Authors: Lauren Haney
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
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Copyright (c) 1997 by Betty Winkelman Published by arrangement with the author Visit our website at http://www.AvonBooks.com Library of Congress Catalog Card Number. 97-93173 ISBN: 0-380-79266-4
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First Avon Books Printing: November 1997
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In memory of George Winkelman who urged me to "write what you know."
First and foremost, I wish to thank Dennis Forbes, editorial director of KMT.. A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, and James N. Frey, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, Extension. It's difficult to know to which of the two I owe the greatest debt. From Jim, I learned the craft of fiction writing. Dennis provided moral support and allowed me to mine his vast store of knowledge about ancient Egypt.
Archaeologia's Andrew Gordon and Arthur Richter, sellers of antiquarian books, came through at exactly the right time, allowing me to photocopy some crucial pages I needed while writing this novel.
Though it's not always easy to listen to reason, the critiques given by members of our Saturday writing group, past and present, were and still are invaluable.
Most of all, I wish to thank all those men and women who have contributed to our knowledge of ancient Egypt through study, excavation, and publication. Without their books, this book could never have been written.
Ancient Egypt, circa 1463 B.c.
18th Dynasty during the dual reign of Maatkare Hatshepsut and her stepson/nephew Menkheperre Tuthmose, with Queen Hatshepsut exercising full power
The characters in this novel are fictitious, creatures of the author's imagination, but the setting is authentic. The Belly of Stones and the ruined fortresses of Buhen and Iken, located about two hundred miles south of present-day Aswan, existed into the twentieth century.
At the time of this novel, the commandant of Buhen loosely administered a chain of at least ten fortresses strung along the Belly of Stones. This was the most rugged, desolate, and and portion of the Nile valley, and the river was filled with rapids and small islands, making it navigable only during the highest flood stage. Originally built several centuries earlier in the 12th Dynasty, these fortresses lay in various stages of ruin or repair. The garrison troops protected and controlled traffic through this natural corridor, collected tribute and tolls, and conducted punitive military expeditions.
The Medjays were initially desert-dwelling people of Lower Nubia. By the 18th Dynasty, they were men who served as law enforcement officers, maintaining order throughout Egypt and along the desert frontiers.
Cast of Characters
At the Fortress of Buhen
Lieutenant Bak - Officer in charge of the Medjay police
Sergeant Imsiba - Bak's second-in-command, a Medjay
Commandant Thuty - Officer in charge of the garrison of Buhen; has nominal command over the other garrison commanders; along the Belly of Stones
Troop Captain Nebwa - Thuty's second-in-command
Seneb - An Egyptian trader just back from Kush, far to the south
Meru - An old fisherman with a vast knowledge of the river
Nofery - Proprietress of a house of pleasure, Bak's local informant
Kenamon - Physician-priest from the capital city of Waset
Pashenuro and Kasaya - The two Medjays who accompany Bak to Iken
At the Fortress of Men
Commander Woser - Officer in charge of the garrison of Iken
Aset - Woser's beautiful daughter
Lieutenant Puemre - An unpopular infantry officer
Ramose - A deaf-mute child; Puemre's servant
Troop Captain Huy - Woser's second-in-command
Lieutenant Nebseny - Archery officer, a man who loves Aset
Lieutenant Senu - Garrison watch officer
Lieutenant Inyotef - River pilot; a man Bak knows from the past
Sennufer - Proprietor of a house of pleasure
Antef - A besotted potter who dreamed he saw a murder
Senmut - An armorer, a man who mourns Puemre
Mutnefer - Senmut's daughter; Puemre's housekeeper and more
Minnakht - Puemre's sergeant
Amon-Psaro - A powerful Kushite king
Amon-Karka - Amon-Psaro's ill son
Plus various and sundry soldiers, scribes, and townspeople
Those who walk the corridors of power in Kemet
Maatkare Hatshepsut - Queen of Kemet
Menkheperri Tuthmose - The queen's nephew; ostensibly shares the throne with his aunt
Nihisy - Chancellor
The Gods and Goddesses
Amon - The primary god during much of Egyptian history, especially the early 18th Dy nasty, the time of this story; takes the form of a human being
Horns of Buhen - A local version of the falcon god Horns
Maat - Goddess of truth and order; represented by a feather
Hapi - The river god
Hathor - A goddess with many attributes, such as motherhood, happiness, dancing and mu sic, war; often depicted as a cow
Osiris - A very ancient fertility god; king of the netherworld; shown as a man wrapped in a shroud
Re - The sun god
Khepre - The rising sun
The day was hot, sweltering. The kind of day when predators and prey alike hid among the rocks or under bushes or in the depths of the river. They hid not from each other but from the sun god Re, whose fiery breath drew the moisture from every animal and plant, from the life-giving river itself. Only man, the greatest predator of all, walked about.
Lieutenant Bak, commanding officer of the Medjay police, stood in the sun at the southern end of the long, narrow mudbrick fortification of Kor. Scattered around him were thirty or more donkeys and the baskets and bundles they had carried across the burning desert. A company of spearmen, a few sitting on the collapsed walls of a nearby building, looked on with avid interest, whispering among themselves. Beyond and to the left, four masons repairing a fallen wall sneaked a curious glance each time their overseer's attention faltered.
Sweat pickled down Bak's sun-bronzed face, broad chest, and muscular back, puddled in the crook of his arms, stained his thigh-length white kilt from waist to hem. A fly buzzed around his thick, short-cropped black hair. The sweet scent of cut grain, the ranker odor of manure tickled his nostrils and made him sneeze. He had never in his twenty-four years been so hot. And he had seldom been so disgusted.
"For a single grain of wheat, Seneb, I'd place this load on your back." With his baton of office he prodded several heavy lengths of ebony bound together with leather cords. "Then I'd take you into the desert and make you carry it day after day as you did these poor beasts."
"For every one donkey you see now, I had two before." Seneb's whine was as irritating as the wounded look he affected. "Could I leave so many precious objects behind when the officer at Semna took the other beasts from me?"
Bak's eyes shifted from the trader's round, fleshy face and portly body to the pathetic creatures around them: donkeys so emaciated their ribs protruded and so travel weary they could barely stand. All were galled from heavy, illbalanced loads and all had long, narrow open sores, the marks of a whip. The wounds crawled with flies.
His eyes moved on to the children huddled together in the narrow strip of shade beside the fortress wall. Five girls and two boys, none over ten years of age, hollow-eyed, half-starved, dusky skin caked with dirt, too weak and exhausted to show or even feel their terror. Bak had first seen them tied together in a line like the donkeys had been. A dark, hulking young Medjay policeman binding an ugly lash wound on the tallest girl's back glanced up now and then to give Seneb a look that promised murder. From the faces of the ten or so soldiers helping tend the children and animals, he was not alone in the feeling. Bak knew he had only to walk away and the trader would meet with an unfortunate, no doubt fatal, accident. As much as the thought appealed to him, he could not do so. His task was to serve Maat, the goddess of right and order, not balance the scale of justice as it suited him.
The scribe Whose task it was to collect tolls had summoned Bak from the fortress-city of Buhen to the lesser fortress of Kor. Of no strategic importance, with bleak, unpainted walls in a state of disrepair, Kor was a place of shelter for troops marching through the area and for merchant caravans. As the river upstream was impassable to navigation much of the year, ships docked here to off-load trade goods coveted by the tribal kings living far to the south and to take on board the exotic and precious objects the traders received in return.
"Were the animals confiscated in Semna as unfit to travel as these?" Bak asked the trader. "Is that why you didn't report at Iken as you were supposed to?"
Sweat beaded on Seneb's face, reddened from the sun and the effort of justifying his actions. "I thought it best to come on while the creatures. . ." He clamped his mouth shut, realizing his mistake.
"While they still could walk?" Bak snapped. "Before they and those children died of starvation, thirst, exhaustion?"
Seneb's spine stiffened with indignation. "If anyone is to blame for their disreputable state, it's the inspecting officer at Iken. He looks upon me with hatred and would make any excuse to take what is mine. I dared not stop, though my heart bled for my servants, the children, and these weary beasts."
"I see no blood on your kilt, Seneb, only on your hands."
"You accuse me wrongly, sir. I've dealt out punishment, yes, but only when due and only in moderation."
Bak nudged with a toe the five whips lying on the sand by his feet, leather whips knotted at the end to hurt more. "These speak louder than you, Seneb. And when with kindness we steal the fear from the tongues of the children, they'll speak louder yet."
"You'd accept the word of those wretched savages over that of a respectable man of Kemet?"
Bak beckoned Psuro, the burly, pockmarked Medjay guarding Seneb's four servants, men as dark as Psuro but taller, reed-thin, naked, bought and paid for like the rest of the trader's possessions. Each man stood with his arms behind his back, wrists clamped together in wooden manacles. "Shackle this swine." Bak eyed Seneb with contempt.
"He'll remain our prisoner until he stands before Commandant Thuty for judgment."
"You can't do this to me!" Seneb cried. "Who'll care for my merchandise, the fruits of my labor through the long months I spent upriver?"
Bak scowled at the contents of the baskets and bundles they had taken off the donkeys: long, heavy lengths of ebony; skins of the leopard and the long-haired monkey and other creatures he did not know; ostrich eggs and feathers; pottery jars filled with precious oils. Two wooden cages held live animals, a half-grown lion in one, three young baboons in another, all emaciated and panting from the heat.
"The donkeys will be cared for here," he said in a hard voice. "The wild creatures and children will go to Buhen for the care they need, and the rest will go into the treasury.
"You can't confiscate all I possess!"
"Take this cur and the others to Buhen, Psuro."
Seneb stretched himself to his greatest height. "I'll have your head for this, Lieutenant."
"Need I point out that my property and yours and that of every man of Kemet belongs in fact to the royal house?" Bak gave him a humorless smile. "I'll not be made to suffer for eliminating you as the middle man between the land of Kush and our sovereign, Maatkare Hatshepsut. You've misused what by right is hers."
Seneb's face paled.
Bak's head swiveled toward Psuro. "If by chance he falls overboard while you take them downriver, so be it." He spoke more for the Medjay's benefit than Seneb's, for by airing the thought, Psuro would be bound to see his charge safe in Buhen.
"No!" the trader cried. "I can't swim! No!"
Psuro shoved Seneb onto his knees and, with the speed of long practice, lashed his wrists within the manacles so tightly he whimpered. Bak caught a glint of satisfaction in the eyes of the five silent children.
He had no time to dwell on his own satisfaction. His Medjay sergeant, Imsiba, strode through the group of watching spearmen, eyed Seneb's animals, and muttered an oath in the tongue of his homeland. Then he spotted the children. The skin tightened across his dark face, he balled his hands into fists, veered toward the bound trader. Seneb saw him coming and cringed.
"No, Imsiba!" Bak lunged toward the sergeant, grabbed an arm bulging with rock-solid muscle. "It's the commandant's task to see him punished, not yours."
Imsiba stared at the trader with smoldering eyes. "I trust he'll not be lenient, my friend, for if he is. . ." "Lenient?" Bak's laugh held no humor. "You've seen Thuty balance the scales of justice many times. He knows not the meaning of the word." He signaled Psuro to take the prisoners away. Not until the spearmen parted to let them by did he think it safe to release Imsiba's arm. "Now what brought you to Kor?"
The big Medjay tore his gaze from Seneb's back. "So angry was I that I forgot my purpose. The commandant has summoned you." His voice turned ominous. "You and Nebwa."
Bak glanced at the sun, well past midday, and groaned. "Nebwa crossed the river hours ago, Imsiba. I doubt he can stand by this time, let alone appear before Commandant Thuty."
"Tell him you couldn't find me. Say to him..." Troop Captain Nebwa teetered, spread his legs wide for balance, grinned across the rim of his chipped drinking bowl. "Say I went off into the desert, so disappointed was I that you and Imsiba, men closer to me than brothers, couldn't share my good fortune this day."
Laughter erupted from twenty or more men lounging on the shade-dappled sand among a grove of date palms. Their burned and peeling skin identified them as spearmen in Nebwa's infantry company not long back from desert patrol. The sweetish scent of date wine mingled with the rank odor of their sweat.
"Nebwa!" Bak wanted to grab one of several thigh-high pottery water jars leaning against the decaying mudbrick dwelling behind them and pour every drop over his friend's head. "Do you want the commandant to strip you of your Nebwa gave him a mournful look. "He has sons. Has he never celebrated their birth?"
His sergeant, Ptahmose, came through the door of the building, followed by a wrinkled old man carrying an unplugged jar of the pungent wine. Nebwa held out his bowl. The short, swarthy sergeant, a balding man with hard, stringy muscles, took in the scene at a glance and motioned the old man back inside.
Bak was glad Ptahmose, at least, had imbibed with greater caution. He reached for his friend's arm. "Come, Nebwa."
The officer backed away and lifted his bowl high. "She's my morning star, shining bright, the fairest of the fair." He stopped, laughed. "She's not fair!" He pivoted, flinging his arms wide. Wine sloshed from his bowl. "She's as dark as night and as seductive!" He grabbed Imsiba, pulled him close, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "A woman of great worth who's just given me my firstborn son."
Imsiba listed beneath the officer's weight. "The gods have indeed smiled on you, Nebwa. But not for long, I fear, if you don't soon report to Commandant Thuty."
Bak eyed the pair. Untidy, coarse-featured Nebwa, second in rank to the commandant of Buhen, was tall and muscular, as sunburned as his men, about thirty years old. And Imsiba, half a hand taller, a few years older, was as dark as obsidian, as lithe and sleek as a lion. Bak thought of the time not many months before when Nebwa had believed all Medjays of small worth and Imsiba had looked on the officer with contempt. To see them together as friends was usually a pleasure, but to see Nebwa so besotted robbed much of the joy from his heart.
"Imsiba knows of what he speaks," Ptahmose said. "The commandant is not a man of great patience."
Bak stood before his friend, gripped his shoulders, and shook him. "Do you want your son always to remember his birth as the day his father threw away all chance of reaching the rank of commandant?"
"I've no wish to disgrace myself," Nebwa mumbled. "Then you must come with us. Now." Bak emphasized the final word with another shake.
Nebwa slipped away from the offending hands and raised his bowl to Ptahmose and the revelers. "Stay, my brothers, and enjoy yourselves. With luck, I'll be back before nightfall." He slugged down the rest of his wine, gave the bowl a last regretful look, and threw it into a clump of dusty, bedr4ggled weeds.
Ptahmose eyed his unsteady superior. "I'd better come along, too."
"I've no need for a wet nurse," Nebwa growled. "We've a skiff to return to its owner." Ptahmose winked at Bak. "If I drop you on the quay and take it to the village by myself, you can report to the commandant that much sooner."
Bak caught Nebwa's arm and aimed him toward a small stand of acacias growing beside the river, a glistening stretch of water more than two hundred paces to the west, water they had to cross to reach Buhen. With the two sergeants close behind, they headed across a sun-drenched field covered with the golden stubble of cut grain.
Nebwa stumbled on an unbroken clod, laughed at himself and the world in general. "I've a son, my brothers, a son!" He raised his hands high and whooped, "I've a son!"
A flock of startled pigeons rose from the stubble, their wings whirring overhead. A man kneeling in a nearby field turned around to look, shading his eyes with a spray of green onions.
Nebwa began to hum, droning on and on with no discernible melody. A distant donkey brayed, a dog yipped. The remainder of the oasis, sheltered within a long arc of sandy hills, was silent and still, men and beasts alike escaping from the heat in shady groves and mudbrick houses. Except for a few isolated plots, the fields were bare of produce, the irrigation ditches dry, the weeds limp. Trees and bushes were clothed in dust and brittle with thirst. The sky overhead was white-hot, the lord Re a fiery ball sinking toward the horizon.
The near silence, the dormant land, even the erratic breeze carrying heat and dust from the desert wastes, gave Bak a sense of waiting, of anticipation. The river had begun to swell less than a week before, and he felt as if the land around him, this land of Wawat, had paused to rest before the floodwaters overflowed the earth to bring forth new life.
Regretting the need to tarnish his friend's glow, Bak stopped at the river's edge. The acacias clung to the rim of the steep, crumbling bank, their trunks leaning toward the broad expanse of water as if offering homage to Hapi, the god of the river. On the opposite shore and a short distance upstream, the great fortress of Buhen was barely visible in the haze, its stark white walls melting into the pale sandhills behind them.