River God by willber amith -part 1

RIVER GOD [047-011-4.0]

By: Wilbur Smith

Synopsis:

Agent Egypt. Land of the Pharaohs. A Kingdom built on gold. A legend
shattered by greed… Now the Valley of the Kings lies ravaged by civil
war, drained of its life-blood, as weak men inherit the cherished
crown.

For Tonus, the fair-haired young lion of a warrior, the gods have
decreed that he will lead Egypt’s army in a bold attempt to reunite the
Kingdom’s shattered halves. But Tonus will have to defy the same gods
to attain the reward they have forbidden him an object more prized than
battle’s glory, possession of the Lady Lostris, a rare beauty with skin
the color of oiled cedar, destined for adoration of a nation, and the
love of one extraordinary man.

St. Martin’s Paperbacks

NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware
that this book is stolen property. it was reported as ” unsold and
destroyed ” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher
has received any payment for this “stripped book. ” This book, like so
many others before it, is for my wife, Danielle Antoinette.

The Nile that flows through this story has both of us in her thrall. We
have spent days of delight voyaging together upon her waters and idling
upon her banks. As we are, so is she a creature of this very Africa of
ours.

Yet this great river runs neither so strongly nor so deeply as my love
for you, my darling.

First published in Great Britain by Macmillan London Limited.

RIVER GOD

Copyright C 1993 by Wilbur Smith.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in
any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For
information 4 address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New
York,

N. Y. 10010.

ISBN: 0-312-95446-8

Printed in the United States of America St. Martin’s Press hardcover
edition March 1994

St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition February 1995

Jv MEDITERRANEAN SEA

airo)

in

(Kama xor

UPPER KIND CT

SECOND

CATARACT

TN CA TA RAC,

Qebui (Khartoum) CUSH D SEGE THE RIVER LAY HEAVILY UPON THE desert,
bright as a spill of molten metal from a furnace. The sky smoked with
heat-haze and the sun beat down upon it all with the strokes of a
coppersmith’s hammer. In the mirage the gaunt hills flanking the Nile
seemed to tremble to the blows.

Our boat sped close in beside the papyrus beds; near enough for the
creaking of the water buckets of the shadoof, on their long,
counter-balanced arms, to carry from the fields across the water. The
sound harmonized with the singing of the girl in the bows.

Lostris was fourteen years of age. The Nile had begun its latest flood
on the very day that her red woman’s moon had flowered for the first
time, a coincidence that the priests of Hopi had viewed as highly
propitious. Lostris, the woman’s name that they had then chosen to
replace her discarded baby-name, meant “Daughter of the Waters’.

I remember her so vividly on that day. She would grow more beautiful
as the years passed, become more poised and regal, but never again
would that glow of virgin womanhood radiate from her so overpoweringly.
Every man aboard, even the warriors at the rowing-benches, were aware
of it. Neither I nor any one of them could keep our gaze off her. She
filled me with a sense of my own inadequacy and a deep and poignant
longing; for although I am a eunuch I was gelded only after I had known
the joy of a woman’s body.

“Taita, ” she called to me, “sing with me!” And when I obeyed she
smiled with pleasure. My voice was one of the many reasons that,
whenever she was able, she kept me near her; my tenor complemented her
lovely soprano to perfection.

We sang one of the old peasant love songs that I had taught her, and
which was still one of her favourites: My heart flutters up like a
wounded quail when I see my beloved’s face and my cheeks bloom like the
dawn sky to the sunshine of his smile From the stern another voice
joined with ours. It was a man’s voice, deep and powerful, but it
lacked the clarity and purity of my own. If my voice was that of a
dawn greeting thrush, then this was the voice of a young lion.

Lostris turned her head and now her smile shimmered like the sunbeams
on the surface of the Nile. Although the man upon whom she played that
smile was my friend, perhaps my only true friend, still I felt the
bitter gall of envy burn the back of my throat. Yet I forced myself to
smile at tonus, as she did, with love. tonus” father, Pianki, Lord
Harrab, had been one of the grandees of the Egyptian nobility, but his
mother had been the daughter of a freed Tehenu slave. Like so many of
her people, she had been fair-headed and blue-eyed. She had died of
the swamp fever while tonus was still a child, so my memory of her was
imperfect. However, the old women said that seldom before had such
beauty as hers been seen in either of the two kingdoms.

On the other hand, I had known and admired tonus” lather , before he
lost all his vast fortune and the great estates that had once almost
rivalled those of Pharaoh himself. He had been of dark complexion,
with Egyptian eyes the colour of polished obsidian, a man with more
physical strength than beauty, but with a generous and noble heart-some
might say too generous and too trusting, for he had died destitute,
with his heart broken by those he had thought his friends, alone in the
darkness, cut off from the sunshine of Pharaoh’s favour.

Thus it seemed that tonus had inherited the best from both his parents,
except only worldly wealth. In nature and in power he was as his
father; in beauty as his mother. So why should I resent my mistress
loving him? I loved him also, and, poor neutered thing that I am, I
knew that I could never have her for myself, not even if the gods had
raised my status above that of slave. Yet such is the perversity of
human nature that I hungered for what I could never have and dreamed of
the impossible.

Lostris sat on her cushion on the prow with her slave girls sprawled at
her feet, two little black girls from Cush, lithe as panthers, entirely
naked except for the golden collars around their necks. Lostris
herself wore only a skirt of bleached linen, crisp and white as an
egret’s wing. The skin of her upper body, caressed by the sun, was the
colour of oiled cedar wood from the mountains beyond Byblos. Her
breasts were the size and shape of ripe figs just ready for plucking,
and tipped with rose garnets.

She had set aside her formal wig, and wore her natural hair in a
side-lock that fell in a thick dark rope over one breast. The slant of
her eyes was enhanced by the silvergreen of powdered malachite
cunningly touched to the upper lids. The colour of her eyes was green
also, but the darker, clearer green of the Nile when its waters have
shrunk and deposited their burden of precious silts. Between her
breasts, suspended on a gold chain, she wore a figurine of Hopi, the
goddess of the Nile, fashioned in gold and precious lapis lazuli. Of
course it was a superb piece, for I had made it with my own hands for
her.

Suddenly tonus lifted his right hand with the fist clenched. As a
single man the rowers checked their stroke and held the blades of their
paddles aloft, glinting in the sunlight and dripping water. Then tonus
thrust the steering oar hard over, and the men on the port bank stabbed
their backstroke deeply, creating a series of tiny whirlpools in the
surface of the green water. The starboard side pulled strongly
ahead.

The boat spun so sharply that the deck canted over at an alarming
angle. Then both banks pulled together and she shot forward. The
sharp prow, with the blue eyes of Horus emblazoned upon it, brushed
aside the dense stands of papyrus, and she lanced her way out of the
flow of the river and into the still waters of the lagoon beyond.

Lostris broke off the song and shaded her eyes to gaze ahead.

“There they are! “she cried, and pointed with a graceful little
hand.

The other boats of tonus” squadron were cast like a net across the
southern reaches of the lagoon, blocking the main entrance to the great
river, cutting off any escape in that direction.

Naturally, tonus had chosen for himself the northern station, for he
knew that this was where the sport would be most furious. I wished it
was not so. Not that I am a coward, but I have always the safety of my
mistress to consider. She had inveigled herself aboard the Breath of
Horus only after much intrigue in which, as always, she had deeply
involved me. When her father learned, as he surely would, of her
presence in the thick of the hunt, it would go badly enough for me, but
if he learned also that I was responsible for allowing her to be in the
company of tonus for a full day, not even my privileged position would
protect me from his wrath. His instructions to me regarding this young
man were unequivocal.

However, I seemed to be the only soul aboard the Breath of Horus who
was perturbed. The others were simmering with excitement. tonus
checked the rowers with a peremptory hand-signal, and the boat glided
to a halt and lay rocking gently upon the green waters that were so
still that when I glanced overboard and saw my own reflection look back
at me, I was struck, as always, by how well my beauty had carried over
the years. To me it seemed that my face was more lovely than the
cerulean blue lotus blooms that framed it. I had little time to admire
it, however, for the crew were all abustle.

One of tonus” staff officers ran up his personal standard to the
masthead. It was the image of a blue crocodile, with its great cox
combed tail held erect and its jaws open. Only an officer of the rank
of Best of Ten Thousand was entitled to his own standard. tonus had
achieved such rank, together with the command of the Blue Crocodile
division of Pharaoh’s own elite guard, before his twentieth birthday.

Now the standard at the masthead was the signal for the hunt to begin.
On the horizon of the lagoon the rest of the squadron were tiny with
distance, but their paddles began to beat rhythmically, rising and
falling like the wings of wild geese in flight, glistening in the
sunlight. From their sterns the multiple wavelets of their wakes were
drawn out across the placid waters and lay for a long while on the
surface, as though moulded from solid clay. tonus lowered the gong
over the stem. It was a long bronze tube.

He allowed the end of it to sink below the surface. When struck with a
hammer of the same metal the shrill, reverberating tones would be
transmitted through the water, filling our quarry with consternation.

Unhappily for my equanimity, I knew that this could readily turn to a
murderous rage. tonus laughed at me. Even in his own excitation he
had sensed my qualms. For a rude soldier he had unusual perception.
“Come up here in the stern-tower, Taita!” he ordered. “You can beat
the gong for us.

It will take your mind off the safety of your own beautiful hide for a
while. ” I was hurt by his levity, but relieved by the invitation, for
the stern-tower is high above the water. I moved to do his bidding
without undignified haste, and, as I passed him, I paused to exhort him
sternly, “Have a care for the safety of my mistress. Do you hear me,
boy? Do not encourage her to recklessness, for she is every bit as
wild as you are. ” I could speak thus to an illustrious commander of
ten thousand, for he was once my pupil and I had wielded the cane on
more than one occasion across those martial buttocks. He . grinned at
me now as he had in those days, as cocky and impudent as ever..

“Leave that lady in my hands, I implore you, old friend.

There is nothing I would relish more, believe me!” I did not admonish
him for such a disrespectful tone, for I was in some small haste to
take my place in the tower. From there I watched him take up his
bow.

Already that bow was famous throughout the army, and throughout the
length of the great river from the cataracts to the sea. I had
designed it for him when he had grown dissatisfied with the puny
weapons that, up until that time, were all that were available to
him.

I had suggested that we should try to fashion a bow with some new
material rather than those feeble woods that grow in our narrow
riverine valley; perhaps with exotic timbers such as the heartwood of
the olive from the land of the Hittites or of the ebony from Cush; or
with even stranger materials such as the horn of the rhinoceros or the
ivory tusk of the elephant.

No sooner had we made the attempt than we came upon a myriad of
problems, the first of which was the brittleness of these exotic
materials. In their natural state none of them would bend without
cracking, and only the largest and therefore the most expensive
elephant tusk would allow us to carve a complete bow stock from it. I
solved both these problems by splitting the ivory of a smaller tusk
into slivers and gluing these together in sufficient girth and bulk to
form a full bow. Unfortunately it was too rigid for any man to draw.

However, from there it was an easy and natural step to laminate
together all four of our chosen materials-olive wood, ebony, horn and
ivory. Of course, there were many months of experimentation with
combinations of these materials, and with various types of glue to hold
them together. in the end I never did succeed in making a glue strong
enough. we solved this last problem by binding the entire bow stock
with elect rum wire to prevent it from flying apart.

I had two big men to assist tonus in twisting the wire on to it with
all their combined strength, while the glue was still hot. When it
cooled, it set to an almost perfect combination of strength and
pliability.

Then I cut strands from the gut of a great black-maned lion that tonus
hunted and killed with his bronze-bladed war spear out in the desert.
These I tanned and twisted together to form a bowstring. The result
was this gleaming arc of such extraordinary power that only one man out
of all the hundreds who had made the attempt could draw it to full
stretch.

The regulation style of archery as taught by the army instructors was
to face the target and draw the nocked arrow to the sternum of the
chest, hold that aim for a deliberate pause, then loose on command.

However, not even tonus had the strength to draw this bow and hold his
aim steadily.

He was forced to develop a completely new style. Standing sideways to
the target, addressing it over his left shoulder, he would throw up the
bow with his left arm outstretched and, with a convulsive heave, draw
back the arrow until the feathered flights touched his lips and the
muscles of his arms and chest stood proud with the effort. In that
same instant of full extension, seemingly without aiming, he would
loose.

At first, his arrows flew at random as wild bees leave the hive, but he
practised day after day and month after month.

The fingers of his right hand became raw and bleeding from the chafing
of the bowstring, but they healed and toughened.

The inside of his left forearm was bruised and excoriated where the
bowstring slashed past it on the release of the arrow, but I fashioned
a leather guard to protect it. And tonus stood at the butts and
practised and practised.

Even I lost confidence in his ability to master the weapon but tonus
never gave up. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he gained control of it to
the point where, finally, he could launch three arrows with such
rapidity that they were all in the air at the same instant. At least
two of the three would strike the target, a copper disc the size of a
man’s head set up at a distance of fifty paces from where tonus
stood.

Such was the force of those arrows that they would fly cleanly through
the. metal which was the thickness of my little finger. tonus named
this mighty weapon Lanata which was, quite coincidentally, the
discarded baby-name of my mistress. Now he stood in the bows with the
woman at his side, and her namesake in his left hand. They made a
marvelous couple, but too obviously so for my peace of mind.

I called sharply, “Mistress! Come back here immediately!

It is unsafe where you are. ” She did not even deign to glance over
her shoulder, but made a sign at me behind her back.

Every one of the crew of the galley saw it, and the boldest of them
guffawed. One of those little black vixens that were her handmaidens
must have taught Lostris that gesture, which was more appropriate to
the ladies of the riverside taverns than to a high-born daughter of the
House of Inter.

I considered remonstrating with her, but at once abandoned such an
imprudent course, for my mistress is amenable to restraint only in
certain of her moods. Instead, I applied myself to beating the bronze
gong with sufficient vigour to disguise my chagrin.

The shrill, reverberating tone carried across the glassy waters of the
lagoon, and instantly the air was filled with the susurration of wings
and a shade was cast over the sun as, from the papyrus beds and the
hidden pools and open water, a vast cloud of water-fowl rose into the
sky. They were a hundred varieties: black and white this with vult
urine heads, sacred to the goddess of the river; flights of honking
geese in russet plumage, each with a ruby droplet in the centre of its
chest; herons of greenish-blue or midnight black, with bills like
swords and ponderous wingbeats; and ducks in such profusion that their
numbers challenged the eye and the credibility of the beholder.

Wild-fowling is one of the most ardent pursuits of the Egyptian
nobility, but that day we were after different game.

At that moment, I saw far ahead a disturbance upon the glassy surface.
It was weighty and massive, and my spirits quailed, for I knew what
terrible beast had moved there. tonus also had seen it, but his
reaction was altogether different from mine. He gave tongue like a
hunting hound, and his men shouted with him and bent to their paddles.
The Breath of Horus shot forward as though she were one of the birds
that darkened the sky above us, and my mistress shrieked with
excitement and beat with one small fist upon tonus” muscled shoulder.

The waters roiled once more and tonus signalled to his steersman to
follow the movement, while I hammered upon the gong to bolster and
sustain my courage. We reached the spot where last we had seen
movement, and the vessel glided to a standstill while every man upon
her decks gazed around eagerly.

I alone glanced directly over the stern. The water beneath our hull
was shallow and almost as clear as the air above us. I shrieked as
loudly and as shrilly as my mistress had and leapt back from the
stern-rail, for the monster was directly under us.

The hippopotamus is the familiar of Hopi, the goddess of the Nile.

It was only with her special dispensation that we could hunt it.

To that end tonus had prayed and sacrificed at the goddess’s temple
that morning, with my mistress close by his side. Of course, Hopi is
her patron goddess, but I doubted that alone was the reason for her
avid participation in the ceremony.

The beast that I saw beneath us now was an enormous old bull. To my
eye, he seemed as large as our galley, a gigantic shape that lumbered
along the bottom of the lagoon, his movements slowed down by the drag
of the water so that he moved like a creature from a nightmare. He
raised puffs of mud from beneath his hooves the same way that a wild
oryx stirs the dust as it races across the desert sands.

With the steering-oar tonus spun the boat about and we sped after the
bull. But even at that slow and mannered gallop he rapidly drew away
from us. His dark shape faded into the green depths of the lagoon
ahead of us.

“Pull! By Seth’s foul breath, pull!” tonus howled at his men, but
when one of his officers shook out the knotted lash of the whip, tonus
frowned and shook his head. I have never seen him ply the lash where
it was not warranted.

Suddenly the bull broke through the surface ahead of us and blew a
great cloud of fetid steam from his lungs. The stink of it washed over
us, even though he was well out of bowshot. For a moment his back
formed a gleaming granite island in the lagoon, then he drew a
whistling breath and with a swirl was gone again.

“After him!” tonus bellowed.

“There he is, ” I cried, as I pointed over the side, “he’s doubling
back. ” “Well done, old friend, ” tonus laughed at me, “we’ll make a
warrior of you yet. ” That notion was ridiculous, for I am a scribe, a
sage and an artist. My heroics are of the mind.

None the less, I felt a thrill of pleasure, as I always do at tonus”
praise, and my trepidation was, for the moment, lost in the excitement
of the chase.

To the south of us the other galleys of the squadron had joined the
hunt. The priests of Hopi had kept a strict count of the number of
these great beasts in the lagoon, and had given sanction for fifty of
them to be slaughtered for the coming festival of Osiris. This would
leave almost three hundred of the goddess’s flock remaining in the
temple lagoon, a number that the priests considered ideal to keep the
waterways free of choking weed, to- prevent the papyrus beds from
encroaching upon the arable lands and to provide a regular supply of
meat for the temple. Only the priests themselves were allowed to eat
the flesh of the hippopotamus outside the ten days of the festival of
Osiris.

So the hunt spun out across the waters like some intricate dance, with
the ships of the squadron weaving and pirouetting while the frenzied
beasts-fled before them, diving and blowing and grunting as they
surfaced to dive again. Yet each dive was shorter than the last, and
the swirling breaches at the surface became more frequent as their
lungs were emptied and could not be fully recharged before the pursuing
ships bore down upon them and forced them to dive again. All the while
the bronze gongs in the stern-tower of each galley rang out to blend
with the excited cries of the rowers and the exhortations of the
helmsmen. All was wild uproar and confusion and I found myself
shouting and cheering along with the most bloodthirsty of them. tonus
had concentrated all his attention on the first and largest bull. He
ignored the females and younger animals that breached within bowshot,
and followed the great beast through all his convolutions, drawing
inexorably closer to him each time he surfaced. Even in my excitation
I could not but admire the skill with which tonus handled the Breath of
Horus and the manner in which his crew responded to his signals. But
then, he always had the knack of getting the very best out of those he
commanded. How otherwise, with neither fortune nor great patron to
sustain him, could he have risen so swiftly to exalted rank? What he
had achieved he had done on his own merit, and that despite the
malignant influence of hidden enemies who had placed every obstacle in
his way.

Suddenly the bull burst through the surface not thirty paces from the
bows. He came out gleaming in-the sunshine, monstrous black and awful,
clouds of steamy vapour spuning from his nostrils like that creature
from the underworld that devours the hearts of those who are found
wanting by the gods. tonus had an arrow nocked and now he threw up the
great bow and loosed it in the same fleeting instant. Lanata played
her dreadful shimmering music, and the arrow leaped out in a blur that
deceived the eye. While it still hissed in flight, anotherjollowed it
and then another. The bowstring hummed like a lute, and the arrows
struck one after the other. The bull bellowed as they buried
themselves full length in his broad back, and he dived again.

These were missiles that I had devised especially for this occasion.
The feathered flights had been removed from the arrows and replaced by
tiny floats of baobab wood such as the fishermen use to buoy their
nets. They slipped over the butt of the shaft in such a way that they
were secure in flight but would become dislodged once the beast dived
and dragged them through the water. They were attached to the bronze
arrow-head by a fine linen thread that was wound around the shaft, but
which unravelled once the float was detached. So now, as the bull sped
away beneath the water, the three tiny floats popped to the surface and
bobbed along behind him. I had painted them bright yellow so that the
eye was drawn to them and the bull’s position was instantly revealed,
even though he was deep in the lagoon.

Thus tonus was able to anticipate each of the bull’s wild rushes and to
send the Breath of Horus speeding to head him off and to place another
set of arrows deep in the glistening black back as it bulged out of the
water. By now the bull was towing a garland of pretty yellow corks
behind him, and the Waters were streaking and swirling red with his
blood. Despite the wild emotions of the moment I could not help but
feel pity for the stricken creature each time it came bellowing to the
surface to be met by another hail of the deadly hissing arrows. My
sympathy was not shared by my young mistress, who was in the very thick
of the fray and shrieking with the delicious ten-or and excitement of
it all.

Once again the bull came up dead ahead, but this time facing the Breath
of Horus as she bore down upon him. His jaws gaped so wide” that I
could see far down his throat. It was a tunnel of bright red flesh
that could easily have engulfed a man entirely. The jaws were lined
with such an array of fangs that my breath stopped and my flesh
chilled.

In his bottom jaw they were huge ivory sickles designed to harvest the
tough and sinewy stalks of standing papyrus. In his upper jaw they
were gleaming white shafts as thick as my wrist that could shear
through the hull timbers of the Breath of Horus as easily as I would
bite through a cake of corn flour I had recently had the opportunity
of examining the corpse of a peasant woman who, while cutting papyrus
on the river-bank, had disturbed a cow hippo that had just given birth
to a calf. The woman had been severed in half so neatly that it seemed
she had been struck with the keenest of bronze blades.

Now this enraged monster with his maw filled with these gleaming teeth
was bearing down upon us, and even though I was high in the stern-tower
and as far from him as I could possibly be, yet I found myself as
incapable of sound or movement as a temple statue, frozen with terror.
tonus loosed yet another arrow which flew squarely down the gaping
throat, yet the creature’s agony was already so terrible that he seemed
not to notice this further injury, although it must eventually prove
fatal. He charged without check or hesitation straight at the bows of
the Breath Of Horus. Such a fearsome roar of fury and of mortal
anguish issued from the tortured throat that an artery ruptured deep
within it and gouts of blood were sent spraying from his open jaws.

The spewing blood turned to clouds of red mist in the sunlight, both
beautiful and horrible at the same time.

Then the bull crashed headlong into the bows of our galley.

The Breath of Horus was cutting through the water at the speed of a
running gazelle, but the bull was even swifter in his rage and his bulk
was so solid that it seemed as though we had run aground on a rocky
shore. The rowers were sent A sprawling from their benches, while I
was hurled forwards with such force against the rail of the stern-tower
that the air was driven from my lungs and replaced by a solid rock of
pain in my chest.

Yet even in my own distress my concern was all for my mistress.

Through tears of agony I saw her flung forward by the impact. tonus
threw out his arm to try to save her, but he was also off-balance from
the shock, and the bow in his left hand hindered him.

He was only able to check her impetus for a moment, but then she
teetered at the rail with her arms windmilling desperately, and her
back arched out over the drop. “tonus!” she screamed, and reached out
one hand to him.

He recovered his balance with the nimbleness of an acrobat and tried to
catch her hand. For an instant their fingers touched, then it seemed
that she was plucked away and dashed over the side.

From my elevated position in the stern I was able to follow her fall.
She flipped over in the air like a cat, and the white skirts streamed
upwards to expose the exquisite length of her thighs. To me it seemed
that she fell for ever, and my own anguished cry blended with her
despairing wail.

“My baby!” I cried. “My little one!” For I was certain that she was
lost. It seemed that all her life, as I had known it, replayed itself
before my eyes. I saw her again as a toddling infant and heard the
baby endearments that she bestowed on me, her adoring nursemaid. I saw
her grow to womanhood, and I remembered every joy and every heartache
that she had caused me. I loved her then in the moment of losing her
even more than I had done in all those fourteen long years.

She fell upon the vast, blood-splattered back of the infuriated bull,
and for an instant lay spreadeagled there like a human sacrifice upon
the altar of some obscene religion.

The bull whirled about, mounting high out of the water, and he twisted
his huge deformed head backwards, trying to reach her. His bloodshot
piggy eyes glared with the insanity of his rage, and his great jaws
clashed as he snapped at her.

Somehow Lostris managed to gather herself and cling to a pair of the
arrow-shafts that protruded from the bull’s broad back as though they
were handles. She lay with her arms and legs spread wide. She was not
screaming now, all her art and strength employed in staying alive.
Those curved ivory fangs rang upon each other like the blades of
duelling warriors as they gnashed in air. At each bite they seemed to
miss her by only a finger’s-breadth, and any instant I expected one of
her. lovely limbs to be pruned away like a delicate shoot from the
vine, and to see her sweet young blood mingle with those brutish
effusions that streamed from the bull’s wounds.

In the prow tonus recovered swiftly. For an instant I saw his face and
it was terrible. He tossed aside the bow, for it less to him now, and
he seized instead the hilt of was use his sword and jerked the blade
free of its crocodile-skin scabbard. It was a gleaming length of
bronze as long as his arm, and the edges were honed until they could
shave the hair from the back of his hand.

He leaped up on to the gunwale and balanced there for an instant,
watching the wild gyrations of the mortally wounded bull in the water
below him. Then he launched himself outwards and dropped like a
stooping falcon with the sword held in both hands and pointing
downwards.

He dropped across the bull’s thick neck, landing astride it as though
he were about to ride it into the underworld.

The full weight of his body, and the impetus of that wild leap were
behind the sword as he struck. Half the length of the blade was driven
into the hippopotamus’s neck at the base of the skull, and, seated upon
it like a rider, tonus worried and worked the keen bronze deeper, using
both arms and the strength of those broad shoulders. At the goad of
the blade the bull went berserk. His strivings up to that point seemed
feeble in comparison to this fresh outburst.

The bull reared most of his enormous bulk out of the lagoon, swinging
his head from side to side, throwing solid sheets of water so high in
the air that they crashed down on the deck of the galley and, like a
curtain, almost obscured the scene from my horrified gaze.

Through it I watched the couple on the monster’s back tossed about
mercilessly. The shaft of one of the arrows that Lostris was holding
snapped, and she was almost thrown clear. If this had happened she
would surely have been savaged by the bull and chopped into bloody
tatters by those ivory fangs. tonus reached backwards and with one arm
seized and steadied her, while with his right hand he never ceased
working the bronze blade deeper into the nape of the bull’s neck.

Unable to reach them, the hippopotamus slashed at his own flanks,
inflicting terrible gaping wounds in his sides so that for. fifty
paces around the galley the waters were incarnadined, and both Lostris
and tonus were painted entirely C crimson from the tops of their heads
to the soles of their feet by the spurting blood. Their faces were
turned to grotesque masks from which their eyes whitely glared.

The violent death-throes of the bull had carried them far from the
galley’s side, and I was the first aboard to recover my wits. I yelled
to the rowers, “Follow them! Don’t let them get away, ” and they
sprang to their stations and sent the Breath of Horus in pursuit.

At that instant it seemed that the point of tonus” blade must have
found the joint of the vertebrae in the beast’s neck and slipped
through. The immense carcass stiffened and froze. The bull rolled on
to his back with all four legs extended rigidly, and he plunged below
the waters of the lagoon, bearing Lostris and tonus with him into the
depths.

I choked back the wail of despair that rose in my throat, and bellowed
an order to the deck below. “Back-water! Do not overrun them!
Swimmers to the bows!” Even I was startled by the power and authority
of my own voice.

The galley’s forward way was checked, and before I could reflect on the
prudence of what I was doing, I found myself heading a rush of hulking
warriors across the deck.

They would probably have cheered while they watched any other officer
drown, but not their tonus.

As for myself, I had already stripped off my skirt and was naked.

Not the threat of a hundred lashes would have made me do this in any
other circumstances, for I have let only one other person ever see
those injuries that the state executioner inflicted upon me so long
ago, and he was the one who had ordered the castrating knife used upon
me in the first place. But now, for once, I was totally oblivious of
the gross mutilation of my manhood.

I am a strong swimmer, and although in retrospect such foolhardiness
makes me shudder, I truly believe that I might have dived over the side
and swum down through those blood-dyed waters in an attempt to rescue
my mistress.

However, as I poised myself at the ship’s rail, the waters directly
below me opened and two heads bobbed out, both of them streaming water
and as close as a pair of mating otters. One was dark and the other
fair but from both of them issued the most unlikely sound I had ever
heard. They were laughing. They were howling and shrieking and
spluttering with laughter as they floundered towards the ship’s side,
locked so firmly in each other’s arms that I was certain that they were
in real danger of drowning one another.

All my concern turned instantly to outrage at this levity, and at the
thought of the dreadful folly which I had been on the point of
committing. Like a mother whose first instinct on finding her lost
child is to thrash it, I heard my own voice lose all its previous deep
authority and turn shrill and querulous. I was still berating my
mistress with all my famous eloquence as she and tonus were dragged by
a dozen willing hands from the water on to the deck.

“You reckless, unbridled little savage!” I railed at her.

“You thoughtless, selfish, undisciplined little hoyden! You promised
me! You swore an oath on the maidenhead of the goddess.. . ” She ran
to me and threw both arms around my neck. “Oh, Taita!” she cried,
still bubbling with laughter. “Did you see him? Did you see tonus
spring to my rescue? Was it not the noblest deed that ever you heard
of? Just like the hero of one of your very best stories. ” The fact
that I had been on the point of making a similar heroic gesture was
quite ignored, and this only increased my irritation.

Added to which I suddenly realized that Lostris had lost her skirt, and
that the cold, wet body she pressed to mine was entirely naked. She
was displaying to the rude gaze of officers and men the neatest,
tightest pair of buttocks in all Egypt.

I snatched up the nearest shield and used it to cover both our bodies
while I shouted at her slave girls to find another skirt for her. Their
giggles only increased my fury, and as soon as both Lostris and I were
once again decently covered, I rounded on tonus.

As for you, you careless ruffian, I shall report you to my Lord Inter!
He will have the skin flogged from your back. ” “You will do no such
thing, ” tonus laughed at me, and threw one wet muscled arm around my
shoulders ” to hug me so soundly that I was lifted off my feet, “for he
would have you flogged just as merrily. Nevertheless, thank you for
your concern, old friend. He looked around quickly, with one arm still
encircling my shoulder, and frowned. The Breath of Horus was separated
from the other ships of the squadron, but by now the hunt was over.

Every galley but ours had taken its full share of the bag that the
priests had sanctioned us. tonus shook his head. “We did not make the
most of our chances, did we?” he grunted, and ordered one of his
officers to hoist the recall signal to the squadron.

Then he forced a smile. “Let us broach a jug of beer together, for now
we have a while to wait and this has been thirsty work. ” He went to
the bows where the slave girls were fussing over Lostris. At first I
was still so angry that I would not join their impromptu picnic on the
deck. Instead I maintained an aloof dignity in the stern.

“Oh, let him sulk a while, ” I heard Lostris” stage-whisper to tonus as
she recharged his cup with foaming beer. “The old darling gave himself
an awful scare, but he will get over it as soon as he is hungry. He
does so love his food. ” She is the epitome of injustice, is my
mistress. I never sulk, I am no glutton, and at that time I was barely
thirty years of age, although to a fourteen-year-old anyone above
twenty is an ancient, and I admit -that, when it comes to food, I do
have the refined tastes of a connoisseur. The roast wild goose with
figs that she was ostentatiously displaying was one of my favourite
dishes, as she very well knew.

I made them suffer for a while longer, and it was only when tonus
brought me a jug of beer with his own hand and cajoled me with all his
charm that I deigned to relent a little and let him lead me to the
prow. Still, I was a little stiff with them until Lostris kissed my
cheek and said, loud enough for all to hear, “My girls tell me that you
took command of the ship like a veteran, and that you would have dived
overboard to rescue me. Oh, Taita, what would I ever do without
you?”

Only then would I smile at her and accept the slice of goose she
pressed upon me. It was delicious, and the beer was three-palm quality
andn so, I ate sparingly, for I have my figure to consider and her
earlier jibe about my appetite still rankled a little. tonus” squadron
was scattered widely across the lagoon, but now it began to regroup. I
saw that some of the other galleys had suffered damage, as we had. Two
ships had collided in the heat of the chase, while four others had been
attacked by the quarry. However, they reassembled swiftly and took up
their battle stations. Then, in line astern and with strings of gay
pennants fluttering at the mastheads to proclaim the size of each
galley’s bag, they dashed past us.

The crews raised a cheer as they came level with the Breath of Horus.
tonus saluted them with a clenched fist and. the Blue Crocodile
standard was dipped at the masthead, for all the world as though we had
just achieved a victory against daunting odds. Boyish display,
perhaps, but then I am still enough of a boy to enjoy military
ceremonial.

As soon as it was over, the squadron resumed its battle stations and
was holding its position against the light breeze that had sprung up,
with skilful use of paddles and steering oars Of course, there was no
sign of the slaughtered hippopotami as yet. Although every galley had
killed at least one, while some had killed two and even three, the
carcasses had all sunk away into the green depths of the lagoon. I
knew that tonus was secretly lamenting the fact that the Breath of
Horus had not been the most successful boat, and that our protracted
encounter with the bull had limited our score to only that single
animal. He was accustomed to excelling. Anyway, he was not his usual
ebullient self and he soon left us on the prow and went to supervise
the repairs to the hull of the Breath of Horus.

The bull’s charge had sprung the underwater planking and we were taking
enough water to necessitate constant bailing of the bilges with leather
buckets. This was a most inefficient procedure which diverted men from
their duties as rowers and warriors. Surely it could be improved upon,
I thought to myself.

So while we waited for the carcasses of the dead beasts to rise, I sent
one of the slave girls to fetch the basket that contained my writing
instruments. Then, after a little further thought, I began to sketch
out an idea for mechanically removing the water from the bilges of a
fighting galley in action, a method which did not demand the efforts of
half the crew. It was based on the same principle as the shadoof water
buckets. I thought that two men might operate it instead of a dozen at
the buckets, as was now the case.

When I had completed the sketch, I pondered on the collision that had
caused the original damage. Historically, the tactics used in battles
between squadrons of river galleys had always been the same as those of
land engagements.

The ships would lie alongside each other and exchange volleys of
arrows. They would then close and grapple and board, and finish the
business with the sword. The galley captains were always careful to
avoid collision, as this was considered sloppy seamanship.

“But what if.. . ” I thought suddenly, and I began a sketch of a
galley with a reinforced bow. As the idea took firm root I added a
horn like that of the rhinoceros at the water line. It could be carved
from hardwood and clad with bronze. Angled forwards and slightly
downwards, it could be driven through the hull of an opposing vessel to
rip out her belly. I was so engrossed that I did not hear tonus come
up behind me. He snatched the papyrus scroll from me and studied it
avidly.

Of course, he understood instantly what I was about.

When his father had lost his fortune, I had tried everything in my
power to find a rich patron to sponsor him to enter one of the temples
as a novice scribe, there to continue his studies and his learning.

For I truly believed that, with my tutelage, he had every prospect of
developing into one of the great minds of Egypt, perhaps in time a name
to rank with that of Imhotep who, one thousand years before, had
designed those first marvelous pyramids at Saqqarah.

I had, been unsuccessful, naturally enough, for the same enemy whose
spite and guile had destroyed tonus” father had set out to bar the way
to tonus himself. No man in the land could prevail against such a
baleful influence. So instead I had helped tonus to enter the army.
Despite my disappointment and misgivings, this had been his own choice
of career ever since he had first stood upright and wielded a wooden
sword on the other infants in the playground.

“By the carbuncles on Seth’s buttocks!” he exclaimed now, as he
studied my drawings.. .. “You and that designing brush of yours are
worth ten full squadrons to me!” tonus” casual blasphemy on the name
of the great god Seth always alarms me. For although both he and I are
Horus men, still I do not believe in flagrantly offering offence to any
member of the pantheon of Egyptian gods. I personally never pass a
shrine without offering a prayer or making a small sacrifice, no matter
how humble or unimportant the god it houses. It is, to my mind, simple
common sense and good insurance. One has sufficient enemies amongst
men without deliberately seeking out others amongst the gods. I am
particularly obsequious to -Seth, for his formidable reputation
terrifies me. I suspect that tonus knows all this and deliberately
does it to tease me. However, my discomfort was soon forgotten in the
warm glow of his praise.

“How do you do it?” he demanded. “I am the soldier, and today I saw
everything that you did. Why did not the same ideas occur to me?”

We were instantly immersed in a lively discussion of my designs.

Of course, Lostris could not be excluded for long, and she came to join
us. Her handmaidens had dried and rebraided her hair and retouched her
make-up. Her loveliness was a distraction, especially since she stood
beside me and nonchalantly draped one slim arm over my shoulder.

She would never have touched a man like that in public, for it would
have offended against custom and modesty. But then I am not a man, and
though she leaned against me, her eyes never left tonus” face.

Her preoccupation with him went back to when she had first learned to
walk. She had stumbled along adoringly behind the lordly ten-year-old
tonus, faithfully trying to copy his every gesture and word. When he
spat, she spat. When he swore, she lisped the same oath, . until
tonus had complained bitterly to me, “Can you not make her leave me
alone, Taita? She’s just a baby!” He was not doing much complaining
now, I noticed.

At last we were interrupted by a hail from the lookout in the bows, and
we all hurried forward and peered eagerly across the lagoon.

The first hippopotamus carcass was rising to the surface. It came up
belly first as the gases in its intestines expanded and the guts
distended like a child’s balloon made from a goat’s bladder. It bobbed
on the surface A with all its legs extended stiffly. One of the
galleys sped across to recover it. A sailor scrambled out on to the
carcass and secured a line to one of the legs. As soon as this was
done, the galley towed it away towards the distant shore.

By now the huge corpses were surfacing all around us.

The galleys gathered them up and dragged them away. tonus secured two
of them to our stern-hawser and the rowers strained at their paddles to
move them through the water.

As we approached the shore I shaded my eyes against the slanting sun’s
rays and peered ahead. It seemed that every man, woman and child in
Upper Egypt was waiting upon the bank. They were a vast multitude,
dancing and singing and waving palm-fronds to welcome the incoming
fleet. The restless movement of their white robes seemed like a storm
surf breaking upon the edge of the placid lagoon.

As each galley drew up against the bank, teams of men clad only in the
briefest loin-cloths waded out as deep as their armpits to fasten ropes
to the bloated carcasses. In their excitement they were oblivious to
the ever-present threat of crocodiles lurking in the opaque green
waters. Every season these ferocious dragons devour hundreds of out
people.

Sometimes they are so bold that they rush out on to dry land to seize a
child playing near the water’s edge or a peasant Woman washing clothes
or drawing water for her family.

Now, in the vast meat-hunger that gripped them, the people were
interested in only one thing. They seized the ropes and hauled the
carcasses ashore. As they slithered up the muddy bank, scores of
tin3Ksilver fish that had been feasting on the open wounds were slow to
relinquish their hold and were drawn out with the carcasses. Stranded
upon the mud banks they flopped and quivered like stars that had fallen
to earth.

Men and women, all wielding knives or axes, swarmed like ants over the
bodies. In a delirium of greed they howled and snarled at each other
like vultures and hyenas on a lion’s kill, disputing each titbit as
they hacked at the gigantic carcasses. Blood and bone chips flew in
sheets as the blades hacked and hewed. There would be long lines of
wounded at the temple that evening, awaiting treatment from the priests
for their missing fingers and gashes down to the bone where the
careless blades had slipped.

I too would be busy half the night, for in some quarters I have a
reputation as a medical doctor that surpasses even that of the priests
of Osiris. In all modesty I must admit that this reputation is not
entirely unwarranted, and Horus knows my fees are much more reasonable
than those of the holy men. My Lord Inter allows me to keep for myself
a third part of all that I earn. Thus I am a man of some substance,
despite my slave status.

From the stern-tower of the Breath of Horus I watched the pantomime of
human frailty that was being played out below me.

Traditionally the populace is allowed to eat its fill of the meats of
the hunt upon the foreshore, just as long as none of the spoils are
carried away. Living as we do in a verdant land which is fertilized
and watered by the great river, our people are well fed. However, the
staple diet of the poorer classes is grain, and months may pass between
their last mouthful of meat and the next. Added to which, the festival
was a time when all the normal restraints of everyday life were thrust
aside. There was licence to excess in all things of the body, in food
and drink and carnal passion. There would be sore bellies and aching
heads and matrimonial recriminations on the morrow, but this was the
first day of the festival and there was no check on any appetite.

I smiled as I watched a mother, naked, to the waist and plastered from
head to toe with blood and fat, emerge from the belly cavity of a
hippopotamus, clutching a running lump of liver which she threw to one
of her brood in the jostling, shrieking pack of children that
surrounded the carcass. The woman ducked back into the interior of the
beast, while, clutching his prize, the child darted away to one of the
hundreds of cooking-fires that burned along the shore.

There an elder brother snatched the hunk of liver from him and threw it
on the coals, while a pack of younger urchins crowded forward
impatiently, slavering like puppies.

The eldest child hooked the barely scorched liver off the fire with a
green twig, and his brothers and sisters fell upon it and devoured it.
Immediately it was consumed they bayed for more, with fat and juice
running down their faces and dripping from their chins. Many of the
younger ones had probably never tasted the delicious flesh of the
river-cow before. It is sweet and tender and fine-grained, but most of
all it is fat, fatter than beef or striped wild ass, and the
marrow-bones are truly a delicacy fit for the great god Osiris
himself.

Our people are starved of animal fat and the taste of it drove them
wild. They gorged themselves, as was their right on this day.

I was content to keep aloof from this riotous mob, happy in the
knowledge that my Lord Inter’s bailiffs would secure the finest cuts
and marrow-bones for the palace kitchens where the cooks would prepare
my personal platter to perfection. My precedence in the vizier’s
household exceeds all other, even that of his majordomo or the
commander of his bodyguard, both of whom are free-born. Of course, it
is never openly spoken of, but all tacitly acknowledge my privileged
and superior position and few would dare challenge it.

I watched the bailiffs at work now, claiming the share of my lord, the
governor and grand vizier of all the twenty-two nornes of Upper Egypt.
They swung their long staves with the expertise born of long practice,
whacking any bare back or set of naked buttocks that presented
themselves as targets, and shouting their demands.

The ivory teeth of the animals belonged to the vizier, and the bailiffs
collected every one of them. They were as valuable as the elephant
tusks that are brought down in trade from the land of Cush, beyond the
cataracts. The last elephant had been killed in our Egypt almost one
thousand years ago, in the reign of one of the pharaohs of the Fourth
Dynasty, or so the hieroglyphics on the stele in his temple boast.
Naturally, from the fruits of the hunt my lord was expected to tithe
the priests of Hopi who were the titular shepherds of the goddess’s
flock of river-cows. However, the amount of the tithe was in my lord’s
discretion, and I who was in overall charge of the palace accounts knew
where the lion’s share of the treasure would end up. My Lord Inter
does not indulge in unnecessary generosity, even towards a goddess.

As for the hides of the hippopotamus, these belonged to the army and
would be turned into war shields for the officers of the guards
regiments. The army quartermasters were supervising the skinning-out
and the handling of the hides, each of which was almost the size of a
Bedouin tent.

The meat that could not be consumed on the bank would be pickled in
brine, or smoked or dried. Ostensibly it would be used to feed the
army, the members of the law courts, the temples and other civil
servants of the state. However, in practice a large part of it would
be discreetly sold, and the proceeds would filter down quite naturally
into my lord’s coffers. As I have said before, my lord was the
wealthiest man in the Upper Kingdom after Pharaoh himself, and growing
richer every year.

A fresh commotion broke out behind me, and I turned quickly. tonus”
squadron was still in action. The galleys were drawn up in line of
battle, stern to stern, parallel to the shore-line, but fifty paces off
it on the edge of the deeper water. On each ship harpooneers stood at
the rails with their weapons poised and pointed down at the surface of
the lagoon.

The taint of blood and offal in the water had attracted the crocodiles.
Not only from all over the lagoon, but from as far off as the main
course of the Nile, they had come swarming to the feast. The
harpooneers were waiting for them.

Each long harpoon pole was tipped with a relatively small bronze head,
viciously barbed. Spliced to an eye in the metal head was a tough flax
rope.

The skill of the harpooneers was truly impressive. As one of these
scaly saurians came slipping through the green water, with its great
crested tail flailing, moving like a long dark shadow, silent and
deadly beneath the surface, they would be waiting for it. They would
allow the crocodile to pass beneath the galley, and then, as it emerged
on the. far side with the harpooneer’s movements screened from it by
the ship’s hull, he would lean out over it and stab downwards.

It was not a violent blow, but an almost delicate dab with the long
pole. The bronze head was as sharp as a surgeon’s needle, and its full
length was buried deep beneath the reptile’s thick, scaly hide.

The harpooneer aimed for the back of the neck, and so skilful were
these thrusts that many of them pierced the spinal cord and killed the
creature instantly.

However, when a blow missed its mark, the water exploded as the wounded
crocodile burst into wild convulsions. With a twist of the harpoon
pole the metal head was detached and remained buried in the reptile’s
armoured neck. Then four men took the creature on the flax line to
control its contortions. If the crocodile was a large one and some of
them were four times the length of a man stretched out on the
ground-then the coils of line were whipped away smoking over the
gunwale, scorching the palms of the men who were trying to hold it.

When this happened, even the hungry crowds on the beach paused for a
while to cheer and shout encouragement, and to watch the struggle as
the crocodile was eventually subdued, or the rope parted like a
whiplash and the sailors were sent tumbling backwards across the
deck.

More often, the stout flax line held. As soon as the crew were able to
turn the reptile’s head towards them, it could no longer swim out into
the deep water. They could then drag it in a turmoil of froth and
white water to the ship’s side where another gang was waiting with
clubs to crush the rock-hard skull.

When the carcasses of the crocodiles were dragged to the bank, I went
ashore to examine them. The skinners of tonus” regiment were already
at work.

It was the grandfather of our present king who had granted the regiment
the honorific “the Blue Crocodile Guards” and bestowed upon them the
standard of the Blue Crocodile. Their battle armour is made from the
horny skins of these dragons. Properly treated andocured, it becomes
hard enough to stop an arrow or turn the edge of an enemy sword-cut. It
is far lighter in weight than metal, and much cooler to wear in the
desert sun. tonus, in his crocodiles king helmet all decorated with
ostrih plumes, and hisc breastplate of the same hide, polished and
starred with bronze rosettes, is a sight to strike terror into the
heart of an enemy, or turmoil into the belly of any maiden who looks
upon him.

As I measured and noted the length and girth of each carcass, and
watched the skinners at work, I felt not even the most fleeting
sympathy for these hideous monsters as I had for the slaughtered
river-cows. To my mind there is no more loathsome beast in nature than
the crocodile, with the possible exception of the venomous asp.

My revulsion was increased a hundredfold when a skinner slit open the
belly of one of the largest of these grotesque animals, and out on to
the mud slithered the partly digested remains of a young girl. The
crocodile had swallowed the entire top half of her body, from the waist
upwards. Although the flesh was bleached soft and pasty-white by the
digestive juices and was sloughing from the skull, the girl’s topknot
was still intact and neatly plaited and coiled above the ghastly,
ruined face. As a further macabre touch, there was a necklace around
her throat and pretty bracelets of red and blue ceramic beads on the
skeletal wrists.

No sooner was this gruesome relic revealed than there came a shriek so
high and heart-rending that it cut through the hubbub of the throng,
and a woman elbowed aside the soldiers and ran forward to drop on her
knees beside the pitiful remains. She tore her clothing and keened the
dreadful ululation of mourning.

“My daughter! My little girl!” She was the same woman who had come to
the palace the previous day to report her daughter missing.

The officials had told her that the child had probably been abducted
and sold into slavery by one of the gangs of bandits who were
terrorizing the countryside.

A These gangs had become a force in the land, blatantly conducting
their lawless depredations in broad daylight right up to the gates of
the cities. The palace officials had warned the woman that there was
nothing they could do about recovering her daughter, for the gangs were
beyond any control that the state could exert upon them.

For once this dire prediction had proved unfounded. The mother had
recognized the ornaments which still decorated the pathetic little
corpse. My heart went out to the stricken woman, as I sent a slave to
fetch an empty wine jar. Although the woman and her child were both
strangers to me, I could not prevent my own tears from welling up as I
helped her to gather the remains and place them in the jar for decent
burial.

As she staggered away into the uncaring multitude of revellers,
carrying the jar clutched to her breast, I reflected that despite all
the rites and prayers that the mother would lavish upon her daughter,
and even in the unlikely event that she could afford the staggering
cost of the most rudimentary mummification, the child’s shade could
never find immortality in the life beyond the grave. For that to
happen, the corpse must be intact and whole before embalming. My
feelings were all for the unfortunate mother. It is a weakness of mine
that I so often lament, that I take upon myself the cares and sorrows
of every unfortunate that crosses my path. It would be easier to have
a harder heart, and a more cynical turn of mind.

As always when I am saddened or distressed, I reached for my brush and
scroll and began to record all that was taking place around me,
everything from the harpooneers, the bereaved mother, the skinning and
the butchery of the dead river-cows and crocodiles on the beach, to the
unfettered behaviour of the feasting, revelling populace.

Already those Who were stuffed with meat and gorged with beer were
snoring where they had fallen, oblivious of being kicked and trampled
by the others still capable of remaining upright. The younger and more
shameless were dancing and embracing and using the gathering darkness
and the inadequate cover of the scanty bushes and the trampled papyrus
beds to screen their blatant copulations. This wanton behaviour was
merely a symptom of the malaise that afflicted the entire land. It
would not have been thus if only there had been a strong pharaoh, and a
moral and upright administration in the nome of Greater Thebes. The
common people take their example from those above them.

Although I disapproved most strongly of it all, still I recorded it
faithfully. Thus an hour sped away while I sat cross-legged and
totally absorbed upon the poop-deck of the Breath of Horus, scribbling
and sketching. The sun sank and seemed to quench itself in the great
river, leaving a coppery sheen on the water and a smoky glow in the
western sky as though it had set fire to the papyrus beds.

The crowds on the beach were becoming ever more raucous and
unrestrained. The harlots were doing a brisk trade.

I watched a plump and matronly love-priestess, wearing the distinctive
blue amulet of her calling upon her forehead, lead a skinny sailor who
was half her size from one of the galleys into the shadows beyond the
firelight. There she dropped her skirts and fell to her knees in the
dust, presenting him with a quivering pair of monumental buttocks. With
a happy cry the little fellow was upon her like a dog on a bitch, and
within seconds she was yapping as loudly as he was. I began to sketch
their antics, but the light faded swiftly, and I was forced to quit for
the day.

As I set my scroll aside, I realized with a start that I had not seen
my mistress since before the incident with the dead child. I leaped to
my feet in a panic. How could I have been so remiss? My mistress had
been strictly raised, I had seen to that. She was a good and moral
child, fully aware of the duties and obligations which law and custom
placed upon her. She was aware also of the honour of the high family
to which she belonged, and of her place in society. What was more, she
stood in as much awe as I did of her father’s authority and temper. Of
course I trusted her.

I trusted her as much as I would have trusted any other strong-willed
young creature in the first flush of passionate womanhood on a night
such as this, alone somewhere in the darkness with the handsome and
equally passionate young soldier with whom she was totally
infatuated.

My panic was not so much for the fragile maidenhead of my mistress,
that ethereal talisman which once lost is seldom mourned, as for the
much more substantial risk of damage to my own skin. On the morrow we
would return to Karnak and the palace of my Lord Inter, where there
would be wagging tongues aplenty to carry the tale of any lapse or
indiscretion on any of our parts to him.

My lord’s spies permeated every layer of society and every corner of
our land, from the docks and the fields to the palace of Pharaoh
itself. They were even more numerous than my own, for he had more
money to pay his agents, although many of them served both -of us
impartially and our networks interlocked at many levels. If Lostris
had disgraced us all, father, family, and me her tutor and guardian,
then my Lord Inter would know of it by morning, and so would I. I ran
from one end of the ship to the other, searching for her. I climbed
into the stern-tower and scanned the beach in desperation. I could see
nothing of her or of tonus, and my worst fears were encouraged.

Where to search for them in this mad night I could not begin to think.
I caught myself wringing my hands in an agony of frustration, and
stopped myself immediately. I am always at pains to avoid any
appearance of effeminacy. I do so abhor those obese, mincing,
posturing creatures who have suffered the same mutilation as I have. I
always try to conduct myself like a man rather than a eunuch.

I controlled myself with an effort and assumed the same coldly
determined when that I had seen on tonus” features in the heat of
battle, whereupon my wits were restored to me and I became rational
once again. I considered how my mistress was likely to behave. Of
course, I knew her intimately. After all, I had studied her for
fourteen years. I realized that she was much too fastidious and
conscious of her noble rank brazenly to mingle with the drunken,
uncouth throng upon the beach, or to creep away into the bushes to play
the beast with two backs, as I had watched the sailor and the fat old
harlot do. I knew that I could call upon no one else to assist me in
my search, for that would have guaranteed that my Lord Inter would hear
all about it. I had to do it all myself.

To what secret place had Lostris allowed herself to be carried away?
Like most young girls of her age she was enchanted with the idea of
romantic love. I doubted that she had ever seriously considered the
more earthy aspects of the physical act, despite the best efforts of
those two little black sluts of hers to enlighten her. She had not
even displayed any great deal of interest in the mechanics of the
business when I had attempted, as was my duty, to warn her, at least
sufficiently to protect her from herself.

I realized then that I must look for her in some place that would live
up to her sentimental expectations of love. If there had been a cabin
on the Breath of Horus I would have hurried to it, but our river
galleys are small, utilitarian fighting ships, stripped down for speed
and manoeuvrability. The crew sleep on the bare deck, while even the
captain and his officers have only a reed awning for a night shelter,
This was not rigged at the moment, and so there was no place aboard
where they could be hiding.

Karnak and the palace were half a day’s travel away. The slaves were
only now erecting our tents on one of the small inshore islands that
had been set aside to give our party privacy from the common herd of
humanity. It was remiss of the slaves to be so tardy, but they had
been caught up in the festivities. In the torchlight I could see that
a few of them were more than a little unsteady on their feet as they
struggled with the guy-ropes. They had not yet erected Lostris
personal tent, so the luxurious comforts of carpets and embroidered
hangings and down-filled mattresses and linen sheets were not available
to the lovers. So where then might they be?

At that moment a soft yellow glow of torchlight farther out on the
lagoon caught my attention. Immediately my intuition was aroused. I
realized that, given my mistress’s connections with the goddess Hopi,
her temple on its picturesque little granite island in the middle of
the lagoon would be exactly the place that would draw Lostris
irresistibly. I searched the beach for some means of reaching the
island. Although there were shoals of small craft drawn upn the shore,
the ferrymen were mostly falling-down drunk.

Then I spotted Kratas on the beach. The ostrich feathers on his helmet
stood high above the heads of the crowd, and his proud bearing marked
him out.

“Kratas!” I yelled at him, and he looked across at me and waved.

Kratas was tonus” chief lieutenant and, apart from myself, the finest
of his multitude of friends. I could trust Kratas as I dared trust no
other.

“Get me a boat!” I screamed at him. “Any boad” I was so distraught
and my tone so shrill that it carried clearly to him. It was typical
of the man that he wasted not a moment in question or indecision. He
strode to the nearest felucca on the shore. The ferryman was lying
like a log in his own bilges. Kratas took him by the scruff of the
neck and lifted him out bodily. He dropped him on the beach, and the
ferryman never moved, but lay in a stupor of cheap wine, twisted in the
attitude that Kratas had dumped him in. Kratas launched the craft
himself and, with a few thrusts of the punt pole, laid alongside the
Breath of Horus. In my haste I tumbled from the tower and landed in a
heap in the bows of the tiny craft, “To the temple, Kratas, ” I pleaded
with him as I scrambled up, “and may the sweet goddess Hopi grant we
are not already too late!” With the evening breeze in the lateen sail
we were whisked across the dark waters to the stone jetty below the
temple. Kratas secured the painter to one of the mooring rings and
made as if to follow me ashore, but I stopped, him.

“For tonus” sake, not mine, ” I told him, “do not follow me, please. ”
He hesitated a moment, then nodded. “I will be listening for your
call. ” He drew his sword and offered it to me, hilt first. “Will you
need this?” I shook my head. “It is not that kind of danger.

Besides, I have my dagger. But thank you for your trust. ” I left him
in the boat and hurried up the granite steps to the entrance of the
temple of Hopi. rush torches in their brackets on the tall entrance
pillars threw a ruddy, wavering light that seemed to bring to life the
has-relief carvings on the walls and make them dance. The goddess Hopi
is one of my favourites. Strictly speaking, she is neither god nor
goddess, but a strange, bearded, hermaphroditic creature possessed of
both a massive penis and an equally cavernous vagina, and bounteous
breasts that give milk to all. She is the deification of the Nile, and
the goddess of the harvest. The two kingdoms of Egypt and all the
peoples in them depend utterly upon her and the periodic flooding of
the great river which is her alter ego. She is able to change her
gender or, like many of the other gods of this very Egypt, take on the
shape of any animal at will. Her favourite guise is that of the
hippopotamus. Despite the god’s ambiguous sexuality, my mistress
Lostris always considered her to be female, and so do I. The . priests
of Hopi may differ from us on this view.

Her images upon the stone walls were vast and motherly.

Painted in hectic primary colours -of red and yellow and blue, she
beamed down with the head of a kindly river-cow, and seemed to invite
all of nature to be fruitful and to multiply. The implied invitation
was most inappropriate to my present anxiety. It was my fear that my
precious charge might even at this moment be availing herself of the
goddess’s indulgence.

A priestess was kneeling at the side-altar, and I ran to her, seized
her by the hem of her cape and tugged at it urgently.

“Holy sister, tell me, have you seen the Lady Lostris, daughter of the
grand vizier?” There were very few citizens of Upper Egypt who did not
know my mistress by sight. They all loved her for her beauty, her gay
spirit and her sweet disposition, and they clustered around her and
cheered her . in the streets and market-places when she walked
abroad.

The priestess grinned at me, all wrinkled and toothless, and she laid
one bony finger on the side of her nose with such a sly and knowing
expression that all my worst fears were confirmed.

I shook her again, but less gently. “Where is she, revered old mother?
I beseech you, speak! But instead she wagged her head and rolled her
eyes towards the portals of the inner sanctum.

I sped across the granite flags, my heart outrunning my frantic feet,
but even in my distress I wondered at the boldness of my mistress.
Although as a member of the high nobility she had right of access to
the holy of holies, was there another in all of Egypt, who would have
the nerve to choose such a place for her love tryst?

At the entrance to the saricturn I paused. My instinct had been right.
There they were, the two of them, just as I had dreaded. I was so
obsessed by my own certainty of what was taking place that I almost
yelled aloud to them to stop it. Then I checked myself.

My mistress was fully clad, more so than was usual, for her breasts
were covered and she had spread a blue woollen shawl over her head. She
was kneeling before the gigantic statue of Hopi. The goddess beamed
down upon her, bedecked in wreaths of blue water-lilies. tonus knelt
beside her. He had laid aside his weapons and his armour. They were
piled at the door of the sanctuary. He was dressed only in a linen
shift and short tunic, with sandals on his feet. The young couple were
holding hands, and their faces were almost touching as they whispered
solemnly together.

My base suspicions were refuted, and I was struck with remorse and
shame. How could I ever have doubted my mistress? Quietly I began to
withdraw, although I would go only as far as the side-altar, where I
would give thanks to the goddess for her protection, and from where I
could keep a discreet eye on further proceedings.

However, at that moment Lostris rose to her feet and diffidently
approached the statue of the goddess. I was so enthralled by her
girlish grace that I lingered a moment longer to watch her.

From around her neck she unclasped the lapis lazuli figurine of the
goddess which I had made for her. I realized with a pang that she was
about to offer it as a sacrifice. That jewel had been crafted with all
my love for her, and I hated to see it leave her throat. Lostris stood
on tiptoe to hang it on the idol’s neck. Then she knelt and kissed the
stone foot while tonus watched, still kneeling where she had left
him.

She rose and turned to go back to him, but then she saw me in the
doorway. I tried to melt away into the shadows, for I was embarrassed
at having spied upon so, intimate a moment. However, her face lit with
joy and before I could escape, she ran to me and seized my hands.

“Oh, Taita, I am so glad that you are here-you of all people! It is so
fitting. It makes it all so perfect. ” She led me forward into the
sanctum and tonus rose to his feet and came smiling to take my other
hand.

“Thank you for coming. I know we can always count upon you. ” I
wished that my motives had been as pure as they believed them to be, so
I hid my guilty heart from them with a loving smile.

“Kneel here!” Lostris ordered me. “Here, where -you can hear every
word we say to each other. You will bear witness for us before Hopi
and all the gods of Egypt. ” She pressed me to my knees, and then she
and tonus resumed their places in front of the goddess and took each
other’s hands, looking full into each other’s eyes.

Lostris spoke first. “You are my sun, ” she whispered. “My day is
dark without you. ” “You are the Nile of my heart, ” tonus told her
quietly.

“The waters of your love feed my soul. ” “You are my man, through this
world and all the worlds to come. ” “You are my woman, and I pledge
you my love. I swear it to you on the breath and the blood of Horus, ”
tonus said clearly and openly, so that his voice echoed through the
stone halls.

“I take up your pledge and return it to you one hundred-fold. ”
Lostris cried. “No one can ever come between us.

Nothing can ever part us. We are one, for ever. ” She offered her
face to his and he kissed her, deeply and lingeringly. As far as I was
aware, it was the first kiss that the couple had ever” exchanged. I
felt that I was privileged to have witnessed such an intimate moment.

As they embraced, a sudden chill wind off the lagoon swirled through
the dimly lit halls of the temple and fluttered the torch flames, so
that for an instant the faces of the two lovers blurred before my eyes
and the image of the goddess seemed to stir and quiver.

The wind passed as swiftly as it had come, but the whisper of it around
the great stone pillars was like the distant sardonic laughter of the
gods, and I shuddered with superstitious awe.

It is always dangerous to pique the gods with extravagant demands, and
Lostris had just asked for the impossible. This was the moment that
for years I had known was coming, and which I had dreaded more bitterly
than the day of my own death. The pledge that tonus and Lostris had
made to each other could never endure. No matter how deeply they meant
it, it could never be. I felt my own heart tearing within me as, at
last, they broke the kiss and both turned back to me.

“Why so sad, Taita?” Lostris demanded, her own face flooded with joy.
“Rejoice with me, for this is the happiest day of my life. ” I forced
my lips to smile, but I could find no word of comfort or of
felicitation for these two, the ones I loved best in all the world. I
remained upon my knees, with that fixed, idiotic smile on my lips and
desolation in my soul.

Now tonus lifted me to my feet and embraced me. “You will speak to
Lord Inter on my behalf, won’t you?” he demanded as he hugged me.

“Oh yes, Taita, ” Lostris joined her plea to his. “My father will
listen to you. You are the only one who can do it for us. You won’t
fail us, will you, Taita? You have never let me down, never once in
all my life. You’ll do it for me, won’t you?” What could I say to
them?

I could not be so cruel as to tell them the blunt truth. I could not
find the words to blight this fresh and tender love. They were waiting
for me to speak, to express my joy for them, and to promise them my
help and support. But I was struck dumb, my mouth was as dry as if I
had bitten into an unripe pomegranate.

“Taita, what is it?” I watched the joy wither upon my mistress’s
beloved countenance. “Why do you not rejoice for us?” “You know that
I love you both, but.. . ” I could not continue.

“But? But what, Taita?” Lostris demanded. “Why do you give me “buts”
and a long face on this happiest of all possible days?” She was
becoming angry, her jaw was setting, but at the same time there were
tears gathering deep in her eyes. “Don’t you want to help us? Is this
the real value of all the promises you have made to me over the
years?”

She came to me and thrust her face close to mine in challenge.

“Mistress, please don’t talk like that. I do not deserve that
treatment. No, listen to me!” I placed my fingers on her lips to
forestall another outburst. “It is not me. It is your father, my Lord
Inter.. . ”

Impatiently Lostris plucked my hand away from her mouth. “My father!
You will go to him and speak to him the way you always do, and it will
be all right. ” “Lostris, ” I began, and it was a sign of my distress
that I used her name in this familiar fashion, “you are no longer a
child. You must not delude yourself with childish fantasies. You know
that your father will never agree.. . ” She would not listen to me,
she did not want to hear the truth that I would speak, so she rushed in
with words to drown out mine “I know that tonus has no fortune, yes.
But he has a marvelous future ahead of him. One day he will command
all the armies of Egypt. One day he will fight the battles which will
reunite the two kingdoms, and I will be at his side. ” “Mistress,
please hear me out. It is not only the lack of tonus” fortune. It is
more, much more “His blood-line and his breeding, then? Is that what
troubles you? You know full well that his family is as noble as ours.
Pianki, Lord Harrab was my own father’s equal and his dearest friend. ”
She had closed her ears to me.

She did not realize the depth of the tragedy on which we were
embarking. Neither she nor tonus did, but then I was probably the only
person in the kingdom who understood it fully.

I had protected her from the truth all these years and, of course, I
had never been able to tell tonus either. How could I explain it to
her now? How could I reveal to her the depths of the hatred that her
father bore towards the young man she loved? It was a hatred born out
of guilt and envy, and yet all the more implacable for these reasons.

However, my Lord Inter was a crafty and devious man.

He was able to conceal his feelings from those around him.

He was able to dissemble his hatred and his spite, and to kiss the one
he would destroy and heap rich gifts and lulling flattery upon him.

He had the patience of the crocodile buried in the mud at the
drinking-place on the river, waiting for the unsuspecting gazelle. He
would wait years, even a decade, but when the opportunity arose, he was
as swift as that reptile to strike and drag his prey under.

Lostris was blithely unaware of the depths of her father’s rancour. She
even believed that he had loved Pianki, Lord Harrab, as tonus” father
had loved him. But then how could she know the truth of it, for I had
always shielded her from it? In her sweet innocence Lostris believe
that the only objections that her father would have to her lover were
those of fortune and family.

“You know it is true, Taita. tonus is my equal in the lists of the
nobility. It is written in the temple records for all to see. How can
my father deny it? How can you deny it?” “It is not for me to deny or
to accede, mistress.. . ” “Then you will go” to my father for us,
won’t you, dear Taita? Say you will, please say you will!” I could
only bow my head in acquiescence, and to hide the hopeless expression
in my eyes.

THE FLEEt WAS HEAVILY LADEN ON THE return to Karnak. The galleys were
low in the water

All

under their cargoes of rawhides and salted meat.

Thus our progress against the Nile’s current was slower than on our
outward journey, but still too swift for my heavy heart and mounting
dread.

The lovers were gay and euphoric with their newly declared love and
their trust in me to remove the obstacles from their path. I could not
bring myself to deny them this day of happiness, for I knew that it
would be one of the very last they would share. I think that if I
could have found the words or summoned the courage, I would have urged
them, there and then, to seek the consummation of their love that I had
so opposed the night before. There would never be another chance for
them, not after I had alerted my Lord Inter with my foredoomed attempt
at matchmaking. Once he knew what they were about, he would come
between them and thrust them apart for ever.

So instead I laughed and smiled as gaily as they did, and tried to hide
my fears from them. They were so blinded by love that I succeeded,
whereas at any other time my mistress would have seen through me
immediately. She knows me almost as well as I know her.

We sat together in the prow, the three of us, and we discussed the
re-enactment of the passion of Osiris that would be the highlight of
the festival. My Lord Inter had made me the impresario of the pageant,
and I had cast both Lostris and tonus in leading roles.

The festival is held every second year, at the rising of the full moon
of Osiris. There was a time when it was an annual

PPIPP

-.. . ” moon event. However, the expense and disruption of royal life
caused by having to remove the court from Elephantine to Thebes was so
great that Pharaoh decreed a greater interval between the festivals. He
was always a prudent man with his gold, was our Pharaoh.

The plans for the pageant provided me with a, fine -distraction from
the looming confrontation with my Lord Inter, and so now I rehearsed
the two lovers in their lines. Lostris was to play Isis, the wife of
Osiris, while tonus would take on the major role of Horus.

They were both vastly amused at the idea of tonus playing Lostris” son,
and I had to explain that the gods were ageless, and it was quite
possible that a goddess could appear younger than her offspring.

I had written a new script for the pageant to replace the one that had
remained unchanged for almost a thousand years.

The language of the ancient one was archaic and unsuitable for a modern
audience. Pharaoh would be the guest of honour when the pageant was
performed in the temple of Osiris on the final night of the festival,
so I was particularly anxious that it should be a success. I had
already encountered opposition to my new version of the passion from
the more conservative nobles and priests. Only my Lord Inter’s
intervention had prevailed against their. objections.

My lord is not a deeply religious man and would not normally have
interested himself in theological arguments.

However, I had included a few lines that were designed to amuse and
flatter him. I read them to him out of context, and then tactfully
pointed out to him that the chief opposition to my version came from
the high priest of Osiris, a prissy old man who had once frustrated my
Lord Inter’s interest in a comely young acolyte. This was a trespass
for which my lord had never forgiven the high priest.

Thus it was that my version would be performed for the first time.

It was essential that the actors bring out the full glory of my poetry,
or it might well be the last time it would be heard.

Both tonus and Lostris possessed marvelous speaking voices, and they
were determined to reward me for my promise to help them. They gave me
of their best, and thus the rehearsal was so absorbing, their
recitations so startling, that for a while I could forget myself.

Then I was brought back from the passion of the gods to my own mundane
preoccupations by a cry from the lookout.

The fleet was sweeping around the last bend in the river, and there lay
the twin cities of Luxor and Karnak, that between them made up Greater
Thebes, strung out along the bank before us and sparkling like a
necklace of pearls in the stark Egyptian sunlight. Our fantastic
interlude had ended, and we must face reality once again. My spirits
tumbled as I scrambled to my feet. “tonus, you must transfer Lostris
and myself to the galley of Kratas before we come any closer to the
city. My lord’s minions will be watching us from the land. They must
not see us in your company’A little late, is it not?” tonus smiled at
me. “You should have thought of that some days ago. ” “My father will
learn about us soon enough, ” Lostris endorsed his objection. “it
might make your task easier if we forewarn him of our intentions. ”
“If you know better than I, then you must do it your way and I will
take no further part in this crazy business of yours. ” I put on my
most stiff and offended air, and they relented immediately. tonus
signalled Kratas” galley alongside, and the lovers had only a few
moments for their farewells. They dared not embrace before the eyes of
half the fleet, but the glances and the loving words they exchanged
were almost as fulfilling.

From the stern-tower of Kratas” ship we waved to the Breath of Horus as
she turned from us, and with her paddles flashing like the wings of a
dragonfly, she bore away to her moorings in front of the city of Luxor,
while we continued on up-river towards the palace of the grand
vizier.

IMMEDIATELY WE DOCKED At THE PALM It ace wharf, I made enquiry as to
the whereabouts of my master and was relieved to learn that he had
crossed the river to undertake a last-minute inspection of Pharaoh’s
tomb and funerary temple on the west bank. The king’s temple and tomb
had been under construction for the past twelve years, ever since the
first day that he had donned the double white and red crown of the two
kingdoms. It was nearing completion at last, and the king would be
anxious to visit it as soon as the festival was over and he was free to
do so. My Lord Inter was anxious that the king should not be
disappointed. One of my lord’s many titles and honours was Guardian of
the Royal Tombs, and it was a serious responsibility.

His absence afforded me a further day in which to prepare my case and
plan my strategy. However, the solemn promise that the two lovers had
extracted from me was to speak out for them at the first opportunity,
and I knew that would be on the morrow when my lord held his weekly
assize.

As soon as I had seen my mistress safely ensconced in the harem, I
hurried to my own quarters in that wing of the palace which is reserved
for the special companions of the grand vizier.

My Lord Inter’s domestic arrangements were as devious as the rest of
his existence. He had eight wives, all of whom brought to his
marriage-bed either substantial dowry or influential political
connections. However, only three of these women had ever borne him
children. Apart from my Lady Lostris, there were two sons.

As far as I was aware, and I was aware of everything that happened in
the palace and most of what happened outside it, my lord had not
visited the harem in the last fifteen years.

The getting of Lostris had been the last occasion that he had performed
his matrimonial duties. His sexual tastes lay in other directions. The
special companions of the grand vizier who lived in our wing of the
palace were as pretty a collection of slave boys as you could find in
the Upper Kingdom, where over the previous hundred years pederasty had
replaced wild-fowling and hunting as the favourite preoccupation of
most of the nobility. This was merely another symptom of the ills that
beset our lovely land.

I was the eldest of this select company of slave boys.

Unlike so many others over the years whom, once their physical beauty
had begun to fade or pail, my lord had sent to the auction block in the
slave-market, I had endured. He had come to value me for virtues other
than my physical beauty alone. Not that this had faded-on the
contrary, it had grown more striking as I had matured.

You must not think me vain if I mention this, but I have determined to
set down nothing but the truth in these accounts. They are remarkable
enough without my having to resort to false modesty.

No, my lord seldom pleasured himself with me in those days, a neglect
for which I was truly thankful. When he did so, it was usually only to
punish me. He knew full well the physical pain and the humiliation his
attentions always caused me. Although I had still been a child when I
first learned to hide my revulsion, and to simulate pleasure in the
perverse acts that he forced upon me, I never succeeded in deceiving
him.

Strangely, my feelings of disgust and my loathing for this unnatural
congress never detracted from his own enjoyment, rather they seemed to
enhance it. He was neither a gentle nor a compassionate man, my Lord
Inter. I have counted in the hundreds the slave boys who, over the
years, were brought to me weeping and torn after their first night of
love with my master. I doctored them and tried my best to comfort
them. That is perhaps why they called me Akh-Ker in the slave boys”
quarters, a name which means Elder Brother.

I might no longer be my master’s favourite plaything, but he valued me
much more highly than that. I was many other things to him-physician
and artist musician and scribe, architect and bookkeeper, adviser and
confidant, engineer and nursemaid to his daughter. I am not so naY ve
as to believe that he loved me or that he trusted me, but I think that
at times he came as close to it as he was capable. That was why
Lostris had prevailed upon me to plead on her behalf.

My Lord Inter had no concern for his only daughter, other than to
maintain her marriage value at its optimum, and this was another duty
that he delegated entirely to me. Sometimes he did not speak a single
word to her from one flooding of the Nile to the next. He showed no
discernible interest in the regular reports which I made to him of her
training and schooling.

Of course, I was always at pains to conceal from him my true feelings
for Lostris, knowing that he would certainly use them against me at the
first opportunity. I always tried to give him the impression that I
found her tuition and her care a tedious duty that I mildly resented
having thrust upon me, and that I shared his own disdain and distaste
for all of womankind. I don’t think he ever realized that, despite my
emasculation, I had the feelings and desires of a natural man towards
the opposite sex.

My lord’s disinterest in his daughter was the reason why I was
occasionally tempted, on the urging of my mistress, to run such insane
risks as this latest escapade of ours on board the Breath of Horus.

There was usually at least a chance that we would get away with it.

That evening I retired early to my private quarters, where my first
concern was to feed and pamper my darlings. I have a love for birds
and animals, and a way with them that amazes even myself. I had an
intimate friendship with a dozen cats, for no one can ever claim to own
a cat. I owned, on the other hand, a pack of fine dogs. tonus and I
used them to hunt the oryx and, the lion out in the desert.

The wild birds flocked to my terrace to enjoy the hospitality I
provided for them. They competed raucously amongst themselves for a
perch on my shoulder or on my hand. The boldest of them would take
food from between my lips. My tame gazelle would brush against my legs
like one of the cats, and my two falcons squawk at me from their
perches on the terrace. They were the rare desert Sakers, beautiful
and fierce. Whenever we were able, tonus and I would take them out
into the desert to fly them against the giant bustards. I took great
pleasure from their speed and aerial grace as they stooped down on
their prey. Anyone else who attempted to fondle them would feel the
cutting edge of those hooked yellow bills, but with me they were as
gentle as sparrows.

Only once I had taken care of my menagerie did I call one of the slave
boys to bring my evening meal. On the terrace overlooking the wide
green expanse of the Nile I savoured the exquisite little dish of wild
quail cooked in honey and goat’s milk that the head chef had prepared
especially to welcome me home. From there I was able to watch for the
return of my lord’s barge. from the far bank.

It came with the sunset glowing on the single square sail, and I felt
my spirits sink. He might send for me this evening, and I was not
ready to face him.

Then with relief I heard Rasfer, the commander of the palace guard,
shouting for my lord’s favourite of the moment, a sloe-eyed Bedouin
lad, barely ten years old. A short while later I heard the child
protesting in a terrified treble as Rasfer dragged him past my door
towards the curtained entrance of the grand vizier’s chambers.

Although I had heard it so many times before, I never could harden
myself to the sounds of the children, and I felt the familiar pang of
pity. Still, I was relieved that it was not I who would be called that
evening. I would need a good night’s sleep so as to look my best in
the morning.

I woke before dawn with the feeling of dread still strong upon me.

Even my ritual swim in the cool waters of the Nile did nothing to
relieve it. I hurried back to my chamber where two of the slave boys
were waiting to oil my body and comb out my hair. I detested the new
fashion amongst the nobility of wearing make-up. My own skin and
complexion were fine enough not to require it, but my lord liked his
boys to use it, and I wanted to please him especially that day.

Even though my image in the bronze mirror reassured me, I could find no
appetite for my breakfast. I was the first member of my lord’s
entourage awaiting his arrival in the water-garden where he held his
assize every morning.

While I waited for the rest of the court to assemble I watched the
kingfishers at work. I had designed and supervised the building of the
water-garden. It was a marvelous complex of channels and ponds which
overflowed from one into the other. The flowering plants had been
collected from every part of the kingdom and beyond, and they were a
dazzle of colour. The ponds were stocked with all the hundreds of
varieties of fish that the Nile yields up to the nets of the fishermen,
but they had to be replenished daily as a result of the depredations of
the kingfishers.

My Lord Inter enjoyed watching the birds hovering in the air like
jewels of lapis lazuli, then darting down to hit the water in a flash
of spray, and rising again with a silver sliver quivering in their long
bills. I think he saw himself as a fellow predator, a fisher of men,
and that he looked upon the birds as his kin. He never allowed the
gardeners to discourage the birds.

Gradually I was joined by the rest of the court. Many of them were
dishevelled and yawning from sleep. My Lord Inter keeps early hours
and likes to complete the bulk of the business of state before the main
heat of the day. We waited respectfully in the first rays of the sun
for my lord’s arrival.

“He’s in a good mood this morning, ” the chamberlain whispered, as he
took his place beside me, and I felt a tiny prickle of hope. I might
yet be able to escape the serious consequences of my foolhardy promise
to Lostris.

There was a stirring and a murmuring amongst us as when the river
breeze moves through the papyrus beds, and my Lord Inter came out to
us.

His walk was stately and his manner was sumptuous, for he was mighty
with the weight of his honours and his power.

Around his neck he wore the Gold of Praise, that necklace of red gold
from the mines of Lot which Pharaoh had laid upon him with his own
hands. His praise-singer preceded him, a stump-legged dwarf chosen for
his misshapen body and stentorian tones. It amused my lord to surround
himself with curiosities, either beautiful or grotesque. Cavorting and
prancing on his bowed legs, the dwarf chanted the lists of my lord’s
titles and honours.

“Behold the Support of Egypt! Greet the Guardian of the Waters of the
Nile! Bow down before Pharaoh’s Companion!” These were all titles
granted by the king, and many of them imposed specific duties and
obligations on him. As Guardian of the Waters, for instance, he was
responsible for monitoring the levels and flows of the seasonal floods
of the Nile, a duty which was naturally delegated to that faithful,
indefatigable slave, Taita.

I had spent half a year with a team of engineers and mathematicians
working under me, measuring and carving the rock cliffs at Assoun so
that the height of the waters rising up them could be accurately gauged
and the volume of the flood calculated. From these figures I was able
to estimate the size of the harvest months in advance. This enabled
both famine and plenty to be anticipated and planned for by the
administration. Pharaoh had been delighted with my work and bestowed
further honours and reward upon my Lord Inter.

“Bend the knee for the Nornarch of Karnak and the Governor of all the
twenty-two nornes of Upper Egypt! Greet the Lord of the Necropolis and
the Keeper of the Royal Tombs!” My lord was by these titles
responsible for designing, building and maintaining the monuments to
pharaohs long dead and the one still living. Once again, these duties
were unloaded upon a long-suffering slave’s shoulders. My lord’s visit
to Pharaoh’s tomb the day before had been the first that he had
undertaken since the previous festival of Osiris. It was I who was
sent out in the dust and the heat to cajole and curse the lying
builders and the conniving masons. I often regretted having let my
master realize the extent of my talents.

He singled me out now without seeming to have done so.

The yellow eyes, as implacable as those of a wild leopard, touched
mine, and he inclined his head slightly. I stepped in behind him as he
passed, and I was struck as always by his height and the width of his
shoulders. He was an outrageously handsome man with long, clean limbs
and a flat, hard belly. His head was leonine and his hair dense and
lustrous. At this time he was forty years of age, and I had been his
slave for almost twenty of those.

My Lord Inter led us to the barrazza in the centre of the garden, a
thatched building without enclosing walls, open to the cool breeze off
the river. He seated himself cross-legged on the paved floor at the
low table on which lay the state scrolls, and I took my usual place
behind him. The day’s business began.

Twice during the morning my lord leaned back slightly towards me.

He did not turn his head nor did he say a word, but he was asking my
advice. I barely moved my lips and I kept my voice pitched so low that
no one else could hear me and very few were even aware of the exchanges
between US.

Once I murmured, “He is lying, ” and a second time, “Retik is a better
man for the post, and he has offered a gift of five gold rings to my
lord’s private treasury. ” And though I did not mention it then,
another ring of gold to me if the post were secured.

At noon my lord dismissed the congregation of officials and petitioners
and called for his midday meal. For the first time that day we were
alone together, except for Rasfer, who was both the commander of the
palace guard and the official state executioner. Now he took his post
at the gate to the garden, within sight of the barrazza but out of
earshot.

With a gesture my lord invited me to move up to his elbow, and to taste
the delicious meats and fruits that had been laid out before him.

While we waited for the effects of any possible poisoning to manifest
themselves upon me, we discussed the morning’s business in detail.

Then he questioned me about the expedition to the lagoon of Hopi and
the great hippopotamus hunt. I described it all to him and gave him
the figures of the profits that he might expect from the meat and hides
and teeth of the river-cows.

I inflated the estimate of profits a little, and he smiled. His smile
is frank and charming. Once you have seen it, it is easier to
understand my Lord Inter’s ability to manipulate and control men. Even
I, who should have known better, was once again lulled by it.

As he bit into a succulent cold cut of river-cow fillet, I drew a
breath, screwed up my courage-and began my plea.

“My lord should know that I allowed your daughter to accompany me on
the expedition. ” I could see by his eyes that he already knew this
and that he had been waiting for me to attempt to conceal it from
him.

“You did not think to obtain my permission beforehand?” he asked
mildly, and I avoided his eyes and concentrated on peeling a grape for
him as I answered, “She only asked as we were on the point of
departure. As you know, the goddess Hopi is her patron, and she wished
to worship and -make sacrifice at the lagoon temple. ” “Still you did
not ask me?” he repeated, and I offered him the grape. He parted his
lips and allowed me to slip it into his mouth. That could only mean
that he was well disposed towards me, so obviously he had not yet found
out the full truth about tonus and Lostris.

“My lord was in council with the no march of Assoun at the time. I
would not have dared disturb you. Besides, there was no harm in it
that I could fathom. It was a simple domestic decision which I thought
beneath your concern. ” “You are so glib, aren’t you, my darling?” he
chuckled.

“And so beautiful today. I like the way you have painted your eyelids,
and what is that perfume you are wearing?”

“It is distilled from the petals of the wild violet, ” I replied.

“I am happy that you like it, for I have a flask of it as a small gift
for you, my lord. ” I produced the flask from my purse and went on my
knees to offer it to him. He placed his finger under my chin and
lifted my face to kiss me on the lips. Dutifully I responded to the
kiss until he drew back and patted my cheek.

“Whatever it is you are up to, you are still very attractive, Taita.
Even after all these years you can still make me smile.

But tell me, you took good care of the Lady Lostris, did you not?

You never let her out of your sight or care for a moment, did you?” “As
always, my lord, ” I agreed vehemently. there is nothing unusual
concerning her that you wish to report to me, is there?” I was still
on my knees in front of him, and my next attempt to speak failed. My
voice dried up” “Do not squeak at me my old darling, ” he laughed.

“Speak out like a man, even though you are not. ” It was a cruel
little jibe, but it steeled me.

“There is indeed something I wish humbly to bring to my lord’s
attention, ” I said. “And it does indeed concern the Lady Lostris. As
I have already reported, your daughter’s red moon rose for the first
time at the flooding of the great river. Since then the courses of her
moon have flowed strongly each month. ” My lord made a small grimace
of distaste, the functions of the feminine body repelled him. I found
this ironic, considering his own preoccupation with those far less
savoury reaches of the masculine anatomy.

I hurried on. “The Lady Lostris is now of marriageable age. She is a
woman of an ardent and loving nature. I believe it would be wise to
find a husband for her, as soon as we can. ” “No doubt you have one to
suggest?” he asked drily, and I nodded. “There is indeed it suitor,
my lord. ” “Not one, Taita. You mean another one, don’t you?

I know of at least six, including the no march of Assoun and the
governor of Lot, who have already made offers. ” “I did mean another
one, but this time one that the Lady Lostris approves of. As you
recall, she referred to the no march as that fat toad, and to the
governor as a randy old goat. ” “the child’s approval or disapproval
is of no interest to me whatsoever. ” He shook his head, and smiled
and stroked my cheek to encourage me. “But go on, Taita, tell me the
name of this love-lorn swam who will do me the honour of becoming my
son-in-law in return for the richest dowry in Egypt. ” I steeled
myself to reply, but he stopped me. “No, wait! Let me guess, ” His
smile turned into that sly and foxy grin that I knew so well and I
realized that he had been toying with me.

“For Lostris to welcome him, he must be young and handsome. ” He
pretended to muse on it. “And for you to speak out for him, he must be
a friend or a protege of yours. There must have been an opportunity
for this paragon to declare his suit and to solicit your support. What
would be the time and the place for that to have happened? I wonder.

Could it have been at midnight in the temple of Hopi, perhaps?

Am I on the right trail, Taita?” I felt myself pale. How did he know
so much? He slid his hand around behind my head and caressed the nape
of my neck. This was often his prelude to love-making, and he kissed
me again.

“I can see by your face that my guesses are close to the target. ” He
took a handful of my hair and twisted it lightly.

“Now it remains only to divine the name of this bold lover.

Could it be Dakka? No, no, Dakka is not so stupid as to incur my
wrath. ” He twisted my hair just hard enough to bring tears to my
eyes.

“Kratas, then? He is handsome and foolhardy enough to take the risk. ”
He twisted harder and I felt a clump of my hair come away in his hand
with a tearing sound. I choked back the whimper in my throat.

“Answer me, my darling, was it Kratas?” He forced my face down into
his lap.

“No, my lord, ” I whispered painfully. I was not surprised to find
that he was fully aroused. He pushed my face down upon himself and
held me there.

“Not Kratas, are you sure?” He pretended to be puzzled.

“If it was not Kratas, then I am at a loss to guess who else might be
so insolent, so insulting and so mortally stupid as to approach the
virgin daughter of the grand vizier of Upper Egypt. ” Abruptly, he
raised his voice. “Rasfer!” he cried. My head was twisted in his lap
so that through streaming eyes I could watch Rasfer approach.

In Pharaoh’s menagerie on Elephantine Island at Assoun there was a huge
black bear brought in many years ago by one of the trade caravans from
the East. That vicious, scarred brute always reminded me strongly of
the commander of my lord’s bodyguard. They both had the same vast,
shapeless body and the raw, savage power to crush a man to death.

However, in loveliness of face and sweetness of disposition, the bear
had been favoured far beyond Rasfer.

I watched Rasfer approach now at a trot that was surprisingly swift and
agile for those heavy, tree-like legs and the swell of his hairy gut,
and I was transported back over the years to the day that my manhood
had been plucked from me.

It all seemed so familiar, as though I was being forced to live once
more through that terrible day. Every detail of it was still so clear
in my mind that I wanted to shriek aloud.

The actors in that long-ago tragedy were the same. My Lord Inter,
Rasfer the brute, and me. Only the girl was missing.

Her name had been Alyda. She had been the same age as me, sixteen
sweet innocent years. Like me, she had been a slave. I remember her
now as having been beautiful, but it’s likely that my memory cheats me
for had she been so she would have gone into a harem of one of the
great houses and not been relegated to the kitchen. I do know for
certain that she had skin the colour and lustre of polished amber that
was warm and soft to the touch. I will never forget the feel of
Alyda’s body, for I will never experience anything like it again. In
our misery we had found comfort and deep solace in each other. I never
discovered who it was that betrayed us. I am not usually a vengeful
man, but I still dream that one day I will find the person who
delivered us up.

At that time I had been my Lord Inter’s favourite, his special darling.
When he discovered that I had been faithless to him, the affront to his
self-esteem was such as to drive him to the very frontier of madness.

Rasfer had come to fetch us. He dragged us to my lord’s chamber, one
of us in each hand, as easily as if we had been a pair of kittens.

There he had stripped us naked while my Lord Inter sat cross-legged on
the floor, just as he was doing now. Rasfer bound Alyda’s wrists and
ankles with rawhide thongs. She was pale and shivering but she did not
weep.

My love for her and my admiration for her courage had never been
stronger than at that moment.

My Lord Inter beckoned me to kneel in front of him and he took a lock
of my hair and whispered endearments to me. “Do you love me, Taita?”
he asked, and because I was afraid, and because in some dim way I
thought that it might spare Alyda’s suffering, I answered, “Yes, my
lord, I love you “Do you love anyone else, Taita?” he asked in a voice
of silk and, coward and traitor that I was, I answered him, “No, my
lord, I love only you. ” It was only then that I heard Alyda begin to
weep. It was one of the most harrowing sounds of my life.

He called to Rasfer, “Bring the slut here. Place her so that they can
see each other clearly. Taita must be able to see everything that is
done to her. ” As Rasfer pushed the girl into my line of vision I
could see that he was grinning. Then my master raised his voice
slightly: “Very well, Rasfer, you may proceed. ” Rasfer slipped a loop
of braided rawhide rope over Alyda’s forehead. At close intervals the
rope was knotted, so that it looked like a headband such as the Bedouin
women wear. Standing behind the girl, Rasfer thrust a short, stout
baton of olive wood through the rawhide loop and twisted it until it
came up tight against her smooth, unblemished skin. The knots of harsh
leather bit into her flesh and Alyda grimaced with the pain.

“Slowly, Rasfer, ” my lord warned him. “We still have a long way to go
The olive-wood baton seemed like a child’s toy in Rasfer’s huge, hairy
paws. He twisted it with careful deliberation, a quarter of a turn at
a time. The knots bit in deeper, and Alyda’s mouth dropped open and
her lungs emptied in a gasping rush of air. All the colour drained
from her skin so that it turned to the colour of dead ashes.

She struggled to fill her empty lungs with air and then released it in
one long, penetrating scream.

Still grinning, Rasfer twisted the baton and the line of leather knots
buried themselves in Alyda’s forehead. Her skull changed shape.

At first I thought it was a trick of my overwrought mind, then I
realized that her head was, in truth, constricting and elongating as
the loop tightened. Her scream was now a single unbroken peal that
plunged into my heart like a sword-blade. It went on and on for what
seemed like for ever.

Then her skull burst. I heard the bone collapse with a sound like a
palm-nut crushed in the jaws of a feeding elephant. That terrible,
piercing scream was cut off abruptly, as Alyda’s corpse sagged in
Rasfer’s hands, and my soul was filled to overflowing with my sorrow
and despair.

After what seemed like an eternity my lord lifted my head and looked
into my eyes. His expression was sad and regretful as he told me, “She
has gone, Taita. She was evil and she led you astray. We must make
certain that it never happens again. We must protect you from any
further temptation. ” ” Once again he signalled to Rasfer and he took
Alyda’s naked body by the heels and dragged it out on to the terrace.

The back of her crushed head bumped down the steps and her hair
streamed out behind her. With a heave of his massive shoulders, Rasfer
threw her far out into the river. Her slack limbs flashed and tumbled
as she fell and struck the water. She sank swiftly with her hair
spreading out around her like trailing fronds of the niver-weed.

Rasfer turned away and went to the end of the terrace where two of his
men were tending a brazier of burning charcoal. Beside the brazier a
full set of surgeon’s instruments were laid out on a wooden tray. He
glanced over them and then nodded with satisfaction. He returned and
bowed before my Lord Inter. “All is in readiness. ” My master wiped
my tear-streaked face with one finger, then lifted the finger to his
lips as though he were tasting my sorrow. “Come, my pretty darling, ”
he whispered, and lifting me to my feet he led me out on to the
terrace.

I was so distraught and blinded by my tears that I did not realize my
own peril until the soldiers seized me. They threw me down and held me
spreadeagled on the terra cotta tiles, pinning me at wrists and ankles
so that I could move only my head.

My master knelt at my head, while Rasfer knelt between my spread
thighs.

“You will never do this evil thing again, Taita. ” Only then did I
become aware of the bronze scalpel that Rasfer had concealed in his
right hand. My master nodded at him and he reached down with his free
hand and seized me and stretched me out, until it felt as though he
were plucking my entrails out through my groin.

“What a fine pair of eggs we have here!” Rasfer grinned and showed me
the scalpel, holding it up before my eyes.

“But I am going to feed them to the crocodiles, just as I did with your
little girl-friend. ” He kissed the blade.

“Please, my lord, ” I begged, “have mercy.. . ” but my entreaties
ended in a shrill cry as Rasfer slashed down with the blade.

It felt as though a red-hot skewer had been thrust up into my belly.

“Say goodbye to them, pretty boy. ” Rasfer held up the sac of pale
wrinkled skin and its pathetic contents. Then he began to rise, but my
lord stopped him. “You have not finished, ” he told Rasfer quietly. “I
want all of it. ” Rasfer stared at him for a moment, not understanding
the order. Then he began to chuckle until his belly bounced.

“By the blood of Horus, ” he roared, “from now on pretty boy will have
to squat like a girl when he wants to piss!” He struck again, then
bellowed with laughter as he held up the finger of flesh that had once
been the most intimate part of my body.

“Never mind, boy. You’ll walk a lot lighter without that weight to
carry around with you. ” Staggering with laughter, he started towards
the edge of the terrace as if to hurl them into the river, but once
again my lord called to him sharply.

“Give them to me!” he ordered, and obediently Rasfer placed the bloody
fragments of my manhood in his hands.

For a few seconds my lord examined them curiously, and then he spoke to
me again. “I am not so cruel as to deprive you for ever of such fine
trophies, my darling. I will send these to the embalmers, and when
they are ready I will have them placed on a necklace surrounded with
pearls and lapis lazuli. They will be my present to you at the next
festival of Osiris. Thus at the day of your burial they can be placed
in your tomb with you, and if the gods are kind, you may have the use
of them in the afterlife. ” Those terrible memories should have ended
at the moment when Rasfer staunched the bleeding with a ladle of
boiling embalming lacquer from the brazier, and I was plunged into
blessed oblivion by the unbearable intensity of the pain, but now I was
trapped in the nightmare. It was all happening again.

Only this time little Alyda was missing, and instead of the
gelding-knife Rasfer held the whip of hippo-hide in his great hairy
fist.

The whip was as long as the full stretch of Rasfer’s arms and it
tapered to the thickness of his little finger at the point.

I had watched him whittling it himself, shaving off the coarse outer
layer from the long strip of cured hide until the inner skin was
exposed, periodically pausing to test the balance and the heft of it,
cutting it through the air until it keened and whined like the desert
wind through the canyons of the hills of Lot. It was the colour of
amber and Rasfer had polished it lovingly until it was smooth and
translucent as glass, but so supple that he could bend it into a
perfect arc between those bear-like paws. He had allowed the blood of
a hundred victims to dry upon it and to dye the thin end of it to a
lustrous patina that was aesthetically quite beautiful.

Rasfer was an artist with this awful tool. He could flick out and
leave on the tender thigh of a young girl only a crimson weal that
never broke the skin, but stung as viciously as a scorpion and left his
victim writhing and weeping with the agony of it; or with a dozen
hissing strokes he could strip the skin and flesh from a man’s back and
leave his ribs and the crest of his spine exposed.

He stood over me now and grinned as he flexed the long lash in his
hands. Rasfer loved his work, and he hated me with all the force of
his envy and the feelings of inferiority that my intelligence and looks
and favour engendered in him.

My Lord Inter stroked my naked back and sighed. “You are so wicked
sometimes, my old darling. You try to deceive me to whom you owe the
deepest loyalty. Nay, more than simple loyalty-to whom you owe your
very existence. ” He sighed again. “Why do you force this
unpleasantness upon me? You should know much better than to press the
suit of that young jackanapes upon me. It was a ludicrous attempt, but
I suppose that I understand why you made it. ” compassion is one of
your many weaknesses, and one day will probably be the cause of your
complete downfall. However, at times I find it rather quaint and
endearing and I might readily have forgiven you for it, but I cannot
overlook the fact that you have endangered the market value of the
goods that I placed in your care. ” He twisted my head up so that my
mouth was free to answer him. “For that, you must be punished. Do you
understand me?” “Yes, my lord, ” I whispered, but I rolled my eyes to
watch the whip in Rasfer’s hands. Once again my Lord Inter buried my
face in his lap, and then he spoke to Rasfer above my head.

“With all your cunning, Rasfer. Do not break the skin, please. I do
not want this delightfully smooth back marred permanently. Ten will do
as a start. Count then aloud for us. ” I had watched a hundred or
more unfortunates undergo this punishment, some of them warriors and
vaunted heroes.

Not one of them Was able to remain silent under the lash of Rasfer. In
any event it was best not to do so, for he took silence as a personal
challenge to his skill. I knew this well, having travelled this bitter
road before. I was quite prepared to swallow any stupid pride and pay
tribute to Rasfer’s art in a loud voice. I filled my lungs in
readiness.

“One!” grunted Rasfer, and the lash fluted. The, way a woman later
forgets the full pain of childbirth, I had forgotten the exquisite
sting of it, and I screamed even louder than I had intended.

“You are fortunate, my dear Taita, ” my Lord Inter murmured in my ear.
“I had the priests of Osiris examine the goods last night. They are
still intact. ” I squirmed in his lap.

Not only from the pain, but also at the thought of those lascivious old
goats from the temple probing and prying into my little girl.

Rasfer had his own little ritual to draw out the punishment and to
ensure that both he and his victim were able to savour the moment to
the full. Between each stroke he jogged in a small circle around the
barrazza, grunting exhortations and encouragement to himself, holding
the whip at high port like a ceremonial sword. As he completed the
circle he was in position for the next stroke, and he raised the lash
high.

“Two!” he cried, and I shrieked again.

ONE OF LOSTRIS” SLAVE GIRLS WAS WAIting for me on the broad terrace of
my quarters when I limped painfully up the steps from the garden.

“My mistress bids you attend her immediately”

she greeted me.

“Tell her that I am indisposed. ” I tried to avoid the summons and,
shouting for one of the slave boys to dress my injuries, I hurried
through into my chamber in an attempt to rid myself of the girl. I
could not face Lostris yet, for I dreaded having to report my failure,
and having at last to make her face the reality and the impossibility
of her love for tonus. The black girl followed me, ogling the livid
weals across my back with delicious horror.

“Go tell your mistress that I am injured, and that I cannot come to
her, ” I snapped over my shoulder.

“She told me that you would try to wriggle out of it, but she told me
also that I was to stay with you and see to it that you did not. ”
“You are insolent for a slave, ” I reprimanded her sternly as the boy
anointed my back with a healing salve of my own concoction.

“Yes, ” agreed the imp with a grin. “But then so are you. ” And she
dodged the half-hearted slap I aimed at her with ease. Lostris is much
too soft with her handmaidens.

“Go tell your mistress that I will come to her, ” I capitulated.

“She said I must wait and make sure you did. ” So I had an escort as I
passed the guards at the gate of the harem. The guards were eunuchs
like myself, but, unlike me, they were portly and androgynous.

Despite their carUOpppulence, or perhaps because of it, they were
powerful men and fierce. However, I had used my influence to secure
both of them this cosy sinecure, so they passed me through into the
women’s quarters with a respectful salute.

The harem was not nearly as grand nor as comfortable as the quarters of
the slave boys, and it was clear where my Lord Inter’s real interest
lay. It was a compound of mud brick hutments surrounded by a high mud
wall. The only gardens or decorations were those that Lostris and her
maids had undertaken, with my assistance. The vizier’s wives were too
fat and lazy and caught up in the scandals and intrigues of the harem
to exert themselves.

Lostris” quarters were those closest to the main gate, surrounded by a
pretty garden with a lily pond and song-birds twittering in cages woven
of split bamboo. The mud walls were decorated with bright murals of
Nile scenes, of fish and birds and goddesses, that I had helped her
paint.

Her slave girls were huddled in a subdued group at the doorway, and
more than one of them had been weeping.

Their faces were streaked with tears. I pushed my way past them into
the cool, dark interior, and at once heard my mistress’s sobs from the
inner chamber. I hurried to her, ashamed that I had been so craven as
to try to avoid my duty to her.

She was lying down on the low bed, her entire body shaking with the
force of her grief, but she heard me enter and whirled off the bed and
rushed to me.

“Oh, Taita! They are sending tonus away. Pharaoh arrives in Karnak
tomorrow, and my father will prevail upon him to order tonus to take
his squadron up-river to Elephantine and the cataracts. Oh, Taita! It
is twenty days” travel to the first cataract. I shall never see him
again. I wish I were dead.

I shall throw myself into the Nile and let the crocodiles devour me. I
don’t want to live without tonus.. . ” All this in one rising wail of
despair.

“Softly, my child. ” I rocked her in my arms. “How do you know all
these terrible things? They may never happen. ” “Oh, they will.
tonus has sent me a message. Kratas has a brother in my father’s
personal bodyguard. He heard my father discussing it with Rasfer.

Somehow my father has found out about tonus and me. He knows that we
were in the temple of Hopi alone. Oh, Taita, my father sent the
priests to examine me. Those filthy old men did horrid things to me.

It hurt so, Taita. ” I hugged her gently. It is not too often that I
have the opportunity to do so, but now she hugged me back with all her
strength.

Her thoughts turned from her own injuries to her lover.

“I shall never see tonus again, ” she cried, and I was reminded of how
young she truly was, not much more than a child, vulnerable and lost in
her grief. “My father will destroy him. ” “Even your father cannot
touch tonus, ” I tried to reassure her “tonus is a commander of a
regiment of Pharaoh’s own elite guard. He is the king’s man. tonus
takes his orders only from Pharaoh, and he enjoys the full protection
of the double crown of Egypt. ” I did not add that this was probably
the only reason that her father had not already destroyed him, but went
on gently, “While as for never seeing tonus again, you will be playing
opposite him in the pageant. I will make certain that there is a
chance for the two of you to speak to each other between the acts. ”
“My father will never let the pageant go on now. ” “He has no
alternative, unless he is prepared to ruin my production and risk
Pharaoh’s displeasure, and you can be certain that he will never do
that. ” “He will send tonus away, and have another actor play Horus, ”
she sobbed.

“There is no time to rehearse another actor. Tartu’s Will play the god
Horus. I will make that clear to my Lord Inter.

You and tonus will have a chance to talk. We will find a way out for
the two of you. ” She gulped back her tears and looked up at me with
complete trust. “Oh, Taita. I know that you will find a way.

You always do.. . ” She broke off suddenly and her expression changed.
Her hands moved over my back, exploring the ridged welts that Rasfer’s
whip had raised across it.

“I am sorry, mistress. I tried to put forward tonus” suit, as I
promised you I would, and all this is the consequence of my Stupidity.
” She stepped behind me and lifted the light linen tunic I had donned
to hide-my injuries, and she gasped. “This is Rasfer’s work.

Oh, my poor dear Taita, why did you not warn me that this would happen,
that my father was so violently opposed to tonus and to me?” I was
hard put not to gasp at this artless piece of effrontery, I who had
pleaded and warned them and in return been accused of disloyalty. I
managed to hold my peace, however, although my back still throbbed
abominably.

At least my mistress’s own misery was forgotten for the moment in her
concern for my superficial injuries. She ordered me to sit on her bed
and remove my tunic while she ministered to me, her genuine love and
compassion making up for the lack of her medicinal skills. This
distraction lifted her from the utter depths of her despair. Soon she
was chattering away in her usual ebullient fashion, making plans to
thwart her father’s wrath and to reunite herself with tonus.

Some of these plans demonstrated her good common sense, while others,
more far-fetched, merely pointed to her trusting youth and lack of
knowledge and experience in the wicked ways of the world. “I shall
play such a fine role of Isis in the pageant, ” she declared at one
stage, “and I shall make myself so agreeable to Pharaoh that he will
grant me any boon that I ask of him. Then I shall beg him for tonus as
my husband, and he will say.. . ” here she mimicked the king’s pompous
ceremonial tones so cleverly that I was forced to grin, “and he will
say” “I declare the betrothal of tonus, Lord Harrab, son of Pianki, and
of the Lady Lostris, daughter of Inter, and I raise my good servant
tonus to the rank of Great Lion of Egypt and commander of all my
armies. I further order that all the former states of his father, the
noble Pianki, Lord Harrab be returned to him.. . ” ” Here she broke
off in the middle of her ministrations to my wounds and flung her arms
around my neck.

“It could happen like that, could it not, dear Taita? Please say that
it could!” “No natural man could resist you, mistress, ” I smiled at
her nonsense. “Not even great Pharaoh himself. ” If I had known then
how close my words would turn out to being the truth, I think I should
have placed a live coal on my tongue before I spoke them.

Her face was shining with hope once again. That was enough-reward for
me, and I donned my tunic again to bring to an end her too enthusiastic
ministrations to my back.

“But now, mistress, if you are to make a beautiful and irresistible
Isis, you must get some rest. ” I had brought with me a potion of the
powder of the sleeping-flower which is called the Red Sheperm. The
seeds of this precious flower had -first been brought into this very
Egypt by the trade caravans from a mountainous land somewhere” far to
the east. I now cultivated the red blooms in my garden, and when the
petals were fallen I scratched the seed carapace with a gold fork of
three tines. Thick white milk flowed from these wounds, which I
gathered and dried and treated in accordance with the formula I had
evolved. The powder could induce sleep, conjure up strange dreams or
smooth out pain.

“Stay with me awhile, Taita, ” she murmured as she settled down on the
bed, curled like a sleepy kitten. “Cuddle me to sleep like you did
when I was a baby. ” She was a baby still, I thought, as I took her in
my arms.

“It will all turn out all right, won’t it?” she whispered.

“We will live happily ever after, just like they do in your stories,
won’t we, Taita?” When she was asleep, I kissed her forehead softly
and covered her with a fur rug before I stole from her chamber.

ON THE FIFTH DAY OF THE FESTIVAL OF jal Osiris, Pharaoh came down-river
to Karnak from his palace on Elephantine Island which was ten days”
travel away by sift river galley. He came in full state with all his
retinue to officiate at the festival of the god. tonus” squadron had
left Karnak three days previously, speeding away upstream to meet’ the
the great flotilla and escort it on the last stage of the voyage, so
neither Lostris nor I had seen him since we had all three returned from
the great river-cow hunt. It was a special joy for both of us then to
see his galley come flying around the bend in the river, full on the
current and with a strong desert wind abeam.

The Breath of Horus was in the van of the fleet, leading it up from the
south.

Lostris was in the grand vizier’s train, standing behind her two
brothers, Menset and Sobek. The two boys were comely and
well-favoured, but there was too much of their father in them for my
taste. Menset, the elder of the two, I particularly mistrusted, and
the younger followed where his brother led.

I was standing further back in the ruck of courtiers and lesser
functionaries from where I could keep an eye both on Lostris and on my
Lord Inter. I saw the back of her neck flush with pleasure and
excitement at the glimpse she had of tonus” tall figure on the
stern-tower of the Breath of Horus. The scales on his crocodile-skin
breastplate gleamed in the sunlight, and the spray of ostrich feathers
on his helmet floated in the draught of the galley’s passage.

Lostris was hopping with excitement and waving both slim arms above her
head, but her squeals and her antics were lost in the roar of the vast
crowd that lined both banks of the Nile to welcome their pharaoh.
Thebes is the most populous city in the world, and I guessed that
almost a quarter of a million souls had turned out to welcome the
king.

Meanwhile tonus looked neither left nor right, but stared sternly ahead
with his unsheathed sword held before his face in salute. The rest of
his squadron followed the Breath of Horus in the wide vee of the egret
formation, named for the pattern that those birds fly in as they return
in the sunset to their roosts. All their standards and battle honours
were streaming out in a fluttering blaze of rainbow colours, a noble
show that set the crowds cheering and waving their palm-fronds
wildly.

It was some time before the first vessel of the main convoy came
wallowing round the bend behind them. It was laden with ladies and
nobles of the king’s entourage. It was followed by another, and then
by a great untidy horde of vessels great and small. They came swarming
downstream, transports filled with palace servants and slaves and all
their accoutrements and paraphernalia, barges laden with oxen and goats
and chickens for the kitchens, gilded and gaily painted vessels bearing
cargoes of palace furniture and treasure, of nobles and lesser
creatures, all uncomfortably jumbled, together in a most unseamanlike
fashion. In what contrast was the display put up by tonus” squadron as
it rounded-to downstream and held its geometrically spaced formation
against the swift Nile current!

At last Pharaoh’s state barge lumbered around the bend, and the
cheering of the crowd rose to a crescendo. This huge vessel, the
largest ever built by man, made its ponderous way towards where we were
waiting to welcome it at the stone wharf below the grand vizier’s
palace.

I had plenty of time in which to study it and to muse how aptly its
size and design, and the handling of it, reflected the present state
and government of this very. Egypt of ours-Egypt as she stood in the
twelfth year of the rule of Pharaoh Mamose, the eighth of that name and
line, and the weakest yet of a weak and vacillating dynasty. The state
barge was as long as five of the fighting galleys laid end to end, but
its height and breadth were so ill-proportioned that they gravely
offended my artistic instincts. Its massive hull was painted in the
riotous colours that were the fashion of the age, and the figurehead of
Osiris on the bows was gilded with real gold.

However, as she drew closer to the landing where we waited, I could see
that the brilliant colours were faded in patches and her sides were
zebra-striped in dun where her crew had defecated over the rail.

Amidships stood a tall deck-house, Pharaoh’s private quarters, that was
so solidly constructed of thick planks of precious cWar, and so stuffed
with heavy furniture that the sailing characteristics of the barge were
sadly affected. Atop this grotesque edifice, behind an ornate railing
that was woven of fresh lilies, beneath a canopy of finely tanned
gazelle skins skilfully sewn together and painted with images of all
the major gods and goddesses, sat Pharaoh in maJestic isolation. On
his feet were sandals of gold filigree and his robe was of linen so
pure that it shone like the high cumulus clouds of full summer. On his
head he wore the tall double crown; the white crown of Upper Egypt with
the head of the vulture goddess Nekhbet, combined with the red crown
and the cobra head of Buto, the goddess of the Delta.

Despite the crown, the ironic truth was that this beloved sovereign of
ours had lost the Delta almost ten years , previously. In our
turbulent days another pharaoh ruled in Lower Egypt, one who also wore
the double crown, or at least his own version of it, a pretender who
was our sovereign’s deadly adversary, and whose constant wars against
us drained both kingdoms of gold and the blood of the young men. Egypt
was divided and torn by internal strife.

Over the thousand or so years of our history, it had always been thus
when weak men took on the mantle of pharaoh.

It needed a strong, bold and clever man to hold the two kingdoms in his
fists.

In order to turn the unwieldy vessel into the current and bring her to
her moorings at the palace wharf, the captain should have steered close
in to the far bank. If he had done so, he would have had the full
breadth of the Nile in which to complete his turn. However, he had
obviously misjudged the strength of wind and current and he began his
turn from midstream, At first the barge swung ponderously across the
current, listing heavily as the height of the deck-house caught the hot
desert wind like a sail. Half a dozen boatswains raged about the lower
deck with their whips rising and falling, the snapping of the lash on
bare shoulders carrying clearly across the water.

Under the goading of the lash the rowers plied their paddles in a
frenzy that churned the waters alongside the hull to foam, one hundred
paddles a side pulling against each other and none of them making any
effort to synchronize the stroke. Their curses and cries blended with
the shouted orders of the four helmsmen who were struggling with the
long steering-oar in the stern. Meanwhile, on the poop-deck, Nembet,
the geriatric admiral and captain of the barge, alternately combed his
fingers through his long scraggy grey beard and flapped his hands in
impotent agitation.

High above this pandemonium sat Pharaoh, motionless as a statue and
aloof from it all. Oh, verily this was our Egypt.

Then the rate of the barge’s turn bled away until she was no longer
swinging but heading straight for where we stood on the bank, locked in
chains by the pull of the current and, the contrary push of the wind.
Captain and crew, despite all their wild and erratic exertions, seemed
powerless either to complete the manoeuvre and head her into- the
current, or to heave-to and prevent her from ploughing headlong into
the granite blocks of the wharf and staving in her great gilded bows.

As everyone realized what was about to happen, the cheers of the crowd
watching from the shore slowly died away and an awful hush fell upon
both banks of the Nile into-which the shouting and the turmoil on the
decks of the huge vessel carried all the more clearly.

Then suddenly all the eyes of the crowd were drawn downstream, as the
Breath of Horus broke from her station at the head of the squadron and
came tearing upriver, driven by the flying paddles. In perfect unison
those paddles dipped and pulled and swung and dipped again. She cut in
so sharply under the bows of the barge that the crowd gasped with a
sound higher than the wind in the papyrus beds. Collision seemed
inevitable, but at the last possible moment tonus signalled with a
clenched fist lifted above his head. Simultaneously both banks of
rowers backed water and the helmsman put the steering-oar hard over.

The Breath of Horus checked and paid away before the ponderous advance
of the great barge. The two vessels touched as lightly as a virgin’s
kiss, and for an instant the stern-tower of the Breath of Horus was
almost level with the barge’s main deck.

In that instant tonus poised himself on the bulwark of the tower.

He had kicked off his sandals, divested himself of his armour, and
thrown aside his weapons. Around his waist he had tied the end of a
light flax line. With the line trailing behind him he leaped out
across the gap between the two vessels.

As though awakening from a stupor, the crowd stirred and shook itself.
If there was still one amongst them who did not know who tonus was, he
would know before this day was out. Of course, tonus” fame had already
been won in the river wars against the legions of the usurper in the
Lower Kingdom. However, only his own troops had ever seen him in
action. The reported deed never carries the same weight as the one
that the eye sees for itself.

Now, before the gaze of Pharaoh, the royal flotilla and the entire
populace of Karnak, tonus leaped from one deck to the other and landed
as lightly as a leopard. “tonus!” I am sure that it was my mistress,
Lostris, who first called out his name, but I was next. “tonus!” I
yelled, and then all those around me took up the cry. “tonus! tonus!
tonus!” They chanted it like an ode to some newly discovered god.

The moment he landed on the deck of the barge, tonus whirled and raced
into the bows, hauling in the thin line hand over hand as he ran.

The crew of his galley had spliced a heavy hawser as thick as a man’s
arm, to the end of the carrying-line. Now they sent it across as tonus
lay back against the weight of it. With the muscles of his arms and
back shining with sweat, he dragged it in By this time a handful of the
barge’s crew had realized what he was about, and rushed forward to help
him. Under tonus” direction they took three turns with the end of the
hawser about the barge’s bowsprit, and the instant it was secured tonus
signalled his galley away.

The Breath of Horus leaped into the current, gathering speed swiftly.
Then abruptly she came up short against the hawser, and the weight of
the heavy vessel on the other end threw her back on her haunches. For
a dreadful moment I thought she might capsize and be dragged under, but
tonus had anticipated the shock and signalled his crew to cushion it by
skilfully backing the long paddles.

Although she was dragged down so low that she took in green water over
her stern, the galley weathered, it, bobbed up and came back taut on
the hawser. For a long moment nothing happened, The galley’s puny
weight made no impression on the great ship’s ponderous way. The two
vessels were locked together as though a crocodile had an old bull
buffalo by the snout but could not drag him from the bank.

“Then tonus in the bows of the barge turned to face the disorganized
crew. He made one authoritative gesture that caught all their
attention, and a remarkable change came over them. They were waiting
for his command.

Nembet was the commander of all Pharaoh’s fleet with the rank of Great
Lion of Egypt. Years ago he had been one of the mighty men, but now he
was old and feeble. tonus took over from him effortlessly, as though
it were as natural as the force of the current and the wind, and the
crew of the barge responded immediately.

“Pull!” He gestured to the port bank of oarsmen and they bent their
backs and pulled with a will.

“Back-water!” He stabbed his clenched fist at the starboard side and
they dug in hard with the pointed blades of their paddles. tonus
stepped to the rail and signalled to the helmsman of the Breath of
Horus, masterfully coordinating the efforts of both crews. Still the
barge was bearing down upon the wharf and now only a narrow strip of
open water separated the vessel from the granite blocks.

Then at last, slowly, too slowly, she began to respond.

The gaudily painted bows began to swing up into the current as the
galley dragged them round. Once again the cheering died away and that
fateful hush fell upon us all as we waited for the enormous ship to
crash into the wharf and tear out her own guts on the rock. When that
happened there was no doubt what the consequences must be for tonus.

He had snatched command from the senile admiral and so must bear the
full responsibility for all the old man’s mistakes. When Pharaoh was
dashed from his throne by the collision, when the double crown and all
his dignity were sent rolling across the deck, and when the state barge
sank beneath him and he was dragged from the river like a drowning
puppy before the gaze of all his subjects, then there would be both the
insulted Admiral Nembet and my Lord Inter to encourage Pharaoh to bring
the full weight of his displeasure to bear upon the presumptuous young
upstart.

I stood helplessly and trembled for my dear friend, and then a miracle
occurred. The barge was already so close to running aground and tonus
so near to where I stood that his voice carried clearly to me. “Great
Horus, help me now!” he cried.

There is no doubt at all in my mind that the gods often take a hand in
the affairs of men. tonus is a Horus man, and Horus is the god of the
wind.

The desert wind had blown for three days and nights out of the western
desolation of the Sahara. It had blown at the strength of half a gale
without a check for all that time, but now it dropped. It did not
taper off, it simply ceased to blow at all. The wavelets that had
flecked the surface of the river flattened out, and the palms along the
waterfront that had been vigorously shaking their fronds fell still, as
though frozen by a sudden frost.

Released from the claws of the wind, the barge rolled back on to an
even keel and yielded to the pull of the Breath of Horus. Her
elephantine bows turned up into the current, and she came parallel with
the wharf at the exact moment that her side touched the dressed stone
and the rush of the Nile killed her forward-way and stalled her
motionless in the water.

One last command from tonus and, before the ship could gather
stern-way, the mooring ropes were cast on to the wharf and swiftly
gathered up by eager hands and made fast to the stone bollards.

Lightly as a goose-down feather floating on the water, the great barge
of state lay safe and serene at her berth, and neither the throne upon
which Pharaoh sat, nor the high crown upon his head, had been disturbed
by her moorage.

We, the onlookers, burst out in a roar of praise for the feat, and the
name of tonus rather than that of Pharaoh, was on all our tongues.

Modestly, and very prudently, tonus made no attempt to acknowledge our
applause. To draw any further attention to himself that might detract
from the welcome that awaited the king would have been folly indeed,
and would certainly have negated any royal favour that his exploit had
earned him. Pharaoh was always jealous of his royal dignity. Instead,
tonus surreptitiously signalled the Breath of Horus alongside. When
she was hidden from our view by the bulk of the barge, he dropped over
side on to the galley’s deck, quitting the stage on which he had just
earned such distinction, and leaving it now to his king.

However, I saw the expression of fury and chagrin on the face of
Nembet, the ancient admiral, the Great Lion of Egypt, as he came ashore
behind Pharaoh, and I knew that tonus had made himself another powerful
enemy.

I WAS ABLE TO MAKE GOOD MY PROMISE in to Lostris that very evening when
I put the cast of the pageant through their dress rehearsal.

Before the performance began I was able to give the two lovers almost
an hour alone together. -In the precincts of the temple of Osiris,
which was to be our theatre for the pageant, I had set up tents to act
as dressing-rooms for each of the principal players. I had purposely
placed Lostris” tent a little apart from the others, screened from them
by one of the huge stone columns that support the roof of the temple.

While I stood on sentry duty at the entrance to the tent, tonus lifted
the opposite panel and slipped in under it.

I tried not to eavesdrop on their cries of delight as they first
embraced, nor to the whispering and cooing, to the muffled laughter and
to the small moans and gasps of their decorous love-making which
followed. Although at this stage I would not have made any attempt to
prevent it, I was convinced that they would not carry this love-making
to its ultimate conclusion. Long afterwards both Lostris and tonus
separately confirmed this one for me. My mistress had been a virgin on
her wedding day. If only any of us had known how cllose upon us that
wedding day was, I wonder how differently we might have acted then.

Although I was acutely aware that every minute that they were alone
together in the tent increased the danger for all of us, still I could
not bring myself to call enough and separate them. Although the welts
on my back that Rasfer’s whip had raised still burned, and although
deep in that morass of my soul where I attempt to hide my unworthy
thoughts and instincts my envy for the lovers burned as painfully,
still I let them stay together much longer than I should have done.

I did not hear my Lord Inter coming. He used to have his sandals shod
in the softest kid-skin to muffle his footfalls.

He moved silently as a ghost, and many a courtier and slave felt either
Rasfer’s whip or his noose on account of a careless word that my lord
overheard on his noiseless peregrinations through the halls and
corridors of the palace.

However, over the years I developed an instinct that enabled me most
times, to sense his presence before he materialized out of the shadows.
This instinct was not infallible, but that evening it stood me in good
stead. When I looked round suddenly he was almost upon me, gliding
between the pillars of the hypo style hall towards me, slim and tall
and deadly as an erect cobra.

“My Lord Inter!” I cried loudly enough to startle myself.

“I am honoured that you have come to witness our rehearsals. I would
be deeply grateful for any advice or suggestions.. . ” I was gabbling
wildly in an attempt to cover my confusion and to alert the lovers in
the tent behind me.

In both objects I succeeded better than I had any right to expect.

I heard the sudden scuffle of consternation within the dressing-tent
behind me as the lovers broke apart, and then the flutter of the rear
panel of the tent as tonus ducked out the way he had entered. any
other time I would never have succeeded so easily A in deceiving my
Lord Inter. He would have read the guilt upon my face as clearly as I
read the hieroglyphics on the temple walls or my own characters on this
scroll; but that evening he was blinded by his own wrath, and intent
only on taking me to task for my latest misdemeanour.

He did not rage or roar with anger. My Lord is at his most dangerous
when his tone is mild and his smile silky.

“Dear Taita. ” It was almost a whisper. “I hear that you have altered
some of the arrangements for the opening act of the pageant, despite
the fact that I personally ordered them. I could not believe that you
have been so presumptuous. I had to come all this way in the heat to
find out for myself. ” I knew it was of no avail to feign innocence or
ignorance, so I bowed my head and tried to look aggrieved.

“My lord.

It was not I who ordered the changes. It was His Holiness, the abbot
of the temple of Osiris.. . ” But my lord broke in impatiently, “Yes,
of course he did, but only after you put him up to it. Do you think I
do not know both you and that mumbling old priest? He never had an
original thought in his head, while you have nothing but. ” “My lord!”
I protested.

“What devious little trick was it this time? Was it one of those
convenient dreams sent to you by the gods?” my lord asked, his voice
as soft as the rustle of one of the sacred cobras that infested the
temple, sliding across the stone flags of the floor.

“My lord!” I did my best, to look shocked by the accusation, although
I had indeed given the good abbot a rather fanciful account of how
Osiris in the guise of a black crow had visited me in my sleep to
complain of the spilling of blood in his temple.

Up until that time the priest had voiced no objection to the realistic
piece of theatre that my Lord Inter had planned for the amusement of
Pharaoh. I had only resorted to dreams when all my efforts to dissuade
my lord had failed. It was deeply abhorrent to me to be party to such
an abomination as my lord had ordered to be performed in the first act
of the pageant. Of course I am aware that certain savage peoples in
the eastern lands make human sacrifice to their gods.

I have heard that the Kassites, who live beyond the twin rivers Tigris
and Euphrates, cast new-born babes into a fiery furnace. The caravan
masters who have. travelled in those distant lands speak of other
atrocities performed in the name of religion, of young virgins
slaughtered to promote the harvest or captives of war beheaded before
the statues of a triple-headed god.

However, we Egyptians are a civilized people and we worship wise and
just gods, not blood-crazed monsters. I had tried to convince my
master of this. I had pain . ted out to him that only once before had
a pharaoh made human sacrifice; when Menotep had slit the throats of
the seven rebel princes in the temple of Seth and quartered their
corpses and sent the embalmed fragments to the governors of each of the
names as a warning. History still remembered the deed with distaste.

Menotep is know if to this day as the Bloody King.

It is not human sacrifice, ” my master had contradicted me.

“Merely a well-merited execution, to be carried out in a rather novel
fashion. You will not deny, dear Taita, that the death penalty has
always been an important part of our system of justice, will you?

Tod is a thief. He has stolen from the royal coffers and he must die,
if only as an example to others. ” It sounded reasonable, except that
I knew he was not at all interested in justice, but rather in
protecting his own treasure and in impressing Pharaoh, who so loved
pageant and theatre. This had left me with no alternative but to dream
for the benefit of the good abbot. Now my Lord Inter’s lip lifted in a
smile which exposed his perfect teeth but which chilled my blood and
raised the hairs on the nape of my neck.

“Here is a little piece of advice, ” he whispered close to my face.

“I suggest that you have another dream tonight, so that whichever god
it was that visited you last time has an opportunity to countermand his
previous instructions to the abbot and to endorse my arrangements.

If this does not happen, I will find some more work for Rasfer-that is
my solemn promise to you. ” He turned and strode away, leaving me both
relieved that he had not discovered the lovers and miserable that I was
forced to go ahead with the vile display which he had ordered.

Nevertheless , after my master had left, the rehearsal was a heartening
success that revived my spirits. Lostris was. in such a glow of
happiness after her tryst With tonus that her beauty was indeed divine,
and tonus in his youth and power was the young Horus incarnate.

Naturally I was perturbed by the entrance of my Osiris to the stage,
aware as I now was of the fate that my Lord Inter had ordered for him.
My Osiris was played by a handsome, middle-aged man named Tod who had
been one of the bailiffs until he had been caught dipping into my Lord
Inter’s coffers to support a young and expensive courtesan of whom he
was enamoured. I was not proud that it was my examination of the
accounts that had brought to light the discrepancies.

My lord had released him from custody, where he was awaiting formal
trial and sentencing, to play the parr of the god of the underworld in
the pageant. My lord had promised not to take the matter further if he
fulfilled the role of Osiris satisfactorily. The unfortunate Tod was
unaware of the hidden menace in this offer and threw himself into the
act with pathetic enthusiasm, believing that he was about to earn his
pardon. He could not know that, in the meantime, my lord had secretly
signed his death warrant and handed the scroll to Rasfer, who was not
only the state executioner but my choice to play Seth in our little
production. It was my lord’s Intention that he should combine both
roles on the following evening when the pageant was performed before
Pharaoh.

Although Rasfer was a natural choice for the role of Seth, I regretted
having cast him in it as I watched him rehearse the opening scene with
Tod, and I shuddered as I imagined how the main performance would
differ from the rehearsal.

After the rehearsal it was my most pleasant duty to escort my mistress
back to the harem compound. She would not let me leave but kept me
late listening to her excited resume of the day’s extraordinary events
and. the, role that tonus had played in them.

“Did you see how he called upon the great god Horus and how the god
came at once to his aid? Surely he has the full favour and protection
of Horus, don’t you agree? Horus will not let any evil befall us, of
that I am now certain. ” There was much more of this happy fantasy,
and no more talk of parting and suicide. How swiftly the winds of
young love shift!

“After what tonus did today, the way he saved the state barge from
wrecking, surely he must also have earned Pharaoh’s high favour, don’t
you think so, Taita? With favour of both the god and Pharaoh, my
father can never succeed in having tonus sent away now, can he,
Taita?”

I was called upon to endorse every happy thought that occurred to her,
and I was not allowed to leave the harem until I had memorized at least
a dozen messages of undying love -which I was sworn to carry to tonus
personally.

When, exhausted, I finally reached my own quarters, there was still no
rest for me. Nearly all the slave boys were waiting for me, as excited
and garrulous as my mistress had been. They also wanted to have my
opinion of the day’s events, and particularly of tonus” rescue of
Pharaoh’s ship and the significance of that deed. They crowded around
me on the terrace above the river as I fed my pets, and vied with each
other for my attention.

“Elder brother, is it true that tonus called upon the god for his help,
and Horus intervened immediately? Did you see it happen? Some even
say that the god appeared in his falcon shape and hovered over tonus”
head, spreading protective wings over him. Is it true?” “Is it true,
that Pharaoh has promoted tonus to Companion of Pharaoh, and given him
an estate of five hundred fed dan of fertile land on the riverside as
reward?” “Elder brother, they say that the oracle at the desert shrine
of Thoth, the god of wisdom, has cast a horoscope for tonus. The
oracle divines that he will be the greatest warrior in the history of
our Egypt and that, one day, Pharaoh will favour him above all others.
” It is amusing now to look back on these childish prattles, and to
realize the strange truths that were adumbrated in them, but at the
time I dismissed them as I did the children, with mock severity.

As I composed myself to sleep, my last thought was that the populace of
the twin towns of Luxor and Karnak had taken tonus to their hearts
completely, but that this was an onerous and dubious distinction. Fame
and popularity breed nvy in high places, and the adulation of the mob
is fickle.

They often take as much pleasure in tearing down the idols that they
have grown tired of, as they did in elevating them in the first
place.

It is safer by far to live unseen and unremarked, as I always attempt
to do.

Late ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE SIXTH DAY OF the festival, Pharaoh moved
in solemn procession from his villa in the midst of the royal estates
in the open country between Karnak and Luxor, down the ceremonial
avenue lined with statues of granite lions, to the temple of Osiris on
the bank of the Nile.

The great sledge on which he rode was so tall that the dense crowds
lining the avenue were forced to strain their necks backwards to look
up at him on his great gilded throne as he trundled by, drawn by twenty
pure white bullocks with massive humped shoulders and wreaths of
flowers on their homed heads. The skids of the sledge ground harshly
over the paving and scarred the stone slabs.

One hundred musicians led the procession, strumming the lyre and the
harp, beating the cymbal and the drum, shaking the rattle and the
sistrum, and blowing on the long straight horn of the oryx and on the
curling horn of the wild ram.

A choir of a hundred of the finest voices in Egypt followed them,
singing hymns of praise to Pharaoh and that other god Osiris.

Naturally I led the choir. Behind us followed an honour guard from the
Blue Crocodile regiment led by Tanu himself. The crowds raised a
special cheer for him as, all plumed and armoured, he strode past. The
unmarried maidens shrieked and more than one of them sank swooning in
the dust, overcome by the hysteria that his new-won fame engendered.

Behind the guard of honour came the vizier and his high office bearers,
then the nobles and their wives and children, then a detachment of the
Falcon regiment, and finally Pharaoh’s great sledge.

In all, this was an assembly of several thousand of the most wealthy
and influential persons in the Upper Kingdom.

As we approached the temple of Osiris, the abbot and all his priests
were drawn up on the staircase between the tall entrance pylons to
welcome Pharaoh Mamose. The temple had been freshly painted and the
has-relief on the outer walls was dazzling with colour in the warm
yellow glow of the sunset. A gay cloud of banners and flags fluttered
from their poles set in the recesses of the outer wall.

At the base of the staircase Pharaoh descended from his carnage and in
solemn majesty began the climb up the one hundred steps. The choir
lined both sides of the staircase. I was on the fiftieth step and so I
was able to study the king minutely during the few seconds that it took
for him to pass close to me. ” I already knew him well for he had been
a patient of mine, but I had forgotten how small he was-that is, small
for a god. He stood not as tall as my shoulder, although the high
double crown made him seem much more impressive.

His arms were folded across his chest in the ritual posture and he
carried the crook and the flail of his royal office and his godhead. I
remarked as I had before that his hands were hairless, smooth and
almost feminine, and that his feet also were small and neat. He wore
rings on all his fingers and on his toes, amulets on his upper arms and
bracelets on his wrists. The massive pectoral plate of red gold on his
chest was inlaid with many colours of faience depicting the god Thoth
bearing the feather of truth. That piece of jewellery was a splendid
treasure almost five hundred years old and had been worn by seventy
kings before him.

Under the double crown, his face was powdered dead white like that of a
corpse. His eyes were dramatically outlined with startling jet black
and his lips were rouged crimson. Under the heavy make-up his
expression was petulant, and his lips were thin and straight and
humourless. His eyes were shifty and nervous, as well they might be, I
reflected.

The foundations of this great House of Egypt, were cracked, and the
kingdom riven and shaken. Even a god has his worries. Once his domain
had stretched from the sea, across the seven mouths of the Delta,
southwards to Assoun and the fit st cataract-the greatest empire on
earth. He and his ancestors had let it all slip away, and now his
enemies swarmed at his shrunken borders, clamouring like hyena and
jackal and vulture to feast on the carcass of our Egypt.

In the south were the black hordes of Africa, in the north along the
coast of the great sea were thepiratical sea-people, and along the
lower reaches of the Nile the legions of the false Pharaoh. In the
west were the treacherous Bedouin and the sly Libyan, while in the east
new hordes seemed to rise up daily, their names striking terror into a
nation grown timid and hesitant with defeat. Assyrians and Medes,
Kassites and Humans and Hittites-there seemed no end to their
multitudes.

What advantage remained in our ancient civilization if it were grown
feeble and effete with its great age? How were we to resist the
barbarian in his savage vigour, his cruel arrogance and his lust for
rapine and plunder? I was certain that this pharaoh, like those who
had immediately preceded him, was not capable of leading the nation
back to its former glories. He was incapable even of breeding a male
heir.

This lack of an ” heir to the empire of Egypt seemed to obsess him even
more than the loss of the empire itself. He had taken twenty wives so
far. They had given him daughters, a virtual tribe of daughters, but
no son. He would not accept that the fault lay with him as sire. He
had consulted every doctor of renown in the Upper Kingdom and visited.
every oracle and every important shrine.

I knew all this because I was one of the learned doctors he had sent
for. I admit that at the time I had felt some trepidation in
prescribing to a god, and that I had wondered why he should need to
consult a mere mortal on such a delicate subject. Nevertheless, I had
recommended a diet of bull’s testicles fried in honey and counselled
him to find the most beautiful virgin in Egypt and take her to his
marriage-bed within a year of the first flowering of her woman’s
moon.

I had no great faith in my own remedy, but bull’s testicles, when
cooked to my recipe, are a tasty dish, while I reckoned that the search
for the most beautiful virgin in the land might distract Pharaoh and
prove not only amusing but pleasurable as well. From a practical point
of view, if the king bedded a sufficient number of young ladies, then
surely one of them must eventually drop a male pup into his harem.

Anyhow, I consoled myself that my treatment was not As drastic as some
of the others proposed by my peers, particularly those disgusting
remedies dreamed up by the quacks in the temple of Osiris who call
themselves doctors. If not actually efficacious, my recommendations
would at least do no harm. That was what I believed. How wrong the
fates would prove me, and if only I had known the consequences of my
folly, I would have taken Tod’s place in the pageant rather than have
given Pharaoh such frivolous counsel.

I was amused and flattered when I heard that Pharaoh must have taken my
advice seriously, and that he had ordered his nomarchs and his
governors to scour the length of the land from El Amarna to the
cataracts to find bulls with succulent balls and any virgin who might
fit my specifications for the mother of his first son. My sources at
the king’s court informed me that he had already rejected hundreds of
aspiring applicants for the title of the most beautiful virgin in the
land.

Then the king was swiftly past me and gone into the temple to the
keening of the priests and the obsequious bobbing of the abbot. The
grand vizier and all his train followed closely, and then there was an
undignified rush of lesser citizens to find places from which to watch
the passion play.

Space in the temple was limited. Only the mighty and the noble and
those rich enough to bribe the thieving priests were allowed into the
inner courtyard. The others were forced to watch through the -gates
from the outer court.

Many thousands of the citizenry would be disappointed and would have to
be content with a secondhand account of the pageant. Even the
impresario, had great difficulty in fighting my way through the press
of humanity, and I only succeeded when tonus saw my predicament and
sent two of his men to rescue me and force a path for me into the
precincts reserved for the actors.

Before the pageant could begin, we were obliged to endure a succession
of flowery speeches, firstly from the local functionaries and
government ministers, and then from the grand vizier in person.

This interlude of speechifying gave me the opportunity to make certain
that all the arrangements for the pageant were perfect. I went from
tent to tent, checking the costumes and the make-up of each of my
actors, and soothing last-minute attacks of temperament and
stage-fright The unfortunate Tod was nervously dreading the possibility
that his performance might not please my Lord Inter.

I was able to assure him that it most certainly would, and then I
administered to him a draught of the Red Shepenn, which would deaden
the pain that he was about to have inflicted upon him.

When I came to Rasfer’s tent he was drinking wine with two of his
cronies from the palace guard and, with a whetstone, laying an edge on
his short bronze sword. I had created his make-up to render him even
more repulsive, which was not an easy feat given the high plateau of
ugliness from which we started. I realized how well I had succeeded as
he leered at me with blackened teeth’ and offered me a cup of the
wine.

“How does your back feel now, pretty boy? Have a taste of a man’s
drink! Perhaps it will give you balls again. ” I am accustomed to his
taunts and I kept my dignity as I told him that my Lord Inter had
countermanded the abbot’s orders and that the first act was to be
played out in the original form.

I have spoken to Lord Inter already. ” He held up the sword.

“Feel the edge, eunuch.. I want to make certain that it meets with
your approval. ” I left him feeling a little queasy.

Although tonus would not be on stage until the second act, he was
already in costume. Relaxed and smiling, he clasped my shoulder.

“Well, old friend, this is your opportunity. After this evening your
fame as a playwright will spread throughout Egypt. ” “As yours has
already. Your name is on every lip” I told him, but he laughed it away
with careless modesty. as I went on, “you have your “closing
declamation prepared, tonus? Would you like to recite it to me now.

Traditionally, the actor who played Horus would close the pageant with
a message to Pharaoh, ostensibly from the gods but in reality from his
own subjects. In olden times this had been the one occasion during the
year when the populace, through the agency of the actor, could bring to
the king’s notice matters of concern which they were not able to
address to him at any other time. However, during the rule of this
last dynasty of kings the tradition had fallen away, and the closing
speech had become merely another eulogy to the divine pharaoh.

For days past I had been asking tonus to rehearse his speech for me,
but every time he had put me off with excuses so lame that I was by now
thoroughly suspicious of his intentions. “This is the last
opportunity, ” I insisted, but he laughed at me.

“I have decided to let my speech be as much a surprise to you as I hope
it will be to Pharaoh. That way you should both enjoy it more. ” And
there was nothing I could do to persuade him. At times he can be far
and away the most headstrong and obstinate young ruffian I have ever
encountered. I left him in not a little dudgeon, and went to find more
convivial company.

As I stooped in through the entrance of Lostris” dressing tent I froze
with shock. Even though I had designed her costume myself and
instructed her handmaidens as to exactly how I wanted her powder and
rouge and eye-paint applied, still I was not prepared for the ethereal
vision that stood before me now. For a moment I was convinced that
another miracle had taken place and that the goddess had indeed risen
up from the underworld to take my mistress’s place. I gasped aloud and
had actually begun to sink. to my knees in superstitious awe when my
mistress giggled and roused my from my delusion.

“Isn’t this fun? I cannot wait to see tonus in full costume.

I am sure he must look like the god himself. ” She turned slowly to
allow me to appraise her own costume, smiling at me over her
shoulder.

“No more godlike than you, my lady, ” I whispered.

“When will the play begin?” she demanded impatiently.

I am so excited that I can wait no longer. ” I cocked my ear to the
panel of the tent and listened for moment to the drone of the speeches
in the great hall. I realized that this was the final oration and that
at any moment my Lord Inter would call upon my players to perform.

I took Lostris” hand and squeezed it. “Remember the long pause and the
haughty look before you begin your opening speech, ” I cautioned her,
and she slapped my shoulder playfully.

“Away with you, you old fuss-pot, it will all go perfectly, you’ll see.
” And at that moment I heard my Lord Inter’s voice raised.

“The divine god Pharaoh Marnose, the Great House of Egypt, the Support
of the Realm, the Just, the Great, the All-Seem , the All-Merciful.. .
” The titles and honorifics continued while I hurried out of Lostris”
tent and made my way to my opening position behind the central pillar.
I peered around the column and saw that the inner courtyard of the
temple was packed and that Pharaoh and his senior wives sat in the
front rank on low benches of cedar wood, sipping cool sherbet or
nibbling dates and sweetmeats.

My Lord Inter was addressing them from the front of the raised platform
below the altar that was our stage. The main body of the stage was
still hidden from the audience by the linen curtains. I surveyed it
for one last time, although it was too late to do anything further
about it now.

Behind the curtains the set was decorated with palms and acacia trees
that the palace gardeners had transplanted under my instruction.

My masons had been taken from the work on the king’s tomb to build a
stone cistern at the back of the temple from which a stream could be
diverted across the stage to represent the river Nile.

At the rear of the stage, hanging from floor to ceiling, were tightly
stretched sheets of linen on which the artists from the necropolis had
painted marvelous landscapes. In the half-light of the dusk and the
flicker of the torches in their brackets the effect was so realistic as
to transport the beholder into a different world in a distant time.

There were other delights that I had prepared for Pharaoh’s amusement,
from cages of animals, birds and butterflies that would be released to
simulate the creation of the world by the great, god Arnmon-Ra, to
flares and torches that I had doctored with chemicals to burn with
brilliant flames of crimson and green, and flood the stage with eerie
light and smoke-clouds, like those of the underworld here the gods
live.

“Mamose, son of Ra, may you be granted eternal life! We your loyal
subjects, the citizens of Thebes, beg you to draw nigh and give your
divine attention to this poor play that we dedicate to Your Majesty. ”
My Lord Inter concluded his address of welcome and resumed his seat. To
a fanfare of hidden rams” horns, I stepped out from behind the pillar
and faced the audience. They had endured discomfort and boredom on the
hard flagstones, and by now were ripe for the entertainment to begin.
A raucous cheer greeted my entrance and even Pharaoh smiled in
anticipation.

I held up both hands for silence, and only when it was total did I
begin to speak my overture.

“While I walked in the sunlight, young and filled with the vigour of
youth, I heard the fatal music in the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

I did not recognize the sound of this harp, and I had no fear, for I
was in the full bloom of my manhood and secure in the affection of my
beloved.

“The music was of surpassing beauty. Joyously I went to find the
musician, and could not know that he was Death and that he played his
harp to summon me alone. ” We Egyptians are fascinated by death, and I
had at once touched a deep chord within my audience. They sighed and
shuddered.

“Death seized me and bore me up in his skeletal arms towards
Ammon-Rathe sun god, and I was become one with the white light of his
being. At a great distance I heard my beloved weep, but I could not
see her and all the days of my life were as though they had never been.
” This was the first public recitation of my prose, and I knew almost
at once that I had them, their faces were fascinated and intent.

There was not a sound in the temple.

“Then Death set me down in a high place from which I Could see the
world like a shining round shield in the blue sea of the heavens. I
saw’ all men and all creatures who have ever lived. Like a mighty
river, time ran backwards before mine eyes. For a hundred thousand
years I watched their strivings and their deaths. I watched all men go
from death and old age to infancy and birth. Time became more and more
remote, going back until the birth of the first man and the first
woman. I watched them at the moment of their birth and then before.

At last there were no men upon the earth and only the gods existed.

“Yet still the river of time flowed back beyond the time of the gods
into Nun, into the time of darkness and primordial chaos. The river of
time could flow no further back and so reversed itself Time began to
run forward in the manner that was familiar to me from my days of life
upon the earth and I watched the passion of the gods played out before
me. ” My Audience were all of them well versed in the theology of our
pantheon, but none of them had ever heard the mysteries presented in
such a novel fashion. They sat silent and enthralled as I went on.

“Out of the chaos and darkness of Nun rose Ammon-Ra,
He-Who-Creates-Himself. I watched Ammon-Ra stroke his generative
member, masturbating and spurting out his seminal seed in mighty waves
that left the silver smear that we know as the Milky Way across the
dark void. From this seed were generated Geb and Nut, the earth and
the heaven. ” “Bak-her!” a single voice broke the tremulous silence
of the temple. “Bak-her! Amen!” The old abbot had not been able to
contain himself, and now he endorsed my vision of the creation. I was
so astonished by his change of heart that I almost forgot my. next
line. After all, he had been my sternest critic up to that time. I
had won him over completely, and my voice soared in triumph.

“Geb and Nut coupled and cdpulated, as man and women do, and from their
dreadful union were born the gods Osiris and Seth, and the goddesses
Isis and Nephthys. ” I made a wide gesture and the linen curtains were
drawn slowly aside to reveal the fantasy world that I had created.

Nothing like this had ever been seen in Egypt before and the audience
gasped with amazement. With measured tread I withdrew, and my place
upon the stage was taken by the god Osiris. The audience recognized
him instantly by the tall, bottle-shaped head-dress, by his arms
crossed over his chest and by the crook and the flail “he held before
him.

Every household kept his statuette in the family shrine. droning cry
of reverence went up from every throat, and indeed the sedative that I
had administered to Tod glittered weirdly in his eyes and gave him a
strange, unearthly presence that was convincingly godlike. With the
crook and the flail Osiris made mystical gestures and declaimed in
sonorous tones, “Behold Atur, the river!” Once more the audience
rustled and murmured as they recognized the Nile. The Nile was Egypt
and the centre of the world.

“Bak-her!” another voice called out, and, watching from my hidden
place, amongst the pillars, I was astonished and delighted as I
realized who had spoken. It was Pharaoh. My play had both secular and
divine endorsement. I was certain that from now on mine would become
the authorized version, replacing the thousand-year-old original. I
had found my place in immortality. My name would live on down the
millennium.

Joyfully I signalled for the cistern to be opened and the waters began
to flow across our stage. At first the audience did not comprehend,
and then they realized that they were actually witnessing the
revelation of the great river, and a shout went up from a thousand
throats, “Bak-her! Bak-her!” “Behold the waters rise!” cried Osiris,
and obediently the Nile was swollen by the inundation.

“Behold the waters fall!” cried the god, and they shrank at his
command. “Now they will rise again!” I had arranged for buckets of
dye to be added to the water as it poured out of the cistern at the
rear of the temple. First a green dye to simulate the low-water
period, and then, as it rose again, a darker dye that faithfully
emulated the colour of the silt-laden waters of the high inundation.

“Now behold the insects and birds upon the earth!” ordered Osiris, and
the cages at the rear of the stage were opened and a shrieking,
chattering, swirling cloud of wild birds and gorgeously coloured
butterflies filled the temple.

The watchers were like children, enchanted and enthralled, reaching up
to snatch the butterflies from the air and then release them again to
fly out between the high pillars of the temple. One of the wild birds,
a long-billed hoopoe marvellously patterned in colours of white and
cinnamon and black, flew down unafraid and settled on Pharaoh’s
crown.

The crowd was delighted. “An omen!” they cried. “A blessing on the
king. May he live for ever!” and Pharaoh smiled.

It was naughty of me, but afterwards I hinted to my Lord Inter that I
had trained the bird to single out Pharaoh, and although it was of
course quite impossible, he believed me.

Such is my reputation with animals and birds.

On the stage Osiris wandered through the paradise that he had created,
and the mood was set for the dramatic moment when, with a
blood-chilling shriek, Seth bounded on to the stage. Although they had
been expecting it, still the powerful and hideous presence shocked the
audience, and the women screamed and covered their faces, only to peer
out again from between trembling fingers.

What is this you have done, brother?” Seth bellowed in jealous rage.
“Do you set yourself above me? Am I not also a god ? Do you hold all
creation to yourself alone, that I, your brother, may not share it with
you?” Osiris answered him calmly, his dignity remote and cool as the
drug held him in its thrall. “Our father, Ammon-Ra, has given it to us
both. However, he has also given us the right to choose how we dispose
of it, for good or for evil, The words that I had put into the mouth of
the god reverberated through the temple. They were the finest that I
had written, and the audience hung upon them.

However, I alone of all of them knew what was coming, and the beauty
and the power of my own composition were soured as I steeled myself for
it.

Osiris drew to the close of his speech. “This is the world as I have
revealed it. If you wish to share it in peace and brotherly love, then
you are welcome. However, if you come warlike rage, if evil and hatred
fill your heart, then I order You gone. ” He lifted his right arm all
draped in the gleaming diaphanous linen of his robe and pointed the way
for Seth to leave the paradise of Earth.

Seth hunched those huge, hairy shoulders like a buffalo bull, and he
bellowed so that the spittle flew from his lips in a cloud that was
flavoured by the rotting teeth in his jaws.

I could smell it from where I stood. He lifted high the bronze
broad-sword and rushed at his brother. This had never been rehearsed,
and it took Osiris completely by surprise. He stood with his right arm
still outstretched, and the ri blade hissed with the power of the
stroke as it swung down.

The hand was lopped off at the wrist as cleanly as I would prune a
shoot from the vine that grows over my terrace. It fell at Osiris”
feet and lay there with the fingers fluttering feebly.

The surprise was so complete and the sword so sharp that for a long
moment Osiris did not move, except to sway slightly on his feet.

The audience must have believed that this was another theatrical trick,
and that the fallen hand was a dummy. The blood did not come at once,
which lulled them further. They were intensely interested but not
alarmed, until suddenly Osiris reeled back and with a dreadful cry
clutched at the stump of his lower arm. Only then did the blood burst
out between his fingers and sprayed down his white robe, staining it
like spilt wine. Still clutching his stump, Osiris staggered across
the stage and began to scream. That scream, high and clear with mortal
agony, broke the mood of the spectators” complacency. They knew then
for the first time that what they were witnessing was not make-believe,
but they were trapped in horrified silence.

Before Osiris could reach the edge of the stage, Seth came bounding
after him on those thick bow-legs. He seized the stump of Osiris” arm
and used it as a handle to drag him back into the centre of the stage,
where he threw him sprawlin full-length on the stone flags.

The tinsel crown tumbled from Osiris” head and the plaits of dark hair
fell to his shoulders as he lay in a spreading puddle of his own
blood.

“Please spare me, ” Osiris shrieked, as Seth stood over him, and Seth
laughed. It was a full-throated roar of genuine amusement.

Rasfer had become Seth, and Seth was hugely enjoying himself.

That savage laughter woke the audience from its trance.

However, the illusion was complete. They no longer believed that they
were watching a play, and for all of them this terrible spectacle had
become reality. Women screamed and men roared with fury as they
witnessed the murder of their god.

“Spare him! Spare the great god Osiris!” they howled, but not one of
them rose from his seat or rushed on to the stage to attempt to prevent
the tragedy from being played out.

They knew that the struggles and passions of the gods were beyond the
influence of mortal men.

Osiris reached up and pawed at Seth’s legs with his one remaining hand.
Still laughing, “Seth grabbed his wrist and pulled his arm out to its
full length, inspecting it as a butcher might inspect the shoulder of a
goat before he sections it.

“Cut it off!” screamed a voice in the crowd, thick with the lust for
blood. The mood had swung again.

“Kill him!” screamed another. It . has always troubled me how the
sight of blood and violent death affects even the mildest of men.

Even I was stirred by this terrible scene, sickened and horrified, it
is true, but beneath it stirred by a revolting excitement.

With a casual sweep of the blade, Seth struck off the arm, and Osiris
fell back, leaving the twitching limb in Seth’s red fist. He was
trying to rise to his feet, but he had no hands to support himself.

His legs kicked spasmodically, and his head whipped from side to side,
and still he screamed. but though I tried to force myself to turn
away, the gorge rose and scalded the back of my throat, still I had to
watch.

Seth hacked the arm into three pieces through the joint of the wrist
and the elbow. One at a time he hurled the fragments into the packed
ranks of the audience. As they spun through the air they sprinkled
those below with drops of ruby. They roared like the lions in
Pharaoh’s zoo at feeding-time, and held up their hands to catch these
holy relics of their god.

Seth worked on with dedicated gusto. Osiris” feet he chopped off at
the ankles. Then the calves at the knees, and the thighs at the hip
joints. As he threw each of these to them, the mob clamoured for
more.

“The talisman of Seth!” howled a voice amongst them.

“Give us the talisman. and the cry was taken up.

According to the myth, the talisman is the most powerful of all the
magical charms. The person who has it in his possession controls all
the dark forces of the underworld. It is the only one of the fourteen
segments of Osiris” body that recovered by Isis and her sister Nephthys
from was never the far corners of the earth to which Seth scattered
them.

The talisman of Seth is that same part of the body that Rasfer deprived
me of, and which forms the centre-piece of that beautiful necklace that
was the cynical gift of my Lord Inter.

“Give us the talisman of Seth!” the mob howled, and Seth reached down
and lifted the red sodden tunic of the limbless trunk at his feet.

He was still laughing. I shuddered as I recognized that merciless
sound that I had heard so often at my own punishment “sessions. In
sympathy I experienced once again the sudden fire in my groin as the
short sword flashed in Seth’s hairy paw, already wet and running with
his victim’s blood, and he lifted on high the piteous relic.

The crowd pleaded for it. “Give it to us, ” they begged him.

“Give us the power of the talisman. ” The spectacle had transformed
them into ravening beasts.

Seth ignored their pleas. “A gift, ” he cried. “A gift from one god
to another. I Seth, god of darkness, dedicate this talisman to the
god-Pharaoh, Mamose the divine, ” And he hopped down the stone stairs
on those powerful bow-legs and placed the relic at Pharaoh’s feet.

To my amazement the king leaned forward and gathered it up to himself.
His expression beneath the powder and paint was spellbound, as though
this was the true relic of the god. I am sure that at that moment he
truly believed it was. He held it in his right hand through all that
ensued.

His gift accepted, Seth rushed back on to the stage to complete his
butchery. The thing that haunts me still is that the poor disMembered
creature was alive and sensate to the very end. I realized that the
drug I had given Tod had done little to dull his senses. I saw the
terrible agony in his eyes as he lay in the lake of his own blood and
rolled his head, from side to side, the only part that remained to him
to move.

For me, then, it came as an intense relief when at last Seth struck off
the head and heW it up by its thick plaited locks for the crowd to
admire. Even then, the poor creature’s eyes swivelled wildly in their
sockets as he looked for the very last time on this world. At last
they dulled and glazed over, and Seth tossed the head to them.

Thus the first act of our pageant ended in swelling and rapturous
applause that threatened to shake the granite pillars of the temple
from their bases.

DURING THE Interval MY SLAVE and helpers cleaned away the gruesome
evidence of the slaughter from the set. I was particularly concerned
that my Lady Lostris should not realize what had truly taken place in
the first act. I wished her to believe that all had gone as we had
rehearsed it. So I had arranged that she stay in her tent, and that
one of tonus” men remain at the entrance to keep her there, and also to
ensure that none of her Cushite maidens were allowed to peep out at the
first act and rush back to Lostris with a report. I knew that if she
realized the truth, she would be too distraught to play her part. my
helpers used buckets of water from our stage Nile to wash away the”
ghastly evidence, I hurried to my mistress’s tent to reassure her and
to satisfy myself that my precautions to shield her had been
effective.

“Oh, Taita, I heard the applause, ” she greeted me happily.

“They love your play. I am so happy for you. You so richly deserve
this success. ” She chuckled in a conspiratorial fashion. “It sounded
as though they believed the murder of Osiris was real, and the buckets
of ox-blood with which you drenched Tod were truly the blood of the
god. ” “Indeed, my lady, they seemed totally deceived by our little
tricks, ” I agreed, although I still felt faint and ill from what I had
just lived through. , My Lady Lostris suspected nothing, and when I
led her out on to the stage, she barely glanced at the grisly stains
that remained upon the stones. I posed her in her opening position,
and adjusted the torchlight to flatter her. Even though I was
accustomed to it, still her beauty choked my throat and made my eyes
sting with tears.

I left her concealed by the linen curtains, and stepped out to face my
audience. There was no sarcastic applause to greet me this time. Every
one of them, from Pharaoh to the meanest vassal, was captive to my
voice, as in my lambent prose I described the mourning of Isis find her
sister Nephthys at the death of their brother.

When I stepped down and the curtain was drawn aside to reveal the
grieving figure of Isis, the audience gasped aloud at her loveliness.

After the horror and blood of the first act, her presence was all the
more moving.

Isis began to sing the lament for the dead, and her voice thrilled
through the gloomy halls of the temple. As her head moved to the
cadence of her voice, the torchlight was reflected in a darting and
flickering shaft from the bronze moon that surmounted her homed
headdress.

I watched Pharaoh attentively as she sang. His eyes never left her
face, and his lips moved silently in sympathy with the words that
swelled from her throat.

My heart is a wounded gazelle, torn by the lion claws of my grief.

She lamented and the king and all his train grieved with her.

There is no sweetness in the honeycomb, no perfume remains in the
desert blossom.

My soul is an empty temple, deserted by the god of love.

In the front rank one or two of the king’s wives were snuffling and
blubbering, but nobody even glanced at them.

I look on death’s grim face with a smile.

Gladly would I follow him if he could lead me to the arms of my dear
lord.

By now not only the royal wives but every one of the women were
weeping, and most of the men also. Her words and her beauty were too
much for them to resist. It seemed impossible that a god should show
the same emotions as mortal men, but the slow tears were cutting
runners through the white powder on Pharaoh’s cheeks, and he blinked
his heavy. kohl-darkened eyelids like an owl as he stared at my Lady”
L’ostris.

Nephthys entered and sang a duet with her sister, then hand-in-hand the
two women went in search of the scattered fragments of Osiris” corpse,
Of course I had not placed the actual dismembered portions of Tod’s
corpse for them to find. During the intermission my helpers had
retrieved these and carried them away to the embalmers on my
instructions. I would pay for Tod’s funeral out of my own purse.

It seemed the very least that I could do to compensate the unfortunate
creature for my own part in his murder. Despite the missing portion of
his anatomy that Pharaoh still held in his hand, I hoped the gods might
make an exception in his case and allow Tod’s shade to pass into the
underworld, and that there he might not think too badly of me. It is
wise to have friends wherever you can, in this world and the next.

To represent the body of the god I had the funeral artists in from the
necropolis build for me a magnificent mummy car tonnage depicting
Osiris in his full regalia and in the death with his arms folded across
his chest. This container I had cut into thirteen sections that fitted
together like a child’s building-blocks.

As the sisters retrieved each of these sections they sang a hymn of
praise to the god’s parts, to his hands and feet, to his limbs and
trunk, and finally to his divine head.

Such eyes, like stars set in the heavens, must shine for ever.

Death should never dim such beauty, nor the funeral wrappings contain
such majesty.

When at last the two sisters had reassembled the complete body of
Osiris, except for the missing talisman, they pondered aloud how they
could return it to life once more.

This was my opportunity to add-to the pageant that essential element
that makes any theatrical production appeal to the popular taste. There
is a broad lascivious streak in most of us, and the play wright and the
poet does well to bear this in mind if he hopes to have his work
appreciated by the main body of his audience.

“There is but one certain way to bring our dear lord and brother back
to life. ” I placed the words in the mouth of the goddess Nephthys.

“One of us must perform the act of generation with his shattered body
to make it whole again and to fan the spark of life within it. ” The
audience stirred and leaned forward with anticipation at this
suggestion. It had elements to appeal to even the most prurient of
those present, including incest and necrophilia.

I had agonized over how I would represent upon the stage this episode
in the myth of the resurrection of Osiris. My mistress had shocked me
when she had declared herself willing to carry her role through to the
end. She had even had the effrontery to point out, with that impudent
grin of hers, that she might gain some valuable knowledge and
experience from doing so. I was not certain if she was jesting or if
she would really have gone through with it; however, I would not give
her the opportunity to demonstrate her good faith or lack of it.

Her reputation and the honour of her family were too valuable to trifle
with.

So it was that at my signal, the linen curtains were drawn once more
and my Lady Lostris quickly left the stage. Her . place was taken by
one of the upper-class courtesans who usually plied her trade in a
palace of love near the port. I had hired this wench, from amongst
several that I had interviewed, because of her fine young body that so
much resembled that of my mistress. Of course, in facial beauty she
could not come close to my Lady Lostris, but then I know of none who
could.

As soon as the substitute goddess was in position, the torches at the
rear of the stage were lit so as to cast her shadow upon the curtain.
She began to disrobe in the most provocative manner. The males in the
audience cheered on her shadowy gyrations, convinced that they were
watching my Lady Lostris. The harlot responded to this encouragement
with an increasingly lewd display that was almost as well received as
the slaughter of Osiris in the first act.

Now came that action of the play that had given me, the author,
considerable pause, for how could I contrive fecundity without a stout
peg to hang it on? We had just seen Osiris forcefully deprived of.
his. In the end I was forced to stoop to that tired old theatrical
device that I so scorned in the work of other playwrights, namely the
intervention of the gods and their supernatural powers.

While my Lady Lostris spoke from the wings, her shadowy alter ego on
stage stood over the niummiform figure of Osiris and made a series of
mystical gestures. “My dear brother, by the rare and marvelous powers
granted to me by our forefather, Ammon-Ra, I restore to you those manly
parts that cruel Seth so brutally tore from you, ” intoned my
mistress.

I had equipped the mummy case with a device that I could raise by
hauling on a length of fine linen twine that ran over a pulley in the
temple roof directly above where Osiris lay.

At Isis” words the wooden phallus, hinged to the god’s pudenda, rose in
majestic splendour, as long as my arm, into full erection. The
audience gasped with admiration.

When Isis caressed it, I jerked the string to make it leap and twitch.
The audience loved it, but loved it even better when the goddess
mounted the supine mummy of the god.

Judging by the convincing acrobatics of her simulated ecstasy, the
harlot I had chosen to play the part must have been one of the truly
great exponents of her art. The audience gave full recognition to her
superior performance, egging her on with whistling and hooting and
shouting ribald advice.

At the climax of this exhibition the torches were extinguished and the
temple plunged into darkness. In the darkness the substitution was
made once more and when the torches were re-lit my Lady Lostris stood
in mid-stage with a new-born infant in her arms. One of the kitchen
slaves had been considerate enough to give birth a few days previously,
and I had borrowed her whelp for the occasion.

“I give you the new-born son of Osiris, god of the underworld, and of
Isis, goddess of the moon and of the stars. ” My Lady Lostris lifted
the infant high and he, astonished by the sea of strangers before him,
screwed up his tiny face and turned bright red as he howled.

Isis raised her voice above his and cried, “Greet the young Lord Horus,
god of the wind and the sky, falcon of the heavens!” Half the audience
were Horus men and their enthusiasm for their patron was unbounded.
They came to their feet in a roaring tumult, and the second act ended
in another triumph for me and in mortification for the infant god, who
on later examination was found to have, prodigiously soiled his
swaddling-cloth.

I OPENED THE FINAL ACt. WITH ANOTHER

mil of my recitations describing the childhood and the =: coming to
manhood of Horus. I spoke of the sacred charge laid upon him by Isis,
and as I did so, the curtains were drawn aside to reveal the goddess in
the centre of the stage.

Isis was bathing in the Nile, attended by her handmaidens.

Her wet robe clung to her body so that the pale glory of her skin shone
through. The indistinct outlines of her breasts were tipped with tiny
rose-buds of virgin pink. tonus as Horus entered from the wings, and
immediately dominated the stage. In his polished armour and his
warrior’s pride he was a perfect counterpoint for the beauty of the
goddess. The long list of his battle honours in the river wars,
together with his most recent exploit in saving the royal barge, had
focused the attention of the populace full upon him. For this moment
tonus was the darling of the crowd. Before he could speak, they began
to cheer him, and the applause continued so long that the actors were
forced to freeze in their opening positions.

While the cheering swirled around tonus, I picked out certain faces in
the audience and watched their reactions.

Nembet, the Great Lion of Egypt, scowled and muttered fiercely into his
beard, making no aW empt to hide his animosity. Pharaoh smiled
graciously and nodded slightly, so that those seated behind him were
made aware of his approbation, and their own enthusiasm was
encouraged.

My Lord Inter, never, one to fly against the prevailing winds, smiled
his most silky smile and nodded his head in concert with his king. His
eyes, however, when seen from my vantage-point, were deadly.

At last the applause abated and tonus could speak his lines, not
without difficulty, however, for every time he paused to draw breath
another outburst of cheering broke out. It was only when Isis began to
sing that complete silence fell upon them once more.

The suffering of your father, the terrible fate that hangs over our
house, all these must be expunged.

In verse Isis warned her noble son, and held out her arms to him in
supplication and in command.

The curse of Seth is upon us all, and only you can break it.

Seek out your monstrous uncle.

By his arrogance and his ferocity, you will know him.

When you find him, strike him down.

Chain him, bind him to your will, that the gods and all men will be
freed for ever from his ghastly sway.

Still singing, the goddess withdrew and left her son to his quest.

Like children following a well-loved nursery rhyme, the audience knew
full well what to expect and leaned forward eagerly and hummed with
anticipation.

When at last Seth came leaping back on stage for the cataclysmic
battle, the age-old struggle between good and evil, beauty and
ugliness, duty and dishonour, the audience was ready for him. They
greeted Seth with a chorus of hatred that was spontaneous and
unfeigned. In defiance Rasfer leered and gibbered at them, strutting
about the stage, cupping his genitalia in his hands and thrusting his
hips out at them in a mocking and obscene gesture that drove them wild
with fury.

“Kill him, Horus!” they howled. “Smash in his ugly face!” And Seth
pranced before them, stoking their fury.

“Kill the murderer of the great god Osiris!” they roared in a paroxysm
of loathing.

“Smash in his face!” “Rip out his guts!” The congregation’s reaction
to him was in no way moderated by the fact that it knew, deep down,
that this was Rasfer and not Seth.

“Hack off his head!” they screamed.

“Kill him! Kill him! “At last Seth pretended to see his nephew for
the first time, and swaggered up to him, lolling his tongue out between
his blackened teeth, drooling like an idiot so that silver strands of
saliva slimed down on to his chest. I would never have believed that
Rasfer could make himself more repulsive than nature had already
accomplished, but now he proved me wrong.

“Who is this child?” he demanded, and belched full in the face of
Horus. tonus was unprepared for this and stepped back involuntarily,
his expression of disgust unfeigned as he smelled Rasfer’s breath and
the contents of his stomach, the sOur wine still fermenting in it.
tonus recovered swiftly and spoke his next line. “I am Horus, son of
Osiris. ” Seth let out a mocking peal of laughter. “And what is it
you seek, boy child of a dead god?” “I seek vengeance for the murder
of my noble father. I seek the assassin of Osiris. ” “then search no
further, ” Seth shouted, “for I am Seth the vanquisher of lesser
gods.

I am Seth the eater of stars, and the destroyer of worlds. ” The two
gods drew their swords and rushed at each other, to meet in mid-stage
with a ringing clash of bronze as blade struck blade. In an attempt to
reduce the chances of accidental injury, I had attempted to substitute
wooden swords for bronze, but neither of my actors would have any of
it.

My Lord Inter had intervened when Rasfer had appealed to him. He had
ordered that they be allowed to wield their real battle weapons, and I
had been forced to yield to this higher authority. At least it added
to the realism of the scene as they stood now chest to chest, with
blades locked, and glared into each other’s face.

They made an extraordinary pair, so totally dissimilar, pointing up the
moral of the play, the eternal conflict of good against evil. tonus
was tall and fair and comely. Seth was swarthy and thick-set,
bow-legged and hideous. The contrast was direct and visceral. The
mood of the audience was as fiery and as fiercely partisan as that of
the two protagonists.

Simultaneously they pushed each other backwards and then rushed in
again, thrusting and cutting, feinting and parrying. They were both
highly trained and skilled swordsman, amongst the finest in all
Pharaoh’s armies. Their blades whirled and glinted in the torchlight
so that they seemed as insubstantial as the sunlight reflected from the
wind-ruffled surface of the great river. The sound of their flight was
that of the wings of the birds startled from their roosts in the gloomy
heights of the temple, but when they clashed together it was with the
heavy ring of hammers at the coppersmith’s forge.

What seemed to the observer to be the chaos of real battle was in fact
a meticulously choreographed ballet which had been carefully rehearsed.
Each man knew exactly how each blow must be launched and each parry
timed. These were two superb athletes engaged in the activity for
which they “had trained their entire lifetime, and they made it seem
effortless.

When Seth thrust, Horus left his parry so late that the point actually
touched his breastplate and left a tiny bright scratch on the metal.
Then when Horus launched himself forward in riposte, his edge flew so
close to Seth’s head that a coil of his coarse matted hair was shorn
from his skull, as if by a barber’s razor. Their footwork was as
graceful and intricate as that of the temple dancers, and they were
swift. as falcons and lithe as hunting cheetahs.

The crowd was mesmerized and so was I. Therefore it must have been some
deep instinct that warned me, perhaps even a nudge from the gods, who
knows? At any rate, something outside myself made me tear my eyes away
from the spectacle and glance at my Lord Inter where he sat in the
front row.

Again, was it instinct or my own deep knowledge of him, or the
intervention of the god who protects tonus that placed the thought in
my mind? A little of all three of these, perhaps, but I knew with
instant and utter certainty the reason for that wolfish smile on my
Lord Inter’s handsome features.

I knew why he had chosen Rasfer to play Seth. I knew why he had made
no effort to exclude tonus from the role of Horus, even after he had
found out about the relationship between him and my Lady Lostris.

I knew why he had ordered the use of real swords, and I knew why he was
smiling now. The massacre was not over for the evening. He was
looking forward to more. Before this act was played out, Rasfer would
ply his special talents once again. “tonus!” I screamed, as I started
forward. “Beware! It’s a trap.

He intends.. . ” My cries were drowned out by the thunder of the
crowd, and I had not taken a second step when I was seized by each arm
from behind. I tried to struggle free, but two of Rasfer’s ruffians
held me fast and started to drag me away. They had been placed there
for just such a moment as this, to prevent me from warning my friend.

“Horus, give me strength!” I rendered up a swift and silent entreaty,
and instead of resisting them I hurled myself back in the same
direction as they were pulling me. For an instant they were thrown
off-balance, and I broke half-free of their grasp. I managed to reach
the edge of the stage before they could control me again.

“Horus, give me voice!” I prayed, and then screamed with all my
breath, “tonus, beware! He means to kill you. ” This time my voice
carried above that of the mob, and tonus heard me. I saw his head
flick and his eyes narrow slightly. However, Rasfer heard me as
well.

He responded instantly, breaking the rehearsed routine. Instead of
dropping back before the whirlwind of cuts and thrusts that tonus was
aiming close to his brutish head, he stepped in and, with an upward
sweep of his own blade, he forced tonus” sword-arm high.

Without the benefit of surprise he would never have made the opening
into which he now launched a thrust behind which was the full weight of
those massive shoulders and mighty trunk. The point of his blade was
aimed an inch below the rim of tonus” helmet and directly at his right
eye” It should have skewered his eye and cleaved his skull through and
through.

However, my shouted warning had given tonus that fleeting moment of
grace in which to react. He recovered his guard just in time. With
the pommel of his sword he managed to touch a glancing blow to Rasfer’s
wrist. It had just sufficient force to deflect the sword-point a
finger’s-width, and at the same moment tonus tucked in his chin and
rolled his head. It was too late to avoid the blow entirely. However,
the stroke that might have skewered his eye and split his skull like a
rotten melon, merely laid open his eyebrow to the bone, and then flew
on over his shoulder.

Instantly a sheet of blood gushed from the shallow wound and flowed
over tonus” face, blinding his right eye. He was forced to fall back
before the savage onslaught that Rasfer now launched at him.

Desperately he gave ground, blinking at the blood and trying to wipe it
away with his free hand.

It seemed impossible that he would be able to defend himself, and if
only I had not been held so securely by the palace guards, I would have
drawn the little jewelled dagger at my belt and rushed to his aid.

Even without my assistance tonus -was able to survive that first
murderous attack. Though he was wounded twice more, a gouge across the
left thigh and a nick on the biceps of his sword-arm, he kept weaving
and parrying and ducking. Rasfer kept coming at him, never letting him
recover his balance or his full vision. Within minutes Rasfer was
blowing and grunting like a giant forest hog, and running with sweat,
his misshapen torso gleaming in the torchlight, but the speed and fury
of his assault never faltered.

Though no great swordsman myself, I am a student of the art. So often
had I watched Rasfer at practice in the weapons-yard that I knew his
style intimately. I knew he was an exponent of the attack khan ising
the attack “like the desert wind’. It was a manoeuvre that perfectly
suited his brute strength and physique. I had seen him practise it on
a” hundred occasions and now I divined by his footwork that he was
gathering himself for it, for that one last effort that would end it
all.

Struggling in the grip of my captors, I screamed at tonus again,
“Khamsin! Be ready!” I thought that my warning had been drowned and
washed away by the uproar that filled the temple, for tonus showed no
reaction. Later he told me he had indeed heard me, and that with his
impaired vision that second warning of mine had certainly saved him
once again. Rasfer dropped back a half-pace, the classic prelude to
the khamsin, relaxing the pressure for an instant to position his
opponent for the coup. Then his weight shifted and his left foot swung
forward into the lead. He used his momentum and all the strength of
his right leg to launch his entire body into the attack, like some
grotesque carrion-bird taking to flight. As both his feet left the
ground, the point of his blade was aimed at tonus” throat. It was
inexorable.

Nothing could prevent that deadly blade from flying true to its mark
except the one classic defence, the stop-bit. -At the precise instant
that Rasfer was fully committed to the stroke, tonus launched himself
with equal power and superior grace.

Like an arrow leaving the bowstring, he flew straight at his
opponent.

As they met in mid-air tonus gathered up Rasfer’s blade with his own
and let it run down on to the pommel, where it came up hard and short,
stopping it dead. It was the perfectly executed stop hit.

The mass and speed of the two big men were thrown on to the bronze
blade in Rasfer’s fist, and it could not withstand the shock. It
snapped cleanly, and left him clutching only the sheared-off hilt.

Then they were locked chest-to chest once more. Although tonus” sword
was still undamaged, Rasfer had got in under his guard and he could not
wield it. Both tonus” hands, the sword still held in his right fist,
were locked behind Rasfer’s back as the two men heaved and strained at
each other.

Wrestling is one of the military disciplines in which every warrior in
the Egyptian army is trained. Bound to each other by the crushing
embrace of arms, they spun about the stage, each attempting to throw
the other off-balance, snarling into each other’s eyes, hooking a heel
to trip, butting at each other with the visors of their. helmets,
equally matched thus far in strength and determination.

The audience had long since sensed that this was no longer a mock
engagement, but a fight to the death. I wondered that their appetites
had not been jaded by all they had witnessed that evening, but it was
not so. They were insatiable, howling for blood and yet more blood.

At last Rasfer tore his arm free of tonus” encircling grip.

He still clutched the hilt of the broken sword in his fist, and with
the jagged edge he struck at tonus” face, deliberately aiming at his
eyes and the wound in his brow, trying to enlarge and aggravate it.
tonus twisted his head to avoid the blows, catching them on the peak of
his bronze helmet.

Like a python -shifting its coils around its prey, he used the moment
to adjust his crushing hold around Rasfer’s chest.

The strain that he was exerting was such that Rasfer’s features began
to swell and engorge with blood. The air was being forced out of him,
and he struggled against suffocation. He began visibly to weaken.
tonus kept up the pressure until a carbuncle on Rasfer’s back was
stretched to bursting point and the yellow pus erupted in a stinking
stream and trickled down into the waistband of his kilt.

Already suffocating, Rasfer grimaced at the pain of the bursting
abscess and checked. tonus felt him falter, and he summoned some deep
reserve of strength. He changed the angle of his next effort, dropping
his shoulders slightly and forcing his opponat backwards and upwards on
to his heels.

Rasfer was off-balance, and tonus heaved again and-forced him back a
pace. Once he had him moving backwards, he kept the momentum going.

Still locked to his opponent, he ran Rasfer backwards across the stage,
steering him towards one of the gigantic stone pillars. For a moment
none of us realized tonus” intention, and then we saw him drop the
point of his sword to the horizontal and press the hilt hard against
Rasfer’s spine.

At a full run the point of tonus” sword hit the unyielding column.

The metal screeched against the granite, and the shock was transmitted
up the blade. It stopped those two big men in their tracks, and the
force of it drove the hilt into Rasfer’s spine. It would have killed a
lesser man, and even Rasfer was paralyzed by it.

With the last gust of his foul breath he let out a cry of agony, and
his arms flew open. The broken haft of his own sword spun from his
grip and skidded away across the stone pavement.

Rasfer’s knees buckled, and he sagged in tonus” arms. tonus thrust his
hip into him, and, with a heave of his upper body, hurled Rasfer over
backwards. He landed so heavily that I heard more than one of his ribs
crackle like dry twigs in the flames of the camp-fire. The back of his
skull bounced upon the stone flags with a sound like a desert melon
dropped from on high, and the breath from his lungs whistled out of his
throat.

He groaned in agony. He had barely the strength to lift his arms to
tonus in capitulation. tonus was so carried away by battle-rage, and
inflamed by the roar of the crowd, that he was a man berserk. He stood
over Rasfer and lifted his sword on high, gripping the hilt with both
hands. He was a dreadful sight. Blood from the wound in his forehead
had painted his visage into a glistening devil mask. Sweat and blood
had soaked the hair of his chest and stained his clothing.

“Kill him!” roared the congregation. “Kill the evil one!” The point
of tonus” sword was aimed at the centre of Rasfer’s chest, and I
steeled myself for the down-stroke that would impale that gross body.

I willed tonus to do it, for I hated Rasfer more than any of them.

The gods know that I had reason, for here was the monster who had
gelded me, and I longed for my revenge.

It was in vain- I should have known my tonus better than expect him to
skewer a surrendered enemy. I saw the fires of madness begin to fade
from his eyes. He shook his head slightly, as if to regain control of
himself. Then, instead of stabbing down, he lowered his sword-point
slowly until it just pricked Rasfer’s chest. The keen point raised a
drop of blood; bright as a garnet amongst the coarse hair of Rasfer’s
chest. Then tonus picked up the lines of his script.

“Thus I bind you to my will, and I expel you from the light. May you
wander through all eternity in the dark places. May you never more
have power over the noble and the good amongst men. I give you to rule
over the thief and the coward, over the bully and the cheat, over the
liar and the murderer, over the grave-robber and the violater of
virtuous women, over the blasphemer and the breaker of faith. From
henceforth you are the god of all evil Get you gone, and carry away
with you the curse of Horus and of his resurrected father, Osiris. ”
tonus lifted the point of his sword from Rasfer’s chest and tossed the
weapon aside, deliberately disarming himself in the presence of his
enemy to demonstrate his disdain and scorn. The blade clattered on the
flagstones and tonus strode to the running waters of our stage Nile and
went down on one knee to scoop a handful and dash it into his own face,
washing away the blood. Then he tore a strip of linen from the hem of
his kilt and swiftly bound up the wound on his forehead to stern the
bleeding.

Rasfer’s two apes released me and rushed on stage to succour their
fallen commander. They lifted him to his feet, and he staggered
between them, heaving and blowin like a great obscene bullfrog. I saw
that he was grievously injured. They dragged him from the stage, and
the crowd howled its derision and hatred at him.

I watched my Lord Inter, and his expression was for the moment
unguarded. I saw every one of my suspicions confirmed there. This was
how he had planned to wreak his vengeance on tonus-to have him slain
before the eyes of the entire populace-and on his own daughter: to have
her lover killed before her eyes-that was to have been Lostris”
punishment for flouting her father’s will.

My Lord Inter’s frustration and disappointment now were enough to make
me feel a smug satisfaction as I considered what retribution must be in
store for Rasfgr. He might have preferred more of the rough treatment
that tonus had dealt out to him, to the punishment that my Lord Inter
would inflict upon him. My master was ever harsh with those who failed
him. tonus was still gasping from the exertions of the duel, but now,
as he moved to the front of the stage, he drew a dozen deep breaths to
steady himself for the declamation that would bring the pageant to an
end. As he faced the congregation it fell silent, for in his mood and
anger he was an awe-inspiring sight. tonus lifted up both his hands
to, the temple roof and cried out in a loud voice, “Ammon-Ra, give me
voice! Osiris, give me eloquence!”

The traditional entreaty of the orator.

“Give him voice! Give him eloquenceP the crowd responded, and their
faces were still rapt with all they had witnessed, but hungry for more
entertainment. tonus was that unusual creature, a man of action who
was also a man of words and ideas. I am sure that he would have been
generous enough to admit that many of those ideas were planted in his
mind by that lowly slave, Taita.

However, once planted, they were in fertile ground.

When it came to oratory, tonus” exhortations to his squadrons on the
eve of battle were famous. Of course, I had not been present at all of
these, but they had been relayed to me verbatim by Kratas, his faithful
friend and lieutenant. I had copied many of these speeches down on a
set of papyrus scrolls, for they were worthy of preservation. tonus
had the common touch, and the ability to appeal directly to the
ordinary man. I often thought that much of this special power of his
sprang from his transparent honesty and his forthright manner. Men
trusted him and followed willingly wherever he led them, even unto
death itself.

I was still overwrought by the conflict we had all just witnessed and
the closeness of tonus” escape from the trap that my Lord Inter had
laid for him. Nevertheless, I was eager to listen to the declamation
that tonus had prepared without my help or advice. To be truthful, I
was still a little resentful that he had declined my assistance, and
more than a little nervous as to what he might come out with. Tact and
subtlety have never been tonus” most notable virtues.

Now Pharaoh “made a gesture of invitation to him to speak, crossing and
uncrossing the ceremonial crook and flail, and inclining his head
gracefully. The congregation was silent and intent, leaning forward
eagerly so as not to miss a single word.

“It is I, Horus the falcon-headed, that speaks, ” tonus began, and they
encouraged him.

“It is verily the falcon-headed! Hear him!” “Ha-Ka-Ptah!” tonus used
the archaic form from which the present name of Egypt was derived.

Very few realized that the original meaning was the temple of Ptah.

“I speak to you of this ancient land given to us ten thousand years
since, in the time when all the gods were young. I speak to you of the
two kingdoms that in nature are one and indivisible. ” Pharaoh
nodded.

This was the standard dogma, approved by both temporal and religious
authority that neither recognized the impostor in the Lower Kingdom,
nor even acknowledged his existence.

“Oh, Kemit!” tonus used another ancient name for Egypt: the Black
Land, after the colour of the Nile mud brought down by the annual
inundation. “I speak to you of this land riven and divided, torn by
civil war, bleeding and drained of treasure. ” My own shock was
mirrored on the faces of all those who listened to him. tonus had just
given voice to the unspeakable. I wanted to rush on to the stage and
clap my hand over his mouth to prevent him from going on, but I was
transfixed.

“Oh, To-Meri!” Another old name: the Beloved Earth. tonus had learned
well the history I had taught him. “I speak to you of old and feeble
generals, and admirals too weak and indecisive to wrest back the stolen
kingdom from the usurper. I speak to you of ancient men in their
dotage who waste your treasure and spill the blood of your finest young
men as though it were the lees of bitter wine. ” In the second row of
the audience I saw Nembet, the Great Lion of Egypt, flush with anger
and scratch furiously with chagrin at his beard. The other elderly
military men around him frowned and moved restlessly on their benches,
rattling their swords in, their scabbards as a sign of their
disapproval. Amongst them all, only my Lord Inter smiled as he watched
tonus escape from one trap only to blunder into the next.

“Our To-Meri is beset by a host of enemies, and yet the sons of the
nobles prefer to cut off their own thumbs rather than to carry the
sword to protect her. ” As he said this, tonus looked keenly at Menset
and Sobek, Lostris” older brothers, where they sat beside their father
in the second row. The king’s decree exempted from military service
only those with such physical disability as to render them unfit.

The surgeon. priests at the temple of Osiris had perfected the art of
removing the top joint of the thumb with little pain or danger of
infection, thus rendering it impossible for that hand to wield a sword
or pluck a bowstring. The young bucks proudly flaunted their
mutilations as they sat gambling and carousing in the riverside
taverns. They considered the missing digit a mark not of cowardice,
but of sophistication and independent spirit.

“War is the game played by old men with the lives of the young, ” I had
heard Lostris” brothers argue. “Patriotism is a myth conceived by
those old rogues to draw us into the infernal game. Let them fight as
they will, but we want no part of it. ” In vain I had remonstrated
with them that the privilege of Egyptian citizenship carried with it
duties and responsibilities. They dismissed me with the arrogance of
the young and ignorant.

Now, however, beneath tonus” level stare they fidgeted and concealed
their left hands in the folds of their clothing.

They were both of them right-handed, but had convinced the recruiting
officer to the contrary, with their eloquence and a dash of gold.

The common people at the rear of the great hall hummed and stamped
their feet in agreement with what tonus had said. It was their sons
who filled the rowing-benches of the war galleys, or marched under arms
through the desert sands.

However, in the wings of the stage I wrung my hands in despair.

With that little speech tonus had made an enemy of fifty of the young
nobles in the audience. They were men who would one day inherit power
and influence in the Upper Kingdom- Their enmity outweighed a hundred
times the adoration of the common herd and I prayed for tonus to
cease.

In a few minutes he had done enough damage to last us all a hundred
years, but he went on blithely.

“Oh, To-Nutri!” This was yet another ancient name: the Land of the
Gods. “I speak to you of the wrong-doer and the robber who waits in
ambush on every hilltop and in every thicket. The farmer is forced to
plough with his shield at his side, and the traveller must go with his
sword bared. ” Again the commoners applauded. The depredations of the
robber bands were a terrible scourge upon them all. No man was safe
beyond the mud walls of the towns, and the robber chieftains who called
themselves the Shrikes were arrogant and fearless. They respected no
law but their own, and no man was safe from them. tonus had struck
exactly the right note with the people, and suddenly I was moved by the
notion that this was all much deeper than it seemed. Revolutions have
been forged and dynasties of pharaohs overturned by just such appeals
to the masses. With tonus” next words my suspicion was strengthened.

“While the poor cry out under the lash of the tax-collector, the nobles
anoint the buttocks of their fancy boys with the most precious oils of
the orient.. . ” A roar went up from the rear. of the hall, and my
fears were replaced by a tremulous excitement. Had this been carefully
planned? Was tonus more subtle and devious than I had ever given him
credit for?

“By Horus!” I cried in my heart. “The land is ripe for revolution,
and who better to lead it than tonus?” I felt only disappointment that
he had not taken me into his confidence and made me party to his
design. I could have planned a revolution as skilfully and as
cunningly as I could design a water-garden or write a play.

I craned to look over the heads of the congregation, expecting at the
very next moment to see Kratas and his brother officers burst into the
temple at the head of a company of warriors from the squadron. I felt
the hair on my forearms and at the nape of my neck lift with excitement
as I pictured them snatching the double crown from Pharaoh’s head and
placing it upon the blood-smeared brow of tonus.

With what joy I would have joined the cry of “Long live Pharaoh!

Long live King tonus!” Heady images swirled before my eyes as tonus
went on speaking. I saw the prophecy of the desert oracle fulfilled.

I dreamed of tonus, with my Lady Lostris beside him, seated on the
white throne of this very Egypt, with myself standing behind them
resplendent in the apparel of the grand vizier of the Upper Kingdom.

But why, oh why, had he not consulted me before embarking on this
perilous venture?

With his next breath he made the reason plain. I had misjudged my
tonus, my honest, plain and good tonus, my noble, straight and
trustworthy tonus, lacking only in guile and stealth and deceit.

This was no plot. This was simply tonus “speaking his mind without
fear or favour. The commoners, who only moments before had been
clinging enraptured to every word that fell from his tongue, were now
quite unexpectedly given the sharp edge of that organ as he rounded
upon them.

“Hear me, oh Egypt! What is to become of a land where the pirited try
to suppress the mighty amongst the means where the patriot is reviled;
where there is no man of yesterday revered for his wisdom; where the
petty and the envious seek to tear down the men of worth to their own
base level?” There was no cheering now as those at the back of the
hall recognized themselves in this description. Effortlessly my tonus
had succeeded in alienating every man amongst them, great and small,
rich and poor. Oh, why had he not consulted me, I mourned, and the
answer was plain. He had not consulted me because he knew I would have
counselled him against it.

“What order is there in society where the slave is free with his
tongue, and counts himself as equal to those of noble birth?” he
blazed at them. “Should the son revile his father and scorn the wisdom
paid for in grey hairs and wrinkled brow? Should the waterfront harlot
wear rings of lapis lazuli and -set herself above the virtuous wife?”

By Horus, he would not spare one of them from the lash of his tongue, I
thought bitterly. As always, he was completely oblivious to his own
safety in the pursuit of what he saw as the right and open way.

Only one person in the temple was enchanted with what he had to tell
them. Lostris appeared at my side and gripped my arm.

“Isn’the it wonderful, Taita?” she breathed. “Every word he utters is
the truth. Tonight he is truly a young god. ” I could find neither
the words nor the heart to agree with her, and I hung my head in sorrow
as tonus went on relentlessly.

“Pharaoh, you are the father of the people. We cry out to you for
protection and for succour. Give the affairs of state and war into the
-hands of honest and clever men. Send the rogues and the . fools to
rot on their estates. Call off the faithless priests and the usurious
servants of the state, those parasites upon the body of this to-Meri of
ours. ” Horus knows that I am as good a priest-hater as the best of
them, but only a fool or very brave man would call down the wrath of
every god-botherer in Egypt upon his own head, for their power is
infinite and their hatred implacable.

While as for the civil servants, their lines of influence and
corruption have been set up over the centuries and my Lord Inter was
the chief of them all. I shuddered in pity for my dear blunt friend as
he went on handing out instructions to Pharaoh on how to restructure
the whole of Egyptian society.

“Heed the words of the sage! Oh, king, honour the artist and the
scribe. Reward the brave warrior and the faithful servant. Root out
the bandits and the robbers from their desert fastnesses. Give the
people example and direction in their lives, so that this very Egypt
may once again flourish and be great. ” tonus fell to his knees in the
centre of the stage and spread his arms wide. “Oh, Pharaoh, you are
our father. We protest our love to you. In return, show us now a
father’s love. Hear our entreaties, we beg of you. ” Up to that
moment I had been stupefied by the depths of my friend’s folly, but
now, much too late, I regained my wits and signalled frantically for my
stage-hands to drop the curtain before tonus could do any further
damage. As the gleaming folds of cloth floated down and hid him from
their view, the audience sat in stunned silence, as though they did not
believe all that they had heard and seen that night.

It was Pharaoh himself who broke the spell. He- rose to his feet, and
his face behind the stiff white make-up was inscrutable. As he swept
from the temple, the congregation prostrated itself before him.

Before he too went down in obeisance, I saw my Lord Inter’s
expression.

It was triumphant.

I ESCORTED TAN US BACK FROM THE TEMple to his own sparsely furnished
quarters close to =& the dock at which his squadron was moored.
Although I walked beside him with my hand on the hilt of my dagger,
prepared for the consequences of his foolhardy honesty to be visited on
us immediately , tonus was quite unrepentant. Indeed, he seemed
oblivious to the depths of his folly and inordinately pleased with
himself. I have often remarked how a man freshly released from
terrible strain and mortal danger becomes garrulous and elated. Even
tonus, the hardened warrior, was no exception.

“It was time somebody stood up and said what needed to be said, don’t
you agree, old friend?” His “voice rang clear and loud down the
darkened alley, as though he were determined to summon any awaiting
assassin to us. I kept my agreement muted.

“You did not expect it of me, did you now? Be honest with me, Taita.
It took you quite by surprise, did it not?” “It surprised us all. ”
This time I could agree with a little more enthusiasm. “Even Pharaoh
was taken aback, as well he might be. ” “He listened, Taita.

He took it all in, I could tell. I did good work this evening, don’t
you think so?” When I attempted to raise the subject of Rasfer’s
treacherous attack upon him and broach the possibility that it might
have been inspired by my Lord Inter, tonus would have none of it.

“That is impossible, Taita. You dreamed it.

Lord Inter was my father’s dearest friend. How could he wish me ill?
Besides, I am to be his son-in-law, am I not?” And despite his
injuries he let out such a happy shout of laughter that it roused the
sleepers in the darkened huts that we were passing and they shouted
grumpily back at us to be quiet. tonus ignored their protests.

“No, no, I am sure that you are wrong, ” he cried. “It was simply
Rasfer working out his spite in his own charming way. Well, he’ll know
better next time. ” He threw his arm around my shoulders and hugged me
so hard that it -hurt.

“You saved me twice tonight. Without your warnings Rasfer would have
had me both times. How do you do these thirirgs, Taita? I swear you
are a secret warlock, and have the gift of the inner eye. ” He laughed
again.

How could I stifle his joy? He was like a boy, a big rumbustious boy.
I could not help but love him all the more.

This was not the time to point out the danger in which he had placed
himself and all of us who were his friends.

Let him have his hour, and tomorrow I would sound the voice of reason
and of caution. So I took him home and stitched the gash in his
forehead, and washed his other wounds and anointed them with my special
mixture of honey and herbs to prevent mortification. Then I gave him a
stiff draught of the Red Shepenn and left the good Kratas to guard his
slumbers.

When I reached my own quarters well after midnight, there were two
summonses awaiting me: one from my Lady Lostris and the other from the
vanquished Rasfer. There was no doubt as to which of them I would have
responded to if I had been given the choice, but I was not. Rasfer’s
two thugs almost dragged me away to where he lay on a sweat soaked
mattress, cursing and moaning by turns, and calling on Seth and all the
gods to witness his pain and his fortitude.

“Good Taita!” he greeted me, raising himself painfully on one elbow,
“you will not believe the pain. My chest is afire.

I swear every bone in it is crushed, and my head aches as though it is
bound by thongs of rawhide. ” With very little effort I was able to
force back my tears of pity, but it is a strange thing about those of
us who are doctors and healers that we cannot find it in our hearts to
deny our skills to even the most abominable creatures that require
them. I sighed with resignation, unpacked the leather bag that
contained my medical equipment and set out my instruments and
unguents.

I was delighted to find that Rasfer’s self-diagnosis was perfectly
valid, and that apart from numerous contusions and shallow wounds, at
least three of his ribs were broken and there was a lump on the back of
his head almost the size of my fist. I had, therefore, a perfectly
legitimate reason for adding considerably to his discomfort. One of
the broken ribs was seriously out of alignment and there was genuine
danger that it might pierce the lung. While his two thugs held him
down and Rasfer squealed and howled most gratifyingly, I manipulated
the rib back into place and strapped up his chest with linen bandages
well soaked in vinegar to shrink as they dried.

Then I addressed myself to the lump on the back of his skull where it
had’ struck the stone paving. The gods are often generous. When I
held a lamp to Rasfer’s eyes the pupils did not dilate. There was not
the least doubt in my mind as to what treatment was required. Bloody
fluid was gathering inside that unlovely skull. Without my help Rasfer
would be dead by the following sunset. I thrust aside the obvious
temptation and reminded myself of the surgeon’s duty to his patient
There are probably only three surgeons in all of Egypt who are capable
of trepanning a skull with a good chance of success, and personally I
would not put much faith in the other two. Once again I ordered
Rasfer’s two oafs to take hold of him to control his struggles, and to
hold him face down on his mattress. By the roughness of their handling
and their obvious disregard for their master’s injured ribs, I surmised
that they were not exactly overflowing with loving feeling towards
their master.

-Now

Once again a chorus of howls and squeals turned the night hideous and
gladdened my labours, as I made a semiCircular incision around the lump
on his scalp, and then peeled a large flap of skin away from the bone.
Now not even those two strapping ruffians could hold him down.

His struggles were splashing blood as high as the ceiling of the room
and sprinkling us all, so that we ” seemed to be inflicted with a red
pok” At last, in exasperation, I ordered them to bind his ankles and
wrists to the bedposts with leather straps.

“Oh, gentle and sweet Taita, the pain is beyond belief.

Give me but a drop of that flower juice, I beg you, dear friend, ” he
blubbered.

Now that he was safely bound to the bed, I could afford to be frank
with him. “I understand, my good Rasfer, just how you feel. I also
would have been grateful for a little of the flower when last you took
the knife to me. Alas, old comrade, my store of the drug is finished,
and there will not be another eastern caravan for at least a month, ” I
lied cheerfully, for very few knew that I cultivated the Red Shepenn
myself. Knowing that the best was yet to come, I reached for my
bone-drill.

The human head is the only part of the body that puzzle me as adoctor.
At the orders of my Lord Inter the corpses of all executed criminals
are handed over to me. In addition tonus had been able to bring me
many fine specimens from the battlefield, suitably pickled in vats of
brine. All these I have dissected and studied so that I know every
bone and how it fits into its exact place in the skeleton. I have
traced the route by which food enters the mouth and passes through the
body. I have found that great and wondrous. organ the heart, nestling
between the pale air-bladders of the lungs. I have studied the rivers
of the body through which the blood flows, and I have observed the two
types of blood which determine the moods and emotions of man.

There, is, of course, that bright joyous blood that, when released by
the cut of a scalpel or the headsman’s axe, spurts out in regular
impulses. This is the blood of happy thoughts and fine emotions, it is
the blood of love and kinA ness Then there is that darker sullen blood
that flows without the vigour and the bounding joy of the other. This
is the blood of anger and of sorrow, of melancholic thoughts and evil
deeds.

All these matters I have studied, and have filled one hundred papyrus
rolls with my observations. There is no man in the world that I know
of who has gone to such lengths, certainly none of those quacks in the
temple with their amulets and their incantations have done so.

I doubt any one of them could tell the liver from the sphincter of the
-anus without an invocation to Osiris, a casting of the divining dice
and a fat fee paid in advance.

In all modesty I can say that I have never met a man who understands
the human body better than I, and yet the head is still a puzzle to me.
Naturally I understand that the eyes see, the nose smells, the mouth
tastes and the ears hear but what is the purpose of that pale porridge
that fills the gourd of the skull?

I have never been able to fathom it myself, and no man has ever been
able to offer me a satisfactory explanation, except that tonus came
closest to it. After he and I had spent an evening together sampling
the latest vintage of red wine, he had woken in the dawn and suggested
with a groan, “Seth has placed this thing in our heads as his revenge
on mankind. ” I once met a man who was travelling with a caravan from
beyond those legendary twin rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, who
professed to have studied the same problem.

He was a wise man and together we debated many mysteries over the
course of half a year. At one point he -suggested that all human
emotion and thought sprang not from the heart, but from those soft
amorphous curds that make up the brain. I mention this naive assertion
only to demonstrate how gravely even an intelligent and learned man can
err.

Nobody who has ever considered that mighty organ, the heart, leaping
with its own life in the centre of our body, fed by great rivers of
blood, protected by the palisades of bone, can doubt that this is the
fountain from which all thought and emotion springs. The heart uses
the blood to disseminate these emotions throughout the body.

Have you ever felt your heart stir within you and quicken to beautiful
music, or a lovely face, or the fine words of a moving speech? Have
you ever felt anything leaping around inside your head?

Even the wise man from the East had to capitulate before my ruthless
logic.

No rational man can believe that a bloodless puddle of curdled milk
lying inert in its bony jar could conjure up the lines of a poem or the
design of a pyramid, could cause a man to love or to wage war.

Even the embalmers scoop it out and discard it when they prepare a
corpse for the long journey.

There is, however, a paradox here in that if this glutinous mass is
interfered with, even by the pressure of trapped fluid upon it, the
patient is certainly doomed. It requires an intimate knowledge of the
structure of the head and a quite marvelous dexterity to be able to
drill through the skull without disturbing the sac that contains this
porridge I have both these attributes.

As I ground down slowly through the bone, encouraged by Rasfer’s
bellows, I paused regularly to wash away the bone chips and filings by
splashing vinegar into the wound.

The sting of the liquid added little to the patient’s wellbeing, but
revived the flagging volume of his voice.

Suddenly the sharp bronze drill bit cleanly through the skull, and a
tiny but perfect circle of bone was blown out of the wound by the
pressure within. It was followed immediately by a spurt of dark,
clotted blood that hit me in the face. Immediately Rasfer relaxed
under me. I knew, not without a sneaking pang of regret, that he would
survive.

As I stitched the flap of scalp back into place, covering the aperture
in the depths of which the dura mater pulsed ominously, I wondered if I
had truly done mankind a great service by preserving this specimen of
it.

When I left Rasfer with his head swathed in bandages, snoring and
whimpering in porcine self-pity, I found that I was completely
exhausted. The excitements and al arums of the day had expended even
my vast store of energy. However, there was to be no rest for me yet,
for my Lady Lostris” messenger still hovered on the terrace of my
quarters and pounced on me as I set foot on the first step. I was
allowed only sufficient grace to wash away Raster’s blood and change my
soiled raiment.

As I tottered into her chamber, barely able to place one foot before
the other, my Lady Lostris met me with blazing eyes and ominously
tapping foot. “Just where do you think you have been hiding yourself,
Master Taita?” she lashed Out at me immediately. “I sent for you
before the second mu watch, and it’s now notch short of dawn.

How dare you keep me waiting so? Sometimes you forget your station.

You know full well the punishment for impertinent slaves.. . ” She was
in full flight, having let her impatience brew for all these hours. In
anger her beauty is stunning, and when she stamped her foot in that
adorable gesture that was so typically her own, I thought that my heart
must burst with my love for her.

“Don’t you stand there grinning, at me!” she flared at me.

“I am so truly angry that I could order you flogged. ” She stamped her
foot again, and I felt the tiredness fall from my shoulders like a
heavy load. Her mere presence had the power to revitalize me.

“My lady, what a wondrous role you played this night. It seemed to me
and all who watched you that it was indeed the divine. goddess that
walked amongst us.. . ” “Don’t you dare try your tricks with me. ”
She stamped for the third time, but without conviction. “You’ll not
wriggle out of this so easily.. . ” “Truly, my lady, as I walked back
from the temple through the crowded streets, your name was on every
tongue.

They said your singing was the finest they had ever heard, and had
quite stolen every heart. ” “I believe not a word, ” she declared, but
she was clearly having difficulty sustaining her fury. “In fact, I
thought my voice was awful this evening. I was flat at least once, and
off-key on numerous occations. ” ” “I must contradict you, mistress.
You were never better.

And what beauty! It lit the whole temple. ” She is not truly vain, my
Lady Lostris, but she is a woman.

“You awful man!” she cried in exasperation. “I was ready to have you
flogged this time, I truly was. ” But come and sit beside me on the
bed and tell me all about it. I am still so excited that I am sure I
will not sleep for a week. ” She took my hand and led me to the bed,
babbling on happily about tonus, and how he must have won every heart
as well as Pharaoh’s with his wonderful performance and fearless
speech, and how the infant Horus had be shat her dress, and did I truly
think that she sung even passing well, and wasn’t “I just saying so?

At last I had to stop her. “My lady, it is almost dawn and we must be
ready to leave with all the court to accompany the king when he crosses
the river to inspect his funerary temple and his tomb. You must get
some sleep if you are to look your best on such an important state
occasion. ” “I’m not sleepy, Taita, ” she protested, and went
chattering on, only to slump against my shoulder’s few minutes later,
fallen asleep in mid-sentence.

Gently, I slipped her head down on to the carved wooden headrest and
covered her with a rug of colo bus monkey furs.

I could not bring myself to leave immediately but hovered beside her
bed. At last I placed a gentle kiss upon her cheek.

She did not open her eyes, but whispered sleepily, “Do you think there
will be an opportunity for me to speak to the king tomorrow?

Only he will be able to prevent my father sending tonus away. ” I
could think of no ready answer for her, and while I” still dithered,
she fell fully asleep.

I COULD SCARCELY DRAG MYSELF FROM my couch at dawn, for it seemed
barely to have lased my eyes to sleep before it was time to open them
again. My reflection in the bronze mirror was haggard and my eyes were
underscored in purple.

Swiftly I touched on make-up to cover the worst of my sorry condition,
enhancing the hollows of my eyes with kohl and my pale features with a
brushing of antimony.

Two of the slave boys combed out my hair and I was so pleased with the
result that I felt almost cheerful as I hurried down to the grand
vizier’s private dock where the great state barge lay moored.

I was amongst the last to join the throng upon the quay, but no one
seemed to notice my late arrival, not even my Lady Lostris who was
already on the deck of the barge. I watched her for a while.

She had been invited to join the royal women. These comprised not only
the king’s wives, but his numerous concubines and all his daughters. Of
course these last were the cause of much of Pharaoh’s unhappiness, a
flock of them ranging in age from crawlers and toddlers to others of
marriageable age, and not a son amongst them. How was Pharaoh’s
immortality to be maintained without a male line to carry it forward?

It was difficult to believe that, like me, Lostris had not slept more
than an hour or two, for she seemed as sweet and fresh as one of the
desert roses in my garden. Even in that glittering array of feminine
beauty that had been handpicked by Pharaoh’s factors or sent, to him in
tribute by his satraps at the ends of the empire, Lostris stood out
like a swallow in a flock of drab little desert larks I looked for
tonus, but his squadron was already lying well upstream, ready to
escort Pharaoh’s crossing, and. the reflection of the rising sun
turned the surface of the river into a dazzling silver sheet that
blinded the eye. I could not look into it.

At that moment there was the steady boom of a drum, and the populace
craned to watch Pharaoh’s stately progress -from the palace to the
royal barge; This morning he wore the light nemes crown of starched and
folded linen, secured around his forehead with the gold band of the
uraeus. The erect golden cobra, with its hood flared and its garnet
eyes glittering, rose up from his brow.

The cobra was the symbol of the powers of life and death that Pharaoh
held over his subjects. The king was not carrying the crook and flail,
only the golden sceptre. After the double crown itself, this was the
most holy treasure of all the crown jewels and was reputed to be over a
thousand years old.

Despite all the regalia and the ceremonial, Pharaoh wore no make-up.
Under the direct rays of the early sun, and without make-up to disguise
the fact, Mamose himself was unremarkable. Just a soft little godling
of late middle age, with a small round paunch bulging over the
waistband of his kilt and features intricately cared with lines of
worry.

As he passed where I stood, it seemed he recognized me, for he nodded
slightly. I immediately prostrated myself on the paving, and he paused
and made a sign for me to approach. I crawled forward on hands and
knees, and knocked my forehead three times on the ground at his feet.

“Are you not Taita, the poet?” he asked in that thin and petulant
voice of his.

“I am Taita the slave, your Majesty, ” I replied. There are times when
a little humility is called for. “But I am also a oar scribbler. ” “p
“Well, Taita the slave, you scribbled to good effect last night.

I have never been so well entertained by a pageant. I shall issue a
royal edict declaring your poor scribblings to be the official version.
” He announced this loud enough for all the court to hear, and even my
Lord Inter, who followed him closely, beamed with pleasure.

As I was his slave, the honour belonged to him more than to me.
However, Pharaoh was not finished with me yet.

“Tell me, Taita the slave, are you not also the same surgeon who
recently prescribed to me?” “Majesty, I am that same humble slave who
has the temerity to practise a little medicine. ” “Then when shall
your cure take effect?” He dropped his voice so that only I could hear
the question.

“Majesty, the event will take place nine months after you have
fulfilled all those conditions that I listed for you. ” As we were now
in a surgeon-and-patient relationship, I felt emboldened to add, “Have
you followed the diet I set you?” “By Isis” bountiful breasts!” he
exclaimed with an unexpected twinkle in. his eye. “I am so full of
bull’s balls, it is a wonder that I do not bellow when a herd of cows
passes the palace. ” He was in such “pleasant mood that I tried a
little joke of my own. “Has Pharaoh found the heifer I suggested?”

“Alas, doctor, it is not as simple as it would seem. The prettiest
flowers are soonest visited by the bee. You did stipulate that she
must be completely untouched, did you not?” “Virgin and untouched, and
within a season of her first red moon, ” I added quickly, making it as
difficult as possible to put my recipe to the test. “Have you found
one who meets that description, Majesty?” His expression changed
again, and he smiled thoughtfully. The smile looked out of place on
those melancholy features. “We shall see, ” he murmured. “We shall
see. ” And he turned and mounted the boarding-ladder of the barge. As
my Lord Inter drew level with me, he made a small gesture, ordering me
to fall in behind him, and so I followed him onto the deck of the royal
barge.

The wind had dropped during the night and the river seemed heavy and
quiet as oil in the jar, disturbed only by those streaks and whirlpools
upon the surface where the eternal current ran deep and swift. Even
Nernbet should be able to make the crossing in these conditions,
although tonus” squadron stood by in most unflattering fashion, as if
tonus was preparing to rescue him from error once again.

My Lord Inter drew me aside as soon as we reached the deck. “You still
have the power to surprise me sometimes, my old darling, ” he
whispered, and squeeze my arm. just when I was seriously beginning to
doubt your loyalty. ” I was taken aback by this sudden flush of
goodwill since the welts from Rasfer’s lash across my back still
ached.

However, I bowed my head to shield my expression and waited for him to
give me direction before committing myself, which he did immediately.

“I could not have written a more appropriate declamation for tonus to
recite before Pharaoh if I had tried myself.

“Where that imbecile Rasfer failed so dismally, you retrieved the day
for me in your usual style. ” It was only then that it all fell into
place. He believed that I was the author of tonus” monumental folly,
and that I had composed it for his benefit. In the uproar of the
temple he could not have heard my shouted warnings to tonus, or he
would have known better.

I am pleased that you are pleased, ” I whispered back to him. I felt
an enormous sense of relief. My position of influence had not been
compromised. It was not my own skin I was thinking of at that
moment-well, not entirely. I was thinking of tonus and Lostris.

They would need every bit of help and protection that I could give them
during the stormy days that lay ahead for both of them. I was grateful
that I was still in a position to be of some use for them.

“It was no less than my duty. ” Thus I made the most of this
windfall.

“You will find me grateful, ” my Lord Inter replied. “Do you remember
the piece of ground on the canal behind the temple of Thoth that we
discussed some time ago?” “Indeed, my lord. ” We both knew that I had
hankered after that plot for ten years. It would make a perfect
writer’s retreat and a place to which I could retire in my old age.

“It is yours. At my next assize, bring the deed to me for my
signature. ” I was stunned and appalled by the vile manner in which it
had come into my possession, as payment for an imagined piece of
treachery on my part. For a moMent I thought of rejecting the gift,
but only for a moment.

By the time I had recovered from my shock we were across the river and
pulling into the mouth of the canal that led across the plain to
Pharaoh Maniose’s great funerary temple.

I had surveyed this canal with only minimal help from the royal
architects, as I had planned virtually single-handed the whole
complicated business of the transport of Pharaoh’s body from the place
of his death to the funerary temple where the mummification process
would take place.

I had assumed that he would die at his palace on lovely little
Elephantine Island. Therefore his corpse would be brought down-river
in the state barge. I had designed the canal to accommodate the huge
ship snugly. So now she slipped into it as neatly as the sword into
its scabbard.

Straight as the blade of my dagger, the canal cut through the black
loam soil of the riparian plain two thousand paces to the foot of the
gaunt Saharan foothills. Tens of thousands of slaves had laboured over
the years to build it, and to line it with stone blocks. As the barge
nosed into the canal, two hundred sturdy slaves seized the tow-ropes
from the bows and began to draw her smoothly across the plain. They
sang one of the sad melodious work chants as they marched in ranks
along the tow-path. The peasants working in the fields beside the
canal ran to welcome us. They crowded to the bank, calling blessing on
the king and waving palm-fronds, as the great barge moved majestically
by.

When at last we slid into the stone dock below the outer walls of the
half-finished temple, the slaves made the tow iL ropes fast at the
mooring-rings. So precise was my design that the entry port in the
bulwark of the state barge lined up exactly with the portals of the
main gate to the temple.

As the huge vessel came to rest, the trumpeter in the bows blew a
fanfare on his gazelle horn, and the portcullis was raised slowly, to
reveal the royal hearse waiting in the gateway attended by the company
of embalmers in their crimson robes and fifty priests of Osiris in rank
behind them.

The priests began to chant as they trundled the hearse forward on its
wooden rollers, on to the deck of the barge.

Pharaoh clapped his hands with delight and hurried forward to examine
this grotesque vehicle.

I had taken no part in the conception of this celebration of bad taste.
It was entirely the work of the priests. Suffice it only to say that
in the naked sunlight, the superabundant gold-work shone so brightly as
to offend the eye almost as painfully as did the actual design. Such
weight of gold forced the priests to pant and sweat as they manhandled
the clumsy ark on to the deck, and it listed even the great ship
alarmingly. That weight of gold could have filled all the grain stores
of the Upper Kingdom, or built and fitted out fifty squadrons of
fighting ships and paid their crews for ten years. Thus the inept
craftsman attempts to hide the paucity of his inspiration behind a
dazzle of treasure. If only they had given me such material to work
with, they might have seen something different.

This monstrosity was destined to be sealed in the tomb with Pharaoh’s
dead body. No matter that its construction had contributed largely to
the financial ruin of the kingdom, Pharaoh was delighted with it.

At my Lord Inter’s suggestion, the king mounted the vehicle and took
his seat on the platform designed to carry his sarcophagus. From there
he beamed about him, all his dignity and royal reserve forgotten.

He was probably enjoying himself as much as he ever had in all his
gloomy life, I reflected with a pang of pity. His death was to be the
pinnacle to which most of his living energy and anticipation were
directed.

On what was clearly an impulse, he beckoned my Lord Inter to join him
on the ark and then looked around the crowded deck as if seeking
someone else in the throng. He seemed to find who he wanted, for he
stooped slightly and said something to the grand vizier.

My Lord Inter smiled and, following his direction, singled out my Lady
Lostris. With a gesture he ordered her to come to him on the ark.

She was clearly flustered, and blushed under her make-up, a rare
phenomenon for one who was so seldom caught out of countenance.

However, she recovered swiftly, and mounted the carriage with girlish,
long-legged grace that as usual carried every eye with her.

She knelt before the king and touched her forehead three times to the
floor of the platform. Then, in front of all the priests and the
entire court, Pharaoh did an extraordinary thing. He reached down and
took Lostris” hand, and lifted her to her feet, and seated her beside
him on the platform.

It was beyond all protocol, there was no precedent for it, ” and I saw
his ministers exchange looks of amazement.

Then something else happened of which even they were not aware.

When I was very young there had lived in the boys” quarters an old deaf
slave who had befriended me. It was he who had taught me to read men’s
speech not only by the sound of it, but also by the shape of their lips
as they

,

formed the words. It was a very useful accomplishment.

With it I could follow a conversation at the far end of a crowded hall,
with musicians playing and a hundred men around me laughing and
shouting at each other.

Now, before my eyes I saw Pharaoh say softly to my Lady Lostris, “Even
in daylight you are as divine as was the goddess Isis in the torchlight
of the temple. ” The shock of it was like the blow of a fist in my
stomach.

Had I been blind, I berated myself desperately, or had I merely been
stupid? Surely any imbecile must have anticipated the direction in
which my capricious meddling must line the order in Which the dice of
destiny might fall.

My facetious advice to the king must inevitably have had the effect of
directing his attention towards my Lady Lostris.

It was as though some malignant impulse below the surface of my mind
had set out to describe her precisely to him as the mother of his
first-born son. The most beautiful virgin in the land, to be taken
within the first season after her moon had flowered-it was her
exactly.

And then, of course, by casting her as the leading female in the
pageant, I had managed to display her to the king in the kindest
possible light.

What I suddenly realized was about to happen was all of it my fault, as
much as though I had deliberately engineered it. What is more, there
was nothing I could do about it now.

I stood in the sunlight so appalled and stricken with remorse that for
a while I was deprived of the powers of speech and of reason.

When the sweating priests shoved the hearse off the deck and through
the gateway, the crowd around me started after it and I was borne along
with them willy-nilly, as though I were a leaf upon a stream without
direction of my own.

Before I was able to recover my wits I found myself within the
forecourt of the funerary temple. I began to push my way forward,
jostling those ahead of me to get past them and to reach the side of
the hearse before it came to the main entrance of the royal mortuary.

As one team of priests pushed the vehicle forward, a second team picked
up the wooden rollers that were left behind it and ran forward to place
them ahead of the ponderous golden vehicle. There was a short delay as
the carriage reached that area of the courtyard that had not yet been
paved. While the priests spread straw ahead of the rollers to smooth
the passage over this rough ground, I slipped quickly around the back
of the row of huge carved stone lions that lined the carriage way and
hurried down this clear space until I was level with the ark. When one
of the priests tried to bar my way and prevent me reaching the side of
the vehicle, I gave him such a look as would have made one of the stone
lions quail, and spat a single word at him that was seldom heard in the
temple confines and caused him to step hurriedly aside and let me
pass.

When I reached the near side of the ark I found myself directly below
Lostris, close enough to stretch up and touch her arm, and to hear
every word she addressed to the king.

I could tell at once that she had completely recovered her poise which
Pharaoh’s unexpected interest in her had disturbed, and was now setting
out to be as agreeable as possible to him. Miserably, I recalled how
she had planned to do exactly this, and to use his favour to secure his
agreement to her marriage to tonus. As recently as last evening I had
dismissed it as girlish prattle, but now it was happening, and was
beyond my power to prevent it or to warn her of the dangerous waters
into which she was steering.

If, earlier in this chronicle, I have given the impression that my Lady
Lostris was a flighty child -with not a thought in her pretty head
other than romantic nonsense and her own frivolous enjoyment of life,
then I have fallen short in my efforts as historian of these
extraordinary events. Although still so young, she was at times mature
far beyond her years.

Our Egyptian girls bloom early in the Nile sunlight. She was also a
diligent scholar, with a bright mind and a thoughtful and enquiring
side to her nature, all of which I had done my very best over the years
to foster and develop.

Under my tutelage she had reached the stage where she could debate with
the priests the most obscure religious dogma, could hold her own with
the palace lawyers on such matters as the Land Tenure Acts and the
extremely complicated Irrigation Act that regulated the usage of the
waters from the Nile. Of course, she had read and absorbed every
single one of the scrolls in the palace library. These included
several hundred of which I was the author, from my medical treatises to
my definitive essays on the tactics of naval warfare, together with my
astrological scrolls on the names and natures of all the heavenly
bodies, and my manuals on archery and swordsmanship, horticulture and
falconry. She could even argue with me my own principles of
architecture, and compare them to those of the great Inihotep.

Thus she was perfectly equipped to discuss any subject from astrology
to the practice of war, from politics or the building of temples to the
measurement and regulation of , the Nile waters, all of which were
subjects that fascinated Pharaoh. In addition she could rhyme and
riddle and coin an amusing pun, and her vocabulary was almost as
extensive as my own. In short, she was an accomplished
conversationalist, with a ready sense of humour. She was articulate
and had an enchanting voice and a merry little laugh. Truly, no man or
god could resist her, especially if she could offer to someone without
a son the promise of an heir.

I had to warn her, and yet how could a slave intrude upon the congress
of persons so infinitely high above his own station? I skipped
nervously beside the carriage, listening to my Lady Lostris” voice at
its most enthralling as she set herself out to engage the king’s
fancy.

She was describing to him the manner in which his funerary temple had
been laid out to conform to the most propitious astronomical aspects,
those of the moon and the zodiac at the time of Pharaos courses was
merely repeating knowledge that she had gleaned from me, for ?” I was
the one who had surveyed and orientated the temple to the heavenly
bodies. However, she was so convincing that I found myself following
her explanations-as though I was hearing them for the first time.

The funeral ark passed between the pylons of the inner court of the
temple and rolled down the long colonnaded atrium, past the barred and
guarded doors to the six treasuries in which were manufactured and
stored the funerary offerings which would go with the king to his
tomb.

At the end of the atrium the acacia-wood doors, on which were carved
the images of all the gods of the pantheon, were swung open, and we
entered the mortuary where Pharaoh’s corpse would one day be
embalmed.

Here in this solemn chapel the king dismounted from the carriage, and
went forward to inspect the massive table on which he would lie for the
ritual of mummification. Unlike the embalming of a commoner, royal
embalming took seventy days to accomplish. The table had been sculpted
from a single block of diorite, three paces long and two wide.

Into the dark, mottled surface of the stone had been chiselled the
indentation that fitted the back of the, king’s head, and the grooves
which would drain the blood and other bodily fluids released by the
scalpels and the instruments of the embalmers.

The grand master of the guild of embalmers was standing beside the
table, ready to explain the entire process to the king, and he had an
attentive audience, for Pharaoh seemed fascinated by every gruesome
detail. At one stage it seemed that he might so far forget his dignity
as to climb-up upon the diorite block and try its fit, very much as
though it were a new costume of linen presented by his tailor.

However, he restrained himself with an obvious effort, and instead
devoted himself to the mortician’s description of how the first
incision would be made from his gullet to his groin, and how his
viscera would be lifted out cleanly and then divided into their
separate parts-liver, lungs, stomach and entrails. The heart, as the
hearth of the divine spark, would be left in place, as would the
kidneys with their associations with water and thus with the Nile, the
source of life.

After this edifying instruction, Pharaoh minutely examined the four
Canopic jars that would receive his viscera.

They stood on another smaller granite table close at hand.

The jars were carved from gleaming translucent alabaster the colour of
milk. Their stoppers were fashioned in the shapes of the
animal-headed, gods: Anubis the jackal, Sobeth the crocodile, Thoth the
this-headed, Sekhmet with the head of a lioness. They would be the
guardians of Pharaoh’s divine parts until his awakening in the eternal
life.

On the same granite table that held the Canopic jars, the embalmers had
laid out their instruments and & array of pots and amphorae that
contained the natron salts, lacquers and other chemicals that they
would use in the process. Pharaoh was fascinated by the glistening
bronze scalpels which would disembowel him, and when the embalmer
showed him the long pointed spoon that would be pushed up his nostrils
to scoop out the contents of his skull, those cheesy curds over which I
had pondered so long and fruitlessly, the king was fascinated and
handled the grisly instrument with reverential awe.

Once the king had satisfied his curiosity at the mortuary table, my
Lady Lostris directed his attention to the painted has-relief
engravings that covered the Walls of the temple from floor to ceilin”
The decorations were not yet completed, but were none the less quite
striking in their design and execution. I had drawn most of the
original cartoons with my own hand, and had closely supervised the
others drawn by the palace artists. These had been traced on to the
walls with charcoal sticks. Once the tracings were in place, I had
corrected and perfected them in free-hand. Now a company of master
sculptors was engraving them into the sandstone blocks, while behind
them a second company of artists was painting in the completed
has-relief.

The dominant colour I had chosen for these designs was blue in all its
variation: the blue of the starling’s wing, the blues of the sky and
the Nile in the sunlight, the blues of the petals of the desert orchid
and the shimmering blue of the river perch quivering in the fisherman’s
net. However, there were other colours as well, all those vibrant reds
and yellows that we Egyptians love so well.

Pharaoh, accompanied closely by my Lord Inter, in his capacity of
Keeper of the Royal Tombs, made a slow circuit of the high walls,
examining every detail, and commenting on most of them. Naturally the
theme I had chosen for the mortuary was the Book of the Dead, that
detailed map and description of the route to the underworld that
Pharaoh’s shade must follow, and the depictions of all the trials and
dangers he would confront along the way..

He paused for a long while before my drawing of the god Thoth, with his
bird head and long curved beak, weighing Pharaoh’s disembodied heart on
the scales against the feather of truth. Should the heart be impure,
it would tip the scales against the feather, and the god would
immediately toss it -to the crocodile-headed monster that waited at
hand to devour it. Softly, the king quoted the mantra laid down in the
book to shield himself from such a calamity, and then passed on to my
next engraving..

It was almost noon before Pharaoh had completed his inspection of the
mortuary temple and led the way out into the forecourt where the palace
chefs had laid out a sumptuous open-air banquet.

“Come and sit here, where I can speak to you further on the matter of
the stars!” Once again the king ignored precedent to place my Lady
Lostris close to him at the banquet table, even moving one of his
senior wives to make a place for her. During the meal he directed most
of his conversation towards my mistress. She was now completely at her
ease and kept the king and all those around her enthralled and merry
with her wit and charm.

Of course, as a slave I did not have a seat at the table, nor could I
even inveigle myself within range of my mistress to warn her to
moderate her demeanour in the king’s presence. Instead, I found myself
a place on the pedestal of one of the granite lions, from where I could
look down the length of the banquet table and watch everything that
took place there. I was not the only observer, for my Lord Inter sat
close to the king and yet withdrawn, watching it all with glittering,
implacable eyes, like a handsome but deadly spider at the centre of his
web.

At one stage of the meal a yellow-billed kite wheeled high over head,
and uttered a screech, a sardonic and mocking cry. Hurriedly I made
the sign against the evil eye, for who knows what god it Was that had
taken the form of the bird to muddle and confuse our petty
endeavours?

After the midday meal it was customary for the court to rest for an
hour or so, especially at this the hottest season of the year.

However, Pharaoh was so wrought up that today he would have none of
it.

“Now we will inspect the treasuries, ” he announced. The guards at the
doors of the first treasury stood aside and presented arms as the royal
party approached, and the doors were swung open from within.

I had planned these six treasuries not only as store-rooms to hold the
vast funerary treasure that Pharaoh had been collecting for the past
twelve years, ever since his accession to the double throne, but also
as workshops in which a small army of craftsmen and artisans was
permanently employed in adding to that treasure.

The hall that we entered was the armoury that housed the collection of
weapons and accoutrements of the battlefield and the wild chase, both
practical and ceremonial, which the king would take with him into the
afterworld. With my Lord Inter’s concurrence, I had arranged for the
craftsmen to be at their benches so that the king would have the
opportunity of watching them at work.

As Pharaoh passed slowly down the row of benches, his questions were so
astute and technical that those nobles and priests to whom he addressed
himself could provide no answers, and they looked around frantically
for someone who could. I was summoned hastily from the back of the
crowd and pushed forward to face the king’s interrogation.

“Ah. yes, ” Pharaoh grimaced bleakly as he recognized me. “it is none
other than the humble slave who writes pageants and cures the sick. No
one here seems to know the composition of this electruni that binds the
stock of the war-bow that this man is making for me. ” “Gracious
Pharaoh, the metal is a mixture of one part of copper to five parts of
silver and four of gold. The gold is of the red variety found only in
the mines of Lot in the western desert.

No other gives the wire the same pliability or elasticity, of course. ”
“Of course, ” the king agreed wryly. “And how do you make the strands
so thin? These are no thicker than the hairs of my head. ” “Majesty,
we extrude the hot metal by swinging It in a special pendulum that I
designed for the purpose. Later we can watch the process in the gold
foundry, if Your Majesty so wishes. ” Thus during the rest of the tour
I was able to remain at the king’s side and to deflect some of his
attention away from Lostris, but I still could not find the opportunity
to speak to her alone.

Pharaoh passed down the armoury to inspect the huge array of weapons
and armour already in store. Some of these had belonged to his
forefathers and had been employed in famous battles; others were newly
manufactured and would never be used in war. All of them were
magnificent, each a pinnacle of the armourer’s art. There were helmets
and breast-plates of bronze and silver and gold, battle swords with
ivory hilts set with precious stones, full-dress ceremonial uniforms of
the commander-in-chief of each of the king’s elite regiments, shields
and bucklers in hippo-hide and crocodile-skin, all starred with
rosettes of gold. It made a splendid array.

From the armoury we crossed the atrium to the furniture store, where a
hundred cabinet-makers laboured with cedar and acacia and precious
ebony wood to build the funeral furnishings for the king’s long
journey. Very few substantial trees grow in our riparian valley, and
wood is a scarce and costly commodity, worth very nearly its weight in
silver.

Almost every stick of it must be carried hundreds of leagues across the
desert, or shipped downstream from those mysterious lands to the south.
Here it was piled in extravagant stacks, as though it were commonplace,
and the fragrance of fresh sawdust perfumed the hot air.

We watched while craftsmen inlaid the head-board of Pharaoh’s bed with
patterns of mother-of-pearl and woods of contrasting colour.

Others decorated the armrests of the chairs with golden falcons and the
back-rests of the padded sofas with the heads of silver lions.

Not even the halls of the royal palace at Elephantine Island contained
such delicate workmanship as would grace the rock cell of the king’s
tomb.

From the furniture treasury we passed on to the hall of the sculptors.
In marble and sandstone and granite of” a hundred differing hues, the
sculptors whittled and chipped away with chisel and file so that a
fine, pale dust hung in the air.

The masons covered their noses and mouths with strips of linen on which
the dust settled and their features were powdered white with the
insidious stuff. Some of the men coughed behind their masks as they
worked, a persistent, dry cough that was peculiar to their rofession.

I had dissected the corpses of many old sculptors who had worked thirty
years and died at, their trade. I found their lungs petrified and
turned to stone in their bodies, thus I spent as little time as
possible in the masons” shop lest I contract the same malady.

None the less, their products were wondrous to contemplate, statues of
the gods and of Pharaoh himself that seemed to vibrate with life. There
were life-sized images of Pharaoh seated on his throne or walking
abroad, alive and dead, in his god form or in the shape of a mortal
man. These statues would line the long causeway that led from the
funerary temple on the valley floor up into the wall of black hills
from which his final tomb was even at this moment being excavated. At
his death the golden hearse, drawn by a train of one hundred white
bullocks, was to bear his massive sarcophagus along that causeway to
its final rresting-place.

This granite sarcophagus, only partially completed, lay in the centre
of the masons” hall. Originally it had been a single block of pink
granite quarried from the mines at Assoun, and ferried down-river in a
barge especially constructed for that purpose. It had taken five
hundred slaves to haul it ashore and drag it over wooden rollers to
where it now lay, an oblong of solid stone five paces long, three wide
and three tall.

The masons had begun by sawing a thick slab from the top of it.

Upon this granite lid a master mason was fashioning the likeness of the
mummiform Pharaoh, with his arms crossed and the crook and flail
gripped in his dead hands.

Another team of masons was now engaged in hollowing out the interior of
the main granite block to provide a nest into which the cluster of
inner coffins would fit perfectly. Including the huge outer
sarcophagus. there would be seven coffins in all, fitting one within
the other like a child’s puzzle-toy. Seven was, of course, one of the
magical numbers.

The innermost coffin would be of pure gold, and later we watched it
being beaten out of the formless mass of metal in the hal of the
goldsmiths.

It was this multiple sarcophagus, this mountain of stone and gold
housing the king’s wrapped corpse, that the great golden hearse would
carry along the causeway to the hills, a slow journey that would take
seven whole days to complete. The hearse would stop each night in one
of the small brines that were spaced at intervals along the causeway.

A fascinating adjunct to the hall of statues was the ushabd shop at the
rear where the servants and retainers who would escort the dead king
were being carved. These were perfect little manikins of wood
representing all the grades and orders of Egyptian society who would
work for the king in the hereafter, so as to enable him to maintain his
estate and the style of his existence in the underworld.

Each ushabti was a delightfully carved wooden doll dressed in the
authentic uniform of his calling and bearing the appropriate tools.

There were farmers and gardeners, fishermen and bakers, beer-brewers
and handmaidens, soldiers and tax-collectors, scribes and barbers, and
hundreds upon hundreds of common labourers to perform every menial task
and to go forward in the king’s place if ever he were called upon by
the other gods to work in the underworld.

At the head of this congregation of little figures there was even a
grand vizier whose miniature features closely resembled those of my
Lord Inter. Pharaoh picked out this manikin and examined him closely,
turning him over to read the description on his back.

My name is Lord Inter, grand vizier of the Upper Kingdom, Pharaoh’s
sole companion, three times the recipient of the Gold of Praise. I am
ready to answer for the king.

Pharaoh passed the doll to my Lord Inter. “Is your physique muscular,
my Lord Inter” he asked with a smile just below the surface of his dour
expression, and the grand Vizier bowed slightly.

“The sculptor has failed to do me justice, Your Majesty. ” The last
treasury that the king visited that day was the hall of the
goldsmiths.

The infernal glow of the furnaces cast a strange glow on the features
of the jewellers as they worked with total concentration at their
benches. I had coached them well. At the entrance of the royal
entourage, the goldsmiths knelt in unison to make the triple obeisance
to Pharaoh, and then rose and resumed their work.

Even in that large hall the heat of the furnace flames was so
sulphurous as almost to stop the breath, and we were soon bathed in our
own sweat. However, the king was so fascinated . by the treasure
displayed for him that he seemed not to notice the oppressive
atmosphere. He went directly to the raised dais in the centre of the
hall where the most experienced and skilful smiths were at work upon
the golden inner coffin. They had perfectly captured Pharaoh’s living
face in the shimmering metal. The mask would fit exactly over his
bandaged head. It was a divine image with eyes of obsidian and
rock-crystal, and with the cobra-headed uraeus encircling the brow. I
truly believe that no finer masterpiece of the goldsmith’s art has ever
been fashioned in all the thousand years of our civilization. This was
the peak and the zenith. All the unborn ages might one day marvel at
its splendour.

Even after Pharaoh had admired the golden mask from every angle, he
seemed unable to tear himself too far from it. He spent the remainder
of the day on the dais beside it, seated on a low stool while box after
cedar-wood box of exquisite jewels were laid at his feet and the
contents catalog tied for him. I cannot believe that such a treasure
was ever before accumulated in one place at one time. To make a bald
list of the items does not in the least way suggest the richness and
the diversity of it all. None the less, let me tell you at the outset
that there were six thousand four hundred and fifty five pieces already
in the cedar-wood boxes, and that each day more were added to the
collection as the jewellers worked on tirelessly.

There were rings for Pharaoh’s toes as well as his fingers; there were
amulets and charms, and gold figurines of the gods and goddesses; there
were necklaces and bracelets and pectoral medallions and belts on which
were inlaid falcons and vultures and all the other creatures of the
earth and the sky and the river; there were crowns and diadems studded
with lapis lazuli and garnets and agate and carnelians and asper and
every gemstone that civilized man holds dear.

The artistry with which all this had been de signed and manufactured
eclipsed all that had been created over the preceding one thousand
years. It is often in decline that a nation creates its most beautiful
works of art. In the formative years of empire the obsession is with
conquest and the building-up of wealth. It is only once . this has
been achieved that there is leisure and a desire to develop the evarts,
and-more importantly-rich and powerful men to sponsor them.

The weight of gold and silver already used in the manufacture of the
hearse and the funeral mask and all the rest of this breathtaking
collection of treasure was in excess of five hundred takhs; thus it
would have taken five hundred strong men to lift it all. I had
calculated that this was almost one-tenth of the total weight of these
precious metals that had been mined in the entire one thousand years of
our recorded history. All of this the king intended taking with him to
the tomb.

Who am I, a humble slave, to question the price that a king was willing
to pay for eternal life? Suffice it only to state that in assembling
this treasure, while at the same time conducting the war against the
Lower Kingdom, Pharaoh had, almost alone and unaided, plunged this very
Egypt of ours into beggary.

No wonder, then, that tonus in his declamation had singled out the
depredation of the tax-collectors as one of the most terrible
afflictions visited upon the populace. Between them and the robber
bands that ravaged unchecked and unhindered. through the countryside,
we were all ruined and crushed under the financial yoke that was too
heavy for any of us to bear. To survive at all, we had to evade the
tax collector net. So as he set out to beggar us for his own
aggrandizement, the king made criminals of us at the same moment. Very
few of us, great or small, rich or poor, slept well at night. We lay
awake dreading at any moment the heavy knock of the tax-collector upon
the door.

Oh, sad and abused land, how it groaned beneath the yoke!

LAVISH QUARTERS HAD BEEN PREPARED in the necropolis in which the king
would spend that night upon the west bank of the Nile, close to his own
final resting-place in the gaunt black hills.

The necropolis, the city of the dead, Was almost as extensive as Karnak
itself. It was home to all those associated with the building and the
care of the funerary temple and the royal tomb. There was a full
regiment of the elite guard to protect the holy places, for the usurper
in the north was as avaricious for treasure as was our own dear king,
while the robber barons in the desert became each day bolder and more
daring. The treasuries of the funerary temple were a sore temptation
to every predator in the two kingdoms, and beyond.

In addition to the guards there were the companies of the craftsmen and
the artisans and all their apprentices to house.

I was responsible for the records of wages and rations, so I knew
exactly how many there were. On the last pay-day their number had been
four thousand eight hundred and eleven. Added to this, there were over
ten thousand slaves employed upon the work.

I will not weary myself by listing the numbers of oxen and sheep that
had to be slaughtered each day to feed them all, nor the cart loads of
fish that were brought up from the Nile, not the thousands of jars of
beer that were brewed daily to slake the summer thirst of this
multitude as they laboured under the watchful eye and the ready lash of
their overseers.

The necropolis was a city, and in that city was a palace for the king.
It was with relief that we moved into it to spend the night, for it had
been a wearying day. But once again there was little rest for me.

I tried to reach my Lady Lostris, but it was almost as if there existed
a conspiracy to keep me away from her. According to her little black
maids, first she was at toilet, and after that she was in her bath, and
then she was resting and could not be disturbed. Finally, as I still
waited in the antechamber of her quarters, a summons reached me from
her father, and I could linger no longer, but must hurry to my
master.

As soon as I entered my Lord Inter’s bedchamber he dismissed all the
others in the room. When we were alone, he kissed me. I was once more
surprised by his benevolence and disturbed by his excited manner.

Seldom had I seen him in such mood, and always before it had adumbrated
calamitous events.

“How often the gateway to power and fortune is found in the most
unexpected place!” he laughed at me, and caressed my face. “This time
it lies between the thighs of a woman.

No, my old darling, don’t play the innocent. I know just what “a
cunning hand you have taken in all of this. Pharaoh has told me how
you cajoled him into it by promising him a male heir to his line. By
Seth, but you are the cunning one, are you not? Not a word to me of
your design, but you schemed it all on your own account. ” He laughed
again, and twisted a lock of my hair between his fingers. “You must
have divined my ultimate ambition all along, even though we have never
discussed it openly.

So you set out to achieve it for me. Of course, I should have you
punished for your presumption, ” he twisted the lock of hair until
tears started into my eyes, “but how can I be angry with you when you
have placed the double crown within my grasp?” He released the tress
of my hair and kissed me again. “I have just come from the king’s
presence.

In two days, at the culmination of the festival, he will announce his
betrothal to my daughter, Lostris. ” I felt a sudden darkness behind
my eyes, and a chilly dew formed on my skin.

“The wedding will take place the same day, immediately after the
closing ceremony of the festival, I saw to that. We don’t want any
delay in which something might happen to prevent it, do we?”

Such a swift royal wedding was unusual but not unheard of When brides
were chosen to seal a political union, or to consolidate the conquest
of a new territory, the wedding often took place the very same day it
was decided. Pharaoh Mamose the First, forefather of our present
pharaoh, had married the daughter of a conquered Hurrian chieftain on
the actual battlefield. However, such historical precedents were of
little comfort to me now as I faced the bleak maturation of my worst
fears.

My Lord Inter seemed not to notice my distress. He was too concerned
with his own immediate interests, and he went on speaking.

“Before I gave my formal consent to the union, I prevailed on the king
to concede that if she bore him a son then he would elevate my daughter
to the rank of principal wife and queen consort. ” He clapped his
hands in unrestrained triumph.

“Of course, you realize what that means. If Pharaoh should die before
my grandson is of age to rule, then I as his grandfather and closest
male line would become regent.. . ” He broke off suddenly and stared
at me, and I knew him so well that I understood exactly what was
running through his mind. He was bitterly regretting that
indiscretion, nobody should ever have heard that thought expressed.

It was purest treason. If Lostris bore a son to Pharaoh, then the
father would not live long thereafter. We both understood that. My
Lord Inter had given voice to regicide, and he was considering removing
the only one who had heard it spoken, the humble slave, Taita. We both
understood that clearly.

“My lord, I am only grateful that it has turned out the way I planned
it. I admit now that I have worked deviously to place your daughter in
the king’s way, and that I described her to him as the mother of his
future son. I used the pageant as a show-piece to focus his attention
upon her.

However, I could not bring myself to speak to you of such momentous
affairs until they had been successfully engineered. But there still
remains a great deal for us to do, before we can count ourselves
secure.. . ” and I began swiftly to extemporize a list of all that
might go awry before he could gain control of the crown and the golden
sceptre of Egypt. Tactfully I made it clear how much he still needed
me if he were to achieve his design. I saw him relax as he followed my
arguments, and I knew that at least for the immediate future I was
safe.

It was some time before I could reasonably escape from his presence and
hurry to warn my Lady Lostris of the terrible predicament in which I
had placed her. However, before I reached her door I realized that my
warning to her would serve no purpose other than to distress her to the
point of dementia or even suicide. I could waste no further time if I
were to prevent events from rushing to their tragic conclusion.

There was only one person to whom I could turn now.

I LEFt THE NECROPOLIS AND SEt OFF alone along the tow-path of the
canal, back towards the river-bank where I knew that tonus” squadrons
were encamped. The moon was only three days ?” from full and it lit
the jagged hills of the western horizon with a cold yellow radiance and
threw black shadows on the plain below.

As I hurried along, I recited to myself a full list of all the possible
calamities and misfortunes that might befall tonus, my Lady Lostris an
myself in the days ahead. I was goading myself the same way that a
black-maned desert lion lashes up his temper with the bony spike in the
end of his tail before he charges at the huntsman. Thus I was in
fulminating mood long before I reached the bank of the Nile.

I found tonus” encampment without difficulty, hard by the bank of the
Nile and the mouth of the canal. The ships of the squadron we
reanchored below the camp. The sentries challenged me and then, when
they recognized me, led me to tonus” tent. tonus was at late supper
with Kratas and four other of his subordinate officers. He rose to
greet me with a smile and offered me the beer tankard in his hand.
“This is such an unexpected pleasure, old friend. Sit down beside me
and have a pull of my beer while my slave brings you a cup and platter.
You look hot and out of sorts.. ” I cut short these pleasantries by
rounding on him furiously.

“To Seth with you, you great senseless oaf! Do you not understand what
jeopardy you have placed us in? that jaw-bone of yours! Do you have
no thought and that flapping for the safety and the well-being of my
mistress?” In truth I had not meant to be so harsh on him, but once I
had started, it seemed that I was unable to control my emotions, and
all my fear and anxiety came tumbling out in a flood of invective. Not
all that I accused him of was true or fair, but it made me feel better
to have it out. tonus” expression changed and he held up one hand as
though to shield himself. “Whoa! You take me unawares. I am unarmed
and unable to defend myself from such a murderous assault. ” In front
of his officers his tone was jocular, but his smile was thin as he
seized my arm and steered me out of the tent into the darkness, and
half-dragged me beyond the regimental lines into the open moonlit
fields be yond.

I was like a child in the grip of that right hand that was trained to
wield the sword and draw the great bow Lanata.

“Now puke it up!” he ordered me grimly. “What has happened to put you
in such vile humour?” I was still angry, but more afraid than angry,
and my tongue took flight again. “I have spent half my life trying to
protect you from your own stupidity, and I am sick of it.

Don’t you understand anything of life? Did you truly believe that you
would be allowed to escape unscathed from the incredible folly into
which you threw all of us last night?” “Are you talking about my
declamation at the pageant?” He looked puzzled, and released the
crushing grip on my arm. “How can you say it was folly? All my
officers, and every other person I have spoken to since then, are all
delighted with what I had to Say.. . ” “You fool, don’t you see that
the opinions of all your officers and all your friends count for the
price of a rotten fish in the scheme of things? Under any other ruler
you would already be dead, and even this weak and vacillating old man
of ours cannot afford to let you escape the conseQuences of your
insolence. It is more than his throne is Worth. There will be a bill
for you to pay, tonus, Lord Harrab. Horus knows, it will be a heavy
bill. ” “You are speaking in riddles, ” he snapped at me. “I did the
king a great service. He is surrounded by fawning toadies who feed him
the lies they think he wants to hear. It was past time that he learned
the truth, and I know in my heart that once he realises it, he will be
grateful to me. ” My Anger began to evaporate before his simple and
steadfast belief in the triumph of good. “tonus, my dearest friend,
what an innocent you are! No man is ever grateful for having the
unpalatable truth rammed down his throat. But apart from that, you
have played directly into the hands of my Lord Inter. ” He stared at
me hard. “What of my Lord Inter? You speak of him as though he were
my enemy. The grand vizier was my father’s dearest friend. I know
that I can trust him to protect me. He swore an oath to my father as
he lay on his death-bed.. . ” I could see that despite his sunny
disposition and our friendship he was becoming truly angry with me,
probably for the first time in his life. I knew also that, although it
was slow to rouse, tonus” anger was something to fear.

“Oh, tonus!” I curbed my own anger at last. “I have been unfair to
you. There is so much that I should have told you, and never did.

Nothing was as you thought it. I was -a coward, but I could not tell
you that Inter was your own father’s deadliest enemy. ” “How can this
be true?” tonus shook his head. “They were friends, the dearest
friends.

My earliest memories are of them laughing together. My father told me
that I could . trust my very life to my Lord Inter. ” “The noble
Pianki, Lord Harrab believed that, it is true.

His faith cost him his entire fortune, and in the end his life which he
placed in Inter’s hands. ” “No, no, you must be mistaken. My father
was the victim of a series of misfortunes “And every one of those
misfortunes was engineered by my Lord Inter. He envied your father for
his virtues and his popularity, for his wealth and his influence with
Pharaoh.

He realized that Lord Harrab would be appointed grand vizier before him
and he hated him for all these things. ” “I cannot believe you. I
cannot bring myself to believe you. ” tonus shook his head in denial,
and the last of my anger was snuffed out.

“Well “I will explain it all to you, as I should have done long ago.

I will give you all the proof you need. But there is no time for it
now.

You must trust me. My Lord Inter hates you even as he hated your
father. Both you and my Lady & Lostris are in danger. In danger of
more than simply life itself, in danger of losing each other for ever.
” “But how is that possible, Taita?” He was confused and shaken by my
words. “I thought that my Lord Inter had agreed to our union. Have
you not spoken to him, then?” “Yes, I have spoken to him, ” I cried,
and I seized tonus” hand and thrust it up under the back of my tunic.

“That was his reply. Feel the welts left by the lash! He had me
flogged for even suggesting the marriage between you and my Lady
Lostris. That is how much he hates you and your family. ” tonus
stared at me speechlessly, but I saw that he believed me at last, and
so I was able to come to the subject that was dominating my thoughts
more even than his intemperate speech, or the vendetta that the grand
vizier had conducted so successfully against him over so many years.

“Hear me now, my dear friend, and brace yourself for the very worst
tidings yet. ” There was no other way to tell him, except as directly
as tonus would have told me. “Far from agreeing to your marriage, my
Lord Inter has this very night pledged his daughter’s hand to another.
She is to be married immediately to Pharaoh Mamose, and after she bears
his first son she will become his principal wife and consort. The king
will make the announcement himself at the end of the festival of
Osiris. The marriage will take place that very same evening. ” tonus
swayed on his feet and in the moonlight his face turned ghostly pale.
Neither of us could speak for a long while and then tonus turned away
from me and walked out alone into the field of standing corn. I
trailed behind him, keeping him in sight, until at last he found an
outcrop of black rock and seated himself upon it with the weary air of
a very old man. I came up softly and seated myself below him.
Deliberately I remained silent until he sighed and asked quickly, “Has
Lostris consented to this marriage?” “Of course not.

As yet she probably knows nothing about it. But do you think for one
moment that her oh” Jections would count against the will of her father
and the king? She will have no say in the matter. ” “What are we to
do, old friend?” Even in my distress I was grateful to him that he
used the plural, including me, reassuring me of our friendship.

“There is one other probability that we must face, ” I warned him.

“And that is that in the same speech that Pharaoh announces his
betrothal to Lostris, he will order your imprisonment, or worse still,
issue your death warrant. My Lord Inter has the king’s ear and he will
certainly put him Lip to it. In truth he would have good reason. You
are certainly guilty of sedition. ” “I do not care to live without
Lostris as my wife. If the king takes her from me, then he is welcome
to my head as a marriage gift. ” He said it simply, without
histrionics, so that I had difficulty in feigning anger and putting the
edge of contempt into my voice.

“You sound like a weak and pitiful old woman, giving herself up to the
fates without a struggle. What a fine and undying love is yours, if
you will not even fight for her!” “How do you fight a king and a god?”
tonus asked quietly. “A king to whom you have sworn allegiance, and a
god who is as remote and as unassailable as the sun?” “As a king he
does not deserve your allegiance. You set that out clearly in your
declamation. He is a weak and dithering old man who” has divided the
two kingdoms and brought our To-Meri bleeding to her knees. ” “And as
a god?” tonus again asked quietly, as though he were not really
interested in the answer, although I knew him to be a devout and
religious man, as so many great warriors are.

“A god?” I made my tone derisive. “You have more of the godhead in
your sword-arm than he has in all his soft little body. ” “Then what
do you suggest?” he asked with deceptive mildness.

“What would you have me do?” I drew a deep breath and then blurted it
out.

“Your officers and your men would follow you to the gates of the
underworld. The populace loves you for your courage and your honour. ”
I faltered, for his expression in the moonlight gave me no
encouragement to continue.

He was silent for twenty beats of my racing heart and then he ordered
me softly, “Go on! Say what you have to say. ” “tonus, you would make
the noblest pharaoh that this TaMe ri this mother-land, has known for a
thousand years. You with my Lady Lostris on the throne beside you
could lead this land and this people back to greatness.

Call out your squadrons, and lead your men down the causeway to where
that unworthy pharaoh lies unprotected and vulnerable. By dawn
tomorrow you could be ruler of the Upper Kingdom.

By this time next year you could have defeated the usurper and have
reunited the two kingdoms. ” I leaped to my feet and faced him.
“tonus, Lord Harrab, your destiny and that of the woman you love await
you.

Seize them in both your strong warrior’s hands!” “Warrior’s hands,
yes. ” He held them up before my face.

“Hands that have fought for my mother-land and have protected her
rightful king. You do me a disservice, old friend.

They are not the hands of a traitor. Nor is this the heart of a
blasphemer, that would seek to cast down and destroy a god, and take
his place in the pantheon. ” I groaned aloud in my frustration. “You
would be the greatest pharaoh of the last five hundred years, and you
need not proclaim your godhead, not if the idea offends you. Do it, I
beseech you, for the sake of this very Egypt of ours, and of the woman
that we both love! “Would Lostris still love a traitor as she loved a
soldier and a patriot? I think not. ” He shook his head.

“She would love you no matter what.. . ” I began, but he cut me
short.

“You cannot convince me. She is a woman of virtue and of honour.

As a traitor and a thief, I would forfeit all right to her respect.

What is of equal importance, I would never respect myself again, or
consider myself worthy of her sweet love, if I did what you urge.

Speak of it no more, as you value our friendship. I have no claim to
the double crown, nor will I ever make such claim. Horus, hear me,
and. turn your face away from me if ever I should break this pledge.
” The matter was closed, I knew him so well, that great infuriating
oaf, whom I loved with all my heart. He meant exactly what he said,
and would cleave to it at any cost.

“Then what will you do, damn your stubborn heart?” I flared at him.

“Nothing that I say has any weight with you.

Do you want to face this on your own? Are you suddenly too wise to
heed my counsel? “I’m willing to take your counsel, just as long as it
has sense to it. ” He reached out and drew me down beside him.

“Come, Taita, help us. Lostris and I need you now as never before.
Don’t desert us. Help us find the honourable way, ” “I fear there is
no such thing, ” I sighed, my emotions and spinning like bobbing a
piece of flotsam caught in the Nile flood. “But if you will not seize
the crown, then you dare not stay here. You must sweep Lostris up in
your arms and bear her away. ” He stared at me in the moonlight.
“Leave. Egypt? You cannot be serious. This is my world.

This is Lostris” world. ” “No!” I reassured him. “That is not what I
had in mind.

There is another pharaoh in Egypt. One who has need of warriors and
honest men. You have much to offer such a king. Your fame in the
Lower Kingdom is as great as it is here at Karnak. Place Lostris on
the deck of the Breath of Horus and send your galley flying
northwards.

No other ship can catch you. In ten days, with this wind and current,
you can present yourself at the court of the red pharaoh in Memphis,
and swear allegiance to.. . ” “By Horus, you are determined to make a
traitor of me yet, ” he cut across me. “Swear allegiance to the
usurper, you say? Then what of the allegiance I swore to the true
Pharaoh Mamose? Does that count for nothing with you? What kind of
man am I, that can make the same oath to every king or renegade that
crosses my path? An oath is not something to be bartered or reclaimed,
Taita, it is for life. I gave my oath to the true Pharaoh Mamose. ”
“That true Pharaoh is the same one who will marry your love, and will
order the strangling-rope to be twisted aroun your neck, ” I pointed
out grimly, and this time even he wavered.

“You are right, of course. We should not stay in Karnak.

But I will not make myself a traitor or break my solemn oath by taking
up the sword against my king. ” “Your sense of honour is too
complicated for me. ” I could not keep the tone of sarcasm from my
voice. “All I know is that it bodes fair to make corpses of us all. ”
You have told me what you will not do. Now tell me what you will do to
save yourself, and rescue my Lady Lostris from a hateful fate. ” “Yes,
old friend, you have every right to be angry with me. I asked for your
help and advice. When you gave it freely, I scorned it.

I beg your patience. Bear with me a while longer. ” tonus sprang to
his feet and began to prowl about like the leopard in Pharaoh’s
menagerie, back and forth, muttering to himself, shaking his head and
bunching his fists, as if to face an adversary.

At last he stopped in front of me. “I am not prepared to play the
traitor, but with a heavy heart I will force myself to play the
coward.

If Lostris agrees to accompany me, and if she agrees, then I am
prepared to take flight. I will take her away from this land we both
love so well, ” “Where will you go?” I asked.

“I know that Lostris can never leave the river. It is not only her
life and mine, but her god also. We must stay -with Hopi, the river.
That leaves only one direction open to us. ” He raised his right arm,
gleaming with muscle in the moonlight, and pointed south.

“We will follow the Nile southwards into the depths of Africa, into the
land of Cush and beyond. We will go up beyond the cataracts into the
un-fathomed wilderness where no civilized man has ever gone before.

There, perhaps, if the gods are kind, we will carve out another To-Meri
for ourselves. ” “Who will be your companions?” “Kratas, of course,
and those of my officers and men who are game for the adventure. I’ll
address them tonight and give them the choice. Five ships, perhaps,
and the men to work them. We must be ready to leave by dawm Will you
go back to the necropolis and fetch Lostris to me?” “And me?” I asked
quietly. “You’ll take me with you?” “You?” He laughed at me. Now
that the decision was made, his mood took flight, high as the bating
falcon launched from the gloved fist. “Would you truly give up your
garden and your books, your pageants and your building of temples? The
road will be dangerous, and the life hard. Do you truly want that,
Taita?”

“I could not let you go alone, without my restraining hand upon your
shoulder. What folly and danger would you lead my mistress into, if I
were not there to guide you?” “Come!” he ordered, and clapped me on
the back. I never doubted it that you would come with us. I know that
Lostris would not leave without you, anyway. Enough chatter! We have
work to do. First, we will tell Kratas and the others what we intend,
and let them make their choice. Then you must go back to the
necropolis and fetch Lostris, while I make the preparations for our
departure. I’ll send a dozen of my best men with you, but we must
hurry. It is past midnight, and well into the third watch. ” Silly
romantic fool that I am, but I was as excited as he was as we hurried
back to the regiment’s encampment be low the temple and the causeway.

I was so elated that my sense of danger was dulled. It Was tonus who
picked out the sinister movement in the moonlight ahead of us and
seized my arm and drew me beneath the shelter of a stunted carob
tree.

“An armed party, ” he whispered, and I saw the glint of bronze
spearheads. There was a large band of men, thirty or forty, I
estimated.

“Bandits, perhaps, or a raiding party from the Lower Kingdom, ” tonus
growled, and even I was alarmed by the stealthy behaviour of the armed
men ahead of us. They were not using the -path of the canal, but
creeping through the open fields, spreading out to surround tonus”
encampment on the river-bank.

“This way!” With a soldier’s eye for ground he picked out a shallow
wadi that ran down to join the river, and he steered me to it.

We jumped down and ran doubled over until we reached the perimeter of
the camp. Then tonus sprang out of the wadi and roused the camp with a
bellow.

“Stand to arms! On me, the Blues! Form on me!” It was the rallying
cry of the Blue Crocodile Guards, and it was taken up at once by the
sergeants of each company. Instantly the camp boiled to life.

The men sleeping round the fires leaped to their feet and snatched up
their stacked weapons, while the officers” tents burst open as though
the men within had never slept but had been waiting, tensed and ready
for tonus” command. Sword in hand, they raced to their stations, and I
saw Kratas in the forefront.

I was amazed by the swiftness of their response, even though I knew
that these were all battle-tested veterans. Before I could draw a
dozen excited breaths they had formed in their phalanxes, with
overlapping shields and long spears thrust outwards facing the
darkness. The strange band out there in the night must have been as
startled as I was by this militant display, for although I could still
make out the vague shapes of many men and the gleam of their weapons in
the gloom, the murderous charge we were all expecting from them never
materialized.

The instant that tonus had his formations in line, he ordered the
advance. We had often debated the advantages of offensive action over
defence, and now the massed squadrons moved forward, poised to break
into a full charge at tonus” command. It must have been a daunting
spectacle to the men out there in the darkness, for a voice hailed us
with an edge of panic in its tone. “We are Pharaoh’s men on the king’s
business. Hold your attack!” “Hold hard, the Blues!” tonus stopped
the menacing advance, and then called back, “Which pharaoh do you
serve, the red usurper or the true pharaoh?” “We serve the true king,
the divine Mamose, ruler of the Upper and the Lower Kingdoms. I am the
king’s messenger. ” “Come forward, king’s messenger, who creeps around
in the night like a thief. Come forward and state your business!”
tonus invited him, but under his breath he told Kratas, “Be ready for
treachery. The smell of it is thick in the air. Have the fires built
up. Give us light to see. ” Kratas gave the order and bundles of dry
brushes were flung on to the watch-fires, The flames leaped up, and the
darkness was thrown back. Into this ruddy glow the leader of the
strange band stepped forward and shouted, “My name is Neter, Best of
Ten Thousand. I am the commander of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. I bear the
hawk seal for the arrest and detention of tonus, Lord Harrab. ” “By
Horus, he lies in his teeth, ” Kratas growled. “You are no felon with
a warrant on your head. He insults you and the regiment. Let us At
them and I’ll thrust that hawk seal up between his buttocks. ” “Hold!”
tonus restrained him. “Let us hear the fellow out. “u He raised his
voice again. “Show us the seal, Captain Neter. ” Neter held it
aloft.

A small statuette in glistening blue faience, in the shape of the royal
hawk. The hawk seal was the king’s personal empowerment. The bearer
acted with all the force and validity of Pharaoh himself. On pain of
death, no man could question or hinder him in the course and commission
of the royal business. The bearer answered only to the king.

“I am tonus, Lord Harrab, ” tonus conceded. “And I acknowledge the
hawk seal. ” “My lord, my lord!” Kratas whispered urgently. “Do not
go to the king. It will mean your certain death. I have spoken to the
other officers. The regiment is behind you, nay, the entire army is
behind you. Give us the word. We’ll make you king before the new day
breaks. ” My ear is deaf to -those words, ” tonus told him softly, but
with a weight of menace in his tone more telling than any growl or
bellow. “But only this once, Kratas, son of Maydurn. Next time that
you speak treason, I will deliver you to the king’s wrath with my own
hands. ” He turned from Kratas to me, and drew me a little to one
side.

“It is too late, old friend. The gods frown on our enterprise. I must
trust myself to the king’s good sense. If he is truly a god, then he
will be able to look into my heart and see for himself that it contains
no evil. ” He touched my arm, and that light gesture was to me more
significant than the warmest embrace. “Go to Lostris, tell -her what
has happened, tell her why it has happened. Tell her I love her and,
whatever happens, I will do so through this life and the next.

Tell her I will wait for her, to the ends of eternity, if need be. ”
Then tonus ran his sword back into the scabbard at his side and with
empty hands stepped forward to meet the bearer of the hawk seal.

“I stand ready to do the king’s bidding, ” he said simply.

Behind him his own men hissed and growled, and rattled their swords
against their bucklers, but tonus turned and quieted them with a
gesture and a frown, then strode out to confront Neter. The king’s
guard closed in around him, and then at a trot they moved away along
the tow-path of the canal, back towards the necropolis.

The camp was filled with angry, bitter young men when I left it and
followed tonus and his escort at a discreet interval. When I reached
the necropolis, I went directly to my Lady Lostris” quarters.

I was distressed to find them deserted except for three of her little
black maids, who in their usual lazy and lackadaisical manner were
packing the last of their mistress’s clothing into a cedar-wood
chest.

“Where is your mistress?” I demanded, and the eldest and most insolent
of them picked her nose as she gave me an airy reply, “Where you can’t
reach her, eunuch. ” The others tittered at her powers of repartee.
They are all of them jealous of my favour with my Lady Lostris.

“Answer me straight, or I’ll whip your insolent backside, you little
baggage. ” I had done so before, so she relented and muttered sulkily,
“They have taken her to Pharaoh’s own harem. You have no influence
there. Despite your missing balls, the guards will never let you pass
amongst the royal women. ” She was right, of course, but still I had
to make the attempt. My mistress would need me now, as much as she
ever had in all her life.

As I feared, the guards at the gate to the king’s harem were
intractable. They knew who I was, but they had orders that no one, not
even the closest members of Lostris” retinue, was to be allowed to go
to her.

It cost me a gold ring, but the best I could achieve, even with that
extravagance, was the promise that one of the guards would take my
message to her. I wrote it out on a scrap of papyrus parchment, a
bland little attempt at encouragement. I dared not relate all that had
befallen us, nor the peril in which tonus now stood. I could not even
mention him by name, and yet I had to reassure her of his love and
protection. As an investment, it was not worth the price I was forced
to pay. Hardest of all to bear, I learned later that my gold had been
entirely wasted and that she never received the message. Is there no
man we can trust in this perfidious world?

I was not to see either tonus or my Lady Lostris again until the
evening of the last day of the festival of Osiris.

THE FESTIVAL ENDED IN THE TEMPLE OF

the god. It seemed once more that all the populace of Greater Thebes
was packed into the courtyards.

We were jammed so tightly that I could scarcely breathe in the press
and the heat.

I was feeling wretched, for I had slept little for two nights in
succession on account of the worry and the strain. Apart from the
uncertainty of the fate of tonus, I had been further burdened by my
Lord Inter with the onerous duty of arranging the wedding ceremony of
the king to his daughter, a duty that ran so contrary to my own
desires. Added to which, I was parted from my mistress, and I could
scarcely bear it. I do not know how I came through it. Even the slave
boys were concerned about me. They declared that they had never seen
my beauty so impaired, or my spirits so low.

Twice during Pharaoh’s interminable speech from the throne, I found
myself swaying on my feet, on the very point of fainting.

However, I forced myself to hold on, while the kin droned out the
platitudes and half-truths with which he sought to disguise the true
state of the kingdom and to placate the populace.

As was only to be expected, he never referred directly to the red
pharaoh in the north or the civil war in which we were embroiled,
except in such broad terms as “these troubled times” or “the defection
and insurrection. However, after he had spoken for a while it suddenly
became plain to me that he was referring to every one of the issues
that tonus had raised in his declamation, and attempting to find
remedies for each of them.

It was true that he was doing so in his usual “inept and vacillating
fashion, but the simple fact that he had taken notice of what tonus had
said braced me and focused my wandering attention. I edged forward in
the press of humanity until I had a better view of the throne, by which
time the king was speaking about the impudence of the slaves and the
disrespectful behaviour of the lower classes of our society. This was
another issue that tonus had mentioned, and I was amused to hear
Pharaoh’s solution. “From henceforth the slave-owner may order fifty
lashes to the insolent slave, without recourse to the magistrate to
sanction such punishment, ” he announced.

I smiled when I remembered how this same king had almost wrecked the
state twelve years previously with another proclamation that ran in the
exact opposite direction to this latest pronouncement. Still
idealistic at his coronation, he had set out actually to abolish the
ancient and honourable institution of slavery. He had wanted to turn
every slave in Egypt loose and make him a free man.

Even at this remove in time, such folly is still incomprerisible to me.
Though I am myself a slave, I believe that the slavery and serfdom are
the institutions on which the greatness of nations is founded. The
rabble cannot govern itself.

Government should be entrusted only to those born and trained to it.
Freedom is a privilege, not a right. The masses need a strong master,
for without control and direction anarchy would reign. The absolute
monarch and slavery and serfdom are the pillars of a system that has
allowed us to develop into civilized men.

It had been instructive to see how the slaves themselves had rebelled
at the prospect of having freedom thrust upon them. I had been very
young at the time, but I too had been alarmed at the prospect of being
turned out from my warm and secure niche in the boys” quarters to
scavenge on the rubbish-heaps for my next crust of bread with a horde
of other freed slaves. A bad master is better than no master at all.

Of course, the kingdom had been thrown into chaos by this folly.

The army had been upon the brink of revolt. Had the red pharaoh in the
north seized the opportunity, then history might have been written
differently. In the end our own pharaoh had hastily withdrawn his
misguided decree of manumission, and managed to cling to his throne.

Now here he was little more than a decade later proclaiming increased
punishments for the impudence of a slave. It was so typical of this
hesitant and muddling pharaoh that I pretended to mop my brow in order
to cover the first smile that had creased my face in the last two
days.

“The practice of self-mutilation for the purpose of avoiding military
service will in future be strongly discouraged, ” the king droned on.
“Any eligible young man claiming excemption under this dispensation is
to appear before a tribunal of three army Officers, at least one of
whom is to be a centurion or officer of superior rank. ” This time my
smile was one of reluctant approval. For once Pharaoh was on the right
track. I would dearly love to see Menset and Sobek displaying their
missing thumbs to some hardened old veteran of the river wars. What
tender sympathy they could expect! “The fine for such in offence will
be one thousand rings of gold. ” By Seth’s bulging belly, that, would
make those two young dandies pause, and my Lord Inter would have to
meet the fine on their behalf.

Despite my other concerns, I was beginning to feel’a little more
cheerful, as Pharaoh continued, “From. this day forward it will be an
offence punishable by a fine of ten gold rings for a harlot to ply for
trade in any public place, other than one set aside by the magistrates
for that purpose. ” This time I could barely prevent myself from
laughing aloud.

Vicariously tonus would make puritans and honest men of all of Thebes.
I wondered how the sailors and the off-duty soldiers would welcome this
interference in their sporting lives. Pharaoh’s period of lucidity had
been short-lived. Any fool knows the folly of trying to legislate to
man’s sexual foibles.

Despite my doubts as to the wisdom of the king’s remedies, still I
found myself overtaken by a tremulous excitement. It was clear that
the king had taken serious notice of every issue that tonus had brought
forward in his declamation. Could he now go on to condemn tonus for
sedition?

I wondered.

However, Pharaoh had not finished yet. “It has been brought to my
notice that certain officials of the state have” abused the trust and
faith that I have placed in them. These officials, concerned with the
collection of taxes and the handling of public funds, will be called
upon to account for the monies placed in their care. Those found
guilty of embezzlement and corruption will be summarily sentenced to
death by strangulation. ” The populace stirred and sighed with
disbelief. Would the king truly seek to restrain his tax collectors

Then a single voice at the back of the hall cried out, “Pharaoh is
great! Long live Pharaoh!” The cry was taken up until the temple rang
with the cheering. It must have been an unusual sound for the king to
hear, that spontaneous applause. Even at the distance that I was from
the throne I could tell that he enjoyed it. His lugubrious expression
lightened and the double crown seemed to weigh less heavily on his
head. I was certain that all of this must improve tonus” chances of
escaping the executioner’s noose.

When the cheering eventually subsided, the king went on in his
particular style to diminish everything that he had just achieved. “My
trusted grand vizier, the noble Lord Inter, will be placed in sole and
absolute charge of this investigation of the civil service, with the
full powers of search and arrest, of life and of death vested in -him.
” There was just the softest echo of applause to greet this
appointment, and I used it to disguise a sardonic chuckle.

Pharaoh was sending a hungry leopard to count the birds in his
chicken-coop. What sport my Lord Inter would have amongst the royal
treasuries, and what a redistribution of the nation’s wealth would now
take place with my master doing the counting, and milking the
tax-collectors of their secret hoards of savings!

Pharaoh had a rare talent for capsizing or running the noblest
sentiments and intentions on to the rocks with his blundering
helmsmanship. I wondered what other folly he would manage to
perpetrate before he finished speaking that day, and I did not have too
long to wait.

“For some time it has been a cause for grelit concern to me that a
state of lawlessness exists in the Upper Kingdom, placing the lives and
the estates of honest citizens in the gravest jeopardy. I had made
dispositions to deal with this state of affairs at an appropriate
time.

However, the matter was recently presented to me in such an untimely
and ill advised manner as to reek of sedition. It was done under the
dispensation of the festival of Osiris. However, that dispensation
does not cover treason or the crime of blasphemy, an attack on the
person and divinity of the king. ” Pharaoh paused significantly. It
was clear that he was speaking of tonus, and I was once again critical
of his judgement. A strong pharaoh would not explain his motives to
the people, or seek to win their approval for his actions. He would
simply have pronounced sentence and have had done with the matter.

“I speak, of course, of tonus, Lord Harrab, who played the role of the
great god Honis at the pageant. “sins. he has been arrested for the
crime of sedition. My councillors are divided on the subject of this
person’s guilt. There are those amongst them who wish him to pay the
supreme penalty.. . ” I saw my Lord Inter, standing below the throne,
avert his gaze for a moment, and it confirmed what I already knew, that
he was the chief amongst those who wished to see tonus executed “-and
there are those who feel that his declamation at the festival was
indeed inspired by divine forces and that it was not the voice of
tonus, Lord Harrab, that spoke out on these matters, but the veritable
voice of the god Horus. If this latter be the case, then clearly there
can be no culpability to the mortal through whom the god chose to
speak. ” The reasoning was fair, but what pharaoh worth the double
crown would deign to explain it to this horde of common soldiers and
sailors and farmers, of tradesmen and labourers and slaves, most of
whom were still suffering from the ill effects of too much wine and
revelry? While I still pondered this the king gave a command to the
captain of the guard who stood below the throne. I recognized him as
Neter, the officer who had been sent to arrest tonus Neter marched away
smartly and returned a moment later, leading tonus from the sanctuary
at the rear of the hall.

My heart leaped at the sight of my friend, and then with joy and hope I
realized that he was unbound, there were no chains on his ankles.
Although he carried no weapons and wore no badge of rank, and was
dressed in a simple white kilt, he walked with his accustomed elastic
step and jaunty grace. Apart from the healing scab on his forehead
where Rasfer had struck him, he was unmarked. He had not been beaten
or tortured, and I felt my optimism revived. They were not treating
him as a condemned man.

A moment later all my hopes were dashed to pieces. tonus made his
obeisance before the throne, but when he rose to his feet again,
Pharaoh looked down upon him severely and spoke in a voice without
pity. “tonus, Lord Haffab, you stand accused of treason and sedition.
I find you guilty of both these crimes. I sentence you to death by
strangulation, the traditional punishment of the traitor. ” As Neter
placed the noose of linen rope around tonus” neck to mark him as one
condemned to die, a groan went up from the people who watched.

A woman wailed, and soon the temple was filled with cries of
lamentation and the ululation of mourning. Never before had such a
display accompanied the passing of the death sentence. Nothing could
demonstrate more clearly the love which the populace bore tonus. I
wailed with them and the tears broke from my lids and streamed down my
face to pour like a waterfall on to my chest. The bodyguards fell upon
the crowd, using the butts of their long spears in an attempt to beat
the mourners into silence. It was in vain, and I screamed out over
their -heads, “Mercy, bountiful Pharaoh! Mercy for the noble tonus!”

One of the guards struck me on the side of the head, and I fell to the
ground half-stunned, but my cry was taken up.

“Mercy, we beseech you, oh divine Mamose!” It took all the efforts of
the guards to restore some order, but still a few of the women were
sobbing.

Only when Pharaoh raised his voice again were we at last silent, so
that every one of us heard his next pronouncement.

“The condemned man has complained of the lawless state of the kingdom.
He has called upon the throne to stamp out the bands of robbers who
ravage the land. The condemned man has been called a hero, and, there
are those who say that he is a mighty warrior. If this be true, then
he himself would be better suited than any other to carry out those
measures he demands. ” Now the people were confused and silent, and I
struck the tears from my face with my forearm as I strained to catch
the next word. “Therefore, the sentence of death is deferred for two
years. If the condemned man was truly inspired by the god Horus when
he made his seditious speech, then the god will assist him in the task
I now place upon him. ” The silence was profound. None of us seemed
able to understand what we were hearing, although hope and despair
filled my soul in equal measure.

At a signal from the king one of the ministers of the crown stepped
forward and offered Pharaoh a tray on which lay a tiny blue statuette.
Pharaoh held it aloft and announced, “I issue to Lord Harrab the hawk
seal of the pharaohs. Under the auspice of the seal he may recruit all
the men and materials of war that he deems necessary to his task. He
may employ whatever means he chooses, and no man may prevent him. For
two full years he is the king’s man, and he answers only to the king.
At the end of that time, on the last day of the next festival of
Osiris, he will come before the throne once again, wearing the noose of
death around his neck. If he has failed in his task, the noose will be
tightened and he will be strangled to death on the spot where he now
stands. If he has completed his task, then I; Pharaoh Mamose, will
lift the noose from around his neck with my own hands and replace it
with a chain of gold. ” Still none of us could speak or move, and we
stared in fascination as Pharaoh made a gesture with the crook and the
flail. “tonus, Lord Harrab, I charge you with the task of eradicating
from the Upper Kingdom of Egypt the outlaws and robber bands that are
terrorizing this land. Within two years you will restore order and
peace to the Upper Kingdom. Fail me at your peril. ” A roar went up
from the congregation, wild as the sound of storm surf beating upon a
rocky shore. Though they cheered unthinkingly, I lamented. The task
that Pharaoh had set was too great for any mortal man to achieve. The
cloud of death had not been lifted from over tonus. I knew that in two
years from today he would die on the very same spot where he now stood
so young and proud and tall.

FORLORN AS A LOSt. WAIve, SHE STOOD

alone in the midst of the multitude, with the river that was her patron
god at her back and before her a sea of faces. ?” The long linen
shift that fell to her ankles was dyed with the juice of shellfish to
the colour of the finest wine, a colour that proclaimed her as a virgin
bride.

Her hair was loose. It flowed down on to her shoulders in a soft dark
tide that shone in the sunlight as though with an inner fire. On those
shining locks she wore the bridal wreath woven from the long stems of
the water-lily. The blossoms were an unearthly cerulean blue, with
throats of the clearest gold.

Her face was as white, as freshly ground -corn flour Her eyes were so
large and dark that they reminded me heartbreakingly of the little girl
whom, in years gone by, I had so often woken from the grip of
nightmare, and lit the lamp and sat beside her cot until she slept
again. This time I could not help her, for the nightmare was
reality.

I could not go to her, for the priests and Pharaoh’s guard surrounded
her, as they had all these days past, and they would not let me near
unto her. She was lost to me for ever, my little girl, and I could not
support the thought of it.

The priests had built the wedding canopy of river rushes on the bank
above the Nile, and my Lady Lostris waited beneath it for her
bridegroom to come to claim her. At her side stood her father, with
the Gold of Praise glittering around his neck and the smile of the
cobra on his lips.

The royal bridegroom came at last, to the solemn beat of the drum and
the bleat of gazelle-horn trumpets, and to me this wedding march was
the saddest sound in all the earth.

Pharaoh wore the nemes crown and carried the sceptre, but behind the
pomp and the regalia, he was still a little old man with a pot-belly
and a sad face. I could not help but think of the other bridegroom who
might have stood under the canopy beside my mistress, if only the gods
had been kinder.

Pharaoh’s ministers and high officials attended him so closely that my
view of my mistress was obscured. Despite the fact that it was I who
had been forced to arrange every detail of it, I was excluded from the
wedding, and I had only glimpses of my Lady Lostris during the
ceremony.

The high priest of Osiris washed the hands and the feet of both the
bride and the groom with water freshly drawn from the Nile to symbolize
the purity of their union. Then the king broke a morsel from the
ritual corn-loaf and offered it to his young bride as a pledge. I
glimpsed my mistress’s face as he placed the crust between her lips.

She could neither chew nor swallow but stood with it in her mouth as
though it were a stone.

Once again she was hidden from my view, and it was only when I heard
the crunch of the empty jug that had contained the marriage wine as the
bridegroom shattered it with a blow of his sword, that I knew that it
was done and that Lostris was for ever more beyond the reach of tonus”
arms.

The crowd beneath the canopy opened and Pharaoh led his newest bride
forward to the front of the platform to present her to the people. They
showed their love for Lostris in a chorus of adulation that went on and
on until my ears rang and my head swam.

I wanted to escape from the press and go to find tonus. though I knew
that he had been released from detention and was once again at liberty,
he had not attended the ceremony. He was perhaps the only man in
Thebes who had not come to the riverside today.

I knew that wherever he might be, he stood in as dire need of me as I
was of him.

The only small comfort that either of us might find on this tragic day
was with each other. However, I could not tear myself away. I had to
see it out to the final harrowing moment.

At last my Lord Inter came forward to take his farewell of his
daughter. As the crowd subsided into silence he embraced her.

Lostris was like a corpse in his, embrace. Her arms hung limply at her
side, and her face was pale as death. Her father released her, but
kept a grip on her hand as he turned and faced the congregation to
offer the ritual gift to his daughter.

Traditionally, this gift was made over and above the dowry that went
directly to the bridegroom. However, only the nobility observed this
custom, which was designed to give the bride an independent income.

“Now that you go from my house and from my protection to the house of
your husband, I bestow upon you the gift of parting, that you will
remember me always as the father that loved you. ” The words were
inappropriate to the circumstances, I thought bitterly. My Lord Inter
had never loved another living soul. However, he continued the ancient
formula, as though the sentiments were his own. “Ask any boon of me,
my beloved child. I will refuse you nothing on this joyous day. ” It
was the usual practice for the extent of the gift to be agreed in
private between father and daughter before the ceremony. In this case,
however, my Lord Inter had told his daughter unequivocally what she was
entitled to ask for. He had done me the honour of discussing the
matter with me the previous day, before informing Lostris of his
decision.

“I don’t want to be extravagant, but on the other hand I do not wish to
appear parsimonious in Pharaoh’s eyes, ” he had mused. “Let us say,
five thousand gold rings and fifty fed dan of land- not on the
riverfront, mind you. ” He had, with my prompting, finally decided on
five thousand gold rings and one-hundred fed dan of prime irrigable
land as being a suitable gift for a royal wedding; On his instruction I
had already drawn up the deed of grant for the land, and set aside the
gold from a secret store that my master kept out of the way of the
tax-collectors.

The matter was settled. It remained only for Lostris to give voice to
the request before her groom and all the wedding guests. But she stood
pale and silent and withdrawn, seeming neither to see’ nor hear what
was going on around her.

“Speak up, my child. What is it that you desire from me?” My Lord
Inter’s tones of paternal love were becoming strained, and he shook his
daughter’s hand to rouse her.

“Come, tell your father what he can do to make this happy. day
complete. ” My Lady Lostris stiffed as though coming awake from a
dreadful dream. She looked about her and her tears welled up and
threatened to break over her quivering eyelids. She opened her mouth
to speak, but what came from her throat was the weak little cry of a
wounded bird. She closed her lips again and shook her head
speechlessly.

“Come, child. Speak out. ” My Lord Inter was having difficulty
sustaining an expression of paternal affection. “Name your marriage
gift, and I will give it to you, whatever it is that you desire. ” The
effort that Lostris had to make was apparent to me, even though I stood
so far from her, but this time when she opened her mouth her request
rang out over our heads, clear as the music of the lyre. There could
not have been a soul in the crowd who did not hear every word of it.

“For my gift give me the slave, Taita!” My Lord Inter reeled back a
pace as though she had thrust a dagger into his belly. He stared at
her agast, his mouth opening and closing without a sound escaping.

Only he and I knew the value of the gift that Lostris had demanded.

Not even he, with the store of wealth and treasure that he had gathered
over a lifetime, could afford such a payment. swiftly His expression
was once more calm recov and benign, though his lips stretched tight.
“You are too restrained, my darling daughter. A single slave is no
fitting gift for Pharaoh’s bride. Such stinginess is not, in my
nature.

I would rather you accepted a gift of real value, five thousand rings
of gold and.. . ” “Father, you have always been too generous with me,
I want only Taita. ” My Lord Inter smiled a white smile, white teeth,
white lips and white rage. While he still stared at Lostris I could
see that his mind was racing.

I was the most -valuable of all his possessions. It was not simply in
my wide range of extraordinary talents that made up the full measure of
my worth to him. Even more, it was that I knew intimately every
convoluted thread of the intricate tapestry of his affairs. I knew
every informer and spy in his network, every person whom he had ever
bribed and who had bribed him. I knew which favours were outstanding
on each account, which favours remained to be settled, and which
grudges were still to be paid off.

I knew all his enemies, a long list; and I knew those he counted his
friends and allies, a much shorter list. I knew where every nugget of
his vast treasure was hidden, who were his bankers and his agents and
his nominees, and how he had concealed the ownership of great tracts of
land and stores of precious metals and gemstones in the legal labyrin
of land rights an servitudes. this was information that would delight
the tax-collectors and cause Pharaoh to revise his opinion of his grand
vizier.

I doubted that my Lord Inter himself could remember and trace all his
wealth without my assistance. He could not properly order and control
his sprawling, shadowy empire without me, for he had kept himself aloof
and separated from the most unsavoury aspects of it. He had preferred
to send me to take care of those details which, if discovered, might
incriminate him.

So it was that I knew a thousand dark secrets, and I knew of a thousand
fearful deeds, of embezzlement and extortion, of robbery and bloodiest
murder, all of which taken together could destroy even a man as
powerful as the grand vizier.

I was indispensable. He could not let me go. And yet, before Pharaoh
and the entire population of Thebes, he could not deny Lostris her
request.

My Lord Inter is a man full of ire and hatred. I have seen such rage
in him that must have made Seth, the god old take notice. But I had
never seen such anger, start up an fury as now that his own daughter
had him cornered.

“Let the slave Taita stand forward, ” he called, and I saw that it was
a ruse for him to gain a respite. I pushed my way as swiftly as I was
able to the foot of the wedding platform, to give him as little time as
possible to plan his next mischief.

“I am here, my lord, ” I cried, and he stared down at me with those
deadly eyes. We have been together so long that he can speak to me
with a look almost as clearly as with the spoken word. He stared at me
in silence until my heart was racing and my fingers fluttered with
fear, then at last he said in soft, almost affectionate tones, “Taita,
you have been with me since you were a child. I have come to regard
you as a brother more than as a slave. Still, you have heard my
daughter’s request. I am by nature a fair and kind man.

After all the years it would be inhuman of me to discard you against
your wishes. I know that it is unusual for a slave to be given a say
in his own disposal, but then your circumstances are indeed unusual.
Choose, Taita. I was your home, the only home you have ever known,
that is why I cannot find the heart to send you away.

Not even at the request of my own daughter. ” He never took his eyes
off me, those terrible yellow eyes. I am not a coward but I am careful
of my safety. I realized that I was staring into the eyes of death,
and I could not find my voice.

I tore my gaze from his, and looked towards my Lady Lostris.

There was such appeal there, such loneliness and terror, that my own
safety counted for nothing. I could not desert her now, not at any
price or under any threat.

“How can a poor slave deny the wish of Pharaoh’s wife?

I am ready to do the bidding of my new mistress, ” I cried out at the
top of my lungs, and I hoped that my voice had a manly ring to it and
was not as shrill as it sounded in my own ears.

“Come, slave!” my new mistress ordered. “Take your place behind me. ”
As I mounted the platform, I was forced to pass close to my Lord Inter.
His white, stiff lips barely moved as he spoke for my ears alone.
“Farewell, my old darling, You are a dead man. ” I shuddered as though
a poisonous cobra had slid across my path and I hurried to take my
place in the renue of my mistress, as though I truly believed that I
could find safety in her protection.

I STAYED CLOSE TO LOSTRIS DURING THE rest of the ceremony and I waited
on her personally at the wedding feast, hovering at her elbow and
trying to make her eat a little of the meats and fine fare that was
spread before her. She was so wan and sickly that I was certain that
she had eaten nothing in the last two days, not since her betrothal and
the condemnation of tonus.

In the end I succeeded in getting her to take a little wine, but that
was all. Pharaoh saw her drink and thought that she was toasting him.
He lifted his own gold chalice, and smiled at her over the rim as he
returned the toast, and the wedding guests cheered the couple
delightedly.

“Taita, ” she whispered to me as soon as the king’s attention was
diverted by the grand vizier who sat at his other hand, “I fear that I
am going to vomit. I cannot stay here another moment. Please take me
back to my chamber. ” It was an impudence and a scandal, and had I not
been able to adopt the role of surgeon, ” I could never have achieved
it, but I was able to creep on my knees to the king’s side, and to
whisper to him without causing an undue comment amongst the wedding
guests, most of whom were well along in wine at this stage.

As I grew to know him better, I found that Pharaoh was a kindly man,
and this was the first proof he gave me of it.

He listened to my explanations and then clapped his hands and addressed
the guests. “My bride will go to her chamber now to prepare for the
night ahead, ” he told them, and they leered and greeted the
announcement with lewd comment and lascivious applause.

I helped my mistress to her feet, but she was able to make her
obeisance to the king and leave the banquet hall without my support.

In her bedchamber she threw up the wine she had drunk into the bowl
that I held for her, and then she collapsed upon the bed. The wine was
all her stomach contained and my suspicion that she had been starving
herself was confirmed.

“I don’t want to live without tonus. ” Her voice was weak, but I knew
her well enough to recognize that her will was as strong as ever.
“tonus is alive, ” I tried to console her. “He is strong and young and
will live for another fifty years. He loves you and he promises to
wait for you to the end of time. The king is an old man, he cannot
live for ever.. . ” She sat up on the fur bed cover and her voice
became stern and determined. “I am tonus” woman and no other man shall
have me. I would rather die. ” “We all die in the end, mistress. ”
If only I could distract her for the first few days of this marriage, I
knew I could see her through. But she understood me too well.

“I know what you are up to, but all your pretty words will do you no
good. I am going to kill myself. I order you to prepare a draught of
poison for me to drink. ” “Mistress, I am not versed in the science of
poison. ” It was a forlorn attempt, and she crushed it effortlessly.

“Many is the time that I have seen you give poison to a suffering
animal. Do you not remember your old dog, the one with abscesses in
its ears, and your pet gazelle that was mauled by a leopard? You told
me that the poison was painless, that it was the same as going to
sleep. Well, I want to go to sleep and be embalmed and go on to the
other world to wait for tonus there. ” I had to try other
persuasion.

“But what about me, mistress? You have only this day taken possession
of me. How can you abandon me? What will become of me without you?

Have pity on me. ” I saw her waver, and I thought. I had her, but she
lifted her chin stubbornly.

“You will be all right, Taita. You will always be all right.

My father will take you back gladly after I am dead. ” “Please, my
little one, ” I used the childhood endearment in a last attempt to
cajole her, “let us talk of this in the morning. Everything will be
different in the sunlight. ” “It will be the same, ” she contradicted
me.

“I will be parted from tonus, and that wrinkled old man will want me in
his bed to do horrid things to me. ” Her voice was raised so that the
other members of the king’s harem might hear every word.

Fortunately most of them were still at the wedding feast, but I
trembled at the thought of her description of him being relayed to
Pharaoh.

Her voice became shriller with the edge of hysteria in it.

“Mix me the poison draught now, this instant, while I watch you do it.
I order you to do it. You dare not disobey me!” This command was so
loud that even the guards at the outer gates must be able to hear her,
and I dared not argue longer.

“Very well, my lady. I will do it. I must fetch my chest of medicine
from my rooms. ” When I returned -with the chest under my arm, she was
up from the bed and pacing around her chamber with glittering. eyes in
that pale, tragic face.

“I am watching you. Don’t try any of your tricks on me now, ” she
warned me, as I prepared the draught from the scarlet glass bottle.

She knew that colour warned of the lethal contents When I handed the
bowl to her, she showed no fear, and paused only to kiss my cheek.

“You have been both father and loving brother to me. I thank you for
this last kindness.

I love you, Taita, and I shall miss you. ” She lifted the bowl in both
hands as though it were a wassail cup rather than a fatal potion.
“tonus, my darling she toasted him with it, “they shall never take me
from you. We shall meet again on the far side!” And she drained the
bowl at a swallow, then dropped it to shatter on the floor. At last,
with a sigh, she fell back upon the bed.

“Come, sit beside me. I am afraid to be alone when I die. ” Taken on
her empty stomach, the effect of the draught was very rapid. She had
only time to turn her face to me and whisper, “Tell tonus again how
much I loved him. Unto the portals of death, and beyond. ” Then her
eyes closed and she was gone.

She lay so still and pale that for a moment I was truly alarmed, afraid
that I had misjudged the strength of the powder of the Red Shepenn
which I had substituted for the essence of the deadly Datura Pod. It
was only when I held a bronze hand-mirror to her mouth that the clouded
“surface reassured me she still breathed. I covered her gently, and
tried to convince myself that in the morning she would be resigned to
the fact that she was still alive, and that she would forgive me.

At that moment there was a peremptory knock upon the door of the outer
chamber and I recognized the voice of Aton, the royal chamberlain,
demanding entrance. He was another eunuch, one of the special
brotherhood of the emasculated, so I could count him as a friend. I
hurried through to greet him.

“I have come to fetch your little mistress to the king’s pleasure,
Taita, ” he told me, in high girlish tones so incongruous with such a
large frame. He had been gelded beforp puberty. “Is she ready?”

There has been a small mishap, ” I explained, and led him through to
see Lostris for himself.

He puffed out his rouged cheeks with consternation when he saw her
condition. “What can I tell Pharaoh?” he cried.

“He will have me beaten. I will not do it. The woman is your
responsibility. You must answer to the king, and stand before his
wrath. ” It was not a duty that I relished, but Aton’s distress was
real, and at least I had my medical status to afford me some protection
from the king’s frustrated expectations, Reluctantly, I agreed to
accompany him to the royal bedchamber.

However, I made sure that there was one of the older and more reliable
slave maids in attendance in my mistress’s outer chamber before I left
her alone.

Pharaoh had removed his crown and his wig. His head was shaved as bare
and white as an ostrich egg. The effect startled. even me, and I
wondered how my mistress would have responded to the sight. I doubt
that it would have raised either her ardour or her opinion of him.

The king seemed as startled to see me as I was to see him. We stared
at each other for a moment before I fell to my knees and made my
obeisance.

“What is this, Taita the slave? I sent for another.. . ” “Merciful
Pharaoh, on behalf of the Lady Lostris I come to beg your understanding
and indulgence. ” I launched into a harrowing description of my Lady
Lostris” condition, larding it with obscure medical terms and
explanations that were intended to divert the royal appetite. Aton
stood beside me, nodding in’ emphatic corroboration of all I had to
say.

I am sure that it would not -have worked with a younger and more
vigorous bridegroom, ready and rearing to get to the business, but
Marnose was an old bull. It would have been impossible to tally all
the lovely women who over the past thirty years or so had enjoyed his
services. In single file they would probably have encircled the city
of Thebes of a hundred gates, possibly more than once.

“Your Majesty, ” Aton interrupted my explanations at last, “with your
permission, I will fetch you another female companion for the night.
Perhaps the little Hurrian with the unusual control of her.. ” “No,
no, ” the king dismissed him. “There will be plenty of time for it
when the child is recovered from her indisposition. Leave us now,
chamberlain. There is some other matter that I wish to discuss with
the doctor-I mean, with this slave. ” As soon as we were alone the
king lifted his shift to display his belly. “What do you think is the
cause of this, doctor?” I examined the rash that adorned his
protuberant paunch, and found it to be an infestation of the common
ringworm.

Some of the royal women washed less frequently than is desirable in our
hot climate. I have noted that filth and the contagious itch go
together. The king had probably contracted the infection from one of
them.

“Is it dangerous? Can you cure it, doctor?” Fear makes commoners of
us all. He was deferring to me now as would any other patient.

With his permission, I went to my quarters to fetch “my medicine chest,
and when I returned, I ordered him to lie on the ornate gold and ivory
marquetry bed while I massaged an ointment into the inflamed red circle
of skin on his belly. The ointment was of my own concoction and would
heal the rash within three days, I assured him.

“In a great measure you are responsible for the fact that I have
married this child who is your new mistress, ” he told me as I worked.
“Your ointment may cure the rash, but will your other treatment provide
me wit a son?” he demanded.

“These are troubled times. I must have an heir before I am another
year older. The dynasty is in jeopardy. ” We physicians are always
reluctant to guarantee our cures, but then so is the lawyer and the
astrologer. While I procrastinated “I am no longer a young man, Taita.
You are a doctor he gave me the escape I was searching for. and I can
tell you this. My weapon has been in many a fierce battle. Its blade
is no longer as keen as once it was.

Of late it has failed me when I most had need of it. Do you have
something in that box of yours that would stiffen the wilting stern of
the lily?” “Pharaoh, I am pleased that you have discussed this with
me.

Sometimes the gods work in mysterious ways.. . ” we both made the sign
to avert evil before I went on, “your first congress with my virgin
mistress must be perfectly executed. Any faltering, any bending from
our purpose, any failure to raise on high the royal sceptre of your
manhood, will frustrate our efforts. There will be only one
opportunity, the first union must be successful. If we have to try
again there will be the danger of your fathering yet another female. ”
My medical grounds for this prognosis were rather insubstantial.

Nevertheless, we both looked grave, he graver than I did.

I held up my forefinger. “Had we made the attempt tonight, and. ” I
said no more, but let my forefinger droop suggestively, and shook my
head. “No, we are fortunate to have been given another chance by the
gods. ” “What must we do?” he demanded anxiously, and I was silent
for a long while, kneeling in deep thought beside his bed.

It was difficult not to let my relief and satisfaction become apparent.
Within the first day of my mistress’s marriage, I was already working
my way into a position of influence with the king, and I had been
offered a perfect excuse for keeping her maidenhead intact for at least
a little longer, long enough perhaps for me to be able to prepare her
for the brutal shock of her first act of procreation with a man whom
she did not love and who Was, indeed, physically distasteful to her. I
told myself that with clever management of the situation, I might be
able to draw out this period of grace indefinitely.

“Yes indeed, Your Majesty, I can help you, but it will take some time.
It will not be as easy as curing this rash. ” My mind was racing.

I had to wring every drop out of this “We will have to go on to a very
strict diet. ” sponge.

No more bull’s balls, I beseech you, doctor. ” “I think you have had
enough of those now. However, we will need to warm your blood and
sweeten your generative fluids for the fateful attempt. Goat’s milk,
warm goat’s milk and honey three times a day, and of course the special
potions I will prepare for you from the horn of the rhinoceros and the
root of the mandrake. ” He looked relieved. “You are certain this
will work?” “It has never failed before, but there is one other
measure that is essential. ” “What is that?” His relief evaporated,
and he sat up and peered at me anxiously.

“Complete abstinence. We must allow the royal member to rest and
regain its full strength and force once again. You must forsake your
harem and all its pleasures for a while. ” I said this with the
dogmatic air of the physician that cannot be gainsaid, for it was the
one sure way to ensure that my Lady Lostris would remain untouched.

However, I was warned by what his reaction would be. He could
conceivably have flown into a rage at the thought of being denied his
conjugal pleasures. He might have rejected me, and I could have lost
all the advantage that I had so newly won. But I had to take the risk
for the benefit of my mistress. I had to protect her just as long as I
was able.

The king’s reaction surprised me. He simply lay back on his headrest
and smiled complacently to himself “For how long?” he asked quite
cheerfully, and I was struck by the realization that my strictures had
come as a relief to him.

For me, to whom the act of love with a beautiful woman would always be
an unattainable and elusive dream, it. took an immense effort to
understand that Pharaoh was-content to be relieved of a once
pleasurable duty that, by reason of being so often performed, had
become onerous.

There must have been at least three hundred wives and canc ubines in
his harem at that time, and some of those Asian women were notorious
for their insatiable appetites.

I tried to sympathize with the effort that it must require to act like
a god night after night, and year after year. The prospect did not
daunt me as the actuality seemed to have wearied the king.

“Ninety days, ” I said.

“Ninety days?” he repeated thoughtfully. “Nine Egyptian weeks of ten
days each?” “At least, ” I said firmly.

“Very well. ” He nodded without rancour and changed the subject
easily.

“My chamberlain tells me, doctor, that apart from your medical skills,
you are also one of the three most eminent astrologers in this very
Egypt of ours?” I wondered why my friend the chamberlain had qualified
his assertion. For the life of me I could not think who the other two
might be, but I inclined my head modestly. “He flatters me, Your
Majesty, but perhaps I do have some little knowledge of the heavenly
bodies. ” “Cast a horoscope for me!” he ordered, sitting up
eagerly.

“Now?” I asked with surprise.

“Now!” he agreed. “Why not? For on your orders there is nothing that
I should rather be doing at this moment. ” That unexpected smile of
his was really quite endearing, and despite what he meant to tonus and
my mistress, I found myself liking him.

“I shall have to fetch some of my scrolls from the palace library. ”
“We have all night, ” he pointed out. “Fetch whatever you need. ” The
exact time and date of the king’s birth were well documented and I had
in the scrolls all the observations of the movements of the heavenly
bodies made by fifty generations of astrologers before me.

While the king watched avidly, I made the first cast of the royal
horoscope, and before I had half finished it I saw the character of the
man, as I had observed it, perfectly endorsed by his stars. The great
red wandering star, that we know as the eye of Seth, dominated his
destiny. It was the star of conflict and uncertainty, of confusion and
war, of sadness and misfortune, and in the end of violent death.

But how could I tell him all these things?

I extemporized and put together a scantily veiled eese of the
well-documented facts of his life, and laced-these with a few less
well-known details that I had gathered from my spies, on one of whom
was the royal chamberlain. Then I followed with the usual assurances
of good health and long life that every client wants to hear.

The king was impressed. “You have all the skills that your reputation
made me expect. ” “Thank you, Your Majesty. I am pleased that I have
been able to be of service. ” I began to gather up my scrolls and my
writing instruments preparatory to taking my leave. It was very late
by now. From the darkness beyond the palace walls I had already heard
the first cockerel crow.

“Wait, Taita. I have not given you permission to leave.

You have not told me what I really want to know. Will I have a son and
will my dynasty survive?” “Alas, Pharaoh, those matters cannot be
predicted by the stars. They can give only the general inclination of
your fate, and the overall direction that your life will take, without
making clear such details.. . ” “Ah, yes, ” he interrupted me, “but
there are other means of seeing into the future, are there not?”

I was alarmed by the direction in which his questions were leading, and
I attempted to head him off, but he was determined.

“You interest me, Taita, and I have made enquiry about you. You are an
adept of the Mazes of Arrimon-Ra. ” I was distressed. How had he
found this out? Very few knew of this esoteric gift of mine, and I
wanted it to remain thus.

However, I could not blatantly deny it, so I remained silent.

“I saw the Mazes hidden at the bottom of your medicine chest, ” he
said, and I was relieved that I had not attempted to deny my gift and
been caught out in the lie. I shrugged with resignation, for I knew
what was coming.

“Work the Mazes for me, and tell me if I am to have an heir, , ” or and
whether or not my dynasty will survive.

A horoscope is one thing; it requires only a knowledge of the
configuration of the stars and their properties. Some little patience,
and the correct procedure will result in a fairly accurate
prediction.

A divination by the Mazes of Ammon-Ra is another matter entirely.

It requires an expenditure of the life-forces, a burning up of
something deep inside the seer that leaves him worn out and
exhausted.

These days I will go to lengths to avoid having to exercise this gift.
It is true that on rare occasions I can still be persuaded to work the
Mazes, but then for days thereafter I am spiritually and physically
depleted. My Lady Lostris, who knows of this strange power of mine,
also knows of the effect that it has upon me, and she has forbidden me,
for my own sake, to practise it, except occasionally on her behalf.

However, a slave cannot deny a king, and with a sigh I reached for the
leather bag in the bottom of my chest that contained the Mazes. I set
the bag aside and prepared a mixture of the herbs that are necessary to
open the eyes of the soul, to enable them to look into the future. I
drank the potion, and then waited until the familiar but dreaded
sensation of rising out of my own body assailed me. I felt dreamy and
far from reality as I brought out the leather bag which contained the
Mazes.

The Mazes of Ammon-Ra consist of ten ivory discs. Ten is the mystical
number of the greatest potency. Each disc represents a single facet of
human existence, from birth to and the hereafter. With my own hands I
had carved the symbols on the face of each of the Mazes. Each one was
a tiny masterpiece. By constantly handling and breathing upon them
over the years I had endowed them with part of my own life-force.

I poured them from the bag and began to fondle them, Concentrating all
my powers upon them. Soon they began to feet warm as living flesh to
my touch, and I experienced the familiar sensation of depletion as my
own strength flowed from me into the ivory discs. I arranged the Mazes
face-down in two random stacks and invited Pharaoh to take up each pile
in turn, to rub them, concentrate all his attention upon them at the
same time as he repeated his questions aloud: Will I have a son?

Will my dynasty survive?

I relaxed completely and opened my soul to allow the spirits of
prophecy to enter. The sound of his voice began to penetrate into my
soul, deeper and deeper with each repetition, like missiles from a
slingshot striking upon the same spot.

I began to sway slightly where I sat, the same way that the cobra
dances to the flute of the snake-charmer. The drug took its full
effect. I felt as though my body had no weight to it and that I was
floating in air. I spoke as if from a great distance and my voice
echoed strangely in my own head, as though I sat in a cavern below the
surface of the earth. asked the king to breathe upon each stack and
then to divide it into halves, setting aside one half and retaining the
other. Again and again I made him split each pile and then until he
was left with only two of the remainder, of the coin-shaped Mazes.

For the last time he breathed upon them and then at my instruction
placed one in each of my hands. I held them tightly and pressed them
to my breast. I could feel my heart pounding against my clenched fists
as it absorbed the influence of the Mazes.

I closed my eyes and from the darkness saw shapes begin to emerge, and
strange sounds filled my ears. There was no form or coherence to them,
it was all confusion. I felt dizzy, and my senses blurred. I felt
myself grow lighter still, until I seemed to float in space. I allowed
myself to be carried upwards as though I were a blade of dry grass
caught in a whirlwind, one of those dust devils of the Saharan
summer.

The sounds in my head became clearer, and the dark images firmed.

“I hear a new-born infant cry. ” My voice was distorted, as though my
palate had been riven at birth.

Is it a boy?” Pharaoh’s question throbbed in my head, so that I felt
rather than heard it.

Then slowly my vision began to harden, and I looked down a long tunnel
through the darkness to a light at the far end.

The ivory Mazes in my hands were hot as “embers from the hearth and
seared the flesh of “my palms.

In the nimbus of light at the end of the tunnel I saw a child, lying in
the a bloody puddle of its own birth-waters, with the fat python of the
placenta still coiled upon its belly.

“I see a child, ” I croaked.

“Is it a boy?” Pharaoh demanded from out of the surrounding
darkness.

The infant wailed and kicked both legs in the air, and I saw rising
from between the chubby thighs a pale finger of flesh surmounted by a
cap of wrinkled skin.

“A boy, ” I confirmed, and I felt an unexpected tenderness towards this
phantom of my mind, as though it were truly flesh and blood. I reached
out to it with my heart, but the image faded, and the birth cry receded
and was lost in the blackness.

“The dynasty? What will become of my line? Will it endure?” The
king’s voice reached me, and then was lost in a cacophony of other
sounds that filled my head-the sound of battle trumpets, the shouts of
men in mortal conflict, and the ring of bronze on bronze. I saw the
sky above me, and the air was, dark with flights of arrows arcing
overhead.

“War! I see a mighty battle that will change the shape of the world, ”
I cried to make myself heard above the sounds of conflict that filled
my head.

“Will my line survive?” The king’s voice was frantic, but I paid it no
heed, for there was a mighty roaring in my ears, like the sound of the
khamsin wind, or the waters of the Nile boiling through the great
cataracts. I saw a strange yellow cloud that obscured the horizon of
my vision, and the cloud was shot through with flashes of light, Which
I knew were the reflection of the sun from weapons of war.

“What of my dynasty?” Pharaoh’s voice tugged at my mind, and the
vision faded. There was a silence in my head and I saw a tree standing
upon the bank of the river. It was a great acacia in full leaf, and
its branches were heavy with fruit pods. On the topmost branch was
perched a hawk, the royal hawk, but even as I watched, the hawk changed
shape and colour. It was transformed into the double crown of Egypt,
red and white, the papyrus and the lotus of the two kingdoms
entwined.

Then, before my eyes, the waters of the Nile rose and fell, and rose
and fell again. Five times in all I saw the waters flood.

While still I stared with burning eyes, abruptly the sky above the tree
darkened with flying insects, and a dense cloud of locusts descended
upon the tree. They covered it completely. When they rose again the
tree was devastated and bare of the last trace of green. Not a leaf
remained on the dry brown twigs. Then the dead tree toppled and fell
ponderously to earth. The fall shattered the trunk and the crown was
smashed into pieces. the fragments turned to dust and were blown away
on the wind. Nothing remained but the wind and the driven sands of the
desert.

“What is it that you see?” Pharaoh demanded, but it all faded and I
found myself once more seated on the floor of the king’s bedchamber.

I was gasping for breath, as though I had run a great distance and salt
sweat scalded my eyes and poured down my body in rivulets to soak the
linen of my kilt and to form a pool on the tiles beneath me.

I was shaking with a burning fever and there was that familiar sick and
heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I knew would be with me.
for days to come.

Pharaoh was staring at me and I realized-what a haggard and dreadful
sight I presented to him. “What did you see?” he whispered.

“Will my line survive?” I could not tell him the truth of my vision,
so I invented another to satisfy him. “I saw a forest of great trees
that reached to the horizon of my dream. There was no end to their
number and on top of each tree there was a crown, the red and the white
crown of the two kingdoms. ” Pharaoh sighed and covered his eyes with
his hands for a while, We sat in silence, he in the release that my lie
had given him, and I in sympathy for him.

At last I lied softly. “The forest that I saw was the line of your
descendants, ” I whispered, to spare him. “They reach to the
boundaries of time, and each of them wears the crown of Egypt. ” He
uncovered his eyes, and his gratitude and his joy were pathetic to
watch. “Thank you, Taita. I can see how the divination has taxed your
strength. You may go now and rest. Tomorrow the court will sail for
my palace on elephantine Island. I will have a galley set aside for
the safe passage of you and your mistress. for she is the vessel that
contains mortality. ” I was so weak that I had to lift myself to my
feet. I tottered to the door and steadied.

However, I was not so weakened myself against the effort that I could
not think of, my duty to my mistress.

“There is the matter of the marriage sheet. The populace will expect
to have it displayed, ” I reminded him. “Both your reputation and that
of my mistress is at stake. ” “What do you suggest, Taita?”

This soon he was relying on me. I told him what must be done, and he
nodded. “See to it!” Carefully I folded the sheet that covered the
royal bed. It was of the finest linen, white as the high cirrus clouds
of suawner, embroidered with the rare silk thread that the trade
caravans occasionally bring in from the East. I carried the folded
sheet with me when I left the king’s bedchamber and made my way back
through the still dark and silent palace to the harem..

My mistress was sleeping like a dead woman, and I knew that with the
amount of the Red Shepenn I had given her, she would sleep the day away
and would probably only wake that evening. I sat beside her bed for a
while. I felt exhausted and depressed for the Mazes had drained my
soul.

“The images they had evoked still troubled me. I felt certain that the
infant I had seen was that of my mistress, but then how could the rest
of my vision be explained? There seemed to be no answer to the riddle,
and I set the thought aside for I still had work to do.

Squatting beside Lostris” bed, I spread the embroidered sheet upon the
floor. The blade -of my dagger was sharp enough to shave the hair from
my forearm. I picked out one of the blue rivers of blood beneath the
smooth skin on the inside of my wrist, and I pricked it with the point
of the dagger and let the dark slow blood trickle on to the sheet.

When I was satisfied with the extent of the stain, I bound up my wrist
with a strip “of linen to staunch the bleeding, and bundled the soiled
sheet.

The slave girl was still in attendance in the outer chamber.

I ordered that Lostris was to be allowed to sleep undisturbed.

Guard her with your life. only after I made sure that she would be
well cared for, I was content to leave her, and climb the ladder to the
top of the outer wall of the harem.

The dawn was only just breaking, but already an inquisitive crowd of
old women and loiterers had gathered below the walls. They looked up
expectantly when I apeared.

I made a show of shaking out the sheet before I draped it over the
ramparts of the outer wall. The bloodstain in the centre of the
cloud-white ground was the shape of a ower, and the crowd buzzed with
gossip at this badge of my mistress’s virginity and her bridegroom’s
virility.

At the rear of the crowd stood a figure taller than those around him.
His head was covered by a striped woolen shawl. It was only when he
threw this back and exposed his face and his head of red-gold hair that
I recognized him. “tonus!” I shouted. “I must speak to you. ” He
looked up at me upon the wall, and his eyes were filled with such pain
as I wished never to see again. That stain upon the sheet had
destroyed his life.

I also had known the agony of lost love and remembered every detail of
it even after all the long years. tonus” heart wound was fresh and
bleeding still, more agonizing than any hurt that he had received on
the battlefield.

He needed my help now, if he were to survive it. “tonus!

Wait for me. ” He threw the shawl over his head, covering his face,
and he turned from me. Unsteady as a drunkard, he stumbled away.
“tonus!” I shouted after him. “Come back! I must talk to you.

He did not look round, but quickened his pace.

By the time that I had climbed down from the wall and run out of the
main gates, he had disappeared into the maze of alleys and mud huts of
the inner city.

I SEARCHED FOR tonus HALF THE MORNing, but his quarters were deserted
and nobody had seen him in any of his customary haunts.

At last I had to abandon the search, and to make my way back to my own
rooms in the quarters of the slave boys. The royal flotilla was
preparing to sail for the south. I had still to assemble and pack my
possessions if my mistress and I were to be ready for the departure. I
forced aside the sense of gloom that the Mazes and my glimpse of tonus
had left me, and I set about bundling up my possessions and breaking up
the only home that I had ever known.

My animals seemed to sense that something untoward was happening.

They fretted and chirped and whined, each trying in his own way to
attract my attention. The wild birds hopped and fluttered on the paved
terrace outside, while in the corner nearest my bed, my beloved Saker
falcons stretched their wings and raised the feathers along their
backs, and screeched at me from their perches. The dogs and the cats
and the tame gazelle crowded around my legs, trying to brush against
me, and hindered my efforts to pack my possessions.

In exasperation I noticed the jug of soured goat’s milk beside my bed,
It is one of my favourite drinks, and the slave boys make certain that
the jug is always refilled. My animals also enjoy the thickened milk,
so to distract them I carried the jug out on to the terrace and filled
their clay drinking-bowls.

They crowded around the bowls, pushing and shoving each other, and I
left them and went back to my task, closing the awnings of rush matting
to keep them out.

It is curious how many possessions even a slave can gather about him
over a lifetime. The boxes and bundles were piled high against one
wall before I was at last finished. By this time my mood of depression
and weariness was almost prostrating, but I was still sufficiently
alert to be aware of the silence. I stood for a while in the centre of
my room, listening uneasily. The only sound was the jingle of the tiny
bronze bells on the jesses of my female falcon where she sat in the far
corner and watched me with that intent, implacable gaze of the
raptor.

The tiercel, smaller but more handsome than she, was asleep on his own
pere in the other corner, with the soft leather hood of the rufter
covering his eyes. None of my other pets made a sound.

Not one of the cats mewed or hissed at the dogs, nor did the wild birds
chirrup or sing, none of my puppies growled or tumbled over each other
in boisterous play.

I went to the rush awning and drew it aside. The sunlight burst into
the room and blinded me for a moment. Then my vision returned and I
cried out with horror. They were scattered upon the terrace and down
into the garden, every bird and animal.

They lay in the abandoned attitudes of death, every one of them where
he had fallen. I rushed out to them, calling my favourites by name,
kneeling to pick one of them up in my arms and hugging the slack warm
body as I searched for signs of life.

There was no flicker of it in any of them, though I went to each of
them. The birds were small and light in my hand, their marvelous
plumage undimmed by death.

I thought that my already heavy heart must now burst with the sheer
weight of my grief. I knelt on the terrace with my family scattered
around me and I wept.

It was some time before I could bring myself to think about the cause
of this tragedy. Then I stood up and went to one of the empty bowls
that lay on the tiles. They had licked it clean, but I sniffed at it
to try and fathom the nature of the poison that had been intended for
me. The odour of soured milk disguised any other smell; all I knew was
that it had been swift and deadly.

I wondered who had placed the jug beside my bed, but it did not matter
whose hand had carried the vessel to me. I knew with utter certainty
who had given the order for it.

“Farewell, my old darling. You are a dead man, ” Lord Inter had told
me, and he had not waited long to transform the words into the deed.

The anger that seized me was a form of madness. It was aggravated by
my unsteady state and sombre mood. I found that I was shaking with a
rage that I had never known -before. I drew the little dagger from my
belt and before I realized what I was doing, I was rushing down the
steps of the terrace with the naked blade in my hand. I knew that at
this time of the morning Inter would be in his water-garden.

I could no longer bear to think of him as my Lord Inter.

The memory of every outrage he had ever visited upon me, every agony
and every humiliation, was bright and clear in my mind. I was going to
kill him now, stab him a hundred times through that cruel and evil
heart.

I was in sight of the gate to the water-garden before I regained my
sanity. There were half a dozen guards at the gate, and there would be
as many more beyond. I would never get within dagger-thrust of the
grand vizier before they cut me down. I forced my flying feet to check
and turn back. I slipped the dagger into the jewelled leather sheath,
and brought my breathing under control. I walked slowly back to the
terrace and gathered up the pathetic bodies of my pets.

I had planned to plant a row of sycamore trees along the border of my
garden. The holes to take them had already been dug. The trees Would
never be planted now that I was leaving Karnak, and the pits would
serve as graves for my beloved creatures. It was the middle of the
afternoon before I had filled the last grave, but my rage was unabated.
If I could not yet have my full vengeance, at least I could give myself
a foretaste of it.

There was still a little of the sour milk left in the jug beside my
bed. I held the jug in my hands and tried to think of some way in
which I could get it to the grand vizier’s kitchens. It would be so
fitting to pay him his own vile coin, although I knew in my heart that
the idea was futile. Lord Inter was far too cunning to be taken so
easily. I myself had helped him devise the system he used to keep
himself secure from poison and assassination. He could not be reached
without much careful planning. What was more, he would be especially
on his guard now. I would have to be patient, but that was
impossible.

Even if I could not kill him yet, I could exact some lesser payment as
a deposit against what I was determined must follow.

Still carrying the fatal jug, I slipped out of one of the side-doors of
the boys” quarters into the street. I did not have to go far to find a
milkman surrounded by his flock of nanny-goats. While I waited he
stripped the rich milk from the swollen udders of one. of them,
topping the jug to the brim. Whoever had prepared the poison had used
enough to murder half the citizens of Karnak. I knew that more than
sufficient remained in the jug for my purpose.

One of the grand vizier’s bodyguards loafed at the door to Rasfer’s
chamber. The fact that he had him under guard proved to me that Rasfer
was still Valuable to Lord Inter, and the loss of his personal
lieutenant would annoy if not seriously discomforted him.

The guard recognized me and waved me into the sickroom, that smelled
like a sty. Rasfer lay on his filthy bed basting in his own sweat.
However, I could tell at once that my surgery had been successful, for
he opened his eyes and cursed me weakly. He must also be so certain of
his own eventual recovery that he need no longer toady to me.

“Where have you been, you ball-less freak?” he growled at me,
hardening my resolve and ridding me of the last traces of any pity that
I might have felt for him. “I have been in agony ever since you
drilled into my skull. What kind of physician are you.. . ” There was
much more in this style, which I pretended to ignore as I unwound the
soiled bandage from around his head. My interest was purely academic
as I examined the small wound that the trepan had left in his scalp. It
was another perfectly executed operation, and I felt a certain
professional regret that it would be wasted.

“Give me something for the pain, eunuch!” Rasfer tried to seize the
front of my tunic, but I was too quick for him and stepped back out of
his reach.

I made a fuss of shaking a few crystals of harmless salt from a glass
vial into his drinking-bowl, and then topped it up with milk from my
jug.

“If the pain becomes too bad, this will relieve it, ” I told him as I
set the bowl near to his hand. Even at this stage, I could not bring
myself to hand it to him directly.

He heaved himself up on one elbow and reached for the bowl to guzzle it
down Before his fingers touched it, I pushed it out of his reach with
my foot. At the moment I thought that this was merely a desire to
prolong the anticipation, and I felt satisfaction at his distress as he
whined at me, “Good Taita, give me the potion. Let me drink. This
pain in my head will drive me mad. ” “First let’s talk a while, good
Rasfer. Did you hear that the Lady Lostris asked for me as her parting
gift from Lord Inter?” Even in his pain”” he grinned at me.

“You are a fool if you think he will let you go. You are a dead man. ”
“The very words Lord Inter used. Will you mourn for me, Rasfer?

Will you weep for me when I am gone?” I asked softly, and he began to
chuckle, then broke it off and glanced at the bowl.

“In my own way, I have always been rather fond of you, ” he grunted.
“Now let me have the bowl. ” How fond of me were you when you
castrated me?” I asked, and he stared up at me.

“Surely you do not still bear a grudge for that? It was long ago, and
besides, I could not disobey the orders of Lord Inter. Be reasonable,
Taita, let me have the bowl. ” You laughed as you cut me.

“Why did you laugh? Did you enjoy it so much?” He shrugged and then
winced at the pain that the movement caused him. “I am a jovial man.

I always laugh. Come now, old friend, say you forgive me and let me
have the bowl. ” I nudged it towards him with my foot. He reached out
and seized it, his movements still uncoordinated. A few drops slopped
over the rim as he raised it greedily to his mouth.

I didn’t realize what I was about to do, until I had leapt forward and
struck the bowl out of his hands. It hit the floor without shattering
and rolled into the corner, splashing milk up on to the wall.

Rasfer and I stared at each other. I was appalled by my own stupidity
and my weakness. If ever a man deserved a death by the agony of
poison, it was this one. But then I saw again the contorted bodies of
my pets strewn across the terrace, and I knew why I had not been able
to allow Rasfer to drink. Only a fiend could commit such an act.

I have too high a regard for myself ever to descend to the ignominy of
the poisoner.

I saw understanding dawn in Rasfer’s bloodshot eyes.

“Poison, ” he whispered. “The bowl was poisoned. ” “It was sent to me
by Lord Inter. ” I don’t know why I told him this. Perhaps I was
trying to excuse myself for the atrocity that I had almost committed.

I don’t know why I was behaving so strangely. Maybe it was still the
aftereffects of working the Mazes. I staggered slightly as I turned
for the door.

Behind me Rasfer began to laugh, softly at first and then louder, until
great gusty bellows of laughter seemed to shake the walls.

“You are a fool, eunuch, ” he roared after me as I ran.

“You should have done it. You should have killed me, for now as surely
as I have a hole between -My buttocks, I will kill you. ” As I had
expected, when at last I returned to her chamber my Lady Lostris was
still asleep. I settled at the foot of her bed, intending to wait for
her to wake on her own. However, the rig ours and the exertions of the
past day and night had been too much for me. I slumped down and fell
asleep, curled like a puppy on the tiles.

I WOKE UNDER ATTACK. SOMETHING struck the side of my head such a
painful blow that I was on my feet before I was properly awake.

The” next blow took me across the shoulder and stung like the bite of a
hornet.

“You cheated me!” my Lady Lostris screamed at me. “You did not let me
die. ” She swung the fan again. It was a formidable weapon, the
bamboo handle was as long as twice the span of my arms, and the comb at
its head that held the fan of ostrich feathers was of solid silver.

Fortunately she was still groggy from the drug and from oversleeping,
and her aim was erratic. I ducked under the blow, and the momentum of
it swung her around so that she collapsed on the bed again.

She dropped the fan and burst into tears. “I wanted to die.

Why did you not let me die?” it was some time before I could approach
her, and put one arm around her to comfort her. “Did I hurt you,
Taita?” she asked. “I have never beaten you before. ” “Your first
attempt was a very good one, ” I congratulated her ruefully. “In fact
you are so good at it that I do not think you need practise it further.
” Theatrically I rubbed the side of my head, and she smiled through her
tears.

“Poor Taita. I do treat you so badly. But you did deserve it.

You cheated me. I wanted to die and you disobeyed me. ” I saw it was
time to change the subject. “Mistress, I have the most remarkable news
for you. But you must promise to tell no one of it, not even your
maids. ” Not since she had first learned to talk had she been able to
resist a secret, but then what woman can? The promise of one had
always been enough to distract her, and it worked yet again.

Even with her heart broken and the threat of suicide hanging over her,
she sniffed back the last of her tears and ordered, “Tell me!”

Recently, I had accumulated a good store of secrets to choose from, and
I paused for a moment to make my selection. I would not tell her of
the poisoning of my pets, nor of my glimpse of tonus.

I needed something to cheer her rather than to depress her further.

“Last night I went to Pharaoh’s bedchamber and I spoke to him for half
the night. ” The tears rose to the surface of her eyes once more, “Oh,
Taita, I hate him. He’s, an ugly old man. I don’t want to have to.. .
” I wanted no more in that vein, in moments she would be weeping again,
so I hurried on, “I worked the Mazes for him. ” Instantly I had her
complete attention. My Lady Lostris is totally fascinated by my powers
of divination. If it were not for the deleterious effect that the
Mazes have upon my health, she would make me work them every single
day.

“Tell me! What did you see?” She was riveted. No thought of suicide
now, all sadness forgotten. She was still so young and artless that I
felt ashamed of my trickery, even though it was for her own good.

“I had the most extraordinary visions, mistress. ” I have never had
such clear images, such depths of sight.. . ” “Tell me! I declare I
will die of impatience if you don’t tell me immediately. ” “First you
must swear secrecy. Not another soul must ever know what I saw. These
are affairs of state and dire consequence. ” “I swear. I swear. ”
“We cannot take these matters lightly.. . ” “Get on with it, Taita.
You are teasing me now. I order you to tell me this very moment or,
or, ” she groped for a threat to coerce me, “or I shall beat you again.
” “Very well. Listen to my vision. I saw a great tree upon the bank
of the Nile. Upon the summit of the tree was the crown of Egypt. ”
“Pharaoh!

The tree was the king. ” She saw it at once, and I nodded. “Go on,
Taita. Tell me the rest of it” “I saw the Nile rise and fall five
times. ” “Five years, the passing of five years!” She clapped her
hands with excitement. She loves to unravel the riddles of my dreams,
“Then the tree was devoured by locusts, and thrown down and turned to
dust. ” She stared at me, unable to utter the words, so I spoke for
her. “In five years Pharaoh will be dead, and you will be a free
woman. Free from your father’s thrall, Free to go to tonus, with no
man to stop you. ” “If you are lying to me, it will be too cruet to
bear. Please say it is true. ” “It is true, my lady, but there is
more. In the vision, I saw a new-born babe, a boy child, a son. I
felt my love go out to the infant, and I knew that you were the mother
of the child. ” “The father, who was the father of my baby? Oh,
Taita, tell me please. ” “In the dream I knew with absolute certainty
that the father was tonus. ” This was the first deviation from the
truth that I had allowed myself, but once again I had the consolation
of believing that it was for her benefit.

She was silent for a long time, but her face shone with an inner glow
that was all the reward I could ever ask for.

Then at last she whispered, “I can wait for five years. I was prepared
to wait all eternity for him. It will be hard, but I can wait five
years for tonus. You were right not to let me die, Taita. It would
have been an offence in the face of the gods. ” My relief buoyed me
up, and I now felt more confident that I would be able to steer her
safely through all that lay ahead.

At DAWN THE FOLLOWING DAY THE royal flotilla sailed south from Karnak.
As the king had promised, my Lady Lostris and all her entourage were on
board one of the small, fast galleys of the southern squadron.

I sat with my mistress on the cushions under the awning on the poop
that the captain had arranged especially for her. We looked back at
the lime-washed buildings of the city shining in the first tangerine
tints of the rising sun. ” “I cannot think where he has gone. ” She
was fretting over tonus as she had a score of times since. we had set
sail.

“Did you look everywhere for him?” “Everywhere, ” I confirmed. “I
spent half the morning scouring the inner city and the docks. He has
disappeared.

But I left your message with Kratas. You can be sure Kratas will
deliver it to him. ” “Five years without him, will they ever pass?”

THE VOYAGE UP-RIVER PASSED PLEASAntly enough in long, leisurely days
spent sitting on the poop-deck in conversation with my mistress.

We discussed every detail of our changed circumstances in great depth,
and examined all that we might expect and hope for in the future.

I explained to her all the complexities of life at the court, the
precedent and the protocol. I traced for her the hidden lines of power
and influence, and I listed all those whom it would be in our interest
to cultivate and those whom we could safely ignore. “I explained to
her the issues of the day, and how Pharaoh stood on each of them. Then
I went on to discuss with her the feeling and the mood of the
citizenry.

In a large measure I was indebted to my friend Aton, the royal
chamberlain, for all this intelligence. It seemed that over the last
dozen years every ship that had come downriver from Elephantine Island
to Karnak had carried a letter from him to me full of these fascinating
details, and on its return to Elephantine Island had carried a golden
token of my gratitude back to my friend, Aton.

I was determined that we would soon be at the centre of the court and
in the mainstream of power. I had not trained my mistress all these
years to see the weapons that I had placed in her armoury rust with
disuse. The sum of her many accomplishments and her talents was
already formidable, but I was patiently adding to it each day. She had
a keen and restless mind. Once I had helped her to throw off the black
mood that had threatened to destroy her, she was, as always, open to my
instruction. Every chance I had, I fired up her ambition and her
eagerness to take up the role I had planned for her.

I soon found that one of the most effective means of enlisting her
attention and cooperation was to suggest that all this would be to the
eventual benefit and advantage of tonus. “If you have influence at
court, you will be better able to protect him, ” I pointed out to her”
“The king has set him an almost impossible task to fulfill. tonus will
need us if he is to succeed, and if he fails only you will be able to
save him from the sentence that the king has placed upon him. ” “What
can we do to help him carry out his task?” At the mention of tonus I
immediately had all her attention. “Tell me truly, will any man be
able to stamp out the Shrikes?” Is it not too difficult a mission,
even for a man like tonus?” The bandits that terrorized the Upper”
Kingdom called themselves the Shrikes, after those fierce birds. Our
Nile shrike is smaller than a dove; a handsome little creature with a
white chest and throat and a black back And cap, it plunders the nests
of other birds and makes a grisly display of the pathetic carcasses of
its victims by hanging them on the thorns of the acacia tree. Its
vernacular name is the Butcher Bird.

In the beginning the bandits had used it as a cryptic name to conceal
their identity and to hide their existence, but since they had grown so
strong and fearless, they had adopted it openly and often used the
black and white feather of the Butcher Bird as their emblem.

In the beginning they would leave the feather on the doorway of a home
they had robbed or on the corpse of one of their victims. But in those
days, so bold and so organized had they become that at times they might
send a feather to an intended victim as a warning. In most cases that
was all that was necessary to make the victim pay over a half of all he
owned in the world. That was preferable to having all of it pillaged,
and having his wives and daughters carried off and raped, and he and
his sons thrown into the burning ruins of their home to boot.

“Do you think it possible that even with the power of the hawk seal
tonus will be able to carry out the king’s mission?” my mistress
repeated. “I have heard that all the bands of the Shrikes in the whole
of the Upper Kingdom are controlled by one man, someone that they call
the Akh-Seth, the brother of Seth. Is that true, Taita?” I thought
for a moment before I answered. I auld not yet dare tell her all I
knew of the Shrikes, for if I did so, then I would be forced to reveal
how such knowledge had come into my possession. At this stage that
would not be much to her advantage, nor to my credit. There might be a
time for these disclosures later.

“I have also heard that rumour, ” I agreed cautiously. “It seems to me
that if tonus were to find and crush this one “man, Akh-Seth, then the
Shrikes would crumble away. But tonus will need help that only I can
give him. ” She looked at me shrewdly. “How can you help him?” she
demanded. “And what do you know about this business?” She is quick,
and hard to deceive. She sensed at once that I was hiding something
from her. I had to retreat swiftly and to play on her love of tonus
and her trust in me.

“For tonus” sake, ask me no more now. Only give me your permission to
do what I can to help him complete the task that Pharaoh has set him. ”
“Yes, of course we must do all in our power. Tell me how I can help. ”
“I will stay with you at the cour ton Elephantine Island for ninety
days, but then you must give me leave to go to him. ” “No, no, ” she
interrupted me, “if you can be of help to tonus, you must go
immediately. ” “Ninety days, ” I repeated stubbornly.

That was the period of grace that I had won for her. Although I was
torn between these two dear children of mine, my first duty was to my
mistress.

I knew that I could not leave her alone at the court without a friend
or a mentor. I also knew that I had to be with her when the king
finally sent for her in the night. “I cannot leave you yet, but don’t
worry. I have left a message for tonus with Kratas. They will be
expecting me, and I have explained to Kratas all that has to be done
before I arrive back at Karnak. ” I would not tell her more, and there
can be few as obtuse or as evasive as I can be when I set myself to
it.

The flotilla sailed only during the day. Neither the navigational
skills of Admiral Nembet nor the comfort of the king and his court
would stand up to a night passage, so every evening we moored and a
forest of hundreds of tents sprang up on the river-bank. Always the
royal stewards Chose the most congenial spot to pitch camp, usually in
a grove of palm trees or in the lee of a sheltering hillock, with a
temple or a village nearby from which we were able to draw supplies.
entire court was still in festive mood. Every camp was treated as a
picnic. There was dancing and feasting in the light of the bonfires,
while in the shadows the courtiers intrigued and flirted. Many an
alliance both political and carnal was struck during those balmy
nights, perfumed with the fruity aromas of the irrigated lands along
the river and the spicier desert airs blown in from further afield.

I used every moment to the best advantage of both my mistress and
myself. Of course she was now one of the royal ladies, but there were
already several hundred of those, and she was still a very junior
wife.

Lord Inter’s foresight might change her future status, but only if she
bore Pharaoh a son.

In the meantime it was up to me.

Almost every evening after we had gone ashore, Pharaoh sent for me,
ostensibly to see to the cure of his ringworm, but in reality to review
the preparations for begetting a male heir to the double crown.

While he watched with interest, I prepared my tonic for potency and
virility from grated rhinoceros horn and mandrake root, which I mixed
with warm goat’s milk and honey.

When he had taken this, I examined the royal member and was delighted
for the sake of my mistress to find that it possessed neither the’
length nor the girth that one would have expected from A god. I was of
the opinion that my mistress, even in her virgin state, would be able
to cope with its modest dimensions without too much discomfort.

Naturally I would do all in my power to avoid the dread moment, but if
I was unable to stave it off, then I was determined to ease the passage
to womanhood for her.

Having found the king to be healthy if unremarkable in these regions, I
recommended a poultice of corn-flour mixed with olive oil and honey to
be applied to the royal member at night before retiring, and then I
went on to deal with the ringworm. To the king’s intense gratification
my ointment cured the condition within the three days that I had
promised, and my already considerable reputation as a physician was
enhanced. The king boasted of my accomplishment to his council of
ministers, and within days I was in huge demand throughout the court.
Then, when it was known that I was not only a healer but also an
astrologer whom even, the king consulted, my popularity became
boundless.

Every evening there came to our tents a succession of messengers
bearing expensive gifts for my mistress from this lady or that lord and
begging that she allow me to visit them for a consultation. We acceded
to only those with whom we wished to make better acquaintance. Once I
was in the tent of a powerful and noble lord, he with his kilt up
around his waist while I examined his haernorrhoids, it was a simple
matter to extol my mistress and bring her many virtues to the attention
of my patient.

The other ladies of the harem soon discovered that my Lady Lostris and
I sang a beautiful duet together, and that we could compose the most
intriguing riddles and tell even more amusing stories. We were in
demand throughout the court, and especially amongst the children of the
harem.

This gave me special pleasure, for if there is anything I love more
than animals, it is small children.

Pharaoh, who was responsible for our popularity in the first place,
soon had the increase of it reported to him. This further spurred his
interest in my mistress, if it were not already sufficiently intense.
At sailing time on many mornings she was summoned on board the royal
barge to spend the day in the king’s company, while most evenings, at
the royal invitation, my mistress dined at the king’s board, and
regaled him and the assembled company with her natural wit and
childlike grace. Of course I was always in discreet attendance.

When the king made no move to send for her in the night in order to
force her to submit to those horrible but rather hazy terrors she had
conjured up, her feelings towards him began to moderate.

Beneath-his glum exterior Pharaoh Marnose was a kind and decent man. My
Lady Lostris soon realized this, and like me, she began to grow quite
fond of him. Before we reached Elephantine Island she was treating him
like a favourite uncle, and quite unaffectedly would sit on his knee to
tell him a story, or would play throwing-sticks with him on the deck of
the royal barge, both of them flushed with the exertion and laughing
like children. Aton confided to me that he had never seen the king so
gay.

All this was watched and noted by the court, who very soon recognized
her as the king’s favourite. Soon there were other visitors to our
tents in the evening, those who had a petition which they wished my
mistress to bring to Pharao his notice. The gifts they proffered were
even more valuable than those offered for my services.

My mistress had rejected her father’s gift in favour of a single slave,
so she had begun the journey southwards as a Pauper, dependent on my
own modest savings. However, before the voyage was done she had
accumulated not only a comfortable fortune, but also a long list of
favours owed by her new rich and powerful friends. I kept a careful
accounting of all these assets.

I am not so conceited that I should pretend that my Lady Lostris would
not have achieved this recognition without my help. Her beauty and her
cleverness and her sweet, warm nature must have made her a favourite in
any circumstances.

I only suggest that I was able to make it happen a little sooner and a
little more certainly.

Our success brought with it some drawbacks. As always, there was
jealousy from those who felt themselves displaced in Pharaoh’s favour,
and there was also the matter of Pharaoh’s mounting carnal interest in
my mistress. This was aggravated by the period of abstinence that I
had enforced upon him.

One evening in his tent after I had administered his rhinoceros horn,
he confided in me, “Taita, this cure of yours is really most
efficacious. I have not felt so virile since I was a young man, way
back before my coronation and my divinity. This morning when I awoke I
had a stiffening of the member which was so gratifying that I sent for
Aton to view it. He was mightily impressed and he suggested forthwith
to fetch your mistress. ” I was thoroughly alarmed by this news, and I
put on my sternest expression and shook my head and sucked air through
my teeth and tut-tutted to show my disapproval. “I am grateful for
your good sense in not agreeing to Aton’s suggestion, Your Majesty. It
could so easily have undone all our efforts. If you want a son, then
you must follow my regime meticulously. ” This brought home to me the
swift passage of time, and how soon the ninety days of grace would be
up. I began to condition my mistress for that night which Pharaoh
would soon insist upon.

First I must prepare her mind, and I set about this by pointing out to
her that it was inevitable, and that if she wished to outlive the king
and eventually to go to tonus, then she would have to submit to the
king’s will. She was always a sensible girl.

“Then you will have to “explain exactly what it is he expects of me,
Taita, ” she sighed. I was not the best guide in this area. My
personal experience had been ephemeral, but I was able to outline the
fundamentals and to make it seem so commonplace as not to alarm her
unduly.

“Will it hurt?” she wanted to know, and I hastened to reassure her.

“The king is a kind man. He has much experience of young girls.

I am sure he will be gentle with you. I will prepare an ointment for
you that will make things much easier. I will apply it every night
before you retire. It will open the gateway. Think to yourself that
one day tonus will pass through those same portals, and that you are
doing this to welcome him and no other. ” I tried to remain the aloof
physician and take no sensual pleasure in what I had to do to help
her.

The gods forgive me but I failed in my resolution. She was so perfect
in her womanly parts as to overshadow the most lovely blossom that I
had ever raised in my garden. No desert rose ever bore petals so
exquisite. When I smoothed the ointment upon them they raised their
own sweet dew, more oleaginous and silky to the touch than any unguent
that I could concoct.

Her cheeks turned rosy and her voice was husky as she murmured, “Up
until now, I thought that part of me was meant for only one purpose.
Why is it that when, you do that, I long so unbearably for tonus?” She
trusted me so implicitly, and had so little understanding of these
unfamiliar sensations, that it required the exercise of all my ethics
as a physician to proceed with the treatment only as long as was
necessary. However, I slept only fitfully that night, haunted by
dreams of the impossible.

AS WE SAILED DEEPER INTO THE SOUTH, so the belts of green land on each
side of the river narrowed. Now the desert began to squeeze in upon
us. In places brooding cliffs of black granite trod the verdant fields
under foot and pressed so close as to overhang the turgid waters of the
Nile.

The most forbidding of these narrows was known as the Gates of Hopi,
and the waters were whipped into a wild and wilful temper as they
boiled through the gap in the high cliffs.

We made the passage of the Gates of Hopi, and came at last to
Elephantine, the largest of a great assembly of islands that were
strung through the throat of the Nile, where the harsh hills
constricted its flow and forced it through the narrows.

Elephantine was shaped like a monstrous shark pursuing the shoal of
lesser islands up the narrows. On either side of the river the
encroaching deserts were distinct in colour and character. On the west
bank, the Saharan dunes were hot orange and savage as the Bedouin who
were the only mortals able to survive amongst them. To the east, the
Arabian desert was dun and dirty grey, studded with black hills that
danced dreamlike in the heat mirage. These deserts had one thing in
common-both of them were killers of men.

What a delightful contrast was Elephantine Island, set like a
glistening green jewel in the silver crown of the river. It took its
name from the smooth grey granite boulders that clustered along its
bank like a herd of the huge pachyderms and also- from the fact that
the trade in ivory brought down from the savage land of Cush beyond the
cataract had for a thousand years centred upon this place.

Pharaoh’s palace sprawled over most of the island, and the wags
suggested that he had chosen to build it here at the southernmost point
in his kingdom to be as far from the red pretender in the north as
possible.

The wide stretch of water that surrounded the island secured it from
the attack of an enemy, but the remainder of the city had overflowed on
to both main banks. After great Thebes, west and east Elephantine
together made up the largest and most populous city in the Upper
Kingdom, a worthy rival to Memphis, the seat of the red pretender in
the Lower Kingdom.

As at no other place in the whole of Egypt, Elephantine Island was clad
with trees. Their seeds had been brought down by the river on a
thousand annual floods, and they had taken root in the fertile loams
that had themselves been transported by the restless waters. ” On my
last visit to Elephantine, when I had come upriver to do a survey of
the river gauges for my Lord Inter in his capacity as Guardian of the
Waters, I had spent many months on the island. With the assistance of
the head gardener, I had catalogued the names and natural histories of
all the plants in the palace gardens, so I was able to point them out
to my mistress. There were ficus trees the like of which had never
been seen elsewhere in Egypt. Their fruits grew not upon the branch
but on the main trunk, and their roots twisted and writhed together
like mating pythons.

There were dragon’s blood trees whose bark, when cut, poured out a
bright red sap. There were Cushite sycamores and a hundred other
varieties that spread a shady green umbrella over the lovely little
island.

The royal palace was built upon the solid granite that lay below the
fertile soil and formed the skeleton of the island.

I have often wondered that our kings, the long line of pharaohs of
fifty dynasties that stretches back over a thousand years, have each of
them devoted so much of his life and treasure to the building of vast
and eternal tombs of granite and marble, while in their lifetimes they
have been content to live in palaces with mud walls and thatched
roofs.

In comparison to the magnificent funerary temple that I was building
for Pharaoh Marnose at Karnak, this palace was a very modest affair,
and the dearth of straight lines and symmetry offended the instincts of
both the mathematician and the architect in me. I suppose the
sprawling jumble of red clay walls and roofs canted at odd angles did
have a sort of bucolic charm, yet I itched to get out my ruler and
plumb line

Once we had gone ashore and found the quarters that had been set aside
for us, the true appeal of Elephantine island ” was even more
apparent.

Naturally we were lodged in the walled harem on the northern tip of the
island, but the size and the furnishings of. our lodgings confirmed
our favoured position, not only with the king but with his chamberlain
as well.

Aton had made the allocation, and he, like most others, had proved
completely defenceless against my mistress’s natural charm, and was now
one of her most shameless admirers.

He placed at our disposal a dozen spacious and airy rooms with our own
courtyard and kitchens. A side-gate in the main wall led directly down
to the riverside and a stone jetty. That very first day I purchased a
flat-bottomed skiff which we could use for fishing and water-fowling. I
kept it moored at the jetty.

As to the rest of our new home, however comfortable it might have been,
neither my mistress nor I was satisfied, and we immediately set about
improving and beautifying it.

With the cooperation of my old friend the head gardener, I out and
planted our own private garden in the courtyard, with a thatched
barrazza under which we could sit in the heat of the day, and where I
kept my Saker falcons tethered on their perches.

At the jetty I set up a shadoof to lift from the river a constant flow
of water that I led through ceramic pipes to our own water-garden with
lily-ponds and fish-pools. The overflow from the pools drained away in
a narrow gutter, This gutter I directed through the wall of my
mistress’s chamber, across a screened corner of the room and out the
far side, from whence it returned to the main flow of the Nile. I
carved a stool of fragrant cedar wood, with a hole through the seat,
and placed this over the gutter so that anything dropped through the
bottom of the seat would be borne away by the never-ending flow of
water. My mistress was delighted with this innovation and spent far
more time perched upon the stool than was really necessary to
accomplish the business for which it was originally intended.

The walls of our quarters were bare red clay. We designed a set of
frescoes for each room. I drew the cartoons and transposed them on to
the walls and then my mistress and her maids painted in the designs.

The frescoes were scenes from the mythology of the gods, with fanciful
landscapes peopled by wonderful animals and birds. Of course, I used
my Lady Lostris as my model for the figure of Isis, but was it any
wonder that the figure of Horus was central to everything; or that on
the insistence of my mistress, he was paint depicted as having red-gold
hair and that he looked amazingly familiar?

The frescoes caused a stir throughout the harem and every one of the
royal wives took turns to visit us, to drink sherbet and to view the
paintings. We had set a fashion, and I was prevailed upon to advise on
the redecoration of most of the private apartments in the harem, at a
suitable fee, of course. ?” In this process we made many new friends
amongst the royal ladies and added considerably to our financial
estate.

Very soon the king heard about the decorations and came in person to
examine them. Lostris gave him the grand tour of her chambers.

Pharaoh noticed her new water-stool of which my mistress was so proud
that when the king asked her to demonstrate it for him she did so
without hesitation, perching upon it and giggling as she sent a
tifikling stream into the gutter.

She was still so innocent as not to realize the effect that this
display had upon her husband. I could tell. by his expression that
any attempt that I might make to delay him beyond the promised ninety
days was likely to be difficult.

After the tour, Pharaoh sat under the barrazza. and drank a cup of
wine while he actually laughed aloud at some of my mistress’s sallies.
At last he turned to me. “Taita, you must build me a water-garden and
a barrazza like this, only much bigger, and whilst you are about it,
you can make a water-stool for me as well. ” When at last he was ready
to leave, he commanded me to walk a little way alone with him,
ostensibly to discuss the new water-garden, but I knew better. No
sooner had we left the harem than he was at me.

“Last night I dreamed of your mistress, ” he told me, “and when I
awoke, I found that my seed had spilled out upon the sheets. That has
not happened to me since I was a boy, This little vixen of yours has
begun to fill my thoughts both sleeping and waking. I have no doubt
that I can make a son with her, and that we should delay no longer.

What do you think, doctor, am I not yet ready for the attempt?” “I
counsel you most strongly to observe the ninety days, Majesty. To make
the attempt before that would be folly. ” it was dangerous to label
the king’s desire as folly, but I was desperate to contain it. “It
would be most unwise to spoil all our chances of success for so short a
period of time. ” In the end I prevailed, and left him looking glummer
than ever.

When I returned to the harem, I warned my mistress of the king’s
intentions’, and so thoroughly had I conditioned her to accept the
inevitable that she showed no undue distress. She was by this time
completely resigned to her role as the king’s favourite, while my
promise that there would be a term to her captivity here on Elephantine
Island made it easier for her to bear. In all fairness, our sojourn on
the island could not truly be described as captivity. We Egyptians are
the most civilized men on earth. We treat our women well. I have
heard of others, the Humans and the Cushites and the Libyans, for
example, who are most cruel and unnatural towards their wives and
daughters.

The Libyans make of the harem a true prison in which the women live
their entire lives without sight of a living male apart from the
eunuchs and the children. They say that even male dogs and cats are
forbidden to pass through the gates, so great is their possessive
frenzy.

The Humans are even worse. Not only do they confine their women and
make them cover their bodies from ankle to wrist, but they force them
to go masked as well, even within the confines of the harem. Thus only
a woman’s husband ever lays eyes upon her face.

The primitive tribes of Cush are the worst of all of them.

When their women reach the age of puberty they circumcise them in the
most savage manner. They cut away the clitoris and the inner lips of
the vagina to remove the seat of sexual pleasure so that they may never
be tempted to stray from their husbands. This may seem so bizarre as
to defy belief, but I have seen the results of this brutal surgery with
my own eyes.

Three of my mistress’s slave girls were captured by the slavers only
after they were matured and had been subjected to the knife by their
own fathers. When I examined the gaping, scar-puckered pits they had
been left with, I was sickened, and my instincts as a healer were
deeply offended by this mutilation of that masterpiece of the gods, the
human body. , It has been my observation that this circumcision does
not achieve its object, for it seems to deprive the victim of the most
desirable female traits, and leaves her cold and calculating and
cruel.

She becomes a sexless monster. On the other hand, we Egyptians honour
our women and treat them, if not as equals, at least with
consideration. No husband may beat his wife without recourse to the
magistrate, and he has a legal duty to dress and feed and maintain her
in accordance with his own station in society. A wife of the king, or
of one of the nobles, is not confined to the harem, but, if suitably
escorted by her entourage, may walk abroad in city street or
countryside. She is not forced to hide her charms, but, according to
the fashion of the moment and her own whim, she may sit at her
husband’s dinner-table with her face uncovered and her breasts bared,
and entertain his male companions with conversation and song.

She may hold, in her own right, slaves and land and fortune separately
from the estate of her husband, although the children she bears belong
to him alone. She may fish, and fly hawks, and even practise archery,
although such masculine endeavours as wrestling and swordsmanship are
forbidden to her. There are, quite rightly, certain activities from
which she is barred, such as the practice of law and architecture, but
a high-born wife is a person of consequence, possessed of legal rights
and dignity. Naturally it is not the same for the concubine or for the
wife of a common man.

They have the same rights as the bullock or the donkey.

Thus my mistress and I were free to wander abroad to explore the twin
cities on each bank of the Nile and the surrounding countryside.

In the streets of Elephantine my Lady Lostris was very soon a
favourite, and the common people gathered round her to solicit her
blessing and her generosity. They applauded her grace and beauty, just
as they had done in her native Thebes. I was instructed by her always
to carry a large bag of cakes and sweet” eats from in which she stuffed
the cheeks of every ragamuffin we encountered who seemed to her to
requi nourishing. Wherever we went, we seemed always to be surrounded
by a shrieking, dancing flock of children.

My mistress always seemed happy to sit in the doorway of a poor shabty
with the housewife, or under a tree in the field of a peasant farmer
and listen to their woes and grievances. At the first opportunity she
would take these up with Pharaoh. Often he would smile indulgently and
agree to the redress that she suggested. So her reputation as a
champion of the common man was born. When she passed through even the
saddest, poorest quarters of the city, she left smiles and laughter
behind her.

On other days we fished together from our little skiff in the
backwaters of the lagoons that the inundation of the Nile had created,
or we laid out decoys for the wild duck. I had made a special bow for
my mistress which was suited to her strength. Of course, it was
nothing like the great bow, Lanata, that I had designed for tonus, but
it was adequate for the water-fowl we were after. My Lady Lostris was
a better marksman than most men I have watched at the archery butts,
and when she loosed an arrow it was very’ seldom that I was not
required to plunge over side and swim out to retrieve the carcass of a
duck or a goose.

Whenever the king went out hawking, my mistress was invited to attend.
I would walk behind her with my Saker falcons on my arm, as we skirted
the edge of the papyrus beds. As soon as a heron rose with heavy
wing-beats from a hidden pool in the reeds, she would take one of the
falcons from me and kiss its hooded head. “Fly fast and true, my
beauty!” she would whisper to it, and slip the rufter to unmask the
fierce yellow eyes and launch the splendid little killer aloft.

We would watch entranced as the falcon towered high above the quarry,
and then folded those sickle wings and stooped with a speed that made
the wind sing over his dappled plumage. The shock of impact carried
clearly to us over a distance of two hundred paces. A puff of pale
blue feathers was smeared across the -darker blue of the sky, and then
was carried away like smoke on the river breeze. The falcon bound to
its prey with hooked talons to bring it smashing to earth. My mistress
shrieked in triumph and ran as fast as a boy to retrieve the bird, to
lavish praise upon it and pamper it, and then to feed it the severed
head of the heron.

I love all creatures of the water and the land and the air.

My mistress has the same feelings. Why is it then, I often” wonder,
that both of us are so moved by these sports of the chase? I have
puzzled over it without finding an answer.

Perhaps it” is simply that man, and woman also, are the earth’s
fiercest predator. We feel a kinship with the falcon, with his beauty
and his speed. The heron and the goose were given to the falcon by the
gods as his rightful prey. In the same way, man has been given
dominance over all other creatures on earth. We cannot deny these
instincts with which the gods have endowed us.

From the earliest age, when she had first developed the strength and
the stamina to stay with us, I had allowed my Lady Lostris to accompany
tonus and myself on our hunting and fishing forays. For, perhaps to
mask his hatred of it his rival, Lord Harrab, my Lord Inter consented
to my hunting sorties with young tonus.

Years before, tonus and I had taken possession of a deserted
fisherman’s shack which we had discovered on the fringe of the swamp
below Karnak. We had made this our secret hunting-lodge. It was only
a short distance from the shack to the edge of the true desert. So
from this comfortable base we had the options of fishing the lagoon or
of wild-fowling or of hawking that noble bird, the giant bustard, in
the open desert.

In the beginning tonus had resented the intrusion of this gawky
nine-year-old girl, skinny and flat’-chested as a boy, into our private
world. Soon, however, he had grown accustomed to her presence and even
found it convenient to have someone to run errands for him and perform
the irksome little chores around camp.

Thus, little by little, Lostris had picked up the lore and the wisdom
of the outdoors, until she knew every fish and bird by its proper name,
and could wield a harpoon or a hunting-bow with equal skill. In the
end tonus had become as proud of her as if it had been he who had
invited her to join us in the first place.

She had been with us in the black rock hills above the river valley on
the day that tonus had hunted the cattle-killer. The lion was a
scarred old male with a black mane that waved like a field of corn in
the wind as he walked, and a voice like the thunder of the heavens. We
set my pack of hounds upon him and followed them as they bayed the lion
up from the paddock beside the Nile where he had killed his last
bullock. The dogs cornered him at the head of a rocky defile. The
lion fixed on us as soon as we came up and brushed the dogs aside and
charged through them.

As he came grunting and roaring towards us, my mistress had stood
unwavering, only a pace behind tonus” left shoulder, with her own puny
little bow at full draw. Of course, it had been tonus who had killed
the beast, sending an arrow from the great bow Lanata hissing down his
gaping throat, but we had both seen Lady Lostris” courage displayed in
full measure.

I think it was probably on that day that tonus first became aware of
his true feelings for her, while for my mistress, the hunt and the
chase were for ever bound up with the images and memories of her
]over.

She had remained ever since an avid huntress. She had -learned from
tonus and myself to respect and to love the quarry, but not to burden
herself with guilt when she-exercised her god-given rights over the
other creatures of the earth, to use them-as beasts of burden, to
consume them as food, or to pursue them as game.

We may have dominance over the beasts, but in the same way, all men and
women are Pharaoh’s cattle, and none may gainsay him. Promptly on the
ninetieth night the king sent Aton to fetch my mistress.

BECAUSE OF OUR FRIENDSHIP AND HIS

own feelings for my mistress, Aton had given” me ample warning before
he came. I was able to make my final preparations well in advance of
his arrival.

For the last time I rehearsed my mistress in exactly what to say to the
king and how to behave towards him. Then I applied the ointment that I
had reserved for this occasion. It was not only a lubricant, but
contained also the essence of a herb that I use on other patients to
deaden the pain of tooth-ache and other minor afflictions.

It had the property of numbing the sensitive mucous membranes of the
body.

She was brave right up to the moment that Aton appeared in the doorway
of her chamber, and then her courage deserted her and she turned to me
with tears brimming against her lids. “I cannot go alone.

I am afraid. Please come with me, Taita. ” She was pale beneath the
make-up that I had applied so carefully, and a fit of shivering took
hold of her so that her small white teeth chattered together softly.

“Mistress, you know that is not possible. Pharaoh has sent for you.
This once I cannot help you. ” It was then that Aton came to her aid.
“Perhaps Taita could wait in the ante-chamber of the king’s bedroom,
with me. After all, he is the royal physician, and his services may be
needed, ” he suggested in his reedy voice, and my mistress stood on
tiptoe to kiss his fat cheek.

“You are so kind, Aton, ” she whispered, and he blushed.

My Lady Lostris held my hand tightly as we followed Aton through the
labyrinth of passages to the king’s apartments. In the ante-chamber
she squeezed it hard, and then dropped my hand and went to the doorway
to. the king’s chamber. She paused and looked back at me.

She had never looked so lovely or so young and vulnerable. My heart
was breaking, but I smiled at her to give her courage. She turned from
me and stepped through the curtains. I heard the murmur of the king’s
voice as he greeted her and her soft reply.

Aton seated me on a stool at the low table, then without a word set up
the boo board between us. I played without attention, moving the
polished round stones in the cups carved into the wooden board, and
Aton won three quick games in succession. He had very seldom beaten me
before, but I was distracted by the voices from the room beyond,
although they were too low for me to catch the actual words.

Then quite clearly I heard my mistress say, exactly as I coached her,
“Please, Your Majesty, be gentle with me.

I beseech you, do not hurt me, ” and the appeal was so moving that even
Aton coughed softly and blew his nose upon his sleeve, while it was all
I could do to restrain myself from leaping to my feet and rushing
through the curtain to drag her away.

For a while there was silence and then a single high, sobbing cry that
rent my soul, and once again silence.

Aton and I sat hunched over the boo board, no longer making any
pretention at playing. I do not know how long we waited, but it must
have been in the last watch of the night when I heard at last the sound
of an old man’s snores from beyond the curtain. Aton looked up at me
and nodded, then he rose ponderously to his feet.

Before he reached the curtains, they parted, and my mistress stepped
through them and came directly to where I sat.

“Take me home, Taita, ” she whispered.

Without thinking about it I picked her up in my arms; and she hugged me
around the neck and laid her head on my shoulder, just like she used to
as a little girl. Aton took up the oil lamp and lit the way for us
back to the harem.

He left us at the door to my mistress’s bedchamber. I laid her on the
bed, and while she drowsed I examined her gently. There was a little
blood, just a smear of it on those silken thighs, but it had staunched
itself.

“Is there any pain, my little one?” I asked softly, and she opened her
eyes and shook her head.

Then quite unexpectedly she smiled at me. “I don’t know what all the
fuss was about, ” she murmured. “In the end, it Was not much worse
than using your water-stool, and it didn’t take much longer either. ”
And she curled herself in a ball and fell asleep without another
sound.

I almost wept with relief. All my preparations and the numbing herbs I
had employed had seen her through without damage to either her body or
her sweet, spirit.

IN THE MORNING WE WENt OUt HAWKing as though nothing untoward had
happened, and my mistress mentioned the subject only once during the
day. As we picnicked on the bank of the river, she asked thoughtfully,
Will it be the same with, tonus, do you think, Taita?” “No, mistress.
You and tonus love each other. It will be different. It will be the
most wonderful moment in your entire life, ” I assured her.

“Yes, I know deep in my heart that is how it should be, ” both of us
looked and involuntarily whispered, as we walked northwards along the
sweep of the Nile, towards Karnak far below the horizon.

Although I knew well where my duty towards tonus lay, life on the
island was so idyllic, and I so much enjoyed the exclusive company of
my mistress, that I delayed my departure with the excuse that she still
needed me. In truth, although Pharaoh sent for her night after night,
my mistress had a tough and resilient streak in her and was blessed
With the instinct of survival in full measure. Very swiftly she
learned how to please the king, but at the same time to remain
untouched and emotionally unmoved by it. She did not need me as much
as tonus did. Indeed, it was she who began to nag me to leave her at
Elephantine and to journey down-river once again.

I procrastinated until one evening, after a full day out in the field
with the king, we returned late to the palace. I saw to it that my
mistress was bathed and her evening meal was laid out for her before I
went to my own rooms.

As I entered my chamber the delicious odour of ripe mangoes and
pomegranates filled the air. In the centre of the floor stood a large
closed basket which I could tell was filled with these two favourite
fruits of mine. I was not surprised to find it there, for never a day
passed without gifts being sent to my mistress and me by someone
seeking our favours.

I wondered who it was this time, and my mouth filled with saliva as
another whiff of the fragrance filled my nostrils. I had not eaten
since noon. As I lifted the woven lid and reached for the reddest and
ripest of the pomegranates, the fruit spilled and rolled across the
floor. There was a sharp hissing sound and a great black ball of
writhing coils and gleaming scales flopped out of the basket and lashed
out at my legs.

I leaped backwards, but not fast enough. The open jaws A of the
serpent struck the leather heel of my sandal with such force that I
very nearly lost my balance. A cloud of venom was released from the
curved fangs. The clear but deadly fluid drenched the skin of my
ankle, but with another leap, I managed to evade the second strike that
followed immediately upon the first. I threw myself back against the
wall in the far corner of the room.

The cobra and I confronted each other across the width of the floor.
Half its body was coiled upon itself, but the front portion of it was
raised as high as my shoulder. Its hood was extended to display the
broad black and white bands which patterned it. Like some dreadful
black lily of death swaying upon its stern, it watched me with those
glittering, beady eyes, and I realized that it stood between me and the
only door to the chamber.

It is true that some cobras are kept as pets. They are given the run
of the household, and they keep down the numbers of rats and mice that
infest the building. They will drink milk from a jug and become as
tame as kittens. There are others of these serpents that are trained
by methods of torment and provocation to become deadly tools of the
assassin . I was in no doubt as to which kind of cobra this was
standing before me now.

I sidled along the wall, trying to outflank it and to reach safety. It
launched itself at me, and the gape of its jaw was a pale sickly yellow
and tendrils of venom drooled from the tips of its fangs.

Involuntarily I yelled with terror as I sprang away from it and cowered
in my corner again. The serpent recovered swiftly from the strike, and
reared upright. It was still between me and the doorway.

I knew that its poison sacs were charged with sufficient venom to kill
a hundred strong men. As I watched, its lower body uncoiled slowly and
it began to glide across the floor towards me, its flaring head held
high and those terrible, bright little eyes fastened upon me.

I have seen one of these snakes mesmerize a fowl so that it made no
move to escape at this sinuous approach, but lay before it with a
patent air of resignation. I was paralyzed in the same way, and found
that I could neither move nor cry out again as death glided towards
me.

Then suddenly I saw a movement beyond the swaying cobra. My Lady
Lostris appeared in the doorway, summoned by my first terrified cry. I
found my voice again, and I screamed at her, “Be careful! Come no
closer!” She paid no heed to my warning as she took in the scene at a
glance. A moment’s delay or hesitation on her part, and the serpent
would have struck at me for the third and last time. My mistress had
been at her dinner when she heard my cry for help. She stood now with
a half-eaten melon in one hand and a silver knife in the other, and she
reacted with the swift instinct of a true huntress. tonus had taught
her to forsake the awkward double jointed manner of throwing that is
natural to the female, and she hurled the melon she held with the force
and aim of a trained javelineer. It struck the cobra upon the back of
its extended hood, and for a fleeting instant the blow knocked it flat
upon the tiled floor. Like the release of a war bow, the serpent
whipped erect and turned its dreadful head towards my mistress and then
sped at her across the room in full attack.

I was released from my trance at last and started forward to help her,
but I was too slow. Using its tail as a fulcrum, the cobra swung
forward and aimed at her with its jaws so widely distended that venom
sprayed from its erect fangs in a fine, pale mist. My mistress leaped
back, agile and swift as a gazelle before the rush of the hunting
cheetah. The cobra missed its strike, and for an instant the impetus
threw it flat at her feet, extended to its full glistening, scaly
length.

I do not know what possessed her, but she had never lacked in courage.
Before the cobra could recover, she hopped forward again and landed
with both those neat little sandal led feet upon the back of its head,
pinning it to the tiles with her full weight.

Perhaps she had expected to crush its spine, but the snake was as thick
as her wrist and resilient as the lash of Rasfer’s whip.

Although its head was pinned, the rest of its long body whipped up and
over and coiled around her legs. A woman of lesser sense and nerve
might have tried to escape that loathsome embrace. If she had done so
my mistress would have died, for the instant the cobra’s head was freed
the death-strike would have followed.

Instead, she kept both feet planted firmly upon the writhing serpent,
spreading her arm’s to balance herself, and she screamed out, “Help me,
Taita!” I was already halfway across the room, and now I dived full
length and thrust my hands into the coils of the serpent’s body that
boiled around her legs. I groped along its sinuous length, down to
where it narrowed into the neck, and I seized it and locked both my
hands around the cobra’s throat, with my fingers entwined.

“I have him!” I yelled almost incoherent with my own horror and
loathing for this cold, scaly creature that struggled in my grip. “I
have -him! Get away from us! Stand clear!” My mistress leaped back
obediently, and I came to my feet clutching the creature with a frantic
strength, trying to keep its gaping jaws away from my face. The tail
whipped back and wound around my shoulders and my neck, threatening to
strangle me as I clung to the head. With this -grip upon me the snake
now had purchase, and its strength was terrifying. I found that I
could not hold it, even with both my fists locked around its throat.

It was gradually forcing its head free, drawing it inexorably back
through my fingers.

I realized that the instant it broke out of my grip, it would lash out
at my unprotected face.

“I can’t hold it!” I screamed, more to myself than to Lady Lostris. I
was holding it at arms-length, but it was pulling itself towards my
face, drawing closer to my eyes every moment as waves of power pulsed
through it, contracting and tightening the coils around my throat,
forcing the head back through my fingers.

Although my knuckles. were white with the. strength of my grip, the
cobra was so close to my face that I could see the fangs flicking back
and forth in the roof of its wide gaping jaws. The cobra was able to
erect or to flatten them at will. They were bony white needles, and
pale, smoky jets of venom spurted from their tips. I knew that if even
a droplet of that poison entered my eyes, it would blind me, and the
burning pain of it might drive me half-mad.

I twisted the snake’s head away from my face so that the spray of
poison was discharged into the air, and I screamed again in despair,
“Call one of the slaves to help me!” “On the table!” my mistress
spoke close beside me. “Hold its head on the table!” I was
startled.

I had thought that she had obeyed my order and run to find help, but
she was at my side, and I saw that she still brandished the silver
table knife

Carrying the cobra with me, I staggered across the floor and fell to my
knees beside the low table. With a supreme effort I managed to force
the snake’s head down across one edge of the table, and to hold it
there. It gave my mistress a chopping-block against which to wield the
knife. She hacked at the base of the cobra’s neck, behind the hideous
head.

The snake felt the first cut and redoubled its struggles.

Coil after coil of rubbery flesh lashed and contorted around my head.
Hissing bursts of air flew from its gape, almost deafening us, the
awful din mingling with the spurts of venom from its fangs.

The little blade was sharp, and the scaly flesh parted under it.

Slippery, cool, ophidian blood welled up over my fingers, but the blade
bit down to the bone of the spine. With all her strength and with her
face contorted by the effort, my mistress sawed at the bone, but now my
fingers were lubricated by the cobra’s blood. I felt the head slither
out between them and the serpent was free, but at the same moment the
knife found the joint between the vertebrae and slipped through,
cleavIng the spine.

Dangling by a thread of skin, the head was thrown about loosely by the
cobra’s death-throes. Although almost severed from the body, the fangs
still flickered and oozed poison. The lightest touch would be enough
to drive them into my flesh. I tore at the body with frenzied, bloody
fingers and at last managed to unwind it from around my throat, and to
hurl it to the floor.

As the two of us backed away to the door, the snake continued its
grotesque contortions, knotting itself and coiling into a ball, scaly
turns sliding over each other.

“Are you harmed, my lady?” I asked, without being able to tear my eyes
away from the death-throes of the carcass.

“Is there any of the venom in your eyes or on your skin?” “I am all
right, ” she whispered. “And you, Taita?” The tone “of her voice
alarmed me enough to make me lorg own distress, and I looked at her
face. The reaction danger had already seized her, and she was
beginning to shake.

Her dark green eyes were too large to fit that glassy white face I had
to find some way to release her from the icy grip of shock.

“Well, ” I said briskly, “that takes care of tomorrow evenings dinner.
I do so love a nice piece of roast cobra. ” For a moment she stared at
me blankly and then she let out a peal of hysterical laughter. My own
laughter was no less wild and unrestrained. We clung helplessly to
each other and laughed until tears poured down our cheeks.

I WOULD NOt TRUSt. OUR COOK WITH IT, so I prepared the cobra myself. I
skinned and gutted it and stuffed it with wild garlic and other herbs,
together with a dollop of mutton fat from the tail of a prime ram.
Then I coiled it in a ball and wrapped it in banana leaves and covered
the whole bundle with a thick coating of wet clay.

I built over the lump of ciaya hot fire which I kept burning all day.

That evening when I cracked open the hard-baked ball of clay, the aroma
released by the succulent white flesh flooded mouths with saliva.

There are those who have dined at my table who say they have never
eaten tastier food than that which I prepare, and who am I to
contradict my friends?”

I served the flaky fillets to my mistress with a wine of five-palm
quality that Aton had chanced upon in Pharaoh’s store-rooms. My Lady
Lostris insisted that I sit with her under the barrazza in the
courtyard and share the meal. We of crocodiles or even agreed that it
was better than the tai than the flesh of the finest perch from the
Nile.

It was only when we had eaten our fill and sent the rest of it to her
slave maidens that we broached the matter of who it was that had sent
me the gift of the basket of fruit.

I tried not to alarm my mistress, and made a joke of it: “It must have
been somebody who does not like my singing!” However, she was not to
be put off so easily.

“Don’t play the clown with me, Taita. It is one direction in which you
have little talent. I think you know who it was, and I think I do as
well. ” I stared at her, not sure how to deal with what I suspected
was coming. I had always protected her, even from the truth.

I wondered how far she had seen through me.

“It was my father, ” she said with -such finality that there was no
reply or denial I could give her. “Tell me about him, Taita. Tell me
all the things I should know about him, but which you never dared tell
me It came hard at first. A lifetime of reticence cannot be overcome
in a moment. It was still difficult to realize that I was no longer
completely, under the thrall of Lord Inter.

Deeply as I had always hated him, he had dominated me body and soul
since my childhood, and there persisted a kind of perverse loyalty that
made it difficult for me to speak out freely against him. Weakly I
attempted to fob her off WIth only the barest outlines of her father’s
clandestine activities, but she cut across me impatiently.

“Come now! Don’t take me for a fool. I know more about my father than
you ever dreamed. It is time for me to learn the rest of it. I charge
you straight, tell me everything. ” So I obeyed her, and there was so
much to tell that the full moon was halfway up the sky before I was
done. We sat in silence for a long time afterwards. I had left out
nothing, nor had I tried to deny or to excuse my own part in any of
it.

“No wonder he wants you dead, ” she whispered at last. “You know
enough to destroy him. ” She was silent a little longer, and then she
went on, “My father is a monster. How is it possible that I am any
different from him? Why, as his daughter, am I not also possessed by
such unnatural instincts?” “We must thank all the gods that you are
not. But mistress, do you not despise me also for what I have done?”

She reached across and touched my hand. “You forget that I have known
you all my life, since the day that my mother died giving birth to
me.

I know what you really are.

Anything you did, you were forced to do, and freely I forgive you for
it. ” She sprang to her feet and paced restlessly around the lily pond
before she returned to where I sat. “tonus is in terrible danger from
my father. I never realized just how much until this evening. He must
be warned so that he will be able to protect himself. You must go to
him now, Taita, without delaying another day. ” “Mistress.. . ” I
began, but she cut me off brusquely.

“No, Taita, I will not listen to any more of your sly excuses.

You will leave for Karnak tomorrow. ” SO BEFORE SUNRISE THE NEXt
MORNING I set out fishing, alone in the skiff. However, I made certain
that at least a dozen slaves and sentries saw me leave the island.

In a backwater of the lagoon I opened the leather bag in which I had
concealed a torn-cat that have befriended me. He was a sad old animal
riddled with mange and with agonizing canker in both ears. For some
time I had been steeling myself to give him release from his misery.

Now I fed him a lump of raw meat laced with Datura essence. I held him
on my lap and stroked him as he ate, and he purred contentedly. As
soon as he slipped painlessly into oblivion, I cut his throat.

I sprinkled the blood over the skiff, and dropped the carcass of the
cat overboard where I knew that the crocodiles would soon dispose of
it. Then, leaving my harpoons and lines and other gear on board, I
pushed the skiff out into the slow current and waded through the
papyrus beds to hard ground.

We had agreed that my mistress would wait until nightfall before she
raised the alarm. It would be noon tomorrow before they found the
blood-smeared skiff and concluded that I had been taken by a crocodile
or been murdered by a band of the Shrikes.

Once I was ashore, I changed swiftly into the costume I had brought
with me. I had chosen to impersonate one of the priests of Osiris. I
would often ape their stilted gait and pompous manners for the
amusement of my mistress. It needed only a wig, a touch of make-up and
the correct costume to make the transformation. The priests are always
on the move, up and down along the river, travelling between one temple
and another, begging or rather demanding alms along the way. I would
excite little interest, and my disguise might help to discourage an
attack by the Shrikes. On superstitious grounds they were often
reluctant to interfere with the holy men.

I skirted the lagoon and entered the town of West Elephantine through
the poor quarter. At the docks I approached one of the barge captains
who was loading a cargo of corn in leather bags and clay jugs of oil.
With the right degree of arrogance I demanded free passage to Karnak in
the name of the god, and he shrugged and spat on the deck, but allowed
me to come aboard. All men are resigned to the extortions of the
brotherhood. They may despise the priests, but they also fear their
power, both spiritual and secular.

Some say that the priesthood wields almost as much power as does
Pharaoh himself.

The moon was full and the barge captain a more intrepid mariner than
Admiral Nembet. We did -not anchor at night. With the breeze and the
full flood of the Nile behind us, we made a fair passage and on the
fifth day rounded the bend of the river and saw the city of Karnak
lying before us.

My stomach was queasy as I went ashore, for this was my town and every
beggar and idler knew me well. If I were recognized, Lord Inter would
hear about it before I could reach the city gates. However, my
disguise held up, and I kept to the back alleys as I hurried in a
purposeful and priestly -manner to tonus” house near the squadron
base.

His front door was unbarred. I entered as though I had the right, and
closed the door securely behind me. The starkly furnished rooms were
deserted and when I searched them, I found nothing to give me any
indication of his whereabouts’. tonus had obviously been gone for a
long time, possibly since my mistress and I had left Karnak. The milk
in, a jug by the window had thickened and dried like hard cheese, and a
crust of sorghum bread on the plate beside it was covered with a blue
mould.

As far as I could see, nothing was missing; even the bow Lanata. still
hung on its rack above his bed. For tonus to have left that was
extraordinary. Usually it was like an extension of his body.

I hid it away carefully in a secret compartment below his
sleeping-place, which I had built for him when first he had moved into
these lodgings.

I wished to avoid moving around the city in daylight, so I remained in
tonus” rooms for the rest of that afternoon, occupying myself with
cleaning up the dust and filth that had accumulated.

At nightfall I slipped out and went down to the riverside.

I saw immediately that the Breath of Horus was at her moorings.

She had obviously been in action since last I had seen her, and had
suffered battle damage. Her bows were shattered and her timbers
amidships had been scorched and charred.

I noted with a stir of proprietary pride that tonus had made the
modifications to her hull that . I had designed.

The gilded metal horn protruded from her bows, just above the
water-line. From its battered condition I surmised that it had done
fierce execution amongst the, fleets of the red pretender.

However, I could see that neither tonus nor Kratas was on deck. A
junior officer whom I recognized had the watch, but I discarded the
idea of hailing him, and instead set out to tour the sailors” haunts
around’ the the area of the docks.

It says a great deal for the morals and the sanctity of the priests of
Osiris that I was welcomed in the dives and whorehouses like an
habitue. In one of the more respectable taverns I recognized the
impressive figure of Kratas. He was drinking and playing at dice with
a group of his brother officers. I made no move to approach him, but I
watched him across the crowded room. Meanwhile I fended off the
advances of a succession of pleasure-birds-of both sexes who were
progressively lowering their tariffs in their efforts to tempt me out
into the dark alleyway to sample their well displayed charms. None of
them were in the least deterred by my priestly collar of blue glass
beads.

When Kratas at last gave his companions a hearty goodnight and made his
way out into the alley, I followed his tall figure with relief.

“What is it you want from me now, beloved of the gods?” he growled at
me with scorn when I hurried up beside him.

“Is it my gold or my burn-splitter you crave?” Many of the priests had
taken enthusiastically to this modern vogue for pederasty.

“I’ll take the gold, ” I told him. “You have more of that than the
other, Kratas. ” He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me
suspiciously. His bluff and handsome features were only a little
flushed and befuddled by liquor.

“How- do you know my name?” He seized me by the shoulder and dragged
me into a lighted doorway, and studied my face. At last he snatched
the wig from off my head.

“By the piles between Seth’s buttocks, it’s you, Taita!” he roared.

“I’d be obliged if you would refrain from shouting out my name to all
the world, ” I told him, and he turned serious at once.

“Come! We’ll go to my rooms. ” Once we were alone, he poured two mugs
of beer. “Haven’t you had enough of that?” I asked, and he grinned at
me.

“We’ll only know the answer to that in the morning.

How now, Taita! Don’t be too strict with me. We have been down-river
raiding the red usurper’s fleet for the past three weeks.

Sweet Hopi, but that bow-horn of yours works wonders. We cut up nearly
twenty of his galleys and we chopped the heads off a couple of hundred
of his rascals. Although it was thirsty work, not a drop of anything
stronger than water has passed my lips in all that time.

Don’t begrudge me a mouthful of beer now. Drink with me!” He raised
his mug, and I was also thirsty. I saluted him in return, but as I put
the mug down again, I asked, “Where is tonus?” He sobered instantly.
“tonus has disappeared, ” he said, and I stared at him.

“Disappeared?” What do you mean, disappeared? Did he not lead the
raid down-river?” Kratas shook his head. “No. He’s gone.

Vanished. I have had my men scour every street and every house in all
of Thebes. There is no sign of him. I tell you, Taita, I am worried,
really worried. ” “When did you last see him?” “Two days after the
royal wedding, after the Lady Lostris married the king, on the evening
of the day that you sailed with, the royal flotilla for Elephantine. I
tried to talk some sense into his thick head, but he would not stay.
“What did he say?” “He handed over the command of the Breath of Horus
and the entire squadron to me. ” “He could not do that, surely?” “Yes,
he could.

He used the authority of Pharaoh’s hawk seal. ” I nodded. “And
then?

What did he do?” “I have just told you. He disappeared. ” I sipped
at the mug of beer as I tried to think it out.

Meanwhile Kratas went to the window and urinated through it. It
splashed noisily into the street below and I heard a startled passer-by
shout up at him, “Careful where you spray, you filthy pig!”

Kratas leaned out and quite cheerfully offered to crack his skull for
him, and the man’s grumblings receded rapidly.

Chortling with this small victory, Kratas came back to me and I asked,
“What mood was tonus in when he left you?” Kratas turned serious
again. “The blackest and most ugly temper I have ever witnessed. He
cursed the gods and Pharaoh. He even cursed the Lady Lostris and
called her a royal whore. ” I winced to hear it. Yet I knew that this
was not my tonus speaking. It was the voice of despairing and hopeless
love.

“He said that Pharaoh could carry out his threat to have him strangled
for sedition and he would welcome the release. No, he was in terrible
straits and there was nothing that I could do or say to comfort him. ”
“That was all? He gave you no hint as to what he intended?” Kratas
shook his head and refilled his beer mug.

“What happened to the hawk seal?” I asked.

“He left it with me. He said he had no further use for it.

I have it safe aboard the Breath of Horus. ” “What of the other
arrangements that I discussed with you? Have you done what I asked?”

He looked into his mug guiltily and muttered, “I began to make the
arrangements, but after tonus was gone, there seemed no point to it.

Besides, I have been busy down-river since then. ” “It is not like
you, Kratas, to be so unreliable. ” I had found that with Kratas hurt
disappointment was more effective than anger. “My Lady Lostris was
relying on you. She told me that she trusted you completely. Kratas
is a great rock of strength-those were her exact words. ” I could see
that it was working yet again, for Kratas is also one of my mistress’s
ardent admirers. Even a hint of her displeasure would move him.

“Damn you, Taita, you make me sound like a weak-kneed idiot.. . ” I
kept silent, but silent can be more irksome than words. “What in the
name of Horus does the Lady Lostris want me to do?” “Nothing more than
I asked you to do before I left for Elephantine, ” I told him, and he
slammed down his mug.

“I am a soldier. I cannot leave my duties and take half the squadron
to go off on some mad adventure. It was one thing when tonus had the
hawk seal.. . ” “You have the hawk seal now, ” I told him softly.

He stared at me. “I cannot use it without tonus.. . ” “You are his
lieutenant. tonus gave you the hawk seal to use. You know what to do
with it. Do it! I will find tonus and bring him back, but you must be
ready by then. There is desperate and bloody work ahead, and tonus
needs you.

Don’t let him down, not again. ” He flushed with anger at the jibe.

“I’ll make you swallow those words. ” he promised.

“And that will be the finest meal you could set for me, ” I told him. I
love brave and honest men, they are so easily manipulated.

I WAS UNCERTAIN AS TO HOW I WOULD make good my promise to find tonus,
but I left Kratas to sleep off his debauch, and I went out into the
town again to try. Once more I made the rounds of every one of his old
haunts and questioned anyone who could possibly have seen him. I had
no illusions as to the risk I was taking in pursuing my enquiries about
tonus, or as to just how flimsy was my disguise if I should run into
anybody who knew me well, but I had to find him. I kept going through
the night, until even the shebeens and whorehouses along the waterfront
had thrown out the last drunken customers and doused their lamps.

As the dawn broke over the river, I stood tired and disconsolate on the
bank of the Nile, and tried to think if there was some possibility I
had overlooked. A wild honking cry made me look up.

High above me a straggling skein of Egyptian geese was outlined against
the pale gold and coppery tones of the eastern sky.

Immediately they brought to my mind those happy days that the three of
us, tonus and the Lady Lostris and myself, had spent wild-fowling in
the swamps.

“Fool!” I reviled myself. “Of course that’s it. ” By this time the
alleyways of the sauk were filled with a noisy, jostling crowd.

Thebes is the busiest city in the world, no man is idle here.

They blow glass and work gold and silver, they weave flax and throw
pots.

The merchant deals and haggles, the lawyer cants, the priest chants and
the whore swives. It is an exciting, flamboyant city and I love it.

I forced my way through the throng and the hubbub of banter and
bargaining as the merchants and the farmers displayed their wares for
the housewives and the bailiffs of the rich households. The sauk stank
fulsomely of spices and fruits, of vegetables and fish and meats, some
of which were far from fresh. Cattle bellowed and goats bleated and
added their dung to the human contribution of excrement that trickled
down the open gutters towards old Mother Nile.

I thought of buying an ass, for it would be a long walk in this hottest
season of the year, and there were some sturdy beasts on offer.

In the end I decided against such extravagance, not only on the grounds
of economy, for I knew that once I was out in the open countryside, an
expensive animal would certainly attract the attention of the Shrikes.
For such a prize they might overcome their religious scruples. Instead,
I purchased only a few handfuls of dates and a loaf of bread, a leather
bag to carry these provisions and a gourd water-bottle. Then I set out
through the narrow streets to the main gate of the city.

I had not reached the gates when there was a commotion in the street
ahead of me and a” detachment of the palace guards came towards me,
using their staves to force a passage through the market crowds.

Close behind them a half-dozen slaves carried an ornate and curtained
litter at a jog-trot. I was trapped against the cly-dauby walls of one
of the buildings and though I recognised both the litter and the
commander of the bodyguards, I could not avoid a confrontation.

Panic seized me. I might survive a casual scrutiny from Rasfer, but I
was certain that even under my disguise, my Lord Inter would know me
instantly. Standing beside me was an old slave woman with breasts like
two great amphorae of olive oil and a backside like a hippopotamus’s. I
wriggled sideways until her bulk hid me. Then I settled my wig over my
eyes and peeped out from behind her.

Despite my fears I felt a tingle of professional pride that Rasfer was
on his feet again so soon after my surgery. He led his troop of
bodyguards towards where I hid, but it was only when he drew almost
level that I noticed that one side , of his face had collapsed. It was
as though his unlovely features had been modelled in wax and then held
close to a naked flame. This condition is often the consequence of
even the most skilful trepanning. The other half of his face was set
in its customary scowl. If Rasfer had been hideous before, now he
should cause the children to cry and their elders to -make the sign
against the evil eye when they looked upon him.

He passed close by where I stood, and the litter followed him.

Through a chink in the embroidered curtains I caught a glimpse of Lord
Inter as he sprawled elegantly on pillows of pure silk imported from
the East that must have cost at least five gold rings each. His cheeks
were freshly shaved and his hair was dressed in formal ringlets. On
top of his coiffure was set a cone of perfumed beeswax that would melt
in the heat and trickle over his scalp and down his neck to cool and
soothe his skin. One hand, the fingers stiff with jewelled rings, lay
languidly on the smooth brown thigh of a pretty little slave boy who
must have been a recent addition to his’ collection for I did not
recognize him.

I was taken off-guard by the strength of my own hatred as I looked at
my old master. All the countless injuries and humiliations that I had
suffered at his hands rushed back to torment me, and these were
aggravated by his most recent outrage. By sending the cobra to me he
had endangered the life of my mistress. If I had been able to forgive
all else, I would never be able, to forgive him that. He began to turn
his, head in my direction, but before our eyes could meet, I sank down
behind the mountainous woman in front of me. The litter was borne away
down the narrow alley, and as I stared after it, I found that I was
trembling just as I had after my struggle with the cobra.

“Divine Horus, hear this plea. Grant me no rest until he is dead and
gone to his master, Seth, ” I whispered, and I pushed my way on towards
the city gate. along the river were in the fecund embrace of the Nile.
As she had done every season from the beginning of time, she was laying
down on “our fields another rich layer of black silt. When she receded
again, those glistening expanses would once more bloom with that shade
of green that is peculiar to this very Egypt. The rich silt and the
sunshine would raise three crops to harvest before the Nile poured over
its banks once more to deliver its bounty.

The borders of the flooded fields were hemmed with the raised dykes
that controlled the flood and also served as roadways. I followed one
of these footpaths eastward until I reached the rocky ground along the
foothills, then I turned southward. As I went, I paused occasionally
to turn over a rock beside the path, until I found what I was looking
for.

Then I struck out with more determination.

I kept a wary eye’ on the rough and broken ground on my right-hand
side, for that was just the type of terrain that would afford a fine
ambush for a band of Sheiks. I was crossing one of the rocky ravines
that lay across the pathway when I was hailed from close at hand.

“Pray for me, beloved of the gods!” My nerves were so tightly strung
that I had let out a startled cry and leapt in the air before I could
prevent it.

A shepherd boy sat on the edge of the ravine just above me. He was not
more than ten years old, but he seemed as old as man’s first sin. I
knew that the Shrikes often used these children as their scouts and
their sentinels. This grubby little imp looked perfect for that role.
His hair was matted with filth, and he wore a badly tanned -goat’s skin
that I could smell from where I stood. His eyes were as bright and as
avaricious as those of a crow as he ran them over me, assessing my
costume and my baggage.

“Where are you headed, and what is your business, good father?” he
asked, and blew a long warbling note on his reed flute that could have
been a signal to somebody hidden further up the hillside.

It took another few moments for my heart to steady its wild pace, and
my voice was a little breathless, as I told him, “You are impertinent,
child. What business is it of yours who I am or where I go?”
Immediately he changed his demeanour towards meIg am starved, gentle
priest, an orphan forced to fend for myself. Don’t you have a crust
for me in that big bag of yours?” “You look well-nourished to me. ” I
turned away, but he scrambled down the bank and danced beside me.

“Let me see in your bag, kind father, ” he insisted. “Alms, I beg of
you, gentle sir. ” “Very well, you little ruffian. ” Out of the bag I
brought a ripe date. He reached out for it, but before his fingers
touched it, I closed my hand and when I opened it again the date had
been transformed into a purple scorpion. The poisonous insect lifted
its tail menacingly over its head, and the boy screamed and fled back
up the bank.

At the top he paused only long enough to howl at me, “You are not a
priest. You are one of the desert djinn. You are a devil, not a man.
” Frantically he made the sign against the evil eye and spat three
times on the ground, and then he raced away up the hill.

I had captured the scorpion from under a flat rock farther back along
the path. Naturally, I had nipped the sting from the end of its tail
before slipping it into my bag in readiness for just such an
eventuality. The old slave who had taught me to read lips, had showed
me a few other tricks while he was about it. One of them was
sleight-of-hand.

At the shoulder of the next hill I paused to look back.

The shepherd boy was on the crest far above me, but he was not alone.
There were two men with him. They stood in a group looking down at
me-, and the child was gesticulating vehemently. As soon as they saw I
had spotted them, all three of them disappeared over the skyline. I
doubted they would want further truck with a demon priest.

I had not gone much farther when I saw movement on the track ahead of
me, and I stopped short and shaded my eyes against the dazzle of the
noonday sun. I was relieved to make out a small and innocent-seeming
party coming in my direction. I moved forward cautiously to meet it,
and as we drew together, my heart leaped as I thought I recognized
tonus. He was leading a donkey. The doughty little animal was heavily
burdened. Atop the large bundle on its back sat a woman and a child,
but it trotted on gamely. I saw that the woman was herself heavily
burdened, her belly swelling out with her pregnancy. The child
balanced behind her was a girl on the verge of puberty.

I was about to hail tonus and hurry forward to meet him, when I
realized that I was mistaken and the man was a stranger. It was his
tall, broad-shouldered figure, the limber way he moved and the shining
shock of gold-blond hair that had deceived me. He was watching me
suspiciously an a drawn his sword. Now he pulled the donkey off the
path and interposed himself between me and the precious burden it
carried.

“The blessings of the gods upon you, good fellow. ” I played out my
role as priest, and he grunted and kept the point of the sword aimed at
my belly. No man trusted a stranger in this very Egypt’of ours.

“You risk the life of your family on this road, my friend.

You should have sought out the protection of a caravan.

There are brigands in the hills. ” I was truly worried for them.

The woman seemed gentle and decent, while the child was on the verge of
tears at my warning.

“Pass on, priest!” the man ordered. “Keep your advice for those who
value it. ” “You are kind, gentle sir, ” the woman whispered, “We
waited a week at Qena for the caravan, and could not wait longer My
mother lives at Luxor, and she will help with the birth of my baby. ”
“Silence, woman!” her husband growled at her. “We want no truck with
strangers, even though they wear the robes of the priesthood. I
hesitated, trying to fathom if there was anything that I could do for
them. The girl was a pretty little thing with dark obsidian eyes, and
she had quite touched my heart. However, at that moment the husband
urged the donkey past where I stood, and with a helpless shrug, I
watched them go.

“You cannot bleed for all of mankind, ” I told myself. “Nor can you
force your advice on those who reject it. ” Without looking back
again, I went on northwards.

It was late afternoon before I looked down on the spur of rock that
thrust out into the green swampland. Even from this vantage-point it
was impossible to pick out the shanty.

It was hidden deep in the papyrus beds, and the roof was of papyrus
stems, so the concealment was perfect. I ran down the path, leaping
from rock to rock, until I reached the edge of the water. This far
from the main course of the Nile, the flood was not so significant.

I found our old dilapidated boat tied up at the landing. It was
half-flooded and I had to bale it out before committing it to the
water. I poled out cautiously along the tunnel through the papyrus.

At low ebb of the Nile the shanty stood on dry land, but now there was
sufficient water under the stilts that supported it to drown a,
standing man. ” There was an empty boat in better shape than mine tied
to one of the hut stilts. I moored mine beside it, climbed the kety
ladder and peered into our old hunting-lodge. It consisted of a single
room, and the sunshine streamed in through the holes in the thatched
roof, but no matter, for it never rains in Upper Egypt.

The hut had not been in such disorder since the day tonus and I had
first discovered it. Clothing and weapons and cooking-pots were
scattered around like the debris of a battlefield. The stink of liquor
was even more powerful than that of old food and unwashed bodies.

Those unwashed bodies were lying on an equally unwashed mattress in the
far corner. I crossed the littered floor gingerly to inspect them for
signs of life, and at that moment the woman grunted and rolled over.
She was young and her naked body was full and enticing, with big round
breasts and a thatch of crisp curls at the base of her belly.

However, even in repose, her face was hard and common. I had no doubt
that tonus had found her on the waterfront.

I had always known him to be fastidious, and he was never a drinking
man. This creature and the empty wine jars that were stacked against
every wall were merely an indication of how far he had been brought
down. I looked at him now as he slept, and hardly recognized him. His
face was mottled and bloated with drink and covered with untrimmed
beard. It was clear that hE had not shaved since last I had seen him
outside the harem walls.

At that moment the woman woke. Her eyes focused on me and in a single
catlike movement she was off the mattress and reaching for the sheathed
dagger hanging on the wall beside me. I snatched the weapon away
before she Could reach it and offered her the naked point.

“Go!” I ordered softly. “Before I give -you something in your belly
that even you have never felt before. ” She gathered up her clothes
and pulled them on hurriedly, all the while staring at me venomously.

“He has not paid me, ” she said, once she was dressed.

“I am sure you have already helped yourself generously. ” I gestured
towards the door with the dagger.

“He promised me five rings of gold. ” She changed her tone and began
to whine. “I have worked hard for him these last twenty days, or more.
I have done everything for him, cooked and kept his house, serviced him
and cleaned up his puke when he was -drunk. I must be paid. I will
not leave until you pay me.. . ” I seized her by a lock of her long
black hair and ushered her to the doorway. I helped her, still by
means of her hair, into the more dilapidated of the two boats.

Once she had poled out of my reach, she turned upon me such a stream of
abuse that the egrets and other water-fowl were frightened from the
reed-beds around us.

When I returned to where tonus lay, he had not moved.

I checked the wine jars. Most of them were empty, but there were still
two or three that were full. I wondered how he had accumulated such a
store of liquor, and guessed that he had probably sent the woman back
to Karnak to find a ferryman to ship it out to him.

There had been enough to keep the entire corps of the Blue Crocodile
Guards drunk for a season. Little wonder that he was in such a
condition.

I sat beside his mattress for a while, letting my sympathy for him run
its full course. He had tried to destroy himself.

I understood that, and did not despise him for it. His love for my
mistress was such that without it he did not wish to continue living.

Of course I was also angry with him for abusing himself in such a
fashion, and for succumbing to such self-indulgent folly. However,
even in this pitiful drink-sodden state, I could still find much that
was noble and admirable about him. After all, he was not alone in
guilt. My mistress had tried to take poison for the very same reason
as he had tried to destroy himself. I had understood and forgiven
her.

Could I do less for tonus? I sighed for these two young people who
were all that I had in life of any real value. Then I stood up and got
to work.

Firstly, I stood over tonus for a while, bolstering my anger to the
extent that I could be really harsh with him.

Then I took him by the heels and dragged him across the floor of the
hut. He came half out of his stupor and cursed weakly, but I took no
notice of his protests and tumbled him through the doorway. He plunged
into the swamp head-first and raised a mighty splash as he went undder.
I waited for him to come up and flounder about groggily on the surface,
still only half-conscious.

I dropped in beside him, grabbed a double handful of his hair and
thrust his head back under-water. For a moment he struggled only
weakly and I was able to hold him under with ease. Then his natural
instincts of survival took over and he heaved up with all his old
strength. I was lifted clear of the surface and thrown aside like a
twig in a storm. tonus came out bellowing in the effort to draw
breath, and striking out blindly at his unseen adversary. One of those
blows would have stunned a hippopotamus, and I backed away hurriedly
and watched him from a distance.

Coughing and choking, he floundered to the ladder and hung upon it with
his hair streaming into his eyes. He had obviously swallowed so much
water and sucked so much of it into his lungs that I felt a tingle of
alarm. My cure might have been a little too vigorous. I was just
about to go to his aid, when he opened his mouth wide and a foul
mixture of swamp water and rotten wine erupted out of him. I was
astonished by the quantity of it.

He hung on to the ladder, gasping and gurgling for breath, I swam to
one of the stilts of the hut and waited until he had vomited again
before I told him, putting all the contempt I could muster into my
voice, “My Lady Lostris would be so proud to see you now. ” He peered
about with streaming eyes and focused on me at last. “Taita, damn
you!

Was it you that tried to drown me? You idiot, I could have killed you.
” “In your present condition the only damage you could do would be to a
jar of wine. What a sorry, disgusting sight you are!” I climbed the
ladder into the hut and left him in the water, shaking his head and
mumbling to himself. I set about tidying up the mess and the filth.

It was some time before tonus followed me up the ladder and sat
shamefacedly in the doorway. I ignored him and went on with my work,
until at last he was forced to break the silence.

“How are you, old friend? I have missed you. ” “Others have missed
you also. Kratas, for one. The squadron has been fighting
down-river.

They could have found use for another sword. My Lady Lostris, for
another. She speaks of you every day, and holds her love pure and
true.

I wonder what she would think of that trollop I chased out of your
bed?” He groaned and held his head. “Oh, Taita, don’t speak your
mistress’s name. To be reminded of her is unbearable.. . ” “So broach
another jug of wine and wallow in your own filth and your self-pity. ”
I suggested angrily.

“I have lost her for ever. What would you have me do then?” “I would
want you to have faith and fortitude, as she has. ” He looked up at me
pitifully. “Tell me about her, Taita.

How is she? Does she -still think of me?” “More is the pity I grunted
disgustedly. “She thinks of little else. She holds herself ready for
the day that you two are brought together again. ” “That will never
be. I have lost her for ever and I don’t want to go on living. ”
“Good!” I agreed briskly. “Then I’ll not waste further time here.
I’ll tell my mistress that you did not want to hear her message. ” I
pushed past him, swarmed down the ladder and dropped into the skiff.

“Wait, Taita!” he called after me. “Come back! “”To what purpose?

You want to die. Then -get on with it.

I’ll send the embalmers out to pickup the corpse later. ” .

He grinned with embarrassment. “All right, I am a fool. The drink has
fuddled my mind. Come back, I beg of you. Give me the message from
Lostris. ” With a show of reluctance I climbed back up the ladder, and
he followed me into the hut, staggering only a little.

“My mistress bids me tell you that her love for you is untouched by any
of the things that have been thrust upon “her. She is still and will
always be your woman. ” “By Horus, she puts me to shame, ” he
muttered.

“No, ” I disagreed. “Your shame is of your own making. He snatched
his sword from the scabbard that hung above the filthy bed and slashed
out at the row of wine amphorae that stood against the far wall.

As each one burst, the wine poured out and trickled through the slats
of the floor.

He was panting as he came back to me, and I scoffed at him. “Look at
you! You have let yourself go until you are as soft and as short of
wind as an old priest! “Enough of that Taita! You have had your say.
Mock me no more, or you will regret it. ” I could see he was becoming
as angry as I had intended.

My insults were stiffening him up nicely. “My mistress would have you
take up the challenge thrown to you by alive and a man of honour
Pharaoh so that you will still be worth in five years” time, when she
is free to come to you. “Five years?” What is this?” I had his full
attention now. Taita? Will there truly be a term to our suffering?”
“I worked the Mazes for Pharaoh. He will be dead in five years from
now. He stared at me in awe. ” I told him so and I saw a hundred
different emotions pursue each other across his features. He is as
easy to read as this scroll on which I write.

“The Mazes!” he whispered at last. Once long ago he had been a
doubter, and had disparaged my way with the Mazes.

That had changed now and he was an even firmer believer in my powers
than my mistress. He had seen my visions become reality too often to
be otherwise.

“Can you wait that long for your love?” I asked. “My mistress swears
that she can wait for you through all eternity. Can you wait a few
short years for her?” “She has promised to wait for me?” he
demanded.

“Through all eternity I repeated, and I thought he might begin to weep.
I could not have faced that, not watched a man like tonus in tears, so
I went on hastily, “Don’t you want to hear the vision that the Mazes
gave me?” He thrust back the tears. “Yes! Yes!” he agreed eagerly,
and so we began to talk. We talked until the night fell, and then we
sat in the darkness and talked some more.

I told him the things that I had told my Lady Lostris, all the details
that I had kept from’ them both over the years.

When I came to the details of how his, father, Pianki, Lord Harrab, had
been ruined and destroyed by his secret enemy, tonus” anger was so
fierce that it burned away the last effects of the debauchery from his
mind, and by the time the dawn broke over the swamps, his resolve was
once more clear and strong.

“Let us get on with this enterprise of yours, for it seems the right
and proper way. ” He sprang to his feet and girded on his sword
scabbard. Although I thought it wise to rest a while and let him
recover fully from the effects of the wine, he would have no part of
it.

“Back to Karnak at once!” he insisted. “Kratas is waiting, and the
lust to avenge my father’s memory and to lay eyes on my own sweet love
burns like a fire in my blood. ” ONCE WE HAD LEFt THE SWAMP, tonus
took the lead along the rocky path, and I followed him at a run. As
soon as the sun came up above the horizon, the sweat burst out across
his back and streamed down to soak the waistband of his kilt.

It was as though the rancid old wine was being purged wildly, but ran
from his body. Although I could hear him panting he never paused to
rest or even moderated his pace, on into the rising heat from the
desert without a check.

It was I who pulled him up with a shout, and we stood shoulder to
shoulder and stared ahead. The birds had caught my attention. I had
picked out the commotion of their wings from afar.

“Vultures, ” tonus grunted with ragged breath. “They have something
dead amongst the rocks. ” He drew his sword and we went forward
cautiously.

We found the man first, and chased the vultures off him in a flurrying
storm of wings. I recognized him by the shock of blond hair as the
husband I had met on the road the previous day. There was nothing left
of his face, for he had lain upon his back and the birds had eaten the
flesh away to the bones of the skull. They had picked out his eyes,
and the empty sockets stared at the cloudless sky. His lips were gone
and he grinned with bloody teeth, as though at the futile joke of our
brief existence upon this earth. tonus rolled him on to his stomach,
and we saw at once the stab wounds in his back that had killed him.
There were a dozen of these thrust through his ribs.

“Whoever did this was making sure of the job, ” tonus remarked,
hardened to death as only a seasoned soldier can be.

I walked on into the rocks and a buzzing black cloud of flies rose from
the dead body of the wife. I have never understood where the flies
come from, how they materialize so swiftly out of the searing dry heat
of the desert. I guessed that the wife had aborted while they were
busy with her.

They must have left her alive after they had taken their pleasure with
her. With the last of her strength she had taken the infant
protectively in her arms. She had died like that, huddled against a
boulder, shielding her stillborn infant from the vultures.

I went on deeper into the broken ground, and once again the flies led
me to where the bandits had dragged the little girl. At least one of
them had summoned up the compassion to cut her throat after they had
finished with her, rather than let her bleed slowly to death.

One of the flies settled on my lips. I brushed it away and began to
weep. tonus found me still weeping “Did you know them?” he asked, and
I nodded and cleared MY throat to answer.

“I met them on the road yesterday. I tried to warn.. . ” I broke off,
for it was not easy to continue. I took a deep breath.

“They had a donkey. The Shrikes will have taken it. ” tonus nodded.

His expression was bleak as he turned and made a rapid cast amongst the
rocks.

“This way!” he called, and broke into a run, heading out into the
rocky desert. “tonus!” I yelled after him. “Kratas is waiting.. . ”
But he took not the least notice and I was left with no option but to
follow him. I caught up with him again when he lost the tracks of the
donkey on a bad piece of ground and was forced to cast ahead.

“I feel for that family even more than you do, ” I insisted.

“But this is folly. Kratas waits for us. We do not have time to
waste.. . ” He cut me off without even glancing in my direction, “How
old was that child? Not more . than nine years? I always have time
to see justice done. ” His face was cold and vengeful. It was clear
to see that he had recovered all his former mettle. I knew better than
to argue further.

The image of the little girl was still strong and clear in my mind. I
joined him and we picked up the trail again.

Now, with the two of us cooperating, we went forward even more swiftly.
tonus and I had tracked gazelle and oryx, and even lion, in this
fashion and we had both become adept at this esoteric” art. We worked
as a team, running on each side of the spurs that our quarry had left,
and signalling every twist or change in it to each other. Very soon
our quarry reached a rough track that led eastward from the river and
still deeper into the desert. They had joined it, and made our task of
catching up with them that. much simpler.

It was almost noon, and our water-bottles were empty when at last we
spotted them far ahead. There were five of them, and the donkey.

It was clear that they had not expected to be followed deep into the
desert which was their fastness, and they were moving carelessly. They
had not even taken the trouble to cover their back-trail. tonus pulled
me down behind the shelter of a rock while we caught our breath, and he
growled at me, “We’ll circle out ahead of them. I want to see their
faces. ” He jumped up and led me in a wide detour out to one side of
the track. We overtook the band of Shrikes, but well beyond their line
of sight. Then we cut in again to meet the track ahead of them. tonus
had a soldier’s eye for ground, and set up the ambush unerringly.

We heard them coming from afar, the clatter of the donkey’s hooves and
the sing-song of their voices. While we waited for them, I had the
first opportunity to contemplate the prudence of my decision to follow
along so unquestioningly. When the party of Shrikes at last came into
view I was convinced that I had been over-hasty. They were as
murderous-looking a bunch of ruffians as I had ever laid eyes upon, and
I was armed only with my little jewelled dagger.

Just short of where we lay, the tall, bearded Bedouin who was obviously
their leader stopped suddenly, and ordered one of the men who followed
him to unload the water-skin from the donkey. He drank first and then
passed it on to the others. My throat closed in sympathy as I watched
them swallow down the precious stuff.

“By Horus, look at the stains of the women’s blood on their robes.

I wish I had Lanata with me now, ” tonus whispered, as we crouched
amongst the rocks. “I could put an arrow through that one’s belly and
drain the water from him like beer from the vat. ” Then he laid a hand
on my arm.

“Don’t move until I do, ” do you hear me? I want no heroics from you
now, mind. ” I nodded vigorously, and felt not the slightest
inclination to protest against these very reasonable instructions.

The Shrikes came on again directly to where we waited.

They were all heavily armed. The Bedouin walked ahead.

His sword was strapped between his shoulder-blades, but with the handle
protruding up over his left shoulder, ready to hand. He had the cowl
of his woollen cloak drawn over his head to protect him from the fierce
sunlight. It impaired his side-vision and he did not notice us as he
passed close in front of us.

Two others followed him closely, one of them leading the donkey.

The last two sauntered along behind the animal, engrossed in a listless
squabble over a piece of gold jewellery that they had taken from the
murdered woman. All their weapons were sheathed, except the short,
ronzeheaded stabbing spears carried by the last pair. tonus let
them-all pass, and then he stood up quietly and moved in behind the
last two men in the column. He appeared to move casually, as the
leopard does, but it was in reality only a breath before he swung his
sword at the neck of the man on the right.

Although I had intended backing tonus up to the full, somehow my good
intentions had not been translated into action, and I still crouched
behind my comforting rock. I justified myself with the thought that I
would probably only have hindered him if I had followed him too
closely.

I had never watched tonus kill a man before. Although I knew that it
was his vocation and that he had, over the years, had every opportunity
to hone these gruesome skills, still I was astonished by his
virtuosity. As he struck, his victim’s head leapt from its shoulders
like a desert spring hare from its burrow, and the decapitated trunk
actually took another step before the legs buckled under it. As the
blow reached the limit of its arc, TaD us smoothly reversed the stroke.
With the same movement he struck back-handed at the next brigand. The
second neck severed just as cleanly.

The head toppled off and fell free, while the carcass slumped forward
with the blood fountaining high in the air.

The splash of blood and the weighty thump-thump of the two disembodied
heads striking the rocky earth alerted the other three Shrikes. They
spun about in alarm, and for a moment stared in bewildered disbelief at
the sudden carnage in their ranks. Then with a wild shout they drew
their swords and rushed at tonus in a body.

Rather than retreating before them, tonus charged them ferociously,
splitting them apart.

He swung to face the man he had isolated from his mates, and his thrust
ripped a bloody flesh-wound down the side of his chest. The man
squealed and reeled backwards. But before tonus was able to finish him
off, the other two fell upon him from behind. tonus was forced to spin
round to face them, and bronze clashed on bronze as he stopped their
charge. He held them off at sword’s-length, engaging first one and
then the other, until the lightly wounded man recovered and came at him
from his rear.

“Behind you!” I yelled at him, and he whipped round only just in time
to catch the thrust on his own blade. Instantly the other two were
upon him again, and he was forced to give ground in order to defend
himself from all sides. His swordsmanship was breathtaking to watch.
So swift was his blade that it seemed that he had erected a glittering
wall of bronze around himself against which the blows of his enemies
clattered ineffectually.

Then I realized that tonus was tiring. The sweat streamed from his
body in the heat, and his features were contorted with the effort.

The long weeks of wine and debauchery had taken their toll of what had
once been his limitless strength and stamina.

He fell back before the next rush with which the bearded Bedouin drove
at him, until he pressed his back to one of the boulders on the
opposite side of the track from where I still crouched helplessly.

With the rock to cover his back, all three of his attackers were forced
to come at him from the front. But this was no real respite.

Their attack was relentless. Led by the Bedouin, they howled like a
pack of wild dogs as they bayed him, and tonus” right arm tired and
moved slower.

The spear carried by the first man whom tonus had beheaded had fallen
in the middle of the track. I realized that I must do something
immediately if I were not to watch tonus hacked down before my eyes.

With a huge effort I gathered up my slippery courage, and crept from my
hiding place The Shrikes had forgotten all about me in their eagerness
for the kill. I reached the spot where the spear lay without any one
of them noticing me, and I snatched it up.

With the solid weight of the weapon in my hands, all my lost courage
came flooding back.

The Bedouin was the most dangerous of the three of tonus” adversaries,
and he was also the closest to me. His back was towards me, and his
whole attention was on unequal duel. I levelled the spear and rushed
at him.

The kidneys are the most vulnerable target in the human back.

With my knowledge of anatomy, I could aim my thrust exactly. The
spear-point went in a finger’s -width to one side of the spinal column,
all the way in. The broad spear-head opened a gaping wound, and
skewered his right kidney with a surgeon’s precision. The Bedouin
stiffened and froze like a temple statue, instantly paralysed by my
thrust. Then, as I viciously twisted the blade in his flesh the way
tonus had taught me, mincing his kidney to pulp, the sword fell from
his fist and he collapsed with such a dreadful cry that his comrades
were distracted enough to give tonus his chance. tonus” next thrust
took one of them in the centre of his chest, and despite his exhaustion
it still had sufficient power in it to fly cleanly through the man’s
torso and for the bloodened smeared point to protrude a hand-span from
between his shoulder-blades. Before tonus was able to clear his blade
from the clinging embrace of live flesh and to kill the last Shrike,
the survivor spun round and ran. tonus took a few paces after him,
then gasped, “I’m all done in.

After him, Taita, don’t let that murderous jackal get away. ” There
are very few men that can outrun me. tonus is the only one I know of,
but he has to be on top form to do it.

I put my foot in the centre of the Bedouin’s back and held him down as
I jerked the spearhead out of his flesh, and then I went after the last
Shrike.

I caught him before he had gone two hundred paces, and I was running so
lightly that he did not hear me coming up behind him. With the edge of
the spear-head I slashed the tendon in the back of his heel, and he
went down sprawling.

The sword-flew out of his hand. As he lay on his back kicking and
screaming at me, I danced around him, pricking him with the point of
the spear, goading him into position for a good clean killing thrust.

“Which of the women did you enjoy the best?” I asked him, as I stabbed
him in the thigh. “Was it the mother, with her big belly, or was it
the little girl? Was she tight enough for you?” “Please spare me!” he
screamed. “I did nothing. It was the others. Don’t kill me!”

“There is dried blood on the front of your kilt, ” I said, and I
stabbed him in the stomach, but not too deeply. “Did the child scream
as loudly as you do now?” I asked.

As he rolled over into a ball to protect his stomach, I stabbed him in
the spine, by a lucky chance finding the gap between the vertebrae.
Instantly he was paralysed from the waist down, and I stepped back from
him.

“Very well, ” I said. “You ask me not to kill you, and I won’t.

It would be too good for you. ” I turned away and walked back to join
tonus. The maimed Shrike dragged himself a little way after me, his
paralysed legs slithering after him like a fisherman dragging a pair of
dead carp. Then the effort was too much and he collapsed in a
whimpering heap. Although it was past noon, the sun still had enough
heat in it to kill him before it set. tonus looked at me curiously as
I came back to join him.

“There is a savage streak in you that I never suspected be-. fore. ”
He shook his head in wonder. “You never fail to amaze me. ” He pulled
the water-skin from the back of the donkey and offered it to me, but I
shook my head. “You first. You need it more than I do. ” He drank,
his eyes tightly closed with the pleasure of it, and then gasped, “By
the sweet breath of Isis, you are right.

I am soft as an old woman. Even that little piece of swordplay nearly
finished me. ” Then he looked around at the scattered corpses, and
grinned with satisfaction. “But all in all, not a bad start on
Pharaoh’s business. ” “It was the poorest of beginnings, ” I
contradicted him, and when he crooked an eyebrow at me I went on, “We
should have kept at least one of them alive to lead us to the Shrikes”
nest. Even that one. ” I gestured towards the dying man lying out
there amongst the rocks, “is too far-gone to be of any use to us. It
was my fault. I allowed my anger to get the better of me. We won’t
make the same mistake again. ” We were halfway back to where we had
left the bodies of the murdered family before my true nature reasserted
itself, and I began bitterly to regret my callous and brutal treatment
of the maimed brigand.

“After all, he was a human being, as we are, ” I told tonus, and he
snorted.

“He was an animal, a rabid jackal, and you did a fine job.

Tell me, instead, why we must make this detour back to look at dead
men, instead of heading straight for Kratas” camp. ” “I need the
husband’s body. ” I would say no more until we stood over the
mutilated corpse.

The pathetic relic was already stinking in the heat. The vultures had
left very little flesh on the bones.

“Look at that hair, ” I told tonus. “Who else do you know with a bush
like that?” For a moment he looked puzzled and then he grinned and ran
his fingers through his own dense ringlets.

“Help me load him on the donkey, ” I ordered. “Kratas can take him
into Karnak to the morticians for embalming. We’ll buy him a good
funeral and a fine tomb with your name on the walls. Then, by sunset
tomorrow, all of Thebes will know that tonus, Lord Harrab perished in
the desert, and was half-eaten by the birds. ” “If Lostris hears of
it. ” tonus looked worried.

“I’ll send a warning letter to her. The advantage we will win by
letting the world believe you dead will far outweigh any risk of
alarming my mistress. ”

KRATAS WAS CAMPED At THE FIRST

jet oasis on the caravan road to the Red Sea, less than a a day’s march
from Karnak. He had with him a hundred men of the Blue Crocodile
Guards, all of them carefully selected, as I had commanded. tonus and
I reached the encampment in the middle of the night.

We had travelled hard and were close to exhaustion .. We fell on our
sleeping-mats beside the camp-fire and slept until dawn.

At first light, tonus was up and mingling with his men.

Their delight at having him back was transparent. The officers
embraced him and the men cheered him, and grinned with pride as he
greeted each of them by name.

At breakfast tonus gave Kratas instructions to take the putrefying
corpse back to Karnak for burial and to make certain that the news of
his death was the gossip of all Thebes. I gave Kratas a letter for my
Lady Lostris. He would find a trustworthy messenger to carry it
up-river to Elephantine.

Kratas selected an escort of ten men, and they prepared to set off with
the donkey and its odorous burden, back towards the Nile and Thebes.

Try to catch up with us on the road to the sea. If you cannot, then
you’ll find us camped at the oasis of Gebel Nagara. We will wait for
you there, ” tonus shouted after him, as the detachment trotted out of
the encampment. “And remember to bring Lanata my bow, when you
return!” NO SOONER WAS KRATAS OUt OF SIght beyond the first rise on
the westerly road than tonus formed up the rest of the regiment and led
us away in the opposite direction along the caravan road towards the
sea.

The caravan road from the banks of the river Nile to the shores of the
Red Sea was long and hard. A large, unwieldy caravan usually took
twenty days to make the journey. We covered the distance in four days
for tonus pushed us in a series of forced marches. tonus and I were
probably the only ones of all the company who were not in superb
physical condition. However, by the time we reached Gebel Nagara,
tonus had burned the excess fat off his frame and sweated out the last
poisons from the wine jar. He was once again lean and hard.

As for myself, it was the first time that I had ever made a forced
march with a company of the guards. For the first few days I suffered
all the torments of thirst and aching muscles, of blistered feet and
exhaustion that the Korpse of a dead man must be forced to endure on
the road to the underworld. However, my pride would not allow me to
fall behind, apart from the fact that to do so in this wild and savage
landscape would have meant certain death. To my so surprise and
pleasure, I found that after the first few days, it became easier and
easier to keep my place in the ranks of trotting warriors.

Along the way, we passed two large caravans moving towards the Nile,
with the donkeys bow-legged under their descorts of heavily heavy loads
of trade goods, an armed men far surpassing in number the merchants and
their retainers who made up the rest of the company. unless it was
safe from the Shrikes No caravan was protected by a force of
mercenaries such as these, or unless the merchants were prepared to pay
the crippling toll money that the Shrikes demanded to allow them free
passage.

When we met these strangers, tonus pulled his shawl over his head to
mask his face and hide that golden bush. too distinctive a figure to
risk being recognised and his continued existence being reported in
Karnak. We did not respond to the greetings and questions that we were
flung at us by these other travellers, but ran past them in aloof
silence without even glancing in their direction.

When we were still a day’s march from the coast, we left the main
caravan route and swung away southwards, following an ancient disused
track that had been shown to me some years previously by one of the
wild Bedouin whom I had befriended. The wells at Gebel Nagara lay on
this old route to the sea, and were seldom visited by humans these
days, only by the Bedouin and the desert bandits, if you can call these
human.

By the time we reached the wells, I was as slim and physically fit as I
had ever been in my life, but I lamented the lack of a mirror, for I
was convinced that this new energy and force that I felt within myself
must be reflected in my features, and that my beauty must be enhanced
by it. I would have welcomed the opportunity to admire it myself.
However, there seemed to be no dearth of others to admire it in my
place. At the camp-fire’in the evenings, many a prurient glance was
flashed in my direction, and I received more than a few sly offers from
my companions, for even such an elite fighting corps as the guards was
contaminated by the new sexual licence that permeated our society.

I kept my dagger beside me in the night and when I pricked the first
uninvited visitor to my sleeping-mat with the needle-point, his yells
caused much hilarity amongst the others. After that, I was spared any
further unwelcome attentions.

Even once we had reached the wells, tonus would allow us little rest.
While we waited for Kratas to catch up, he kept his men exercising at
arms, and at competitions of archery and wrestling and running. I was
pleased to see that Kratas had chosen these men strictly in accordance
with my instructions to him. There was not a single hulking brute
amongst them. Apart from tonus himself, they were all small, agile men
aptly suited to the role that I planned for them.

Kratas arrived only two days behind us. Taking into account his return
to Karnak and the time taken up by the tasks that tonus had set for him
there, this meant that he must have travelled even more swiftly than we
had done.

“What held you up?” tonus greeted him. “Did you find a willing maid
on the way?” “I had two heavy burdens to carry, ” Kratas replied, as
they embraced. “Your bow, and the hawk seal. I am glad to be rid of
both of them. ” He handed over both the weapon and the statuette with
a grin, delighted as ever to be back with tonus. tonus immediately
took Lanata out into the desert. I went with him and helped him stalk
close to a herd of gazelle.

With these fleet little creatures racing and leaping across the plain,
it was an extraordinary sight to watch tonus bowl over a dozen of them
at full run with as many arrows. That night, as we feasted on grilled
livers and fillets of gazelle, we discussed the next stage of my
plan.

In the morning we left Kratas in command of the guards, and tonus and I
set out alone for the coast. It was only half a day’s travel to the
small fishing village which was our goal, and at noon we topped the
last rise and looked down from the hills on to the glittering expanse
of the sea spread below us. From this height we could see clearly the
dark outline of the coral reefs beneath the turquoise waters.

As soon as we entered the village, tonus called for the headman, and so
apparent from his bearing was tonus” importance and authority, that the
old man came at a run.

When tonus showed him the hawk seal, he fell to the earth in obeisance,
as though it were Pharaoh himself who stood before him, and beat his
head upon the ground with such force that I feared he might do himself
serious injury. When I lifted him to his feet once more, he led us to
the finest lodgings in the village, his own, filthy hovel, and turned
his numerous family out to make room for us.

Once we had eaten a bowl of the fish stew that our host provided and
drunk a cup of the delicious palm wine, tonus and I went down to the
beach of dazzling white sand and bathed away the sweat and the dust of
the desert in the warm waters of the lagoon that was enclosed by the
jagged barricade of coral that lay parallel to the shore. Behind us
the harsh mountains, devoid of the faintest green tinge of growing
things, thrust up into the aching blue desert sky.

Sea, mountains and sky combined in a symphony of grandeur that stunned
the senses. However, I had little time to appreciate it all, for the
fishing fleet was returning. Five small dilapidated vessels with sails
of woven palm-fronds were coming in through the pass in the reef. So
great was the load of fish that each of them carried, that they seemed
in danger of foundering before they could reach the beach.

I am fascinated by all the natural bounty that the” gods provide for
us, and I examined the catch avidly as it was thrown out upon the
beach, and questioned the fishermen as to each of the hundred different
species. The pile of fish formed a glittering treasure of rainbow
colours, and I wished that I had my scrolls and paint-pots to record it
all.

This interlude was too brief. As soon as the catch was unloaded, I
embarked on one of the tiny vessels that stank so abundantly of its
vocation, and waved back at tonus on the beach as we put out through
the pass in the reef. He was to remain here until I returned with the
equipment that we needed for the next part of my plan. Once again, I
did not Want him to be recognized where I was going. His job now was
to prevent any of the fishermen or their families from sneaking away
into the desert to a secret meeting with the Shrikes, to report the
presence in their village of a golden headed lord who bore the hawk
seal.

The tiny vessel threw up her bows at the first strong scent of the sea,
and the helmsman tacked across the wind and headed her up into the
north, running parallel to that dun and awful coast. We had but a
short way to go, and before nightfall the helmsman pointed over the
bows at the clustered stone buildings of the port of Safaga on the
distant shore-line.

FOR A THOUSAND YEARS SAFAGA HAD been the entrept for all trade coming
into the Upper Kingdom from the East. Even as I stood in the bows of
our tiny craft, I could make out the shapes of other much larger
vessels on the northern horizon as they came and went between Safaga
and the Arabian ports on the eastern shore of the narrow sea.

It was dark by the time that I stepped ashore on the beach at Safaga,
and nobody seemed to remark my arrival. I knew exactly where I was
going, for I had visited the port regularly on Lord Inter’s nefarious
business. At this hour the streets were almost deserted, but the
taverns were packed. I made my way swiftly to the home of Tiamat the
merchant.

Tiamat was a rich man and his home the largest in the old town.

An armed slave barred the door to me.

“Tell your master that the surgeon from Karnak who saved his leg for
him is here, ” I ordered, and Tiamat himself limped out to greet me.

He was taken aback when he saw my clerical disguise, but had the good
sense not to remark on it, nor to mention my name in front of the
slave. He drew me into his walled garden, and as soon as we were alone
he exclaimed, “Is it really you, Taita? I heard that you had been
murdered by the Shrikes at Elephantine. ” He was a portly, middle-aged
man, with an open, intelligent face and a shrewd mind.

Some years previously he had been carried in to me on a litter. A
party of travellers had found him beside the road, where he had been
left for dead after his caravan had been pillaged by the Shrikes. I
had stitched him together, and even managed to save the leg that had
already mortified by the time I first saw it.

However, he would always walk with a limp.

“I am delighted to see that the reports of your death are premature, ”
he chuckled, and clapped his hands to have his slaves bring me a cup of
cool sherbet and a plate of figs and honeyed dates.

After a decent interval of polite conversation, he asked quietly, “Is
there anything I can do for you? I owe you my life. You have only to
ask. My home is your home. All I have is yours. ” “I am on the
king’s business, ” I told him, and drew out the hawk seal from under my
tunic.

His expression became grave. “I acknowledge the seal of Pharaoh.

But it was not necessary to show it to me. Ask what you will of me. I
cannot refuse you. ” He listened to all I had to say without another
word, and when I had finished, he sent for his bailiff and gave him his
orders in front of me. Before he sent the man away, he turned to me
and said, “Is there anything that I have forgotten?

Anything. else you need at all?” “Your ge I nerosity is without
limits, ” I told him.

“However, there is one other thing. I long for my writing materials. ”
He turned back to the bailiff. “See to it that there are scrolls and
brushes and ink-pot in one of the packs. ” After the bailiff had left,
we sat on talking for half the night. Tiamat stood at the centre of
the busiest trading route in he Upper Kingdom and heard every rumour
and whisper from the farthest reaches of the empire, and from beyond
the sea. I learned as much in those few hours in his garden as I would
in a month in the palace at Elephantine.

“Do you still pay your ransom to the Shrikes to allow your caravans
through?” I asked, and he shrugged with resignation.

“After what’ they did to my leg, what option do I have) Each season
their demands become more exorbitant. I must pay over one-quarter of
the value of my goods to them as soon as the caravan leaves Safaga, and
half my profits once the goods are sold in Thebes. Soon they will
beggar us all, and grass will grow on the caravan roads, and the trade
of the kingdom will wither and die. ” “How do you make these
payments?”

I asked. “Who determines the amount, and who collects them?”

“They have their spies here in the port. They watch every cargo that
is unloaded, and they know what each caravan carries when it. leaves
Safaga.

Before it even reaches the mountain pass, it will be met by one of the
robber chieftains who will demand the ransom they have set. ” It was
long past midnight before Tiamat called a slave to light me to the
chamber he had set aside for me.

“You will be gone before I rise tomorrow . Tiamat em, braced me.
“Farewell, my good friend. My debt to you is not yet payed in full.

Call upon me again, whenever you have need. ” The same slave woke me
before dawn, and led me down to the se afront in the darkness. A fine
trading vessel of Tiamat’s fleet was moored “inside the reef The
captain weighed anchor as soon as I came aboard.

In the middle of the morning we crept in through the pass in the coral
and dropped anchor in front of the little fishing village where tonus
stood on the beach to welcome me.

DURING MY ABSENCE TAN US HAD MANaged to gather together six decrepit
donkeys, and so the sailors from Tiamat’s ship waded ashore carrying
the bales that we had brought with us from Safaga, and loaded them on
to these miserable creatures. tonus and I left the captain of the
trading vessel with strict orders to await our return, then, leading
the string of donkeys, we headed back inland towards the wells at Gebel
Nagara.

Kratias” men had obviously suffered the heat and the d-flies and the
boredom with poor grace, for they acsancorded us a welcome that was out
of keeping with the period that we had been absent. tonus ordered
Kratas to parade them. The ranks of warriors watched as I unpacked the
first bale that we had brought in on the donkeys.

Almost immediately their interest gave way to mild amusement as I laid
out the costume of a slave girl. In its turn, this was replaced by a
buzz of speculation and argument as the bales yielded up a further
seventy-nine complete female costumes.

Kratas and two of his officers helped me place one of these on the sand
in front of each guardsman, and then tonus gave the order: “Disrobe!
Put on the dress in front of you!” There was a roar of protest and
incredulous hilarity, and it was only when Kratas and his officers
passed down the ranks with assumed expressions of sternness to
reinforce the order, that they began to obey it.

Unlike our women who dress but lightly and often leave their bosom
bared and their legs free and naked, the women of Assyria wear skirts
that sweep the ground and sleeves that cover their arms to the wrist.

For reasons of misplaced modesty they even veil their faces when they
walk abroad, although perhaps these restrictions are placed upon them”
by the possessive jealousy of their menfolk.

Then again there is a wide difference between the sunny land of Egypt
and those more sombre climes where water falls from the sky and turns
solid white upon the mountaintops, and the winds chill the flesh and
the bones of men like death.

Once they had weathered the first shock of seeing each other in this
outlandish apparel, the men entered into the spirit of the moment.

Soon there were eighty veiled slave girls prancing and mincing about in
the long skirts that reached to their ankles, tweaking each other’s
buttocks and casting exaggerated sheep’s eyes at tonus and his
officers.

The officers could no longer maintain their gravity. Perhaps it is
because of my peculiar circumstances that I have always found the
spectacle of men dressed as women to be vaguely repulsive, but it is
strange how few other men share my feelings of distaste, and it needs
only some hairy ruffian to don a skirt to reduce his audience to a
state of inca ntinence.

In the midst of this uproar, I congratulated myself that I had insisted
that Kratas choose only the smallest and slimmest men from the
squadron. Looking them over now, I was certain that they would be able
to carry through the deception. They would need only a little
schooling in feminine deportment.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING OUR STRANGE Jal caravan passed through the little
fishing village and wound its way down on to the beach, where the
trading vessel waited. Kratas and eight of his officers made up the
escort. Complete lack of any armed escort for such a valuable
consignment would surely have aroused suspicion. Nine armed men
dressed in the motley garb of mercenaries would be sufficient to allay
this, but would not deter a large raiding party of Shrikes.

At the head of the caravan marched tonus, dressed in the rich robes and
beaded head-dress of a wealthy merchant from beyond the Euphrates
river. His beard had grown out densely, and I had curled it for him
into those tight ringlets that the Assyrians favoured. Many of these
Asians, particularly those from the high mountainous regions further
north, have the same complexion and skin coloration as tonus, so he
looked the part I had chosen for him.

I followed close behind him. I had overcome my aversion to Wearing
female garb, and donned the long skirts and veil, together with the
gaudy jewellery of an Assyrian wife. I was determined not to be
recognized when I returned to Safaga.

The voyage was enlivened by the sea-sickness of most of the slave girls
and not a few of the officers, for they were accustomed to sail on the
placid waters of the great river.

At one stage so many of them were lining the rail to make their
offerings to the gods of the sea, that the ship took on a distinct
list.

We were all relieved to step on to the beach at Safaga, where we caused
much excitement. The Assyrian girls were famous for their skills on
the love couch. It was said that some of them were capable of tricks
that could bring a thousand-year-old mummy back to life. It was
obvious to those who watched us. come ashore that behind the veils our
slave girls must be images of feminine loveliness. A shrewd Asian
merchant would not transport his wares so far and at such expense,
unless he was certain of a good price in the slave markets on the
Nile.

One of the Safaga merchants approached tonus immediately and offered to
buy the entire bevy of girls on the spot, and spare him the onerous
journey across the desert with them. tonus waved him away with a
scornful chuckle.

“Have you been warned of the perils of the journey that you intend
making?” the merchant insisted. “Before you reach the Nile, you will
be forced to pay a ransom for your safe passage that will eat up most
of your profits. ” “Who will force me to pay?” tonus demanded. “I
pay only what I owe. ” “There are those who guard the road, ” the
merchant warned him. “And even though you pay what they demand, there
is no certainty that they will let you pass unharmed, especially with
such tempting goods as you have with you.

The vultures on the road to the Nile are so fat from feeding on the
carcasses of stubborn merchants that they can hardly fly. Sell to me
now at a- good profit.. . ” “I have armed guards’, tonus indicated
Kratas and his small squad, “who will be a match for any robbers we may
meet. ” And the onlookers who had listened to the exchange tittered
and nudged each other at the boast.

The merchant shrugged. “Very well, my brave friend. On, my next
journey through the desert, I will look for your skeleton beside the
road. I will recognize you by that blustering red beard of yours. ”
As he had promised me he would, Tiarnat had forty donkeys waiting for
us.

Twenty of them were laden with filled water-skins, and the remainder
with pack-saddles to carry the bales and bundles that we brought ashore
from the trading ship.

I was anxious that we should spend as little time as possible in the
port, under all those prying eyes. It would take only a single lapse
by one of the slave girls to reveal his true gender, and we would be
undone. Kratas and his escort hurried them through the narrow streets,
keeping the bystanders at a distance, and making certain that the slave
girls kept their veils in place and their eyes downcast, and that none
of them responded in gruff masculine tones to the ribald comment that
followed us, until we were out into the open country beyond the town.

We camped that first night still within sight of Safaga.

Although I did not anticipate an attack until we were beyond the first
mountain pass, I was certain that we were already being watched by the
spies of the Shrikes.

While it was still light, I made sure that our slave girls conducted
themselves as women, that they kept their faces and bodies covered, and
that when they went into the nearby wadi to attend to nature’s demands,
they squatted in decorous fashion and did not uncouthly spray their
water while standing.

It was only after darkness fell that tonus ordered the bundles carried
by the donkeys to be opened and the weapons they contained to be issued
to the slave girls. Each of them slept with his bow and his sword
concealed under his sleeping-mat. tonus posted double sentries around
the camp. After we had inspected them and made sure that they were all
well placed and fully alert, tonus and I slipped away, and in the
darkness returned to the port of Safaga. I led him through the dark
streets to the house of Tiamat. The merchant was expecting our
arrival, and had a meal laid ready to welcome us. I could see that he
was excited to meet tonus.

“Your fame proceeds you, Lord Harrab. I knew your father. He was a
man indeed, ” he greeted tonus. “Although I

have heard persistent rumours that you died in the desert not a week
since, and that even at this moment your body lies with the morticians
on the west bank of the Nile, undergoing the ritual forty days of the
embalming process, you are welcome in my humble house. ” While we
enjoyed the feast he provided, tonus questioned him at length on all he
knew of the Shrikes, and Tiamat answered him freely and openly.

At last tonus glanced at me and I nodded. tonus turned back to Tiamat
and said, “You have been a generous friend to us, and yet we have been
less than honest with you. This was from necessity, for it was of
vital importance that no one should guess at our real purpose in this
endeavour. Now I will tell you that it is my purpose to smash the
Shrikes and deliver their leaders up to Pharaoh’s justice and wrath. ”
Tiamat smiled and stroked his beard. “This comes as no great surprise
to me, ” he said, “I have heard of the charge that Pharaoh placed upon
you at the festival of Osiris. That and your patent interest in those
murderous bandits left little doubt in my mind. I can say only that I
will sacrifice to the gods for your success. ” “To succeed, I will
need your help again, ” tonus told him.

“You have only to ask. ” “Do you think that the Shrikes are as yet
aware of our caravan?” “All of Safaga is talking about you, ” Tiamat
replied.

“Yours is the richest cargo that has arrived this season.

Eighty beautiful slave girls will be worth at least a thousand gold
rings each in Karnak. ” He chuckled and shook his head at the joke.

“You can be certain that the Shrikes already know all about you.

I saw at least three of their spies in the crowd at the waterfront
watching you. You can expect them to meet you and make their demands
even before you reach the first pass. ” When we rose to take our
leave, he walked with us as far as his own door. “May all the gods
attend your endavours.

Not only Pharaoh, but every living soul in the entire kingdom will be
in your debt if you can stamp out this terrible scourge that threatens
to destroy our very civilization, and drive us all back into the age of
barbarism. ” It WAS STILL COOL AND DARK THE following morning when the
column started out. tonus, with Lanata slung over his shoulder, was at
the head of the caravan, with myself, in all my womanly grace and
beauty, following him closely.

Behind us the donkeys were harnessed in single file, moving nose to
tail down the middle of the well-beaten track. The slave girls were in
double columns on the outer flanks of the file of donkeys. Their
weapons were concealed in the packs upon the, backs of the animals.
Any of the men needed only to reach out to lay a hand upon the hilt of
his sword.

Kratas had split his escort into three, squads of six men each,
commanded by Astes, Rentrem and himself. Astes and Renirem were
warriors of renown and more than deserving of their own commands.

However, both of them had, on numerous occasions, refused promotion in
order to remain with tonus. That was the quality of loyalty that tonus
inspired in all who served under him. I could not help thinking yet
again what a pharaoh he would have made.

The escorts now slouched along beside the column, making every attempt
to forsake their military bearing. It would seem to the spies who were
certainly watching us from the hills that they were there solely to
prevent any of the slaves from escaping. In truth they were fully
occupied with preventing their charges from breaking into marching step
and sounding off a chorus of one of the rowdy regimental songs.

“You there, Kernit!” I heard Remrem challenge one of them.

“Don’t take such long steps, man, and swing that fat arse of yours a
little!

Try to make yourself alluring. ” “Give me a kiss, captain, ” Kernit
called back, “and I’ll do anything you say. ” The heat was rising, and
the mirage was beginning to make the rocks dance. tonus turned back to
me. “Soon I will call our first rest-stop. One cup of water” for
each.. . ” “Good husband, ” I interrupted him, “your friends have
arrive Look ahead!” tonus turned back-and instinctively gripped the
stock of the great bow that hung at his side. “And what fine fellows
they are, too!” At that moment our column was winding through the
first foothills below the desert plateau, On either hand we were walled
in by the steep sides of the rocky hills. Now three men stood in the
track ahead of us. The one who led them was a tall, menacing figure
swathed in the woollen robe of the desert traveller, but his head was
bared. His skin was very dark, and deeply pitted with the scars of the
smallpox. He had a nose that was hooked like the beak of a vulture,
and his right eye was an opaque jelly from the. blind-worm that
burrows deep into the eyeball of its victims.

“I know the one-eyed villain, ” I said softly, so that tonus alone
could hear. “His name is Shufti. He is the most notorious of the
barons of the Shrikes. Be wary of him. The lion is a gentle beast
compared to this one. ” tonus gave no sign of having heard me, but
lifted his right hand to show that it held no weapon, and called out
cheerfully, “May all your days be scented with jasmine, gentle
traveller, and may a loving wife welcome you at your own front door
when at last your journey is done. ” “May your water-skins stay filled
and cool breezes fan your brow when you cross the Thirsty Sands, ”
Shufti called back, and he smiled. That smile was fiercer than a
leopard’s snarl, and his single eye glared horribly.

“You are kind, my noble lord, ” tonus thanked him. “I would like to
offer you a meal and the hospitality of my camp, but I pray your
indulgence. We have a long road before us, and we must pass on. ”
“Just a little more of your time, my fine Assyrian. ” Shufti moved
forward to block the path. “I have something which you need, if you
and your caravan are ever to reach the Nile in safety. ” He held up a
small object.

“AH! a charm!” tonus exclaimed. “You are a magician, perhaps?”

What manner of charm is this you are offering me?” “A feather. ”
Shufti was still smiling. “The feather of a shrike. ” tonus smiled,
as though to humour a child. “Very well then, give me this feather and
I’ll delay you no longer. ” “A gift for a gift. You must give me
something in return, ” Shufti told him. “Give “me twenty of your
slaves. Then, when you return from Egypt, I will meet you on the road
again and you will give me half the profits from the sale of the other
sixty. ” “For a single feather?” tonus scoffed. “That sounds like a
sorry bargain to me. ” “This is no ordinary feather. It is a shrike’s
feather, ” Shufti pointed out. “Are you so ill-informed that you have
never heard of that bird?” “Let me see this-magical feather. ” tonus
walked towards him with his right hand outstretched, and Shufti came
forward to meet him.

At the same time Kratas, Remrern and Astes wandered up inquisitively,
as though to examine the feather.

Instead of taking the gift from his hand, suddenly tonus seized
Shufti’s wrist and twisted it up between his shoulder-blades.

With a startled cry, Shufti fell to his knees and tonus held him
easily. At the same time Kratas and his men darted forward, taking the
other two bandits by as much surprise as their chief. They knocked the
weapons out of their hands, and dragged them to where tonus stood.

“So, you little birds think to frighten Kaarik, the Assyrian, with your
threats, do you? Yes, my fine vendor of feathers, I have heard of the
Shrikes. I have heard that they are a flock of chattering, cowardly
little fledglings, that make more noise than a flock of sparrows. ” He
twisted Shufti’s arm more viciously, until the bandit yelled with pain
and fell flat on his face. “Yes, I have heard of the Shrikes, but have
you heard of Kaarik, the terrible?” He nodded at Kratas, and quickly
and efficiently they stripped the three Shrikes stark naked and pinned
them spreadeagled upon the rocky earth.

“I want you to remember my name, and fly away like a good little shrike
when next you hear it, ” tonus told him, and nodded to Kratas again.
Kratas flexed the lash of his slave-whip between his fingers.

It was of the same type as Rasfer’s famous tool, whittled from the
cured hide of a bull hippopotamus. tonus held out his hand for it, and
reluctantly Kratas handed it over to him.

“Don’t look so sad, slave-master, ” tonus told him. “I’ll let you have
your turn later. But Kaarik, the Assyrian, always takes the first
spoonful from the pot. ” tonus slashed the whip back and forth through
the air, and it whistled like the wing of a goose in flight. Shufti
_”squirmed where he lay, and twisted his head around to look at tonus,
“You are mad, you Assyrian ox! Do you not realize that I am a baron of
the Shrike clan? You dare not do this to me.. . ” His naked back and
buttocks were stippled with pox scars. tonus, lifted the whip on high,
and then brought it down in a full-armed stroke with all his weight
behind it. He laid a purple welt as fat as my forefinger across
Shufti’s back.

So intense was the pain of it that the bandit’s entire body convulsed
and the air hissed out of his lungs, so that he could not scream. tonus
lifted the lash and then meticulously laid another ridged welt exactly
parallel to the first, almost, but not quite, touching it. This time
Shufti filled his lungs and let out a hoarse bellow, like a buffalo
bull caught in a pitfall. tonus ignored his struggles and his outraged
roars, and worked on assiduously, laying on the strokes as though he
were weaving a carpet.

When at last he was done, his victim’s legs, buttocks and back were
latticed with the fiery weals. Not one of the blows had overlaid
another. The skin was intact and not a drop of blood had spilled out,
but Shufti was no longer wriggling or screaming. He lay with his face
in the dirt, his breath snoring in his throat, so that each exhalation
raised a puff of dust. When Remrem and Kratas released him, he made no
effort to sit up. He did not even stir. tonus tossed the whip to
Kratas. “The next one is yours, slave-master. Let us see what a
pretty pattern you can tattoo on his back. ” Kratas” strokes hummed
with power, but lacked the finesse that tonus had demonstrated. Soon
the bandit’s back was leaking like a flawed jar of red wine. The
droplets of blood fell into the dust and rolled into tiny balls of
mud.

Sweating lightly, Kratas was satisfied at last, and he passed the whip
to Astes as he indicated the last victim.

“Give that one something to remind him of his manners, as well. ”
Astes had an even more rustic touch than Kratas. By the time he had
finished, the last bandit’s back looked like a side of fresh beef that
had been cut up by a demented butcher. tonus signalled the caravan to
move forward, towards the pass through the red rock mountains. We
lingered a while beside the three naked men.

At last Shufti stirred and lifted his head, and tonus addressed him
civilly. “And so, my friend, I beg leave of you; Remember my face, and
step warily when you see it again. tonus picked up the fallen shrike’s
feather and tucked it into his headband. “I thank you for your gift.
May all your nights be cradled in the arms of lovely ladies. ” He
touched his heart and lips in the Assyrian gesture of farewell.

I looked back before we dropped over the next ” hill, The three Shrikes
were on their feet, supporting each other to remain upright. Even at
this distance I could make out the expression on Shufti’s face.

It was hatred distilled to its essence.

“Well, you have made certain that we will have every Shrike this side
of the Nile upon us, the moment we take our first step beyond the pass,
” I told Kratas and his ruffians, and I could not have pleased them
more, had I promised them a shipload of beer and pretty girls.

FROM THE CRESt. OF THE PASS WE

a looked back at the cool blue of the sea for the last time and then
dropped down into that sweltering wilderness of rock and sand that
stood between us and the Nile.

As we moved forward, the heat came at us like a mortal enemy. It
seemed to enter through our mouths and nostrils as we gasped for
breath. It sucked the moisture from our bodies like a thief. It dried
out our skin and cracked it until our lips burst open like over-ripe
figs. The rocks beneath our feet were hot, as though fresh from the
pot maker kiln, and they scalded and blistered our feet, even through
the leather soles of our sandals. It was impossible to continue the
march during the hottest hours of the day.

We lay in the flimsy shade of the linen tents that , Tiamat had
provided, and panted like hunting dogs after the chase.

When the sun sank towards the jagged rock horizon, we went on.

The desert around us was charged with such a brooding nameless menace
that even the high spirits of the Blue Crocodile Guards were subdued.

The long slow column wound like a maimed adder through the black rock
outcrops and tawny lion-coloured dunes, following the ancient road
along which countless other travellers had passed before us.

When night fell at last, the sky came alive with such a dazzle of stars
and the desert was lit so brightly that, from my place at the head of
the caravan, I could recognize the shape of Kratas at the tail,
although two hundred paces separated us. We marched on for half the
night before tonus gave the order to fall out. Then he had us up
before dawn and we marched on until the heat-mirage dissolved the rocky
outcrops around us and made the horizon swim so that it seemed to be
moulded from melting pitch.

We saw no other sign of life, except that once a troop of dog-headed
baboons barked at us from the cliffs of a stark rock tableland as we
passed below them, and the vultures soared so high in the hot blue sky
that they appeared to be but dust motes swirling in slow and deliberate
circles high above us.

When we rested in the middle of the day the whirlwinds pirouetted and
swayed with the peculiar grace of dancing hour is across the plains,
and the cupful of water that was our ration seemed to turn to steam in
my mouth.

“Where are they?” Kratas growled angrily. “By Seth’s sweaty scrotum,
I hope these little birds will soon puff up their courage and come. in
to roost. ” Although they were all tough veterans and inured to
hardship and discomfort, nerves and tempers were wearing thin.

Good comrades and old friends began to snarl at each other for no
reason, and bicker over the water ration.

“Shufti is a cunning old dog, ” I told tonus. “He will gather his
forces and wait for us to come to him, rather than hurry to meet us.

He will let us tire ourselves with the journey, and grow careless with
our fatigue, before he strikes. ” On the fifth day I knew that we were
approaching the oasis of Gallala when I saw that the dark cliffs ahead
of us were riddled with the caves of ancient tombs. Centuries ago, the
oasis had supported a thriving city, but then an earthquake had shaken
the hills and damaged the wells. The water had dwindled to a few
seeping drops. Even though the wells had been dug deeper to reach the
receding water, and the earthen steps reached down to where the surface
of the water was always in shade, the city had died. The roofless
walls stood forlorn in the silence, and lizards sunned themselves in
the courtyards where rich merchants had once dallied with their
harems.

Our very first concern was to refill the water-skins. The voices of
the men drawing water at the bottom of the well were distorted by the
echoes in the deep shaft. While they were busy, tonus and I made a
swift tour of the ruined city.

It was a lonely and melancholy place. In its centre was the
dilapidated temple to the patron god of Gallala. The roof had fallen
in and the walls were collapsing in places. It had but a single
entrance through the crumbling gateway at the western end.

“This will do admirably, ” tonus muttered as he strode across it,
measuring it with his soldier’s eye for fortification and ambuscade.

When I questioned him on his intentions, he “smiled and shook his
head.

“Leave that part of it to me, old friend. The fighting is my business.
” As we stood at the centre of the temple I noticed the tracks of a
troop of baboons in the dust at our feet, and I pointed them out to
tonus. “They must come to drink at the wells, ” I told him.

That evening when we sat around the small, smoky fires of dried donkey
dung in the ancient temple, we heard the baboons again, the old bull
apes barking a challenge in the hills that surrounded the ruined city.
Their voices boomed back and forth along the cliffs, and I nodded at
tonus across the fire. “Your friend, Shufti, has arrived at last. His
scouts are in the hills up there watching us now. It is they who have
alarmed the baboons. ” “I hope you are right. My blackguards are
close to mutiny.

They know this is all your idea, and if you are wrong, I might have to
give them your head or your backside to appease them, ” tonus growled,
and went to speak to Astes at the neighbouring cooking-fire.

Swiftly a new mood infected the camp as they realized that the enemy
was near. The scowls evaporated and the men grinned at each other in
the firelight, as they surreptitiously tested the edges of the swords
concealed beneath the sleeping-mats on which they sat. However, they
were cunny veterans and they went through the motions of normal caravan
life, so as not to alert the watchers in the dark hills above us. At
last we were all bundled on our mats, and the fires died down, but none
of us slept. I could hear them coughing and fidgeting restlessly all
around me in the dark.

The long hours drew out, and through the open roof I watched the great
constellations of the stars wheel in stately splendour overhead, but
still the attack never came.

Just before dawn, tonus made his round of the sentries for the last
time, and then, on his way back to his place beside the cooling ashes
of last night’s fire, he stopped by my mat for a moment and whispered,
“You and your friends the baboons, you deserve each other.

All of you bark at shadows. ” “The Shrikes are here. I can smell
them.

The hills are full of them, ” I protested.

“All you can smell is the promise of breakfast, ” he grunted. He knows
how I detest the suggestion that I am a glutton. Rather than reply to
such callow humour, I went out into the darkness to relieve myself
behind the-nearest pile of ruins.

As I squatted there, a baboon barked again, the wild, booming cry
shattering the preternatural silences of that last and darkest of the
night-watches. I turned my head in that direction and heard, faint and
faraway, the sound of metal strike rock, as though a nervous hand had
dropped a dagger up there on the ridge, or a careless shield had
brushed against a granite outcrop as an armed man hurried to take up
his station before the dawn found him out.

I smiled complacently to myself, there are few pleasures in my life
compared to that of making tonus eat his words.

As I. returned to my mat, I whispered to the men that I passed, “Be
ready. They are here, ” and I heard my warning passed on from mouth to
sleepless mouth.

Above me the stars began to fade away, and the dawn crept up on us as
stealthily as a lioness stalking a herd of oryx. Then abruptly I heard
a sentry on the west wall of the temple whistle, a liquid warble that
might have been the cry of a nightjar except that we all knew better,
and instantly a stir ran through the camp. It was checked by the low
but urgent whispers of Kratas and his officers, “Steady, the Blues!
Remember your orders. Hold your positions!” and not a man stirred
from his sleeping-mat.

Without rising, and with my shawl masking my face, I turned my head
slowly and looked up at the crests of the cliffs that stood higher than
the temple walls. The shark’stooth silhouette of the granite hills
began to alter most subtly. I had to blink my eyes to be certain of
what I was seeing.

Then slowly I turned my head in a full circle, and it was the same in
whichever direction I looked. The skyline all about us was picketed
with the dark and menacing shapes of armed men. They formed an
unbroken palisade around us through which no fugitive could hope to
escape.

I knew then why Shufti had delayed his retaliation so long. It would
have taken him all this time to gather together such an army of
thieves. There must be a thousand or more of them, although in the
poor light it was not possible to count their multitudes. We were
outnumbered at least ten to one, and I felt my spirits quail. It was
poor odds, even for a company of the Blues.

The Shrikes stood as still as the rocks around them, and I was alarmed
at this evidence of their discipline. I had expected them to come
streaming down upon us in an untidy rabble, but they were behaving like
trained warriors. their stillness was more menacing and intimidating
than any wild shouting and brandishing of weapons would have been.

As the light strengthened swiftly, we could make them out more clearly.
The first rays of the sun glanced off the bronze of their shields and
their bared sword-blades, and struck darts of light into-our eyes.
Every one of them was muffled up, a scarf of black wool wound around
each head so that only their eyes showed in the slits, eyes as
malevolent as those of the ferocious blue sharks that terrorize. the
waters of the sea we had left behind us.

The silence drew out until I thought that my nerves might tear and my
heart burst with the pressure of blood within it.

Then suddenly a voice rang out, shattering the dawn silence and echoing
along the cliffs. “Kaarik! Are you awake?” I recognized Shufti then,
despite the scarf that masked him. He stood in the centre of the west
wall of the cliff, where the road cut through it.

“Kaarik!” he called again. “Its time for you to pay what you owe me,
but the price has risen. I want everything now.

Everything!” he repeated, and flung aside the scarf so that his
pock-marked features were revealed.

“I want everything you have, including your stupid and arrogant head. ”
tonus rose from his mat and threw aside his sheepskin rug. “Then you
will have to come down and take it from me, ” he shouted back, and drew
his sword.

Shufti raised his right arm, and his blind eye caught the light and
gleamed like a silver coin. Then he brought his arm down abruptly.

At his signal, a shout went up from the ranks of men that lined the
high ground, and they lifted their weapons and shook them to the pale
yellow dawn sky. Shufti waved them forward and they streamed down the
cliffs in a torrent into the narrow valley of Gallala. tonus raced to
the centre-of the temple court where the ancient inhabitants had raised
a tall stone altar to their patron Bes, the dwarf god of music and
drunkenness. Kratas and his officers ran to join him, while the slave
girls and I crouched on our mats and covered our heads, wailing with
terror. tonus leaped up on to the altar, and went down on one knee as
he flexed the great bow Lanata. It took all of his strength to string
it, but when he stood erect ago in it shimmered in its coils of silver
electrurn wire, as though it were a living thing. He reached over his
shoulder and drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and faced the
main gateway through which the horde of Shrikes must enter.

Below the altar, Kratas had drawn up his men into a single rank, and
they also had strung their bows and faced the entrance to the square.
They made a -pitifully small cluster around the altar, and I felt a
lump rise in my throat as I watched them. They were so heroic and
undaunted. I would compose a sonnet in their honour, I decided on a
sudden impulse, but before I could find the first line, the head of the
mob of bandits burst howling through the ruined gateway.

Only five men abreast could climb the steep stairway into the opening,
and the distance to where tonus stood on the altar was less than forty
paces. tonus drew and let his first arrow fly. That single arrow
killed three men. The first of them was a tall rogue dressed in a
short kilt, with long greasy tresses of hair streaming down his back.

The arrow took him in the centre of his naked chest and passed through
his torso as cleanly as though were merey a target cut from a sheet of
papyrus.

Slick with the blood of the first man, the arrow struck the man behind
him in the throat. Although the force of it was dissipating now, it
still went through his neck and came out behind him, but it could not
drive completely through. The fl etchings at the back of the shaft
snagged in his flesh, while the barbed bronze arrow-head buried itself
in the eye of the third man who had crowded up close behind him.

The two Shrikes were pinned together by the arrow, and they staggered
and thrashed about in the middle of the gateway, blocking the opening
to those who were trying to push their way past them into the
courtyard. At last the arrow-head tore out of the third man’s skull,
with the eye impaled upon the point. The two stricken men fell apart,
and a throng of screaming bandits poured over them into the square.

The small band around the altar met them with volley after volley of
arrows, shooting them down so that their corpses almost blocked the
opening, and those coming in from behind were forced to scramble over
the mounds of dead and wounded.

It could not last much longer, the pressure of warriors from behind was
too great and their numbers too overwhelming Like the bursting of an
earthen dyke unable to stern the rising flood of the Nile, they forced
the opening, and a solid mass of fighting men poured into the square
and surrounded the tiny band around the altar of the god Bes.

It was too close quarters for the bows now, and tonus and his men cast
them aside and drew their swords. “Horus, arm me!” tonus shouted his
battle-cry, and the men around him took it up, as they went to work.
Bronze rang on bronze as the Shrikes tried to come at them, but they
had formed a ring around the altar, facing outwards. No matter from
which side they came, the Shrikes were met by the point and the deadly
sword-play of the guards. The Shrikes were not short of courage, and
they pressed in serried ranks around the altar. As one of them was cut
down, another leaped into his place.

I saw Shufti in the gateway. He was holding back from the fray, but
cursing his men and ordering them into the thick of it with horrid
howls of rage. His blind eye rolled in its socket as he exhorted them,
“Get me the Assyrian alive. I want to kill him slowly and hear him
squeal. ” The bandits completely ignored the women who still cowered
on their sleeping-mats, their heads covered, wailing and screeching
with terror. I wailed with the best of them, but the struggle in the
centre of the yard was too uncomfortable for my liking.

By this time, there were over a thousand men crowded into the confined
space. Choking in the dust, I was kicked and pommelled by the sandal
led feet of the battling horde, until I managed to crawl away into a
corner of the wall.

One of the bandits turned aside from the fighting and stooped over me.
He tore the shawl away from my face and for a moment stared into my
eyes. “Mother of Isis, ” he breathed, “you are beautiful!” He was an
ugly devil with gaps in his teeth and a scar down one cheek. His
breath stank like a sewerage gutter as he lusted into my face. “Wait
until this business is over.

Then I’ll give you something to make you squeal with joy, ” he
promised, and twisted my face up to his. He kissed me.

My natural instinct was to pull away from him, but I resisted it and
returned -his kiss. I am an artist of the love arts, for I learned my
skills in the boys” quarters of Lord Inter. My kisses can turn a man
to water.

I kissed him with all my skill, and he was transfixed by it.

While he was still paralysed, I slipped my dagger from its sheath
beneath my blouse and slid the point through the gap between his fifth
and sixth ribs. When he screamed, I muffled the sound with my own lips
and clasped him lovingly to my breast, twisting the blade in his heart
until, with a shudder, he relaxed completely against me, and I let him
roll over on his side.

I looked around me quickly. In the few moments that it had taken me to
dispose of my admirer, the plight of the small group of guards around
the altar had worsened.

There were gaps in their single rank. Two men were down and Amseth was
wounded. He had switched his sword into his left hand, while the other
arm hung bleeding at his side.

With a rush of relief I saw that tonus was still untouched, still
laughing with the savage joy of it all as he plied the sword.

But he had left it too late to spring the trap, I thought.

The entire band of Shrikes wore crowded into the square and baying
around him like hounds around a treed leopard.

Within moments he and his gallant little band must be cut down.

Even as I watched, tonus killed another of them with a straight thrust
through the throat, and then he jerked his blade free of the clinging
flesh and stepped back. He threw back his head and let loose a bellow
that rang from the crumbling walls around us. “On me, the Blues!” On
the instant every one of the cringing slave girls leapt up and flung
aside their trailing robes. Their swords were already bared and they
fell upon the rear of the robber horde.

The surprise was complete and overwhelming. I saw them kill a hundred
or more before their victims even realized what they were about, and
could rally to meet them. But when they did turn to face this fresh
attack, they exposed their backs to tonus and his little band.

They fought well, I’ll give them that, though I am sure it was terror,
rather than courage, that drove them on.

However, their ranks were too close-packed to allow them free play with
the sword and the men they faced were some of the finest troopsm Egypt,
which is to say the entire world.

For a while yet they held on. Then tonus bellowed again from the midst
of the turmoil. For a moment I thought it was another command, then I
realized that it was the opening bar of the battle hymn of the guards.
Though I had often heard it spoken in awe that the Blues always sang
when the battle was at its height, I had never truly believed it
possible.

Now all around me the song was taken up by a hundred straining voices:
We are the breath of Horus, hot as the desert wind, we are the reapers
of men Their swords beat an accompaniment to the words, like the
clangour of hammers on the anvils of the underworld.

In the face of such arrogant ferocity the remaining Shrikes wavered,
and then suddenly it was no longer a battle, but a massacre.

I have seen a pack of wild dogs surround and tear into a floc of sheep.
This was worse. Some of the Shrikes threw down their swords and fell
to their knees begging quarter. There was no mercy shown them. Others
tried to reach the gateway, but swordsmen waited for them there, sword
in hand.

I danced on the fringes of the fighting, screaming across at tonus,
trying to make myself heard in the uproar, “Stop them. We need
prisoners. ” tonus could not hear me, or more likely he simply ignored
my entreaties. Singing and laughing, with Kratas at his left hand and
Remrem on the other, he tore into them.

His beard was soaked with the spurted blood of those he had killed, and
his eyes glittered in the running red mask of his face with a madness I
had never seen in them before.

Joyous Hopi, how he thrived on the heady draught of battle!

“Stop it, tonus! Don’t kill them all!” This time he heard me. I saw
the madness fade, and he was once more in control of himself.

“Give quarter to those who plead for it!” he roared, and the guards
obeyed him. But in the end, out of the original thousand, fewer than
two hundred Shrikes grovelled unarmed on the bloody stone flags and
pleaded for their lives.

For a while I stood dazed and uncertain on the fringe of this carnage,
and then from the corner of my eye I caught a furtive movement.

Shufti had realized that he could not escape through the gateway.

He threw down his sword and darted to the east wall of the court, close
to where I stood. This was the most ruined section, where the wall was
reduced to half its original height. The tumbled mud-bricks formed a
steep ramp, and Shufti scrambled up it, slipping and falling, but
rapidly nearing the top of the wall. It seemed that I was the only one
who had noticed his flight. The guards were busy with their other
prisoners, and tonus had his back turned to me as he directed the
mopping-up of the shattered enemy.

Almost without thinking, I stooped and picked up half a mud-brick.

As Shufti topped the wall, I hurled the brick up at him with all my
strength. It thumped against the back of his skull with such force
that he dropped to his knees, and then the treacherous pile of loose
rubble gave way beneath him and he came sliding back down in a cloud of
dust to land at my feet, only half-conscious.

I” pounced upon him where he lay, straddling his chest, and I pressed
the point of my dagger to his throat. He stared up at me, his single
eye still glazed with the crack I had dealt him.

“Lie still, ” I cautioned him, “or I will gut you like a fish. ” I had
lost my shawl and head-dress, and my hair had -come down on to my
shoulders. He recognized me then, which was no surprise. We had met
often, but in different circumstances.

“Taita, the eunuch!” he mumbled. “Does Lord Inter know what you are
about?” “He will find out soon enough, ” I assured him, and pricked
him until he grunted, “but you will not be the one to Tell. Without
removing the point from his throat, I shouted to two of the nearest
guards to take him. They flipped him on to his face and bound his
wrists together with linen twine before they dragged him away. tonus
had seen me capture Shufti, and he strode across to me now, stepping
over the dead and wounded. “Good throw, Taita! You have forgotten
nothing that I taught you He clapped me on the back so hard that I
staggered. “There is plenty of work for you still. We’ve lost four
men killed, and there are at least a dozen wounded. ” “What about
their camp?” I asked, and he stared at me.

“What camp?” “A thousand Shrikes did not spring up from the sands like
desert flowers. They must have pack -animals and slaves with them. Not
far from here, either. You must not let them escape.

Nobody must escape to tell the tale of today’s battle.

None of them must be allowed to carry the news to Karnak that you are
still alive. ” “Sweet Isis, you are right! But how will we find
them?” It was obvious that tonus was still bemused with battle lust.

Sometimes I wondered what he would do without me.

“Back-track them, ” I told him impatiently. “A thousand pairs of feet
will have trodden a road for us to follow back to where they came from.
” His expression cleared, and he hailed Kratas across the length of the
temple. “Take fifty men. Go with Taita. He will lead you to their
base-camp. ” “The wounded.. . ” I began to protest. I had enjoyed
enough fighting for one day, but he brushed my objections” aside. “You
are the best tracker I have. The wounded can wait for your care, my’
ruffians are all as tough as fresh buffalo steaks, very few of them
will die before you return. ” FINDING THEIR CAMP WAS AS SIMPLE AS I
had made it sound. With Kratas and fifty men following me closely, I
made a wide cast around the city, and behind the first line of hills I
picked up the broad track that they had made as they came in and
deployed to surround us. We followed it back at a trot, and had
covered less than a mile before we topped a rise and found the camp of
the Shrikes in the shallow valley below us.

Their surprise was complete. They had left fewer than twenty men to
guard the donkeys and women. Kratas” men overran them at the first
rush, and this time I was too late to save any prisoners. They spared
only the women, and once the camp was secure, Kratas let his men have
them as part of the traditional reward of the victors.

The women seemed to me to be a more comely selection than I would have
expected in such company. I saw quite a few pretty faces amongst them.
They submitted to the rituals of conquest with. a remarkably good
grace. I even heard some of them laughing and joking as the guardsmen
threw dice for them. The vocation of camp-follower to a band of
Shrikes could not be considered the most delicate calling, and I
doubted that any of these ladies were blushing virgins.

One by one, they were led by their new owners behind the cover of the
nearest clump of rocks, where their skirts were lifted without further
ceremony. New moon follows the death of the old, spring follows
winter, none of the ladies showed any signs of mourning for their
erstwhile spouses. Indeed, it seemed probable that new and perhaps
lasting relationships were being struck. up here on the desert sand.

For myself, I was more interested in the pack-donkeys and what they
carried. There were over a hundred and fifty of these, and most of
them were sturdy animals in prime condition which would fetch good
prices in the market at Karnak or Safaga. I reckoned that I should be
entitled to at least a centurion’s share when the prize money was
divided up. After all, I had already dispensed large amounts of my own
savings in the furtherance of this enterprise, and should be entitled
to some” compensation. I would speak seriously to tonus about it, and
could expect his sympathy. His is a generous spirit.

By the time we returned to the city of Gallala, leading the captured
pack-animals laden with booty and followed by a straggle of women who
had attached themselves quite naturally to their new menfolk, the sun
had set.

One of the smaller ruined buildings near the wells had been turned into
a field hospital. There I worked through the night, by the light of
torch and oil lamp, sewing together the wounded guardsmen. As always,
I was impressed by their stoicism, for many of their wounds were grave
and painful. None the less, I lost only one of my patients before dawn
broke. Amseth succumbed to loss of blood from the severed arteries in
his arm. If I had attended to him immediately after the battle,
instead of going off into the desert, I might have been able to save
him” Even though the responsibility rested with tonus, I felt the
familiar guilt and sorrow in the face of a death that I might have
prevented.

However, I was confident that my other patients would heal swiftly and
cleanly. They were all strong young men in superb condition.

There were no wounded Shrikes to attend. Their heads . had been
lopped off where they lay on the battlefield. As a physician, I was
perturbed by this age-old custom of dealing with the wounded enemy, yet
I suppose there was logic in it, Why should the victors waste their
resources on the maimed vanquished, when it was unlikely they would
have any value as slaves, and, if left alive, might recover to fight an
against them another day?

I worked all night with only a swallow of wine and a few mouthfuls of
food taken with bloody hands to sustain me, and I was almost exhausted,
but there was to be no rest for me yet. tonus sent for me as soon as
it was light.

THE UNWOUNDED PRISONERS WERE BEing held in the temple of Bes.

Their wrists were bound behind their backs, and they were squatting in
long lines along the north wall, with the guards standing over them.

As soon as I entered the temple, tonus called me to where he stood with
a group of his officers. I was still in the dress of an Assyrian wife,
so I lifted my blood-splattered skirts and picked my way across the
floor littered with the debris of the battle.

“There are thirteen clans of Shrikes-isn’t that what you told me,
Taita?” tonus asked, and I nodded. “Each clan with its own baron. We
have Shufti. Let’s see if you recognize any of the other barons
amongst this gathering of the fair and gentle people. ” He indicated
the prisoners with a chuckle, and took my arm to lead me down the ranks
of squatting men.

I kept my face veiled so that none of the prisoners could recognize me.
I glanced at each face as I passed, and recognized two of them. Akheku
was head of the southern clan that preyed on the lands around Assoun,
Elephantine and the first cataract, while Setek was from further north,
the baron of Kom-Ombo.

It was clear that Shuff had gathered together whatever men he could
find at such short notice. There were members of all the clans amongst
those that we had captured. As I identified their leaders with a tap
on the shoulder, they were dragged away.

When we reached the end of the line tonus asked, “Are you sure that you
missed none of them?” “How can I be sure? I told you that I never met
all, of the barons. ” tonus shrugged. “We could not hope to catch
every little bird with one throw of the net. We must count ourselves
fortunate that we have taken as many as three so soon. But let us look
at the heads. We might be lucky enough to find a few more amongst
them. ” This was a gruesome business that might have affected a More
delicate stomach than mine, but human flesh, . both dead and living,
is my stock -in-trade. While we sat at our ease on the steps of the
temple enjoying our breakfast, the severed heads were displayed to us,
held up one at a time by the blood-caked hair, tongues tolling from
between slack lips, and dull eyes powdered with dust staring into the
other world whither they were bound.

My appetite was as healthy as ever, for I had eaten very little during
the last two days. I devoured the delicious cakes and fruits that
Tiamat had provided, while I pointed out those heads I recognized.

There was a score or so of common thieves that I had encountered during
the course of my work for Lord Inter, but only one more of the barons.
He was Nefer-Temu of. Qena, a lesser member of the ghastly
brotherhood.

“That makes four of them, ” tonus grunted with satisfaction, and
ordered Nefer-Temu’s head to be placed on the pinnacle of the pyramid
of skulls that he was erecting in front of the well of Gallala.

So now we have accounted for four of them. We must find the other nine
barons. Let us begin by putting the question to . our prisoners. ”
He stood up briskly; and I hastily gulped down the remains of my
breakfast and followed him reluctantly back into the temple of Bes.

Although I was the one who had made clear to tonus the necessity of
having informers from within the clans, and indeed it was I who had
suggested how we should recruit them, still now that the time to act
upon my suggestion had arrived, I was stricken with remorse and
guilt.

It was one thing’ to suggest ruthless action, but another thing
entirely to stand by and watch it practised.

I- made a feeble excuse that the wounded men in the makeshift hospital
might need me, but tonus brushed it away cheerfully. “None of your
fine scruples now, Taita You will stay with me during the questioning
to make certain that you overlooked none of your old friends on -your
first inspection. ” The questioning was swift and merciless, which I
suppose was only appropriate to the character of the men we were
dealing with.

To begin with, tonus sprang up on to the stone altar of Bes, and, with
the hawk seal in one hand, he looked down on the ranks of squatting
prisoners with a smile that must have chilled them, even though they
sat in the full rays of the desert sun.

“I am the bearer of the hawk seal of Pharaoh Mamose, and I speak with
his voice, ” he told them grimly, as he held the statuette high.

“I am your judge and our executioner. “He paused and let his gaze pass
slowly over their upturned faces. As each of them met his eyes, they
dropped their own.

Not one of them could hold firm before his penetrating scrutiny.

“You have been taken in the act of pillage and murder. If there is one
of you who would deny it, let him stand before me and declare his
innocence. ” He waited while the impatient shadows of the vultures,
circling in the sky above us, crisscrossed the dusty courtyard. “Come
now! Speak up, you innocents. ” He glanced upwards at the circling
birds with their grotesque pink bald heads. “Your brethren grow
impatient for the feast. Let us not keep them waiting. ” Still none
of them spoke or moved, and tonus lowered the hawk seal. “Your
actions, which all here have witnessed, condemn you. Your silence
confirms the verdict. You are guilty. In the name of the divine
Pharaoh, I pass sentence upon you. I sentence you to death by
beheading. Your severed heads will be displayed along the caravan
routes. All law-abiding men who pass this way will see your skulls
grinning at them from the roadside, and they will know that the Shrike
has met the eagle. They will know that the age of lawlessness has
passed from the land, and that peace has returned to this very Egypt of
ours. I have spoken, Pharaoh Mamose has spoken. ” tonus nodded, and
the first prisoner was dragged forward and forced to his knees before
the altar.

“If you answer three questions truthfully, your life will be saved. You
will be enlisted as a trooper in my regiment of the guards, with all
the pay and privileges. If you refuse to answer the questions, your
sentence will be carried out immediately, ” tonus told him.

He looked down on the kneeling prisoner sternly. “This is the first
question. What clan do you belong to?” The condemned man made no
reply. The blood oath of the Shrikes was too strong for him to
break.

“This is the second question, Who is the baron that commands you?”
tonus asked, and still the man was silent.

“This is the third and the last question. Will you lead me to the
secret places where your clan hides?” tonus asked and the man looked
up at him, hawked in his throat and spat. His phlegm spattered yellow
upon the stones. tonus nodded to the guardsman who stood over him with
the sword.

The stroke was clean and the head toppled on to the steps at the foot
of the altar. “One more head for the pyramid, ” tonus said quietly,
and nodded for the next prisoner to be brought forward.

He asked the same three questions, and when the Shrike answered him
with a defiant obscenity, tonus nodded. This time the headsman
mistimed the blow, and the corpse flopped about with the neck only
half-severed. It took three more strokes before the head bounced down
the steps. tonus lopped twenty-three heads, I was counting them to
distract myself from the waves of debilitating compassion that assailed
me, until the first of the condemned men broke down. He was young, not
much more than a boy. In a shrill voice he gabbled out the replies
before Tar)us could actually pose the three questions to him.

“My name is Hui. I am a blood-brother of the clan of Basti the Cruel.
“I know his secret places, and I will lead you to them. ” tonus smiled
with grim satisfaction and gestured for the lad to be led away.

“Care for him well, ” he warned his gaolers. “He is now a trooper of
the Blues, and your companion-in-arms. ” After the defection of one of
them, it went more readily, although there were still many who defied,
tonus. Some of them cursed him, while others laughed their defiance at
him until the blade swept down, and their bravado ended with their very
last breath that burst from the severed windpipe in a crimson gust.

I was filled with admiration for those who, after a base and despicable
life, at the end chose to die with some resemblance of honour. They
laughed at death. I knew that I was not capable of that quality of
courage. Offered that choice, I am certain that I would have responded
as some of the weaker prisoners did.

“I . am a member of the clan of Ur, ” one confessed.

“I am of the clan of Moo-En-Tef, who is baron of the West bank as far
as El Kharga, ” said another, until we had informers to lead us to the
strongholds of every one of the remaining robber barons, and a
shoulder-high pile of recalcitrant heads to add to the pyramid beside
the well.

ONE OF THE MATTERS TO WHICH TAN US and I had given much thought was the
disposal of the three robber barons we had already captured, and the
score of informers we had gleaned from the ranks of the condemned
Shrikes.

We knew that the influence of the Shrikes was so pervasive that we
dared not keep our captives in Egypt.” There was not a prison secure
enough to prevent Akh-Seth and his barons from reaching them, either to
set them free by bribery or force, or to have them silenced by poison
or some other unpleasant means. We knew that Akh-Seth was like an
octopus whose head was hidden, but whose tentacles reached into our
government and into the very fabric of our existence.

This was where my friend Tiamat the merchant of Safaga, came into my
reckoning.

Marching now “As a unit of the Blue Crocodile Guardsand not as a slave
caravan, we returned to the port on the Red Sea in half the time that
it had taken us to reach Gallala.

Our captives were hustled aboard one of Tiamat’s trading vessels that
was waiting for us in the harbour, and the captain set sail-immediately
for the Arabian coast, where Tiamat maintained a secure slave-compound
on the small off-shore island of Jez Baquan, run by his own warders.
The waters around the island were patrolled by packs of ferocious blue
sharks. Tiamat assured us that no one who had attempted escape from
the island had ever avoided both the vigilance of the warders and the
appetites of the sharks.

Only one of our captives was not sent to the island. He was Hui from
the clan of Basti the Cruel, the same youngster who had been the first
to capitulate to the threat of the execution During the march to the
sea, tonus had kept the lad close to him and had turned all the
irresistible force of his personality upon him. By this time Hui was
his willing slave. This special gift of tonus” to win loyalty and
devotion from the most unlikely quarters never failed to amaze me.

I was sure that Hui, who had buckled so swiftly under the threat of
execution, would now willingly lay down his worthless life for tonus.
“” Under tonus” spell, Hui poured out every detail that he could
remember of the clan to which he had once sworn a blood-oath. I
listened quietly, with my writing-brush poised, as tonus questioned him
and I recorded all he had to tell US.

We learned that the stronghold of Basti the Cruel was in the fastness
of that awful desert of Gebel-Umm-Bahari, on the summit of one of the
flat-topped mountains that was protected by sheer cliffs on every side.
Hidden and impregnable, but less than two days” march from the east
bank of the Nile and the busy caravan routes that ran along its banks,
it was the perfect nest for the raptor.

“There is one path to the top, cut like a stairway from the rock.

It is wide enough for only one man to climb at a time, ” Hui told us.

There is no other way to the summit?” tonus asked, and Hui grinned and
laid his finger along his nose in a conspiratory gesture.

There is another route. I have used it often, to return to the
mountain after I had deserted my post to visit a lady friend. Basti
would have had me killed if he had known I was missing. It is a
dangerous climb, but a dozen good men could make it and hold the top of
the cliff while the main force came up the pathway to them. I will
lead you up it, Akh-Horus. ” It was the first time that I heard the
name. Akh-Horus, the brother of the great god Horus. It was a good
name for tonus. Naturally, Hui and our other captives could not know
tonus” real identity. They knew only in their simple way that tonus
must be some kind of god. He looked like a god and he fought like a
god, and he invoked the name of Horus in the midst of battle. So, they
had reasoned, he must be the brother of Horus.

Akh-Horus! It was a name that all Egypt would come to know well in the
months ahead. It would be shouted from hilltop to hilltop. It would
be carried along the caravan routes. It would travel the length of the
river on the lips of the boatmen, from city to city, and from kingdom
to kingdom. The legend would grow up around the name, as the accounts
of his deeds were repeated and exaggerated at each telling.

Akh-Horus was the mighty warrior who appeared from nowhere, sent by his
brother Horus to continue the eternal struggle against evil, against
Akh-Seth, the lord of the Shrikes.

Akh-Horus! Each time the people of Egypt repeated the name it would
fill their hearts with fresh hope.

All that was in the future as we sat in the garden of Tiamat the
merchant. Only I knew how hot tonus was for Basti, and how eager to
lead his men into the Gebel-UmmBahari to hunt him down. It was not
only that Basti was the most rapacious and pitiless of all the
barons.

There was much more to it than that. tonus had a very personal score
to settle with that bandit.

From me, tonus had learned that Basti had been the particular
instrument that Akh,Seth had used to destroy the fortune of Pianki,
Lord Harrab, tonus” father.

“I can lead you up the cliffs of Gebel-Umm-Bahari, ” Hui promised.

“I can deliver Basti into your hands. ” tonus was silent awhile in the
darkness as he savoured that promise. We sat and listened to the
nightingale singing at the bottom of Tiamat’s garden. It was a sound
totally alien from the evil and desperate affairs that we were
discussing.

After a while tonus sighed and dismissed Hui.

“You have done well, lad” he told him. “FulfIll your promise, and you
will find me grateful. ” Hui prostrated himself, as though before a
god, and tonus nudged him irritably with his foot. “Enough of that
nonsense. Away with you now. ” This recent, unlooked-for elevation to
the godhead embarrassed tonus. No one could ever accuse him of being
either modest or humble, but he was at least a pragmatist, with no
false illusions of his own station; he never aspired to become either a
pharaoh or a divine, and he was always short with any servility or
obsequious behaviour from those around him.

As soon as the lad was gone, tonus turned back to me.

“So often I lie awake in the night and consider all that you have told
me about my father. I ache in every fibre of my body and soul for
revenge against the one who drove him into penury and disgrace and
hounded him to his death. I can barely restrain myself. I am filled
by the desire to abandon this devious way that you have devised of
trapping Akh-Seth. Instead, I long to seek him out directly, and tear
out his foul heart with my bare hands. ” “If you do that, you will
lose everything, ” I said. “You know that well. Do it my way and you
will restore not only your own reputation, but that of your noble
father into the bargain. My way, you will retrieve the estate and the
fortune that was stolen from you. My way will not only give you your
full measure of revenge, but will also lead you back to Lostris and the
fulfilment of the vision that I divined for the pair of you in the
Mazes of Ammon-Ra. Trust me, tonus. For your sake and the sake of my
mistress, trust me. ” “If I don’t trust you, then who can I trust?”
he asked, and touched my arm. “I know you are right, but I have always
lacked patience. For me the swift and direct road has always been
easiest. ” “For the time being, put Akh-Seth out of your mind.

Think only of the next step along the devious way that we must travel
together. Think of Basti the Cruel. It was Basti who destroyed your
father’s trade caravans as they returned from the East. For five
seasons, not one of the caravans of Lord Harrab ever returned to
Karnak. They were all attacked and looted along the road. It was
Basti who destroyed your father’s copper-mines at Sestra and murdered
the engineers, and their slave workers. Since then those rich veins of
ore have lain untapped. It was Basti who systematically pillaged your
father’s estates along the Nile, who slaughtered his slaves in the
fields and burned the crops, until in the end, only weeds grew in Lord
Harrah’s fields, and he was forced to sell them at a fraction of their
real worth. ” “All that may be true, but it was Akh-Seth who gave
Basti his orders. ” “No one will believe that. Pharaoh will not
believe that, unless he hears Basti confess it, ” I told him
impatiently.

“Why are you always so stubborn? We have gone over this a hundred
times. The barons first, and then at last the head of the snake,
Akh-Seth. ” “Yours is the voice of wisdom. I know it. But it is hard
to bear the waiting. I long for my revenge. I long to cleanse the
stain of sedition and treason from my honour, and I long-oh, how I long
-for Lostris!” He leaned across and clasped my shoulder with a grip
that made me wince. “You have done enough here, old friend. I could
never have accomplished so much without you. If you had not come to
find me, I might still be, sodden with drink and lying in the embrace
of some stinking whore.

I owe you more than I can repay, but I must send you away now. You,
are needed elsewhere. Basti is my meat, and I don’t need you to share
the feast with me. You will not be coming with me to Gebel-Umm-Bahari.
I am sending you back where you belong-where I also belong, but where
I cannot be.. at the side of the Lady Lostris. I envy you, old
friend, I would give up my hope of immortality to be going to her in
your place. ” I protested most prettily, of course. I swore that all
I wanted was another chance at those villains, and that I was his
companion and that I would be seriously aggrieved if he would not give
me a place at his side in the next campaign.

All the time I was secure in the knowledge that when tonus set his mind
on a course of action he was adamant and could not easily be dissuaded,
except very occasionally by his friend and adviser, Taita the slave.

The truth was that I had enjoyed my fill of wild heroics and people
trying to kill me. I was not by nature a soldier, not some insensitive
clod of a trooper. I hated the rig ours of campaigning in the desert.
I could not bear another week of heat and sweat and flies without even
a glimpse of the sweet green waters of Mother Nile. I longed for the
feel of clean linen against my freshly bathed and anointed skin. I
missed my mistress more than I could express in mere words. Our quiet,
civilized life in the painted rooms on the Island of Elephantine, our
music and long, leisurely conversations together, my pets and my scrol
. Is, all these exerted an irresistible draw upon me. tonus was
right, he no longer needed me, and my place was with my mistress.
However, to acquiesce too readily to his orders might lower his opinion
of me, and I did not want that either.

At last I allowed him to convince me, and, concealing my eagerness, I
began my preparations for my return to Elephantine.

TAN US HAD ORDERED KRATAS BACK TO

Karnak, to assemble and bring up reinforcements == for the expedition
into the desert of Gebel-UmmBahari. I was to travel under his
protection as far as Karnak, but taking leave of tonus was not a simple
matter. Twice when I had already left the house of Tiamat to join
Kratas where he waited for me on the outskirts of the town, tonus
called me back to give me another message to take to my mistress.

“Tell her that I think of her every hour of every day!” “You have
already given me that message I protested.

“Tell her that my dreams are filled with images of her lovely face. ”
“And that one also. I can recite them by heart. Give me something
new, ” I pleaded.

“Tell her that I believe the vision of the Mazes, that in a few short
years we will be together.. . ” “Kratas is waiting for me. If you
keep me here, how can I deliver your message?” “Tell her that
everything I do is for her. Every breath I draw is for her.. . ” he
broke off, and embraced me. “The truth is, Taita, I doubt I can live
another day without her. ” “Five years will pass like that single
day.

When next you meet her, your. honour will be restored and you will
once more stand high in the land. She can only love you the more for
that. ” He released me. “Take good care of her until I am able to
assume that joyous duty from you. Now, away with you.

Speed to her side. ” “That has been my intention this hour past, ” I
told him wryly, and made good my escape.

With Kratas at the head of our small detachment, we made the journey to
Karnak in under a week. Fearful of discovery by Rasfer or Lord Inter,
I spent as little time in my beloved city as it took me to find passage
on one of the barges heading southwards. I left Kratas busily
recruiting from amongst the elite regiments of Pharaoh’s guards the
thousand good men that tonus had demanded, and I went A aboard the
barge.

We had the north wind in our sails all the way, and we tied up at the
wharf of East Elephantine twelve days after leaving Thebes. I was
still dressed in the wig and garb of the priesthood, and nobody
recognized me as I came ashore.

For the price of a small copper ring I hired a felucca to take me
across, the river to the royal island, and it put me down at the steps
that led up to the water-gate to our garden in the harem. My heart
pounded against my ribs as I bounded up the stairs. I had been away
from my mistress far too long. It was at times such as these that I
realized the full strength of my feelings for her. I was certain that
tonus” love was but a light river breeze in comparison to the khamsin
of my own emotions.

One of Lostris” Cushite maidens met me at the gate, and tried to
prevent me from entering. “My mistress is unwell, priest. There is
another doctor with her at this moment. She will not see you. ” “She
will see me, ” I told her, and stripped off my wig. she squealed, and
fell to her knees, frantically making the sign to ward off evil. “You
are dead. This is not you, but some evil apparition from beyond the
grave. ” I brushed her aside and hurried to my mistress’s private
quarters, to be met at the doors by one of those priests of Osiris who
consider themselves physicians.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded of him, appalled that one of
these quacks had been anywhere near my mistress. Before he could
answer, I bellowed at him, “Out! Get out of here! Take your spells
and charms and filthy potions, and don’t come back. ” He looked as
though he were prepared to argue, but I placed my hand between his
shoulder-blades and gave him a running start towards the gate. Then I
rushed to my mistress’s bedside.

The odour of sickness filled the chamber” sour and strong, and a wild
grief seized me as I looked down at the Lady Lostris. She seemed to
have shrunk in size, and her skin was pale as the ashes of an old
camp-fire. She was asleep or in a coma, I could not be certain -which,
but there were dark, bruised shadows beneath her closed eyelids. Her
lips had that dry and crusty look that filled me with dread.

I drew back the linen sheet that covered her and beneath it she was
naked. I stared in horror at her body. The flesh had melted off her.
Her limbs were thin as sticks and her ribs and the bones of her pelvis
stuck out through the unhealthy skin, like those of drought-stricken
kine. Tenderly, I placed my hand in her armpit to feel for the heat of
fever, but her. skin was cool. What kind of disease was this, I
fretted. I had not encountered any like it before.

Without leaving her side, I yelled for her slave girls, but none of
them had the courage to face the ghost of Taita. In the end I had to
storm into their quarters and drag one of them whimpering from under
her bed.

“What have you done to your mistress to bring her to this pass?”

I kicked her fat backside to focus her attention on my question, and
she whined and covered her face, so as not to have to look upon me.

“She will not eat. Barely a mouthful in all these weeks.

Not since the mummy of tonus, Lord Harrab was laid in his tomb in the
Valley of the Nobles. She has even lost the child of Pharaoh that she
was carrying in her womb. Spare me, kind ghost, I have done you no
harm. ” I stared down at her in bewilderment for a moment, until I
realized what had happened. My message of comfort to the Lady Lostris
had never been delivered. Intuitively I guessed that the messenger
whom KratAs had dispatched from Luxor to carry my letter to my
mistress, had never reached Elephantine. He had probably become one
more victim of the Shrikes, just another corpse floating down the river
with an empty purse and a gaping wound in his throat.

I hoped that my letter had fallen into the hands of some illiterate
thief, and not been taken to Akh-Seth. There was no time to worry
about that now.

I rushed back to my mistress’s side and fell on my knees beside her
bed. “My darling, ” I whispered, and stroked her haggard brow. “It is
me, Taita, your slave. ” She stirred slightly and mumbled something I
could not catch. I realized that there was little time to spare; she
was far-gone. It was over a month since tonus” reported death.

“If the slave girl had spoken the truth, and she had indeed taken no
food in all that time, then it was a wonder that she was still alive.

I leaped up again and ran to my own rooms. Despite my “demise” nothing
had been changed, and my medicine chest was in the alcove where I had
left it. With it in my arms, I hurried back to my mistress. My hands
were shaking as I lit a twig of the scorpion bush from the flame of the
oil lamp beside her bed, and held the glowing end under her nose.
Almost immediately she gasped and sneezed and struggled to avoid the
pungent smoke.

“Mistress, it is I, Taita. Speak to me. ” She opened her eyes and I
saw the dawn of pleasure in them swiftly extinguished by the fresh
Lealization of her bereavement. She held out her thin, pale arms to
me, and I took her to my breast.

“Taita, ” she sobbed softly. “He is dead. tonus is dead. I cannot
live without him. ” “No! No! He is alive. I come directly from him
with messages of love and devotion from him to you. ” “You are cruel
to mock me so. I know he is dead. His tomb is sealed.. . ” “It was a
subterfuge to mislead his enemies, ” I cried. “tonus lives. I swear
it to you. He loves you. He waits for YOU. ” Oh, if I could believe
you! But I know you so well.

You will lie to protect me. How can you torment me with false
promises? I hate you so.. . ” She tried to break from my arms.

“I swear it. tonus is alive. ” “Swear on the honour of the mother you
never knew.

Swear on the wrath of all the gods. ” She hardly had the strength to
challenge me.

“On all these I swear, and on my love and duty to you, my mistress. ”
“Can it be?” I saw the strength of hope flow back into her, and a
faint flush of color bloom in her cheeks. “Oh, Taita, can it truly
be?” “Would I look so joyful, if it were not? You know I love him
almost as much as you do. Could I smile thus, if tonus were truly
dead?” While she stared into my eyes, I launched into a recitation of
all that had occurred since I had left her side so many weeks ago. I
excluded only the details of the condition in which I had discovered
tonus in the old shack in the swamps, and the female company I had
found him keeping.

She said not a word, but her eyes never left my face as she devoured my
words. Her pale face, almost translucent with starvation, glowed like
a pearl as she listened to my account of our adventures at Gallala, of
how tonus led the fighting like a god, and of how he sang with the wild
joy of battle.

“And so do you see, it is true. tonus is alive, ” I ended, and she
spoke for the first time since I had begun.

“If he is alive, then bring him to me. I will not eat a mouthful until
I set my eyes upon his face once more. ” “I will bring him to your
side as swiftly as I can send a messenger to him, if that is what you
wish, ” I promised, and reached for the polished bronze mirror from, my
chest.

I held the mirror before her eyes, and asked softly, “Do you want him
to see you as you are now?” She stared at her own gaunt, hollow-eyed
image.

“I will send for him today, if you order it. He could be here within a
week, if you really want that. ” I watched her struggle with her
emotions. “I am ugly, ” she whispered. “I look like an old woman. ”
“Your beauty is ” till there, just below the surface. ” “I cannot let
tonus see me like this. ” Feminine vanity had triumphed over all her
other emotions.

“Then you must eat. ” “You promise, ” she wavered, “you promise that
he is still alive, and that you will bring him to me as soon as I am
well again? Place your hand on my heart and swear it to me. ” I could
feel her every rib and her heart fluttering like a trapped bird beneath
my fingers. “I promise, ” I said.

“I will trust you this time, but if you are lying I will never trust
you again. Bring me food!” As I hurried to the kitchen, I could not
help but feel smug.

Taita, the crafty, had got his own way yet again..

I mixed a bowl of warm milk and honey. We would have to begin slowly,
for she had driven herself to the very edge of starvation. She vomited
up the contents of the first bowl,

but was able to keep down the second. If I had delayed in my return by
another day, it might have been too late.

SPREAD BY THE CHATTERING SLAVE GIRLS, the news of my miraculous return
from the grave swept through the island like the smallpox.

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