Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Medieval Sagas.

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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Tomb Builders

Coming Soon!

The Giza Plateau
Egypt -2600 BC

     Sagira scrambled through the huge pile of rubble discarded by the masons. Her dark skin was pale from the granite dust and her mouth bone dry from the desert heat but the sensation was familiar for she had grown up amongst the debris.
     Sagira was ten years old and the daughter of Mehmet the mason. While he and his fellow workers trimmed the granite blocks brought from the quarries, she would usually be helping her mother hand out water to the enormous workforce engaged on the project, an endless chore and one she found incredibly boring but it was her lot and it was important they all paid their way.
     Once a year, just before the inundation of the Nile, Sagira and her family along with many others from their home village would travel the hundred miles or so to work on the King’s tomb and fulfil their obligation as citizens of Egypt.
     For three months they would labour alongside thousands of others and for their efforts were awarded the princely sum of twenty loaves and two measures of beer a day. The payment was a notional amount and each family could draw down the full payment or receive a note in the records of the administrators as to the amount of credit accrued. This credit could then be bartered for other essentials such as meat or eggs to meet the family’s dietary needs. Having such a demanding job meant Sagira’s father needed a protein rich diet and her mother worked hard to ensure as much meat as possible went into the family pot.
     At the end of the day, Sagira would take her place in the line of women claiming their payment and collect the bell shaped loaves on behalf of her family. Once safely in her basket, she would run swiftly down to the dock and haggle with the fishermen for whatever catch lay drying in the sun. Often she was too late and returned with nothing but the bread and a jug of ale. On such days they relied on what was left from previous pots but usually her mother provided well and there were more replete days than hungry.
     Today, however, there were no such chores to run. No heavy goatskins full of Nile water to carry to the workers and no standing in endless bread lines. Today was a holiday, a rare occurrence granted by the King himself in honour of his birthday. Usually work wouldn’t stop but the building was nearing completion and he was visiting the site to see for himself the progress achieved.
     ‘Come on,’ hissed Sagira down to the boy behind her. ‘If we do not hurry, we will miss the procession. I can hear the horns heralding his approach.’
     ‘This is not a good thing,’ said the boy miserably, ‘if the guards catch us we will be beaten and disgraced before our fathers.’
     Adio was the son of Omari, a mere brick maker who worked endlessly from dawn till dusk, mixing wet clay with straw to make the bricks needed to line the passages within the tomb. The task was physically demanding and Omari’s wage was based on the amount of bricks accepted by the overseer. Every hundred bricks earned the equivalent of one loaf and a measure of beer was only added when the thousandth brick was handed over. Omari was old and his return diminished weekly. His fingers often locked through cramps and no matter how hard he worked, his family frequently went without meat for days on end.
     ‘Oh stop being a child, Adio,’ said Sagira, ‘I have been coming here as long as I can remember yet never have I seen the King.’
     ‘He is not for our eyes,’ mumbled Adio as he scrambled amongst the piles of rocks, ‘Maftet the god of Justice will surely take our eyes should we gaze upon a living God.’
     ‘Nonsense,’ said Sagira, ‘if we keep low he will never see us.’
     ‘The Gods see everything,’ said Adio but kept climbing anyway. Within moments they reached the top of the haphazard pile of discarded stones and gazed over at the construction site.
Though Sagira saw the tomb every day, it never failed to take her breath away. Rising before them, higher than the highest cliffs in her home land, soared the shining white sides of the greatest building the world had surely ever seen, the pyramid of the living god, Khnum Khufu. Though the very top remained unfinished, the scaffolding and ramps had been removed from most of the sloping walls and the Tura stone casings dazzled as they reflected the midday sun. The flat slabs were pure white and had been highly polished before being put in place and though there was still a year’s work left upon the pyramid, it already struck awe into whomever lay eyes upon it.
     ‘There they are,’ hissed Sagira, looking toward the Nile.
     ‘There are many,’ said Adio.
     Sagira agreed. In the distance she could see the royal barges travelling serenely toward the site, each decorated with the colours of the King and each manned with priests from the many city temples. There were many boats in the procession but the greatest of them all had a sail emblazoned with the image of      Osiris, a suitable tribute when visiting the future tomb of a King. Fifty oars pierced the walls of the royal barge and the vessel sailed smoothly up the manmade canal before stopping alongside one of the brand new wooden quays.
     In the centre of the barge, the King sat motionless under an awning of silken cloth while six female slaves kept him cool with fans of ostrich feathers. Upon his head he wore the Nemes headdress, the blue and gold striped crown reserved for religious duties and around his waist he wore a kilt of fine linen, encrusted with tiny jewels from across the country. His torso was naked though he wore golden bracelets around his upper arms and a chain of heavy gold lay around his neck.
      He waited as the priests disembarked and lined the walkway toward the wooden dais, constructed especially for the occasion. When he was ready, the heralds blew their horns and as Khufu descended the carpeted gang plank, the priests released baskets of birds to fly in his honour. A line of young girls walked before him, scattering petals while others sprinkled sweet smelling oils in case his nose be offended by the smell of the many guests present at his invitation.
     Slowly he walked along the carpeted road and as he passed, every person alongside the route prostrated themselves in the dust, as was only right in the presence of a living God. Finally he climbed the steps and stood upon the platform, gaining a clear and unobstructed view of his final resting place. For an age he gazed upon the astonishing brightness of the casings and eventually turned to the priest standing beside him.
     ‘Is the overseer here?’ he asked.
     ‘He is, Majesty,’ said the Priest.
     ‘Then summon him to my side, I would speak to him.’
     The priest bowed and walked backward from the King before turning to find the overseer of the works.
Within moments, Khufu became aware of a man prostrating himself at his feet.
     ‘Stand, Hemon’ he said, ‘and address your King.’
     The man stood yet kept his gaze downward.
     ‘Greetings, Majesty,’ he said, ‘may the blessings of Osiris be on you and your house this day.’
     ‘And yours, Hemon,’ answered the Pharaoh. ‘Stand beside me and gaze upon what I see.’
     The head overseer stood alongside Khufu, his heart racing at the extraordinary privilege granted him. Together they stared at the Pyramid and Hemon held his breath, waiting for the judgement that could decide his fate.
     ‘The King is pleased,’ said Khufu eventually, much to Hemon’s relief. ‘When will the coping stone be put into place?’
     ‘Majesty, your goldsmiths are inlaying the gold as we speak and have been doing so for many weeks. It has taken two hand carts of ingots to inlay the designs on the cap-stone and when in place it will signal to the world that truly this is the resting place of the greatest King ever to bless us with their presence.’
     ‘Your work makes me smile, Hemon,’ said Khufu, ‘and what of the chambers?’
     ‘Exactly as your architects designed, Majesty. The King’s chamber is at the heart of the Pyramid and already well blessed with treasures from across your Kingdom.’
     ‘And there are suitable systems in place to foil those foolish enough to try to rob the tomb of a god?’
     ‘There are,’ said Hemon, ‘dead falls and hidden pits carpeted with poison barbs await the foolish. There are also huge granite slabs that will be lowered into place after your body is interred. Once they have dropped they cannot be lifted again and your tomb will be sealed forever. When the ceremonies are over, all entrances will be backfilled and covered with the final casings before being sanded to a smooth finish leaving no trace of the entrances. Finally an army will guard your resting place for a thousand years and anyone coming within arrowshot of the pyramid will be executed immediately without appeal.
     ‘And what of the queen’s chamber?’
     ‘Majesty, I am ashamed to say I do not have much information about the progress of the lesser chamber for your Priests forbid my entry to that part of the tomb.’
     ‘Good,’ said Khufu, ‘that is how it should be for there are things in place that are for the eyes of your King and his priests only.’
     ‘I understand, Sire,’ said Hemon.
     ‘I have heard enough,’ said Khufu eventually, ‘and am impressed with your work. Go to my treasurer and have him allocate you a thousand head of cattle and the most fertile lands at the south turning of the Nile. You have worked hard and I will reward those who please me.’
     ‘Majesty, I am well paid with gold, women and wine but I would do it all again for nought just in honour of your name.’
     ‘Your loyalty is noted, Hemon and though you are a humble man, your descendants will enjoy the fruits of your labours. From this day forward you will be assigned the title of King’s favoured man and will be welcomed at my palace as an advisor.’
     Hemon gasped at the extraordinary gesture but before he could say anything, the King spoke again.
     ‘Now, be gone,’ he said, ‘for I would talk to my Priests.’
     Hemon bowed low and walked backwards from the presence of the King.
     ‘Have Haji attend me,’ said Khufu to one of his attendants.
The servant ran across to the line of priests and relayed the message. Soon a taller than average man walked through the crowd using a spear as a staff. His head was shaved bald as was the manner of such people but his countenance was proud, unlike the cowering faces the King saw on a daily basis. This was Haji, priest of the temple of Amun and one of Khufu’s closest advisors. He had once been a warrior in the armies of Khufu’s father, Sneferu but had been grievously wounded and lay dying in the eastern desert before claiming Amun himself appeared in the night and healed his wounds. Since then he had cast aside the way of the warrior and become an acolyte of the most powerful god of them all, Amun Ra. 
     Despite his spiritual calling, Haji still carried the spear that once accompanied him into battle as a reminder of the man he had once been. Haji was in charge of the works to finish the queen’s chamber, the secondary tomb intended for the wife of Khufu.
     ‘Majesty,’ said Haji, bowing low from the waist, ‘your presence makes the sun shine brighter.’
     ‘Haji,’ said Khufu, allowing the imposing man to stand, ‘you have neglected me with your absence. Has the King offended you?’
     ‘Of course not exulted one,’ answered the priest, ‘how could a mere underling such as I ever be offended by the whim of a God. Indeed, you could remove my head right here and I would proclaim my thankfulness it was you who sent me to the halls of Ma’at. The truth is the works have been far more demanding than expected and though we have engaged the best from across the country, my eye is needed for the detail we agreed.’
     ‘And how goes the arrangements?’ asked Khufu.
     ‘Everything is as you desired. Those working on the queen’s chamber are kept isolated from the rest and each team has been tasked with only a small part of the works. Only two people alive know the true extent of your vision, you and me.’
     ‘Does it near completion?’
     ‘It does, Majesty and everything is as you said it would be all those years ago. Your infinite knowledge sees beyond all horizons.’
     ‘Your King is pleased,’ said Khufu, ‘and there is something you should know. Come to my chambers at dusk but come alone, there are things that must be said which are for your ears only.’
     ‘Your will, lord,’ said Haji and retired to the ranks of the priests.
     Khufu watched over the sacrifice of a white bull and sat back as his servants bathed his feet in the still warm blood, a symbolic action representing that all life was below the feet of the king. When they were done, the entourage turned and made their way back to the dock though this time, every living person lining the path, irrespective of station, remained prostrate on the ground until he boarded the barge.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Medieval IV - Ring of Steel

     Since Llewellyn’s death in 1282, Edward the first of England, also known as Longshanks, spent a fortune in time and money subduing the Welsh nation. To do so, he awarded lands and titles across Wales to those nobles and warlords who swore fealty to the English crown.
     To support the occupation he also embarked on an unprecedented building program erecting huge castles across Wales, the like of which had never been seen before. Each was unassailable in its own right but together they formed his famed ring of steel and presented an impregnable chain of oppression from which his forces could maintain their tyrannical grip upon the troublesome country.
     For ten years the castles and those loyal to the King held an entire nation beneath their heel and despite the occasional uprising from those frustrated by their masters’ brutality, the rule of Longshanks was never challenged to any serious affect. However, as the decade ended some of the more nationalistic Welsh lords started to talk once more of liberty and though such conversations had taken place many times before, this time there was a realism to the plans.
     Edward dismissed the threat and concentrated on his forthcoming campaign to France but as the castles were stripped of cash and indeed manpower to fuel his campaign, the Welsh Lords saw a window of opportunity. Resistance grew across the country and gradually an air of rebellion evolved into the beginnings of a full scale uprising.
     In the south, Cynan ap Maredudd, a war lord from the hills of Mid Wales, gathered an army about him and preyed on the supply lines of the castles throughout the country. Meanwhile in the North, a noble by the name of Madog ap Llewellyn claimed royal lineage from Llewellyn the Last and also set about raising a force with which he could resist the occupation.
     The move took the English by surprise and within weeks, not only had Castle du Bere, one of Edward’s favoured fortresses fallen to Cynan but also the unthinkable had happened when Caernarfon, one of the most impressive castles on the north coast, was besieged and captured by Madog.
     The message soon got back to Longshanks and though it meant postponing his French campaign, he knew he had to wipe out the Welsh threat once and for all. As the winter of 1294 approached, the Welsh celebrated within the giant walls of Caernarfon and as there was no immediate reaction from the English crown, many thought Longshanks had no stomach for a fight and they planned the downfall of the remaining castles.
     So it came to be that while Madog and his men enjoyed their impressive victory, across the border, Edward Longshanks, King of England, slowly but surely, drew up his plans.

Medieval IV - Ring of Steel

Coming soon!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Anniversary of D Day

The Price of Freedom

I never was a soldier,
so have no tale to tell
of cloying mud and seas of blood
and trenches into hell.

I didn't get the call up,
so how am I to know
of ghosts who stand on scarlet sand
where angels fear to go?

I didn't serve my country,
so missed the pained goodbyes
of men who cried as brothers died
beneath those leaden skies.

I never fought for freedom,
so couldn't understand
the metal rain of searing pain
that ripped across the sand.

I didn't have the calling,
so where do I begin
to understand exploding land
that tears them limb from limb?

I never had to comprehend
the pain of mothers' cries.
The tragic price of devil’s dice
when rolled to see who dies.

So why should I remember?
How could it ever be
that gallant dead, spilled poppy red
and gave their lives for me?

I never was a soldier,
and never went away
like those who tried, and cried, and died,
and marched so I could stay.

K. M.Ashman

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Medieval III

In 1274, Edward the First ruled England having inherited the crown from his father, Henry the Third. Across the border to the west, the smaller country of Wales was ruled by Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, a direct descendant of Llewellyn the Great.

Tensions were strained between the two countries and minor conflicts were commonplace between the lesser nobles but when Edward found out about Llewellyn’s proposed marriage to Eleanor du Montfort, the daughter of his deceased father’s greatest enemy, he was incensed and in 1275 arranged for her ship to be intercepted as she traveled from France to be with the Welsh Prince. Eleanor was imprisoned causing the relationship between Edward and Llewellyn to deteriorate even further and in 1276, war broke out between the two countries.

In 1277, Edward led a huge army into Wales and captured the Welsh harvest on the island of Ynys Mon, forcing the Welsh Prince to surrender before any major battle was fought. Later that year, the two men signed the treaty of Aberconwy where Llewellyn surrendered control of most of the country in return for keeping the lands of Gwynedd and the title, Prince of Wales. Edward was satisfied and released Eleanor from prison to fulfill her marriage vows to Llewellyn and for the next few years, an uneasy peace existed between the two monarchs.

Despite the treaty, the people of Wales were still unhappy being ruled by an English monarch and especially the construction of English castles at Flint, Rhuddlan, Builth Wells and Aberystwth. Subsequently an undercurrent of resistance steadily grew until finally in 1282, a full scale rebellion against Edward’s rule forced the English King to invade Wales once more, only this time with full scale conquest as a goal.

Despite some initial setbacks, Edward’s army was ultimately victorious and after several battles throughout Wales, Prince Llewellyn was killed at the battle of Orewen Bridge.Edward finally realised the threat the Welsh posed and embarked on an unprecedented building programme across the country, including the enormous castles at Caernarfon, Conway and Harlech, not just as bastions of military strength but also as a signal to the Welsh about the futility of opposing his might.

These castles formed the backbone of his defences in Wales, an unassailable system of fortresses, each designed to mutually support each other against any threat from the Welsh. 

They were a symbol of his might, a system of invincible fortifications and in effect an impregnable ring of steel unassailable by any living man…......

                                                      ........or so he thought.......!

Medieval III - Sword of Liberty........coming soon!