seeking him, if that were the case. He desperately needed some food and water, and if he were being followed, his pursuers would conveniently provide those quite nicely.
He laid his head back against the tree and looked up into the sky. His stomach clenched as he thought of Sapalulmea, and he held his breath, not wanting to let sobs of stabbing pain travel through the forest for all to hear. He closed his eyes and could clearly see her in his mind’s eye, with the grace of her body and the subtle glow of her soft eyes upon him, and with her hands cupped in front of her while she walked toward him.
Talmido threw his eyes open and let the sun temporarily blind him as he did not want to pull the memories out yet. The pain was too raw and too broad—a tempest of swirling rage, sorrow, and regret. He knew these emotions were part of the mourning process as he had witnessed them many times on the faces of fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, slaves and prisoners, soldiers and commanders.
He waited for four days and nights, and to his satisfaction, a stir in the woods drew the forest noise to a close. Talmido stiffened, as did his horse. Waiting patiently, he lay low on the upper branches of the tree he had been occupying and scanned the area for movement. It wasn’t a noticeable shaking of branches or bending of trees that let the horse and Talmido know of the impending arrival; instead, the mounting silence and lack of movement from the animals themselves drew their attention. The horse nickered while chewing on some grass and flung its head up toward the sky, acknowledging its dislike of whatever was approaching.
A shadow moved along the periphery of the meadow and the forest just out of reach of sight for identification. Talmido knew this to be a professional as no animal would take that approach. He locked his gaze on the movement and waited. The horse followed the shadow, understanding the what and where of the traveler.
This was no coincidence, to be sure. This area had no inhabitants, so Talmido continued to wait, and eventually, the traveler revealed itself. A man stepped out of the woods and slowly approached the horse with a hand held out in supplication, promising something for it to eat. The horse waited, looking at the tracker’s hand and wanting whatever was hidden within. He stepped up to the horse and brushed along its neck while letting the horse eat from his other hand. He looked around, expecting someone to walk out at any minute, and hesitated on his quest for answers.
Talmido squinted at the sun’s rays and raised his hand to shield them from the bright light. He did not recognize this figure and held his position to determine if there were more waiting in the forest.
Shortly after that, the man crept back into the forest, leaving the way he came in. Talmido stayed on the branch, calculating in his mind all the possible probabilities of who this man might have been. He seemed like a tracker from the Assyrian army group from the way he carried himself.
As night approached, Talmido slowly moved from the branch by climbing down the back side of the tree, faced away from the meadow, and drifted back among the trees, potentially to flank the interloper and catch him unaware to determine if he was indeed alone, in addition to moving the horse out of the meadow to wait for the man to return. Upon tethering the horse a league away from the field, Talmido settled himself down for the night, keeping an ear open for possible travelers.
Soon enough, he heard the walking of horses and the clanking of equipment that announced their arrival. From out of the forest arrived a sight to be seen. At least fifty men, of which the majority were on foot, emerged and drifted toward the center of the meadow, apparently looking for the horse with animated discussion and contempt for the first tracker. He swiftly moved around the edge of the field, looking for tracks, and immediately motioned for the others to look at his findings.
“Here—here are the tracks: a horse and one man. They are approximately half a day away and moving northwest,” he announced.
“We set up camp here for the night. No fires or loud noises,” the commander ordered, to his men’s relief, as they threw down their kits and weapons, jumped down from their mounts, and hobbled them close by.
Talmido waited for the band to settle down and sentries to be posted. The night was clear, with billions of stars twinkling through the darkened sky, and the moon to light the way. Talmido slowly stood up, keeping the moon in front of himself, and crept past the guards on sentry duty, making no sound audible to the men, stealing his way to the most significant tent in the group. He laid down at the back of the tent and wriggled his way in. He crouched alongside a table and waited for any sounds to expose the potential occupant of the tent.
After a minute, he silently crept toward the occupant’s bed and stood over him, looking intently at his countenance. A blow to his mind catapulted him out and above himself with such ferocity that he staggered back, almost knocking over a goblet left on the table. He recovered to catch it and gently put it back on the table without a sound. Talmido peered intently at the face and absolutely could not believe his eyes.
Without any further need to be convinced, he took out his knife and held it over the occupant’s face with so much desire that neither the gods nor death could have prevented him from plunging it into Hattusili’s face with a surety of death that would have stopped any attempt to resurrect him again.
At the moment the knife was to plunge into the open mouth of Hattusili, as providence would have it, he opened his eyes and shook with a start at the sight of Talmido standing over his head with a knife hanging in the air. Hattusili screamed so loud it startled Talmido, and those precious few seconds were all it took for Hattusili’s life to be spared. Talmido dove over the table, knocking the goblet to the ground with a loud clang, and scrambled out the back of the tent, using his knife as an opener. He ran with all his strength toward the forest, jumping over sleeping men and kicking up dirt into clumps that fell upon men left in his wake.
Time slowed for Talmido; a clock of seconds moved in minutes as he plowed on through the forest, arrows whisking past his head. He leaped over the underbrush and snags, scrambled up a hillside, and plunged into a creek to confuse the trackers sure to be close behind.
With adept swiftness, he threw himself under an outcropping and slathered mud over himself to cover his scent and any possibility of being seen. Shortly, a group of men rode by, galloping past with such haste that Talmido thought the whole forest would soon be awakened by their noise.
Holding his breath for a minute, he slowly exhaled, crept out, moved up the creek, crossed back the way he came, and moved swiftly toward his horse. He nickered to it as he came close to announce himself so as not to startle it, and the horse nickered back with a satisfying reply.
Talmido jumped onto its back and heeled it on toward the northeast, leaving behind the din of soldiers and trackers searching for him. The moonlight assisted him with seeing his way through the landscape and the effects of darkness. Eventually, he moved out of the forest and onto an escarpment of low grassland and shrubs. It was close to dawn when he finally hobbled the horse just inside a cave on the leeward side of a small hill and lay himself down with an exhausted sigh of relief.
That evening, Talmido continued in a north-easterly direction, trying to catch up with the escaping members of his band. He was now ten days behind the caravan; however, they would be making their way slowly, and he figured he would be able to catch up within four days of hard riding. He needed to put together a platoon of men to counter Hattusili’s trackers. He would need time and stealth.
The terrain was beautiful in its own way—rolling hills with plains of grass and the occasional lake or wetland to break up the monotony. Herds of antelope, camels, and wild horses passed by, often looking inquisitively at Talmido and his horse. They questioned this strange being with eyes and ears before snorting or stamping their hooves to move on with some peculiar, unseen need to migrate.
Right on time, by the morning of the fourth day, Talmido could see the dust from the caravan and spurred on his horse to quicken its pace. Toward midday, the sounds of moving horses and oxen announced his eventual arrival, and he slowly came upon the caravan, shouting out his approach to the sentries that encircled the group. With cries of recognition and joy, the men galloped toward him, greeting Talmido with open happiness at seeing him. Soon they quieted down as neither Sapalulmea, Katraneous nor Akhiramy were traveling with him, and they had not seen them since leaving the Assyrian army camp fourteen days earlier.
“Talmido, it is so good to see you again, my brother!” Si-tatious exclaimed with a broad smile on his face and a meaty slap to Talmido’s back. “But where are Sapalulmea, Katraneous, and Akhiramy? They have not arrived yet, and we are in anticipation of their presence.”
Talmido looked toward the ground as he replied, “They are dead, Si-tatious. The general had them murdered as deserters before my very eyes.”
A ripple of discontent reverberated throughout the group of men, with some muttering about revenge.
“This was due mainly to that angry, hateful scribe, Hattusili. I killed the general and thought I had killed Hattusili. However, it seems the gods are not happy with me, as he is alive and well and is pursuing me. He is perhaps one to two days behind. He has a company of fifty men with him and some of the best trackers from the Canaanite tribes,” Talmido explained.
They drew closer and nodded their heads with deepening concern, knowing they had to eliminate this potential threat before it came upon the caravan. Talmido needed some food and rest, so he was directed toward a tent where he ate and rested. That evening, he banded together a contingent of one hundred men, and they rode off toward the southwest with the intent to intercept the tracking party and put an end to the trail before word of their flight was sent back to the Assyrian army.