Under-Minister Ahmed Bashir of the Syrian Ministry of National History pushed aside the flap of his tent and stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness. A guard, huddled against the chill of the night, forced himself to a semblance of alertness and sketched a clumsy salute. Bashir waved the man away impatiently and looked up at the vague outline of the sandstone cliffs dimly visible against the night sky. He took out a silver cigarette case from an inside pocket of his jacket and extracted a cheroot, tapping it on the case before putting it between his thin lips and lighting it. Drawing deeply, Bashir held the smoke in his lungs, the first prickle of nicotine intoxication clearing away the cobwebs of the night. He exhaled, the smoke warmed by his breath white in the chill dawn air.
"Possibilities, Ahmed, possibilities," Bashir murmured. He started walking along the rutted and muddy road toward the track leading to the archaeological dig. After the bright glow of the lights around and in his tent, the darkness felt soothing and he scanned the night sky with its sprinkling of stars. The first faint flush of daylight stained the eastern horizon, heralding the start of a new day and the time for prayers. The minister flicked the half-finished cheroot into the darkness, hearing the faint hiss as the glow was extinguished in a puddle, and turned back toward his tent. Prayers first, he thought, then a cup of coffee and we'll see how willing the foreigners are to cooperate.
The yellow sandstone of the cliffs shone golden in the morning light when Bashir stepped out of his tent again. He called one of his guards over and gave him his instructions before returning to his tent for a leisurely cup of coffee. That pleasant task finished, he sauntered over to the expedition's main tent and allowed one of the armed guards to lift the flap for him. Inside the large marquee-style tent sat eight men and women around a long wooden trestle table. The remnants of a hurried breakfast and cooling cups of tea and coffee littered the table top. Murmurs of conversation died away and heads turned as Bashir entered. He nodded pleasantly at the group and greeted his secretary Nazim, who sat a few feet away making notes in a large ring binder.
"Good morning, Dr Hanser," Bashir said. "I trust you slept well and have thoroughly considered my proposal?"
Dr Danielle Hanser, a tall slim woman in her thirties, stood and rested her hands on the table, her auburn shoulder-length hair swinging forward as she stared back at the Under-Minister. "I slept as well as could be expected with armed guards outside my tent, Minister Bashir. As for your proposal--do we have a choice?"
Bashir smiled with his lips only. "My dear Dr Hanser, of course you have a choice. I am not such a barbarian as to force you to do something you do not wish to do."
"No, just the threat should be enough, eh boyo?" A dark haired individual at the other end of the table lit up a rolled cigarette and flicked the match onto the ground. "Of course, if the threats don't work, you will no doubt get around to a bit of gentle persuasion."
"Dr Rhys-Williams." All trace of pleasantness disappeared from Bashir's voice as he turned to look at the Welshman. "I do not need your cooperation. I can bring my own experts in within days and you can enjoy a stay in a Damascus prison for a few years. I cannot guarantee the accommodation or the cuisine, I'm afraid, but, well... the choice is yours."
"Just what the fuck is going on here? Are we under arrest, or what? And what's this proposal thing you're talking about?"
"Cool it, Al," a heavily bearded young man growled. "All the same, I think we'd like to know what is going on."
Bashir inclined his head in agreement. "An excellent idea. Dr Hanser, perhaps you would like to introduce me to your team first, and then I can inform everyone as to the part I expect them to play over the next days and weeks."
"This is Under-Minister Ahmed Bashir, the signatory to our permit to dig here." Dani walked down the length of the table, gesturing at the seated people as she spoke. "Dr Rhys-Williams you already know. Next to him is Allan Bryce, a PhD student, across from him is Doris Smith and Angela Devereux, both Honours students..."
"Ah, Miss Devereux," Bashir murmured, eyeing the tall, buxom blonde with interest. "I hope you have not been too upset by this business."
"...Along from them is Will Morrison, Bob Burrows, and here on this side," Dani's hand lingered a moment on the shoulder of the bearded young man, "Dr Marc Andrews."
"Thank you, Dr Hanser." Bashir nodded his thanks. "Now, as to why you are here..."
"Who's the little creep over there?" Al snarled, pointing at Nazim.
Bashir frowned, his eyes glacial. "That is my secretary, Nazim. He will be taking down what is said today. Now, as to why you are here--you can appreciate that the Minister and I have oversight of a great many projects within Syria. This particular dig falls under my aegis, though it had only a low interest rating as it dealt with a speculative exploration of a possible Neanderthal migration route. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter a week ago addressed to a Robert Burrows at the 'Egyptian Dig', care of the Ministry. Naturally, I had to open it to find out where it was supposed to go, and I was first astounded, then angered by the news. A foreign expedition, under the auspices of the Ministry of National History, was concealing a major find from the proper authorities."
Bashir stopped and looked carefully at each face at the table, seeing varied expressions of shock, anger and fear. "This is a very serious matter as thieves of National Treasures are liable for large fines and lengthy terms in prison. I came up here to see for myself and I find that essentially it is true. You have found an Egyptian tomb and concealed its existence from the Ministry."
"We were going to report it," Bob said, his face stricken with anguish. "We just wanted to see what was here first."
"Yes, unfortunately, pleas of good intentions are never quite believable after you have been found out."
"Get on with it," Al growled. "What do you intend doing?"
"He has a proposal for us," Daffyd said quietly. "I suggest you listen carefully to what he says."
"Thank you, Dr Rhys-Williams," Bashir said. "What I propose is quite simple. I will keep quiet about your criminal actions and monitor your investigations myself. You will be allowed to continue essentially as before."
"Bullshit," Al muttered.
"Very generous, Minister," Marc cut in. "But why would you do such a thing?"
"Yeah, what's in it for you?" Angela added.
"Call it intellectual curiosity, if you will. I read through the notes on your finds last night and I am quite amazed at the revelations. I would consider it a privilege to be present for the rest of the investigation."
Marc leaned forward, staring at Bashir. "And you would not bring in other experts? You'd allow us to do the work?"
Bashir nodded. "Indeed. It seems hardly fair to deprive you now."
"What about publication?" Daffyd asked, blowing a cloud of smoke down the table. "You'd allow us to publish our findings?"
"Ah, the prime concern of the scientist." Bashir smiled thinly. "We can discuss that later. For now, though, do you accept my offer? Dr Hanser?"
Dani frowned and played with a pencil, tapping it on the table. "This is pretty much what we discussed last night, Under-Minister, but you did not clarify the conditions, or what happens to us after the dig is finished. Perhaps you would do that now."
"The conditions are very simple, Dr Hanser. No more than six people will be in the chamber at once. You and Dr Rhys-Williams, I and Nazim, and you may choose two others in rotation. The others will remain in camp, under guard, as a surety for your good behavior. That is all."
"And at the end? When we have found everything?"
Bashir smiled again. "Do not concern yourself with that. If I have full cooperation from all your team, you will not see the inside of our prisons."
"Shot more like it," Al snapped. "Why are we even listening to this prat?"
"Come, Mr Bryce, we are not savages. Play fair with me and I'll play fair with you." Bashir shrugged. "If my terms are unacceptable, say so, and I will have you back in Damascus today."
"Your terms are acceptable, Under-Minister," Dani replied. "But the investigation is likely to go slowly if you keep going back to the Ministry. Perhaps we could continue in your absences?"
"No need. I have a month's leave so we shall see what we can reveal in that time."
"You mean the Ministry does not know you are here?"
"They know I am here, but think I am indulging my hobby. I love history, Dr Hanser. What better way to spend my holidays?"
Minister Bashir led his small group of researchers up to the cave a little later. Dani selected Marc and Doris for the first shift. "You'll all have a turn," she told them. "I promise you."
Soldiers stood at the cave portal and also within the tent that housed the shattered doorway into the first chamber. Bashir ordered the generator started up and they waited while the motor coughed and spluttered. It settled into a deep-throated roar and the flickering lights steadied. While the Under-Minister talked to the guards, obviously issuing instructions, Marc took advantage of the noise to turn his back on Bashir and address Dani.
"What the hell are we going to do?"
Dani's shoulders gave a ghost of a shrug, her eyes fixed on the Syrian soldiers. "I don't know."
"Not much we can do, boyo," Daffyd murmured. "Play along for now and see what happens."
"But what's he after?" Doris whispered. "I can't believe the man's really interested in history."
"Gold, Doris, gold. You were there last night. Remember Smenkhkare's treasure? That's what he's after."
"Shit! We're going to give it to him?" Marc started to look angry.
"Dr Hanser!" Ahmed Bashir stared at the huddle of men and women suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
Dani turned and smiled. "Doris was expressing a concern about loo breaks. I told her..."
"Loo? What is this loo?"
"Bathroom breaks, old boy," Daffyd chipped in. "I know you have bathrooms in Syria, I've used them myself from time to time. I assume we will be allowed to use them as needed."
"Of course. You will be escorted when the need arises. Now," Bashir indicated the entrance to the first chamber. "If you are ready?" He stood to one side and ushered Dani ahead of him.
The lighting in the first chamber had been changed since the previous day. Spotlights lit up the magnificent mural at the far end of the chamber and one pointed straight up at the great golden disc of the sun painted on the vaulted roof. The rest of the cavernous space was lost in shadow, the serried columns of fine hieroglyphics no more than shadowed stacks of symbols. Pictures broke up the lines of writing, an enigmatic face of a king here, a duck taking flight there. Every line, every feather, every colour of the pictures reflected life and movement.
"Magnificent," Bashir breathed. He pivoted on one heel and scanned the chamber slowly, staring up at the roof for a time before tracing the sun's rays down the walls to where they ended in little hands bestowing a blessing on each picture. "So unlike Egyptian art. You are certain this is truly Egyptian, Dr Hanser?"
"Yes. It shows definite similarities to Amarnan art of the late eighteenth dynasty, but is more refined if anything. I believe it is what that art might have become, had it been allowed to flourish."
"Amarnan art, Dr Hanser? I do not think I know the term."
"They discovered Akhenaten's city of Akhet-Aten at a place called Tell el-Amarna in 1824. The art on the ruins was rather like this--totally different from anything that had come before, and totally different from anything that came after. It has more in common with Late Minoan than contemporary Egyptian."
"Fascinating. I can see we are going to have some interesting discussions." Bashir walked over to the back wall and positioned himself so that his shadow, cast by the spotlight, did not obscure the painting. "What a pity you had to mar this perfection by opening up that hole. Still, you would not have found the second chamber otherwise." He looked up at the semi-circle of nine figures facing the young woman on her knees before them. "A pity we cannot see her face... but this is also Scarab, is it not?" He pointed at a small painting of a woman's face among the hieroglyphs. Leaning forward, Bashir stared intently at the portrait. "Incredible. The similarity is incredible, right down to the colour of the hair. That is you, Dr Hanser." He turned to face Dani, and motioned her forward into the light. "What is an Englishwoman's face doing in an ancient Egyptian painting?"
"That's not me. You're looking at similarities like the colour of my hair and ignoring the rest."
"Not just the hair, Dr Hanser... or may I call you Dani? You may call me Ahmed. It seems foolish to be so formal when we are becoming such good friends, no? Good, that is settled. Now, everyone, look at the cheekbones, the shape of the eyes, the ears, how she holds herself. Tell me that picture is not our Dr...Dani."
"I've always said she looked like you, Dani," Marc said, nodding. Doris said nothing, just nodded her agreement.
Daffyd grinned and tossed back his wavy black hair. "I seem to remember you telling us last year that you have an Egyptian grandmother. Perhaps the blood runs more strongly in you than you know."
Dani shook her head, the bright light glinting off her hair, making it glow redly. "My mother was French-Egyptian and my father was English. That makes me only quarter Egyptian and there must be close on a hundred generations between Scarab and me. Use your brains, guys. Even if we were related, there would be so few genes in common by now, we wouldn't look anything alike. It's just plain coincidence."
"What about that trick you did with the scarab..."
Daffyd clapped Marc hard on the shoulder, cutting him off. "Stop beating a dead horse, boyo. If the good Doctor says she's not related, she's not. Let's get on into the next chamber; I'm dying to see what happens next."
"What trick with what scarab, Dr Andrews?" Ahmed Bashir's good humour evaporated and he eyed the bearded young man with suspicion. "Be so good as to enlighten me."
Marc looked from Daffyd to Dani in consternation, aware he had committed some gaffe but not knowing exactly what. "I...er, I..."
Daffyd frowned, his eyes looking down at his hands as he rolled himself a cigarette. "Well, you know how the Egyptians worshiped the scarab...?"
"It was nothing," Dani cut in. "A...a party trick, nothing more."
"I told him about a game my grandmother used to play with me when I was a child. A scarab beetle has six legs. You assign the day, month and year of a boy's birthday to one side and the day, month and year of a girl to the other and add the two sides up. If the numbers are close together it means they will get married." Dani shrugged and gave what she hoped was an embarrassed grin. "I did it for Marc and his girlfriend and it was a close match."
"That is one of the most stupid things I've heard," Bashir said.
"Well, I told you it was a party game. I was only six when my grandmother played it with me."
Bashir shook his head and turned back to the mural. "Who are the nine figures?" he asked.
Dani coughed to cover an involuntary sigh of relief. "The Great Ennead of Heliopolis, the Nine Gods of Iunu."
"What is their relevance?"
"We don't know yet," Dani said carefully. "They meant something to Scarab--Princess Beketaten--but we haven't discovered exactly what."
"Well, the gods of Egypt were all myths anyway. Even if this Scarab believed they were important, they probably weren't. Shall we move through to the next chamber? Dani, will you lead the way?"
Dani ducked low and half crawled through the low access passage, followed by Doris and Bashir. The Minister's secretary Nazim gestured for the others to precede him but Daffyd inhaled deeply on his cigarette and pointed to his feet.
"You go on, boyo. I have to tie my shoe." Daffyd knelt and untied his shoelace. Nazim shrugged and ducked through into the next chamber leaving Marc and Daffyd alone.
"What the hell's going on? What did I almost say?"
"Keep quiet about the golden scarab," Daffyd whispered. "Bashir doesn't know about it."
"How could he not? She carries it with her all the time."
"Yes, funny thing that. We had to turn out our pockets last night and he actually picked it up but didn't recognise it as gold or as an artifact."
"That's impossible. He must be playing with you."
Daffyd straightened and shrugged. "I don't think so, but even if he is, keep quiet about it." He took a last lungful of smoke and dropped the butt, grinding it underfoot.
"Dr Rhys-Williams, Dr Andrews, would you be so good as to join us in here?" Bashir's voice echoed as it issued from the passage. "I'm starting to think you are up to no good out there."
"Nothing sinister, Minister," Daffyd called back. "I was tying my shoelace." He crouched and inched his way into the short connecting passage.
"And you need Dr Andrews to assist you?"
Daffyd straightened and dusted the knees of his trousers before moving aside as Marc came through behind him. "He was holding my cigarette while I did it." He smiled disarmingly at Bashir.
The Minister stared hard at the two men before grunting and turning away. He strode down the length of the second chamber to the back wall with its huge mural and stared up at it. "Is there another chamber behind this too?"
"God, I hope not," Dani said. "It was terrible having to deface the other one. It would be a crime to destroy this."
"Who are the figures?" Bashir snapped his fingers at his secretary. "Nazim, load a reel into the tape recorder. I want all this recorded."
Dani watched the little man quickly loading the reel and plugging it into one of the long extension cords that spilled from the mouth of the connecting passage.
Nazim tightened the tape and switched it on; waiting a moment to make sure it was running smoothly. "Ready, Minister."
"Alright, Dani, go ahead."
Dani took a moment to scan the broad sweep of the mural, marveling anew at the vivid colours and the artistry of the figures caught in a moment of a battle to the death. "The one on the left, holding the spear is King Smenkhkare, and the one on the right, with the bow is King Tutankhamen..."
"King Tut? The one with the treasure tomb?" Bashir's tongue lightly moistened his lips and his eyes sparkled brightly in the spotlight.
"Behind Smenkhkare is a woman, sister to both kings, the princess Beketaten or Scarab as she likes to be known. The other figure, the old man, is the Tjaty Ay--what we'd call the Vizier."
"So this is just a picture representing the opposition of the two kings, or is it describing a real battle?"
Daffyd pointed to the background detail. "Those are figures of men back there, small as you'd expect from perspective but...damn, this is so bloody unreal boyo. Ancient Egyptians didn't use perspective. If this was a conventional tomb painting, those soldiers would all be larger and stylised, cardboard cutouts, so to speak." Daffyd went closer to the wall and ran his fingers gently over the plaster. "Look at them. Those figures are small but they're individual. They're in life-like poses too. I'd bet my career this is an actual battle and those soldiers are real people."
"I read the account of the battle last night from your notes," Bashir said slowly. "But I do not remember any confrontation between King Tut and this...this other king."
"Smenkhkare," Daffyd said. "And that's because there wasn't one--ever. Smenkhkare died after ruling maybe three years at most and Tutankhamen ten years later. When Smenkhkare died, Tutankhamen was only a kid of nine. There is no way they ever met in battle."
"Yeah, well we already know that accepted history is wrong, don't we?" Marc said with a wry grin. "Smenkhkare didn't die, he survived the crocodile."
"That's right," Dani added. "Then he led an attack on Waset, which also isn't in the history books."
"Er, excuse me."
Five heads turned to look at Doris who was standing in the shadows behind the main spotlight. "What's up, Dor?" Marc asked.
"Well," Doris started hesitantly. "Aren't we assuming this is all factual?" She waved her hand toward the columns of tiny hieroglyphs marching up and down the whitewashed walls. "I mean, how do we know this Scarab person is telling the truth? Maybe it's all made up."
"It's true," Dani said flatly. "It has the ring of truth..."
"Hang on Dani," Marc cut in on the expedition leader. "Doris could be right. What if these writings are as biased as Shakespeare's plays? I mean, he was an Elizabethan playwright and those were the Tudor monarchs who basically rewrote history to blacken Richard the Third's name. Well, what if the same thing is happening here and Tjaty Ay is really a sweet old grand-dad, and Smenkhkare's the bad guy?"
Dani paled and took a step back. "You're calling Scarab a liar?"
"I think we are all getting a little carried away, boys and girls." Daffyd took his tin of tobacco and cigarette papers from his jacket pocket and started rolling himself a smoke. "I know you feel a special affinity for the lass, Dani, I like her too, but Doris and Marc raise a good point. How can we be certain this account is factual? I'm talking evidence, not feelings."
"What are you saying?" Bashir asked, his brows furrowed in suspicion and alarm. "If this is not true, then the reference to the king's treasure..."
"... May be just so much hot air," Daffyd finished. He put the tin and papers away and stuck the fat cigarette in his mouth. A match scraped and flared and he drew in and exhaled a cloud of pale smoke. "Well, there is a way to be sure." He stood smoking with a smile on his face, looking from one person to another.
"What is your sure-fire way?" Dani asked after a few moments.
"Yes, tell us, Dr Rhys-Williams," Bashir added.
"Find something in the text that is verifiable. Better still, lots of things." Daffyd shrugged. "I know there's not much known about the whole time period, but there must be something. Maybe that treasure you crave, Under-Minister." Bashir glowered but said nothing. "If we were to find the treasure trove at a place described in the account, then that would lend support to its authenticity."
"Then what are we waiting for? Let us start translating again and see what it tells us."
"Actually, there might be something already," Doris said slowly. "When I was reading the notes about Scarab in Zarw, she saw a magnificent pectoral that Khabiru jeweler had made. Didn't Tutankhamen have something like that in his tomb?"
"Can't recall it," Marc said. "But you could be right. It's the sort of thing a king would have. How do we find out?"
"Perhaps this is something the other members of the team can be doing while they sit around at the camp," Nazim suggested quietly. "There are reference books back in Damascus and we have the notes from this tomb."
"Bravo, Nazim," Bashir said, his eyebrows rising as he examined his timid secretary in a new light. "They can look for other historical accuracies too." He clapped his hands and smiled at his captive team. "Now, let us return to the translation. There are lots of things to find out."
"Very well, Minister," Dani said. "But I must make one thing clear. This is not a treasure hunt but an archaeological investigation. On site, I am in charge and we progress at my pace. Understood?"
Bashir stared at the tall woman, his face impassive, for several seconds. At last, he nodded curtly, then relented and smiled. "Of course, Dani. I bow to your superior knowledge."
Nazim switched off the tape recorder and moved it closer to the position they had been at the previous evening, coiling the electrical cables neatly to one side. He then adjusted the spotlight to bathe the wall in a flood of light and set out six wooden folding chairs in a neat line, with one slightly apart and near the equipment. "This one is mine for I must attend to the recorder, but please, Minister, ladies, take a seat." He waited until everyone except Dani was seated before turning to Bashir. "When you are ready, sir."
The Minister nodded. "Be so good as to start your translation, Dani. I think an hour or two and we can have a break."
Dani grimaced and turned toward the tiny, packed columns of pictographs that soared from above her head to floor level, marching along the walls in either direction until they faded into the shadow beyond the reach of the spotlight.
"Okay, where was I?" Her fingers traced the columns, searching for familiar phrases. "Ah, this looks about right...it says..."
"My brother Smenkhkare has changed in the year or more we have been apart. That is not surprising, looking at what he has been through. He fell from the highest position in the Kingdoms into death, only to be resurrected again. The story is not unlike that of Asar, whom Set killed and who resurrected into great Heru. All that is missing is the presence of Asar's faithful wife Auset. In some ways I have been cast as Auset, one of the Nine of Iunu, yet I will not marry my brother, even for the sake of the gods. Another has claimed my heart and body and I will marry him as soon as the gods bring us together again, and we will spend the rest of our lives raising our son Set to be a soldier like his father.
I miss him so. The further south we travel the more my heart is ripped apart. I know my son is in good and loving hands, his grandparents will dote on him, and my all-but-husband Paramessu will raise him until I can be there. I pray to the gods it is soon.
My brother has an almost impossible task ahead of him. The armies of Kemet commanded by the best generals will surely contest his claim to the throne. Smenkhkare will need to find an army from somewhere. He believes Kush to be the answer, but that may be only because he once found help there. It was not enough then and I fear it will not be again, but what else is he to do? He is king--Ankhkheperure Djeserkheperu Smenkhkare, anointed Per-Aa of the Two Kingdoms, King of Tawi, Son of Re, Lord of Crowns--may he live forever. And I? I was once Princess Beketaten, daughter and sister of kings, but of what use is a princess now? I will be Scarab again, truly Scarab, Khepri, aspect of the Sun, and I will find a way to help my brother regain his throne, find a way to be reunited with my Paramessu, and find a way to love and care for my son.
We sailed past Ta-senet , Nekhen and Behdet, but news had already reached those towns of our status. The remnants of the population lined the river and sent volleys of arrows against us. They fell well short of course, as we had the whole river to use, but the fact that the common people turned against us hurt deeply. Not being able to put in at the towns, we were forced to scavenge for food and supplies in the farmlands near villages. Many of our wounded died in the days following the battle at Waset, despite the good efforts of Nebhotep and a handful of other physicians. Where we could, we buried them in the hot, dry sands of the desert edge where they stood a chance of immortality, their bodies drying before decay could set in, preserving the shell of the person for later spirit resurrection.
And so we came to Abu again, where we found the Governor Ka-Nakht prepared to defend the island and the city..."
The two barges that contained the remnants of Smenkhkare's army pulled in to the eastern shore of the river half a day's drift downriver from the elephant-backed boulders of Abu. The previous day, they had sailed confidently up to the city, secure in the knowledge that they had so depleted the city of arms and men in their previous passage a few weeks before, that no significant resistance could be organised. Two things had changed since Smenkhkare's successful capture of the city though. First, Governor Ka-Nakht had received warning of the approach of hostile forces from messengers from Waset, and second, this was not the army that fought so well before.
Of the fifteen hundred men that had invaded and captured Abu previously, a scant two hundred remained and many of those were weary and wounded. Facing them was a garrison of about the same number, if the able-bodied men of the city were called up, but they had the superlative advantages of being rested and well-fed, well-armed and secure in fortifications that could certainly withstand a small force from the river. A shower of arrows met the barges as they neared the harbour and Smenkhkare's shoulders slumped at the sight of his battered force taking further casualties. He ordered the barges to slip past the island and try simply to bypass the city, but archers stationed on the east and west banks of the river prevented them.
"Turn back," the king ordered. "We will go around them."
The tiny army landed on the eastern bank and sorted itself out, taking inventory of its men and assets. Litters were constructed for the badly wounded and such animals as could be gleaned from surrounding villages pressed into service as beasts of burden. While his Nubian commanders organised the men, readying them for the trek south, the king took his deputy Menkure and his sister Scarab aside.
"I had hoped to replenish food and arms at Abu, but the city is closed to us." Smenkhkare limped as he walked, the wound to his leg taken outside Waset troubling him still.
Scarab looked at her brother with troubled eyes. Another scar, she thought, but a small one compared to the others. The hideous twisted skin and flesh of Smenkhkare's torso and head still made her shudder in unguarded moments. And his deputy, his Tjaty of the wilderness, was little better. Menkure would always walk with a limp, the muscles of his left leg having been ripped and torn by the crocodile's teeth.
"Does it matter?" Scarab asked softly. "It is not as if you could find an army there to take back your kingdom."
Smenkhkare swung round to face his sister, his scarred face twisting with rage. "I have not given up. I will never give up as long as Ay rules in Waset."
"And neither will we, my lord," Menkure said forcefully.
Smenkhkare controlled his anger and regarded the tall, beautiful woman with the strange red hair shrewdly. "What of you, sister? Do you have the stomach for what lies ahead or will you run off to your soldier?"
Scarab closed her eyes briefly, holding on to the image of her man and her new-born son, far away across the length of Kemet. Opening her eyes, she stared calmly into those of the king. "I will stay for as long as I am needed."
"Good," Smenkhkare grunted, turning away to look back at the soldiers forming up into a column on the bank of the river. "There is a lot to do before we can set foot in Kemet again. I will need your strength--both of you."
"What would you have us do, my lord?" Menkure asked simply.
"Be with me, advise me. I will form the King's Councilors again, and I will rebuild my army so that when I am ready, be it next year or in five years or ten, I will reclaim Kemet and put my enemies to death."
The column moved out, heading south along the east bank of the river, with Smenkhkare and Menkure at its head. Ranging out to each side and a few thousand paces ahead were small groups of men, archers mostly, who acted as scouts and sentries. The land they passed through was farmland and field for the most part, this still being Kemet, but the farmers and the inhabitants of the towns and villages fled as they approached. Smenkhkare ordered as much food as could be found to be taken from storehouses, harvested from fields, or stolen from houses. The villages and fields were put to the torch, billows of smoke drifting like a blanket behind them.
Scarab sought to remonstrate with her brother the first time. "These are the homes and fields of your people. You are supposed to be their king. How can you do this to them?"
"You are right, sister," Smenkhkare replied. "I am their rightful king, and as such I own everything in Kemet. What I want, I take, and none shall dispute my right. No-one, sister."
The theft, pillage and destruction continued, and by the time the small column of soldiers arrived opposite the island of Abu, with its great rounded gray boulders, the baggage train stretched out behind them, animals and carts laden with the meager wealth of the population.
The soldiers of Abu, Governor Ka-Nakht recognizable only by the gold that gleamed on his chest, stood on the docks of the city and stared across the narrow width of the river at the passing troops. They made no attempt to hinder their passage, but marched the length of the island, keeping pace with the army of the fallen king, until at last they stood and watched them pass out of sight.
Just south of the city and island, Smenkhkare led his men away from the river and cut inland, bypassing the first great cataract that interrupted the smooth flow of water. Though they had no boats to haul up its narrow canyons, the army followed the passage always taken by travelers to the Nubian provinces of Wawat and Kush. The track, worn smooth over the centuries, was easy to follow, curving eastward in a wide arc and over the great ridges of rock separating Kemet from the southern wastelands. From an open ridge marked by a boundary stele, it wound down from the mountain heights to the river again, through a landscape very different from that of Kemet. Where before, they traveled through field and farmland, over regular straight roads and into town and village, a tamed land; they now traversed a wild country, full of rocks and arid soil, covered with dry grass slopes and stunted thorn trees, where the hand of man lay lightly or not at all.
Here, in the open wasteland, it became apparent to all that their little army was almost insignificant. Just over two hundred soldiers left the borders of Kemet but within three days the number shrank to three-quarters that as men looked back longingly at the rich lands they had left behind. On the morning of the third day, when it was discovered another twenty men had deserted overnight, Smenkhkare withdrew to his tent, refusing admittance even to his sister and his deputy. An hour later he came out, his face pale and set and ordered everyone to assemble.
Smenkhkare stood in the open ground in front of his hundred and fifty soldiers dressed in as much kingly regalia as had survived the retreat from Waset. The blue leather war-bonnet or khepresh glistened from fresh beeswax rubbed into it, a clean white linen kilt hung from his hips and a gold pectoral threw back flashes of sunlight as he moved. His hands held the crook and flail of kingly authority, but nothing could disguise the hideous wounds that marred the perfection that properly belonged to the body of a god, nor the limp that spoke of human affliction.
"I was anointed Ankhkheperure Djeserkheperu Smenkhkare, lord of the Two Kingdoms and your rightful King, recognised and loved by the gods. That Kingship is mine until death." Smenkhkare paused and scanned the line of armed soldiers in front of him. "I am rightful king of Kemet and Nubia, but my kingdoms are in the hands of the traitor Ay and the puppet king he has set up, my younger brother Tutankhaten, while my other brother, Akhenaten, rules in his City of the Aten alone, as he has done since I was crowned and anointed. Kemet cannot stand divided; either you follow me as I oust the traitors or you foreswear your oaths and turn against me. Think on this choice, men of Kemet and Nubia. What will you do?"
For several measured heartbeats there was no sound beyond the faint sigh of the hot breeze from the eastern desert and the shuffle of bare or sandaled feet. No voice was raised, either in support of Smenkhkare or against him.
"They're not going to follow him," whispered Scarab, leaning close to the tall figure of Khu. "The jackals will desert him here."
"Wait," Khu breathed. "See, he speaks again."
Smenkhkare started talking again, his voice pitched low as if in conversation rather than declamatory as before. "Soldiers of Kemet, think back to why you swore an oath to me, whether in Nubia over the past year, or more recently in Kemet as I marched and sailed north to Waset. You were given a choice, and you exercised it--and shall I tell you why you chose me?" He paused, letting the moment drag out. "You chose to follow me because you know, in your hearts and your stomachs, that the gods chose me, Ankhkheperure Djeserkheperu Smenkhkare to be King of the Two Kingdoms, Lord of the Land of the Nine Bows. Even Sobek, the crocodile god watched over me." He held aside his gold pectoral and flipped the white kilt to one side, revealing the full extent of the damage the crocodile teeth had wrought. "You know the power and savagery of the crocodile. What man could survive such an attack unless the gods were with him? I was chosen to lead our Kemet and that choice has been reaffirmed by my survival. For what was I chosen? To be king over Kemet, to be a Father to my people, and to govern all with justice and mercy. Only a truly anointed king can do that." Smenkhkare started walking, strolling through the lines of armed soldiers as he spoke. Menkure growled and his hands tightened on his recurved bow, but he made no overt move.
"You will say that Tutankhaten is also an anointed king, so why should we not follow him? Well, I will tell you. Tutankhaten gave up those rights and duties when he allowed his Tjaty, the commoner Ay, a man who has never been anointed, nor will ever be, to rule Kemet for him. You owe no allegiance to Ay, or to his puppet king. Put them from your mind. I am the only legitimate king in Kemet save for my brother Akhenaten, who rules, by his own choice, in but one city.
"I will not tell you camp-fire tales of riches, cattle and women, of how you are all going to be lords in the land when I have conquered. Such tales are for children. No, I offer you blood, sweat, hardship and poverty. When we take back the Kingdoms, it will not be as conquerors deserving of plunder, but as men returning to their homes after a long journey, finding thieves in his house. With righteous anger we shall oust them and render justice. We will set things to rights that the gods may smile on our Kemet again.
"You ask why we should work so hard and gain no riches? Well, though Kemet and Nubia are home to us and we do not rob our own homes..."
"Forgetting for the moment the men who have already died and been robbed," Khu murmured.
"...but we are going beyond the boundary steles, to where gold and ivory and incense and slaves are ripe for the taking. Here we will build an army, large enough and strong enough to beat even the redoubtable Horemheb. My scribes..." Smenkhkare gestured toward his staff, "...will take down the names of every loyal officer, soldier, servant or camp follower. When I am restored to my Kingdoms, I will pay, from the royal treasury, gold of one hundred deben weight to every name on that list. This I vow before all gods."
The quiet crumbled under the swelling murmurs of the soldiers, gradually increasing to shouts of loyalty and greed. Smenkhkare walked briskly back to his staff officers as the scribes hurried forward with papyrus rolls, pens and pots of ink to take the names of the assembled men.
"It will suffice."
"My lord," Menkure said. "That is a lot of gold to give away. It will cut a sizeable hole even in your treasury."
"No doubt," Smenkhkare said with a smile. "But only if they live to collect it. They have first to survive our years in exile, then a hard-fought war." He shrugged and beckoned a servant, telling him to fetch wine. "Even if I have to pay out on half of them, I will be in possession of the treasury of all Kemet."
"My brother, I had not thought you so hard and unfeeling."
Smenkhkare turned swiftly and stared at Scarab, taking in her flush of colour and her thin lips below narrowed eyes. "Anger? From you? Why? I thought you of all people would see the need."
"You are using these men, brother. The Smenkhkare I know would..."
"Would be soft and gentle and die here in the desert. That man died with the crocodile, sister. I will do what I have to, to gain my Kingdom back."
"Even to spilling Kemetu blood? Your people."
"Yes, my people, and none who obey me need die."
"But do you not even care..."
"Enough! I am the king. You will do as I say." Smenkhkare turned and strode off toward his tent, pushing the servant aside who was returning with a cup of wine. The purple liquid splashed the desert rocks with an ominous stain.
Scarab stared after him, and at Menkure limping after as fast as he could. "That is not the king my brother, Khu," she whispered.
"He has been through a lot," Khu replied. "Make allowances. When he is secure in his kingdom again and rested from his trials, he will be the brother you know and love."
"Perhaps." Scarab turned away and picked her way over the stony ground toward the campfires and her own quarters. "What did he mean by 'years of exile', Khu? I thought three months far too long to be separated from my infant son. I cannot be gone for years."
Wisely, Khu said nothing, for really, there was nothing to say.
The taking down of names did not take long and by mid-morning, as the heat started to ripple the dry air, the small column moved on into Nubia. The road south kept to the river's edge, meandering in and out of the narrow belt of riparian scrub and forest along the waterway. Villages were few and far between and almost always deserted when Smenkhkare's small army arrived. They foraged, picking clean the land as they traveled, and moved on with few among them concerned with how the villagers would survive. Each evening, they withdrew into one of the dry stream valleys to camp, away from the river and any that might travel it.
"Horemheb will send out troops to find us," Menkure explained. "We could not survive another assault in our weakened state."
They traveled on the eastern bank of necessity as they had no ready means of crossing the narrow and rushing river. The advantage was that there was a road of sorts and that there were fewer forts. The threats to the security of the province of Wawat were warlike tribes out of the west, pushing through the surrounding desert and falling upon the river settlements. Scattered forts, manned with small detachments of troops guarded the west bank villages and the temples, but rarely bothered to cross the river in pursuit of the enemy.
"The fort at Kubban is our only real worry," Menkure confided to Scarab. "It sits astride the road south where the road to the royal gold mines branches off. There may be a hundred or so soldiers there, more than enough to wipe us out."
Menkure had taken to seeking out the company of Scarab in the evenings, while the king sat alone in his tent and drank. Khu and Nebhotep stayed close, suspicious of Menkure's motives. Scarab was sister to the king, and it would not be the first time a minor lord had risen to the throne through the marriage bed.
"What will you do?" Scarab asked. She moved closer to the scarred Tjaty of her brother's tiny empire and leaned closer, lowering her voice. Khu's jealousy and the physician's concern were written on their faces, but Scarab knew herself capable of looking after herself. They do not have the right, she thought fiercely. I will do as I see fit.
"We have it all planned," Menkure said reassuringly. "There is no need to worry."
"I am not worried; after all, I have my brother to look after me."
"And I, Lady Beketaten."
"Indeed, Lord Menkure." Scarab smiled and touched the man's arm briefly. "What is the plan?"
Menkure hesitated for a few moments and even glanced toward the royal tent as if fearful he would be overheard. "The garrison at Kubban will have heard of our coming. Horemheb is sure to have sent messengers south to warn the forts and the governor in the city of Sehotep-Neteru. They will expect a small squad of men fleeing south, scared and ill-disciplined." He smiled, the scars from the crocodile teeth warping his face. "That is what we shall give them."
Scarab pondered his words, noting the amusement in his eyes. "How will that help?"
"Fifty men, under the banner of the king, hurry past the fort and up the gold road. The guards in the fort will not resist the temptation to capture Smenkhkare. But others of us, mostly archers, will already be waiting in ambush. The soldiers will come running to their deaths."
"It could work; Menkure, but the guards know the land. They will surely not run blindly into any area that affords cover."
"You forget we know this land too. I have a place picked out that is beyond suspicion. There is no cover."
"Sunset, as the shadows gather. Small hillocks and long shadows will hide us sufficiently."
"Are you sure enough to risk my brother's life? If you can sneak past to set the trap, why not do this with all of our men and leave the enemy guessing?"
"Because the men need a victory. We must show ourselves and the enemy that we are still a force to be reckoned with."
Three days later, a small body of men, keeping a semblance of military order, ran by the fort of Kubban just on sunset and turned up the rocky trail leading up the dry riverbed toward the gold mines. Smenkhkare's personal standard flew mockingly from a spearhead at the front of the runners. The fort gates swung open before the men were out of sight and a hundred fully armed troops rushed out, led by the fort commander himself.
A mile further on, the commander found his quarry lined up across the road in battle array, the shadows from the hills dark across the land. He halted his own troops, swiftly formed them up into a suitable assault column for the terrain, and waved them forward. As the soldiers broke into a trot, a cloud of arrows swept across the column from left and right, and threw the force into disarray. Screams and yells from dying and wounded men added to the confusion and as another volley slashed out of the featureless darkness, the waiting soldiers of Smenkhkare leaped forward and crashed into the column, hacking and slashing. Within minutes, the commander lay dead, along with most of his troops.
Smenkhkare offered the few survivors a choice--their lives in return for an oath of loyalty. By the light of newly lit torches, a Leader of Fifty, his left arm broken and useless, stepped forward toward Menkure and replied on behalf of his men.
"We do not recognise the authority of the man named Son of Sobek, who calls himself Smenkhkare. We are loyal to kings Akhenaten and Tutankhaten."
Menkure shrugged. "It is your choice." He turned away and signaled to his men. "Kill them."
Scarab ran to where the king stood watching the proceedings. "Brother, you cannot allow this. These are Kemetu, your people, doing their duty. You cannot kill them for this."
Behind her, Menkure raised his hand, halting his men as they stepped forward with drawn swords. He turned quizzical eyes toward his king.
Smenkhkare kept his face expressionless. "Sister, you forget yourself," he said quietly. "Much as I love you, I will not allow you to question my orders. You may offer advice but when I give an order it is to be obeyed instantly. Do you understand?" The king gave a small nod and Menkure's arm dropped, releasing his soldiers. The prisoners died where they stood.
Next came their own soldiers. A dozen had died in the ambush and another eight were so badly wounded that they could not be taken further. Menkure gave them a choice also.
"We can leave you here to take your chances when the fort guards come out tomorrow, or we can dispatch you swiftly."
Two with grievous stomach wounds opted for death at the hands of their comrades, while the others chose to risk all on the mercy of their enemy. Scarab again pleaded for the lives of the wounded, but more quietly, knowing that confrontation with her brother would gain her nothing.
"Brother, every man you have is valuable to you. Can you afford to throw away these six lives?"
"Probably not," Smenkhkare agreed. "But we cannot transport them and if we carried them they would slow us down. Would you have me risk a hundred for the sake of six?"
"Then let me stay with them. Only one is unlikely to survive. The others will recover with a little time and attention. I will take them up into the hills and we can hide out until they get better. Then you will have at least five more men for your army."
"My lord king," Menkure murmured. "We should be moving on."
Smenkhkare nodded before addressing Scarab once more. "More likely you would die with them, sister. You do not know the land or how to survive in it, let alone how to take care of wounded men." Smenkhkare snorted derisively. "Your upbringing has been less than useful in this way of life."
"So let me be useful this way. If I fail, you lose six men you were abandoning anyway, and a sister who is otherwise useless to you. If I succeed however..."
"You are not useless to me, sister," Smenkhkare said softly. "You know I would have you for my wife and queen."
"But you do not need me for that. You will retake your throne by force of arms and find another wife. I can be useful in other ways."
"You are a princess of Kemet; I cannot leave you with six men in the wilderness."
"Khu will stay with me, and Nebhotep to care for the men. I would trust them with my life."
Smenkhkare nodded. "As would I, but I cannot spare Nebhotep. He is our only physician."
"My lord, may I speak?" Nebhotep's voice came from the shadows. "My assistant Min..." he dragged a young Nubian into the light of the flickering torches. "...is progressing well in the healing arts. He is quite capable of dealing with everyday ailments. We would only be a month behind you..."
"Even if I let you stay, how would any of you find us again? We intend to lose ourselves in the Nubian wilderness."
"My lord, with respect," Menkure said. "Two of the wounded men, Huni and Sepi, are Nubians enlisted from the town of Barkal. They know the area and could guide them there--if they survive."
Smenkhkare turned away and looked out on the western hills beyond the river, where the last glow of the setting sun still stained the sky purple. He weighed advantages and disadvantages, aware of a growing impatience among his men. "Very well." He turned and strode back to his Scarab. "You may take Khu and Nebhotep to help you with your six wounded. I will give you a donkey-load of food and water as well. Take the trail on the right an hour from here and take refuge in the mountains. When the men can travel again, head south and be at the Kurgus boundary stelae at sunset of the new or full moon. I will have men waiting there on those nights for three months."
"Thank you, brother," Scarab said, smiling. "You will not regret your merciful decision."
Smenkhkare grunted. "Do not disappoint me. Oh, Nebhotep, as an incentive to keep my sister and these men alive, not least yourself, I'll give a deben of gold for every person you bring back to me."
"I am a physician, my lord, and your loyal subject. I do not need a reward for doing my duty."
"Nevertheless, it pleases me to do so. Will you deny your king?"
"No, my lord." Nebhotep bowed. He waited by the wounded men lying beside the road while the rest of the troops prepared to set out.
Khu sidled up beside the physician and cleared his throat. "I have a brother named Min," he said.
"Indeed?" Nebhotep glanced at the pale bronzed skin of the ex-farm lad beside him. "Well, this Min is Nubian, lad. I doubt you'll mix them up."
Scarab watched her brother march off with his men, the tramp of feet sounding in the still air long after they disappeared into the darkness. She turned to the dim forms of Khu and Nebhotep standing beside her, glad the night hid her expression. "I hadn't thought this through. What do we do now?"
"We get off this road for a start."
"The lad's right, Scarab. We have to find at least a temporary refuge by dawn or we'll have enemy soldiers swarming all over us."
"But where? In case you hadn't noticed, it's pitch black out there. How are we going to find our way?"
Nebhotep quietly invoked the name of the god of healing, Imhotep, and turned away to see to the six wounded men.
"We go up the road a ways, Scarab," Khu said patiently. "Didn't you hear the king? About an hour from here is a trail on the right that leads up into the mountains. We can camp anywhere once we are off the main gold road. Tomorrow when it's light we can find a cave or something."
Scarab could hear the reproach and disappointment in Khu's voice even though she could not see his face. She felt ashamed that she had lost her nerve where Khu had kept his. "I...er, thank you, Khu. Where would I be without your steady head and brave heart?"
"That's alright, Scarab." The pleasure in his voice was obvious and, safely hidden by the darkness, Scarab grinned.
It was closer to three hours later that they found the narrow trail snaking off into the mountains. By then, the moon had risen, still close to full but waning, shedding a pearly glow over the stark and rocky crags. They left the main gold road and headed westward into the hills, following the narrow trail. Their shadows lurched before them as they made their painfully slow progress, the pace limited by the slowest of them. The moon was close to its zenith when they found a shadowed cleft in the hillside and sought its shelter to wait out the rest of the night.
"We should go further," Khu urged. "It has taken us half the night but we are still not far from the road. We could be seen come sunrise."
"The wounded men cannot go on, lad. One or two are close to death and unless we allow them rest and food..." Nebhotep shrugged, his gesture only dimly discerned in the shadow of the cleft.
"It will suffice," Scarab said calmly. "We must make the best of our situation and pray to the gods for their help."
The gibbous moon faded into the morning sky as the sun rose over the great stony desert. The warmth was apparent even at an early hour, welcome then to dispel the chill of the night, but heralding another scorching day. The wounded men lay in the shade of the cleft, with Nebhotep and Scarab tending to them as best they could. The physician had his leather chest of medicines which he dispensed in tiny amounts. Unguents and powders were applied to wounds, or mixed with a mouthful of wine swallowed gratefully by groaning soldiers. One man was dying, despite the physician's efforts. His stomach wound festered in the heat, his flesh turning dull purple and stinking. Luckily the other men's wounds were less serious, incapacitating rather than life-threatening. Though they would have slowed an escaping army, a few days would find them reasonably mobile once more.
Khu kept watch at the mouth of the cleft, sitting in shadow and staring toward the point where the trail and the gold road met. Presently, he saw a thin plume of dust and a little later could make out a squad of perhaps twenty men moving cautiously up the road. They passed the trail and continued out of sight toward the southeast, evidently following the tracks made by Smenkhkare's troops. A little later they returned, in no great hurry, and disappeared in the direction of the fort and the river.
Scarab joined Khu at the cleft opening. "Any sign of pursuit?"
Khu shook his head. "They passed right by the trail. I suppose the tracks of a few men and a donkey look more like traders or farmers than soldiers."
"They could be back though."
"Yes, which is why we need to find somewhere more secure today." He got to his feet and dusted down his knees. "You and Nebhotep stay with the men. I'll scout out the trail a bit further and see if I can find a cave or something."
"You shouldn't go alone. I'll come with you."
Khu smiled. "I was hoping you'd say that."