Like an uncoiling serpent, a line of fighting chariots wound swiftly down the gut of the valley. From where he clung to the dashboard of the leading chariot the boy looked up at the cliffs that hemmed them in. The sheer rock was pierced by the openings to the tombs of the old people that honeycombed the cliff. The dark pits stared down at him like the implacable eyes of a legion of djinn. Prince Nefer Memnon shuddered and looked away, furtively making the sign to avert evil with his left hand.
Over his shoulder he glanced back down the column and saw that from the following chariot Taita was watching him through the swirling clouds of dust. The dust had coated the old man and his vehicle with a pale film, and a single shaft of sunlight that penetrated to the depths of this deep valley glittered on the mica particles so that he seemed to glow like the incarnation of one of the gods. Nefer ducked his head guiltily, ashamed that the old man had witnessed his fleeting superstitious dread. No royal prince of the House of Tamose should show such weakness, not now when he stood at the gateway to manhood. But, then, Taita knew him as no other did, for he had been Nefer's tutor since infancy, closer to him than his own parents or siblings. Taita's expression never changed but even at that distance his ancient eyes seemed to bore into the core of Nefer's being. Seeing all, understanding all.
Nefer turned back and drew himself up to his full height beside his father, who flipped the reins and urged the horses on with a crack of the long whip. Ahead of them the valley opened abruptly into the great amphitheatre that contained the stark and tumbled ruins of the city of Gallala. Nefer thrilled to his first sight of this famous battlefield. As a young man Taira, himself, had fought on this site when the demigod Tanus Lord Harrab had destroyed the dark forces that were threatening this very Egypt. That had been over sixty years ago but Taita had related to him every detail of the fight, and so vivid was his story-telling that Nefer felt as if he had been there on that fateful day.
Nefer's father, the god and Pharaoh Tamose, wheeled the chariot up to the tumbled stones of the rained gateway, and reined in the horses. Behind them a hundred chariots in succession neatly executed the same manoeuvre, and the charioteers swarmed down from the footplates to begin watering the horses. When Pharaoh opened his mouth to speak the coated dust crumbled from his cheeks and dribbled down his chest.
'My lord!' Pharaoh hailed the Great Lion of Egypt, Lord Naja, his army commander and beloved companion. 'We must be away again before the sun touches the hilltops. I wish to make a night run through the dunes to El Gabar.'
The blue war crown on Tamose's head gleamed with mica dust, and his eyes were bloodshot with tiny lumps of tear-wet mud in the comers as he glanced down at Nefer. 'This is where I will leave you to go on with Taita.'
Although he knew that it was futile to protest, Nefer opened his mouth to do so. The squadron was going in against the enemy. Pharaoh Tamose's battle plan was to circle south through the Great Dunes and weave a way between the bitter natron lakes to take the enemy in his rear and rip an opening in his centre through which the Egyptian legions, massed and waiting on the Nile bank before Abnub, could pour. Tamose would combine the two forces and before the enemy could rally, drive on past Tell el-Daba and seize the enemy citadel of Avaris.
It was a bold and brilliant plan which, if it succeeded, would bring to a close, at one stroke, the war with the Hyksos that had already raged through two lifetimes. Nefer had been taught that battle and glory were the reasons for his existence on this earth. But, even at the advanced age of fourteen years, they had so far eluded him. He longed wish all his soul to ride to victory and immortality at his father's side.
Before his protest could pass his lips, Pharaoh forestalled him. 'What is the first duty of a warrior?' he demanded of the boy.
Nefer dropped his eyes. 'It is obedience, Majesty,' he replied softly, reluctantly.
'Never forget it.' Pharaoh nodded and turned away.
Nefer felt himself spurned and discarded. His eyes smarted and his upper lip quivered, but Taira's gaze stiffened him. He blinked to clear his vision of tears, and took a pull from the waterskin that hung on the side rail of the chariot before turning to the old Magus with a jaunty toss of his thick dust-caked curls. 'Show me the monument, Tata,' he commanded.
The ill-assorted pair made their way through the concourse of chariots, men and horses that choked the narrow street of the ruined city. Stripped naked in the heat twenty troopers had climbed down the deep shafts to the ancient wells, and formed a bucket chain to bring the sparse, bitter water to the surface. Once those wells had been bountiful enough to support a rich and populous city that sat full upon the trade route between the Nile and the Red Sea. Then, centuries ago, an earthquake had shattered the water-bearing stratum and blocked the subterranean flow. The city of Gallala had died of thirst. Now there was scarcely sufficient water to slake the thirst of two hundred horses and top up the waterskins before the wells were dry.
Taita led Nefer through the narrow lanes, past temples and palaces now inhabited only by the lizard and the scorpion, until they reached the deserted central square. In its centre stood the monument to Lord Tanus and his triumph over the armies of bandits who had almost choked the life out of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. The monument was a bizarre pyramid of human skulls, cemented together and protected by a shrine made of red rock slabs. A thousand and more skulls grinned down upon the boy as he read aloud the inscription on the stone portico: 'Our severed heads bear witness to the battle at this place in which we died beneath the sword of Tanus Lord Harrab. May all the generations that follow learn from that mighty lord's deeds the glory of the gods and the power of righteous men. Thus decreed in the fourteenth year of the reign of the God Pharaoh Mamose.'
Squatting in the monument's shadow Taita watched the Prince as he walked around the monument, pausing every few paces with hands on hips to study it from every angle. Although Taira's expression was remote his eyes were fond. His love for the lad had its origins in two other lives. The first of these was Lostris, Queen of Egypt. Taita was a eunuch, but he had been gelded after puberty and had once loved a woman. Because of his physical mutilation Taita's love was pure, and he had lavished it all on Queen Lostris, Nefer's grandmother. It was a love so encompassing that even now, twenty years after her death, it stood at the centre of his existence.
The other person from whom his love for Nefer sprang was Tanus, Lord Harrab, to whom this monument had been erected. He had been dearer than a brother to Taita. They were both gone now, Lostris and Tanus, but their blood mingled strongly in this child's veins. From their illicit union so long ago had sprung the child who had grown up to become the Pharaoh Tamose, who now led the squadron of chariot that had brought them here; the father of Prince Nefer.
'Tats, show me where it was that you captured the leader of the robber barons.' Nefer's voice cracked with excitement and the onset of puberty. 'Was it here?' He ran to the broken-down wall at the south side of the square. 'Tell me the story again.'
'No, it was here. This side,' Taita told him, stood up and strode on those long, stork-thin legs to the eastern wall. He looked up to the crumbling summit. 'The ruffian's name was Shufti, and he was one-eyed and ugly as the god Seth. He was trying to escape from the battle by climbing over the wall up there.' Taita stooped and picked up half of a baked-mud brick from the rubble and suddenly hurled it upwards. It sailed over the top of the high wall. 'I cracked his skull and brought him down with a single throw.'
Even though Nefer knew, at first hand, the old man's strength, and that his powers of endurance were legend, he was astonished by that throw. He is old as the mountains, older than my grandmother, for he nursed her as he has done me, Nefer marvelled. Men say he has witnessed two hundred inundations of the Nile and that he built the pyramids with his own hands. Then aloud he asked, 'Did you hack off his head, Tata, and place it on that pile there?' He pointed at the grisly monument.
'You know the story well enough, for I have told it to you a hundred times.' Taira feigned modest reluctance to extol his own deeds.
'Tell me again!' Nefer ordered.
Taita sat down on a stone block while Nefer settled at his feet in happy anticipation and listened avidly, until the rams' horns of the squadron sounded the recall with a blast that shattered into diminishing echoes along the black cliffs. 'Pharaoh summons us,' Taita said, and stood up to lead the way back through the gate.
There was a great bustle and scurry outside the walls, as the squadron made ready to go on into the dune lands. The waterskins were bulging again and the troopers were checking and tightening the harness of their teams before mounting up.
Pharaoh Tamose looked over the heads of his staff as the pair came through the gateway, and summoned Taita to his side with an inclination of his head. Together they walked out of earshot of the squadron officers. Lord Naja made as if to join them. Taita whispered a word to Pharaoh, then Tamose turned and sent Naja back with a curt word. The injured lord, flushed with mortification, shot a look at Taita that was fierce and sharp as a war arrow.
'You have offended Naja. Someday I might not be at hand to protect you,' Pharaoh warned.
'We dare trust no man,' Taita demurred. 'Not until we crush the head of the serpent of treachery that tightens its coils around the pillars of your palace. Until you return from this campaign in the north only the two of us must know where I am taking the Prince.'
'But Naja!' Pharaoh laughed dismissively. Naja was like a brother. They had run the Red Road together.
'Even Naja.' Taita said no more. His suspicions were at last hardening into certainty, but he had not yet gathered all the evidence he would need to convince Pharaoh.
'Does the Prince know why you are going into the fastness of the desert?' Pharaoh asked.
'He knows only that we are going to further his instruction in the mysteries, and to capture his godbird.'
'Good, Taita.' Pharaoh nodded. 'You were ever secretive but true. There is nothing more to say, for we have said it all. Now go, and may Horus spread his wings over you and Nefer.'
'Look to your own back, Majesty, for in these days enemies are standing behind you as well as to your front.'
Pharaoh grasped the Magus' upper arm and squeezed hard. Under his fingers the arm was thin but hard as a dried acacia branch. Then he went back to where Nefer waited beside the wheel of the royal chariot, with the injured air of a puppy ordered back to its kennel.
'Divine Majesty, there are younger men than me in the squadron.' The Prince made one last despairing effort to persuade his father that he should ride with the chariots. Pharaoh knew that the boy was right, of course. Meren, the grandson of the illustrious General Kratas, was his junior by three days and today was riding with his father as lance bearer in one of the rear chariots. 'When will you allow me to ride into battle with you, Father?'
'Perhaps when you have run the Red Road. Then not even I will gainsay you.'
It was a hollow promise, and they both knew it. Running the Red Road was the onerous test of horsemanship and weapons that few warriors attempted. It was an ordeal that drained,
dn0 exhausted and often killed even a strong man in his prime and trained to near perfection. Nefer was a long way from that day.
Then Pharaoh's forbidding expression softened and he gripped his son's arm in the only show of affection he would allow himself before his troops. 'Now it is my command that you go with Taita into the desert to capture your godbird, and thus to prove your royal blood and your right one day to wear the double crown.'
Nefer and the old man stood together beside the shattered walls of Gallala and watched the column fly past. Pharaoh led it, the reins wrapped around his wrists, leaning back against the pull of the horses, his chest bare, linen skirts whipping around his muscular legs, the Blue War Crown on his head rendering him tall and godlike.
Next came Lord Naja almost as tall, almost as handsome. His mien was haughty and proud, the great recurved bow slung over his shoulder. Naja was one of the mightiest warriors of this very Egypt and his name had been given to him as a title of honour. Naja was the sacred cobra in the royal uraeus crown. Pharaoh Tamose had bestowed it upon him on the day that, together they had won through the ordeal of the Red Road.
Naja did not deign to glance in Nefer's direction. Pharaoh's chariot had plunged into the mouth of the dark gorge before the last vehicle in the column went racing past where Nefer stood. Meren, his friend and companion of many illicit boyhood adventures, laughed in his face and made an obscene gesture, then raised his voice mockingly above the whine and rattle of the wheels. 'I will bring you the head of Apepi as a toy,' he promised, and Nefer hated him as he sped away. Apepi was the King of the Hyksos, and Nefer needed no toys: he was a man now, even if his father refused to recognize it.
The two were silent for long after Meren's chariot had disappeared, and the dust had settled. Then Taita turned without a word and went to where their horses were tethered. He tightened the surcingle around his mount's chest, hiked up his kilts and swung up with the limber movement of a much younger man. Once astride the animal's bare back he seemed to become one with it. Nefer remembered that legend related he had been the very first Egyptian to master the equestrian arts. He still bore the title Master of Ten Thousand Chariots, bestowed upon him with the Gold of Praise by two pharaohs in their separate reigns.
Certain it was that he was one of the few men who dared -to ride astride. Most Egyptians abhorred this practice, considering it somehow obscene and undignified, not to mention risky. Nefer had no such qualms and as he vaulted up on to the back of his favourite colt, Stargazer, his black mood started to evaporate. By the time they had reached the crest of the hills above the ruined city he was almost his usual ebullient self. He cast one last longing glance at the feather of distant dust left on the northern horizon by the squadron then firmly turned his back upon it. 'Where are we going, Tata?' he demanded. 'You promised to tell me once we were on the road.'
Taita was always reticent and secretive, but seldom to the degree that he had been over the matter of their ultimate destination on this journey. 'We are going to Gebel Nagara,' Taita told him.
Nefer had never heard the name before, but he repeated it softly. It had a romantic, evocative ring. Excitement and anticipation made the back of his neck prickle, and he looked ahead into the great desert. An infinity of jagged and bitter hills stretched away to a horizon blue with heat haze and distance. The colours of the raw rocks astounded the eye: they were the sullen blue of stormclouds, yellow as a weaver bird's plumage, or red as wounded flesh, and bright as crystal. The heat made them dance and quiver.
Taita looked down on this terrible place with a sense of nostalgia and homecoming. It was into this wilderness that he had retired after the death of his beloved Queen Lostris, at first creeping away like a wounded animal. Then, as the years passed and some of the pain with them, he had found himself drawn once more to the mysteries and the way of the great god Horus. He had gone into the wilderness as a physician and a surgeon, as a master of the known sciences. Alone in the fastness of the desert he had discovered the key to gates and doorways of the mind and the spirit beyond which few men ever journey. He had gone in a man but had emerged as a familiar of the great god Horus and an adept of strange and arcane mysteries that few men even imagined.
Taita had only returned to the world of men when his queen Lostris had visited him in a dream as he slept in his hermit's cave at Gebel Nagara. Once more she had been a fifteen-year-old maiden, fresh and nubile, a desert rose in its first bloom with the dew upon its petals. Even as he slept his heart had swollen with love and threatened to burst his chest asunder.
'Darling Taita,' Lostris had whispered, as she touched his cheek and stirred him awake, 'you were one of the only two men I have ever loved. Tanus is with me now, but before you can come to me also there is one more charge that I lay upon you. You never once failed me. I know that you will not fail me now, will you, Taita?'
'I am yours to command, mistress.' His voice echoed strangely in his ears.
'In Thebes, my city of a hundred gates, this night is born a child. He is the son of my own son. They will name this child Nefer, which means pure and perfect in body and spirit. My longing is that he carry my blood and the blood of Tanus to the throne of Upper Egypt. But great and diverse perils already gather around the babe. He cannot succeed without your help. Only you can protect and guide him. These years you have spent alone in the wilderness, the skills and knowledge you have acquired here were to that purpose alone. Go to Nefer. Go now swiftly and stay with him until your task is completed. Then come to me, darling Taita. I will be waiting for you and your poor mutilated manhood shall be restored to you. You will be whole and entire when next you stand by my side, your hand in my hand. Do not fail me, Taita.'
'Never!' Taita had cried in the dream. 'In your life I never failed you. I will not fail you now in death.'
'I know you will not.' Lostris smiled a sweet, haunting smile, and her image faded into the desert night. He woke, with his face wet with tears, and gathered up his few possessions. He paused at the cave entrance only to check his direction by the stars. Instinctively, he looked for the bright particular star of the goddess. On the seventieth day after the Queen's death, on the night that the long ritual of her embalmment had been completed, that star had appeared suddenly in the heavens, a great red star that glowed where none had been before. Taita picked it out and made obeisance to it. Then he strode away into the western desert, back towards the Nile and the city of Thebes, beautiful Thebes of a hundred gates.
That had been over fourteen years ago, and now he hungered for the silent places, for only here could his powers grow back to their full strength, so that he could carry through the charge that Lostris had laid upon him. Only here could he pass some of that strength on to the Prince. For he knew that the dark powers of which she had warned him were gathering around them.
'Come!' he said to the boy. 'Let us go down and take your godbird.'
0n the third night after leaving Gallala, when the constellation of the Wild Asses made its zenith in the northern night sky, Pharaoh halted the squadron to water the horses and to eat a hasty meal of sun-dried meat, dates and cold dhurra millet cakes. Then he ordered the mount-up. There was no sounding of the ram's horn trumpet now for they were into the territory where often the patrolling Hyksosian chariots ranged.
The column started forward again at the trot. As they went on the landscape changed dramatically. They were out of the bad lands at last, back into the foothills above the river valley. Below them they could make out the strip of dense vegetation, distant and dark in the moonlight, that marked the course of great Mother Nile. They had completed the wide circuit around Abnub and were in the rear of the main Hyksosian army on the river. Although they were a tiny force to go in against such an enemy as Apepi, they were the best charioteers in the armies of Tamose, which made them the finest in the world. Moreover, they held the element of surprise.
When Pharaoh had first proposed this strategy and told them he would lead the expedition in person, his war council had opposed him with all the vehemence they could muster against the word of a god. Even old Kratas, once the most reckless and savage warrior in all the armies of Egypt, had torn at his thick white beard and bellowed, 'By Seth's ragged and festering foreskin, I did not change your shit-smeared swaddling sheet so that I could send you straight into the loving arms of Apepi.' He was perhaps the one man who might dare to speak to a godking in this fashion. 'Send another to do such menial work. Lead the breakthrough column yourself if it amuses you, but do not disappear into the desert to be devoured by ghouls and djinn. You are Egypt. If Apepi takes you he takes us all.'
Of all the council only Naja had supported him, but Naja was always loyal and true. Now they had won through the desert, and were into the enemy rear. In tomorrow's dawn they would make the one desperate charge that would split Apepi's army, and allow five more of Pharaoh's squadrons, a thousand chariots, to come boiling through to join him. Already he had the melliferous taste of victory on his tongue. Before the next full moon he would dine in the halls of Apepi's palace in Avaris.
It was almost two centuries since the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt had been split apart. Since then either an Egyptian usurper or a foreigner invader had ruled in the northern kingdom. It was Tamose's destiny to drive out the Hyksos and unite the two lands once more. Only then could he wear the double crown with justification and the approval of all the ancient gods.
The night air blew in his face, cool enough to numb his cheeks, and his lance-bearer crouched low behind the dashboard to shield himself. The only sound was the crunch of the chariot wheels over the coarse gravel, the lances rattling softly in their scabbards, and the occasional low warning cry of 'Beware! Hole!' passed on down the column.
Suddenly the wide wadi of Gebel Wadun opened ahead of him and Pharaoh Tamose reined down the team. The wadi was the smooth roadway that would lead them down on to the flat alluvial plain of the river. Pharaoh tossed the reins to his lance bearer and vaulted down to earth. He stretched his stiff, aching limbs and, without turning, heard the sound of Naja's chariot come up behind him. A low command and the wheels crunched into silence, then Naja's light firm footsteps came to his side. 'From here the danger of discovery will be stronger,' Naja said, 'Look down there.' He pointed with a long, muscular arm over Pharaoh's shoulder. Where the wadi debouched on to the plain below them a single light showed, the soft yellow glow of an oil-lamp. 'That is the village of El Wadun. That is where our spies will be waiting to lead us through the Hyksosian pickets. I will go ahead to the rendezvous to make safe the way. Do you wait here, Majesty, and I will return directly.'
'I will go with you,'
'I beg you. There may be treachery, Mem.' He used the King's childhood name. 'You are Egypt. You are too precious to risk.'
Pharaoh turned to look into the beloved face, lean and handsome. Naja's teeth gleamed white in the starlight as he smiled, and Pharaoh touched his shoulder lightly but with trust and affection. 'Go swiftly, and return as swiftly,' he acceded.
Naja touched his own heart, and ran back to his chariot. He saluted again as he wheeled past where the king stood, and Tamose smiled as he returned the salute then watched him go down the side of the wadi. When he reached the flat hard sand of the dry riverbed, Naja whipped up the horses, and they sped down towards the village of El Wadun. The chariot left black-shaded wheel-tracks behind it on the silvery sands, before it disappeared beyond the first bend of the wadi. When it had gone Pharaoh walked back down the waiting column, speaking quietly to the troopers, calling many by name, laughing softly with them, encouraging and cheering them. Small wonder they loved him, and followed him so gladly wherever he led them.
Lord Naja drove warily, hugging the south bank of the dry riverbed. Every now and then he glanced upwards at the crest of the hills, until at last he recognized the tower of wind-blasted rock that leaned slightly askew against the skyline, and.grunted with satisfaction. A little further on he reached the point where a faint footpath left the wadi bottom and wound up the steep slope to the foot of the ancient watch-tower.
With a curt word to his lance bearer he jumped down from the footplate, and adjusted the cavalry bow over his shoulder. Then he unslung the clay fire-pot from the rail of the chariot, and started up the pathway. It was so well disguised that if he had not memorized every turn and twist he would have lost his way a dozen times before he reached the top.
At last he stepped out on to the upper rampart of the tower. It had been built many centuries ago and was in ruinous condition. He did not approach the edge for there was a precipitous drop into the valley below. instead he found the bundle of dry faggots hidden in the niche of the wall where he had left it and dragged it into the open. Quickly he built up a tiny pyramid of the kindling, then blew on the charcoal nuggets in the fire-pot, and when they glowed he crumbled a handful of dried grass on to them. They burst into flame and he lit the small signal beacon. He made no attempt to hide himself but stood out where a watcher below would see him illuminated on the height of the tower. The flames died away as the kindling was consumed. Naja sat down to wait in the darkness.
A short while later he heard a pebble rattle on the stony path below the walls and he whistled sharply. His signal was returned, and he stood up. He loosened the bronze blade of his sickle sword in its scabbard and nocked an arrow in the bow, standing ready for an instant draw. Moments later a harsh voice called to him in the Hyksosian language. He replied fluently and naturally in the same tongue, and the footsteps of at least two men sounded on, the stone ramp.
Not even Pharaoh knew that Naja's mother had been Hyksosian. In the decades of their occupation the invaders had adopted many of the Egyptian ways. With a dearth of their own women to choose from, many of the Hyksos had taken Egyptian wives, and over the generations the blood-lines had become blurred.
li0A tall man stepped out on to the rampart. He wore a skull-hugging basinet of bronze, and multi-coloured ribbons were tied in his full beard. The Hyksos dearly loved bright colours.
He opened his arms. 'The blessing of Seueth on you, cousin,' he growled, as Naja stepped into his embrace.
'And may he smile on you also, Cousin Trok, but we have little time,' Naja warned him, and indicated the first light fingers of the dawn stroking the eastern heavens with a lover's touch.
'You are right, coz.' The Hyksosian general. broke. the -embrace- and turned to take a linen-wrapped bundle from his lieutenant, who stood close behind him. He handed it to Naja, who unwrapped it as he kicked life back into the beacon fire. In the light of the flames he inspected the arrow quiver it contained. It was carved from a light tough wood and covered with finely tooled and stitched leather. The workmanship was superb. This was the accoutrement of a high-ranking officer. Naja twisted free the stopper and drew one of the arrows from the container. He examined it briefly, spinning the shaft between his fingers to check its balance and symmetry.
The Hyksosian arrows were unmistakable. The fletching feathers were dyed with the bright colours of the archer's regiment and the shaft was branded with his personal signet. Even if the initial strike was not fatal, the flint arrowhead was barbed and bound to the shaft in such a way that if a surgeon attempted to draw the arrow from a victim's flesh, the head would detach from the shaft and remain deep in the wound channel, there to putrefy and cause a lingering, painful death. Flint was much harder than bronze, and would not bend nor flatten if it struck bone.
Naja slipped the arrow back into the quiver and replaced the stopper. He had not taken the chance of bringing such distinctive missiles with him in his chariot. If discovered in his kit by his groom or lance-bearer, its presence would be remembered, and difficult to explain away.
'There is much that we still should discuss.' Naja squatted down and gestured for Trok to do the same. They talked quietly until at last Naja rose. 'Enough! Now we both know what must be done. The time for action has at last arrived.'
'Let the gods smile upon our enterprise.' Trok and Naja embraced again, and then, without another word, Naja left him, ran lightly down the rampart of the tower and took the narrow path down the hill.
Before he reached the bottom he found a place to cache the quiver. It was a niche where the rock had been split open by the roots of a thom tree. Over the quiver he placed a rock the size and roughly the shape of a.horse's head. The twisted upper branches of the tree formed a distinctive cross against the night sky. He would recognize the place again without difficulty.
Then he went on down the path to where his chariot stood in the wadi bottom.
Pharaoh Tamose saw the chariot returning, - and knew by the impetuous manner in which Naja drove that something untoward was afoot. Quietly he ordered the squadron to mount up and stand with drawn weapons, ready to meet any eventuality.
Naja's chariot rattled up the pathway from the wadi bottom. The moment it drew level with where Pharaoh waited he sprang down.
'What's amiss?' Tamose demanded.
'A blessing from the gods,' Naja told him, unable to stop his voice shaking with excitement. 'They have delivered Apepi defenceless into our power.
'How is that possible?'
'My spies have led me to where the enemy king is encamped but a short distance from where we now stand. His tents are set up just beyond the first line of hills, yonder.' He pointed back with his drawn sword.
'Can you be certain it is Apepi?' Tamose could barely control his own excitement.
'I saw him clearly in the light of his campfire. Every detail of his features. His great beaked nose and beard shot with silver shining in the firelight. There is no mistaking such stature. He towers above all those around him, and wears the vulture crown on his head.'
'What is his strength?' Pharaoh demanded.
'With his usual arrogance he has a bodyguard of less than fifty. I have counted them, and half of them are asleep, their lances stacked. He suspects nothing and his watchfires bum bright. A swift charge out of the darkness and we will have him in our grasp.'
'Take me to where Apepi lies,' Pharaoh commanded, and leaped to the footplate.
Naja led them, and the soft silvery sands of the wadi muffled the sounds of the wheels, so that in a ghostly silence the squadron swept around the last bend and Naja raised his clenched fist high to order the halt. Pharaoh drew up alongside him and leaned across.
'Where lies Apepi's camp?'
'Beyond the ridge. I left my spies overlooking it.' Naja pointed up the pathway towards the watchtower on the crest. 'On the far side is a hidden oasis. A sweet-water well and date palms. His tents are set among the trees.'
'We will take a small patrol with us to scout the camp. Only then can we plan our attack.'
Naja had anticipated the order, and with a few terse orders selected a scouting party of five troopers. Each one was bound to him by blood oath. They were his men, hand and heart.
'Muffle your scabbards,' Naja ordered. 'Make not a sound.' Then, with his recurved bow in his left hand, he stepped on to the pathway. Pharaoh came close behind him. They went upwards swiftly, until Naja saw the crossed branches of the thorn tree silhouetted against the dawn sky. He stopped abruptly, and held up his right hand for silence. He listened.
'What is it?' Pharaoh whispered close behind him.
'I thought I heard voices on the crest,' Naja answered, 'speaking the Hyksosian tongue. Wait here, Majesty, while I clear the path ahead.' Pharaoh and the five troopers sank down and squatted beside the path, while Naja went on stealthily. He stepped around a large boulder and his dim figure disappeared from view. The minutes passed slowly and Pharaoh began to fret. The dawn was coming on swiftly. The Hyksosian king would soon be breaking his camp, and moving on, out of their grasp. As a soft whistle came down to him he sprang to his feet eagerly. It was a skilful imitation of a nightingale's dawn call.
Pharaoh hefted his fabled blue sword. 'The way is clear,' he murmured, 'Come, follow me.'
They went on upwards, and Pharaoh reached the tall rock that blocked the pathway. He stepped round it then stopped abruptly. Lord Naja faced him at a distance of twenty paces. They were alone, hidden by the rock from the men who followed. Naja's bow was at full draw and the arrow was aimed at Pharaoh's naked chest. Even before he could move, the full realization of what confronted him blazed in Pharaoh's mind. This was the foul and loathsome thing that Taita, with his clairvoyant powers, had smelt in the air.
The light was strong enough for him to make out every detail of the enemy he had loved as a friend. The bowstring was pulled hard against Naja's lips, twisting them into a dreadful smile, and his eyes were honey gold and fierce as those of the hunting leopard as he glared at Pharaoh. The fletching of the arrow was crimson and yellow and green, and in the Hyksosian fashion the arrowhead was made from razor-sharp flint, designed to tear through the bronze of an enemy's helmet and cuirass.
'May you live for ever!' Silently Naja mouthed the words as though they were a curse, and he loosed the arrow. It flew from the bowstring with a twang and a hum. It seemed to come quite slowly, like some poisonous flying insect. The feathers spun the shaft, and it made one full revolution as it covered the twenty paces. Though Pharaoh's eyesight was sharpened and his other senses were heightened by the mortal danger in which he found himself, he could move only with the slowness of nightmare, too slowly to avoid the missile. The arrow took him high in the centre of his chest, where his-royal heart pounded in its cage of ribs. It struck with the sound of a boulder dropped from a height into a bed of thick Nile mud, and half the length of the shaft was driven through his chest. He was spun round by the force of the impact, and thrown against the red rock of the boulder. For a moment he clung to the rough surface with his hooked fingers. The flint arrowhead had pierced him through and through. The blood-clotted barb stood out of the knotted muscles that ran down the right side of his spine.
The blue sword dropped from his fist, and a low cry burst from his open mouth, the sound muffled by a gout of his own bright lung blood. He began to slide down to his knees, his legs buckling under him, his fingernails leaving shallow scratches on the red rock.
Naja sprang forward with a wild cry, 'Ambush! Beware!' and he slipped one arm around Pharaoh's chest below the protruding arrow.
Supporting the dying king he bellowed again, 'On me, the guards!' and two stout troopers appeared almost instantly from around the rock wall, responding to his rallying cry. They saw at a glance how Pharaoh was struck and the bright bunch of feathers on the base of the arrow.
'Hyksos!' one yelled, as they snatched Pharaoh from Naja's grasp and dragged him back behind the shelter of the rock.
'Carry Pharaoh back to his chariot while I hold off the enemy,' Naja ordered, and whirled around, pulling another arrow from his quiver and loosing it up the path towards the deserted summit, bellowing a challenge, then answering himself with a muffled counter-challenge in the Hyksosian language.
He snatched up the blue sword from where Tamose had dropped it, bounded back down the path and caught up with the small party of charioteers who were carrying the king away, down to where the chariots were waiting in the wadi.
'It was a trap,' Naja told them urgently. 'The hilltop is alive with the enemy. We must get Pharaoh away to safety.' But he could see by the way the king's head rolled weakly on his shoulders that he was past any help, and Naja's chest swelled with triumph. The Blue War Crown toppled from Pharaoh's brow and bumped down the path. Naja gathered it up as he ran past, fighting down the temptation to place it on his own head.
'Patience. The time is not yet ripe for that,' he chided himself silently, 'but already Egypt is mine, and all her crowns and pomp and power. I am become this very Egypt. I am become part of the godhead.'
He held the heavy crown protectively under his arm, and aloud he cried, 'Hurry, the enemy is on the path hard behind us. Hurry! The king must not fall into their hands.'
The troops below had heard the wild cries in the dawn, and the regimental surgeon was waiting for them beside the wheel of Pharaoh's chariot. He had been trained by Taita, and though lacking the old man's special magic he was a skilled doctor and might be capable of staunching even such a terrible wound as had pierced Pharaoh's chest. But Lord Naja would not risk having his victim returned to him from the underworld. He ordered the surgeon away brusquely. 'The enemy is hard upon us. There is no time for your quackery now. We must get him back to the safety of our own lines before we are overrun.'
Tenderly he lifted the king from the arms of the men who carried him and laid him on the footplate of his own chariot. He snapped off the shaft of the arrow that protruded from the king's chest and held it aloft so that all his men could see it clearly. 'This bloody instrument has struck down our Pharaoh. Our god and our king. May Seth damn the Hyksosian pig-swine who fired it, and may he burn in eternal flame for a thousand years.' His men growled in warlike agreement. Carefully Naja wrapped the arrow in a linen cloth, and placed it in the bin on the side wall of the chariot. He would to deliver it to the council in Thebes to substantiate his report on Pharaoh's death.
'A good man here to hold Pharaoh,' Naja ordered, 'Treat him gently.'
While the king's own lance-bearer came forward, Naja unbuckled the sword belt from around Pharaoh's waist, sheathed the blue sword and carefully stowed it in his own weapons bin.
The lance-bearer jumped on to the footplate and cradled Tamose's head. Fresh bright blood bubbled from the comers of his mouth as the chariot wheeled in a circle then sped back up the dry wadi with the rest of the squadron driving hard to keep up with it. Even though he was supported by the strong arms of his lance-bearer Pharaoh's limp body was jolted cruelly.
Facing forward so that none could see his expression, Naja laughed softly. The sound was covered by the grinding wheels and the crash of the chassis over the small boulders he made no attempt to avoid. They left the wadi and raced on towards the dunes and the natron lakes.
It was mid-morning and the blinding white sun was half-way up the sky before Naja allowed the column to halt and the surgeon to come forward again to examine the king. It did not need his special skills to tell that Pharaoh's spirit had long before left his body and started on its journey to the underworld.
'Pharaoh is dead,' the surgeon said quietly, as he stood up with the royal blood coating his hands to the wrists. A terrible cry of mourning started at the head of the column and ran down its entire length Naja let them play out their grief then sent for his troop captains.
'The state is without a head,' he told them. 'Egypt is in dire peril. Ten of the fastest chariots must take Pharaoh's body back to Thebes with all haste. I shall lead them for it may be that the council will wish me to take up the duties of regent to Prince Nefer.'
He had planted the first seeds and saw by their awed expressions that they had taken root almost immediately. He went on, with a grim, businesslike air that suited the tragic circumstances which had overtaken them, 'The surgeon must wrap the royal corpse before I take it home to the funeral temple. But in the meantime we must find Prince Nefer. He must be informed of his father's death and of his own succession. This is the single most urgent matter of state, and of my regency.' He had assumed that title smoothly, and no man questioned him or even looked askance. He unrolled a papyrus scroll, a map of the territory from Thebes down to Memphis, and spread it on the dashboard of his chariot. He pored over it. 'You must split up into your troops and scour the countryside for the prince. I believe that Pharaoh sent him into the desert with the eunuch to undertake the rituals of manhood, so we will concentrate our search here, from Gallala where we last saw him towards the south and east.' With the eye for ground of a commander of armies Naja picked out the search area, and ordered a net of chariots to be spread out across the land to bring in the prince.
WARLOCK. Copyright © 2001 by Wilbur Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsover without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10010.