Rain gave way to sullen overcast and after a protracted struggle the clouds reluctantly allowed the sun to break through onto the camp of the British Midland University dig in the little side valley of the Orontes River in southern Syria. The only people to take advantage of the break in the weather were half-a-dozen local workers and more than twenty soldiers of the Syrian Army. The swollen stream that ran through the valley ran muddy, but the cave that pierced the towering sandstone cliffs remained dry. Within it, a breached wall of mud-brick and dressed stone half-hid the chambers that lay beyond and the white-washed walls covered in paintings and finely drawn hieroglyphs. Discovered the previous year, one chamber had become three, and slowly the writing was translated to reveal an account of the Amarnan sun-kings of Egypt that was not written in the history books. Three days before, the principal translator, Dr Dani Hanser had retired to her tent in exhaustion, leaving the other members of the team to their own devices.
For two days they had frequented the main tent where they took their meals and spread out on the narrow trestle tables transcribing the tapes and the notes taken during Dani's steady vocal translation, but on the third day the tent was almost empty at breakfast. There was some desultory conversation as they ate some fairly ordinary toast and marmalade and drank their tea, until Marc looked at his watch.
"Where's Al?" he asked. "Has anyone seen him this morning?"
Daffyd shook his head, engrossed in a text book, and Doris said she had not seen anyone from his tent since the previous night.
"That's a point, Bob and Will aren't here either." Marc got up with a groan. "I'd better go find him."
"Have your breakfast," Daffyd instructed. "They'll turn up."
"Now I'm up, I'll have a look in his tent at least." Marc left and Daffyd watched him go, frowning slightly, before turning back to his book.
Angela came in and helped herself to a boiled egg and poured herself a cup of coffee. "Hi Dor, you were up early. Couldn't sleep?"
Doris swallowed her mouthful of toast. "The sun was shining when I woke up. I'm so tired of the rain I just had to get up and enjoy a few minutes of it."
"He's not there." Marc stood in the entrance to the tent, a puzzled look on his face. "None of them are, and their cots don't seem to have been slept in."
"They've probably just gone for a walk," Angela said.
"Or up to the cave," Doris added.
"Yeah, that's probably it." Marc looked out at the camp site. "There's Bashir. Maybe he's seen them." He let the tent flap fall behind him.
"Damn," Daffyd muttered. "Marc! Come back!" he called out.
"What?" Marc's reply was muffled. He poked his head in the door. "What?"
"Come in and sit down. I don't want you asking Bashir about Al and the others."
"Because they've gone."
"Gone? Gone where?"
"They decided to try and get out of Syria."
"Why?" Doris asked.
Angela looked scornful. "Use your head, Dor. We're prisoners of Bashir and his army buddies and we know too much. I think it's a damn good thing they've escaped. If I'd known they were going to try, I'd have gone with them."
"They haven't got a hope," Marc said gloomily. "If I'd known, I would have stopped them."
"You still can," Daffyd said. "Just tell Bashir. I'm sure his soldiers can round them up in no time."
"That's not what I want, and you know it. I just think it's stupid to get Bashir angry when...damn it, when our lives are in the balance. How is he going to react when he finds out?"
"I imagine, as you say, he'll be extremely angry and may very well be tempted to shut us up and close down the site," Daffyd said, rolling himself another one of his perpetual cigarettes. "Then he'll start to think just what that means."
Marc stared at the smiling Welshman. "Alright, I'll bite. Just what does that mean?"
"It means that with Al, Bob and Will at large, he cannot do away with the rest of us. That was always the danger. Bashir believes there is a fabulous treasure buried somewhere in Egypt and he hopes the Scarab account will lead him to it. When the account in these chambers ends, we all meet with an unfortunate accident and he goes off to look for his treasure. With Al et al at large, he can't do that."
"Where have they gone?"
Daffyd shrugged. "How would I know?"
"Well, you knew they were gone, so I thought you might."
"If I don't know, I can't be forced to tell."
Marc considered this for a few minutes. "Bashir's going to hit the roof when he finds out."
Daffyd nodded and stubbed out the butt of his cigarette. "It is important we give them as much time as possible to get away, so behave normally and act dumb."
"Are you saying we normally act dumb?" Doris asked indignantly.
"Your dumbness will be purely an act, Doris Smith," Daffyd said, suppressing a smile. "To mislead Bashir." He started rolling another cigarette.
"Mislead Bashir about what?"
Everyone looked at the tent entrance where a slightly-built woman stood.
"Dani," Marc said with a warm smile. "Good to see you. How are you feeling?"
"Come in and take a pew, old girl," Daffyd said, expelling a cloud of pungent cigarette smoke. "How about a cuppa?"
"Less of the 'old girl' if you don't mind, though I do feel a bit ragged still. A cup of tea would be nice." Dr Danielle Hanser sat down opposite Daffyd while Angela hurried to pour her a cup of tea. "What's this about misleading Bashir?"
"Well, it's..." Doris started.
"Nothing at all," Daffyd cut in. "That's to say, nothing more than usual. Just our standard obfuscation."
"Our what? Oh, yes, that's right..." Doris lapsed into silence.
"Where is everyone?" Dani asked. "I suppose we'll be back in the chambers later today, so we need to go over our notes. Ah, thanks Angela." She sipped her tea.
"We've been working on the transcribing, Dani," Marc said. "We're pretty much up to date. We just have to decide how much, if any, we are going to keep secret."
"I'm not going to try hiding things as I translate," Dani said. "It's all I can do to wrap my head around those phrases. Ancient Egyptian writing is supposed to be formal and staid, not lively and personal like these inscriptions."
"Sure it is, Dor," Angela agreed, "But it must be a real bitch to translate as you read it. Are you really ready to start again, Dani?"
"I think so." Dani smiled. "I'm eager to see what happens."
"What about the other agenda?" Marc asked. "Do we transcribe exactly what we hear or do we try and hide any description of the treasure chamber or tomb? You know Bashir's going to go down to Egypt and loot it as soon as he's sure of its location."
"Feed him false information and he might go down and look for it anyway. Either way, we're screwed," Angela said gloomily.
"Angie! Language!" Doris said, shocked.
"Exactly as Angela says," Marc said. "So do we hide it or not?"
"Hide what, Dr Andrews?"
Marc whirled and stared at the man in the doorway. "Jesus, I wish you wouldn't sneak around like that. You damn near gave me a heart attack."
Ahmed Bashir, Under Minister of the Syrian Ministry of National History, eased into the tent. "I ask again, Dr Andrews, what is it you want to hide from me?"
Marc flushed red beneath his bushy beard. "Nothing. We were just talking."
"I'm well aware of that. What were you talking about?" He stared at the small group of archaeologists, waiting for one of them to say something. "Is it to do with trying to hide the location of the king's treasure by obscuring the description?" He saw the stricken look on Doris' face and nodded. "I see that it is. Admit it Dr Hanser; Dr Andrews; Dr Rhys-Williams."
Dani looked at her colleagues and then back to the Minister. "You must understand that we are not happy with your desire to rush off and plunder this treasure if it still exists. We are scientists and these things should be left to science."
"My dear Dr Hanser, how you misunderstand me. I admit to a keen desire to see this treasure found, as I'm sure you do too, if you would be honest, but I desire only that the United Arab Republic keeps this treasure for itself. For too long, foreign nations, especially Britain, Dr Hanser, has plundered Egypt of its treasures. Yes, I want to find Smenkhkare's treasury and tomb, but only so it can be safeguarded for future generations in the nation where it lies hidden."
"Very commendable," Daffyd said dryly. "So why have you not brought in some international experts to examine this account. The Egyptian authorities should be notified too."
"These things will happen," Bashir assured them. "I am waiting only until we can verify the accuracy of this account. Then the proper authorities will conduct a formal search for the tomb in Egypt."
"If you are so selfless, Minister, why are we being kept prisoner here and threats made against us?" Marc asked.
"You are not prisoners, but I must insist you remain on site until the work is complete. You want to see what the account says, don't you?"
"Why shouldn't we leave if you have nothing to hide?"
"I am quite sure none of you would behave unprofessionally, but all it takes is an injudicious word and suddenly there are swarms of avaricious people seeking a king's treasure in Egypt. None of us want that, so until I can arrange a proper press conference to announce our findings, nobody will have a chance to talk to anyone else."
"We wouldn't say anything," Angela said.
"Miss Devereux, one of your number already has. If you remember, Mr Robert Burrows mentioned your find to his brother. Luckily, we have managed to contain that mistake, but we may not be so lucky next time." Bashir looked around the tent. "Where is Mr Burrows, by the way?"
Marc shrugged. "In his tent, I suppose."
"Please go and get him, Dr Andrews. Also, the other members of your team. They should all be reassured."
"I'm sure that is not necessary," Dani said. "Let them sleep. We can tell them later."
"Sleep? At this hour?" Bashir stared at the archaeologists and noted that none of them met his eyes. He turned abruptly and strode to the tent flap, calling out to an army officer.
"Captain al-Azem, search the camp. Bring me any foreigner you find."
Bashir went back into the tent. "Will my men find them?" he asked. Nobody said anything. A few minutes passed and the captain entered.
"No sign of the other foreigners, Minister."
"Thank you, captain. Please have your men on standby." Bashir waited until the captain had left before speaking to the others. "Where are they?"
"Gone," Daffyd said. He opened his tin of tobacco and started rolling himself another cigarette.
"Gone where?" Daffyd shrugged. "Why did you not stop them?" Bashir asked.
"You hadn't explained so nicely why we had nothing to fear. If they thought they'd be safer away from here, who could blame them?"
"Captain al-Azem will find them," Bashir said. "They will soon be back in custody...protective custody."
"Not a hope," Daffyd said with a smile. He lit up and puffed blue smoke in a rush upwards. "They'll be in Damascus by now and they have their passports."
"Thank you, Dr Rhys-Williams." Bashir turned on his heel and strode out.
"Why the hell did you tell him that, Daffyd?" Marc said angrily. "Damascus airport is only a phone call away and they'll stop the flights until they find them."
"What makes you think they are in Damascus?"
"You just said...where are they then?"
"Hopefully, over the border into Israel by now, or close to it. Damascus is the logical choice, but also the easiest to close off. Not a word now," Daffyd added as they heard Bashir returning.
Bashir smiled as he entered the tent again. "Good. Things will soon be back to normal. In the meantime, while we are waiting for our misguided friends, I think we had better continue with the translation. Are you rested enough, Dr Hanser?"
Dani nodded. "Let me get another cup of tea first."
"I will have a thermos of tea brought up to the chamber. Now, if the rest of you..." he gestured toward the entrance.
"It's my turn to stay back," Doris said. "That is, if we are keeping to the same schedule as before."
"I am feeling magnanimous," Bashir said. "You may all attend this session. Besides, I think I want the rest of you where I can keep an eye on you."
They all trooped up to the cave accompanied by several guards whom Bashir positioned outside the chamber entrance with strict instructions to pass no-one in or out without written permission from him. The generator was started up and electric light flooded the chambers and the air pump started freshening the air. Bashir led the way and they passed into the interior of the tomb, but when they reached the vertical shaft connecting the second and third chambers, Bashir noticed Dani was missing. They went back to find her.
They found Dani in the first chamber, staring at the large painting on the back wall. The scene showed a young woman with her back to the viewer confronted by the nine gods of Iunu. Dani held something in her right hand and they could hear her murmuring indistinctly as they drew close.
"Dr Hanser," Bashir said. "Are you ready to start work?"
Dani turned and stared at them, frowning. After a few moments her expression cleared and she nodded. "Yes, sorry, of course."
"What is that in your hand, Dr Hanser?"
"This?" She looked down at a gleaming object in her hand. "Nothing."
Bashir leaned forward to examine the object briefly and then turned away. "Come, it is time to start work." He stooped and shuffled into the connecting passage.
"Did you see that?" Marc whispered. "The one bit of treasure we really have found, and he can't see it."
"What? The golden scarab?" Angela asked. "But we can see it, plain as day."
"Yeah, but somehow, he can't."
"It was a gift to Scarab from Atum the creator," Dani said. "I guess he doesn't want Bashir to see it."
"Er, these are the mythical gods of Egypt we're talking about," Marc objected. He looked around at the electric lighting and the deep shadows. "Perhaps it's just the lighting in here."
"You believe what you want," Daffyd replied. "If Dr Hanser says it comes from Atum, that's good enough for me."
"Yes, but it was a gift to Scarab," Angela said. "Not to Dani."
"Well, she does look like Scarab," Doris said. "Look at her likeness in the painting."
Marc laughed. "Are the gods that easily fooled?"
Dani shook her head. "No. The tie is of blood."
"You're related? How?"
"Through Seti?" Angela exclaimed. "Are you descended from the pharaohs?"
"My grandmother was Egyptian," Dani said. "She always claimed she had an ancestress called Scarab." She shook her head. "I never really believed her."
"Are you coming, or do I have to send soldiers to fetch you?" Bashir's voice floated out of the tunnel from the next chamber.
One by one, they ducked down and moved through into the second chamber. Bashir was waiting for them at the top of the vertical shaft that led down to the third chamber. When the Minister saw them, he nodded and preceded them down a wooden ladder bolted to the rock wall of the shaft. At the bottom, a sealed brick doorway had been pierced and cables carrying electric power and hoses conveying air from a compressor in the main cave, snaked through into the chamber.
Bashir stood midway down the chamber, impatiently waiting until every man and woman of the British team was in place. "This is the place, Dr Hanser." He pointed at the tiny columns of hieroglyphs. "Please start your translation."
Dani looked around the chamber slowly before nodding. "Alright then." She turned to examine the wall. "Where was I...let's see..." He finger traced the columns of delicately-drawn symbols.
"We entered the ancient city of Ineb Hedj in force, marching the whole Heru legion through the narrow streets to the palace. The other legions..."
"You were a bit beyond there, Dani," Marc said. He consulted a notebook. "Somewhere around her having lost the golden scarab and her companions would need to search for..."
"Yes, I have it...right here." Dani licked her lips and knelt by the relevant column. "It says...Twenty days have passed since Ay's death and in another fifty there will be a new king crowned in Waset. If I am to avoid the fate Horemheb has in store for me, I must escape with my companions. However, we are so closely guarded I cannot see that happening - unless the gods return their gifts to me. I lost the golden scarab of Atum between Taanach and Gubla and as I cannot think how it could return to me here, I must perforce search for it there. Rather, I must have others search in my place. The next time my companions are allowed into the city, I shall have Abrim and Gershon escape. I can give them gold and jewels to speed their journey north. I only hope that they can find Atum's golden scarab and return with it before I am made Horemheb's Queen. I once took pride in being the 'Chosen One of the Gods' but I can see now that the gods choose many men and women to do their bidding and I am but one of them. I will school myself in patience and wait the unfolding of their will. If I do not have the golden scarab then perhaps their attention is elsewhere..."
The old man shuffled through the stony desert, his worn sandals kicking up a thin cloud of dust and his staff clattering against the rocks. A dirty, threadbare robe covered him from shoulders to toes, and his head was covered in matted hair, hanging down over his robe. A beard, a few shades lighter in colour than his red-gold hair, covered most of his face, the skin around the eyes and nose sunburnt and flaking. His lips were cracked and dry and his tongue flicked out between them as he mumbled to himself.
"Why won't you answer? Have I not done everything you asked, given up everything for your sake? Father, answer me, for I am your son..." The man stopped abruptly and a frown creased his forehead. "Son? He is the Lord and I am the son...or...or I am...and he is the sun." He lifted his face to the molten disc of the sun blazing high in a shell-blue sky, but his eyes could not see it--he could only feel the heat on his ravaged skin.
"How have I failed you, father?" the old man cried. "Why do you hide your glory from me?" He cocked his head as if listening, but after several minutes he shook it wearily and continued onward.
The unseen sun rose to its zenith and shadows all but disappeared. The man felt the heat beat down on his head and sought, by touch and instinct, the thin shade that clung to tall and tilted rocks. He sat, his legs drawn up to take advantage of the marginally cooler air and leaned back against the blistering stone, staring unseen over the desert. In his mind, he saw again, scenes from far away.
Water. A broad expanse of a river and air that was moist and cool. A city, dusty and sunbaked, filled with the scents and sounds of humanity. Large, cool rooms, servants, gold arm-bands and precious stones. People who smiled and bowed, offering food--golden barley loaves, thick slabs of beef and roasted geese dripping with fat, radishes and onions, dates and melons--water-filled and succulent. The man felt his saliva flowing and groaned softly. Fine wine, tart beer, and cool river water in abundance. He heard chanting and raised his head, searching for the source of the sound before he realised it lay within his head. O Living Aten, the originator and beginning of life! When you rise on the eastern horizon, you fill every land under the heavens with your beauty. His eyes glistened and he put his head between his hands and wept for all he had lost.
Sound intruded again, this time sharper, with a quality to it that spoke of something external. The man lifted his head, his tears already sucked dry on his weathered cheeks. The sound came again, a soft clack of stone against stone--there, off to my left. He moved his head as though he could see the person or thing that moved quietly half a hundred paces away.
"You are welcome, stranger, though I have nothing to offer you except my company."
There was no reply, and the man trembled, knowing in his heart that silence was not the sign of a friend. He moved his right hand, casting about, seeking a rock to wield. He nudged a large one and his hand slipped under it. Hard, jointed legs scrabbled against his skin and then his hand was pierced by a hot needle driven into the flesh between thumb and forefinger. The man snatched his hand back, a cry of pain and anguish ripped from his throat.
The clatter of stones came again and the yipping cry of a jackal.
"Inpu? Have you come for my soul at last?" The old man nursed his hand, already swollen and pulsing with pain and strove to drive the confusion from his mind. Inpu is a son of Re, but neither god is true--only the Aten, only the Lord God is worthy of worship. Ah, Lord, have mercy on your son. Guide me as you once did.
Air stirred his matted hair, hot and acrid as the breath of Set and the man prayed aloud, seeking to drive the false gods from him. "Lord God, I am your servant. Guide me."
The answer was silence, not even the sound of the jackal. He leaned back against the rock, withdrawing into himself in misery. The pain spread slowly up his arm but he ignored it, accepting it as one more proof of his God's displeasure. Shadows slid away, and the full force of the afternoon sun bathed him in a furnace that sucked out what moisture remained in his burnt and flaking skin.
A long time later--the man could tell that the sun had lowered in the sky though he could not see it--he stirred and rose shakily to his feet. His hand and arm ached but the pain was bearable.
The scorpion was sent to chastise, not to kill. He took this as a sign that his god still had a purpose for him. "Behold, your servant, Lord." Silence. The man started off into the desert, forgetting his staff which remained beside the rock.
"What?" The man started violently and almost fell. "Who?" He looked around blindly. "Who calls me?"
"It is I, father," a woman said. "I have your staff."
The man felt something tapped against his arm and he grasped it, recognising the rough texture of the wood.
"What has happened to your hand? Let me see it." Hands brushed against his still swollen arm and he snatched it back.
"I do not need your help. Only the Lord's."
"As you wish, father. Do you thirst?"
The man heard the muted sound of liquid in a goatskin flask and though his throat convulsed painfully, he made no move to take the proffered vessel.
"It is acceptable, father. The Aten desires you to live."
The man trembled but reached out a hand and took the flask, working the bung out with a shaking hand and lifting the water to his lips. He drank thirstily before handing the flask back to the woman.
"Thank you, Merye, my Beloved." He turned once more to face the desert and the sinking sun. "The Lord calls me."
The woman sighed softly. "Do as you must, father. I shall follow you."
"Not too close, Merye. I heard you earlier."
"It was a jackal. I saw it."
The man shook his head. "Not too close. I must offer myself to the Lord in solitude."
"Yes father." The woman squatted on her heels and watched as her father stumbled off into the stony waste. She waited until his diminished form rippled and danced in the shimmering air before slowly following.
The woman had seen only a dozen summers since the water-fat days of luxury as the eldest daughter of a loving father in the palace on the Great River, yet her hair was streaked with gray and her face was lined and worn by the harsh desert air. Her robe was thin and patched and the body beneath it shrunken and angular, yet her face shone with the intensity of one who follows an ideal. Merye's attention was focused on the stumbling figure of her blind father, but she remained aware of her surroundings. A sure way to die in the desert was to ignore what lay on every side, but Merye had quickly learned to guide her blind father through the everyday vicissitudes the harsh climate threw their way.
The sun swiftly plunged toward the desert sand, turning golden and then red as it shone through the dusty layers of air. Merye approached her father and guided him toward the shelter of a stand of boulders. Now that the face of his god was slipping beneath the western horizon, he became more tractable, obeying his daughter as she quickly set up their campsite. A fire was necessary as it grew chilly at night, but it must be properly hidden lest the light attract unwelcome attention. Several times in the past dozen years they had stumbled across bandits or the wandering tribesmen of the deep desert. The first time, the bandits robbed them of every possession, raped the young woman, and taunted the blind man mercilessly until he lost his temper and lashed out. He was clubbed senseless. Since then, they had had nothing worth stealing and the tribes tended to leave them alone, believing the ramblings of the old man a sign he was touched by the gods. Bandits still troubled them from time to time, but Merye's increasingly worn looks seldom attracted unwelcome attention.
They ate sparingly of dry bread and a morsel of goat's cheese before settling down beside the fire. As the fire died down and the chill of the desert night bit deeper, they huddled together for warmth. The man's hands roamed and he left his daughter in no doubt as to what he wanted of her, but she refused him, pushing him away.
"Why, Merye?" he whined. "We used to."
"That was different. You were king and I was your wife then as well as your daughter. Now you are just an old man cast out by Kemet and I...well, I am just an old man's daughter."
"I am still the son of Aten, still the Anointed One of Kemet. Those things do not change, Merye. Nor do my feelings for you. Can we not take some comfort in this wilderness?"
"Things have changed, father. Open your eyes to our changed circumstance..." Merye grimaced. "Sorry, father, it is just a saying. But you are no longer king and I have seen precious little evidence these past years that the Aten still loves you. We wander from oasis to well, begging for food, while you pray incessantly to the sun, but he does not answer. Give it up, father. Let us find a friendly tribe or a small village where we can live out our lives in some measure of comfort."
"No. The Aten has not forgotten me. He will raise me once more to glory. Did I not always praise him and put him before all other gods?"
Merye did not answer. She huddled in her thin and patched robe and listened as her father continued to mumble about the special relationship he had with his god. After a long time, when the stars had moved significantly across the body of Nut, she spoke again.
"Father, we are no longer in Kemet, are we?"
"Eh? No, no, not strictly. These are the borderlands, the red deserts of Deshret. Why do you ask?"
"The sun still shines upon us though we are far from the Great River."
"Of course. The Aten looks down on his only son."
"Does the sun not also shine in Kemet, despite you not being there? Or in the land of Sin, or Kanaan, or even upon the Nubians and Hittites?"
The old man thought about this for several minutes. "What are you saying, Merye?"
"Could it be that the same sun that shines on every nation is in reality the same god to every people? What if the Aten is only the Kemetu aspect of the sun? Could this be why he does not answer you now that we are no longer in Kemet?"
"He is still the sun."
"When you were king in Akhet-Aten, men petitioned you and addressed you by name. If they had used another name, you would have assumed they were talking to someone else. Maybe the sun is like this--you have to address him by his proper name in whichever nation he reigns."
"So what is his name here?"
"I do not know, father."
"And what will be his name if we go south... or north... or east?"
"I do not know, father."
"There is a lot you do not know, it seems."
"That is true, father." Merye sighed and turned over, closing her eyes.
At dawn, the old man stretched and stood to urinate before orienting himself to the heat of the rising sun. He lifted up his arms and recited the morning hymn to the Aten that he had composed many years before. Behind him, the young woman uttered the appropriate responses, while rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The sun rose in the sky but otherwise showed no sign of hearing the song of praise.
"Perhaps you are right, Merye," the old man said. "If God will not hear my voice, it is because my mode of address is wrong. But how do I find out the correct way to address him?"
"I do not know, father, but it can surely not be the name that any of the peoples of the nations call him. A god like the sun must surely have a name of power, a name that is all-encompassing."
"The Khabiru call their god Adon which is like Aten, and El."
"Adon just means 'Lord' in their language, and El means 'God'," Merye objected. "It must be more than this."
"Perhaps it is a name that describes him--like 'Glorious' or 'Shining' or 'Golden'."
"There are many things that can be described thus."
"Like 'Glorious', not actually that name," the man grumbled.
"Then think of a name that is the god's alone. Think of a name that described him to our ancestors who were blessed by his life-giving rays, something that we experience, and what people will call him when we have passed into the West. The sun is eternal and was, is, and will be."
Merye shrugged and turned away, gathering up their meagre belongings. "I imagine it has been used already, but try it, father."
The man lifted up his arms to the sun again and cried out his yearning and desire, calling the orb 'Eternal One'. After several minutes, he lowered his arms and his head. "He does not answer."
"Then search for another name." Merye shouldered her skin bag and touched her father lightly on the arm. "Which direction today, father?"
"In the direction of the sun." He set off, stumbling again in his personal darkness, but his lips moved incessantly as he considered his problem.
Merye followed a hundred paces behind, thinking her own thoughts. Every hour or so, judged by the passage of the sun across the sky, she approached her father and persuaded him to take a sip of water from the tepid liquid in the goat skin. Sometimes he would drink; other times refuse the proffered water with an impatient shake of his head. Then she would stop and wait for him to walk on through the furnace.
Toward noon, as the sun once more reached its zenith, she stopped and looked around for somewhere they could shelter from the worst of the heat. She spied rocks far off to their left and was about to start after her father to guide him to them when he uttered a loud wailing cry. She turned in time to see him fall headlong to the ground.
Merye ran to her father who lay on his back, his blind eyes staring up at the sun. "Father," she cried, and knelt beside him. He gave no sign that he had heard and she shook him, gently at first and then with increasing vigour. "Father!" She dabbed his face with a few precious drops of water in the hope of reviving him. The liquid hardly dampened him before it evaporated. "Father, wake up. I cannot carry you."
"He speaks to me," the old man whispered through cracked lips. "God speaks to me."
"That...that is good, but we must move. The heat is increasing and we must find shelter."
The old man allowed himself to be drawn to his feet, but would not be hurried as Merye pulled and pushed him toward the distant refuge. "He speaks to me at last," he whispered again.
"That is good, Father, and you can tell me what God says when we get you into the shade."
Shadows clung to the rocks, and after Merye had thrust her father's staff under and around them to disturb any snakes or scorpions sheltering there. The scorpion that had stung her father the previous day had been a relatively harmless one, but there were also deadly ones in the desert. Merye found nothing in the shadow of the rocks and they crawled between two large boulders, glad to be out of the direct glare of the sun. The air was scarcely less hot, but it still afforded some relief.
Merye doled out sips of warm water from the nearly empty flask. "So what did God say, father?"
"He spoke to me."
"Yes. What did he say?"
"I asked him his name."
"And he told you?"
Merye waited, but her father seemed in no hurry to elaborate. "What is God's name?" she asked at last.
"It is so obvious, really. I meditated on the everlasting qualities of God, praising him not only for shedding his life-giving rays on every nation, but also for being there in the past for our ancestors, for us today, and for our descendants in the future. I thought about the passage of years and how the God is unchanging after ten years, after a hundred, after a million. Everything changes except the sun. Then it came to me that God is unchanging because to him, a thousand years is as a day to men."
"That seems reasonable," Merye murmured. "What happened then?"
"I imagined three of me, a thousand years between my past me and the man I am today, and another thousand years until a future me. We all raised our voices in praise of the unchanging God and the three of me said to God, 'I was', 'I am', and 'I will be'. Then God spoke."
"What did he say?"
Merye frowned. "What does that mean?"
"It means that there is no past or future for God. Everything is the present. God cannot say 'I was' because that means he has moved on from who he was then. Nor can he saw 'I will be' because that means he will change into someone else. He can only ever be in an unchanging present. God can only say 'I am'."
The woman shook her head. "If you say so, but what is his name? You say he told you?"
"He said, 'I am'. That is his name--'I am'."
Merye remained silent, and after a few minutes her father put out his hand and searched for her, patting her on the arm when he found her.
"It is hard to understand, I know, but that is what he said. He told me what to do, too."
"Do I want to know?"
"Come, child," her father chided. "When God speaks, we obey."
"Very well. What does God want of us?"
"Of me, daughter. He wants me to go to Midian in the land of Sin."
"To do what?"
The man waved his hand vaguely. "He will tell me when I get there."
"You are quite sure he wants us... you to go there? There are Kemetu soldiers in Sin. They might recognise you."
The old man laughed. "And if they do? What can they do against the chosen one of 'I am'?"
"They could kill you, father. They tried to before."
Her father nodded. "They took poor blind Waenre Akhenaten into the desert to be killed by his god, but the Aten preserved him. I now know that the Aten is but an aspect of 'I am', so how much more likely is it that God will keep me safe? I will tell them 'I am' sent me, and they will bow before him."
That same day, when the heat had drained from the land, they set their backs to the setting sun and started on the long journey to Midian in the land of Sin.