The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser 3d cover

The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser by Max Overton

The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…


The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser 2 covers

King Khasekhemwy has two sons, Djoser and Imhotep, but their destinies are very different. One will become king and the other his architect and the power behind the throne. Together, they plan to build something new, a great tomb that will be the wonder of the world. But not all is peaceful within the kingdoms of Egypt. Djoser’s son Sekhemkhet will inherit the throne, but there are others that seek power and set their plans in motion, and they care nothing for the architectural ambitions of their king.

Ordinary men and women inhabit Djoser’s Egypt too, living their own lives, dreaming of power or simple happiness, but sometimes these dreams do not harmonise with the plans of kings…

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Continue the series:

The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 2: Sekhemkhet continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 3: Khaba continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 4: Huni continue the series The Pyramid Builders, Book 5: Sneferu continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 6: Khufu Continue the Series The Pyramid Builders, Book 7: Djedefre continue the series The Pyramid Builders, Book 8: Khafre continue the series

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The stony plain dropped away into a broad and shallow valley, the broad sweep of land broken only by scattered trees and drifts of dead men. Above the desolation, in the pale blue sky, vultures wheeled in gathering numbers, answering the silent call of death. Already, flies swarmed, settling on the bodies, filling the air with a deep hum. A man stood looking over the plain, absently brushing the flies away from his face with one hand.

“Such a waste of good men,” he murmured.

“You spoke, General?” asked a young man a pace or two behind the older one.

“How many men have we lost today, Khanakht? Fifty? And for what; to inflict another transient lesson on these stubborn men of Wawat?”

“A lesson they will not soon forget, General. They lost five for every man of Kemet who fell…and they lost their king, besides. I saw him die.”

“Then perhaps it was worth the price.”

General Hor-Khasekhem pondered the field of battle for a while, watching as his men returned from harrying the fleeing enemy. They wandered among the bodies, carrying their fallen comrades away and plundering the bodies of the enemy. He let them loot for a time, and then told Khanakht to sound the assembly.

“We have been away from home too long. It is time we returned.”

The small army gathered and the General spoke to them for a few minutes, praising their efforts, telling them that he would secure rewards for them from the king. They cheered him, as happy to please their general as to receive a reward for their labours. Khanakht ordered desert graves dug for the Kemetu fallen and when they were interred, Hor-Khasekhem led the troops in songs of praise to the gods. A sensible man respected all the gods, but most men chose one or other above the rest, and the little army gathered in Wawat believed Re and Horu to be pre-eminent. Hor-Khasekhem was a man of Horu himself, and it was seldom that a hawk could not be seen somewhere in the clear sky. It seemed sensible to worship a god whose presence was visible everywhere.

Hor-Khasekhem frowned as he remembered the king’s predilection for a more sombre god. King Peribsen had taken the dark god Seth as his titular deity, putting himself at odds with over half the men of Kemet. In the old stories of the gods, Seth struck down Wesir, dismembering him and scattering his body parts, and it was Wesir’s son Horu who fought against the destroyer, restoring his father to life. The general thought it a singularly inappropriate decision to place Seth above Horu.

The journey out of Wawat commenced. His army was small, no more than a thousand men, but they carried booty gleaned from the tribes they had conquered, and their progress was slow. They passed the first cataract in the Great River, and entered the fertile black lands that all men regarded as being the land of Kemet, moving slowly up the east bank. The common people lauded Hor-Khasekhem as his army passed by. He was a man of Horu, his men were mostly followers of Horu, and that god was favoured in the south.

Not everyone welcomed the General and his army though. Worshippers of other gods, particularly Seth, regarded him with suspicion, believing he had come to suppress their god in favour of his own.

“The gods are the gods,” Hor-Khasekhem growled, when confronted by the governor of a town that followed Seth. “It is not for man to raise one above the other.”

“Yet that is what King Peribsen has done,” the governor pointed out. “If the king says so, who are we to disagree?”

The governor’s words troubled Hor-Khasekhem, and he spoke his mind to Khanakht as they made their way northward toward the trading post of Waset. From there they would ferry their army across to the west bank and march north to the capital city of Tjenu.

“The king’s action is divisive. Our land of Kemet has been ripped into warring factions with each town and city worshipping a different god.”

“If the king follows Seth, then perhaps all of Kemet should do so too,” Khanakht said.

“I will always follow Horu,” Hor-Khasekhem declared.

“Then are you not as divisive as Peribsen?”

Hor-Khasekhem shrugged. “I love Horu, but I recognise all gods as being worthy of worship–even Seth. Peribsen puts Seth above all others and that divides the kingdoms.”

“So what would you do if you were king?” Khanakht asked.

Hor-Khasekhem frowned again. “Those are dangerous words. Do not speak them again in my presence.”

Nevertheless, Hor-Khasekhem pondered Khanakht’s words and by the time his little army reached the ancient city of Tjenu, he resolved to challenge the king on his policy. Leaving his army encamped outside the city; he took a small group of loyal officers to the palace and requested an audience with King Peribsen. First, he reported on his expedition into Wawat, and was pleased to be able to announce the death of the local king and destruction of his army.

“Wawat will cause no more trouble on the borders for a generation,” Hor-Khasekhem declared.

“That is well done,” Peribsen said. “Let us give thanks to Seth.”

“I have already given thanks to the gods, especially Horu.”

“All gods are subservient to Seth,” the king said. “He is the ruler of Deshret, the Red Land, and of soldiers.”

“I am a man of Horu.”

“And I am a man of Seth. Furthermore, I am the king, Seth-Peribsen, he who comes forth by the will of Seth, so my wish is that you reject your Horu and embrace Seth.”

“I cannot reject Horu, yet I am willing to honour Seth alongside him.”

“I order you to do so,” King Peribsen said. “I will countenance no god alongside Seth.”

Hor-Khasekhem was silent for a few moments. “My lord, your desires divide the land. Let men worship whichever god they will, so all of Kemet may live in peace.”

“To oppose the king is to be guilty of treason,” Peribsen said. “If you reject Seth you must leave Kemet or die.”

Hor-Khasekhem groaned. “I will never leave Kemet, yet neither do I accept death. You leave me no choice, King Peribsen.” He signed to his officers. “Take him.”

After only a moment’s hesitation, the army officers drew their weapons and moved forward. There was a short engagement as the king’s guards attempted to protect him, but they were swiftly killed. Peribsen snatched a copper sword from a fallen guard and attacked Hor-Khasekhem, but his efforts were as futile as those of his guards were. Crying out, he sank to the floor, dying.

“What now then, Hor-Khasekhem?” the dying king asked. “I suppose Horu will reign supreme over Kemet.”

Hor-Khasekhem shook his head. “Horu and Seth will reign together. In that way, Kemet’s wounds will be healed.”

Blood bubbled at Peribsen’s mouth, and he coughed, trying to draw breath. “And my family?”

“I will join Horu and Seth in this way too. Your daughter shall be my wife, and our son will be king of a united Kemet.”

It was not as easy or straightforward as Hor-Khasekhem hoped. The struggle to unite Kemet took many years, and cost the lives of many men. Healing was helped by the new king’s decision to formally unite Seth and Horu, taking the symbols of both gods on his serekh, or heraldic crest. He changed the name under which he ruled to Hor-Seth-Khasekhemwy, meaning ‘the two powers are at peace within him’, though he was content to be known as Khasekhemwy. He was a mature man with a wife and daughters of his own, but he took Peribsen’s daughters as his official wives of healing. Nimaathap, the eldest, was sixteen summers, and her sister Neithotep was fifteen. He took them both as wives and soon put sons in their bellies.

Nimaathap was Khasekhemwy’s queen and bore him a son the same year as their marriage, naming him Sanakht. He was designated heir to the throne of Kemet, and the following year, both sisters bore the king more sons. Nub-Hor was born to Nimaathap, and Imhotep to her sister Neithotep. The gods stopped up the womb of Neithotep after the birth of her only child, but she lavished attention on her son, telling him that he was ‘one who came in peace’ and was destined for great things.

The three boys were raised together in the palace of Tjenu. Senakht, as the eldest and heir, took the lead. He was aided in this by his size, as he grew almost unnaturally tall, topping his brothers head and shoulders. Some took this as a sign that he was favoured by the gods, and this suited Sanakht. The other two boys, close in physicality and temperament, became inseparable companions and vowed lifelong friendship, no matter what fate might have in store for them.

Nimaathap had one more child who lived, a daughter, born nine years after Nub-Hor. She was named Hetephernebti. Over the years of her girlhood, she endeared herself to Nub-Hor and Imhotep, and as young men, loved their sister.


Chapter 1


The celebrations of Prince Sanakht’s twenty-fifth birthday occupied the palace for three days. Sanakht showed himself to the people of Tjenu each day, arranging for beer and bread to be distributed to all who wanted it. He accepted the plaudits of the common people as being no more than his due, and strode through the streets at the head of a small squad of soldiers, towering above the common people. Celebrations continued at night, when feasting and drinking took precedence. Sanakht took his pleasure where he willed, and few of the young women of the palace, whether servants or the daughters of officials, could escape his attentions. Nobody refused the heir to the throne though, no matter what his or her personal feelings.

King Khasekhemwy was old now, and racked with the pains common to old people. His joints ached, his muscles grew flabby, he was short of breath, and his eyesight failed him. Some days he woke groaning at the thought of another day of life, but one thing gave him cause for joy.

“I have a strong son to follow me on the throne,” he told Queen Nimaathap. “I can endure life knowing the future is secure.”

“Which of our sons fills you with hope, husband?” Nimaathap asked.

“Sanakht, of course.” Khasekhemwy looked at his queen in surprise. “You do not imagine Nub-Hor a suitable heir, do you?”

“Why not? He is capable and has a good heart.”

“That is precisely why he cannot be king after me. Ruling Kemet calls for strength and a willingness to sacrifice anything to achieve a stable society. Sanakht has that inner strength, while Nub-Hor is too concerned with being loved.”

“There is nothing wrong with being loved, is there?” Nimaathap asked. She moved closer to her husband and slipped an arm around his waist. “You are a strong king and yet you are capable of great love.”

Khasekhemwy smiled and stroked his queen’s hair. “I love you; I love my family, as any man should, but that is quite different from extending such feelings to everyone. Sanakht will have love for his sister-wife Hetephernebti when the time comes, but he knows better than to waste love on lesser beings. Nub-Hor, on the other hand…” He shook his head.

“I…I love both my sons,” Nimaathap said, “but Sanakht’s heart is cold. It is as if he outgrew warmth of feeling when his body grew.”

“He is tall,” Khasekhemwy admitted. “Taller than most men, but that height is a gift of the gods. One only has to look at him to see his authority. He will be a great king one day.”

“I pray that may be so, but Nub-Hor…”

“He is my son, but he is weak. He spends his days in the company of Imhotep.”

“Imhotep is my sister’s son, and yours, my lord.”

“But he is a priest of Re, and will soon be taking up a position as Hem-netjer in Iunu. I had hoped Nub-Hor might seek a position in administration so he could help his brother when he becomes king, but he seems more interested in priestly duties.”

“Priests are necessary, my lord. How else are we to honour the gods except by ministering to their needs?”

The king nodded. “One priest in the family is enough, and Imhotep will spend his life in priestly pursuits. I would like Nub-Hor to seek other things.”

“Then assign him other duties. You are the king.”

The king commanded Nub-Hor to sit in on the law courts where the common people could approach the king and appeal for justice. It was something the king attended to on a daily basis when he could, though he had a number of judges who could adjudicate in many cases. Khasekhemwy had the idea to train up one man who could stand in for the king, and the son of a king was the obvious choice. Such a man would have great power, second only to the king, and it had to be someone the king could trust. Nub-Hor was such a man.

The young prince applied himself to his duties, and found that governing the Two Kingdoms was something he enjoyed. Khasekhemwy noted his younger son’s aptitude, and wished that Sanakht would apply himself in a similar fashion.

“Your brother has a good grasp of government already,” the king said. “This is something that you will need if you are to be king after me.”

Sanakht yawned, nursing a slight headache. “Nub-Hor is as studious as a priest. He can learn the laws and recite them as needed, but only I will have the authority to be obeyed.”

“You are not yet king.”

Sanakht smiled. “I am your heir. You would not put Nub-Hor ahead of me.”

“You seem very sure of that.”

“Come, father, you know as well as I that my brother is not the man to sit on the throne of Kemet and rule it with a strong hand. He is weak, for all his knowledge of the law.”

“There is something in what you say,” Khasekhemwy said grudgingly.

“I have that strength, father. The gods have given me height greater than all men have as a symbol of their authority. Would you reject the obvious decision of the gods?”

“You are my undoubted heir, but the throne requires more than strength and authority. Can you lead men?”

“Can Nub-Hor lead men? Of course, he cannot. Will men follow me? Of course, they will. Men are cattle and I am the herdsman.”

The king decided he would say no more on the subject. Sanakht was the obvious choice for heir, and men would have no problem following such a physically imposing man. As for the details of government, Sanakht would have a younger brother to take care of such things.

The experience of government had an unexpected consequence for Nub-Hor. All his life, he had regarded his brother Sanakht as the most important person after the king, and took it as the most natural thing that he would serve his brother. Now, however, he saw that his future could hold so much more.

“Your life is simple, Imhotep,” Nub-Hor told his half-brother. “You are a priest of Re and will become Hem-netjer in Iunu. Your life is planned out for you, but mine has been burst asunder like a dropped jar of wine.”

“I think you need to explain that, brother,” Imhotep said.

“Our brother Sanakht is the heir, but father has given me the duty of helping him in the courts, judging cases and ruling in his stead. He obviously meant for me to be a help to Sanakht when he becomes king, but something else has happened instead.”

“And what might that be?”

“I want to be king.”

Imhotep looked around him to see if they could be overheard. “Your personal desires mean nothing, brother. Sanakht is the heir, both as eldest son and by the word of the king.”

“I would make a good king,” Nub-Hor said. “Better than Sanakht, anyway. I have feeling for men and would look for their good; Sanakht thinks only of himself.”

“Undoubtedly, but that is not the point. Sanakht is the heir. Even the gods have ordained that.”

“How? By giving him unnatural height? There are tall men in Wawat and Kush, so I am told. Are they favoured by the gods too? Of course not. If height made a man king, then they would rule in Kemet.”

“It could still be a sign of their favour,” Imhotep said. “Anyway, he is the heir and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“If I get very good at ruling the land under him, father might change his mind.”

Imhotep shrugged. “If I know you, you will try to be as good as you can, even without the hope of that prize.”

Both young men were silent for a time, contemplating the truth of Imhotep’s words.

“So Sanakht will be king, you will be the pre-eminent judge under him, and I will be Hem-netjer of Re in Iunu,” Imhotep said. “The only royal child without a planned future is our sister Hetephernebti. Her fate is to be a wife and a mother.” He hesitated, and uttered a nervous laugh before continuing. “I would take her as my wife if it was possible, as I love her more than I would a sister.”

“Only a king can marry his sister,” Nub-Hor pointed out.

“I know, and it grieves me that Sanakht will undoubtedly marry her when he becomes king. I do not believe he loves her.”

“Sanakht only loves himself.”

“And I love Hetephernebti,” Imhotep murmured.

“Give that thought up, brother,” Nub-Hor said softly. “It can never be, though…” The prince’s voice trailed off.

“Though what?”

“I could take her as wife.”

“How, if only a king can marry a sister?” Imhotep stared at his brother. “What are you thinking?”

“Children die,” Nub-Hor said. “Look how many of our brothers and sisters died in childhood one way or another.”

“We are no longer children.”

“No, but men die as well. If Sanakht died before our father, then he would make me his heir, and I would be the one to marry our sister.”

Imhotep grimaced, but hid it quickly. “He is healthier than either of us, and may well outlive us both.”

“Healthy men die. Soldiers do it all the time.”

“Sanakht is not a soldier. Nor are we at war.”

Nub-Hor shrugged. “All I am saying is that death can be unexpected. If our brother died, I would become king and Hetephernebti would bear my children, not his.”

“I wonder what our sister would think of all this,” Imhotep said.

“She knows her fate, one way or the other. She will not object.”

“At least you have a choice, brother. Our sister has none.”

Hetephernebti railed against her fate when told by Imhotep of her brothers’ discussion. She scowled at her half-brother and said nothing then, but found a way to be alone with them shortly after.

“I will marry whoever I choose,” she declared.

“You are only a girl,” Nub-Hor said. “You will do as you are told.” He smiled fondly at the expression on his sister’s face. “Look, I love you…we both love you…but girls do not have a choice in the matter. It is important that you bear the next king.”

“What if I do not want to? Will I be forced?”

“You want to have children though, don’t you?”

“Yes, but with the man I choose. I do not like Sanakht.”

“Of course not,” Nub-Hor chuckled. “Not when you could have me. It could happen, you know. If anything happened to Sanakht, I would become the next king, and your future husband.”

Hetephernebti frowned. “Much as I love you, brother, I would rather have Imhotep.”

Nub-Hor scowled at the look of joy on Imhotep’s face. “That will not happen,” he said. “Imhotep is not in the line to become heir. Resign yourself, sister, Sanakht will lie with you, and if he dies, then I will.”

Shortly after, it looked as if the gods might have reconsidered the favour they had bestowed on Sanakht. The king called him into his presence and gave him a military assignment.

“I am sending you to Ta Mefkat, the land of turquoise. Our mines there have been raided by desert tribesmen. You will lead an expedition to teach them a lesson, secure the mines, and set up a garrison to protect them.”

“Isn’t there somebody else you can send, father? By all accounts, Ta Mefkat is hot and dusty and swarms with biting insects. Tjenu is much more to my taste. Beer is plentiful here,” he added with a grin.

The king’s expression would have made anyone else cringe. “Your parentage does not make you a king. You need military skills if you are to lead Kemet and you have none. Ta Mefkat is an easy option for your first exercise. Perform well there and I will confirm your position as Crown Prince; fail me and I will look elsewhere.”

“I am your heir,” Sanakht snarled. “There is no one else.”

“I am the king and your father. If I eliminate you from the succession, you have no recourse. Now go and do as I command.”

Sanakht was furious, but he bit back his anger and went to assemble a small fighting force. Khasekhemwy’s second-in-command Khanakht, now an old man but still spry, organised the expedition as he was going along to keep an eye on things for the king. The prince hated the thought of being spied upon, but realised the old soldier’s help would be invaluable. He let him deal with all the details and only insisted on Khanakht consulting him at every step.

Three hundred men would suffice, of which a hundred would garrison the fort or forts set up to guard the turquoise mines. Stonemasons were needed, as well as carpenters, armourers, bakers, butchers, and a host of other servants, and a large amount of equipment and supplies. After half a month of this organisation, Sanakht was very grateful for Khanakht’s efforts, and praised him to his face.

“The king commands us, my lord,” Khanakht said. “We can only obey.”

Less than a month after giving the orders, the little army, now over five hundred men and sporting a long baggage train, set off from Tjenu, travelling up the western bank of the river to the point where the waters divided in the flat delta lands of Ta Mehu. From there, they would be ferried across the river to the eastern bank, moving up the easternmost branch of the river almost to the sea, before cutting inland into the rocky wastes of Ta Mefkat.

The journey was slow and arduous, every bit of the supplies having to be carried, though a train of pack donkeys transported the heavier and more awkward pieces of equipment. They lived off the land, commandeering food from the farms and villages as they slowly moved north. Fish was plentiful, but farmers quickly hid their stores of grain if they received enough warning of the army’s approach. Sanakht was of the opinion that the bounty of the land was his by right, but Khanakht tried to ameliorate the worst effects of their depredations.

“They are Kemetu also,” he told the prince. “If we rob from them they will no longer trust us.”

“Why should I care?” Sanakht asked. “I am not going to be passing this way again.”

“But you will be king one day. Make enemies of the people and you store up trouble for yourself.”

“They are peasants and are not my concern.”

Despite his protestations, Sanakht listened to his adviser and let Khanakht deal with the procurement of supplies from then on. Instead, he relieved any frustrations he had with taking every opportunity for hunting as the army made its slow progress. Farmland clung to the water’s edge, while scrub and desert was often no more than half a day’s walk away. Sanakht thought nothing of taking a few spearmen and archers and heading inland to find an antelope or a wild bull, or even a lion. Unable to pursue prey on foot, their success depended on ambush, and once they happened upon a lion feasting on the carcass of an antelope.

On this occasion, Sanakht ordered his archers to surround the beast while he advanced on it armed only with a spear. It tried to run, but the archers wounded it enough to make it stand and fight back, whereupon Sanakht killed it without too much trouble. He paraded the skin in camp that night, accepting the praise of the men, though Khanakht cautioned him against taking unnecessary risks.

“You are the heir. How will it benefit the kingdoms if you are mauled in a hunting accident?”

“You would deny me the right to hunt as I please? As you have said, I am the heir to the throne and you are a mere servant.”

“Remember that the king gave you an assignment, my lord. That task must take priority.”

Sanakht shrugged. “I have killed a lion and proven myself in the eyes of the men. We can attend to my father’s task now, though we face only men in Ta Mefkat.”

“You will find that warfare is very different from hunting, my lord.”

The small army marched past Iunu and on to the northeast before turning away from the well-watered lands of the delta. Skirting the bitter lakes on the border of Kemet they pushed on into the rocky waste of Ta Mefkat, following paths laid down in the wilderness by the tribes of the region. Some of the tribes may even have been the ones causing trouble at the mines, but Sanakht would not know that before they arrived and interrogated the survivors.

Water became scarce, but there were wells and seeps at intervals, most of them enough for five hundred men if they waited for the water levels to renew themselves. Sanakht was all for pushing on regardless, but Khanakht refused to force the pace.

“You are inexperienced when it comes to warfare and desert travel, my lord, whereas I have been in similar situations. Lack of water can kill men and donkeys as efficiently as enemy soldiers. There is no hurry; it has been three months since the reports came in. A few days more will make no difference.”

Sanakht scowled, but did not argue the point. The army made its slow way deep into the mountains known locally as Sinai, and soon found the remains of mine workings. For scores of years, Kemetu miners had sweated to dig in the rocks of the area after copper ore and the precious turquoise that gave the region its name of Ta Mefkat, and the evidence of that mining lay all around. By following the workings down the coastal strip, they found the mine that had reported the raids.

A junior officer, Neben, was in charge after his superior died in one of the raids. He stared at the height of Sanakht before recollecting his manners. Ushering the prince and his officer into the tiny fort, he explained the situation to them.

“I have thirty men to work the mine and guard it, my lords, and a bare half-score of those know one end of a spear from the other. The tribe closest to us, the Sharnu, are aware of our weakness and raid almost at will. Other tribes in the region have not acted so far, but if nothing is done about the Sharnu, it is only a matter of time before they all rise in rebellion.”

“Then we had better do something about them,” Khanakht said.

“Thank you, my lords,” Neben said. “I would offer you sustenance after your journey, but the locals have stopped supplying us with food. We have almost nothing left.”

“Well, we are here now,” Sanakht said. “We have our own supplies. You can provide some decent accommodation? Perhaps a bath?”

“I…I am sorry, my lord. You are welcome to the late commander’s quarters, but we do not have any facilities…”

“What you have will be sufficient,” Khanakht said. “Where are these Sharnu to be found? I think we should lose no time in dealing with them.”

Neben drew lines in the dust showing the position of the fort, the mines and mountains, and the Sharnu village. He indicated they were in a small valley that could only be approached in two directions.

“When they first caused trouble, Sethhotep, our commander, led men against them, but they retreated down the valley, only to return after we left.”

“You did not think to block the other route first?” Khanakht asked.

“We did not have enough men, sir. Perhaps twenty spearmen at that time.”

“How many Sharnu are there?”

“Perhaps a hundred or more, counting women and children. Fifty men that bear weapons. They ambushed the commander and slaughtered him a month ago, along with half our men, since when we have remained in the fort awaiting their attack.”

“Then let us lead our three hundred soldiers against them immediately,” Sanakht said. “We can overwhelm them and slaughter the lot.”

“They will retreat before us,” Khanakht said. “We must block the other route first.”

“So take some men and block it,” Sanakht said with a shrug. “I will lead the main force into the village and kill them all.”

“No, my lord, you will block the exit and I will drive them onto your spears,” Khanakht said.

“You mean to take all the glory. Remember I am the king’s son.”

“I do not forget, my lord, but the Sharnu will flee from the village when I turn up with a hundred men. You will be waiting with the other two hundred as they run into you. Yours will be the glory…if you can take glory from killing tribesmen.”

Neben led Sanakht to the far end of the valley, moving in the pre-dawn darkness to avoid detection, while Khanakht visibly brought a hundred men to the valley entrance, advancing in battle order. As expected, the Sharnu tribesmen abandoned their village in the face of a superior force and fled up the valley. They streamed over the high pass and as they scrambled down the other side, fighting men intermingled with women and children, Sanakht fell upon them. Archers rained arrows down and the spearmen charged in, impaling upon their spears anyone they encountered. Some Sharnu tried to fight their way past the ambush and died, while others ran back toward their village, where they ran into Khanakht’s men. Every Sharnu tribesman died, along with many women and children, the rest being taken captive.

Khanakht argued for mercy to be shown the survivors, but the prince over-ruled him. The young women of the tribe were given to the men as a reward, the older ones and young children meeting a swift death. Only sturdy boy-children were spared the slaughter, as they would serve in the re-opened mines.

Surrounding tribes sent delegates bearing gifts to the fort, eager to befriend the stronger Kemetu force and avoid the fate of the Sharnu. Sanakht relaxed in the commander’s quarters, entertained by a young Sharnu woman, while Khanakht led a hundred men in a show of force around the region. He directed masons to scout the area for fresh deposits of minerals and had them construct a series of small forts to better guard the mines that would soon evolve from the preliminary surveys. Within a month, he could report satisfactory progress to the prince.

“We have finished our work here, my lord,” Khanakht said. “Five new mines are started, three of copper and two of turquoise, small forts have been built to guard each one, and the main fort here strengthened. There will be no further rebellion from the tribes.”

“Good, for I am tired of this pestilential land,” Sanakht said. “Even the women have lost their appeal.”

The prince and his officer took the men who had staffed the fort before them, and fifty of the troops they had brought, leaving the rest to look after the king’s interests in Ta Mefkat, departing for Ta Mehu and the green, rich river lands of Kemet. Within a month, they were back in Tjenu, and Sanakht reported to the king, taking the full credit for the expedition’s success. Khasekhemwy praised his eldest son, and ordered a celebration be held in the city.

Nub-Hor was one of the few who did not celebrate

“I hoped that my brother would die in battle,” he said, “or at the very least fail miserably. Instead, he returns having covered himself in glory.”

“That was because Khanakht was with him,” Imhotep pointed out. “He is the king’s man and very experienced. Sanakht could hardly fail with his support and advice.”

“Whatever the reason, he is even more likely to succeed now.”

Imhotep sighed. “Brother, he is still the heir and would be even if he had failed. Who knows, perhaps he will fail in something else, or even die of some disease or accident. His fate, like ours, is in the hands of the gods.”

“Are you content to leave it up to the gods?” Nub-Hor asked. “Have you forgotten the fate of our sister if he comes to the throne?”

“She will be queen, at least.”

“I thought you loved her.”

“I do, as you well know. I would marry her if I could,” Imhotep said.

“You cannot; nor can any man while the king lives, but when he dies she will marry her full brother.”

“That will be Sanakht.”

“Or me,” Nub-Hor said. “I refuse to give up hope.”

“Must I give up hope then?” Imhotep asked.

“You have no hope, brother. Marry someone else and let her make you happy.”

“My heart grieves for what might have been,” Imhotep said, “but I will do as you suggest.” He looked pensive for a few moments. “There is someone else who has made her feelings to me known. Her name is Nefertsen, daughter of Hornakht, treasurer here in Abdju.”

“That is a good match,” Nub-Hor said. “I will speak to the king and facilitate your marriage.”

Imhotep’s marriage was as simple and straightforward as that of the king or of the simplest peasant in the fields. There was no ceremony as such; the only official recognition being made was a record of the bride price. Hornakht settled a house in the city on his daughter, along with fifty head of cattle and an assortment of household goods. These would remain Nefertsen’s property to do with as she pleased, and if she decided to return to her father’s house, the goods went with her. Imhotep welcomed her into his rooms in the palace with as much grace as he could muster, striving to make her feel wanted. She knew about Imhotep’s love for his sister, of course, for such a thing could not remain a secret. Pretending this love did not exist was the sensible course, so Nefertsen vowed to make Imhotep happy. In time, she would make him forget his sister and rejoice with the wife of his youth and their children. Nefertsen was easy to love, and Imhotep soon came to enjoy and look forward to their time together, and only two months passed before she joyfully reported that her hesmen flow was late.

“You are with child?” Imhotep asked, his heart swelling within him at the thought.

“I have yet to have it confirmed by a physician,” Nefertsen said, smiling, “but this morning I gave a flask of my water to him so that the wheat and barley grains may reveal the truth.”

A few days later she told him that she was indeed expecting a child and that the grains indicated she would give birth to a boy. In this though, the grains were wrong, as their first child was a girl. They named her Ranefert, in honour of the god Re, whose priest Imhotep was.

Nub-Hor was also overjoyed that his brother Imhotep was happy in his marriage and celebrated the birth of Ranefert as if the child had been a male heir. Indeed, so happy was he that he declared that when he had a daughter of his own, then she and Imhotep’s daughter Ranefert would hold a special relationship and would both regarded as his daughters.

“Ranefert will hold a special place in my heart,” Nub-Hor said to Imhotep. “When she marries, I will find her a noble husband and give her gifts of gold.”

“You are generous, brother,” Imhotep said. “It gladdens my heart that our families will continue to be close.”

Imhotep and Nefertsen were married in the twenty-second year of Khasekhemwy’s reign. He never quite forgot his love for Hetephernebti, but he was careful never to show the depth of his feelings for his sister. The year following the birth of Ranefert, Nefertsen bore the hoped-for son, Rahotep, and the year after another son, Sekhemre.

The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser Print cover

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