The Death of Mtombe
Before leaving for the campaign to subdue the Sand-People in Kanaa, there were offerings made to many gods. Since I was now such a big part of the proceedings, I was required to attend the offerings and even make my own. It was then that I got my first chance to really spend a few hours at the Great Sphinx.
I been fascinated by this monumental statue since the first time I had seen it. It stood in front of the Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Kaphre’, though Ikaron told me that he thought it was built by the outcast brother of Kaphre’, Dedjefre, who ended up being erased from the King-rolls and whose pyramid was taken down. Its ruins could be seen on a hill to the northwest of the great three.
Whoever built it, and whoever it was meant to represent, for some thought it was Kaphre’ and some thought it was his father Khufu, it was an incredible piece of work, without an equal in the world. It towered over people standing at is base, and the expression on its face seemed to sum up the Egyptian way of life; far-seeing, noble, enigmatic, unfathomable. It was as if it said: Behold, I am Egypt the Great, the eternal. I will be here when all else has fallen. It would certainly outlast the mud-brick ziggurats of Uruk and Ur, of that I had no doubt. The pyramids would survive as well, I was sure. It was still hard for me to accept that these great things were built largely by the people’s faith. But it was so; when the yearly flood returned, as it now was, it being the fall season, the field workers came back and began work on the temples and pyramids anew. Thousands of workers carried stones, chipped rocks smooth, and hauled them into place. I was struck by the cheerfulness of the workers. This tedious, backbreaking work made their lives make sense; this life in the land of milk, honey, beer, and wheat-cakes and mutton and beef, music, and painting. It impressed me, this faith, though I could no sooner make it my own than I could have turned black like Mtombe. But I saw it, how it worked for them, and I resolved to bear that in mind as I found myself in positions of leadership, whatever they may be.
The sistas played their jangly beat and people chanted and played hand drums and harps as the walked in a grand procession from the valley temple next to the Sphinx up the processional way, which was lined with sphinxes larger than oxen and tall statues of gods and Pharaohs, painted with bright colors, to the Pyramid of Kaphre’ and back again. Offerings of food, drink, animals, and incense were made at many altars to many gods in the wondrous temples. The columns holding up the immense stones of the partially open temple roofs were as tall as ten men, and two men across at the base. They were inscribed with paintings of Pharaohs subduing enemies, of people paying tribute to crocodile and hippo-faced gods, and with the picture-like symbols of Egyptian writing. All were painted with brilliant colors. Rays of sunlight filtered down through the openings in the lattice works of giant stone roof lintels and illuminated the clouds of sweet incense smoke that rose from the offering bowls on the altars. The war leaders paid especial attention to the Goddess of War, Sekhmet, and the chief gods Amon and Ra, worshipped as one god. Khnum was thanked for bringing once again the flood that replenished the soil of the valley.
The cattle count had been taken by the Pharaoh’s scribes and tallied. Priests announced the bountiful totals and people rejoiced. Children were everywhere underfoot as always, their heads adorned with the side-lock that was left after shaving most of their heads. Donkeys carried load of sticks and fodder for the ever-present cattle. Now that the harvest was over, People were back from the summer plantations along the river banks and crowded into the permanent mud-brick apartments above the level of the flood. It was as if there one vast city that stretched down the sides of the river as far one could see. Truly, if this nation deiced to conquer others, there would be no way of stopping it; there were so many people, so much wealth. But with their settled life, Egyptians were not overly inclined to war.
But there were threats to peace that had to be dealt with, and chief among them there were the tribes that the Egyptians called the Sand-People. I knew them as Kannaanites. The pharaoh had influence as far away as Isqalluna and Gazah, where I had been captured. The people of that region were restless and eager for the plenty of Egypt. Southern Kanaa was dry like Egypt but without the Nile to bring it bounty. The Sand People were hungry and jealous, and men of the first condition are dangerous and of the second are easily prodded. Sargon had been pushing the local leaders of the kannaanites to make trouble in the Pharaoh’s lands. They had recently sacked the city of Gazah, killing the nomarch of the province. It was said that the Akkadians had withdrawn from southern Kanaa, but were still in the north.
The other threat was similar, but lay far to the south, beyond the great falls of the Nile and the island of Elephantine’. There the warriors of Kush, the black kingdom, had staged raids against the prosperous towns of Upper Egypt. That was Weni’s territory; he was nomarch of the far upper river. Weni had backed Pepi in his quest for the throne and the Pharaoh owed him a debt and indeed, depended on Weni for his continued rulership of the Two Kingdoms. A council of war was called by Pepi.
The war leaders assembled in Nefer-Kah’s palace. Servants had to sweep the lanes to prepare for the arrival of the god-king and his court. Offerings were made for the house gods and fragrant incense was burned to purify the air for the Pharaoh. There over forty men. When all were seated, Weni stood and addressed us, bowing and saluting the Pharaoh.
“O Pharaoh Pepi, destroyer of enemies, god of the two kingdoms, Son of Re’ the sun-god, beloved of Amon, life, health, and strength be with you! By your leave we have assembled the war-leaders, made offerings to Sekhmet and Horus and Mighty Khnum. I wish to tell you of two grave threats to the Two Kingdoms and ask for your divine wisdom on these matters.”
Ikaron was whispering the translation of the high Egyptian to me. Weni went on speaking for some time about the sand-People and the Kushites. Pepi sat unmoving. His face was painted in a light gloss of gold that extended down his beck and shoulders. He looked very much like a living god. He carried a golden mace in his right hand, no doubt as a symbol of his mighty power to smite his enemies. When at long last Weni ended his harangue, the warlord sat down and waited.
After period of silence Pepi said commandingly, “I have made offerings to Sekhmet and Horus and Might Amon-ra. The priests have read the omens and have chosen that we shall destroy the Kushite invaders at once. When they have been crushed, then we shall return here and lay waste to the Sand-People. Both things will be settled in our favor, according to the will of the gods. I have spoken.”
With that, he stood, and we stood and saluted him as he left the chamber. Nefer-Kah came up to me smiling broadly.
“Congratulations, Achaean! You are to play a leading role in this campaign away south.”
“Yes, my lord, “I said, ‘and you will lead our troops yourself?”
“No, I am to stay here with the infantry to maintain the northern border until the Kushites are beaten down. You will take the archers and your One Hundred. Do well, Pelop the Achaean, and the Pharaoh may choose have me set you free.”
I bowed deeply. My heart skipped a short beat. I had not expected to hear these long wished-for words so soon. “I am honored to have served so far, and will give my all to this war, to further serve you.” Somehow I felt an implied threat when he said ‘do well’. If I didn’t do well, what then? There was no reading Nefer-Kah. He revealed nothing he didn’t want revealed.
“You seem to get what you want, Achaean.” He said. He gave me a look that conveyed something yet more. I pretended not to notice.”You will do well and win your freedom, I would wager.”
He went off to talk with other warlords. Ikaron said very quietly.” This was all decided before today. I would watch my back if I were you. Your secret is known by more people than you would wish. Our lord plays his pieces without showing his future moves.”
I looked at him. He lowered his eyes and glanced around the chamber. Men talked in groups, discussing plans.
“Did you think such a thing would not be known?” asked Ikaron. “The palace is a small place, and our Lord is no fool.”
I felt a tightening of my gut, but showed no outward sign.
“Thank you, I know this is a risk for you.”
“You are the one at risk. Do well in your war, my friend.”
The war did go well. I went with other commanders, mostly Egyptians of the Upper Kingdom, who had journeyed with Weni to court and now returned to settle things with the invading Kushites. There was one other man, who said he was from Troja, a city near the great inland sea of the north. His name was Dardanos.
“My mother was Macedoi, “he said in a strange but understandable dialect of Achaean, “so I speak your tongue. I come from city that is called great, though it is but a hill-town compared to all this.” He waved his hands at the shore. We were sailing and rowing upstream, along the bank, where the current eddies back on itself and the flow of the Nile is not as swift. We were passing a large town compete with a great temple complex and a small pyramid. “The walls of my city are almost a mile around, “he said, “and yet our people are usually hungry. The Hattusans raid us and steal our cattle and women. The Macedoi and Thrakoi torment us with sea-raids.”
“How did you come to this land? “I asked.
“I came on a ship carrying rare stones, amber, malachite, wine and olive oil, and the like. I caught a fever and was left behind. After many adventures I ended up in Swenet, the city ruled by Weni at Elephantine’ island, and there I have stayed, as a guard for our Lord Weni. Life is good here.”
“It is good,” I said, “and yet I find myself yearning for home, or for the place I called home. My first home was in snowy mountains far to the north. But that was a lifetime ago.” I told him of my own adventures as we sailed. He was a spearman and swordsman. Dardanos and I soon became fast friends.
The troops were somewhere, marching along the river. They had set out weeks ahead of our departure. I had attempted to stay away from Shesut, but she still found me, and I gave in to her temptations.
“My love, “she whispered as we stole a tryst under the winter moon.” How will I live without you?”
I couldn’t answer. My own feelings were confused. I had tried to keep my plan alive of getting freed and returning to Vila and Aon. But time had passed and Egypt had me in its sway. I had fallen ever more in love with the peaceful life of the warm valley and the silence of the dune sea, the silhouettes of the great pyramids at sunset, the lowing of the cattle and the beat of the sista. Shesut was a fine match for me in many ways, if I could only be freed. I had to live through this war and succeed for my Lords and masters. If I did, then I would have choices. Obviously Nefer-Kah thought of me as valuable enough to allow me to dally with his daughter, who after, all was no child, but rather a spoiled noblewoman with her own mind and opinions. Should I be freed, I would no doubt have to become his vassal and marry her, in the way of the Nile people. There was no ceremony, but living together made a contract taken seriously be all concerned. But I might leave, for I felt the call of the sea and my homelands.
“Love me now, my princess!” I tried to put a light face on her solemn declaration.” The arrows of the Kushites are deadly. They say they use poison on the tips!” I grabbed her and pulled her to me. She was supple and warm and moved with me in a way that would have pleased the gods.
Shesut cried when I left. She sank to her knees and her tears ran black down her cheeks from her kohl. I knelt by her and lifted her face with my hands.
“Don’t cry, my princess of the Nile. I will be back. Make an offering to Isis to protect me.” I knew she was a follower of the goddess wife of Osiris.
Dardanos and I played at Trojan dice on the deck. It was cunning game, which I never failed to lose. I swore he was cheating me, but he said it was because he worshipped Tur, the thunder god of the Hattusans, who is known to love games of chance. Weni and the other Egyptians enjoyed our bouts, and laughed heartily at my expense, though in truth we played for fun and the wagers were those of slaves, not noblemen. The Egyptians played endlessly at Senet, a game played on a rectangular box marked with squares, in which pieces are moved by throwing sticks and counting the numbers revealed by the throws. There was wine and food aplenty on board. The weather was cool and pleasant, it being winter now. If I had not known we were going to almost certain war, I would have thought the whole thing a pleasure cruise.
The journey took three weeks, for the Nile is a long river that winds in great curves between distant desert ranges. Sometimes the valley was so wide one couldn’t see the desert beyond the fields, date-palm groves, and flood marshes. At other times the river was squeezed between sandy cliffs. Temples and towns dotted the river’s edge. Fishermen plied the waters with nets in small boats, some of them reed boats like the ones of the marsh-people of Sumer. We went past Tentyra, Edfu’, Nubt, and other cities, both large and small, and came at long last to the upper reaches of the Upper Kingdom. Here the cultivated lands only occupied a narrow strip on each side of the river, and the bluffs stood like temples of the sand–gods. We had to be more on our guard, since between the Egyptians settlements there were Nubian raiders. We saw them sometimes, looking down from the cliffs. They were black-skinned, and I thought of Mtombe and wondered if he had escaped all this way. It seemed impossible, for it was a month’s march from Saqqara, and he would have had to hide and travel secretly by night not to have been caught. Of course, after he had traveled half the length of the Nile he could have ended up in a small village and made up some story about coming from the south instead of from the north, for there were other blacks in the endless valley working alongside the lighter-skinned and thinner-nosed Egyptians. I didn’t imagine I would encounter him again.
The timing was almost right. We reached Swenet and Elephantine’ island two days after the troops who had marched from the north. In addition to my archers, led by Urartu and Finn, there were levies from Tentyra, Edfu’, Nubt, and the City of Amon. With the garrison at Swenet, the total came to over five thousand men, though not all would be used in battle. It seemed strange to me, a veteran of Sargon’s armies of forty thousand, but this was a large army for Egypt. There simply weren’t enough enemies to warrant a larger force. The Kushites probably were no more than two thousand, and those in scattered bands of raiders. Still, it was said that they had new leader, and he had rallied the Nubians of the further lands to his name. I shivered when I heard it: Mtombe the Lion. I wondered if Mtombe was a common name in Kush. No one could tell me. The Kushites had been raiding along the borders, and had driven out many Egyptian farmers from the upper river. Weni told us that it was not important, but that they needed to be taught a lesson to keep them from coming into both Pilak and Swenet, for it was there, below the first great falls of the Nile, that Egypt began, or opened, as they said. Above the cataracts, as they were called, regular boat traffic was impossible. Only below the first one was river commerce with the Lower Kingdom possible.
And many things came down the river to Memphis, even giant cut stones for pyramids and temples in huge ships. The Nile is wide and even, without rapids, and ships can both sail and be rowed upstream and down at most times, except in the extremes of flood, when it is a little more work. The desert stretched out to the east and west as far anyone knew. There were rocky highlands far off, but they were not visited by the river people. Why should they leave their fertile fields for desolation? The fields were still green above the cataract, and that is where the Kushite would come from. Scouts said that Mtombe the Lion’s army was camped not twenty miles south, on a bluff of the east side of the river.
“We will train the infantry of the cities in the ways of your force, “he told me through Dardanos.” In two weeks time we will go and meet them.”
Weni put us up in barracks of the usual mud-brick huts. The regular troop slept out , for there was not enough room to billet this many men. I slept out with my archers and the One Hundred. I would suffer the same fate as they did. It cheered them to see me among them. Weni’s men respected their leader, but even more, they feared him. His hand was swift to punish and it bred resentment in some, especially the Nubian archers. I asked that my archers go into battle and that Nubians be left to guard Swenet, along with irregular forces conscripted from the cities of the Upper Kingdom. I wanted to have a smaller disciplined force than a large rabble. I thought about the enemy. If it was indeed Mtombe leading them, they would also be trained, at least somewhat, in the Akkadian ways of war. I pondered strategies with Dardanos, Urartu, Sadik, and Finn.
“If I trusted the Nubian archers, I would send them around the Kushites and have them attack from the rear, then come upon them from the front and engage them from both sides. But I don’t trust the Nubians to not switch sides.”
“They have sworn loyalty to Pharaoh and Lord Weni.” Dardanos said.
I eyed him warily. He was Weni’s man, and though he seemed to be my friend, perhaps he was Weni’s spy as well. I had to be careful.
“A lion rules the jackal until the Lion is not around. Then the jackal does as he pleases.”
Dardanos shrugged. “The Lion is stronger and call always kill the jackal.” He replied.
“Unless the all the jackals join together.” I said.
Once the training was well under way, I left it in Urartu and Finn’s hands and went of south with Dardanos, Finn, Urartu, and five Egyptian guards from Weni’s personal guard. We left before dawn and rode on donkeys, a most uncomfortable experience, for fifteen miles or so, before leaving the donkeys in a wadi in the charge of the Egyptian soldiers and going on on foot. We carried bows and wore rags the color of the sands. We stayed far to the east of the river, back in the harsh hills. We had only enough water with us to go and get back again by nightfall. I guessed by scanning the terrain where the camp might be and we found it before too long. It was down in a canyon that opened on the river. We crept along the canyon rim until we could get a good look, but we went with extreme caution. There might well be lookouts. We came to a spot where a side canyon spilt the rim and crawled on our bellies to the edge and looked over, using thorn bushes as our cover.
I was encouraged. It looked like a cattle-raiding camp; a few hundred men lay about near cook-fires. There was no visible sense of order. I imagined they would fight that way, too; a wild charge with fast results for our side. Except for their black skins, they looked largely identical to our army with their loin cloths and simple head cloths. They did have bigger shields, seemingly of cattle –hide, elongated to over more of their bodies. This caused me some concern; I hoped our volleys of arrows would find their mark and not be deflected by their large shields. Never underestimate an enemy. I had done that before, and gotten beaten and captured. I had no desire to be a slave of such savage-looking men. I wanted to be a free man this time. I could see piles of shit everywhere in their camp and I thought, well that’s one thing I haven’t tolerated since Ugarit, back when I king of the slaves. My men shat in tranches I had them dig, and covered it afterwards. There was no sign of Mtombe, or anyone else that looked important. Maybe there was no way to tell in their Kingdom.
I looked over at Dardanos and signaled to pull back. We drew back slowly from the rim and crept along until we were well back from the rim. Then we sprinted towards where we had left our donkeys. I had a strategy in mind that would easily defeat the Kushites. If we could march fast enough to take them by surprise, we could pin them down with arrow-fire from the rim and finish them off with a frontal assault from the river with organized infantry. It would be no harder than killing off a nest of vipers.
We came over a ridge to where the donkeys and the soldiers were waiting. Or so we thought. They were gone. I instinctively held up and grabbed Dardanos’ arm to stop him. Urartu was behind us and pulled up from his run. But Finn charged ahead down into the wide and deep wadi, wildly looking about. The other three of us got back under a ledge and waited. An arrow whistled through the still air and skittered off the rocks near Finn’s feet, then another. The next one hit him in the thigh and he fell, grasping it. Then he got up began to run down the wadi, in the direction of the river. He had dropped his bow and limped as best he could. Arrows were flying from the ridge across from us. I drew an arrow back and waited for moment until I saw a man rise up. I loosed my shot and it flew close to its mark.
“Let’s go, “I hissed.
We ran out from under the ledge and down the wadi, staying apart to keep from being one big target. There was a line of boulders a hundred lengths ahead and we made for it. Finn got there at the same time. He had broken off the arrow so he could run, and the tip stuck out through his thigh. It wasn’t serious.
“They just missed your ass, “I said. He grinned back, despite his pain. I said, “We’ve got to get to higher ground. Up that ravine!”
We ran up the little ravine. If there were Kushites up there, we were dead, but we’d be dead if we stayed here, too, as soon they would get high ground on us and cut us down. When we made the top, we found no one. Bu then we heard the sound of war-cries. Running towards us along the rim of the wadi were at least fifty men, waving spears and shooting arrows.
“Run!” I yelled. The ground was open before us and we ran for the river. There was no place with cover from which to shoot, and there were too many of them anyway. Arrows whizzed by us and skipped off the ground to fly out over the rim. Finn stumbled and fell as we crossed a narrow, steep-sided wadi. I pulled him up. Urartu and Dardanos knelt at the top of the draw, and shot back at the fast-approaching Kushites. Then we ran again. I could see the edge of the cliff above the river coming up, just few hundred lengths ahead. There was an outcropping of rocks along the rim and we got down behind it and shot the rest of our arrows, taking out a dozen warriors. But there were still thirty. I looked down the cliff face. It was fifty feet straight down and then there was a slope of another hundred feet or more of rubble and sand.
“Jump!” I said. Urartu shook his head. But Finn turned and just leaped off the rim. We watched him fall and hit the slope below. He tumbled end over end almost all the way to the bottom, and lay there , not moving. There wasn’t time for any further indecision. I grabbed Urartu’s arm and pulled him over the edge and fell with him. I hit the slope hard, but managed to go head over heels five or six times and come to a stop. I was but scratched and bruised, knew I wasn’t seriously hurt. Dardanos came down as well. Urartu groaned; he had twisted his ankle badly. The river was only fifty feet away. Finn stirred in the sand. Dardanos and I grabbed him and half dragged him to the water. Urartu came limping up.
“Go! Swim! Hurry!” There were reeds growing thickly along the backs, as everywhere on the Nile. I looked up and saw the Kushites on the rim above us. Arrows whistled through the reeds. The water was deep enough for us to get our heads down and swim along the edge of the reeds. Finn was losing strength. Blood poured from his wound. But he still managed to keep up and we swam downstream, keeping to the edge of the reeds. I kept waiting for the Kushites to appear at the water’s edge, but they didn’t follow us. There must not have been a good way down nearby.
We swam and floated away downstream for the rest of the daylight. The going was agonizingly slow. Finn and Urartu were hurt and we expected to be attacked at close range at any moment. Plus, there were hippos and crocodiles in the river. We only made maybe three miles before dark. Once we floated slowly without moving our legs and arms as we passed a large group of hippos not forty lengths away. These huge water-pigs were the most dangerous animal in the Nile, though the big crocodiles could easily kill and eat a man. It was another ten or twelve back to Pilak and Swenet. In the very last of the twilight, we swam to the far aide of the river and made our way onto dry land. Finn and Urartu needed to rest. Finn was pale from loss of blood and his leg was hurting him, and Urartu’s ankle was swollen out and turning black.
“The camp needs to be warned, “I whispered.
“You go,” said Dardanos. “We’ll stay hidden and I’ll keep watch while these two rest up a bit, then we’ll come after.” I nodded. I had had the good fortune to retrieve two arrows from the water that had been shot by the Kushites. I still had my bow, strung across my back. I set out under the starry night and half walked and half ran down the riverbank. Twice I came up on things moving in the dark. But whatever they were, they moved off. Probably jackals or gazelles. I came to a bend in the river that I remembered. A point stuck out from the west side of the river, where I was, and a matching protruding point lay downstream on the east side. I waded in and let the current sweep me down a way and then swam until I made the east bank. Here, the cliffs were further back and there were some cultivated fields. I heard something moving in the palm thicket above the bank. I could make out the sound of an animal eating grass, tearing it out with strong teeth. I caught a silhouette of it for a moment. I stood up. It was one of our donkeys. Its halter still trailed rope. I caught it and threw my leg over its back. It obediently headed home, down the riverbank.
It was dawn when I finally rode into the camp. Sadik, my Bedu soldier was waiting for me on the trail.
“You are safe, master Pelop. But where are the others?”
“Urartu, Finn, and Dardanos are ten miles back, on the west bank. Two are wounded. We must send a troop to bring them back, but they must travel on the west shore. The camp of the Kushites is beyond there on the east side, and they saw us. Did no Egyptians return?”
Sadik shook his head.
I went to my little lean-to and slept. I woke to the sound of shouting and commotion. Donkeys were braying and men were calling out I confusion.
I grabbed my bow and ran to the edge of the camp. Just a half-mile away, I could see a squadron of our solders, and the figures of Finn and Dardanos and Urartu with them, riding on donkeys. They were racing to reach the camp.
For behind them, streaming down in unorganized waves were there warriors of Kush. They came down the side of a big rocky hill, whooping and shouting. They carried their big shields, flat on the bottom, and pointed on top. Spearmen ran ahead of archers. They had come over a ridge and now the Kushite army appeared on the ridgeline. In the center was a warrior wearing bright colors, blue and white. He wore a crown that looked like the white crown of Upper Egypt, pointed and tall. He rode a white donkey. His skin was black, as was that of his warriors. He was surrounded by a body of spearmen who chanted something and pounded their spears –butts into the ground. Silence fell and the Kushites stood their ground. There came a loud, clear battle call. I thought it must be from the leader or someone close to him. I couldn’t; understand the words. But the whole Kushite force shouted back an answer of six or seven syllables. The man called out again, and the warriors roared back. And a third time. Then many drummers began to pound out a beat, and I could hear high-pitched nasal-hornpipes blowing. The force slowly came at us, except for the front of spearmen and archers. They came running, screaming out curses and taunts in their own tongue.
Weni had come up and calmly he called out the orders to our men. I organized my troops under their team banners. I called for our sistrum players and drummer s to match the martial music of the Kushites. We formed our ranks, Spearmen in front, archers behind. Weni’s infantry was three deep of spearmen. His Nubian archers he held back. He didn’t call for their arrows to be given out. I ordered Sadik and the One Hundred to gather on the right flank. The troop with Finn, Urartu, and Dardanos reached our lines safely. Dardanos grabbed his helmet, a Trojan one with a white horse-hair tuft on top and boars teeth on the sides. Finn and Urartu retreated to the rear, too wounded to fight.
We slowly moved out from the camp. The Kushite shock troops were a few hundred yard away, just out of bowshot, dressed only in head bands, their long wild hair hanging down in filthy, matted locks, calling and taunting, jabbing their spears in the air. Our ranks advanced as they were taught, row upon row, each one kneeling with spears fixed while another passed through to kneel with their spears fixed. I looked from the right flank down our lines and was pleased. But I hoped that Weni’s men would hold and not charge until the time was right. Kushite warriors ran out within bow range and challenged us, exposing themselves to our arrows. I picked out one, a brazen fellow with yellow plumes stuck in his hair. He ran naked within a hundred lengths, and grabbed his cock and waved it at us, laughing. I loosed and arrow and hit him right through the chest. He twisted to the side and fell, spitting blood and landing in a heap..
Now a larger band of Kushites ran forward yelling their war-cries, coming well within range. Their spearmen came first and dropped down on one knee, the flat bottoms of the shields on the ground and the pointed tops providing v-shaped openings for archers to fire from. I was similar to our formations, but their shields were more effective, since they made a solid wall with their flat bottoms. Our round shields didn’t provide as much protection. I vowed to copy their shields in the future. They rained down a long volley on our ranks, causing many casualties. I could see the impatience of the infantry to charge and wipe out the ragged Kushites. But Weni held them back. He waved my flank up, and my spear-and archer battalion edged forward. We pushed their vanguard into the center, and I left them exposed to a charge from our right, since I had the One Hundred in reserve, hidden in the marsh at the riverbank. If The Kushite attempted to flank us, The One Hundred would fall on their flank and they would be caught in a pincer between my prepared troops and the One Hundred.
I saw that we needed to stay back and not allow ourselves to get drawn up onto the slopes on the hills, where the Kushites would have the higher ground, so we held back and halted our lines. The Kushites vanguard looked confused. They ran up and down our line, shooting arrows and taunting. It was a standoff, but one that favored us, since we were basically invincible. If they wanted to hurt us, they’d have to try to outflank us and in that way change our battle plan.
That is what happened. As I had expected, there was a sudden charge down the hill by a rabble of spearmen onto our right flank, where we had drawn in to face the center. Since their center was now in disarray and had suffered some losses, I had the back lines switch directions, and so we were ready when the Kushite warriors reached us. I fell back and joined the On Hundred, down along the riverbank, hidden in the reeds and scrub-brush. I watched as the Kushites attacked along the back of our line, but finding it prepared for their onslaught, they looked somewhat confused. They were not organized anyway. At that point, I led the charge out of the reeds and into their rear. They were caught by surprise and panicked. Looking across the lines, I could see that their leader had ordered his center to charge again into our ranks, trying to attack from both sides. But we made quick work of their outflanked warriors. Soon they were running for their lives, and when their center pressed in on our lines, we were able to turn our full attention on them, plus Weni’s center now fell on the Kushite center from the other flank and it became a rout. Weni had called up the Nubian archers, who could plainly see which side would be victorious. They were given arrows and began firing volleys into the Kushites, who threw down their weapons and retreated under their big shields. Now Weni’s left flank , held until now in reserve, ran at full strength towards the ridgeline. The Kushites fled the field and we followed eager to give the death blow to the rebel army. Within minutes we had the ridgeline. The leader was riding away on his white pony, his bodyguard around him. I rallied the One Hundred and we ran after them. We caught them near the next wadi. We had them pinned down, for if they tried to climb out the far side of the dry watercourse, we could simply cut them down with arrows. They hid behind the low rim rock of the wadi and shot back.
Then I saw the leader making a break for it, further up the wadi. I ran behind our lines with my bow until I was even with him. He turned and I was able to see his face. It was certain. It was Mtombe. I had him dead to rights. I had only to loose my arrow. He saw me as well. We stared at each other for a moment, not longer than a few seconds. Then I lowered my bow and he ran over the next ridge and was gone.
We destroyed the main part of the Kushite threat that day, killing over four hundred of them. They would be no match for a strong garrison from now on, until they could build up another army. That wouldn’t happen again for a couple of years. Weni was very pleased and offered sacrifices to all the temples of Swenet, Pilak, and Elephantine’ Island. Amon-Ra, Horus, Sekhmet, Khnemu, Sobek the Crocodile God, and Isis and Osiris, plus a host of other gods whose names ran together in my mind, were celebrated and made sacrifice to. We hadn’t had too many casualties, though we would have to recruit new men for every team. Finn was livid that he had missed the fight. His Northmen companions gloated over the number of their kills. Urartu could barely walk and was going to need a long recovery away from battle.
We sent an expeditionary force up the river for forty miles and fought two other smaller groups. Mtombe wasn’t among the dead.
Weni called me in. “This Mtombe. I heard you had him within shot.”
He looked at me with his brows drawn down, trying to look commanding.
“Yes, “I said, “I let him live.”
“Why?” He looked hard at me. I knew I had gone too far.
I held my head up and stared back at him. “I owe him my life. He was my companion in the waste lands and mountains when I escaped from the wrath of Sargon of Akkad. Without him I would not have lived. ”
He looked at his camp table. There was pitcher of wine and two cups. He poured one for me and for himself and offered it to me. “I see.” A life debt was serious enough for Weni acknowledge. “Can you bring him a treaty from the Pharaoh?”
“What kind of treaty?”
“The Lord of the Two Lands demands that the men of Kush cease fighting and also bring five hundred Ri of tribute every year.”
“He is a proud man. I doubt he would submit. He’d rather lose his head.”
“So be it. If no treaty, then it will be his head.”
“He might well take mine.”
“The Pharaoh who reigns as Horus, son of Osiris, might take yours as well, if you fail to do this.”
“And if I am able?”
“Then perhaps your master and the Lord of the Two Lands might look favorably on you.”
I thought it was a fair deal. I should have killed Mtombe when I had the shot. That was my duty to my Lords. Weni was a powerful man, perhaps second only to Pepi himself. My master Nefer-Kah was strong, but only as a nomarch. And though his nome was in the scared precinct of the Great Pyramids, the real power of the Two Lands lay in the great bend of Kena and Tentyra and in Upper Egypt; in Abdju and Niwt-Rst and Swenet. Many Lords of the Two Lands had come from here. Nefer-Kah had to follow Weni’s lead. And I had to bring in the word of my old friend Mtombe that he would not fight any longer, but submit to Pharaoh and give tribute. Or my own head would be forfeit.
I picked out ten men from my One Hundred, including Sadik and two Nubian archers. I left Finn and Urartu to tend to their wounds.
“Lead the One Hundred,” I told them,” if I should not return. And find a way to get your freedom.”
We rode on donkeys, bearing only small rations and no gifts. My life was in the balance, but for his sake, Mtombe had to know he could not win. It was in his interest to make a deal with Weni and withdraw from the Egyptian lands. I wouldn’t be able to promise Mtombe that Weni’s word would not be broken. That’s just the way it was. I was a slave; Mtombe a rebel. The lords of Egypt held the power.
We rode south, unopposed by any rebels, along the east bank and came to the camp of the Kushites. It was abandoned, the fires long cold. We pressed on, following the tracks of the retreating army of rebels. We traveled for three days, until we came to a bluff overlooking the Nile. If we pressed on any further our rations would run out before we got back to Senet. This was as far as we could come. The Kushites were nowhere to be seen. I pondered my decision. I couldn’t go back. I dismounted and ordered them to return without me. I took my bow and two quivers of arrows, a short sword, and a water bag and some wheat-cakes in a goat-skin bag. My men reluctantly turned and left me there alone. I watched them disappear back over the ridges that led north. Then I went down with long, sliding strides down the steep, rock and sand face of the bluff until I reached the river. Ahead of me about a mile were cliffs that rose above the south side of a large, dry wadi that met the Nile from the higher lands of the east. After some time, I came to the dry stream bed. It was pure sand, white almost as snow. The cliffs were white, too, and I thought this was the kind of stone the great pyramids were faced with. I had to squint to keep the glare from blinding me. I peered across the wide wadi and saw a figure of a single black warrior standing on the sand facing me. It was Mtombe.
I approached slowly. He held a bow in his hand; an arrow nocked and ready. He grinned, his white teeth mirroring the brilliant sands.
“Stop there, old friend, “he said, “This is no longer Pharaoh’s land.”
“He doesn’t want the land. He wants peace.”
“Peace? He wants to kill us off with his fish-eating dog soldiers and have them starve and rape our women. He wants to cut our children’s throats and eat our cattle and goats. You know me Achaean, I’m like you. I don’t believe in god-kings.” He spat on the sand three times to keep the spirits from cursing his blasphemy.
“It’s about power, Mtombe, “I said. The Pharaoh and Weni have an army you can’t beat. Better to submit and pay some tribute and live in peace.”
“Each season the Egyptians come further and further up into our country, taking the good fields, killing the game. We will stand here and fight and die.”
I looked at him. He was proud. I admired him, the way he stood there, free and strong. But I knew my course.
“I am to bring your word or your head. Or I lose mine. Give me your word. I will plead your case.”
“You are blind, King Pelop of the slaves. The lords of the two lands are merciless when it comes to us. I will not submit. They would only break their word and kill more of us and take more land.”
We stood there in the glaring sunlight, silent for a moment.
Then he said, “Come with us. Together we could drive these power mad dogs from the river. There are beautiful women of our color that would prize you!”
He had been slowly raising his bow as he talked. He did it casually, as if just adjusting his arms. I stepped quickly to my left and raised and shot first, hitting him in the left shoulder. He grabbed at it, and I took that second to shoot another arrow into his neck. He fell backwards, clutching at the shafts, blood staining his hand and arms and chest. I ran to him and stood over him.
“I am sorry, Mtombe, my friend. But you gave me no choice.”
“You will not escape. My warriors are coming for you now” he gasped. Already his life force was seeping away with the blood that marked the white sand. No one was coming yet.
“By the gods, “he whispered, ‘finish it. I forgive…”
His head fell back and he gave up his shade. I quickly cut off his head, sawing through the neck bones with my bronze knife. I put the bloody, dripping monstrosity in my goat- skin bag and turned and ran back toward the cliffs on the south side of the wadi. Then I heard them. As I gained the scrub below the cliffs, I glanced back and saw at least a dozen warriors running after me. I climbed a narrow cleft in the cliff, gained the open ground at the top, and ran hard across the rocks and sand. Several ravines drained the bench, and I crossed them at a run, pausing to catch my breath once behind a section of rim rock. I saw them coming. My tracks were as plain as the bright day. My best bet was the river, but when I came to the next ravine, I saw that the bedrock was exposed and I suddenly turned and went up the wadi, taking care to step only on rock. I climbed relentlessly up away from the river into the stone hills. There was a maze of wadis and cliffs there and I reached a higher level of rim rock, backed by even higher cliffs, on the next level above of the first bench above the river. Peering back down from momentary hiding spots, I could see the warriors slow down and search for my traces. Most of them ran down towards the river, but three came up the wadi. I pressed onward, staying to the rocks, and traveled some miles along the rim, which in some places was only as wide as footpath, with a sheer drop- off of over a hundred feet and equal heights of unscalable cliffs above.. The hours went by and sun finally lowered in the sky. From a hiding place I saw two warriors still following. They were some distance back now, but they searched the ground carefully as they came, conferring with each other. I lost track of the third, and that made me worried. I could kill these two, but where was the other?
A large ravine cut into the cliffs a few hundred lengths ahead. It was open to anyone looking up from down below. I would have to find a way to cross it without being seen. I found a good vantage point behind a boulder and watched the two men climbing up to this level. I decide to take them out and wait for the third warrior to show himself. I waited until they had gained the rim rocks. They were close, only forty lengths way. I carefully stuck three arrows into the sand at my feet and nocked one. Then, when I reckoned they were close, I stepped out and shot the one who was further back. He cried out, and when his companion turned for second to see I hit him with two quick arrows. I figured them to be dead or dying, or at least to be too wounded to follow me, and I turned and ran forward again, heading for the ravine. I looked to see a way down and took my eyes off where I was running for a brief moment and suddenly I lost my footing and fell sideways, scraping my ankle badly, but I felt it was not broken. I pulled my leg up with my hands and craned my neck to see the cut on the back of my ankle. To my right I heard the sound of small rocks falling over the rim. I spun my head around and looked up into the face a thin, young black man. He raised his bow, a big grin on his face. I knew I was a dead man, at last. Strangely, it didn’t matter that much. I had come so close so many other times; I didn’t now why I wasn’t dead already.
But his shot didn’t come, for an arrow point came bursting through his chest and he dropped his bow to grab at the shaft. He spasmed forward as another arrow hit him from behind. He staggered, his eyes glazed, slipped, and toppled over the edge of the rim and fell out of sight. I heard his body thump once, and dust rose from where he had fallen. Down the rim a short distance was Sadik, sporting a wide smile. He rushed up to me.
“We disobeyed your orders, my master. Let’s go.”
He helped me to my feet. I was in pain, but my blood was racing and I was able to walk. The Nubians and the other men were waiting at the base of the line of cliffs. We rode away as fast as the donkeys could carry us. The weight of Mtombe’s head in the bag was a burden, and I gave it to one of the men to carry. As I passed it to him I saw Mtombe’s eyes were still open and I turned my gaze away.
By the time we reached Senet and the camp of the army, I was starting to feel feverish. I hadn’t paid attention to a minor wound on my leg and it had turned ugly; red, black, and blue, with pus crusting along a three inch gash. I had other nicks and many bruises, but one gets used to that in war. I rode on the donkey, my head hanging down. Sadik walked alongside me and caught me twice when I almost fell off the animal’s back in my stupor. My head swam, and I felt the weight of Mtombe’s severed head, in the bag tied to the saddle, bumping rhythmically on my thigh as we walked along. It smelled terrible, like the ghastly thing it was, and made my stomach turn. I knew I was part way to the land of shades myself and would likely die if I was not tended to soon with healing herbs and rest.
My heart was heavy and angry with the pain of having to kill my friend, a man who meant much more to me than any of these Egyptians. I felt revulsion for their smug arrogance, their easy way of life. I thought of Vila for the first time in months. She must be dead by now, or another man’s wife. She must believe I was dead after these years of being gone. There would be little likelihood that any tales of Pelop the Slave King would have reached the faraway mountains of the western lands and tiny Hedra on the olive- groved ridges overlooking the wind-blown straits. In my fever it all seemed like a dream, a vision, something I could barely remember, lost in a pearly sea mist mixed with the golden dust of the endless deserts of Sumer and Egypt, with blood and death.
When we reached the camp, a large group of soldiers came forth, silently lining the way. I rode my little donkey to the pavilion of Weni. He sat in the shade underneath the tent-flap on a fine chair made with carved wooden wings for arms and a high back. He wore a yellow head cloth and a freshly-pleated linen kilt. I stayed on the donkey’s back, holding on with one hand to its meager mane to keep myself from falling off, and reached into the bag and pulled out Mtombe’s stinking head. Flies had been at it for three days now. The eyes were black and red with crusted, dried blood and stared lifeless at eternity. I held it out at arm’s length by the hair for all to see and then tossed it in the dust, where it rolled like a child’s ball near the feet of the Great Commander of the army of the Two Lands.
“Here’s his head, “I said.” Is it not a thing of beauty? He didn’t like the terms.”
Weni said nothing, but just looked at me blankly. Then the world spun and I fell off the donkey into the dirt.