Authors: Pauline Gedge
The interior of the cabin was very dark and I stood, stilling my breath while I took my bearings. I could just see the dim form of a cot against the opposite curtain-wall and a bulk of huddled sheet on it. Cushions were strewn about, vague humps, and a table containing a lamp was close by the bed. The thing under the sheet was utterly motionless and quiet and I wondered for a moment if the cabin was in fact empty. I also wondered what to do next. All my will had been bent on getting this far, and now that I had achieved my goal I was mystified. Should I approach the cot and lay a hand on the sleeper, if he was there? But what would I feel under my fingers? The firmness of a male shoulder or something horrible, unidentifiable? And what if I should startle him and he should wake with a cry and the guards rush in and slay me before they could see that I was just a village girl? Enough! I told myself sternly. You are not just a village girl, you are the Lady Thu, daughter of a dispossessed Libu prince, are you not? The old fantasy made me smile but did not cheer me for long. I was beginning to feel a presence with me in the little room, as though the thing on the cot was aware of me standing just inside the drapery and was watching my thoughts. I shuddered, my own awareness going to the time that was passing. I must do something. I took one tentative step.
“You may stay where you are.” The voice was deep but oddly toneless and the sheet rustled. He, it, was sitting up but I could see nothing beyond the outline of a head. I withdrew my foot. “You have either bewitched my guards, or in the manner of all peasants you have the ability to slither and creep into places where you are not wanted,” it went on smoothly.
At least the voice was human. Yet my apprehension did not lift. I was angry at the words but I reminded myself of why I had come. “I did not slither or creep,” I replied, annoyed that my own voice shook. “I swam and climbed.”
The figure sat straighter. “Indeed,” it said. “Then you can swim and climb your way back to your hovel. I judge by your voice you are a young female. I do not make love spells. I do not concoct potions for use on heedless lovers. I do not give incantations to avert the wrath of parents driven to distraction by lazy or disobedient children. Therefore go. And if you go immediately I shall not have you thrashed and carted home in disgrace.”
But I had not come this far to slink away suffering from my own private disgrace. I had nothing to lose, now, by standing my ground and I spoke through the cloud of unease that still troubled me. “I don’t want any of those things,” I retorted, “and even if I did, I could probably do them for myself. My mother is rich in herb lore and so am I. I have a request, Great One.”
This time the voice was amused. “Only Pharaoh is the Great One,” he answered, “and it is impossible to flatter me. I know my own worth, but it seems that you have an inflated opinion of yours. How rich in herb lore can an unlettered urchin from this backwater of Egypt be? And how unique a request can she put forward? Shall we see? Or shall I go back to sleep?”
I waited, my hands sliding to clasp each other behind my back as though I was about to be reprimanded. The air in the cabin was close, faintly perfumed with jasmine. The smell made me feel slightly dizzy. My knees and elbows were now throbbing, and water was still dripping from my hair and running between my breasts and down my spine. I supposed that there might be a puddle at my feet. I peered through the cloying dimness, striving to see that head more clearly yet for some reason dreading to do so. The sheet whispered again. The man stood up. He was very tall. “Very well,” he said wearily at last. “Make your request.”
My throat went dry and I was suddenly thirsty. “You are a Seer,” I managed huskily. “I want you to See for me. Tell me my future, Master! Am I condemned to live out my days in Aswat? I must know!”
“What?” he responded with tired humour. “You do not ask for the name of your future husband? You do not want the number of your children or of your days? What kind of a village brat are you? A nasty, small-minded, unsatisfied one perhaps. Consumed with greed and arrogance.” There was a silence in which he went very still. Then he said, “But perhaps not. There can also be simple desperation. What is your gift? What can a kneader of the Aswat dung possibly offer in exchange for this mighty revelation she so blithely demands? A handful of bitter herbs?”
This was the heart of the matter. I swallowed. My throat hurt. “I have only one gift precious enough in my eyes to present to you,” I forced out, and got no further, for at that he began to laugh, sitting down on the cot. I could see his shoulders shake. His laughter was raw, a painful sound, as though he was not used to mirth.
“I know what you are about to say, little peasant girl,” he choked. “I don’t need the water and the oil to predict your offer. Gods! You are poor, your hands and feet are coarse with labour. At this moment you stink of river mud and you are doubtless naked. And you thought to offer yourself to me. Supreme arrogance! Insulting ignorance! I think it is time to take a look at you.” He bent, uncovering a tiny brazier in which a coal glowed faintly, illuminating nothing but the hands that cupped it. I tensed. There was something wrong with those hands, something terrible. He leaned to the table where the lamp was, and suddenly the room burst into light. The disordered cot was of darkly polished wood inlaid with gold, its feet like the paws of an animal. The linen rumpled over it was finer than anything I had seen, transparent and glowing white. The lamp flooding the cabin with radiance must be white alabaster. I had never seen this stone before but I knew about it—how brittle it was, how it could be ground so thin that you could see the outline of your hand through it, or a picture painted on the inside of a bowl or lamp. The floor covering on which I stood was red …
And so were his eyes, the pupils red as two drops of blood, the irises glittering pink. His body was the colour of the sheet he had wound about his waist, white, all white, and the long pale hair that fell to either side of his face to rest upon his shoulders was white too. The lamplight found no glint of gold in it, no sheen of colour on his body. The whiteness was so stark that it reflected nothing back. I was looking at death, at a demon whose only life lay shockingly in those dreadful red eyes that had narrowed and were watching me carefully.
Thank all the Gods my hands were behind my back, for before I could stop myself I was feeling for the amulet my mother sometimes lent me. It was of the Goddess Nephthys giving power to the chen sign that protected the wearer from all evil and I wished I had stolen it before setting out that night. But it was not on my wrist. Now I was defenceless before this monster, this creature from the Underworld, and I knew in a flash that if I showed horror or any fear he would order me killed at once. Those blood-filled eyes told me so. My fingers twined around each other in an agony of effort not to scream, to remain still, to hold that loathsome gaze. He sat immobile, staring back at me, and then he smiled.
“Very good,” he said softly. “Oh, very good indeed. There is courage beneath that impudent exterior. Come closer. My eyes are weak.” On legs trembling with fatigue I walked up to him, and as I grew closer the smile faded. He searched my face and as he did so his self-control seemed to falter. “Blue eyes,” he muttered. “You have blue eyes. And delicate features and a lissom body, finely jointed. Tell me your parentage. Guard!” Now I did let out a shriek but the time of my danger had passed. The soldier’s shadow appeared on the drapery.
“Is all well with you, Master?”
“Yes. Bring a jug of beer and send to the temple for honey cakes.” The shadow faded and I heard footsteps on the ramp. “Sit here beside me,” the Seer invited, and I sank onto the cot. My terror was fading but not the repulsion I felt, and I could not look away from his face. I was exhausted. “Your gift is refused,” he went on with a half-smile. “I don’t lust after girls, or women either for that matter. I learned a long time ago that lust interferes with the Seeing. But I do not grieve. Power is more satisfying and lasting than sex.”
“Then you will not See for me!” I broke in with despair. For answer he took my palm and his alien, bloodless forefinger traced the lines on it. His touch was cold.
“You have no right to disappointment,” he retorted, “for what are you? I did not say that I would not divine for you, merely that I refused your gift—such as it is. You have an inflated view of your own worth, little peasant girl. Blue eyes,” he murmured to himself. He placed my hand back between my naked thighs and pulling another sheet from the cot bade me cover myself. “Few men have seen me,” he went on. “My servants, Pharaoh, the High Priests when I stand before the Gods to do my homage. You have been honoured, peasant, though you do not know it. Some I have killed for catching me unawares. You knew that, didn’t you?” I nodded. “Never forget it,” he said harshly. “I value loyalty above all else, because of what I am.”
“And Master, what are you?” I dared to ask. He examined my face again before replying, his expression inscrutable. The lamp sputtered and I saw the tiny flame become doubled and leap crimson in both of his eyes.
“I am not a demon. I am not a monster. I am a man,” he sighed, and in that moment my revulsion began to die. Genuine pity took its place, not the scornful pity I had felt for my father by the Nile but a gentle adult emotion. I shed a little, a very little, of my overwhelming selfishness. His sigh was soon spent. “Give me your forebears,” he ordered crisply and I did so.
“My mother is a native Egyptian, the midwife in Aswat as her mother was before her,” I explained, “but my father, who is now a farmer, was a Libu mercenary. He fought for Pharaoh Osiris Setnakht Glorified against the invaders and if our present Horus of Gold demanded it he would fight again. He is very handsome, our father.” He leaned forward.
“You have a sister, then?” I shook my head.
“No, a brother, Pa-ari. Father wants him to inherit his arouras when he dies but Pa-ari is going to be a scribe. He is very clever.”
“So you are the only daughter? And I suppose that you will be a midwife also?”
I twisted away from him. It was as though he had pressed the point of a knife against an open wound. “No! I don’t want to! Always I have wanted something else, something better, but already I am trapped! I am my mother’s apprentice, I am the good daughter, I will be the good wife to some good village man, good, good, good, and I don’t want any of it!” He reached out and took my chin in his cold grasp, turning my head. My blue eyes seemed to fascinate him, for he studied them again.
“Calm yourself,” he said. “Then what do you want?”
“Not this! I wanted to go to school but Father refused, so Pa-ari has been teaching me to read …” He folded his arms. I noticed that he was wearing a heavy gold ring, a serpent winding lazily around his finger.
“Indeed? You are full of surprises, my beautiful peasant. Oh? You did not know that you were beautiful? Well perhaps if I were your father I would not tell you either. And you say you can read. Here.” He rose, and going swiftly to a chest against the side wall he opened it, withdrew a papyrus scroll, and thrust it at me. “Tell me what this says.”
I was unrolling it as the guard returned. The Seer’s attention left me as he commanded the refreshments to be placed just inside the curtain, and I had a chance to look at the words. They were closely packed and very elegantly drawn so that I was tempted to sit there and admire the penmanship but I did not want to fail this test. By the time the man had picked up the tray and returned to the cot I had skimmed the contents of the scroll. I looked up at him hesitantly. He gestured.
“Well, go on!”
“To the Eminent Master Hui, Seer and Prophet of the Gods, greetings. Having upon your command journeyed to your estates in the Delta, and having sat down in council with your stewards of land, of cattle, of slaves and of grain, I assess your holdings at this harvest thus. Of land, fifty arouras. Of cattle, six hundred head. Of slaves, one hundred. Of grain, your granaries are full. Of wine, three hundred and fifty jars of Good Wine of the Western River. In the matter of the disputed boundary of the flax field with your neighbour, I have entered into an appeal for judgement with the mayor of Lisht who will hear the pleadings within the month. Touching upon …” He twitched the scroll from my hand and let it roll up.
“Very creditable,” he commented wryly. “So you did not lie. Your brother achieved this miracle? Do you know that very few women in the harem of the Great God can count the number of their fingers, let alone read? Can you write also?” I could see the beer and cakes on the edge of my vision.
“Not well,” I blurted. “I have had nothing to practise on.”
He must have sensed the direction of my attention for he flicked a hand to the tray and bade me eat and drink. True to my mother’s stern training I poured for him first, offering him the cup and the dish of cakes. He refused both and sat watching me as I gulped the beer and bit with relish into the cakes. They were lighter and sweeter than any I had tasted at home. I tried to chew them slowly. He continued to regard me, one foot up on the cot, an elbow resting on his knee and his cheek against his knuckles, then he got up, returned to the chest, and pulled out another scroll. This one he unrolled himself.
“What would you prescribe for a headache that has been intense and very sharp for more than three days?” he asked. I stopped eating and blinked at him, all at once aware that I was being tested. From the time he had lit the lamp and seen my blue eyes he had been probing me. I answered without too much trouble.
“Berries of the coriander, juniper, poppy and sames plants, crushed with wormwood and mixed in honey.”
“How do you administer?” I hesitated.
“By tradition the head should be smeared with the mixture, like a poultice, but my mother gets better results if the patient swallows it by the spoonful.” That cracked, dry laugh filled the cabin again.
“Your mother may be a peasant but she possesses some wisdom! And what may be used to make the met supple?” I stared at him. The met involved the health of all the nerves and blood vessels.