Out of Egypt
The huge brakka rode easily on the strong current of the broad Nile. My leg had healed and I felt whole, though restless and angry. I had killed my friend Mtombe, but, well, such things happen in war. I had angered Weni the Great General with my contempt, but my prowess in battle and defeat of the enemy had earned me fame and respect in the ranks. In each city we docked in on the way back down to Lower Egypt we were greeted with music-playing crowds of people, who brought us beer and wheat cakes and meats and melons and honey and other sweets produced by the fertile land of the great river. The Nomes greeted us with honors and feasts. We sailed on a fleet of large ships ordinarily used for transporting the huge stones from Senet to the temple and pyramid sites. A favorable wind filed our sails and the river bore us ever closer to Saqqara and the city of Memphis. At long last we came nigh to the entrance to the Shedyet, a large lake full of fish and crocodiles, home of the great temple of Sobek, the crocodile god who had favored our victory, according to the Egyptians. In the distance to the north I could see the bent pyramid of Sneferu, the father of Khufu the great, and beyond, his Red Pyramid. The next day would bring us back to the estates of Nefer-Kah and his daughter Shesut. I thought of her and was filled with a certain dread. Now I was a man of fame; Pelop the Warrior. I might be freed as a gesture to the people, an offering to the great Nine Gods; The Ennead. What might this mean for my future? My combat with Mtombe had destroyed my infatuation with Egyptian life. I longed for the rough freedom and hard, clean life of the Achaean hills. I yearned for my noble and guileless wife Vila and my son Aon.
We docked at Memphis and the army marched up the palm-lined lanes to the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a festive air. Thousands of people thronged the lanes, beating on drums and shaking sistrums, singing their feast-day songs and playing harps. Children ran barefoot among the soldiers, who smiled and didn’t scold their boldness. Men saluted us and women trilled and flirted with their eyes. But this seemed more than just a day for a victory. Sedan chairs with noblemen and women rode on the shoulders of servants; people carried jars of wine and beer and platters of fowl and pigs. The whole populace streamed towards the enclosure of the palace of Pepi. We were just part of the moving tide of humanity; we, The One Hundred, Victors of the Kush War. People began pressing past us. I asked Sadik what was going on. He shrugged, but Ikaron, who had greeted us at the quay said.
“Well, don’t you know, Shesut is to become a Queen of Pepi, a mother of the next Horus. Nefer-Kah has been raised up to vizier. Ask the gods for your lucky day, Pelop; today joy reigns and you may be freed.”
I must say my jaw probably dropped. But it stood to rights that Nefer-Kah would want his daughter to be a Queen, even if Pepi already had three. My dread lifted and I prayed that this was true.
We soon came to the wide space before the palace, with its red-painted columns and giant slanted towers of mud-brick, glazed in sparkling colors and carved with reliefs of the Pharaoh smiting his enemies. I had to laugh darkly to myself. I hadn’t seen him in that wadi facing down Mtombe. But no matter, for the people all served the god-king and nothing happened without the will of the Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, the golden-skinned deity who walked among the people. The palace front had two towers which rose from wide bases to somewhat narrower tops. There was a gate between them flanked by giant statues of the pharaoh as Horus, the Pharaoh as Amon-ra. Colossal sphinxes lined the lane that led to the gate, from which emerged a column of shaved-head priests and many musicians, bearing censors of incense and chanting their homage to the living God. The lesser pyramids rose behind the palace, the chief among them the stepped pyramid of Djoser. A great glittering litter was being born out by dozens of priests and servants. Before it, wearing a dark-blue head-cloth and a gold belt and a wide collar of precious stones and worked silver walked Nefer-Kah, looking almost like a living god himself. Behind him, high atop the litter on a throne rode Pepi the Pharaoh, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of the gods, a god himself, carrying the hook and the flail across his chest and wearing the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. His skin was painted deep red and gold, with brilliant gold traces on his face sharply contrasting with the black kohl outlining his eyes. Nefer –Kah raised hi own scepter, a rolled papyrus, a symbolic deed to his Nome, an emblem of his power, and the noise and movement came to a halt.
He turned and prostrated himself before the God-King, and we followed his example three times. Then he rose and addressed Pepi.
“Oh Son of Osiris, Horus incarnate, Lord of the Two Lands, destroyer of enemies, provider for the people, he who traverses the two realms and lives forever, we salute you!” The Pharaoh sat unmoving. This is how he was seen, as a living god, not as a mortal.
“You who in your divine wisdom consults with your father Amon-Ra and the gods of the Ennead, give us your blessing on this day of victory and celebration!” A huge chorus of voices welled up, praising the pharaoh.
Then Nefer-Kah turned and faced the crowd.
“The Lord of the Two Lands has caused the enemies form Kush to fall in the desert dust, their bones to be smashed, their bas to be damned to the darkness of death without the blessing and presence of the living god. He has wasted the enemies of the Two Lands. And now he will strike at the enemies of the north and smite them to death with his wrath and power. Our victorious armies will march on the Kanaanites and destroy them without mercy so they will never again attempt to plague us with their mischief. Thus has spoken the living god, Pepi-Re who sees the fates of the world with his far-seeing eye of Horus.”
A mighty cheer went up fro the immense crowd. Though I had only understood some of the high court language Nefer-Kah had used, the message was plain enough. We would march again to war, this time with the Kannaanites.
My heart leaped. I would be one step closer to the sea, to my freedom. I vowed to escape and sail west at last. I cheered like the rest, waving my bow above my head. But only I knew for what I cheered.
The moon was shining on the stpeed pyramid when I at last returned to the estate of nefer-Kah. The One Hundred, ahd celebrated with the people in the open space before the Pharaoh’s palace. Finn, sdaik, Urartu and the others wandered back drunkenly through the plam trees. There would be wear soon again, but tonight we were free of obligation Finn had plans with a stable gilrl and the others sought pleasure in other places. I headed back to my room. At theback of the palace.
There were two soldiers thre, waiting for me. They took me into the palace proper, through the walled garden to a room lit by oil lkmaps. Nefer-Kah sat at the end of along table, a cup of wine inhis hand. He wore no head cloth. Is hair was white. I had never seen him without head gear. His eyes had been wiped clean of kohl and gold paint. He wore a simple linen kilt and no collar. Without his nobleman’s outfit, he looked like an older man, tired and irritated.
He waved the guards away, pointed at a chair near him and said, “Sit.”
I sat and he poured me a cup from a beaker of wine and pushed it at me. I could see he had been drinking. The wine sloshed over the lip of the cup.
“So, slave-king. My daughter is now a goddess.”
He was angry but he didn’t look at me, rather he stared at an oillamp on the table. I didn’t lnow how he wanted me to respond.
“You think that’s good?” he looked sharply at me, “to have a daughter who’s a goddess?”
I kept my silence.
“You have done well for yourself, for me, “he said,” Win this war . I will consider your freedom.”
“I will do my best, my Lord, “ I said.
“Your best?” he stared into my eyes.” You had better do your best. The Lord of the Two Lands demands it of me that you do your best. Of me!”
He picked up his wine-cup and threw it against the wall, where it shattered in dozens of clay fragments. The red splotch of wine ran down the wall onto the paving stones..
“Me! Without me he wouldn’t be Pharaoh. I helped put him on the throne, and now he takes my daughter to keep me below him. I am now honored, “ his voice grew quiet and spiteful, “ as the father of a goddess. But he is the incarnation of Horus. He is not worthy of it.”
He reached over and took up my cup and drained it.
“I hope she bears him a son who will supplant him. “He said. Then he grinned drunkenly at me. “A son who looks Achaean!” he began laughing crazily and stood and walked out of the room. I stayed there for a few minutes, unsure what to do. He was my master, after all. I wanted to run, but knew I had to pretend all was well. After a while a steward scurried in and without any acknowledgement of any problem escorted me back out through the garden. My heart was racing from the encounter. I knew I could just as easily be killed now as given my freedom. Nefer-Kah had wanted to seize power. That was the reason for building up his army. I would have been the instrument of his strike against Pepi. But he had missed his chance when Weni had brought Pharaoh’s troops in to be trained by me. Now Nefer-Kah’s force was smaller than Weni’s. I had offended Weni with my public contempt of him. Shesut was now going to be the wife of the Pharaoh. There was nothing to hold me to Egypt any longer .My course was clear. If I could only stay alive until I could realize it.
I walked through the moonlight out to where the desert began. The pyramids loomed up, ghostly in the light. I heard a sound behind me and crouched, ready to take cover. Lions and jackals might roam this strip at night. Something was coming towards me, but too loud for an animal. A tall shape appeared, outlined against the dark palms by the moonlight. It was a woman.
“We are safe” She said in a whisper. “I am thought to be in my chambers, preparing for my marriage day tomorrow.”
“Shesut, “I said quietly, “you have always been crazy, but this is the height of madness. Do you wish me killed? The Pharaoh is famous for slowly killing his prisoners in public. Leave me now so that I may live.”
“I had to see you once more, “she sighed. “It is not my wish to be a goddess. But I may be the mother of a god who looks like you if I am so blessed by Isis and Hathor.”
She stepped to me and I could see her breasts, bare in the moonlight. She touched me and I came to life I spite of myself. She slipped her linen gown from her body and laid it on the sand. We fell together with lust, anger, and affection mixed with our blood and tears. We joined together in a moment that made us almost rise above the world, in spiraling upward that would have been envied by the very gods themselves.
We lay together, wet with each other, and the cool evening breeze gently flowed over us like exquisite water.
“My seeress told me that I would conceive of a god-king tonight. She was frightened for me, but I felt glad. Only we will know” the starlight caught her big eyes. They twinkled in the darkness.
Only she would know, for I would not be here. I said nothing, but held her gently in the darkness.
The little steward scuttled over to me from beneath his parasol-carrying servant. I was assembling the One Hundred and the other troops for the war out on the practice fields. Carts and strings of donkeys were there, laden with provisions. The men checked their weapons, sharpening blades, tightening shield –straps, and re-stringing bows. It was business-like, but with the usual pre-campaign blister and good-natured nervous barbs being exchanged between men and between teams as well.
“Don’t bother with your arrows, little Falcons, ‘ one of the Crocodiles yelled across the pitch to an archer” The targets are smaller than hippos, and you won’t be able to hit them anyway!”
“Thank you for your sage advice, Crocodile! I’ll say hello to your wife when I return and you don’t.”
The men laughed. We were to march in the morning and spirits were good. We had proven ourselves in the Kushite war and had bonded as a team. The Nubian archers had shown themselves to be true and good fighters as well, and this time they would going up against foreigners not of their country or race. Nefer-Kah’s army numbered one thousand eight hundred men, the largest single troop in the pharaoh’s army. Other Nomes were contributing, but Weni’s force had stayed south, in Upper Egypt, to keep guard against a further Kushite uprising.
I was to be the leader of the contingent of Nefer-Kah, but I wondered what might happen after the events of the previous night. It had occurred to me that Nefer-Kah had revealed too much of his ambitions to me in his drunken state. It put me danger to know that he coveted the throne. On the other hand, he may have been so drunk that he didn’t fully remember what he had said. I could only wait. Nefer-Kah would ride in the rear, with his household guard, while I would lead the vanguard.
The steward, a weak-looking man with virtually no chin to speak of, bowed obsequiously to me, a form of manners I hated. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and make him look me in the eye.
“Er…” He cleared his throat, “I wish to have words with you in private.”
He cleared his throat again.
We walked a few yards away. “Well, what is it?” I asked. I knew he wouldn’t tell me directly whatever the message was; I’d have to decipher it as usual with Egyptians of the upper servant class.
“Greetings, Achaean. Long life and health to you.”
“And to you, Nehni, “ I said. Patience.
“And the preparations for war go well?” he squinted at me. Sweat dripped from under the edge of his wig. Yet he must have felt it was important to be away from his parasol servant.
“We are ready at our Lord’s command.’ I said.
He looked at the practice field. “ Ah yes, our Lord. He feels not well today.”
I said nothing.
“Well…. our lord had a long day yesterday. I believe he was very tired last night when he called you in.”
“And well, I believe his memory was affected by the over-exposure to the sun during the long feast of victory.”
“It was a long, but happy day. I slept well last night.” I lied. Shesut and I had parted company at dawn. I had slept for les than two hours. But I was twenty-seven and Nefer-Kah was fifty. “I understand what a tiring day it must have been for our Lord.”
Nehni leaned closer and said in very low voice, “ You may be assured our lord has no memory of his conversation with you. The wine he was serving was strong. I trust your memory is equally impaired/”
“I had too much wine and beer, “I said, “ enough for a hippo.”
We chuckled insincerely together.
“Then it’s not a problem of any kind.’ He said. He turned to walk away, but turned back and said in a low voice.
“A warrior about to go into battle would be wise to sleep early in one’s own quarters with the door string pulled in tonight.”
I looked blankly at him. I needn’t answer that statement.
The next morning we marched, the One Hundred in the van, past the palace of the Pharaoh. There was a balcony between the two gate towers of the palace and the God-King sat on a throne, wearing the red and white double crowns of the Two Lands. As always, he carried the crook and flail, crossed on his chest. He was joined by five women, his Queens, the foremost of whom was the tall and regal Nebwenet. She sat beside Pepi in a slightly lower chair. Behind her were the younger queens, including the new one. Shesut was painted and wigged and sat stock still, looking as remote and god-like as the statues that lined the lanes and stood guard outside the palace. He skin was flecked with gold. I did not try to catch her eye, for a mortal may be killed for staring at a god directly. We saluted as we marched by, to no acknowledgment by the royal party. The whole army followed us, and by the time the Pharaoh and his new bride had retired to the palace rooms, we were long up the road towards Iunu, the city of the Sun-God, Ra. Shesut would remember me, but she was born to be a queen, and now she was.
I Iunu, the city of Ra, I had a surprise that changed the course of the future. Kanaa was till in the grip of the same famine that had chased us from the mountains of Hurria to Haran and then to Kanaa. The bitter drought and lack of food had caused, so we heard, the armies of Sargon of Akkad to withdraw for now to Ugarit in the north and Mari, Ebla, and the other cities of the two rivers in the east, across the wide desert. Bands of starving refugees had come down across the sand-ocean that separated Gazah from the delta of the Nile seeking food. Pharaoh’s priest and accountants managed the food of the Two Lands wisely, and had little to spare for migrating peoples. One such group was to be taken north with the army and settled again in Kanaa after we defeated the warring raiders who were plaguing the northern delta regions. At the head of a large band of refugees was a familiar figure: the tall, skeleton-like Prophet of the One God, Abram, who had now changed his name to Abraham. His wife Sarai had been seen by Pharaoh Pepi and much coveted. In fact it was said that he took her to bed only to discover that she was the wife of the desert seer and not the old man’s sister, as had been claimed. The pharaoh thought it witchcraft and feared he would be cursed, so the whisperers said. The claim wa that spirits had come and warned the Pharaoh to not touch the beautiful Sarai, but turn her free. Superstition. But it worked for Abraham and Sarai this time. How anyone could think that young, beautiful Sarai was the sister of that old walking-stick of a white-haired man was hard to fathom. The story didn’t make sense, but supposedly, Pepi gave Abraham gold, flocks of sheep, and provisions if he would lead his band out of Egypt and back to Kanaa, which Abraham agreed to do. I think Pepi probably wanted to be rid of the crazy old man. Egypt had her gods with their priests and temples and didn’t need a new God , especially one that was all-powerful and could strike down other gods. In any case, he set the wanderers free. Sarai had changed he name to Sarah for some reason, and they had acquired as a gift from Pepi a slave girl called Agar, who was with child. It was said that the child was Abraham’s, which made me laugh, most likely the father was a stable boy or a soldier, or some nobleman, even Pharaoh Pepi, but I suppose it could have been true. Agar was a pretty girl of less than twenty years.
Urartu was beside himself with the discovery that Sarai, now Sarah, was in Iunu and would be traveling with us. He had never gotten beyond his morose lamentations for her lost love. I foresaw trouble and counseled him to stay calm and not engage in any rash actions for now. We were charged with delivering them back to Kanaa, where the band of refugees, the children of the One God, promised to settle down.
I led the army north along the delta road towards Arish. There we would cross the dune lands until we came to Gazah. Several armies of hungry men led by brigands and tribal-chieftains were running wild through the hills and valleys of that land. We were to take Yeriko and the other cities and restore order, then return to Iunu. Abraham and his people were to settle somewhere.
After the first night’s halt I went to the tents of the believers and met the Prophet and his wives, Sarah and Agar. I greeted the old man.
“Hail Abram!” I said cheerfully. For all his strangeness, I had affection for him and his tribe.
“Abraham, “he said solemnly, “I have taken a vow. I have changed my name.”
He sat on a camp-stool, his stork legs folded under him like grey bones.. Sarai was as beautiful as before, but looked a bit worn. Agar was a striking young half-Bedu’ girl with high cheekbones and a thin face, painted in the Egyptian way. She was plainly with child. She crouched on her haunches near the fire and said nothing, but Sarai rose from her pots and greeted me warmly and offered me food as she always had, as if no time had passed since we last parted. She gave me a glance which I couldn’t figure out. I let it pass.
“So you are coming with us to Kanaa. Have you a place that you will settle?” I asked the old man.
“We will go to the fields west of the long river, north of Yeriko. I would go south, but my nephew Lot has taken up with bad people in the lower valley. There is blood between us.”
“So be it, “I said. “My job is to destroy the bandits and armies that ravage the lands. We will get you close to your chosen land. Then you will be on your own.”
“It is not my chosen land; it is Yahweh’s land that he has chosen for my children and their children’s children for the rest of time, until the end of all things.”
More crazy talk. I smiled and thanked Sarai for her hospitality. I walked away from the camp. I noticed after a few minutes that someone was following me as I made my way through the camps of the troops. It was Sarai. I withdrew from the path and waited in a palm grove. The dusk was deep now and she passed me as she followed the rough rail that led to the next encampment of troops. I called to her from the trees.
“Sarai, “I said quietly, “why do you follow me?”
She slipped under the shadows of the palmettos and papyrus reeds. She looked down at the ground. She seemed unable to speak.
“Come now, “I said, “I would honor your hospitality with an answer to any question you have for me. You have nothing to fear from me”
I waited. She looked up and I could see her eyes were tinted with tears. She tried to talk, but broke down sobbing and lightly leaned against me.
“He is here and alive, “I said.” Not a day has passed when he hasn’t thought of you; I can assure you of that. He pines like a love-sick dog. “
I laughed to ease the tension. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to laugh as well. The she turned as fled back through the darkness in the direction of the refugee camp.
I reached the camp of the One Hundred. My men were readying for sleep, rolling out their reed mats on the sandy ground. I found Urartu sitting by himself on the edge of the dunes. He was staring out into the ocean of sand that lay to east.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “May the gods favor you, my friend. But remember, our work comes first. I will need to you to help me finish this war so we can all gain our freedom. Be a good soldier and show discipline. Your time may well come. I have seen her. Trust me, she has not forgotten you.”
He looked up at me. His pain showed on his worn face. It would live I his heart until it was healed, no doubt.
We reached the sea again within a few marches. I smelled its invigorating salt air. How I longed to be sailing away on it. But I turned my attention to the task at hand. There were likely to be raiders in the dunes between Arish and Gazah. Rabble, no doubt, but we would need to maintain our order and show these people our superior force so that they would lose interest in causing trouble. Much trade moved along the coast here to Egypt by land and ship. Pharaoh must be dominant here. The road led through the dunes just miles from the sea. We only encountered a handful of bandits, who fled before our army of over two thousand men, marching in strict formation. At last we came over a rise and looked down on Gazah. There was a garrison there, but it had been much embattled and weakened of late and had to hold the town and nothing else. Isqalluna lay beyond, and the hills of Kanaa lay in jumble to the east. Abraham said the lower valley of the five inland cities were off to the southeast, across the desert. That is where his nephew Lot lived, in the city of Sodom, a well watered valley. Abraham said the main cause of trouble would come from the tribes of that region.
“They are sinful men, who car only for greed and pleasure. No work of theirs will bring happiness. They have left the way of the wanderers of the Lord and live within walled towns and gamble and drink and sleep with each others wives, and with each other. I speak of the men.”
“And what is this, this sin? “ I asked.
“Sin is breaking the covenant with God. That is what the men of that region have done. They have forgotten what I taught them. There will come a reckoning and God will destroy them before you can.”
I didn’t know about The One God and sin. My job was to take on the rabble and bring order and win my freedom. To Sodom and Gomorrah and the other cities I would bring the armies of Pharaoh. Then I would take Yeriko.
Then I would take my freedom.