The power of the kings of the Middle Kingdom have been failing for some time, having lost control of the Nile Delta to a series of Canaanite kings who ruled from the northern city of Avaris.
Into this mix came the Kings of Amurri, Lebanon and Syria bent on subduing the whole of Egypt. These kings were known as the Hyksos, and they dealt a devastating blow to the peoples of the Nile Delta and Valley.
Intrigue and rebellion rule in Egypt’s southern kingdom as the house of King Nebiryraw tears itself apart. King succeeds king, but none of them look capable of defending the south, let alone reclaiming the north. Taking advantage of this, King Khayan of the Hyksos launches his assault on Waset, but rebellions in the north delay his victory.
The fall of Waset brings about a change of leadership. Apophis takes command of the Hyksos forces, and Rahotep brings together a small army to challenge the might of the Hyksos, knowing that the fate of Egypt hangs on the coming battle.
GENRE: Historical: Ancient Egypt Word Count: 148, 654
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King Nebiryrawre took the throne name of Neferkare upon his coronation seventy days after the death of his father Sewadjenre Nebiryraw. His brother Semenenre attended both the burial, where Nebiryrawre opened the mouth of his father’s Ka statue, and the coronation ceremony that followed. Semenenre attempted to flee Waset for sanctuary in Kush but was too slow and soldiers sent by the king intercepted him at the docks and arrested him, dragging him before his enthroned brother.
“I do not mean you harm, brother,” Nebiryrawre said. “In fact, I will honour the promise made to our father and endeavour to live with you in peace. To that end, I will make you my heir until such time as I beget a son of my own body.”
Semenenre desired the office of Tjaty also, but after due consideration, Nebiryrawre refused him that title.
“I already have a Tjaty,” he said. “Gebhotep.”
Gebhotep wondered at the seeming trust the king placed in his brother, given the enmity that had existed between them the past twenty years, but was careful to offer no criticism in that regard. Until he could judge the sincerity of the new king, the less said the better. Besides, he had seen the look that passed between Nebiryrawre and the head physician when the old king lay on his deathbed, and that worried him. The old king, Sewadjenre Nebiryraw suffered an unknown illness that killed him, and it was not beyond the realms of possibility that poison had something to do with that. Certainly, Nebiryrawre gained from the death of his father and equally certainly, the court physician was in a position to facilitate such a poisoning. There was no evidence of any such collusion, but the Tjaty was in a position to investigate, providing he was discreet.
Gebhotep had men under him who had proven their trustworthiness to him and his father before him, so he offered one of them the scent of his suspicion and let him run with it. He reported in only a few days with information that did little to allay Gebhotep’s fears.
“The head physician Penture is dead.”
“It seems he fell and broke his neck.”
Gebhotep stared at his informant, weighing his words. “You have doubts that happened?”
The man shrugged. “He was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs with his neck broken and the strap of his sandal snapped.”
“Yet you still have doubts?”
“There were no other injuries upon his body, such as might be expected from a tumble down a flight of stone steps.”
“You are certain of this?”
“I examined Penture in the House of Embalming. Aside from the embalmer’s incisions, there is not a mark upon his body.”
Gebhotep dismissed the man and considered his words carefully. Not for the first time, he wished his father were still alive so he could discuss the matter with him. His own son Intef was only fifteen and not ready to bear such a weighty burden of knowledge, but there was one other. Nofruni, his youngest sister was married to Bebiankh, who was a son of King Monthhotepi. Such a man would know to keep his thoughts unspoken and it was known that he held his cousins in low regard. Yet even Tjaty Gebhotep had to tread carefully until he knew his brother-in-law’s mind.
“My lord prince,” Gebhotep said. “You have heard that physician Penture is dead?”
“I have heard that,” Bebiankh confirmed. “Does the fact hold some significance for you?”
“It is strange that he should die so swiftly upon the king’s death.”
“We all die,” Bebiankh pointed out. “Only the gods know when.”
“Penture treated Sewadjenre in his final illness.”
Bebiankh stared at the Tjaty. “Your words imply a connection. Is there any or are your words mere idle chatter?”
“I…have a concern, my lord.”
“A warrantable concern or a speculative one?”
“I believe there is reason to be concerned.”
“Then give voice to it.”
“The king fell ill and then got better under a regimen from the physicians. He then fell ill once more, and came under the care of the physicians again, but this time did not get better. Under Penture’s care, he died and…and when he died, I saw a look pass between Penture and Nebiryrawre.”
“A look? Your suspicions are based on a look? What sort of look do you imagine it was?”
“A knowing look, my lord. One that said ‘I have done as you asked’.”
“Did anyone else see this look?”
“No, my lord.”
Bebiankh looked thoughtful. “You are not a youth, Gebhotep, but you are still new to the office of Tjaty that was bestowed on you by Sewadjenre. I think you are looking for guilt where none exists.”
“Penture died of a broken neck after falling down a flight of steps…”
“Not unheard of.”
“…yet suffered no outward injury save breaking his neck. Not a bruise or a scrape on him. That is unusual.”
“But not impossible.”
“No, my lord, but his death is very convenient for anyone who might have plotted with Penture to kill the king.”
“Enough,” Bebiankh said sharply. “You go too far. If you spoke these words to any other person, you would risk a charge of treason. It is only because I am married to your sister that I choose to believe you are still overcome with grief for Sewadjenre, who was your benefactor.”
“I did not say the king is responsible,” Gebhotep muttered.
“Yet you named him and Penture in the same breath. No, it will not do, Gebhotep. Give up these accusations before they land you in trouble.”
“Perhaps it was done without the knowledge of the king…”
“Do you have any evidence for that? Anything?”
“No, my lord,” Gebhotep admitted.
“Then say no more–to anyone.”
Bebiankh’s response frustrated Gebhotep but without stronger evidence he realised he could do nothing. He told his informant to keep looking, but turned his attentions to the daily tasks of running a kingdom. Nebiryraw had settled the kingdom over the twenty-six years of his reign, but the passing of the old king and the arrival of the new one inevitably led to uncertainties. He soothed the worries of the businessmen of Waset, issued orders for calm among the soldiery and endeavoured to ensure that as little changed as possible.
Nebiryrawre also confirmed Rahotep as Governor of Waset, and this elder prince of the royal family celebrated something personal in those first days of the new king. He and his wife Tiamat had a daughter Neferu who had married Tjenna, a minor nobleman of Waset, two years before. They had married for love rather than to secure family preferment, though Tjenna’s family was pleased that their son had married into royalty. For his part, Rahotep knew that the line of succession had moved away and the lack of a son meant little to him. He loved his only daughter and was happy to let her marry for love. The marriage had borne fruit just after the accession of the new king; a daughter they called Tetisheri.
The king made new appointments too and one of these was Djer, the son of the deposed king of Hattush who fled to Waset with his wife Amatia and daughters Nofret and Mutemhat. Recognising his ability with accounts, learned in the Amurran admiralty, Nebiryrawre made Djer the official Treasurer of the southern kingdom. This rise in status brought him and his family to Waset from their estates in Behdet and he immediately set about overhauling the records of the treasury.
Sobekemsaf, the brother of Rahotep, was another man to benefit from the generosity of the king. Nebiryrawre gave him command of the Waset garrison, with orders to ready the soldiers in his command for war. The king took seriously his father’s desires for his sons to wrest control of Kemet back from the northern invaders, and he made immediate preparations for this. Sobekemsaf used his position to enrol his younger sons Intef in the army, making them junior officers in the garrison. For a reason known only to himself, Sobekemsaf had named both his sons by Nubkhaes his second wife, Intef, but had taken to calling the elder one Intef-Aa or Intef the Great, though the youth had done nothing to deserve such a title. Later, seeking to placate his younger son, Sobekemsaf called him Intef-Nub, or Intef the Golden. The Intef brothers made fun of each other, and of their cousin, the son of Gebhotep, who was also called Intef.
Intef-Aa and Intef-Nub only spent time with their Intef cousin later in Nebiryraw’s reign, and swiftly gave him a distinguishing name based on his reputation with the young women of the court.
“Another one, cousin?” asked Intef-Aa. “How many does that make?”
Intef the cousin shrugged and grinned. “I don’t count, but it’s at least five.”
“What do their families say?” Intef-Nub asked.
“Why should they say anything? A girl can do as she pleases.”
“Even so. This last one wasn’t a servant’s daughter but a member of nobility.”
“None of them are complaining.” Cousin Intef smiled smugly. “They were all satisfied.”
Intef-Aa shook his head but his brother guffawed. “Then that will be your name, cousin,” Intef-Nub said. “You are the one who satisfies, so you shall be Intef-Heruhir.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” Intef-Aa said.
The two Intef sons of Sobekemsaf and their cousin grew closer with time, and were referred to collectively as the Intef brothers. Intef-Heru joined his cousins in the Waset garrison that same year.
Despite Gebhotep’s desire for discretion, his agent had been less close-mouthed than the Tjaty wanted and spoke of his investigations to his wife as they lay together on their pallets. She in turn, eager to share a titbit of gossip, spoke of it while she fetched water from the river, and by a chain of mouths found its way back to the bed companion of Nakhtre. He did a little investigating of his own and then carried the tale to his master, Semenenre.
“Why are you bringing me gossip?” Semenenre demanded. “You think I have nothing better to do than listen to the murmurings of idle women?”
The heir was lounging beside a pool in the palace gardens with only a young female slave for company. She kept her head down as Semenenre spoke and used the ostrich feather fan in her hand to waft air over his face. He gave no indication that he was presently engaged in matters that were more important.
“Send the girl away and I will tell you,” Nakhtre said.
Semenenre frowned, but waved the slave away. Nakhtre squatted beside the heir and leaned close, lowering his voice.
“Nebiryrawre and Penture the head physician killed the king, your father.”
“What? Nonsense. My brother would not have it in him to actually kill someone. He was always a coward and anyway, my father died of a digestive upset.”
“A digestive upset brought on by poison, my lord.”
Semenenre shook his head. “Much as I dislike my brother, he would not do that. I cannot imagine him ever plucking up the courage to do so.”
“All he had to do was order it done. Do you think that when you were boys he played those tricks on you personally? He ordered his friend Khay to do them, just as I acted for you.”
“Khay is dead.”
“He has others to do his bidding.”
“But this was against our father, not me. Why would he do that?”
Nakhtre sighed inwardly. “He had nothing to gain by killing you, but everything to gain by killing the king. Nebiryrawre was already the heir and only one man stood between him and the throne.”
Semenenre considered his friend’s words. “The physicians cured the king of his illness, and Penture was one of them. Why would he do that if he was being paid to kill him?”
Nakhtre shrugged. “Perhaps it was so that when he fell ill again, others would have confidence in him, or perhaps your brother only took advantage of the king’s relapse to put his plan in motion. Either way, Penture fed your father poison while pretending to heal him.”
“You cannot be certain of that. That tale is just the gossip of idle women.”
“If that was all it was, then no, but I did not just listen to stories, my lord. I did my own investigations and discovered something very interesting.” Nakhtre sat back with a smile.
“Go on. What did you find out?”
“Penture took delivery of a basket full of death copper.”
“Sounds ominous, but what is it?”
“Do you know how copper is made, my lord? Or bronze?”
“I leave that to others whose job it is to know such things.”
“Copper is made by melting certain rocks, and bronze either by adding a different type of rock to the mix, or by using death copper. It is called death copper because many people who try to make copper using this type of rock die when they inhale the fumes.”
“You think Penture made the king inhale fumes from burning rocks?”
“No, my lord, but I do think he ground the rock up into a powder and fed it to him. Whatever the poisonous principle in the rock, there is no reason to think it cannot kill by ingesting it as well as by inhaling it.”
“What is this poisonous principle?”
“Who knows? But it is known to kill.”
“And Penture had some?”
“That is what my informant tells me.”
Semenenre grimaced as he tried to see the implications of this information. “Penture may have the rocks for some other purpose. He may not have used them at all, let alone for such a purpose.”
“I can find out,” Nakhtre said.
He returned a day later nodding in satisfaction. “The rocks are no longer in Penture’s room,” Nakhtre reported.
“It does not mean he used them to kill…or that he used them at all,” Semenenre said. “Maybe he…oh, I don’t know…passed them onto someone else or something. Could they have a legitimate use as a medicine? You know how physicians love adding horrible things to their remedies–like crocodile dung or bat innards.”
“I thought of that, my lord. There is a young apprentice in the school of physicians and I took him out and plied him with strong drink. He grew quite loquacious and told me many interesting things.”
Semenenre looked at his friend standing in front of him looking smug. “Well? Go on; what interesting things?”
“Two things, my lord. First, death copper is not used in any medicine known to him, and second, Penture was seen in the company of your brother Nebiryrawre repeatedly in the days leading up to your father falling sick.”
“He might have been treating my brother for something.”
“No, my lord. Your brother was in good health.”
“So what are you saying, Nakhtre? Exactly?”
“My lord, the head physician takes delivery of death copper, a known poison, and has many meetings with your brother, who is the heir to the throne. Days later, the king falls sick and dies of a seeming digestive upset, but one that could have been caused by poison. Then, the physician dies suddenly of a broken neck but with no other marks upon his body, despite supposedly falling down a flight of stone steps. It is a convenient death, my lord, in that it leaves no one who can be questioned and, as a result, your brother Nebiryrawre is now king, holding the power of life and death over us all.”
Semenenre stared. “You really think my brother killed our father so he could become king?”
“My lord, I believe the evidence points to it.”
“But my brother swore an oath to the king that he would live in peace with me, putting aside our quarrel.”
“If he was prepared to kill to get what he wanted, then would a lie matter to him?”
“He made me his heir.”
“Perhaps to allay suspicions. He now believes you are no danger to him, so once he feels himself secure on the throne, well…what might he do next, my lord?”
“But…to kill me?”
“Brothers have succeeded to the throne upon the death of kings before, my lord. Sekhemre Sewosertawy Sobekhotep became king upon the death of his brother Sekhemre Sementawy Djehuty, and even your father Sewadjenre Nebiryraw took the throne after the death of his brother Sankhenre Monthhotepi. Why should your brother balk at removing you if he considers you a threat to his throne?”
“That…that is appalling. He wouldn’t do that.”
“Of course not, my lord. You undoubtedly know your brother best and know what he is capable of doing. I’m sure you are perfectly safe and the death of your father was as far as he intends to go in his quest for power.”
Semenenre paced the room, a frown on his face and his fists clenching and unclenching. “Nebiryrawre always hated me…and I him. I could not understand why I loathed him so much, but perhaps the gods were warning me. The gods have foreknowledge of these things, don’t they? But he is the king now, Nakhtre, so what do I do? He is the king. How can I report him?”
“It is a problem, my lord.”
“I…I could flee to Kush…as I tried to before. I could take enough gold so I could live in comfort.”
“I fear that he would interpret that as a sign that you had discovered the truth. It would merely precipitate his action against you. Soldiers would be sent to bring you back to your execution.”
“Then what am I to do?”
“There is only one thing you can do, my lord.”
“What? Tell me.”
“You must act before he does, my lord. It is apparent that you and he cannot live together in harmony, so one of you must go.” Nakhtre smiled. “I would rather it wasn’t you, my lord.”
Semenenre grunted. “You are talking about killing a king.”
“It has been done before; it can be done again.”
“Even so,” Semenenre muttered. “I…I have never killed a man.”
“Not directly, my lord,” Nakhtre conceded, “but men have died by your command…”
“Nebiryrawre’s friend Khay, if you remember, my lord.”
“Ah…er, yes. So I could order it done, rather than do it myself?”
“As your brother did with Penture, my lord.” Nakhtre smiled again. “Or should I say, Son of Re?”
Semenenre thought about what was required and knew that his survival depending on his brother’s demise. It worried him, though, and he voiced these concerns to Nakhtre.
“If it was to happen I would, as you say, be king, but how could I possibly be safe? My father dies at the hands of my brother, then my brother dies at…at my hands. I would then be in danger.”
“There are ways of making you safe, my lord. Your brother was weak and allowed you to live…forgive me my harsh words, but if he had safeguarded his throne, we would not be having this conversation. As I was saying, your brother was weak, but you will not be. You will remove anyone who could possibly harm you. All the princes, all your relatives who could conceivably make a claim on the throne. Then you marry a few well-born young women and breed sons to rule after you…found your own dynasty.”
“How would I go about this?” Semenenre asked. “I have no experience of such things.”
“That is why you have faithful friends, my lord. Give me the order to act on your behalf and I will set everything in motion.”
“I like what you say, Nakhtre, and if it comes about I will make you my Tjaty.”
“When it comes about, my lord.”
“Yes…yes, you are right, Nakhtre. When it comes about. Act for me then, faithful servant, and your reward will be great.”
Nakhtre bowed to his master and departed, his mind already working through the steps he would need to take to bring about the death of the king. It was as well that King Nebiryrawre was lax where security was concerned. He believed Semenenre when he vowed peace and that would bring about his downfall; not by poison but by bronze. One king dead by poison could be passed off as an unfortunate flux, but not two. Another poisoned king would bring with it the suspicion that Semenenre was responsible, and Nakhtre’s rise to power depended on Semenenre.
He smiled to himself as he walked through the palace–Penture had been easy to manipulate into believing he acted on Nebiryrawre’s behalf, and there were plenty of others willing to act for the promise of gold. They would act, and they would die, just like Penture.