The Horses of Buhen

Statues of Kushite Pharaohs. Courtesy of wikipedia.

Statues of Kushite Pharaohs. Courtesy of wikipedia.

Kerma’s royal audience hall was crowded, every quadrant filled. From her place by the central king-post, the Candace of Kush faced the supplicant before her ivory-backed throne.

“Kentakes Pelekh. Favoured of Apedemak, the great Lion God. Mistress of Kush.”

What happened to, Mama, mama, you’re back, I love you, Mama! Mama, Mama, look at me, I can do somersaults? Mama, mama, I can jump in the chariot even when they trot? Mama, see, I’m only twelve and I can almost draw your bow!

“Arise, Nikauta, favoured of Hathor, First after the Throne.”

From the chair she had long stopped inwardly calling her father’s, the Candace watched her eldest daughter finish the ritual prostration and raise her eyes in a flat, unflinching stare. Tight plaits curved below the dark-red archer’s cap; the short jerkin fitted close above the royal guard’s version of an archer’s kilt. Her arm and thumb-guards still showed pristine ivory against the dark luster of her skin, and her nose’s proud arch spoke the best blood of Kush.

“If the Kentakes remembers, one requested a favour.”

And you mean to spell it out, fool girl, in open audience.

The Candace shot one lightning glance about the hall, dim at mid-morning under its heavy thatch: scribes, priests, her general, lords-in-counsel and out, avid faces above flamboyant brocade robes. Court vultures. With well-learnt crispness she said, “Return tomorrow.” And nodded for her Heir to follow her to the royal robing room.

As the doors closed she swung and spoke first. “Have you asked of your heart-mother?” At the reluctant head-shake, she told the door-guard, “Ask the Consort’s First Wife to honour us.”

My consort, so I am his Great Wife, but the wife of his heart is First Wife: our house ties are tangled as a Pharoah’s, but at least we are not siblings here.

Kasaqa did not keep them waiting. The Candace had barely unearthed a second stool behind the armour-stand when the inner curtain rustled. As her marriage-kin, second archer and oldest comrade entered, the Candace let out a breath she had forgotten she held, and announced bluntly, “We have need of you.”

“Ah. The matter of the Heir’s . . .”

Nikauta’s head-toss would not have disgraced a chariot-horse. “The matter of the Heir’s behest. The Heir’s right!”

Kasaqa’s long eyes gleamed appreciatively. With a glance for permission, she drew up the second stool. As the Candace gratefully took the other, Kasaqa said, “So. Here in Kush, it is the twentieth year of the Kentakes Pelekh’s reign; and the eighteenth of the Pharaoh Ahmose, north in Thebes.”

Nikauta rolled her eyes heavenward: must we re-create the world from Apedemak’s birth? Lines pleated briefly about Kasaqa’s eyes, and the Candace watched her best strategist emerge from the growing gauntness of age like honed bronze from a sheath.

“For those years Egypt and Kush have been – mostly – at peace. The Regent was – determined.” The hand-turn added, Ahhotep curbed us as tightly as she did the Hyskos, bottled up to her north. “But in his reign’s eleventh year, Ahmose came of age. In the last seven years, he has driven the Hyksos from Avaris, from Sile, from Ture. And tidings now say he has ended his long siege in Canaan. He has taken Sharuhen.”

Nikauta’s teeth clenched. “He has finished the Hyksos, even in Canaan, and he rules Upper and Lower Egypt, yes, yes! The very doorstones know it! And now he will come after us.”

Indeed, she drank politics with her nurse’s milk.

Kasaqa inclined her head. “Twenty years past, we sold Buhen’s fort for peace, and a border above the Second Cataract. Then, Egypt was weak. But I say still, that so long as gold and ivory and incense come down the Nile through Kush, Egypt will want more. They will want to retake the lands of Wawat, of Ijir, everything to the Third Cataract.”

“And beyond! Beyond!”

Kasaqa’s gaze centered. “It is known that Ahmose has made – overtures. And promises, to the rich and noble” – a little pause added dryly, such as are left –“south of the Second Cataract.”

Nikauta stamped like a veritable chariot-horse. “And into Kush! To my father. My father himself!”

Kasaqa’s brows twitched. “Ahmose has subtle advisers. It is a fine stroke: to approach, covertly, the Kentakes’ Consort. At the heart of Kush, at the Kentakes’ shoulder, but risen, not born to his rank – and Egyptian too.”

“They want more than doubt, they want division and faction, they want him slandered and brought down. Convicted of treachery. What matter if he denies it? The message is known. He cannot prove his loyalty. They have a dagger at the throat of Kush!”

It was truth, however over-dramatized. But the ironic cock of Kasaqa’s eyebrow – to be so young! still made the Candace bite her lip.

Nikauta flushed and flung her head back. Kasaqa nodded. “It behoves us to act, yes. To find the message-passer. And to learn how he – or she – contrived to send it here.”

“I have told you, I will go to Buhen! I will seek in the markets and among the scribes and smiths and the fish-eaters’ troops, and the men of Wawat and even the Medjay. I will get into the temple, into the Viceroy’s banquet-room, but I will find the truth!”

And dispatch the criminal with one blow of your concealed mace. The slight droop of Kasaqa’s lids told the Candace their shared thought. But she nodded judiciously. “Spies sent to Buhen, yes. It is a matter for spies. But for Kush’s Heir?”

“It is a matter of my father’s honour! That makes it my honour – and yours!”

Your father Sobekemheb is as subtle as most of his countrymen, and he has warded our three honours among the shoals of court and temple intrigue this eighteen years. Does he need an untried girl?

The Candace did not say it. Another voice murmured, over her shoulder, “Favoured of Hathor, you honour me.”

“P-! Father -!”

Even to him, she would no longer say, Papa.

It was a very fine bait.” In the early heat of Akhet, the Consort had shed his cloak, though as always he wore the Egyptian kilt. And he has aged better than either of us, the Candace thought, still stocky but hard and almost as bronzed as ever; still composed, adequately deferential; still thinking, subtly as Kasaqa, behind that long-eyed, long-nosed Egyptian face.

“One worn-out riding stallion -!”

“An entire, fit to breed, of proven speed and temperament; probably Mitanni blood. A hand taller than anything among my herd.”

“And passed off to my uncle like a potter’s ass!”

Just visibly, her father’s mouth-corner pucked. Shabako, the Candace rehearsed silently, my half-brother; if the other nobles have swallowed an Egyptian consort, if Shabako himself avoids court, if his stud-herd is the best in Kush, he has never forgiven me for being older. For being Heir. 

“I cannot deny the message,” Sobekemheb murmured, “but I too can use the bribe.”

Because if anyone is disaffected in Kush, it will already be Shabako: and the bribe will either warn off others, or disclose a compact long since sealed.

“Yes, Father, but -! The messenger – the go-between -! We must seek in Buhen – !”

“And if the seeker is discovered?” Nikauta swung, mouth opening, and Kasaqa silenced her with one flick of the wrist. “A Kushite spy in Buhen can look to hang, at best. A woman Kushite spy? They will rape her first. Half of Buhen’s troops, no doubt. Fish-eaters and all.”

The Candace felt herself grunt as if her wind had been punched out. Kasaqa! She wanted to shout. Wait! Stop!

“And if they found the spy was no less than the Heir to Kush?”

The Candace flinched. Uncontrollably, Nikauta gasped. Sobekemheb’s stance straightened and Kasaqa shot at him, “If you took the Pharaoh’s bribe, and betrayed us, and he won, what would you expect?”

Sobekemheb gave her a razor-edged smile. “I would expect my brains beaten out by the royal mace, and my body hung by the heels from the city wall. What else, for an Egyptian bred, who defected to rule in Kush?”

“And will he do less, for your captured child?” Kasaqa’s eyebrows rose in irony lethal as a mace. “Apart from the rape, that is.”

“Kasaqa, stop!” The Candace could not help herself.

“Kentakes.” But those eyes still spitted Nikauta like a sword. “You sought my counsel. Will you tell me – any of you – that I lie?”

Nikauta was temporarily speechless. The Candace could only think blindly, Kush or no Kush, pride or no pride, she is my daughter! She must not go.

Sobekemheb’s hand closed, light and deferential as ever, on her shoulder. He never touched her, except formally, in public, though they had made three children together. Now that touch said, I know. I know. Will you let me handle this?

Then he asked Nikauta, “Knowing this was truth – would you still go?”

Her eyes went from his to the Candace’s. Wide, shocked. She swallowed. Licked her lips.

Then her gaze dropped. She rubbed a hand over her mouth, and lifted her head.

“If,” she said huskily, “I – were anyone else …” She stopped. Stiffened her shoulders. “Even – if you were still – my kin.” Her eyes met the Candace’s and she drew a long, long breath. “But you have schooled me.” For an instant the lips trembled. “So I must think, first – of Kush.”

The Candace was still fighting tears of relief when her consort said evenly, “Kentakes, if your Heir understands that, this is the emissary we need.”

***

From its western side Buhen towered into the sky like an extended version of Kerma’s huge royal tombs. The serrated outline of the outer guard towers seemed to stretch forever, shivering through evening haze and Akhet-season dust, blotting even the memories that had run through her head since Kerma’s domed skyline disappeared.

My birth and heart-mother’s faces. Frozen, aghast. My father saying coolly, “So, emissary. Have you a plan?”

My own voice, shaken out of a gulp. “I asked – Senti is taking a donkey draft. This moon.”

“Senti … Oh. Hapu’s cousin. Your own groom.” A firm nod. On my birth-mother’s face, qualified relief. A family of retainers old as my father’s own. By Senti, I would never be betrayed.

“I th-thought … as his new second wife?”

My father’s smile flickered. “Better-born in Kerma, and uppity?” A firmer nod. “Easier to play, yes. But in Buhen?”

Where Kushite women would never get beyond the emporium camp. Not even into the fort.

“I was, uh, taking men’s clothes. I know I can wear a kilt. And I thought – a Medjay kirtle?” 

The short nomad robe, to cover breasts and the female features above. From my father, another nod, from my heart-mother, a slow, easing shift. From my birth-mother, a second glance at my father, repeating, Why have we been betrayed?

And the words never out of my thoughts since. “Most dear,” to both of them. “You have bred a falcon, if not Horus’ own. She craves the air. Fly her, or she will fly herself.”

The ochre-brown wall overshadowed them. The drawbridge rumbled under donkey hooves; as smoke and dung-acrid dust swallowed her, Nikauta gripped the tiny hawk at her throat, and prayed, Nekheny, our Horus, Horus of Buhen: I will keep my temper, my patience, as Father warned. But still I am your bird. Fly me here.

***

“We should never have let her go.”

“Sobek –”

“The consort was right, yes. But –”

The Candace stared from the palace balcony north, over a silver glint of Nile-reach to unresponsive dark. Beside her Kasaqa smothered a sigh.

“The Horus …”

“One of Them will ward her. Even in Buhen. But outside? A raid – a skirmish – what if she is – ”

“A royal guard, an archer, trained –”

“And if the Other comes?”

Because a battle’s dead and dying might draw Nekhbet, vulture goddess, Eater of Souls.

“Heart-sister, Her temple is far off, you know that. Beyond the First Cataract –”

“Who knows where gods set a boundary stele?”

Kasaqa heard the silent addition through her own insucked breath. Eighteen years ago I bought you from Her, for the price of a war and your birth-daughter’s life. What if She asks for Nikauta – and I am not there?

***

“Something is odd in Buhen, yes.”

Senti’s other cousin Nefer had inherited the family brewing trade, including a house in Buhen’s inner fort. The donkeys won even Senti’s women admittance to the outer fort; they had barely picketed beasts and pitched road-tents amid the market chaos, when Nefer arrived, bearing a day’s ration of barley, and a haunch of freshly-killed kid. Dodging Aya and the other two women’s trek for water, Nikauta set to the barley-quearn as the men squatted with their beer in the tent-mouth.

Reconstruction of the Fortress at Buhen. Courtesy of wikipedia.

Reconstruction of the Fortress at Buhen. Courtesy of wikipedia.

“The end of Shemu, it was, just growing hot. Something came up-river. Overland. Marched in, at night. They curfewed us!”

Really? Nikauta’s experience deciphered Senti’s grunt. Nefer’s outrage was plain enough. “In the inner fort!”

The second grunt returned, Any idea what?

Through her lids Nikauta watched Nefer shrug. His usename, Beauty, was ironic; he had slightly crossed eyes and pendulous old man’s jowls. “They were a small troop. But with beasts.”

Senti gestured his mug and Nikauta took the beer jug. As she poured, demure in her desert woman’s head-shawl, Senti grunted again. So?

Nefer tossed off his own beer with a snort. “Who knows? They have mended the old stables, and ordered fodder, and there are beasts: horses, entires. You can hear them call. But the fish-eaters have set triple guards. And they will not talk.”

He snorted again at Senti’s lifted brows. “Not even in their cups.”

When Nefer had gone, Senti glanced under those brows as Nikauta sat on her heels beside him, and added a tiny nod. “Call on Nekheny,” he murmured, dropping his laconic drover’s voice. He did not have to say, It’s what you are looking for. But we will need help.

Nikauta dropped her own voice. “Will we tell Nefer?”

Why we are here, she meant. Senti’s clicked tongue and upward chin-jerk answered in desert-signal.

No.

***

Nekheny, aid us, Nikauta prayed, as her pinch of incense curled into smoke. Three days walking, trotting, running donkeys to and fro; I stink worse than fish, I am coated like a pot with dust; and I have managed nothing but better wind. She lifted her eyes to the hawk-head of the painted god behind the altar. Aid us, Nekheny, before we have to leave.

***

The Egyptian came strolling from the inner gatehouse a little before noon: a quartet of guards close behind a flare of brilliant white kilt, enamelled pectoral, gold armbands, luxuriant black tresses of a court wig, utterly anomalous amid the herd beasts and vegetable stalls. Yet threading his way, with languid sureness, to Senti’s picket line.

“Si-Tayit tells me, that you medicine beasts.”

Si-Tayit, the Viceroy? 

Nikauta’s hair stood up. Mute at the donkey’s head, hidden in her boy’s clothes, she watched their pre-empted buyer scowl; and Senti’s visibly unhelpful, Only donkeys, become an equivocal grunt.

He understands too. O Nekheny, divine boon-giver, I will kiss your feet …

Slowly, the Egyptian raised one hand and slid off a ring: gold shank, seal with the figure of Amon in delicate relief. Kushite, the expression sneered. A cursed cave-troll. But there is no other recourse.

“I have a horse,” the Delta-accented Egyptian sounded disdainful as the face. The gesture to the inner gatehouse was haughtier. “Off its feed.”

For pride’s sake alone, Senti paused thirty heart-beats, before he nodded to Nikauta and growled, “Fetch the kit.”

The Egyptian’s brows rose. Senti lowered his own. “Sister-child. Head-holder.” Meaning, to hold equine patients quiet, therefore indispensable. “Worked with horses too.”

Nikauta nearly swallowed her heart as the Egyptian’s brows came down. “Where?”

And Senti, unmoved by the voice’s sudden grate, jerked a thumb southward. “The prince Shabako’s herd.”

***

Through the impossible goal of the inner gatehouse, beneath unmanned guard-towers and across dank shadow-bars, Nikauta was still choking down laughter hysterical as when she had flown barefoot to the tents. Worked with horses, yes, I have, and know Shabako’s herd, surely, what rival’s do we not? Oh, Senti, you are wily as Nekheny himself!

The Egyptian minced in front, his guards bracketed them. A left turn, then right again past the Viceroy’s pillared colonnade, down a line of heavy house-gates, the sound of armourers and the smell of brewing; and at last, a long half-old, half-new building emitting the scent of hay, dung, harness-oil, and horses’ stamp and snort.

Five heads, Nikauta counted under her lashes, tossing or fretting over the stall-doors. Young, strong entires, manes hogged, the short solid build of Egyptian chariot teams. Lord of Buhen, what is Ahmose doing? Are these bribes – or his own advance guard?

The tongue dried in her mouth. No. Surely, not yet.

The Egyptian had halted at the second-last stall. The horse inside, standing hip-shot, ears lopped disconsolately, did not even lift his head.

Senti followed his usual routine: approach, introduce himself. Examine the beast minutely, along with feed, bedding, water, dung. Then a gesture to Nikauta, and another to the fort stablemaster, a grizzled Wawati fuming with crossed arms at the Egyptian’s back. “Bring him out.”

Heart in her teeth, Nikauta took the halter-rope. She followed Senti’s contact rules; led the horse slowly down the passage, then up and down the street. At a walk. Finally, at a cajoled trot.

Senti watched, narrow-eyed. As they halted he glanced round and said in his thick Kushite accent: “Take him outside.”

“Take them all,” he added, as the Egyptian’s head reared back. “Out of the fort. Smart horses. Trained horses. Too little to do. This one,” a jerk of the chin, “is bored.”

As the splutters and protests subsided beneath Senti’s utter disinterest, Nikauta settled the horse back in his stall. Latching the door, she glanced down the passageway. And even in quarter-light the fierce glitter of chariot sides and wheel-hubs, the scarlet plume of bridle headbands, the gleam of gold and bronze-adorned harness through the unclosed door was all too clear.

***

She was well up the street before Senti’s absence sank in. As she checked, dimly retrieving her own exit, the Egyptian’s low-voiced order, Senti’s pause: another argument or a new command? Senti materialised beside her, looking thoroughly peculiar, and nearly hissing, “Go.”

Nikauta’s nerves jumped. But only safely past the gatehouse did she dare mutter, “What?”

“At the tents.” In three months’ acquaintance she had never heard Senti sound like that.

Under their tent’s noontide shade he turned to her, still looking thoroughly – startled? Astounded? Or … could Senti actually be afraid?

Then he shoved a hand into the kit, and held it out in his palm: a papyrus roll, bound and sealed with crimson wax.

As her jaw dropped he growled, just audible. “The fish-eater. Gave it me.” He shook his head, a brief, almost dazed jerk. “Take it to prince Shabako, he said.”

Nikauta could just maintain a whisper. “What?”

You are going south. You know the prince. For this, he will reward you well.

“Oh – oh!” They both spluttered, near to laughter, disbelief. Awe. As their eyes met, Nikauta knew they shared the thought. Nekheny, you have outdone our wildest hopes.

Then caution brought her to earth. “He could not – surely the, the fish-eater would not trust you so -!”

“Ha! Thinks us all stupid as he is. Shabako will reward you well. I know how Shabako would reward me.” He whipped the edge of a hand across his throat, ear to ear. “He is not a fool!”

“Eh! But,” her wits were reviving, “what will this one say? To, to Ahmose? If, if it comes undone?” At Senti’s grin a lifetime’s schooling reared its head. “Perhaps, this one is not a fool either. What if he is like Shabako? Disaffected, but against Ahmose?”

Senti’s brows actually flew up. “And means it to run astray?” Then he grunted. “That’s as maybe. Not our goat to milk.”

Nikauta drew breath for, No, and stopped. She had remembered the tack-room door.

***

“We would probably not know her now.” The Candace stared into the glary Akhet noon. “Three months on the road … Her feet will be like leather, she will be able to eat grass and sleep on rocks. They will be past Semna and Mirgissa; through the Belly of Stone; I hope they had water enough –”

When she did not finish, Kasaqa said evenly, “They will be into the fort.”

“Yes.” O Horus, Hathor, great and lesser gods shield her. Give her wits and skill to thread those perils. Never mind what she finds, her pride will weather failure. Just bring her back.

***

“We cannot leave them. Not horses and chariots, not full-equipped. They may be for Ahmose. But what could a noble – what could Shabako do, with three whole chariot teams?”

Hapu’s cousin, Senti had learnt the balance of Kushite power and the weapon’s value, too. Three teams were the equivalent of a hundred spearmen, of fifty archers. Of an uprising, a palace coup.

“Horus’ wings. What’ll we do?”

He was looking at her. At her, Nikauta, half his age and less of his experience. But the Heir, a chariot-fighter, trained for battle; steeped lifelong in politics.

When my mother led the army into Egypt, did she meet decisions like this?

She glanced out to the glary cacophony of buyers and sellers and livestock and produce and tents and picket lines and ever-rising dust, and heard her birth-mother’s voice by the training field. String the bow. Choose a target. Then you can shoot.

“We cannot take the chariots. Drivers are skilled; teams know them. We must lift the horses alone.”

Triple guards on the stables. Pass the inner gatehouse to reach them, and then both gates to pass, on the way out to … where?

“The fish-eater will give us a day or two. To see if his horse mends. We can friend the other beasts. Then you, me, Amtalka. For the fort, enough.”

Two horses to lead apiece? Nikauta felt her eyes bulge. “Could we do that -?”

Senti was nodding. “Oh yes.” Then his brow furrowed. “But how do we get them out?”

Lead them? No. He means, what pretext for taking them out.

“Ah … The horse gets sick again?”

Senti frowned.

“No, too hard to manage. It must be – at night would be best. An upset? An incident?”

Outside, Aya was piling dungcakes for fuel. Suddenly, Senti grinned. “We copy your noble mother. A fire. But in the stables, this time.”

“You could do that?”

“A fire-pot with a broken side. Leave it in the fodder, when we check the horse.”

“Oh!” Reason for their presence, but still risky to the beasts. “But how do we get there?”

Senti was grinning now outright. “We visit Nefer, that evening. A family call. When the alarm begins, we run to the horses. How not?”

“How not?” She had to grin back, but not for long. “But …”

The fire’s confusion, the need for safety, should get us past the inner gatehouse. Her thoughts raced like a bolted team. But we can’t stop in the outer fort, we can never hide these beasts there, and a fire is no reason to go beyond.

“Bek will help the women break camp. To leave at daylight. No-one counts Kushite heads, especially going out. We can meet – in the Belly of Stone?”

Senti was planning ahead of her again. She saw the thought strike him too, bringing him up like a horse felled in mid-stride. How do we pass the outer gate?

Donkeys brayed and people shouted and the smoke of a hundred cooking-fires choked the air, while they stared at each other in sick, growing consternation. No reason, no possible pretext to pass that. Especially at night, with the fort already disturbed.

Nekheny, even your gift was not enough. 

Senti dropped his head aside. Dully, he weighed the medicine kit in a hand. And light burst on Nikauta like a kick in the face.

“The message, Senti! Both gates, we show it, we tell the guards, a pass from the fish-eater, we are commanded to take the horses south: the fire, he is disturbed, he told us go now –” She shot her own hand toward the crimson seal. “They will not dare dispute!”

Senti’s jaw dropped. Then he spluttered aloud. “Ah-yah, your mother’s daughter, yes!”

***

I am no falcon, after all. Nikauta tried to steady her quaking heart. I am a water-walker, skittering from pad to lily-pad, precarious above the deeps.

And what deeps: that the fire began to time, just before middle-night. That the stablemen and guards were so harried they let us just take the beasts. That we safely reached the other long-street, avoiding the Egyptian, if he headed for the fire from the Viceroy’s house. That we made the inner gate. That – her heart sped up again – the guards never even asked to see the “pass.”

Leaving their tents, she dared an upward glance across the expanse of smoored fires and picketed beasts, just stirring to alarm at the distant uproar, the red glow above the inner wall. A bowshot, two bowshots ahead, loomed the outer gatehouse’s bulk. The length of her bow, thrust in the kilt, rubbed her side. She tried not to clench her hands on the halter shanks.

I know you, yes. Kushite. Tending the lord Intef’s beasts.” The gate-officer was Upper Egyptian, by his accent. Alert, but not dangerously so. “Safer away from the fire. But why outside?”

Senti went back into their spiel. The officer spoke. “You have a pass?”

Senti produced it. Nikauta’s breath stopped at the pause. The invisible but palpable frown.

“It is sealed. I cannot read …”

Nikauta bit her lip to blood. Senti began to growl. The officer’s voice, raised to silence him, changed abruptly to relief. “Here is the lord now.”

She could not help it, she had to look. Distant fireglow and nearer coals reddened the white kilt’s pleated sheen, but the glitter of pectoral and armbands could be no-one else.

O gods. O Nekheny. Oh, please. No.

The ground did not open, even if she shut her eyes. Through a haze of horror she heard the haughty, upraised Delta voice. “These men have my safe-conduct, officer. The fort is no longer safe. They take the horses south. Now.”

The officer must have made some protest. Clinging dizzily to the off-side horse’s headstall, Nikauta heard the crisper reply. “An escort, excellent. Tell every bandit past the Cataract exactly what they are.” Then, overriding the subsequent mumble. “Open up. I will see them out.”

Through a fog of unbelief came the creak of gates. The drawbridge’s thump. As Senti and his pair began to move she focussed desperately on tossing horsetails, and bade her feet, Walk. Do not ask how or why. 

Just beyond the drawbridge, the Egyptian drew aside. They led the horses past, Nikauta with head bent almost to her breast. If he notices I am female, if he sees the bow, the quiver under my kirtle … Oh, Nekheny, I understand nothing. Only guard us to the last.

Amtalka’s pair were clear. Senti kept going. Unable to help herself, Nikauta looked back.

The Egyptian had already turned toward the gate. Torchlight silhouetted the court wig, the kilt, the shoulders – surely he had not been so broad-shouldered? Surely …

As he crossed the drawbridge the light limned his legs, his moving sandals. But they were not sandals. He walked barefoot, on feet big as a human’s, but his were the feet of a hawk.

***

“It was Nekheny. Oh, Senti, it was Nekheny Himself.”

“Ah-yah, princess.” However shaken, Senti had never called her that before. “Truly, we have been blessed. But we cannot sit longer on the roadside. Now, do we go?”

Go, yes. She heaved to her feet. Find the caravan track, head for the Belly of Stone, south …

Comprehension blasted her like a lightning strike. O Gods, Senti didn’t realise either, neither of us thought

“We cannot! We must not! We will do Ahmose’s work, one way or another, if these horses reach Wawat – let alone Kush!”

Senti’s face mirrored her shock. Then Amtalka behind them hissed, “Whichever way, choose now. They are coming out.”

“O, gods.” They were both looking to her. “Oh – head north – off the road first chance!”

Atop the rise from Buhen’s riverine terrace, they looked back. Buhen buzzed like an overset hive with lights. And lights had trickled from the gatehouse, a chain of torches in their wake.

“Fish-eaters,” Senti muttered, squinting by the half-moon’s glow. “Twenty – thirty spearmen. They know not to send Wawatis after us. And …”

He bent lower. Then his voice went carefully blank. “I think they have Medjay, princess.”

Medjay nomads, master bowmen, trackers for the Egyptian border patrols. Nikauta felt her mouth dry. “Can you tell how many?”

An aching pause. Then, very softly, “I think – only two.”

He and Amtalka were watching her again: understanding, fear, dependence in each face. Her head spun with the awful realisation: they rely on me, they take me as commander. As more than commander.

I am the only one of us armed.

And there may be only two Medjay.

“Get us off the road. Quick!”

They took the first uphill watercourse, teetering and stumbling over rocks. Stunted acacias shadowed the gully, worse going, but better cover, Nikauta thought, coldly, almost calmly; some stranger had usurped her brain. As the climb flattened in a tiny timbered valley she stepped sideways. Hissed, “Here!” Thrust her halter ropes at Amtalka, and struggled to free her bow.

“Princess …”

“Get them further up, Senti.” She spoke low rather than whisper. “Quiet as you can. Stop at” – he would not know bowshot – “at the next good cover. Keep quiet.”

She heard his breath hiss. Fighting to string the bow, she muttered, “Wait there.”

By deceiving moonlight, the rocks and trees offered sure cover. She crouched behind a handy rock-rib, bow steadied, arrow nocked, three more in her fingers. They had never trained at night, but archery in a moving chariot was skill enough.

The Medjay was quiet, but she was utterly still. Half a bowshot down the watercourse, she heard the pebbles grate. Eternities later, horizon limned a moving head. Shoulders. Chest.

The compound bow was short for chariot-work, but lethally strong. She heard the thud, the scream abruptly choked. The crash, thump of limbs against stone and dirt, the gurgling breaths. Half of her screamed in horror, You have killed a man! The alien half snapped like a hunter, Finish him!

The arrow had taken him solidly through the chest. There was just light enough to circle behind him as he writhed, and put her little dagger into the vein of his neck.

She stood up, trying to smother gasps, wiping a palm down her kilt-side, peering wildly down the watercourse. Where’s the other, he must be close behind?

The darkness was on her before she knew, faster than a cloud over the moon, a great moving clot of shadow bearing down the stream. And then wings beat inside it, huge luminous white wings, and between them a featherless white vulture’s neck stretched behind a huge hooked beak. With the cobra head of a uraeus poised above the naked skull.

She had stumbled back. Her hands came up involuntarily, her throat contracted in a scream. Black eyes, bird-shaped but with more than human sentience, focussed on the corpse. On the soul rising above it, pale as steam wreathing the air.

Then the eyes turned and she shrank like a hare as they found her, as the great wings arched, rose, and held. The beak opened, though no sound came out.

You see me.

Nikauta could not even gulp.

The eyes pierced, it felt, through her heart.

You are blood of the Ransomer.

Nekhbet. It must be Nekhbet. The goddess from whom her birth-mother had bought her heart-mother’s life.

She had no words. No muscles even to prostrate herself. The thought was involuntary, unruly as only she could be.

What will you do with him?

Internally she cringed. But the eyes did not strike.

I take all such souls to the Balance; those who die without burial, without rites.

Nikauta felt her mouth open and shut and thought again escaped. You do not eat

Gods did not, perhaps, feel amusement. No.

The wings beat, once. The soul-wraith vanished, sucked into the open beak. She felt a dazzled, unbelieving relief. She will take him to judgement, like all others. He is safe.

The eyes still held her. Then thought came again.

Ransomer’s blood. Soul-freer. You may ask a boon.

Nikauta’s head seemed to spin clear off her neck. But as the blaze of understanding eased, another thought’s pure audacity almost blew the blood out her ears.

She shuddered and mustered words while she still dared.

We are pursued. We seek only to save our land of Kush. Down hill are soldiers. Seeking us. Lady of Shadow, drive them from us, and I will burn you incense all the days of my life.

She joined hands on her breast and bowed her head, and forgot to breathe. And aeons later, the silent voice in her mind said, For a Ransomer, an easy request.

Shadow beat over her. Silence swirled round her. A hundred, two hundred heartbeats later, uproar broke down-valley, shouts, yells, screamed orders, outright screams. Then the earth vibrated under her sandals to the impact of wildly running feet.

***

A long time later, after the noise faded, and she had crept back to the horses, and stumbled through some half-story, and Senti and Amtalka had hissed and shuddered and made the signs against evil with her, Senti eyed the falling moon and murmured, “And now, princess? What now?”

The return, even telling the story, had made her relatively calm. If you can say that, after meeting two gods in one night. Now, the alien half, that had imperceptibly grown closer, put words into her mouth.

“Whose is the closest land to Buhen?”

Senti knew, of course, from coming every year. “The princes of Te-Khet,” he answered. “Their border is a quarter day from Buhen. Their fortress is a day – a day and a half.”

“Is there water?”

“A border well, on the road.”

She sighed with exquisite relief. “Can we get there before dawn?”

“Assuredly, princess. But …”

“Te-Khet,” she rephrased her heart-mother’s teaching on Wawati noblemen, “sit on the border. In place and in mind. They will lift loose horses, nothing surer. But they lack the chariots. And having the horses thus, they can neither pass them back, nor claim them, or praise for saving them, from Ahmose. Nor can they pass them to other Wawatis. Yes?”

Silence. Even then, it took time to recognise the sound. She had never actually heard Senti laugh.

“O favoured of Hathor.” He bowed, hands to breast. The tone added, Subtlest of serpents. “Your wish is my command.”

***

“Kasaqa, quick, can you see it? On the north roof, look!”

“Oh, Pelekh, it is a falcon? I am not deceived?”

“No, no! A falcon, a female falcon, see how big she is? And the wing feathers, so long – she’s only young, in her first year!”

“And she has killed, I see the pigeon: a fat city pigeon, she has begun to break it up.”

A pair of crows winged over. The falcon reared her head from the half-plucked prey under her talons and let out a brazen shriek.

“She is proud, so proud of it …” They suddenly had their arms around each other, hugging, laughing, weeping all at once. “Oh, Pelekh, who could misread that? Horus has sent us his messenger. And our falcon is well. She has hunted, she has killed.”

The Candace wiped her eyes and headed for the balcony door. “I will sacrifice to Horus. Both of them.” And, she thought, to that One from Nekhen, who cannot have met my child. “Dearest friend, let’s tell Sobekemheb. We must still keep patience.” She glanced up into the cool sunlight of late Shemu, the close of harvest season. “But we know now, she will be coming home.”

[Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She often writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings, and likes to tinker with moral forms of swords-and-sorcery and elements of mythology. She has published eight fantasy novels, including Amberlight and The Moving Water, which were finalists for best fantasy novel in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards. Her short stories appear in Australia and the US, including anthologies from DAW and 12th Planet Press. Her  novella “Spring in Geneva,” a riff on Frankenstein, appeared in October 2013 with Aqueduct Press, and a short story, “The Price of Kush,” was released in December in the anthology Griots: Sisters of the Spear, edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders. She has just signed a contract for the 4th book in the Amberlight series, Dragonfly, with Jupiter Gardens Press.]

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