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Prisoner number 1790 collapsed, face down in the mud. Big-Feet had lost the will to live. After all these years in the death-camp at Sharuhen, in Canaan, the last of his strength had finally drained away.
Sharuhen was the rearward base of the Hyksos, who had occupied Egypt for more than a century and who had set up their capital at Avaris, in the Delta. Their supreme commander, Emperor Apophis, was not content merely to use his army and security forces to impose a reign of terror. Approving a tempting idea dreamed up by High Treasurer Khamudi, his faithful right-hand man, he had set up a prison camp at the foot of the fortress of Sharuhen, in a marshy and unhealthy area. In winter the winds were ice-cold, in summer the sun was mercilessly hot, and always the place was infested with mosquitoes and horseflies.
"Get up," urged Prisoner 2501, a thirty-year-old scribe who had lost a fifth of his body weight in three months.
"I can't go on any longer. Leave me alone."
"If you give up, Big-Feet, you'll die and then you'll never see your cows again."
Big-Feet wanted to die, but he wanted even more to see his herd again. No one knew how to care for his beasts the way he did.
Like many others, he had believed the Hyksos' lies. "Come and graze your scrawny animals on the lush Northern grasslands," they had said. "Once they are in good health again, you shall return home." In fact, the Hyksos had stolen the herds, killed any herdsmen who protested, and thrown the others into the death-camp at Sharuhen.
Big-Feet would never forgive them for separating him from his cows. He could have borne extra work, forced labor, arduous marches through the flooded lands, a pitiful recompense, but not that.
Prisoner 1790 clambered to his feet.
Like his companions in misfortune, he had suffered the horrible ordeal of being branded with his prison number, all the other prisoners being forced to watch. Anyone who turned away or closed his eyes was executed on the spot.
Big-Feet could still feel the appalling pain of the red-hot copper branding-iron. The louder the victim screamed, the longer the torture lasted. Several of the wounded had died from infection, because at Sharuhen there were neither doctors nor nurses, and no one was given the slightest care. Had he not been strong, naturally lean and accustomed to getting by on little food, the herdsman would have died long ago. At Sharuhen, big eaters lasted only a few months.
"Here, have a little stale bread."
Big-Feet did not refuse the sumptuous gift offered by his friend, who had been sent to the camp for keeping a hymn to Pharaoh Senusret in his house. Denounced by a neighbor, the scribe had been condemned as a dangerous conspirator and deported immediately. Emperor Apophis, the self-proclaimed pharaoh, did not permit references to Egypt's glorious past.
A frail little girl approached the two men. "You haven't got anything to eat, have you? I am so hungry."
Big-Feet was ashamed to have swallowed the scrap of bread so quickly. "Didn't the guards give you your rations today?" he asked.
"They forgot me."
"Didn't your mother ask them?"
"She died last night."
The child turned and went back to her mother's corpse. No one could do anything for her. If someone took her under their wing, she would be snatched away instantly and thrown to the whims of the mercenaries at the fortress.
"There's another convoy arriving," said the scribe.
The heavy wooden gate of the camp swung open, and the new prisoners straggled in. A tall woman with enormous hands was hitting some of the old men with a club, even though they could scarcely walk. One of them collapsed, his skull fractured. The others tried to hurry, in the hope of escaping the blows, but the Hyksos torturers did not spare a single one.
Eventually, astonished still to be alive, the strongest of the new arrivals got up very slowly, afraid of yet more torments. But their torturers were content to sneer at them.
"Welcome to Sharuhen!" shouted the lady Aberia. "Here, you will at last learn obedience. The living shall bury the dead and then clean up this camp. It's a real pigsty!" No worse insult could be uttered by a Hyksos, for they never ate pork.
Big-Feet and the scribe hurried to obey. Aberia liked the prisoners to prove their goodwill; any lack of enthusiasm for the task in hand led to torture.
They dug shallow ditches with their bare hands and threw in the bodies, unable to perform even the most perfunctory funerary rite. As always, Big-Feet addressed a silent prayer to the goddess Hathor, who welcomed the souls of the righteous into her bosom and whose incarnation was a cow, the most beautiful of all creatures.
"Tomorrow is the night of the new moon," announced Aberia with a cruel smile as she left the camp.
An old man who had arrived with the latest convoy came over to Big-Feet and asked, "May we speak?"
"Now that she has gone, yes."
"Why is that she-devil so preoccupied with the moon?"
"Because each time it is reborn she chooses a prisoner and slowly strangles him or her in front of the others."
Shoulders slumping, the old man sat down between prisoners 1790 and 2501. "What are those numbers on your arms?"
"Our prison numbers," replied the scribe. "First thing tomorrow, you and all the new prisoners will be branded."
"You mean...more than two thousand unfortunates have been deported here?"
"Many more," said Big-Feet. "A lot of prisoners died or were tortured to death before they could be reduced to a number."
The old man clenched his fists. "We must keep hope alive," he declared with unexpected vigour.
"Why?" asked the scribe in a cynical tone.
"Because the Hyksos are getting more and more worried.
In the Delta towns and at Memphis, resistance is being organized."
"The emperor's security guards will root it out."
"They have more than enough work on their hands, believe me."
"There are too many informants," said the scribe. "No one slips through the net."
"With my own hands I killed a papyrus-seller who had denounced a woman to the Hyksos militia because she refused to sleep with him. He was young and much stronger than I am, but I found the strength I needed to kill that monster and I don't regret it. Little by little, the people of Egypt are coming to understand that bowing the knee to the enemy leads only to slaughter. What the emperor wants is to wipe out all us Egyptians and replace us with Hyksos. They steal our goods, our lands, our houses, and they want to destroy our souls, too."
"That's what they're trying to do in this camp," said the scribe, his voice faltering.
"Apophis forgets that Egypt has a real reason to hope," blazed the old man.
Big-Feet's heart beat a little faster.
"The Queen of Freedom," went on the old man, "she's our hope. She will never give up the fight against Apophis."
"The Theban troops failed to capture Avaris," the scribe reminded him, "and Pharaoh Kamose is dead. Queen Ahhotep is in mourning and has gone to ground in her city. Sooner or later, the Hyksos will seize Thebes."
"You're wrong, I tell you! Queen Ahhotep has already worked a lot of miracles. She'll never give up."
"That's nothing but a myth. No one will ever defeat the Hyksos and no one will get us out of this camp alive. The Thebans don't even know it exists."
"Well, I believe in her," said Big-Feet. "The Queen of Freedom will enable me to see my cows again."
"In the meantime," advised Prisoner 2501, "we'd better get on with cleaning the prison, or we'll be flogged."
Four of the new arrivals died during the night. Big-Feet had just finished burying them the next morning, when Aberia stepped through the gates of the camp.
"Come on, quickly," he told the old man. "We must line up."
"I can't. I have a terrible pain in my chest."
"If you aren't on your feet, Aberia will beat you to death."
"I shan't give her the pleasure...Whatever else you do, my friend, hold on to hope." The old man's voice faded, and his death-rattle sounded. His heart had given out.
Big-Feet ran to join the others, who were drawn up in orderly ranks in front of Aberia. She was a good head taller than most of the prisoners.
"The time has come for some entertainment," she announced, "and I know you are eager to know the number of the lucky prisoner chosen to be the hero of our little celebration."
She stared greedily at each prisoner in turn. Here, Aberia held the power of life and death. As if she were not satisfied, she walked back up the rows, then halted before a man who was still young, a man who could not help shaking from head to foot.
"You, Prisoner 2501."
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