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Waaloo and a desperate band of refugees brave widespread disaster in search of safety. But there is none and their only hope is to deliver a peace-bride onto the battlefield between antiquity's two most powerful empires.
Jansen Estrup's second book in the Starlight On Stone series tells the story of those who come from the East, slogging through endless miles of destruction and death, each for their own compelling reasons. Waaloo seeks wealth and fame. Twi imagines himself on a worldwide trek to find the secrets which will permit all people to live in harmony and happiness. Canni, after the devastation of her sisterhood, hopes to endure until something new can spark her regeneration. Parro, the entertainer, looks for new stories, new ways to entertain a grim population.
WEST and EAST are available now as ebooks. Look for SOUTH this winter, to be followed by NORTH and finally, CRUX.
Starlight on Stone
Reed hut, reed hut, wall, wall -
Tear down this house and build a ship!
Give up possessions, seek thou life,
Despise property and keep thou soul alive!
Summerian flood story in which the deity Ea,
the Canal Master, warns
Utnapishtim (Noah) of pending doom.
The shipmaster swore often and loudly. He was generous with his disappointment, condemning the
Indus as well as the Two Rivers, and Avritra in particular. She alone was responsible for the torrents of water
which cascaded from heaven. Magically, she also caused so much flooding out of a clear sky, for here the
great drought had begun and spread east.
For two days sailing the wind had been indecisive and the sea had been grey with silt and mud,
floating bundles of reeds which had once been a communal mudhif or someone's home, and occasionally,
a large timber that had supported a temple's roof. Now and then the bloated carcass of an animal or human
was seen, along with the fin of a large predator. But death and destruction did not account for the oily stench
which clung to the area they approached. And ahead, the sea seemed blurred with an awful m ist. Even Indra’s
river, dead and stagnant at its mouth, did not smell so wretched.
Terrible flooding had chased them out of Amri and now greeted them hundreds of miles away at
Ngirsu, known all over the world as an evil smelling place.
"Perhaps Sheba's river has not fouled," he grumbled pessimistically, "for rain never falls there any
His mate raised an eyelid. “It can be treacherous when it does.”
The master maneuvered the stout craft close ashore to avoid as much flotsam as possible, and to
clear the strong current at Shinar's river outlet. An island, once part of the great two-rivers delta, shielded them
from the main force of the flow. As at the more southerly Dilmun, small and temporary towns had been
established to deal with whatever trade could battle the elements. This island was also called Dilmun, for the
name meant simply 'refuge' and in a tumultuous world there were many such places.
None of the passengers, three of them, had ever seen the fabled islands before. Dilmun, natives
boasted, was where the gods created humans, but both islands had been disappointing. Treeless rocky
places, they housed nothing but religious fanatics who babbled endlessly about poor, once great Ngirsu.
Waaloo, the merchant, could not wait to get away from the place. They, in their poverty, had only
contempt for the bright bennu bird feathers he offered, and his carefully crafted gemstones. Nor were they
interested in his other wares, the spices and medicines from faraway islands. Uncharacteristically, Waaloo
despised them. In their unkempt arrogance, they were terrifying. Not even women, had they permitted them
on the island, could have civilized these louts. And now, it seemed likely, all of Shinar was devastated (again).
There would be little interest in baubles among people rebuilding canals and walls and temples.
Bad omens. Avritra was to blame, of course. W aaloo sympathized with the shipmaster, but he cringed
when oaths tumbled from the fool's black-toothed mouth. No good could come from cursing the diva.
Abus was too young to care. A child of three, he was in the personal care of the shipmaster, who, for
unspecified advantage, had agreed to deliver the boy to his father, a minor prince whose embassy lay amid
the wonders of Avilim. To Abus, everything was of wild interest. Keeping him from tangling in ropes, falling
over-board and pestering the crew with endless questions was a full time job which the captain had delegated
to the third passenger, a religious pilgrim.
Twi's pilgrimage was somber. It was also foolish.
It was more than that. It was impossible.
He quested to discover a secret which could save the world. Like his faith, his plan was simple
enough. No single person in all of the Indus had an answer, but many had given him clues. Here in the west
he hoped to meet other seers and initiates of lost knowledge. People who, like himself, knew that something
was dreadfully wrong with the world. “Stone knows”, he was instructed. “Here in the land of mud-brick and clay
and sand, we have lost the knowledge. But stone knows. Real rock knows. Find the true rock.”
Avilim had always been a center for those who knew and learned arcane lore. W izards of every ilk
still kept the ancient watch on the sky and knew, even before an event, what would happen, when it would
happen and what it would mean. So far, in all the travels the young man had made, one dire fact loomed
above any other. Holy Avarit was dying, and it was the worst catastrophe since the barren Moon tried to
embrace her mother, Earth. That, everyone knew, had spilled the oceans again and again upon the lands,
nearly destroying every thing and creature. For Mother Earth had very strict rules separating, as by caste,
each species from another. Gods and goddesses must obey laws, too. And so Maya Earth had weaved and
dodged and danced away from her ardent daughter, until another of her daughters, Amarici, the sun, shouted
"Stay away! You come too close! Keep your place!"
That had happened eons ago, of course. Nothing quite so awful had happened in all that time. But
now the Rain Goddess refused her duties and anyone searching the sky could see that she was dying, and
the people who worshiped her were dying, too.
What had they done wrong? W hat m ight they do to instill new spirit in her? W as any solution possible
and who might know of it? Certainly his own efforts had not been well received. Twi’s notions had outraged
the Brahmin of Amri and many of the Rajput class warriors who imagined that they controlled the vaisga,
growers and builders, the entrapped masses and especially the great river system. Truly, the dejected traveler
realized, that was the reason he had been sent on this useless embassy.
Still, it was not a disgrace. Many a family of the priestly caste had sons unsuited for either battle or
prayer. He had skills as an organizer, an administrator, even a magician - and especially as a story teller. It
was the stories which most upset his family. He sometimes told the Aryan versions, those which supported
centuries of Harappan rule. But more often he told accounts from the side of the vanquished, those enslaved
for long centuries and buoyed only by myths of ancient heroes, mostly female, who opposed the Ari patriarchs,
and on various levels still did.
And so, whenever the defiant shipmaster cursed Avritra, Twi felt a surge of emotions - fear and anger,
of course, but also a spiritual need to shut them out. His charge, the Harappan princeling, had no defenses
against such blasphemy and so Twi always tried to cover the child's ears with his own hands. But that left Twi
without a way to shield himself.
Did he really need shielding? Something one of his teachers told came back to him. In the old
language, the one tribes carried across the continents, swor was a word which meant ‘to cut or wound.’ It was
not, as many holy ones insisted, an uncaring insult to the gods. W arriors had it right. It was a direct threat,
whether with blade or tongue. Those on the periphery who just happened to overhear might be wounded as
well. The old words, rip, rap and rup, as in rupture, had the same meaning, although more often a verbal
attack rather than physical. Yes, Twi decided, he really did need a shield.
After a few days on the Avaritic Sea, he devised a useful defense. W hen he heard the captain's curse,
he began chanting in a voice deep enough to vibrate his ears. By now it had become a source of much
amusement for the crew, who found their own way of getting into the act. When the master cursed, the pilgrim
covered the child's ears with his hands and began to moan and each crewman did a barefooted dance on the
deck, or rigging, or cargo - where ever he happened to be - and laughed, often with open derision. The
interplay helped confirm Twi’s status as one of the priestly caste, but one without station or power. In a curious
way it also earned the seamen’s respect.
Ships passing close by, or laid-to at evening on the white beaches, thought it a woeful ship and within
days the much enriched tale had spread from Amri to Ava and Aden, perhaps, even against the great flood
waters, to Ngirsu and upriver to Samarra and Avilim. A bewitched ship plied the trade routes, its crew driven
mad by an angry, relentless goddess, from whom these silly men had stolen a child.
Twi knew nothing of this as he searched the shoreline of Sheva. It was dry sand as far as he could
see, a desert. But it was not like the desert of his homeland which had three distinct aspects - high flood, mud
and blowing dust. He studied it carefully, for once, he had been told, Sheva had been a wide, bountiful
grassland. Could one believe such stories? Weren't they simply wishful thinking? The Indus, old ones
claimed, had been a deep jungle before the Harap came and, finding rivers and trees an offense to Brahma
and his son, Indra, cleared them all away. Surely that was a much fable and legend as this tale of verdant
But what if the stories were true? Something had gone very wrong and, if he was to save the world
he could not afford to ignore any useful wisdom. Save the world? And without caravan or his servants.
Go to Ngirusu, he’d been told. See the temple at E-Ninnu! Visit the Gilgamish walls at Avilim. Go. That
was it, mainly. Go. Just go, Twi, before you are cursed with impurity and reduced to jati in your next
incarnation. That was the punishment, even for Twice Born of the best color. Rebellion against the caste
system, a Varna’s worst possible action, earned him, his family, his unborn children, his next life and all his
eternal future, infinite exile. He should have been horrified at such a fate, but he wondered instead what it
must be like in the sub-castes, in a lower station with a darker skin. Simply thinking such thoughts was likely
Might it be true? Surely it was the real reason he’d been sent on such a world saving mission. It was
not the Earth he must hope to save. She must fend for herself. It was his own world, wasn’t it? His own
Well, he had long before decided, he would soon see for himself. At least he wasn’t one of the
rakshasas, the dark skinned untouchables who were outcastes. And yet, on some level, he knew that he had
been cast out, too. Somehow, he felt free.
And so they had come upon another Dilmun, this one more bleak than the first. For in addition to the
unrelenting heat of the sun it was besieged on all sides by muddy, repellant waters and the very air was both
burnt and foul.
One of the crew shouted, “Something ahead, in the mist!”
“An island,” another bellowed. He covered his mouth and nose. “And it isn’t mist, its smoke.”
Still another said, “No its another one of those big houses. The ones that float.”
Twi had seen much in his thirty years. The holy mountains which held up the sky, a child marvel
standing on tip-toe to kiss the nose of a giant ragni cobra. He had even bathed in the Great Bath of Mohenjodaro,
although he had been appalled at its run down state and sailed upon the Rann of Kutch in a lavish
barge. But this huge floating structure was astonishing. As the house grew closer, the varna could see that
it was made entirely of rushes, dried, woven and bundled into supporting trusses and cross-beams strong
enough to carry animals on the lower deck and the family of humans amidst the rooms of the second level.
On top a third level served as an open-air garden with potted pomegranates and a pair of date palms visible.
The house was tilted, damaged at some point in its unexpected journey, perhaps when it was ripped from it
mooring. A couple of goats bleated from an open portal and other creatures were visible inside. A man waved
frantically from the garden. “Can you help us?”
The captain swore again but the crew made ready to heave some lines and in a short time the vessel
was attached to the house, flowing back out into the narrow gulf, away from the oily smoke.
“I can’t take all of the animals,” the jati captain insisted. “Just the people, and each of you must pay.”
“I see,” the house master replied, glancing around at his many wives and children. “I am willing, but
all of my wealth is in this poor house and these sad creatures.”
And so the haggling began. Waaloo took an interest, smelling a chance to earn a piece of the prize,
but Twi was more interested in the people, the beautiful women and smiling children. They seemed as people
up and down the Indus, and he imagined people everywhere would show him grins and good will. Abus, the
princeling, and the small rescued children became instant friends and played noisily in the bows.
After a time the work began, this time the whole crew swore and laughed as they loaded goats and
sheep and fowl, but they left behind the rats and snakes. The children helped bring out furniture, pottery, a
bronze oven, even the potted fruit trees. And at the stern the masters, ship and house, exchanged unspecified
Under sail again there was much distance to make up and the massive floating palace quickly
disappeared in the gloom. Flood waters clashed with the oncoming tide making the surface choppy and the
currents dangerous for so overloaded a ship. A wind began to rise.
"There!" The shipmaster shouted. "We'll go ashore there." He pointed at a cluster of low sandstone
buildings lying close to the mainland shore and the crew hurried to trim the triangle of sail and man the oars.
At least, grumbled Waaloo, they would not land on the island.
"And where is that?" W aaloo asked with feigned horror.
"No idea. But I think we can land you safely. Be glad of it." The family of marsh people were thankful
and eager to help.
Within hours the passengers and their cargo were ashore and the crew had secured enough local
water to replenish their meager stores. The shipmaster watched with an evil eye.
Like a rich folom amidst his merchandise, Waaloo shouted angrily for workers to carry his bundles,
but none were to be had. Twi, with the princeling on his shoulders, helped drag the cargo above the oily
tideline, and then higher, up to the buildings they had seen from the sea. They proved to be ruins filled with
the unwanted trash of travelers and drifting, salt-saturated sand. A poor well promised a limited, but reliable
supply of water. A young goat was sacrificed and the trees were planted with great ceremony. The new
friends ate and laughed at their good fortune as the sun began to set. Only then did Twi realize that the ship
had sailed, leaving the boy Abus abandoned to his care.
"The Fates have been kind to you," Waaloo observed.
"Surely. The sea, floods and our black-hearted shipmaster have given you a compelling reason to
continue on to Avalim, and something to sell when you arrive."
"I already have a compelling reason to be there, and this boy is not for ransom."
"Such a noble manner you have, as a priest must. But I'll wager that you'll find a way to profit from his
father. Are you a betting man, Twi-the-Searcher?"
Searcher? Is that what he had become? Did the merchant have such insights? Or was he simply a
"No," said Twi emphatically. "And I am not a priest." Not really. Or a gambler. But wasn’t his venture
the ultimate risk. He regarded the boy with new eyes.
A party of wanderers arrived shortly after W aaloo, Abus and Twi had settled themselves in one of the
wrecked huts. It was a sorry lot, straggling across the blowing sand. They seemed hungry and bold ribs
showed on their animals. "We've come from poor Ngirsu," they explained, as they gathered everything they
owned in another ruin. "The road is clear all the way to Avilim, if you can find a way across the river. But
beware of bandits and beggars."
And they also had this warning. "Beware of Assyrian soldiers and their agents. They are stealing every
man for the Hittite armies."
Twi knew nothing of Assyrians or Hittites, but he did know soldiering and wanted nothing to do with
Waaloo, for a second-rate gem and a bag of Indu rice, purchased a sad looking onager which was
guaranteed 'well-tamed'. The next morning, the ass loaded with feathers and spices and Twi with the boy on
his shoulders, they crossed over the Shevan sands toward the smoke shrouded city of Ngirsu .