A shadow crouched in the wetlands, brushing the face of the water with an outstretched hand. Before cupping a hand to drink, he saw a rabid face in a pool between the ripples and he flinched at the reflection longing for vengeance, longing for blood. As the water settled, the image of a hollow eye-socket wrought a rage that had long held him captive, and his heart burned as if it had been branded by an iron. But he was alert to a change, one he frequently dreaded and his heart pounded like distant drums. For the jackal became the night, walking as a man at dawn and as a dog at dusk. He was the shadow that outwitted all shadows, a thief in the night to cast down kings.
The creature hunkered to the ground, snout pressed against a bed of reeds as he prayed to Apepi—serpent of darkness and chaos. The gentle drone of a dragonfly disturbed his devotions and his tongue snatched the insect, crushing it on the roof of his mouth. A scent wafted through the undergrowth, sweet and sensual like a woman’s blood and his tongue lolled through yellow teeth tasting the air. Light-footed, he parted clumps of papyrus and advanced on fours, canny and fearless like a phantom. Storm Petrels disturbed from their shallow burrows rose into the sky like demons. But he continued to run, undeterred by their fear.
Loping at the lip of an estuary his feet splashed tirelessly in the spume, and with a tightened chest, he sped towards a house enclosed behind a high wall. The governor of such a bastion had long since died, leaving behind a wife whose life the creature sought. Snarling with hatred and snapping teeth he leapt with the grace of a jackal, scaling the ramparts with ease.
1504 BC, Dynasty Eighteen
The river meandered through the frontier town of Swenet, blue as lapis from the quarries of Naqada. Lush verges extended to the desert, dividing the land of the living from the land of the dead.
During Mesore, the fourth month of Shemu, tribesmen from the southern provinces of Kush invaded the garrison post nestled between the mountains and the curve of the great river. The Pharaoh’s armies fought the Meroëvian rebels for two days, many falling victim to thirst and exhaustion. Arrows arced across the sky pinning dead men into the dust and screams echoed against the cliffs. Warriors reeled and stooped in a cloudy haze, their anguished cries merged with the groans of death and archers herded the rebels towards the towering rock face until they became penned like cattle between two rocky spurs.
Behind them, the Pharaoh brought his chariot to a halt, horses snorted and flanks twitched beneath yoke saddles. He adjusted his blue war crown, thrown backwards in the wind and wiped a hand over his bare chest. A young bowman, no more than fourteen years of age, jumped from the footplate to hold their heads, eyes searching for his father through a mist of sand. Black hair fluttered against the breastplate at his chest, thick like a horse’s tail, and his skin glistened like oiled cedar.
There he is—fleet as a leopard! The boy could barely make out the commander of the Division of Thoth ahead of him in the thick of the skirmish. Clinging to the horses’ bridles, he craned his neck forward to see a bloody spray as it leapt into the air. Give him time, the boy murmured, waiting for his father’s victory cry.
Shrieks echoed against the rocks amid the dull ring of swords. Bodies spread even to the banks of the river Nile where a trail of the Pharaoh’s infantrymen, faces oiled and shrouded against disease, charged to retrieve the spoils and drive out looters.
“Stand fast!” Pharaoh Ka-Nekhet shouted to his men, as if he noticed their impatience. As the sand settled, the glint of his khopesh sword caused the enemy to wince but he remained on the footplate; lofty and glorious. One hand rested on the front-guard of his chariot, veins rippling on his sun-baked arms.
“They will kill themselves, my lord,” the boy urged. He stared at the Meroëvian warriors with unease. None were bound, hands grasping long knives as if they knew what they must do.
“Steady, Shenq.” The Pharaoh eyed the commander’s son with fascination. “See, your father has surrounded them. They cannot escape.”
“Thirty have been captured,” Shenq returned, swatting a fly from his cheek. He looked up at the Pharaoh in awe, eyes narrowed in the sun. “See the chieftain? He cuts his own flesh.”
A shriek interrupted the Pharaoh’s response as a Meroëvian armor-bearer armed with a khopesh ran out from the captive group as if he would plough through the division of Thoth. It was a desperate maneuver to send a witness to Kush and arouse support from the tribes. But the commander, taller than the rest, fixed his eyes on his target and took aim. Taking his axe behind his head, he threw it in one fluid motion cutting the armor-bearer down in a flurry of sand. A cheer went up through the ranks as the commander placed his foot on the dead man’s belly to retrieve his weapon, long hair hung down his back—a feature of his Persian heritage.
Shenq could not believe his eyes. He wanted to run, to congratulate his father. But his place was with the Pharaoh to refill his quiver and carry his bow. One day I will be like him—swift like an eagle.
“Tie them up!” the Pharaoh shouted to his commander. “I want them alive.”
The commander ordered his men to sieze the Meroëvian prisoners and to present them to the Pharaoh. Only ten were bound, the Chief among them, sweat shimmering on his bald head. Earrings dangled from stretched earlobes and from the cartilage that ran along the rim of his nostrils. A russet shenti wrapped across the front of his thighs and belted at the waist, accentuated a powerful physique.
But something caught Shenq’s eye. His father remained some distance behind the prisoners within a rocky bay. He struck those dying with the butt of his axe as an act of mercy. The unmistakable silhouette of a man armed with a spear rippled downwards from the cliffs like a thief on the run. The warrior turned sideways as if determining a target and launched his spear into the air. Its sword-like spearhead caught in the sun as it arced, a slim profile coming to earth with deadly precision. The point stuck his father in the back, exiting through his chest as if he hung from a roasting spit.
Words stuck in Shenq’s throat, mouth opened to scream. “No!” he heard himself whimper as he let go of the horses’ heads. They seem to strain in their traces, ears back to the sound of his voice. He hardly heard the Pharaoh’s shouts, a slow drone in his left ear. A strong arm hauled him up onto the footplate, pushing him hard against the front-guard.
Of course he is not dying, Shenq panted, feeling the chariot lurch forward. The wheels burst through spent arrows, bouncing off sandy ruts and dying men. But Pharaoh Ka-Nekhet, victorious at last, was in no mood to celebrate. Jerking the reins, he finally jumped from the footplate pausing briefly to examine the carnage. The commander’s body was inclined forward as if in prayer, haft still shuddering as it held. So terrible was the Pharaoh’s wailing as he sank to his knees, the sound disturbed a herd of crane at the water’s edge.
Shenq edged through the throng, elbows braced against the soldiers. “Let me pass,” he uttered, tears stinging his eyes and sobs disrupting breath. But he was warded off by compassionate hands, hands that forced him away from the crowd.
Shenq studied the captain’s face, upper lip drawn into a snarl. Why is he staring at me? Why doesn’t he say something? “I want to see my father . . .”
“Nothing can be done.” Captain Tehute shook his head, bottom lip trembling. “Commander Cambyses is dead whilst his killer has run to ground like a fox. No doubt there will be a parcel of land to the one that finds him.”
“I beg you, let me see him.”
The captain shook his head rapidly. “Remember him as he was, boy. I shall leave you to your grief, but hear this. There is a warrior out there, darker than night with a ring in his lip. It is better to search the desert for a coward than to mourn. The Pharaoh will reward you tenfold.”
Tehute’s voice caused Shenq to double over in pain and his stomach heaved. Not much came from his throat and he couldn’t remember his last meal. At length he recovered, standing alone, eyes turned to the river. Voices chattered behind him but he dared not turn. Not now. A wake of vultures circled idly in the sky, and he wanted to reach up and swipe them. A hot wind brushed against his face and a shadow, not far from where he stood, hurried through the tall grass towards the river. The vision was swift, feral, and the warning sound of his captain’s voice alerted him to danger.
“Shenq! Go after him!”
Following the order, Shenq knew the captain sought to distract him as they moved his father’s body. He bounded towards a belt of palm trees, grass slapping against his calves as he ran. It was likely a looter, skittish at the sound of the Pharaoh’s wails. But as he approached a cluster of papyrus stems, he saw no such thing. A warrior, whose bald head was marked with tattoos, crouched in the river mist sluicing his body and slaking his thirst. His chest was covered with a wide collar of teeth interspersed with leopard’s feet, a tradition of the Alodians; the southernmost province of Kush. Yet not one fighter on the battlefield claimed such a heritage nor did they promote the scars of bravery.
Hidden behind the spiky fronds of a young palm tree, Shenq studied the warrior whose belt housed an axe, blood dripping from its blade. The weapon was familiar by the inscription on its cheek and he knew it by heart—Cambyses Champion to Pharaoh Ka-Nekhet.
His knees trembled, chest soaked in sweat. Forward, against him! The ethereal voice throbbed in his head, familiar and paternal. His heart quickened, and he crept forward outside the periphery of the warrior’s vision. Placing a pebble in the cradle of his sling, he loosed it after the third rotation. The warrior heard the noise over the sound of splashing water and just as he turned, the projectile struck him below the brow. Blood seeped through his fingers, eye ruptured by the attack. But the other eye stared back at Shenq, tracing each feature as if committing him to memory.
“Son of a harlot!” the Alodian shouted, backing up into the mist. “As I have destroyed your father, so too will your house burn!”
Shenq was astonished. He had aimed for the warrior’s temple. Mouth open, he took chase, arms flailing through the long grass as if swimming for the furthest shore. On and on he ran, hearing the sound of his own breath and the crackling of dried grass underfoot. A stench like that of a butchered antelope, shot through the air like a plume of steam, and his senses warned him to stop and listen. But when he reached the fringes of the battlefield, the Alodian disappeared. So foul was the taste on his tongue, he almost gagged. Twice he turned his head to the river, beaten by fear. But there was no one there. Only the sling caught around his wrist was a harsh reminder of what he had seen.
“What did you find, boy?” captain Tehute asked, watching Shenq approach with a fixed eye.
“It was nothing, sir, just a dog.” Shenq was too ashamed to confess his failure but the word dog made up for all manner of heathen.
“Walk with me.”
Shenq was reluctant. He averted his eyes from a group of bowmen as they carried a nobleman from the battlefield. For seven years Cambyses, Commander of the Division of Thoth, served the Pharaoh; protected him, sacrificed for him. Hacked and pierced, his body would be delivered to the embalmer and readied for burial. I will see you then, Shenq thought, swallowing hard. The funeral would be splendid, attended by every noble in Thebes. The captain placed a protective hand across Shenq’s back, driving him hurriedly from the scene. “Tell me; did you kill this dog like a true soldier?”
“I took out his eye,” Shenq mumbled under his breath, reciting every profanity in his head.
Tehute clenched his teeth, sucking in air. “Remind me what makes a good fighter, boy?”
“One that eliminates all manner of risk”.
“I trust you have a good reason to keep him alive.”
Shenq shivered despite the heat. There was something ethereal about the rebel he had seen, the sheen on his powerful limbs, a look perhaps. Like a phantom he had disappeared into the mist, blown away by the wind.
No mortal moves that fast, Shenq murmured, trying to keep pace with his companion. “It was just a demon, sir.”
“I thought you said it was a dog.” Tehute stopped suddenly, whites visible as he rolled his eyes. “I saw the fiend, my boy. Seems he had a bloody axe. I would have run after him.”
Shenq watched the captain intently. Running would not have been fast enough.
Tehute pressed his lips together, jaw set. “There is no knowing whose blood was on that axe. And now he has one eye. He’ll be back for one of yours.” He pointed at the ground where a dead Meroëvian warrior lay face-up, eyes fixed at the sky. A headdress of white feathers fluttered in the sand and a khopesh lay beside him, basking in the earth like a curl of liquid metal. “This piece is too highly crafted to have belonged to him,” he said, pointing dismissively at the dead man. “It is an officer’s weapon. Take it.”
The dead man lay on his back, head thrown to one side. Fingers rested on the pommel of the khopesh, filthy and brutal as they were in life. Shenq walked forward, belly sated with dread. What if he wakes? But he won’t wake . . . of course he won’t. Crouching cautiously, he studied the piece which was cast in bronze, blade-ridge steeped in crimson. It was a cutting weapon requiring balance, a stance similar to that of stick fighting. Pulling the sword from the dead man’s hand, he was startled as the fingers slumped to the ground. He returned to the captain, ears tuned to the sound of a dead man’s footsteps.
“Pharaoh wanted you to have it,” Tehute said, straightening Shenq’s scaled breastplate.
My father for a sword, Shenq thought, swallowing bile. It will never make up for my loss.
“Let me see it.” The captain’s voice brought him back to the present.
Shenq’s suspicious nature would have barred the other from handling the weapon, but he held it out nevertheless. Oryx hide covered the handle, rubbed smooth by constant use. Below the cross-guard, an unfamiliar engraving caught Tehute’s eye. A rectangle intersected at two thirds of its length by a horizontal band of cloisonné, and stamped with the cartouche of its owner.
“What does it say?” Shenq removed his linen headdress.
Tehute shook his head. “It is Meroitic. It says, Faithful and True.” He flicked a tendril of brain matter from the point, tilting the blade to inspect the grain. “The workmanship is exemplary. The blade is not as curved as many. ” Tehute ran his thumb across it, causing his skin to bleed.
“Give it to me.”
“Give it to me, sir,” the Captain corrected, returning the weapon. “Mind your conduct, boy. The flail is never far behind,” he said patting his back where the instrument of punishment hung from his belt. His breath reeked of garlic and onions. “I will tell the Pharaoh you will need a sheath for it.”
“Yes, sir.” Shenq retreated several paces, clutching the sword.
“Master it. Always make your weapon count.”
Shenq nodded, distracted by a small group of prisoners hobbled at the feet, hands tied behind their backs. Jewelry and tribal headdresses lay on the ground before them; plunder for the Pharaoh.
“Chief Kibwe-Shabaqo,” Tehute said, pointing at a Kushite, taller than the rest. “He will pay for your father’s death. Then the Two Lands will be safe from the thieving duskies.”
Shenq was appalled by the comment. He hated prejudice as much as he hated the word benefactor. He was now a ward of the Pharaoh same as the Meroëvian prisoners, stripped of all finery, black as onyx, darker than night.
“What will happen to them?” Shenq stared at the miserable prisoners, the youngest of which mirrored him in age. The Meroëvian boy, bare-headed and devoid of weapons, met Shenq’s gaze. He wants to be friends, he thought, sensing eagerness in a jutting chin and an open mouth.
“They are robust and well nurtured. No doubt they will be useful in the quarries.”
A mellow soul, striking like the chief, Shenq thought. The likeness was a humble spirit that lurked behind the eyes, not in the face itself. It was astonishing no one else had seen it.