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In 1380 BCE, Tushratta was King of the ancient empire of Mitanni, a great empire for approximately two hundred years. It lay on the banks of the Euphrates River in what would be now north central Syria, down into Iraq and Jordan. Landlocked except for the river, its capital, Wassukkanni, developed on a small tributary of the Euphrates. Its people were Hurrian stock, Sematic, overrun by Aryans from the Pakistani area of the Indus River.

“Mama, Mama,” screamed Kelu, glancing wildly through the rush of morning shoppers. With terrified shrieks, people scattered, plastering themselves against the mudbrick buildings on either side of the pounded earth street or dove into the open doorways of tiny ground-level shops. Kelu pressed her little body against the doorjamb of a bread maker’s shop. She turned her frenzied, contorted, face to look at the great, snorting, sweating horses galloping up the slope of the narrow street.

“Mama, mama,” she whimpered, again frantically scanning the crowd for her mother. The big horses seemed to be rushing at her. She hid her face, trying to push her head inside the doorjamb.

As the enormous animals pounded by her, Kelu clawed at the wall. A high-pitched scream rising above the throbbing of the flying hooves sent a cold shiver through her. For an instant, she stopped breathing. Something about that scream—her little fists beat against the doorjamb as a silent shriek rose in her throat.

After the fast-moving animals charged past her, Kelu heard the activity in the street erupt into normal pandemonium. She quickly surveyed the road then darted from the wall and raced on skinny legs towards the motionless figure lying in the gutter.

A hairy arm went around her waist from behind, halting her forward motion with such force that the upper part of her body jutted forward, causing her long, blue-black hair to sweep the road dust. Stunned, she hung limply over the arm.

“Don’t go over there.” The male voice came from somewhere above her, and she felt herself pulled against his naked chest.

“Let me go. Let me go!” screamed Kelu. Squirming around to look at him, she only succeeded in getting his black chest hair in her open mouth and his stubby, meager black beard in her eyes.

“There, there, little one.” His big laborer’s hand stroked her head and shoulders soothingly.

She flung the back of her head against him, stiffening her torso and sobbing. Her right arm rose slowly, her index finger pointing at the crowd gathered around the fallen woman.

The laborer looked at the finger then his eyes followed its trajectory directly to the woman. He scanned the mix of curious shoppers elbowing each other to see the body. His lips pressed together and worked as he thought. He could always take the girl to his mother while he searched for the father. In this big city! The woman’s pale skin, the same golden tan as his own, proclaimed her to be a member of the local people rather than belonging to the dark-skinned ruling overlords. He conjured up visions of himself walking through street after street in the narrow warrens where people lived, loudly calling that he carried a lost child. The prospect horrified him.

A heavily bearded older man, wearing a long, tightly belted dark blue wool robe, extricated himself from the knot around the woman. Glancing first right then left, he spotted the noisily crying child and the youth holding her. Automatically raising his hand to attract their attention, he hastened towards them.

Kelu saw him and cried, “Mama, mama.”

“Your mama can’t come,” the man said, gently stroking her head. To the youth, he said, “The woman’s dead.”

Trying to scream and sob at the same time, Kelu choked.

The laborer cupped her head in his hand and cautiously pressed it against his chest.

“Does anybody know where I take this little girl?”

“Her mother’s a slave in the house of Pamba, the Hittite.”

“I don’t know the place.”

“It’s a large mudbrick house with wooden decorations on the door lintels and windows. It’s just before you reach the great lion gate of the palace complex at the top of the incline.” He added, “Kelu can show you.” He looked pointedly at the red-eyed, runny-nosed, sobbing little girl. “Can’t you, Kelu?”

She turned her head sideways, resting the right side of her face against the laborer’s chest and dug one of her small fists into her left eye.

The older man touched her shoulder sympathetically, nodded to the youth, and walked towards an open door to the right of the little group of people.

Pulling his shoulders back, the laborer tipped Kelu away from him. For just an instant, she raised her wet, deep-brown eyes to look at him. “You have to help me, little one. Show me where you live.” He set her on the ground, keeping a firm grip on her right arm to prevent her from making any sudden dash to her mother.

“Let me go. Let me go!” She pulled away, trying to free herself.

Ignoring her objections, the youth resolutely turned her body to face uphill, grasped her hand, and took two steps.

Kelu dug in her heels. “Mama, mama!” she yelled, twisting her head around.

“Child, if you don’t want to be dragged, which will hurt, you better walk.”

“I want my mama,” she sobbed. With her free hand, she beat the hand that held her. He caught the small beating hand and looked down at the thin little body, the cheap, pink wool dress, the bare feet. Through the streaming tears, she glared at him. Shaking his head in frustration, he grabbed both of her shoulders and squatted low enough to be at eye level with her.

Kelu stopped crying and fluttered her eyelashes. The closeness of his big, stubby face startled her. She wondered if the master’s heavily bearded face would look like this up close. The man’s black eyes looked serious, but kind. She decided she didn’t need to be afraid. Immediately, his face started to fade, and the vision of her mother’s face reasserted itself. With a shuddering gulp, she started to cry again and struggled to escape from his grasp.

He sighed. “Once we pass the temple and are away from this market section, we’ll walk.” He scooped her up.

Kelu hung over his shoulder, watching the group congregated around her mother. Tears flooding from her eyes dribbled down his naked back and wet the waistband of his short, dark, green, wool skirt.

As soon as they reached the stretch of private homes clustered around the massive stone wall surrounding the king’s palace, he set her down and took her by the hand. He felt nervous. Never had he been so close to the king’s palace on its platform. He tried to look at the guards grouped around the gate without their knowing it. He knew they looked at him. The hand holding Kelu trembled slightly. Had she felt it? He glanced down at her then at the wall that encircled the palace.

The wall looked much like the ramparts that enclosed the whole city. He knew that the top of the city’s ramparts allowed two horses to race side by side. He doubted that this wall could accommodate more than one horse.

Trying to forget the guards, he squeezed Kelu’s hand. “Now, tell me in which of these houses you live.”

They walked along slowly. He adjusted his long steps to her short ones. She seemed so tiny walking beside him—straight, shiny black hair like the overlords. That startled him.

“How old are you, Kelu?”

Without answering, she stared straight ahead through water-logged eyes, lost in her own forlorn thoughts.

The youth looked closely at her skin. It reflected the sunlight with a golden glow. Her skin was darker than her mother’s. The blood of the overlords. The house of Pamba, the Hittite, wasn’t the overlords. He shrugged. He had enough problems at the moment without adding that.

In the high, round-necked dress hanging shapelessly to her knees, Kelu plodded forward. An empty feeling overwhelmed her. She rubbed a wet hand down the side of her pink dress then gave the dress a yank. The cook, the master, and the mistress, the people in her life, were all nice to her, especially the cook, but they weren’t mama, her warm, beautiful mama. She stuck out her jaw and fought back fresh tears.

The laborer carefully checked each house they passed, some of stone, some of mudbrick, some with fine wood trim. He whistled inaudibly. These houses cost a lot of silver. He couldn’t imagine the amount. He turned expectantly to Kelu.

Stone-faced, looking neither right nor left, she showed no sign of recognizing any of these houses. Every few seconds, she hiccupped.

A short distance from the monumental lion gate and the guards standing around the entrance, he shook his head hopelessly. Surely, though still quite young, the child should know where she lived. Would he have to knock on every door and ask, “Does this little girl belong to you?”

Just as he made up his mind to do that, Kelu said, “Over there,” pointing to the large tan-colored house on the left with the fancy carved-wooden triangle over the door. . Hesitant, feeling uncomfortable, he walked towards the house. Somewhere, there must be a door for the slaves.

Kelu broke from him. Cook. She had to find the cook. She tore around the corner of the house, her legs flying.

Instantly, the youth tailed her. His hand reached out ready to grab her when she dashed through an open door. He stopped abruptly and looked in. Using a ragged piece of cloth, the big-boned woman on her knees energetically fanned the embers in a corner hearth. Surprise crossed her face as she took in the tumultuous entrance of Kelu and rested her eyes on the laborer.

Kelu flung herself on the woman. “Mama, mama,” she cried, tears starting again.

As her arms gathered in the child, the cook looked up at the youth. Her deep gray eyes demanded an explanation.

“Her mother’s dead,” the laborer blurted.

“Dead!” After a pause to assimilate that, she sank to the floor and gathered Kelu into her lap, cradling her, gently rocking the sobbing girl. “How?”

“Galloping horses in the marketplace. She wasn’t quick enough.”

“You had better see the master.” Still holding Kelu, she managed to get to her feet. “Follow me.” She put Kelu down, careful to keep tight hold of her hand. With her other hand, Kelu grabbed the woman’s dress, hiding her face in it.

“Kelu,” the cook said gently, “you are making it difficult for me to walk. Let go of my dress, but stay close to me and hold my hand.”

She opened the door near the hearth. “Watch the fire,” she said to the wide-eyed scullery maid who had been standing in a dim corner near the entrance.

The laborer followed behind the cook as they walked through two small, sparsely furnished, yet elegantly carpeted, rooms and then a third simply containing a table and two chairs. He tiptoed through the rooms, afraid to put his weight on the carpets, afraid to look at the furniture, but stared, intrigued by the green mountains, the barren rocks, and the heavy snow that decorated the painted walls.

The cook tapped at the closed door of the third room.

“Come,” boomed a male voice.

The young laborer shyly followed the bowing woman into the room and dropped to his knees on the carpet. He shivered as he felt its softness. Raising his eyes a little, he silently gulped. Before him, the plump man, wearing an ankle-length purple wool robe with a high round neck and three-quarter sleeves, sat on a high chair. Large gold loops hung from his ears, a purple skullcap covered most of his tightly curled black hair. His feet, in slippers with curled-up toes, rested side by side on his footstool.

Alert black eyes seemed to peer out of the curly black beard that completely covered his face. The laborer wondered if his beard would ever grow that luxuriously.

Seated near Pamba, in a matching chair, the mistress straightened and said, “What is it, cook. Why is Kelu crying?”

The laborer turned his eyes on the mistress, noting that the fabric of her purple dress had narrow, horizontal pleats and that her dark curly hair was elaborately coifed. Her face struck him as pleasant, though not pretty.

“This man has something to tell you.” Bowing, the cook said, “I’ll take Kelu back to the kitchen.”

Pamba raised his hand, dismissing her.

Drawing Kelu close and bending over her slightly, the cook retreated.

“Her mother is dead,” the laborer began, looking directly at Pamba’s wife, Hepit. “She was hit by horses galloping up the road.” Using his thumb, he pointed in the direction of the road.

“Killed!” Pamba half rose from his chair.

“From what I could see, the horses’ hooves crushed her shoulder and legs after she hit the ground.”

“No,” cried the woman, covering her eyes with her heavily ringed hand.

“Where is her body?” asked Pamba whose face had drained of color.

“By the side of the road.”

Pamba turned to his wife. “Send someone to retrieve Khelpa’s body.”

Hepit rose and left the room.

“What name do you go by, laborer?”

“Rasi, My Lord.”

“Where do you live?”

“Near the south corner of the track where the race horses are trained.”

“So the child is on my hands,” Pamba mused, his thumb and forefinger stroking his beard. Rasi knit his brows, not understanding the Hittite’s statement.

“You may go,” said Pamba. “Another will undoubtedly want to talk to you.”

After Rasi left, Pamba sat for a short time with his hand pressing his forehead. Then he reached for the papyrus roll lying on the round table beside his chair, changed his mind, and let the roll fall. Deep in thought, he stared at nothing until his wife returned.

“You will have to tell Arttarna as soon as he arrives in the city,” she said as she seated herself.

“He came back this morning.” Pamba’s sad eyes met his wife’s. “This will crush him.” She nodded, pursing her lips. Suddenly, she gasped. “Wouldn’t it be awful if one of his own horsemen struck her?”

Pamba cringed, clutching his chest. “That horseman would be dead before sundown.” He sat in silence before saying, “Strange the way things happen. I never thought when King Suppiluliumas sent me here from the great Hittite capital of Hattusas, to be his ambassador to King Tushratta in the Mitannian capital of Wassukkanni that this would happen; that I would become close friends with a famous roving Mitannian Ambassador and end up housing his mistress. I never expected to get caught up in this kind of domestic tragedy when I agreed to take Khelpa.”

“Considering your friendship with Arttarna, you are involved in this. We both are. But he will have to make some decisions now. We cannot keep Kelu or have our slaves responsible for her.”

In silence, Hepit studied her folded hands; Pamba fiddled with the papyrus roll on the table. Each thought of Arttarna, his handsome dark-skinned physique, his shoulder-length black hair with its soft wave and sheen, his snapping black eyes, his position as close confidant, indispensable advisor, to Tushratta, King of Mitanni, and his loyalty to him.

Pamba slapped his knee and rose so swiftly that Hepit jumped. “I will prepare myself for a visit to Arttarna,” said Pamba.