Dr Dani Hanser climbed down from the truck and stood on the dusty road looking up at the cave. The sides of the stream valley rose in a gentle but steepening curve from the trickle of water gurgling over the rocks in the stream bed up to a narrow ledge in front of the cave entrance. A narrow path zigzagged its uneven way toward the cave and Dani's heart sank when she saw the flicker of movement in the shadows beneath the rocky overhang.
"They've let goats into the cave, Marc," she complained. "The owners of the land assured me they wouldn't."
A tall, young man with a full beard of chestnut hair jumped down from the bed of the truck. "So what are a few goats? We'll clear them out before the others get here." He stretched and yawned, looking around.
The truck was parked at the end of the dirt road that led back to the Hims-Tudmur highway. Several tents of varying sizes had been set up over the past few days by the Syrian crew of the British archaeological expedition. Small two-person tents would house the members of the expedition and larger ones would contain stores, a kitchen cum dining room and the equipment necessary to run the archaeological dig over the next four months. The tents of the Syrian crew occupied a level area fifty metres upstream. Despite the reasonably cordial relations that existed between the Syrian government and the Midlands University running the dig, the predominantly Moslem crew was under orders not to fraternize with the foreigners. They worked around Dani and Marc, nodding politely if they caught a glance but otherwise ignoring them.
"At least we have better weather this season," Marc commented. "That bloody rain we got last year drove me bonkers."
Dani smiled. "It will be pleasant without the mud," she agreed. She gestured toward the cave. "Coming up to have a look at the dig site?"
"Sure, though I think I have a wee bit more interest in our chamber." Marc glanced around to make sure they were not overheard. "Any news on that, by the way? I'm guessing not as we've been allowed back."
Dani led the way up the rough track to the cave. "Well," she said over her shoulder. "The minister was a bit curious as to why we would be interested in continuing a dig that yielded so few results last season, but I spun him a yarn about how a negative result would be just as important scientifically as a definite presence. I said that if we found nothing at such a good site, it was a reasonable conclusion that the Neanderthal migration did not follow the Orontes Valley."
"And he bought it?"
"Yes, though I had more trouble from the university authorities back home, especially as I couldn't tell them exactly why I wanted to return. However, in the end they trusted my judgment and funded us for another year."
Dani grunted. "Except that the minister here will be ordering more random inspections, spot checks really, at intervals. I think he's suspicious about something."
Marc muttered an imprecation under his breath. "That's going to make it harder to work on the chamber."
"I've had a few thoughts about that. Let's see what the inside of the cave is like first."
A goat ran past them when they walked under the overhang, bleating as it bolted out into the bright sunlight. The interior of the cave was dry, with a thick layer of earth and dried mud extending over the entire floor. The earth was patterned with hoof prints and small mounds of dry dung. Apart from a slight farmyard smell, the goats appeared not to have done any damage. A hard-packed track disappeared into the gloomy recesses where last year's dig had taken place.
"Damn, I forgot to bring a torch."
Marc shrugged. "Never mind, we only really came up here to check on the chamber." He walked along the track for about twenty paces before turning and facing a sheer wall of rock. He grunted, but nodded with satisfaction. "Doesn't seem to have been disturbed."
Dani came and stood beside him, staring at the rock face. "Only because nobody who saw it had any curiosity. That mortar we used really stands out."
"What do you expect? Modern cement over ancient brickwork. We were lucky."
Dani's hand went to the pocket of her jeans and she drew out a heavy object that glinted despite the dim light. "Lucky?" she whispered. "I don't think so."
Marc glanced at her and saw the gold in her hand. "Jeez, Dani. You brought it back? I would have thought it would be in a museum back home. Can I have a look?"
Dani hesitated then passed the object across.
Marc examined the object in his hand. It was a large gold scarab beetle, its legs and head tucked under a carapace which was carved and lined in a way as to make the artifact extremely lifelike. He turned it over to reveal a symbol carved into the belly of the beetle, nestled between its legs. The symbol looked like a circle with lines extending from it, each one ending in a tiny hand. Marc recognized the symbol as that of the ancient Egyptian god Aten, which for some reason had been carved into the belly of the sacred scarab beetle, symbol of the god Khepri. The carving was fine and delicate, the whole a work of art.
"This belongs in a museum, Dani. It's an incredible piece of work."
Dani took back the scarab, clutching it tightly in her hand. "It's not going to a museum. It... it has always been in my family, Marc. Don't ask me to explain. Not yet."
"How can it have been in your family? We only found it here last year. In fact it was in the mud beside where we found the chamber." Marc turned and looked at Dani, his forehead furrowed in puzzlement. After a moment he nodded. "All right. You tell me when you're ready."
Dani slipped the scarab back into her pocket and pointed at the wall. "As soon as anybody with a bit of technical know-how sees that they will know that's artificial. My idea was to put up one of the larger tents in here, ostensibly so we don't have to cart everything down to the camp. We can have trestle tables in it and set out a few artifacts so anyone popping in--the minister, for example--will only see what we want him to see."
Marc grinned, his teeth white in his gleaming chestnut beard. "Not bad. We can rig the back flap of the tent so we can draw it up to allow us access to the chamber."
The other members of the expedition arrived the next morning. Another truck with the logo of the National History Ministry pulled up and four men and two women clambered down from the back. While the support staff emptied the truck and took the baggage and personal belongings to the tents, Dani led them all to one of the larger tents that would serve as a conference room. She sat them down on the camp chairs and officially greeted them, after which she smiled warmly, hugging the women and shaking hands with the men.
"Welcome to all of you," she said softly. "I'm hoping you had successful university years and you're all raring to go on the dig this summer."
A small, dapper man with a shock of wavy black hair leaned back on his chair and put his feet up on another. He started rolling himself a cigarette. "Thank you for that delightful welcome, Dr Hanser," he said in a lilting Welsh voice. "But I think I speak for everyone here in saying we'd like to know what's happening about that other matter."
"I'm sure you would, Daffyd," Dani said. "I'm sure you all would." She looked around the tent then went to the entrance and looked out at the camp before returning to her chair. "We are all going to have to be very careful what we say, especially around camp." She told them about the proposed visits by the minister and the idea she had about erecting a tent within the cave, backing on to the chamber wall.
"We're all really excited about this," smiled a tall blond girl. She looked like she would be more at home on a catwalk than grubbing in the dirt after stone and bone. "We talked it over in the truck on the way up and Doris and I," she put her hand on the shoulder of a smaller, less overtly demonstrative woman with short mousey-brown hair. "Well, Doris and I just want to assure you of our support, no matter what."
"Come off it, Angela," drawled one of the men. "We all agreed on that last season. Majority rules and we all voted on it."
"Al's right," added one of the other men. "We're in this together."
"Hey, guys," Marc interrupted. "It's okay. We all made our promises and I'm sure we've all kept them. Not a word to anyone until we know what we've found. That's right, isn't it?" He looked around the little group. "Daffyd, Angela, Doris? Al, Will, Bob?"
The others nodded or murmured agreements. "Er, well, not quite," Bob muttered.
Dani stared at the man. "What do you mean?" she asked quietly.
"I...I told my brother. I'm sorry guys." Bob looked around the group apologetically. "I just had to tell somebody, but he didn't believe me, so it's okay."
"No, it's bloody well not," Will said, "If we find anything and decide to go public, he could put two and two together and everyone will know we sat on this for a year."
"I agree," Marc added. "It puts us in an untenable position."
Daffyd shrugged. "I agree it's not the best news I've heard, boyo, but there's not much we can do about it, now is there? Let us just hope your brother can keep quiet, Bob."
"Perhaps Bob should return and make sure his brother keeps quiet."
Dani shook her head. "No. Bob's part of this expedition, Will, just like the rest of us. We're going to find that second chamber and we'll all be there to see what it contains."
They erected the tent in the cave the next day, and while Al and Will set about the demolition of the filled-in wall hiding the first chamber, Dani led the others deeper into the cave to the site of the Neanderthal excavations of the previous season. Though the site was deep within the cave system a shaft of sunlight from a section of collapsed ceiling lit the dirt floor.
"We have to have this site active and being worked on in case of any surprise inspections. How would it look if the minister found nobody doing any work on the dig that is our sole reason for being here?"
Dani supervised the setting up of the pegs and guidelines for future excavations, then helped clear the rubbish and debris from the trenches. When all was clean and professional looking again, she nodded in satisfaction.
"I'm going to roster people for days on the dig, then on the chamber." Dani held a hand up as a chorus of protests rose. "We have to show progress on this site and for all we know, there may not be another chamber." Her hand crept to her jeans pocket and her fingers touched the gold scarab. "Nobody will miss out on a thing. If we find another chamber, everyone will get a chance to see it. Now, Daffyd, you're in charge here. I'd like you to organize Doris, Angela and Bob on preliminary work on the north trench."
Daffyd nodded. "And you, Dr Hanser?" He took out his tin of tobacco and papers and started to construct another cigarette.
"I'm going to take Marc and see how the others are doing. I'll check back here in a couple of hours." Dani turned and walked back through the cave with Marc.
"You could have problems with your authority this season," Marc said quietly once they were out of site of the excavations. "Everyone wants to work on the chambers. It wouldn't be so bad if we were actually getting something from the dig, but that seems to be a wash out. You'll have people grumbling because they're rostered on a useless dig instead of working on the exciting Kemetu tomb."
"I know, but we have to show progress on the dig site. Hopefully we'll find the next chamber soon so everyone can share in what we find."
When they arrived back at the tent they found that Al and Will had not wasted any time. The back of the tent was rolled up out of the way and a hole had been punched through the mortar and mud brick wall behind. The blocks were stacked neatly to one side of the gaping hole and light glimmered from the interior of the chamber. Al poked his head through as they entered the tent.
"Oh, hello Dani. We're all set to turn the lights on. We just need to start up the generator, if you'd be so kind, Marc." He pointed to a small generator in one corner of the tent, the exhaust outlet pushed under the tent side.
Marc primed the generator and wound the cord. He pulled it sharply and the engine spluttered into life, coughing and kicking for a few moments before settling down into a throaty purr. Lights flickered on in the chamber, brightening and shining out to illuminate the tent.
"I think we're going to need some sort of solid screen over the hole," Dani said. "If we get any surprise visitors, they're going to wonder why there's a bright light coming out of the cliff face." She ducked and stepped through the hole into the dazzlingly bright chamber, Marc following close behind. Dani pivoted slowly on her heel, taking in the view. It was exactly as she remembered it from the previous year.
Three of the four walls of the large chamber were covered in tiny hieroglyphs, the picture writing minute and cramped, sandwiched between paintings of Egyptian scenes, the figures of men and animals lovingly depicted, realistic rather than stylized. One of the scenes showed a young woman, not much more than a girl, still with the side hair lock of youth, looking at a large scarab beetle as it rolled a ball of dung across the sand. The face of the girl showed a marked resemblance to that of Dani. The back wall was a gigantic mural depicting a semi-circle of gods facing a young woman on her knees before them, back turned to the chamber. The ceiling of the chamber depicted a huge golden Aten sun disc, gleaming richly in the bright lights. Rays from the disc extended down the walls, all around the chamber, each ray ending in a small hand clutching the ankh, the symbol of life. One of these hands touched the head of the kneeling woman in the mural in an act of blessing and protection.
"Bloody hell," Marc muttered. "I'd forgotten how beautiful it was."
"Please, Marc," Dani whispered. "Have some reverence for the place."
Al grinned as he looked around the covered walls. "So where's the next chamber, do you think?"
"I don't know, but I'll bet there is one."
Marc looked at Dani curiously. "Are you going to do your finding trick again?"
Will frowned and looked at Marc, then at Dani. "What trick?"
"Remember last year when we first found the scarab? Dani led us right to the entrance to this chamber." Marc smiled apologetically, realizing he had put Dani on the spot. "I reckon she's psychic or something."
Al laughed. "Maybe it's because Dani looks like this Beketaten lassie in the paintings. Maybe the gods of Egypt are leading her."
"The goddess Nut ruled the heavens and was the deity of direction," Dani said. "If you want to find something, ask Nut."
"Or ask a nut, anyway," Al chortled. "Well, we found the first doorway by looking for straight line irregularities in the plaster, so I suppose we can do the same here." He turned down the rheostat, dimming the lights in the chamber. As the shadows swept in he flicked on a flashlight and, holding it close to the wall, squinted along it, looking for the tiny straight ridge that might imply the presence of a door.
Marc and Will followed suit, taking a wall each, moving slowly along, then back at a different level. Dani stood in the middle of the chamber with the golden scarab in her hand. She bowed her head and muttered beneath her breath. She waited, the only sound in the chamber being the intermittent scrape and whisper of clothing as the men moved, and the muted hum of the generator from the cave.
"It's behind there," Dani said at last. She pointed at the mural on the back wall. "The woman is on the panel and the sides are delineated by those two sun rays that extend to the floor."
Al stared at her quizzically for a minute before crossing to the mural and shining his torch parallel to the wall, squinting along the beam. "Shit. She's done it again. Just what are you Dani? Some kind of miracle worker?"
Marc stared at the mural and shook his head, a horrified expression on his face. "Please be wrong. Not behind the mural. We can't destroy that, not for anything."
Al fetched the rest of the team from the dig and they stood or sat in the once more brightly lit chamber and stared at the mural.
"We can't destroy that picture," Angela said. "It's a work of art. It would be like...like vandalizing the Mona Lisa."
"I agree with you," Doris said firmly.
Daffyd puffed on his cigarette. "Time to call in the big boys I think. We turn this over to the experts. They'll figure out a way to get past it."
"Shit." Al slammed his hand against the plaster wall. "I was all for doing that last year, but now...well, I've got to know what's behind there."
"What's that painting on?" Marc asked. "I mean, I know it's on plaster, but is it plaster over brick or over solid stone? And what's likely to be on the other side? Empty space or a passage filled with rubble? Dani? What would an Egyptian tomb be like?"
Dani thought. "Rubble-filled passageways are more likely at a tomb entrance. At a guess I'd say the wall is dressed stone..."
"Why not mud brick?" Al interrupted.
"A professional tomb builder would use stone. Remember the lower courses of the wall we came through are stone, the later ones being brick. They'd use stone deeper in the tomb...always providing this is a tomb."
"So you think it is empty space on the other side of dressed stone blocks?"
"I think so, yes. Why?"
"Let me bounce an idea off you all, then." Marc approached the wall and felt the faint irregularities with his fingertips. "Let's say we cut a narrow groove vertically down both sides of the doorway, keeping damage to a minimum. Once we know where the levels of each course of stone are, we cut horizontally along the mortar. Couldn't we lift out each block without destroying the artwork?"
"Hey, that might work."
"I think it might depend on how fine a cut you could make, the strength of the plaster and probably half a dozen other factors," Daffyd commented. "More likely it would shatter as you lifted it out."
"What about if we just lifted the bottom two feet out? We could wriggle through the gap."
"Without causing much damage," Angela added.
"Of course, two feet might not be enough for you, Angela." Al grinned and winked, laughing as the buxom girl flushed.
"Okay, keep it seemly," Dani said. "That might be the best we can hope for." She made a rough measurement on the wall with her hands. "Two feet comes to about here. We'd only be taking off a small part of her feet and most of the rock slab she's kneeling on."
"So we'll try that?" Marc asked. He looked around at the group, smiling as he received nods and grunts of affirmation. "I'll get the cutter and an extension cord to run it off the generator."
"There is one other vitally important thing to do before we start destroying art," Daffyd commented, pulling out his tobacco to roll another cigarette. "It's something we should have done last year and I kicked myself for not doing it." He looked round at the blank expressions. "Take some holiday snaps. We need a complete photographic record of this whole chamber. If you remember, we took photos of the outside of the chamber before we broke down the wall, but the excitement of the inscription rather drove everything else from our minds."
While Marc found the stone cutter and extension cords, Dani went back down to the camp to find her camera and a box of flash bulbs. She then spent the next hour and several rolls of film carefully photographing the whole chamber, paying special attention to the mural on the back wall. At last she nodded and stepped back, tossing the last spent bulb back into the empty box.
"Your turn, Marc."
The stone cutter ripped through the soft sandstone easily. Marc worked his way down each side of the hidden doorway from waist height to the floor, then awkwardly held the cutter parallel to the floor and cut through the base. Several flakes of painted plaster fell away and he slowed his cutting rate. He switched off the electric saw and it cycled down rapidly, the scream of metal on rock only slowly fading in their battered ears.
Al picked at the cut edges of the rock and found the position of the tiers of dressed stone blocks. He indicated a position nearly three feet up the wall.
"The blocks look to be nearly thirty centimeters high--that's twelve inches for you non-scientific chappies." He smiled. "We'd find it a tight squeeze getting under just one or two tiers--he winked at Angela who grinned back--so I suggest we cut through the mortar here, allowing ourselves nearly three feet."
Marc went to work again, slowly cutting through the mortar between the tiers of stone in a more or less straight line across the doorway. He switched off again.
"That should do it. I'm definitely into open space behind the blocks. I can tell by the feel of the saw blade."
Al picked up a hand drill with a masonry bit and laboriously scraped out two deep holes about a foot from the floor and a foot in from the sides. He screwed in two eye-hooks and attached ropes to each one.
"Time to show us what you're made of, guys. Let's pull this sucker out of here."
Grabbing the ropes, they braced themselves and heaved backward. The slab of stone scraped forward a fraction then stopped. They tried again with a similar result.
"We need a lubricant," Bob panted. "Squirt some oil under the stone or something."
Al shook his head. "We don't need oil, just an even pull." He pointed at the slab of painted stone. "See how it has pulled out about a centimeter on this side but less than half that on the other? The block is moving at an angle and is catching on the sides. Sorry girls, but you need to be in different teams. We need equal muscle on both ropes."
Under Al's direction, he and Will pushed the slab straight again before reorganizing the teams on the ropes. This time the stone, after an initial reluctance, slid free of the wall with a grinding noise. They altered the angle of the pull and coaxed the block to one side, revealing a dark cavern beyond the painted wall. Stale air oozed out into the lighted chamber, mingling with the sharp smells of burnt rock and excitement.
"Over to you, Dr Hanser," Daffyd murmured. "I believe the honour is yours."
Dani nodded and flicked on a flashlight, playing the beam into what looked like a passageway. She ducked down and, bending double, edged under the hanging wall. The beam from the flashlight surged ahead of her, lighting floor and bare walls of a short passageway cut through the sandstone and into a second chamber.
"What can you see?" Doris called.
"There's another chamber," Dani's voice echoed back. "It's much larger than the first, but it's covered in writing again. Come through, and bring lights."
The others entered, tentatively, waving flashlights ahead of them as they crowded through. Daffyd plugged in another long extension cord and brought an electric light in with him. The harsh light threw the shadows back, revealing a long chamber that on first sight looked a lot less interesting than the first one. The whitewashed plaster walls were again covered with minute hieroglyphs but there seemed to be very few paintings. There was no gleaming Aten disc on the rough rock ceiling and their overall impression of the chamber was that it was utilitarian rather than artistic--until they saw the back wall.
"My word," Daffyd said, holding the light high.
"It's glorious," Angela breathed. "Who are they?"
Two men faced each other on the wall. Both were young, one no more than a youth and they both wore the blue war-crown of Kemet. Wearing nothing more than the crowns and short military kilts, the artist had captured the young kings--for that was what they must be--in the act of battle. The older man strode forward as if eager to get to grips with his enemy, a set expression on his face, curved bronze sword held aloft. His opponent, though in a similar pose, one leg extended toward battle, looked more hesitant. He clutched a spear in both hands, the point held at stomach level. Behind the fighting kings stood other figures, smaller to denote lesser importance in the traditional artistic mode. A woman stood behind the older king, reddish glints in her hair and sword held ready. The younger king was supported by an old man, dressed in the long white robe and leopard skin cloak of a priest of Amun, the crook and flail of kingly authority in his hands. Cartouches above the heads of the figures held hieroglyph symbols which Dani translated.
"The woman is our old friend Beketaten again, and the old man is Ay, her uncle." She whistled as she turned her attention to the kings. "The older one is Smenkhkare and the younger Tutankhamen."
"That can't be right," Angela protested. "I did some reading on the eighteenth dynasty and Smenkhkare died almost immediately after Akhenaten. Tutankhamen succeeded him but he was only a boy of about nine. They couldn't possibly have fought."
"It's a bit of a conundrum, isn't it?" Daffyd agreed with a smile.
"Perhaps it's only supposed to be representational," Marc said. "I mean, Tut took the worship of Kemet back to Amun from the worship of Aten under old Smenk, so maybe that is what this means. The two are battling for their respective gods."
"That would work," Bob agreed. "After all, that scene in the first chamber must be representational." He grinned. "Unless you think our little Scarab really did meet the gods of Kemet?"
The others laughed, except Dani. "Legends say she did," she said.
"What legends would they be?" Daffyd asked.
"I told you my mother was Kemetu? Well, her grandmother used to tell me stories about a great hero called Scarab, her ancestor, a woman who lived thousands of years ago. One of the legends says she met the gods." Dani laughed into the silence that greeted her words. "Well, we didn't read anything about that in the hieroglyphs, did we? So perhaps the pictures really are just allegorical."
"And what about this lot?" Doris gestured around the chamber. "Are you going to read it to us? Tell us what happened?"
"Pictures first," Daffyd interrupted. "Take pictures of everything here before we start."
"I don't think I have enough film. Does anyone have 35 mm film? And flash bulbs?"
Doris shook her head. "I've only got a box brownie."
"I do," Al said. "I've got half a dozen rolls. I think I have some bulbs too. Hang on a sec and I'll get them." He ducked out of the chamber, to return some ten minutes later, breathing hard. Handing over the rolls of film and flash bulbs to Dani he went and sat with the others as she proceeded to litter the floor with spent bulbs.
"Okay, that should do it," she said after about half an hour. "I'll send these off for developing as quickly as possible, so I'll know whether I need to take any more."
"Are you going to start translating now?" Doris asked, the tremor in her voice betraying her excitement.
"Yeah," Al added, "Time to find out what happens to Scarab, Dani."
"All of this?" Dani asked, waving her arms to encompass the packed hieroglyphs on the walls. "You know it's going to take weeks."
"Better get started then," Marc grinned.
"Well, okay, but I'm not going to try reading it all at once. We'll do some tonight, some more tomorrow, and so on."
"Just like chapters in a book," Doris said happily. "I love a good book."
"I've got to find out where all this starts, first," Dani said with a smile.
"Already done, Dr Hanser." Daffyd pointed to the wall just to the right of the entrance way. "While you were taking photos I was looking for the beginning."
"Well then, I suppose I'd better start." Dani stretched and looked around at the eager faces of her graduate students. She giggled. "You all look like a bunch of kindergarten kids at story time." Crossing to the wall she examined the script, running her fingers down the columns of hieroglyphs before scanning portions on either side of the door and at a couple of other places on the wall. "Yes, you're right, Daffyd. I'd say this is where it starts." Turning back to the group, she smiled. "Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." Dani examined the wall again and took a deep breath.
"I am glad to be back in Waset," she read. "It is a city that is full of history and of the gods of our ancient land. The city of Akhet-Aten is new and clean but it is empty, being dedicated to a god that speaks only to the king and offers little to anyone else. Here in Waset, the disc of the sun seems less remote and people can worship it through the old familiar forms of Re and Khepri.
The three years that elapsed between the accession of my brother Smenkhkare and the end of Akhenaten's reign were probably the most peaceful years for Kemet since the death of my father Nebmaetre and for twenty years to come. The people loved Smenkhkare and he achieved a good working relationship with the priests of Amun at Waset, despite the worship of all gods other than the Aten still being proscribed. Akhenaten stayed in his capital city and left the running of the country to Smenkhkare and Ay, the co-regent and the Tjaty. This arrangement was not always amicable as the two men of Waset were strong-willed..."
The young man brushed past the guards and walked into the upstairs antechamber of the king's apartments, tossing the double crown representing the two kingdoms that made up the land of Kemet, onto a great gilded ebony chair. He stretched and yawned, pushing his shoulders back with a grimace before pouring a cup of wine from the chilled pitcher on an inlaid ebony table and carrying it over to the great window overlooking the royal gardens. Clad in a fine white linen kilt and sandals, he leaned casually on the marble-lined balustrade, only the muscles in his broad back betraying his tension.
An older man followed him into the room, moving quietly. The man, likewise clad in white kilt and sandals, also displayed several items of jewelry and badges of office. A broad heavy gold chain hung about his neck and armbands of gold revealed his power and wealth. Short and stocky, the older man's skin was creased and displayed the signs of incipient old age, hanging in wrinkles as his body lost its muscle tone. A shock of white hair topped his head, and his hands which hung by his sides, trembled slightly, matching an intermittent tremor below his left eye.
"The temple of the Aten in Hazor has been burned to the ground and the priests slaughtered."
"Why am I just hearing this now, Ay?" The young man did not look round but sipped at his wine, looking out at the heat-rippled air above the city. The heavy odors of dust and the effluvia of crowded humanity wafted up from streets and alleys.
"I only received the news yesterday."
"Then why did you not raise this issue at the morning audience?"
The young man, King Ankhkheperure Djeserkheperu Smenkhkare, co-regent and Lord of the Two Lands excepting only the City of Aten turned from the window of his apartments in the old Waset Palace to stare at his Tjaty and great-uncle, Ay. Although only of middling height, perhaps three cubits and two palms tall, the young king stamped his presence on any room. Still young, rising nineteen years, Smenkhkare had all but ruled Kemet these last three years after coming to the throne at the behest of his half-brother Akhenaten, called by many the Heretic King. Smenkhkare was unaware that Ay had engineered his co-regency, in the hopes of maintaining his failing grip on the power of the king.
Akhenaten had himself inherited the Two Kingdoms seventeen years before from his father Nebmaetre Amenhotep, when the old king fell victim to a stroke from the gods which rendered him a dribbling cripple, unable to walk or talk, incapable of ruling Kemet. His queen, Tiye, with advice from her brother Ay, had ruled for six months before giving in and enthroning her son Waenre Amenhotep as co-regent. The young king took over the reins of Kemet at the height of its power, with a full treasury and an experienced army. With resolute ministers and experienced generals even a young, untried king could do little damage to Kemet's strength and reputation; but the young Waenre Amenhotep was also a religious fanatic.
Raised in Zarw in the Delta region, Waenre Amenhotep's early life was spent among his mother's people, the Khabiru. His mother Tiye was the daughter of Yuya, a prophet of the Khabiru who had arrived in Kemet in the time of the old king's father Tuthmosis. Prophesying of famine and harvests, and interpreting dreams, Yuya became powerful in the king's court, eventually being appointed Tjaty. He had three children, Tiye, Ay and Aanen. The Khabiru, a tribe of wanderers from the north, worshipped a strange god, one who had no form, yet whose face shone with the brilliance of the sun. This god had no name but in the Khabiru tongue was addressed as 'El' which meant 'god' and as 'Adon' which meant 'Lord'. By a twist of fate the word 'Adon' is pronounced 'Aten' in Kemetu, and two generations of Kemetu kings had gradually raised the Kemetu god Aten, a minor aspect of the sun god Re, to the status of a major deity. The young Waenre Amenhotep went further. First he changed his name to Akhenaten or 'servant of the Aten' to honour his god, then he moved his capital city from Waset, the City of the god Amun, to a new city dedicated to the sun god, Akhet-Aten or 'the Horizon of the Aten'. Not content with raising his god to this level, Akhenaten decreed heresy. He ruled that all other gods were false and that their temples were to close, their worship to cease. Amun especially was singled out, his treasury confiscated, his lands sold and the very name of the god was chiseled off monuments and expunged from the records, even where it occurred in his dead father's name. For this sacrilege he earned the undying enmity of the priests of Amun, of which his own uncle Aanen was Second Prophet.
Wrapped up in his religious fervor, Akhenaten channeled gold from the temples and the state treasury into building rich new temples dedicated to Aten. Not understanding the delicate balance, or Ma'at, that governed Kemet, he pardoned all criminals, releasing hordes of murderers and thieves; and stripped the army of its strength, fostering rebellion and warfare amongst Kemet's vassal states and enemies.
Then plague struck the Two Lands. Three of Akhenaten's daughters by his beautiful young wife, Queen Nefertiti died, and the king was suddenly brought face to face with his own mortality and the extinction of his family line. He had no sons to become king after him, so in desperation he followed the example of his father.
Nebmaetre Amenhotep had married his own daughters Sitamen and Iset, fathering sons on them: Smenkhkare and Tutankhaten. Akhenaten decided to do the same in the hope of similarly fathering sons. First he married his eldest daughter Meryetaten. This act estranged Nefertiti, leading her into an act of rebellion which was quickly put down by Paatenemheb, General of all the Armies. Nefertiti was banished but the other rebel, Ay, Nefertiti's own father, managed to clear himself of the charges, and keep his position as Tjaty. Meryetaten became wife and queen but the hope of sons died quickly. She gave birth to a baby daughter and Akhenaten, husband and father, put her away and married his next oldest daughter Ankhesenpaaten. She too, produced a daughter and was eventually put aside.
The deposed daughter-queen Meryetaten proved an embarrassment at court, refusing to accept her new status and Akhenaten sent her up-river to Waset to marry his co-ruler Smenkhkare. Neither party desired this union but they accepted it for the sake of Kemet's peace. The marriage was never consummated and the king and queen maintained separate apartments within the palace.
Ay, though technically Tjaty to king Akhenaten, rapidly saw that the real power in Kemet was to be found in the court at Waset. He moved south using the pretext of guiding the new co-regent Smenkhkare, whereas his real reason was to rule Kemet through the young inexperienced man. Here, Ay made one of his rare errors of judgment. Smenkhkare may have been young and inexperienced but he was highly intelligent, possessed a will of hardened bronze and had firm views about how Kemet should be ruled. He allowed himself to be guided by his great-uncle Ay but always questioned his advice, never allowing him the freedom he desired. Increasingly, Ay became discontented with his situation and started to look for ways to work around the king.
Ay shrugged at his nephew's question, though he knew the easy familiarity encouraged by Akhenaten was frowned on by Smenkhkare. "I regarded the matter of little importance."
Smenkhkare stood silently, staring at his Tjaty, waiting. After a few moments, Ay reluctantly added the honorific, "Your majesty."
"Remember who is king here, Ay. I will not have my commands questioned or my wishes ignored by anyone. Even you."
Ay hid a scowl by bowing. "Of course, your majesty. Forgive me."
"So tell me about this act of violence in Hazor."
"There is not much to add, my lord. I received a letter from the governor of Hazor telling me that a mob torched the Aten temple and killed the priests. He acted immediately, of course, and hanged the ringleaders."
"A mob from within Hazor? Not a foreign army?"
"Apparently not. The ringleaders were put to the question but could reveal only that gold was paid, by persons unknown."
Smenkhkare raised the cup to his lips and sipped the strong wine, looking at the older man over the rim. He swallowed and lowered the cup. "And why did you think this news was not important, Ay?"
The Tjaty shrugged again, ignoring the muscles that clenched on the king's jaw in response to his renewed disrespect. "It was only a temple to the Aten. It is time that heresy was put to rest."
The king frowned. "You were an ardent supporter of the Aten not so long ago. A priest in fact. Have your beliefs undergone such a radical change? I would question your motivation."
"I was father to the queen and uncle to Waenre Akhenaten. I could not do otherwise." Ay pursed his lips before continuing. "When you have more experience of Kemet and its people you will realize the necessity of expedience."
"I will not lie--not about my beliefs, or about my actions."
"Then let me act, my lord, for I have your good at heart."
"Act how? By trampling on the beliefs of my subjects?"
Ay allowed himself a slight smile and bowed, thus missing the ripple of anger that played over the young king's features. "The worship of the Aten is heresy and those who still cling to that religion are heretics, misguided at best."
"The only heresy was worshipping the Aten to the exclusion of all the other gods. Aten is a Kemetu god and the destruction of his temple is an affront to the majesty of our Two Lands."
"Atenism is still the official religion and Akhenaten is still the king. Must his delusions continue to rip our country apart?"
"Waenre Akhenaten is king but so am I," Smenkhkare said softly, his dark eyes boring into Ay's. "I am working to soften the effect of more than a decade of monotheism, but I will not act precipitately."
"I would strongly advise you..."
"I do not want your advice, Ay."
Ay shrugged once more, making his king's jaw muscles jump again. "That is my function. I am Tjaty and King's Adviser. It is my duty to guide the king using my experience and wisdom."
"You are not my Tjaty, nor my Adviser, even though you are my uncle. I did not appoint you. If you desire that function, then return to Akhet-Aten so my brother Akhenaten may make use of you."
"Akhenaten rules only his City of the Sun. He has no use for a Tjaty, whereas you..."
"I have my own advisers, uncle. And ones I can trust."
Ay stared at his young king. His hands clenched into fists beside him and his breath came faster, his nostrils dilating. "You do not trust me?"
"I did not say that. I said only that I have advisers I can trust and that I do not need Akhenaten's Adviser to help me in my task."
"And what of my services these past three years?" Ay stepped forward, his eyes flashing. "Have I not guided you, supported you and advised you through a time that would surely have overwhelmed a boy unused to power and court intrigue?"
"I am no longer a boy."
Ay opened his mouth to further his attack, before catching sight of the young man's expression. He swallowed his words and kept a tight hold on his anger. "You are right, your majesty. You are no longer a boy but surely my experience and wisdom are still useful currency in guiding our country?"
"You want my thanks, uncle? You have it. You want honours? You already have them, all that a man could want. How can you rise higher in Kemet? You are but one step below the kings. You want rewards for your services to three kings? You shall have them in abundance. I am going to give you vast estates in the Delta, uncle. Rich farmlands with many servants and huge herds of cattle. Return to Zarw, to your people the Khabiru, to your ailing daughter Mutnodjme, and enjoy your well-earned retirement."
"You would not dare..." Ay bit his lip, stifling his anger. After a moment he resumed in a calmer voice. "You do not mean it, your majesty. You cannot. My function is to advise you..."
"I have other advisers."
"Who? Who could possibly advise you as well as me? Do you mean that pack of misfits you call a council?"
Smenkhkare's eyes narrowed for a moment before he relaxed. He turned and walked back to the window, perching himself on the sill and sipping his wine. "Go on, Ay. Tell me of my misfits."
Ay hesitated then tossed his head defiantly, his wavy white hair gleaming in the bright noon light that poured in from the wide windows. "Very well then, I will advise my king one more time." He crossed to the table and poured himself a cup of wine without bothering to ask the king's permission. He used the time and the simple actions to gather his thoughts.
"Your council--if it can be called that--consists of a physician, a priest, a scribe, a merchant, a couple of dirty commoners and a girl. There is only one legitimate member, Treasurer Sutau. Physician Nebhotep is competent enough in his field, I suppose, but hardly a man to decide the fate of Kemet. He is more at home among his pills and his knives."
"I thought you liked Nebhotep. Did he not save the royal household from the worst ravages of the plague?" A shadow crossed Smenkhkare's eyes as he remembered the death of his own grandmother Tiye from the plague.
The same shadow darkened the old man's face for a moment. He recalled his granddaughters lost to the disease that swept through Kemet, killing nearly one in ten. "What has liking a man got to do with it? I look for ability in the men I use, not their charm. He is a fine physician--as physicians go, but not a man to advise a king. As for the priest--well, he is my brother Aanen and I am quite fond of him for all he is a rabid follower of Amun."
"I seem to remember you were a priest of Amun before you turned to Aten," Smenkhkare murmured.
Ay flushed. "Yes, I was. But my outlook was never narrow; I was always open to alternative ideas."
"You bend with the wind, you mean." Smenkhkare flicked his hand nonchalantly. "My apologies, Ay, I have interrupted your diatribe against my council. Please continue."
Ay inclined his head toward his king, his expression tight-lipped. "The priest is only interested in one thing," he continued. "The return of his wealth and power."
"Not just that, but yes, he seeks the reinstatement of Amun as first god of Kemet. I see nothing wrong in that. Amun is the god of our royal house."
"Then there is the scribe Khensthoth. A pedantic old fool who is better employed as a teacher of foolish boys than as a statesman."
Smenkhkare smiled, though not at Ay's cynical remarks. "I was one of those foolish boys once. You should take the time to get to know the old man. He is a repository of wisdom."
Ay waved a hand dismissively. "At least those members of your council are educated men and can talk intelligently. What of your four commoners--the grain merchant, the toymaker, the farm boy and the pimp? What possessed you to give power to such as these?"
"They are good men. Well, Kenamun the toymaker is anyway. The merchant Meres seeks profits; he wants the economy running smoothly again. The farm lad Khu stuck by my sister in a time of great danger. I value loyalty. Mahuhy is a businessman and knows how the city works. I have seen them all as they went about their work and I can recognise their abilities."
"But they are common. Their families are nothing. How can you raise them so far above their station?"
"My family was common once," Smenkhkare said softly. "Before the god Amun raised them to become Per-Aa, the Great House, they were mere soldiers. And what of yourself, Ay? Your father was a common shepherd of the Khabiru before my grandfather raised him to the nobility. Do not be quick to judge others on the circumstances of their birth."
Ay bowed once more, hiding the fury in his eyes. "I stand corrected, your majesty," he murmured.
"And what of the last member of my Council?"
Ay turned away from his king and stared out through the wide window at the city. "Yes, your sister Beketaten." He remained silent for a long time, his fingers slowly twirling the wine cup by its long golden stem. "A beautiful child," he said at last. "But willful."
Smenkhkare held his voice carefully neutral. "Would you care to explain that?"
"Come, your majesty," Ay chided. "Everyone knows of Beketaten's part in my daughter Nefertiti's supposed rebellion. She overheard me talking to my daughter when she was angered and not thinking straight and the girl leapt to false conclusions. Instead of going to Akhenaten with her accusations she fled the city to protect what she thought was a danger to her own life. It was only when she was discovered that she concocted this fantastic tale of my own treason." Ay turned and looked hard at Smenkhkare. "Akhenaten himself heard my case and ruled me innocent."
"But not your daughter."
Ay shook his head and brushed the back of his hand theatrically against his dry eyes. "Alas, no. Still overcome with her anger, she admitted her guilt."
"Yet you did not plead for her?"
"Your majesty, I am a loyal servant of the king Akhenaten. I would not defend my daughter's admitted guilt. I do, of course, grieve my loss, but for the sake of Kemet, I would give up everything."
"You have given up much for Kemet, uncle, and served the Two Lands faithfully for a lifetime already longer than most men's. I think it is time you enjoyed what time you have left in the peace of your own household, with the reward of your king to sustain you."
Ay stared at Smenkhkare, his mind seeking a way out of this disaster. "I do not wish to retire. I can still be of service to Kemet."
"But I wish you to retire, Tjaty Ay, and I am king. Would you disobey me?" Smenkhkare held up a hand as his uncle opened his mouth. "Think before you speak again. I am not a king like my brother Akhenaten that you may bend to your own will. I am my own man and know my own mind. Take this retirement with the blessing of your king or go serve my brother in Akhet-Aten. You have until the end of the month to get your affairs in order."