Shesut, Daughter of the Gods
“Oh, good shot!” Ikaron shouted. My arrow had taken down the deer they called the gazelle from a hundred paces. Hotep, our Egyptian master, laughed and clapped his hands together.
“Good, good, Achaeans!” His knowledge of our language was no more advanced than mine of his. I could understand a few words now, but not whole sentences. Hotep was a rather jolly, fat man of middle age. There were older people here than anywhere else I had been. I thought it must be the food and the lack of war. Egypt was cut off by desert from most enemies. Sargon or a Kannaanite king might threaten the far corner of the north, and the Nubian tribes might make trouble in the far south, but the country was isolated. This allowed people to live with less worry and fear. Hotep must have been fifty, yet he looked ten years younger. An Achaean of his age would be an old, old man, with many wounds and illnesses. He wore the eye shadow of kohl, a greasy face paint that everyone, including me now, wore around the eyes to protect them from the glare of sun on the sand. At first I thought it made everyone look like a prostitute, but I got used to it, just as I got used to many things Egyptian. I never stopped dreaming of Vila and Aon, but sometimes I had the wild notion I would go and get them and come back here and settle down as Egyptians! Of course, I was still a slave and such thoughts were idle daydreams. Hotep officially owned me, and I had made myself far too valuable as a team leader in the quarries to be set free. Urartu and I and the five Sarumites, along with a wily Bedu’ name Sadik, made up the crocodiles. We decided to call ourselves a team after moving a few particularly big and difficult stones together. Besides, it helped lift our spirits. Soon there were other teams as well, The Hippos, and Cobras, and the Camels, though we called them the turtles because they were always the slowest team. We worked through the unbelievable heat of the summer, though Hotep often let us take rest during the hottest time of the day. Everyone quit working at midday and stared up again in the afternoon, when the heat was beginning to abate somewhat. We had day off, too. Once a week there was a free day unless there was a special order. Plus, there were many feast days when nothing much got done, for the amount of drink being consumed everywhere by the commoners and the nobles.
It was on one of the feast day when Ikaron, Hotep and I went hunting in the desert. I had not had a bow in my hands since my capture. I was given an Egyptian straight bow, an inferior weapon to my double recurve composite bow of horn and heat-treated hardwood bound with sinews, but it still shot straight and long enough once I got used to it. The arrows were of reeds, tipped with small stone arrowheads. The reeds were hardened in fire and with a resin from the palm. My fame as an archer spread out and before too long I had an invitation to show off my skill for the Hotep’s superior, the local district administrator, Rames-Set. He had a hard reputation. The Distract Administrators were like the Akkadian viceroys. They ruled all aspects of their regions, and Rames-Set had jurisdiction over the area that included the pyramids and his great city of Memphis. So he was not unlike in power to Lipit-Sin, my old courtier turned enemy. It was whispered tha the wished to someday be Pharaoh, though he was a far, far relative to the current one, Pepys.
Rames –Set took me out hunting. Hotep, Ikaron, and I went to an estate the like of which I had never dreamed. Rames-Set had a palace on the south side of Memphis, under the line of old pyramids at Saqqara. Pharaoh Djoser’s stepped pyramid loomed above his well-kept fields and date groves. His palace was of mud-brick, as were all Egyptian buildings except for the temples and the pyramids, and huge, with four gates, like a fortress. The entry way had cedar doors as high as city walls. The square-fluted facade was painted in glowing yellows and reds and blues. Irrigation streams flowed around the estate and through his gardens. Beyond lay the western desert, and at its edge was his game preserve.
He spoke through Ikaron, who had married a distant relative of his wife, Hepshesut, an imperial –looking woman of great beauty and grace. She greeted the hunting party at the edge of the gardens, where the trail led to the desert, and gave her husband a cup of wine as an offering to Horus. She was dressed, as an noblewoman would be, in flowing Linen robes and a fine black, shoulder-length wig of tight black knotted tresses tipped with spangles of different colors, gold, silver, lapis, and rubies. Her wide collar was of lapis and a deep red stone I didn’t know, set with blue sapphires and emeralds. Her face was painted perfectly. It was hard to tell if she was twenty or forty. Around her , waiting with slightly bowed heads were her serving girls and in the distance by a garden pond stood a lovely younger woman, dressed simply in the common linen dress, bare shoulders and a black collar. I kept my face bowed as well, and I hardly dared look at Hepshesut for fear of offending my host, whose lordly manner was plain to all. He was man used to command and power. He was perhaps in his early forties, thickset, yet muscular and handsome, with the prominent nose so common in Egypt, and intense eyes, heightened by his black shadow, with gold around the eyebrows. He wore a simple short skirt of linen, and sandals, uncommon for Egyptians, but worn by the nobles. On his head he had a fine white head-cloth trimmed with gold thread.
We rode on two carts out to the game preserve area. It was beyond a long, natural fence of reeds that grew along a canal. The open desert lay beyond, but here was scrubland and thorn bushes, scattered date groves and marshes. A lake rimmed with reeds held a huge number of wading birds. I could see gazelles grazing in the fields on the other side.
“ There are a number of animals here, “ Whispered Ikaron. “ there even lions and other beatss which our host hads inported. Be wary.”
We hunted on foot. I went with my host, while Hotep and Ikaron teamed up. I knew that neither would shoot at anything of consequence. This was about Hotep showing me off, trying to impress his master.
“Let’s see what you can do! “He laughed. He spoke some Achaean!
“Yes, my lord,” I said, saluting, hand on chest and using the Egyptian word for lord. He smiled at my clumsy attempt at his language. Well, I showed him over the course of a hour or two, shooting birds on the wing, a fierce animal called a warthog, and a speedy big cat called the Cheetah. Rames-Set missed a few shots, though he did make some, taking down a gazelle. He was, to judge from his face, at least amused if not mildly upset that his slave’s skill was greater than his, an Egyptian of royal blood. The Egyptians have a great sense of manners, however, and he didn’t break his flow of comments. I couldn’t understand more than a few words, but I could tell he was congratulating me on my shots. It made me tense. I didn’t want to outshine my host. I only wished to make a good showing. On the other hand, I didn’t want to fail. Perhaps my skill could get me elevated above the role of quarry-worker.
The sun was rising ever higher in the sky and soon it would time to call the hunt for the heat of the day was upon us. We moved slowly through the brush, flushing out small gazelles. We wouldn’t shoot anything else unless a great target appeared. We had already shot enough. We passed a stand of thick brush, walking very slowly, trying not to make a sound. Hotep and Ikaron had come up and were behind us. Rames-Set eased toward the brush, hos bow at the ready.
All at once there was a rushing, a blur of motion. A lioness had sprung from the thicket and came right at Rames-Set, He swung his bow up and fired from twenty paces, but the arrow glanced off the lioness, which leaped at him at a full run , claws out, wide mouth open, fangs gleaming. He threw up his hands to protect himself and took the cat’s full force against his side.
But my arrow had gone through the cat’s heart by the time she reached him. He fell back, stumbling. There was a big cut in his right leg where the lioness had clawed him in her final moment. I ran over and drove another arrow in for good measure, but was unnecessary. I had made a lucky shot, the kind that severs the nerves.
Rames looked at me, wide-eyed, as his servants and Hotep and Ikaron ran to his side. He didn’t cry out or say a word. The cart came and he stood and got into it without aid. Blood poured from the wound on his leg. I could see it wasn’t a bad wound; he would recover from it soon. A servant tied his own headcloth around to staunch the bleeding. Rames-Set looked at me and said something I didn’t understand. I bowed to him as the cart pulled away. He sat in it and stared at me.
Hotep and Ikaron came out of the thicket with two little lion cubs, not more than a few weeks old.
“This is what she was doing, “Ikaron said, “protecting these little ones.”
“Bring them as a present to our Lord,” said Hotep.” He’ll like that.”
We walked back to the estate. I felt a strange sense of fear, as if I had set something in motion I didn’t understand.
“I asked Ikaron when we were by ourselves, “What did Rames-Set say to me>”
Ikaron looked grave, but said simply, “good shot.”
A few days later I had a visitor at the slave quarters. A servant of Rames-Set, with a package, a long object rolled up in linen. He bade me unroll it. There was the lion-skin, fashioned into an Achaean-style tunic. It came with a belt of some hide that Ikaron later told me was crocodile. There were two gold hair clips, for holding the base of braids. They were strips of gold twisted around themselves; very intricate and clever. The servant said something which I didn’t fully understand. Urartu said he thought I was summoned to Rames-Set’s palace. The servant bowed and stood outside the door. It seemed he was waiting. So I put the tunic on, and slid the hair clips on. I pulled at my beard to straighten it out as best I could. I had cut it close, but the Egyptians, not hairy people to begin with, usually shaved except for a braided tuft of beard right on the tip of the chin. Mine was an Achaean beard, scraggly and wild.
Still, I looked fit in my lion-skin tunic and belt. I stepped outside. I found there were four servants waiting, one of whom carried a torch. We set out and they led me to a cart that took me by roads to the palace of Rames-Set. There was a feast in progress, to judge by the large number of carts outside the gates. Torches set in brackets lit the grounds. The cedar doors were wide open and I entered past two armed soldiers, who bowed as I passed. The gardens were torch-lit and the warm evening was filled with sound of harps and drumming, the sista, soft, hand drums, women singing the love –songs of the people of the Nile. There were dozens of nobles in the garden, drinking wine from ornate cups of gold and bronze, servants carried trays of treats. I knew no one and felt far out of place in my outlandish outfit, surrounded as I was by linen-clad Egyptians with expensive wigs, perfumed and sandaled, their faces painted like so many beautiful statues in a temple.
Then I saw someone I recognized. It was the young woman who had been by the pond in the garden on the hunting day. She was standing with a group of other women and men. She was perfectly dressed, tall, and so beautiful now that I saw her adorned in the way of the nobility. She glanced my way and came over to me and said, “Hello, “in Achaean. I knew she must be the daughter of Rames-Set. Very few Egyptians knew any words of Achaean at all. I thought she must have learned from Ikaron.
I stammered back, hello, in Egyptian, but I knew mostly swear-words and rock-cutting terms in her tongue, so there was no way I could go further.
Te Ikaron walked up, cup of wine in his hands.
“Ah, the Achaean lion-killer! Pelop, this is your new patron’s daughter, Shesut. She is my student, and understands more Achaean than you might think!”
He turned to her and said, in slow Achaean, “My lady, this is Pelop, king of the quarry-workers, lion-slayer, and savior of your father’s Ba!”
I Knew ‘ba’ meant something like spirit.
“I have seen you.” She said. She looked right into my eyes, confident, feline.
There was a commotion behind me; I saw her look over my shoulder. I turned to see Rames-Set and Hepshesut approaching. I bowed and saluted in the time-honored way.
“No, No, “he said loudly in my tongue, “I am to honor you!” And he made a show of bowing to me. A large group of his courtiers had gathered and they clapped their hands and laughed. They brought me wine and sweetmeats and other delicacies. There were dancers and drummers and singers and harp players, who performed by the pond in the torch-lit gardens. It was like a dream of opulence and mirth, after such a long stretch of nightmare. I felt myself quite taken away by it all. The Egyptians fawned over me and Ikaron had to tell the lion-slaying story a half-dozen times. I must say he had a good time telling it, too. The wine flowed. I began to worry about having to get up and break rocks in the morning. I whispered to Ikaron in a moment when the revelers had turned their attention to the dancers.
“Ah, you don’t understand!” he exclaimed. “You’re not working there anymore. You’re going to be in the employ of Rames-Set. He bought you for Hotep. For almost nothing, of course; Hotep wants to be in the lord’s good graces.”
“Then what I am I supposed to do?” I said.
“That will depend on Rames-Set. For now, have a good time. These people love to have feasts!”
He walked away into the crowd and I stood there, holding my wine-cup. I wanted to go back to simple slave quarters. But still, this was quite a palace. I didn’t know how to proceed. Shesut came up to me and said, “ You are my father’s/”
I nodded and smiled; made a little bow. Her eyes sparkled with wine and torches.
“Then you are mine!” She laughed.
“You speak good Achaean, “I said, “I guess I am yours. At your command.” I bowed again, a mock bow, exaggerated. The language of flirtation I understood well after all these years.
“I will… think… of something.” She looked into my eyes again, deeply. I felt myself blush in spite of myself. I made yet another bow, this one short and serious. She turned and was gone.
I woke in a little white-washed room that opened onto the gardens. The sun was already high. I was on a small bed with a wooden frame and mattress of linen folded over soft rushes. My head was swollen, and I barely remembered being led there by the servant in the late hours of the night. Rames-Set would call for me and tell me what my new duties were, Ikaron had said before he left.
A servant appeared in the door. He motioned for me to come and said something. I heard the name Rames-Set in his speech. He led me out into the gardens and beyond to a field where there were many soldiers armed with the straight bows of the Egyptian army. They were shooting at piles of straw at the far end of the field with some success, but not much. Rames-Set was standing in his cart surveying the shooting.
I went to him and bowed. He waved his hand and said, “You don’t bow to me. I want you to ..teach..these!” he waved his hand again over the soldiers. He had a look of contempt on his face.” They not good. You teach.” I understood his broken Achaean.
“I will teach them, Lord Rames-Set, “I said, and saluted in the way of the warrior, fist on chest. He nodded
“Good. Now teach!”
I set about making orderly ranks to begin with, for they were not even in a straight line when they shot. This I had learned from Sargon and Lipit-Sin. The Egyptians were not as warlike as the Akkadians, or Achaeans for that matter, and didn’t have sense of military order. I began training them to be better shooters, by correcting their grips and their stances, and I also trained them into units of forty bowmen. Each unit was two lines deep. The one in front would loose a volley and the kneel and knock a new arrow while the others shot, and so on. There were four hundred men in total, so within a few weeks I had ten units of trained archers, who were by now getting to be better shots. I also had them give themselves unit names, as we had done in the quarries. This was Rames-Set’s personal army, subject to the will of Pharaoh Pepys, but under Rames-Set’s command. He also had a thousand infantry and a few noblemen who rode horses, though it wasn’t a normal way of fighting for Egyptians to ride. Through Ikaron, I talked Rames-Set into building much lighter carts, ones for just two people, driver and archer. He agreed and we made a handful of these chariots.
The commander of the infantry was a b nobleman named Kneph- Nebibi, known as Kneph, or ‘leader’. He was a smart, dark, brooding sort of man who seemed to take offense at my very presence. I suppose he sensed that I might end up being a competitor for Rames-Set’s attention. He was a brave man, capable of great personal combat. I watched him train and take on members of the lord’s bodyguard. He was never beaten. Wily and cunning, he’d always lure his opponent into a trap of some kind. But his troops didn’t love him. In fact, one could easily feel their distaste for this cold man. I kept my distance, having been warned by Ikaron.
“ Don’t cross him. He’s patient and powerful. He has the ear of our lord, and they say, of people in the court of the Pharaoh. I suspect he has spies as well within your ranks, so watch your step. If rames-Set is a liopn, then Knpeh is a cheetah.”
I stayed away from Kneph’s troops, though I watched their disarray in formation and war games. He saw how my teams came together and was no doubt jealous of the closeness he saw developing between me and Rames-Set. I heard he also hated foreigners and aw us all as inferior, which I some ways were certainly were. But not in warfare.
My new master came to see me as a valued member of his army, a voice of experience he didn’t have. There were rumors of unrest in Upper Egypt, at the borderlands with the Nubians. The word was around that Pharaoh might send troops south to strike at these tribes. The tribes had the reputation of being fierce but untrained savages, who fought fearlessly but without discipline. Rames-Set called us all in to discuss how we would fight the Nubians. I hesitated to speak at first, but after hearing how Kneph and the others would simply attack in a wave and crush the tribesmen, I voiced my opinion that a better way was to lure them into a trap from there was no escape, and then annihilate them. My archers could play the role of bait, leading the Nubians to attack with their full force to rout our lightly-armed units, but then we could fall back, drawing the Nubians after us until the infantry could fall on their flanks and crush them. Rames-Set liked my plan a lot. He said he would consider it if the call came from Pharaoh Pepys.
We left the meeting. Kneph-Nebibi was in a bad mood. I knew I had probably made him mad, and I worried about it, especially when Rames-Set asked me to reorganize the infantry as well. I went back to my quarters to think. I got my new bow, a recurve one I made from the horns of a large antelope and the wood of an acacia tree, bound with sinews and flame-hardened, it was a good one. I wished I could make these for my troops, but there was no one who could make them except me. I walked out through the estate, past the fields where the workers were clearing weds and cleaning out ditches, beyond the brewery and the kitchens, where the smell of beer and bread was wonderfully overpowering, out past the animal pens and the workshops, where potters made jars and plates and bowls, to the edge of the vast desert. The stepped pyramid stood beyond ridges of dunes, but I set out walking for it, idly, trying to sort through the situation I was in. I needed to reassure Kneph-Nebibi that I only wanted to help, not take his job. But he was a man full of hatred for me and all foreigners. It would be hard. I was in danger now, for sure.
I came to the to of a ridge and looked south, where Pepi was building his pyramid. It wasn’t a grand as the great three to the north, but still, it was a worthy work. I had hauled sledges from the river to its site. There, workers dragged the stones up long ramps of rubble and sand until they reached the level they were building on. Much of the moving was done with levers and ropes and muscles, but none was impossible. Still, I wondered at the years it must have taken to build the great pyramids. Twenty or more years with a hundred thousand men working, so they said. It was the power of faith that made it possible. Men believed, and so they spent their lives building mountains of stone, so that their Pharaoh would be reborn one day, and they along with him, when Osiris cam back from the land of the Duat, the land of the dead, where he was now king. Who could believe in such nonsense? Almost everyone, it seemed. Or, like Ikaron, they saw the sense in believing it.
I turned back and as I cam down the dunes, I saw a figure at the edge of the desert. It was a woman, wrapped in fine, delicate linen , even around her head; most unusual. She seemed to be waiting for me. The sun had just dropped over the dunes and the sudden shadows were darkening the evening as I approached her.
“I have … spies?” She said, with a little laughter in hr voice.
“Hello, my lady. It is dangerous out here. There are cheetahs and lions. Even I carry my bow.”
Shesut answered, “You would save me, wouldn’t you? You saved my father’s ba. Now he owes you life.”
“He doesn’t owe me anything. He has made me almost a free man.”
She came closer to me. We were beyond a grove of date palms. The palace couldn’t be seen. The twilight was deepening
“I am your slave now, “Shesut, said quietly. She was propped up on one elbow, with her other arm across my chest. She looked at me with gentle eyes.
“I am a dead slave if your father finds out.”
“I can deal with my father, “answered.” I’m not a child.” She sounded like a princess, used to command and entitlement.
“We must be careful, “I said.
I thought once again of Vila but per her out of my mind. I had stumbled, but I had seen it coming and hadn’t taken steps away from it. Shesut had been flirting with me rather shamelessly for some time. Egyptian court life was free and easy anyway, though it was dominated by men, of course. But the women had a sense of place in this society. They could inherit land, or even get property if the husband decided to divorce. There was no marriage proper, as in Sumer, but couples lived together as man and wife and became married by that fact. It was unusual for a young noblewoman to take on a slave as lover, at least in public, that was for sure. My life would surely be forfeit if Nefer-kah found us out. At least I would never become a free man.
Still, I desired her. She was beautiful and intelligent, wise in the ways of the court, and experienced in the arts of love-making. On the other hand, I doubted if she could bake bread! I had been without a woman for long time, since Lahalit. I was just a man, after all, and therefore weak in that way. I worried what might happen should she turn on me for some reason. But for now I felt her next to me and that felt good.