As she walked between the huge pylons of the palace, Miri was reminded of her first day at the Temple of Philae. Once again, she walked amongst strange and alien towering columns supporting a mind-numbing mass of stone over her head, and again, she wanted to turn her face from the palace and run all the way back to Palestine. But this time, there was a difference.
She realized with surprise, she was more confident than she had been as she entered the convent at Philae. She was sure in her rightness. Her righteousness. No longer was she dogged by a nagging sense of self-doubt. Her step lightened and she even managed a smile at the scribe who accompanied her.
His reaction was that of annoyance, for he was full of the importance and serious nature of this trial. Her life hung in the balance, and he did not approve of the girl who was facing a possible sentence of an excruciatingly painful death smiling at him, and he frowned back at her disapprovingly. They rounded a corner and walked into a great reception hall.
The hall was lined with great columns down both sides, and the whole area was festooned with banners and garlands of flowers. At the far end of the hall was a flight of steps rising to a dais upon which the Kandake sat on her throne. The scribe lifted his arms in salutation as he approached the throne, his head bowed low. Miri, not sure of whether to follow suit opted for walking ahead with her eyes lowered so her gaze would not challenge the eyes of the Kandake.
A cantor stood to one side of the court and held out a papyrus.
"Saat-em-Ashtoreth of Philae, you are charged with high treason against the Kandake of Meroway, and plotting her deposition by murder! How do you plead?"
"I am not guilty of the crimes you have set before me!" stated Miri loudly. "I have eviden-"
"Silence!" roared the Captain of the Court.
The scribe beside her pulled at her robe, and led her to the left side of the court.
Mother Merit entered, also accompanied by a scribe, and she walked calmly to the spot where Miri had been arraigned.
The cantor addressed Mother Merit.
"Merit of Philae, you are charged with high treason against the Kandake of Meroway, and plotting her deposition by murder! How do you plead?"
"I am not guilty!" stated Merit, proudly staring directly at the Kandake.
The Kandake, in return smiled at Merit. Or rather, the corners of her mouth moved in recognition of the priestess of Auset. Miri sensed perhaps the Kandake and Merit had once known each other. Miri glanced sideways at Merit as the priestess stood beside her. Merit reached for Miri's hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
Miri craned her neck to peer back to the entrance of the Great Hall. Flanked by a squad of scribes, Taharka marched into the hall to the exact spot where both Miri and Merit had been arraigned.
The cantor addressed Taharka.
"Lord Taharka of Napata, you are charged with high treason against the Kandake of Meroway, and plotting her deposition by murder! How do you plead?"
"Not guilty!" roared Taharka, defiantly glaring about the Hall, daring any and all present to contradict him. The scribes of his entourage peered nervously this way and that, like a worried flock of birds, searching the faces in the hall for signs of alliance and enmity. Taharka turned on his heels in quite a military fashion, and marched to the left of the hall, his faithful ducklings filing in behind him.
One of his senior scribes approached the throne deferentially.
"Your highness," he began obsequiously, "Lord Taharka respectfully requests that this case be postponed until certain witnesses can be found-"
The Kandake ignored the scribe and addressed Taharka directly in a familiar tone. "Asking for delay, Lord Taharka? That is so unlike you! You are a man of action. Of derring-do, are you not?"
Taharka stepped forward. That the Kandake had addressed him in person encouraged his advance. "There is a time and a place for valour, Queen Amniteri, and yet also for judicial pause so that matters bring themselves to conclusion of their own accord."
"Yet, I cannot wonder why you wish to delay this case, should your evidence, as you claim against these two guests, be irrefutable."
Taharka sensed a certain coldness in the Kandake toward him, and his assured manner faltered for a brief, almost infinitesimal moment.
"I think, your highness, a mere day would be all I need to clear this terrible situation-"
"You do not have a day, Taharka!" said the Kandake sharply, "Make your case!"
Lord Taharka showed neither emotion nor hesitation. He held his hand out and a scribe placed the tattered papyrus roll he had brandished in the cell the night before.
He advanced to the dais. "This papyrus," he began as he mounted the steps, "was found in the apart-"
The Royal bodyguards came forward with a crash, spears down and blocked Taharka's advance on the Kandake.
"I would suggest you unroll the papyrus so my men can see the contents, Lord Taharka," said the Kandake.
"Forgive me, your highness, I am not accustomed to such suspicion-" he began.
"Lord Taharka!" commanded the Kandake, rising from the throne, "This is a trial of treason! Do not forget that! The outcome, no matter what the evidence, will result in someone's death! I do not, under any circumstance intend it to be mine! My soldiers do not care about intent, my Lord. That is not their job. Whether you are a hawk or a dove makes no difference to them, no bird is allowed to rest upon my graceful form unless I command it! Is that clear?"
"Yes, your highness," responded Taharka meekly.
Amniteri held out her hand for the papyrus, and Taharka was forced to stretch to give it to her. She examined the broken seal, and upon returning to the throne, unwrapped the ribbon about the roll.
"This seal has been broken," she commented, not looking up.
"Yes, Your Highness," replied Taharka.
"But this is a sacred scroll from the goddess Auset to me," she replied, still not looking up from the scroll.
"It was found that way, Your Highness," replied Taharka.
The Kandake looked up at Taharka, her eyebrows raised. She stared directly into his eyes for a considerable time, but Taharka did not flinch and returned her gaze as steadily as he received it.
From her vantage point, Miri could only see the face of the Kandake, which was very often obscured by people standing or walking in front of her. Miri wished for a better view, to better judge the manner in which Taharka and the Kandake related to each other. At times, the exchange between the two was of intimates, and she wondered for a brief moment if the Queen and her Ambassador were romantically involved, for Miri had the impression this was the case.
The Kandake unrolled the scroll, her eyes swiftly eating up the words, but as she progressed through the document her reading slowed until eventually she came to a stop and looked up. Her eyes rested on Mother Merit.
"Mother Merit, step forward!"
Mother Merit slowly walked toward the dais and the Kandake rose to meet the sister from Philae.
"I would like your opinion on the veracity of this document," the Kandake said in a most beguiling manner.
"Mistress," replied Merit and obediently looked down at the papyrus the Kandake was holding.
As they held the scroll between them, and the Kandake pointed to the page.
"What do you make of this phrase?" the Kandake asked in a familiar tone.
Mother Merit blushed.
"And this?" asked the Kandake moving her finger to another line.
"Most vulgar!" declared Merit indignantly.
"That is what I thought!" replied the Kandake. Her eyes rested on Taharka.
"Not at all what you would expect from one woman about another," Amniteri commented, her eyes never once leaving Taharka. He frowned back at her, uncomprehending.
"And the manner of speech," added Merit, "Most unbecoming of the Reverend Mother at Philae. I could never imagine her speaking in this manner, let alone dictating it. And here-" Merit pointed further along the scroll, "Do you see that? The Coil of Infinite Life reads 'Amniteri'. Here it starts out; the feather of Maat as 'a', the game board 'm', but here, at the 'n', you see the split? Three waves, a gap, then three waves? In Rei-en-Kaam, there is no split; there are six waves on the water. This was not written by the Reverend Mother, or anyone at Philae. It was written by someone from Meroway, for the sign is written in the Merotu not Egyptian!"
The Kandake glanced up at Taharka. "Can you explain this discrepancy Lord Taharka?"
He shrugged casually, but his words were slow in the choosing.
"I cannot, your highness, for I am not a scribe. But I know what I saw! This woman-" Taharka pointed at Merit. "This woman and her girl servant, removed this papyrus from the carrying case, and dropped it overboard as they beached there craft, and replaced it with another given to them by the Greek Aristophanes of Sparta-"
"From Sparta, you say," commented Amniteri, "They are a warrior tribe, the Spartans, are they not?"
"Indeed they are, my lady," replied Taharka quickly, "And this Aristophanes, beneath his unimposing frame is the iron clad mind of a master strategist and a deviant political manipulator!"
"Is that so?" asked the Kandake.
"Indeed, Your highness, indeed, he is! Brought here by these two women to cause trouble in Meroway and betray us to the Roman infidel!"
"These are serious charges, Lord Taharka," replied the Kandake. She looked about the room. "Where is this deviant manipulator now? I see no Greek in our midst!"
"He has slipped away from us in the night, with one of the treacherous mothers from Philae. I believe they are going to run for help from the Romans!"
"But how could that possibly be?" asked the puzzled Kandake. "Are we not deep in the heart of my realm as we speak? Where would they find Romans? There are no Romans between here and Hiera Sycaminos, and never will be as long as I live!"
Several heads nodded in agreement to the determined sentiment of the Kandake toward the Romans.
"Unless of course-"
The tension in the air grew as the Kandake sat silent, musing. Finally Taharka could stand the pressure no longer.
"Your highness?" he asked politely.
The Kandake shook herself from her reverie.
"I'm sorry, Lord Taharka, I was just warned of something. It seems that a strike from the Romans could be imminent. Perhaps the legions have heard that my husband Natkamani is being held hostage in Meroway, and they are at this very moment, staging a coup in my very own palace!" Kandake glared angrily at Taharka.
"What do you think of that, Taharka?" She advanced upon him, and his scribes scuttled quietly out of the way, abandoning their master. Her bodyguard flanked her as she moved toward him, and Taharka tensed. Taharka's hand vibrated in mid air. He was on the very verge of drawing his sword, but he had enough sense to restrain himself, yet enough fear as to draw it at any second. He hung in perfect balance of hope and desperation, like a marionette hanging from a string.
The hand that held him fast was the hand of Queen Amniteri, and he still had hope that his sexual liaison with her would stay her hand long enough for him to regain a foothold and determine what she knew and counter her knowing with a plausible story.
"Playing for time, Lord Taharka?" asked Amniteri, her voice dripping with venom.
"Your highness, for what would I-"
"Silence!" roared Amniteri. The entire hall held its collective breath. Amniteri turned to the Captain of the Guards.
"Bring in Aristophanes of Sparta!" she commanded, her eyes boring into Taharka's.
The Captain shouted out her command to soldiers and a full squad of soldiers marched into the great hall from a side door. Sandwiched between the men was Aristophanes. His eyes caught Miri's, and he smiled a weak smile at her.
"Is this the man to whom you referred as a mastermind?" asked Amniteri.
Taharka made no reply, but his hand covered his stomach and rubbed it slowly.
"I, Aristophanes of Sparta, was sent by the Roman governor of Egypt to deliver his promise in writing of a thousand men at arms and such engines of war as Taharka might require. In return, he was to be declared a Friend of Rome by the Imperator Tiberius, and would be left in peace as long as he paid tribute of a thousand talents of Merotu iron to Rome each year."
"You know I have forbidden the trading of iron to Rome, Taharka, do you not?"
"Of course, Your Highness, I-"
Amniteri held up her hand, and Taharka's mouth snapped shut.
"What evidence have you?" the Kandake asked Aristophanes. The old man motioned to two soldiers in the guard carrying a rolled up rug. They stepped forward and unrolled it at the feet of the Kandake. Four heads rolled out from inside the rug as it unfolded. They were clad in roman helmets, and the brass clattered loudly on the marble floor.
The Kandake smiled. "These are poor witnesses Aristophanes, they seem to be unable to speak on your behalf."
"I will speak, if it pleases your highness!"
A tall Nubian soldier stepped from the back of the guard. Miri's heart stopped as she recognized Ari-Kakanti, her protector from the journey to Napata. Her fingers reached up and touched the amulet he had given her.
"I am Ari-Kakanti, of Dongola. We held the fortress of the temple of Hathor of the Rock. This man," Ari-Kakanti pointed at Aristophanes, "and his companion, Apusim, arrived at our outpost shortly before dawn! Without their warning, these heads at your feet would not bear Roman helmets!
We were warned in time to abandon the fort and flee to the caverns by the temple. Hardly had we secreted ourselves when we spied a flotilla of a Roman expeditionary force sailing hard upstream. They beached at out site, and prepared to attack the fortress. When they realized it was empty, they rested within its walls and set up sentry posts. We formed a party and dispatched these sentries and burned the Roman boats. As luck would have it, we came across a small number of their force upstream. They had found a secluded spot in which to bathe in a small pool. One of the officers of the force had removed his clothes with several others of his men, and we stole their armour and weapons and slew them. The remainder, the most part, of the force is still on its way here, but their progress on foot is slow and we passed them in the night.
Their force will be outside the town walls by tomorrow at the latest. You must prepare to fight them or flee!"
His words stirred up a concerned buzz in the audience, and Amniteri held up her hands.
"The walls are to be strengthened immediately!" cried the Kandake, "I have seen that it would be done!"
She turned to Taharka.
"You do not look well, Taharka!"
Taharka clenched his jaw tightly but remained silent.
"There is more. your Highness!" interrupted Ari-Kakanti.
Amniteri raised an eyebrow.
"Proceed, Ari-Kakanti!" she commanded.
"The leader of the force carried this with him-" Ari-Kakanti produced a paper wrapped in ribbon, the seal broken. The Kandake held her hand out for the paper, and Ari-Kakanti bent one knee and bowed before her, the paper held straight out to his queen.
Amniteri scanned the document quickly, and then held it up for all to see.
"This," she shouted, "is the agreement between 'King Taharka' and the Emperor Tiberius! It is the agreement as described by Aristophanes! I find the charges against Lord Taharka to be true!"
All eyes in the hall swept on eagle's wings to Taharka. Soldiers of the court were cautiously moving into place behind him to block his exit, and his supporters dwindled into the crowd as if by magic, and he stood all alone.
With a roar, he drew out his sword, and instantly, the Kandake's bodyguards became a nest of bristling spears around her, and swords glinted all about him. Taharka stood in a defensive posture, and none had the heart to face him. With a terrible anguished cry of rage and frustration, Taharka flipped his sword into the air like a juggler, and caught it immediately, blade inwards, and still crying to the sky, plunged the blade into his stomach and pushed it up inside his rib cage. Taharka's bowels spilled out onto the floor and bright red blood spurted from his heart as it burst and sprayed the floor before him, the blood and intestines mingling to form a slimy mattress upon which his lifeless corpse collapsed.
Wails of horror erupted from the court, and the Kandake turned and sat back on her throne.
"Clean up this mess!" she commanded sternly, and scurrying slaves brought in buckets and mops, and bowls of sulphur and camphor to dispel the stench of death rising from the steaming disemboweled corpse of Lord Taharka.
Under the hot desert sun, the Romans struggled with their packs. They had ascended to the plateau above the Nile, and there, separated from the river, thirst soon set in. Their garb did nothing to retain their body moisture, and their brass armour pulled the heat of the sun to their polished surface, so that their helmets and chain link body vests burned to the touch. Several of the weaker of their number were helped by their cohorts, but the energy even of the strongest waned as they picked their way along the narrow footpath. As the path narrowed from the wadi in which they travelled into an alluvial fan, their leader, Lupus Silva, called a halt to their march and the men sank thankfully to the ground.
Lupus uncorked and sipped from his wineskin. He gazed about him to assess his position. It did not look good. Although his troops were battle hardened and handpicked, they were closed in on all sides. The vastness of the Nubian Desert and its incredible silent intensity daunted even his own brave soul. High above him vultures rode the hot updrafts, ever circling his intrepid band of warriors. He suffered a momentary doubt in his resolve. He sensed the vultures were messengers of some fierce desert goddess, and the dry gulch in which he and his men rested were but a wrinkle in the skin of some awesome hag to whom he and his troop were but fleas.
His mind wandered to his farm in Aquitainia and his wife and two children. Their innocence of his professional life pricked him with pangs of sadness, and he knew he would never see them again.
The sorcerer who had read the entrails so far ago in Marseilles before he left to join his men in Ostia had frowned when the gut of the lamb had been spliced open and the entrails fell from its body. The magician's frown darkened as he poked and prodded the steaming entrails.
Lupus could contain himself no longer.
"What is it?" he demanded of the old man.
The sorcerer looked up at him with annoyance.
"I will tell you soon enough!" he snapped, But the dark cloud in his eyes told Lupus all he had wanted to know. The old man was stalling for time, wondering how to turn bad auspices to good. Lupus was sure of it.
"You will be paid the same whether the news be well or ill!" growled Lupus.
"Ill or well, it is the same!" replied the old man.
"I have no time for mysteries, old man!"
"Then you have no time for auspices! No time for signs! No time for anything! You are a warrior and so your life shall be! Be on your way, warrior! Your destiny awaits!"
With that, the old man bundled up his cloak and disappeared into the Gallic mist, leaving Lupus crouching over the sacrificial lamb. The lamb was dead, but try as he might, Lupus could see nothing in the blood and gore which would lead him to any truth.
He blinked and cursed himself for accepting this commission. He yearned for the damp mists of the Aquitaine winter, the April rains, and the bounty of his vineyards. He cursed the vultures circling above his head, for he knew now his flesh would soon be torn to pieces by their cruel hooked beaks and he could hope for no salvation, nor a proper funeral pyre.
He closed his eyes and whispered a prayer to Mithras, the god of justice he had worshipped for over a quarter century, that he might be reborn in his adopted Aquitaine, that he might experience the rising to manhood of his son, and he thanked the gods he had managed at least to have such a beautiful son and daughter.
His eyes snapped open as an incredible sharp pain ripped through his neck. Unbelievingly, he reached for the shaft protruding through the front of his larynx, but his soul left him before his hands touched the arrow, and gurgling, his last breath bubbled through the blood in his throat, and he fell lifelessly to the ground.
An explosion of activity erupted around the fallen corpse; a hail of arrows fell upon the reclining soldiers from the rocks above the wadi. Some of the cohort seized shields and held them aloft for protection from the deadly rain of missiles. Quickly, those who survived scrambled frantically together beneath the roof of their shields until they stood like a multipedal turtle in the centre of the flood of arrows. Most of them were badly injured, but resolutely, they steeled themselves for the onslaught they knew would come.
"Oh Mithras, Lord and Saviour, Redeemer of the Souls of the Righteous," chanted a large bearded centurion, "Hear us now in our Hour of Need!"
As he continued his prayer, one by one the others joined in the supplication to their god.
"Protect us from those
Who would refute thy Covenant with the Righteous!
We who are to be born again
Through the Blood of the Holy Redeemer
Call upon thee, Mighty Mithras,
Champion of The Wronged!"
From beyond the gully came the unmistakable thunder of chariots. The men's voices rose to a crescendo to meet the rolling thunder of the approaching chariots.
"Give us this day your blessing
As we have sacrificed to you
The Bull of Heaven!"
From around a bend, the Merotu chariots appeared, sunlight flashing from their whirling wheels, the magnificent warhorses frothing from the effort of their headlong charge. The earth beneath the soldiers' feet now began to vibrate from the ironclad hooves pounding ever closer into the ground.
"Rise from the East, O Mithras!
And smite thy enemies!"
The chariots closed the distance quickly. The eyes of the soldiers widened as they caught sight of the lead chariot. Athena herself, dark-skinned, dressed in golden Armour, her hand raised aloft balancing a javelin was descending upon them.
They were doomed! Minerva herself, daughter of Jupiter, had come to carry them away!
The glory of such a divine death filled their hearts, not dispelling their fear but adding to it, yet they did not flinch in the face of the charging chariots. Indeed at the call from the bearded man of the name of Mithras, they clashed spears against shields and stepped forward.
Again the name of their god rang forth from their throats.
Their shields clashed!
They stepped forward.
The chant grew as the thunder of the horse's hooves.
The turtle stepped forward to the chant of the lord Mithras, but now with the resolution of a lion, bristling with the prickly spear tips of a porcupine.
A mighty cloud of dust descended upon them, and the air was filled with the shouts of men and the heavy huffing of horses. At the last moment, her herald blasting a signal on his trumpet, the Kandake veered away from the bristling Roman turtle and flashed past it.
The spears protruding from the wall of Roman shields stabbed outward, but they connected only with air. The deadly spears hurled from the chariots passed short of their approach to the turtle for fear of risking the loss of the horses from the stabbing Roman lances.
Completely surrounded by wheeling chariots, the turtle came to a standstill. Merotu chariots circled the turtle in both directions, raising dust high into the air, obscuring most of the combatants in a haze. Finally, the chariots came to a halt facing inwards to the Romans, and both sides stood silently facing each other. As the dust settled, the Romans could begin to make out the Nubian infantry standing just beyond the circle of chariots.
A forest of spears rose from the infantry, and from the back of the lines came the lancers, and the Romans knew the final assault was near.
"I, Queen Amniteri, Kandake of Meroway," called out the warrixen queen from her chariot, "do hereby grant you clemency! In exchange for your lives, you shall throw down your arms and surrender yourself to bondage to me for the rest of your lives! This is as Rome would have done to the sons and daughters of Meroway! This is just! This is fair!"
The men sweating inside the turtle were sorely tempted by the offer. Better a live slave than a dead freeman! The thought was on more than one pair of lips. As they pondered their fate, the Nubian lancers took their positions around the turtle. The Nubian lances were more than double the length of the Roman javelins, and the Romans were outnumbered three to one. The outcome was inevitable.
"Well, what d'you say, lads?" asked the bearded giant, "Is it the coddled life of a house lackey, the dirge of a diamond miner, or the glory of a Roman citizen's death?"
No one answered him.
"Right, then!" declared the bearded man with determination, "On my command, break ranks!"
With a single unified shout the turtle transformed into a disciplined square of fighting men. Such was the shock of their movement, the front line of lancers facing them stepped back.
The bearded man stepped from the formation, and called to the Kandake.
"We lived like Romans and so we shall die like Romans!" he roared, "Choose a champion from your men, my Lady, and I, Leon of Ostia shall fight him in combat!"
A smile flickered across Amniteri's lips.
"I have no need of champions, Roman!" she shouted back. "I shall meet you in this arena myself!"
The great bearded man laughed, and the others in the Roman squad laughed and hooted at the suggestion a woman fight Leon. As Amniteri stepped from her chariot, he turned and smiled at his companions.
"Do not turn away from me, Leon of Ostia!" cried Amniteri, "Or it will be your last act!"
She advanced purposefully upon him, her face showing no fear. She carried a net and a trident. And the Romans called out in appreciation of her choice of weapons. The classic gladiatorial balance between the short sword and shield of the murmillo, and the net and trident of the retiarius. Both Leon and Amniteri dropped their visors over their faces, took up battle stance, and circled each other warily.
Leon feigned at Amniteri to test her defenses, but she easily outmaneuvered him. He licked his lips nervously. This woman had the reflexes of a cat. And he was old. What a moment to become aware of my creaks and aches, he thought.
The trident stabbed out at him and he ducked away, just barely managing to avoid the barbed tips of the fork. He would have to be careful. Swinging his sword, he charged at the Kandake, but she danced away from him as easily as a fly from a bull. To add insult to his missed charge, she pierced him in the buttocks.
He growled at the pain and lunged for her again. She pricked him again. His anger began to boil. He was being played with! This- this woman was toying with him! Me a soldier of a hundred campaigns! He ran at her, his sword whistling as it cut a swath through the air-
And nothing else!
She was like a willow of the wisp, this woman! He began to doubt his own ability, and he remembered the tales of magic this creature, this Kandake could command! How could he fight witchcraft? How could he-
The trident stabbed deep into his shoulder, and his reflex movement with the shield had caused the barbs to rip upwards through his shoulder, and he cried out. His instinct was to reach for the wound with his right, but there he held the sword, and for that moment when he resisted the reflex, the net whistled over his head and the lead weights wrapped it about him in an instant. The trident plunged deep into his stomach, and cruelly ripped through his thorax. As the Kandake wrenched her weapon free of his body, he stared in awe at the tattered bits of his own flesh stuck to the points of the trident. That was the last thing he saw, for the Kandake closed in on him and her golden dagger clanged twice as it flashed deep into his visor and put his eyes out.
Roaring in pain, he swung blindly with his sword, but the blade caught in the trident and Amniteri deftly twisted the sword from his hand. He fell to his knees, desperately clutching at his helmet to pull it from his head, but Amniteri had discarded her trident, and unsheathed her pearl handled sword of gold, and with a shout of victory, swung the blade with all of her might, and chopped off his head. It rolled to the feet of his companions, and Amniteri stood panting and defiant facing the Romans, then letting loose a blood curdling scream, ran at them!
Her army, fearing for her life, descended swiftly and mercilessly upon the Romans. Everywhere lances plunged into muscle, clubs smashed and splintered bone, axes sliced through sinew and flesh cleaving it from bone, and swords sliced and chopped away skin and fat. The air filled with dust and the screams of horses in terror and the roaring anger and agonized screams of men murdering men. Amniteri, enraged by blood lust, waded deep into the foray, heedless of her own safety, with only the slaughter of her enemies on her mind. Her sword slashed this way and that, gold clad iron clashing against metal, wood and flesh. Her personal bodyguards fought valiantly to keep by her side. The Romans were undaunted by the numbers they fought. Many had overcome larger odds more than once in their long careers, but despite their valour, despite their tenacity, and despite their skill, one by one, they fell beneath the onslaught of the Merotu warriors and their glorious Queen.
When the last Roman fell at her feet, Amniteri held her arms out in supplication to Amun the Hidden God, and let out a blood-curdling scream of victory! She began to dance and her warriors broke off from hacking the enemy apart and joined with her dance. Their wild war chants slowly became more rhythmic, and soon the entire regiment danced in time with the chant, clashing weapons against shields in time to the music. They relived the charge; they relived the strike; they relived the victory. Victory! Victory!
They danced long and they danced hard into the night until they all lay exhausted and fell asleep where they lay.
Miri had never seen so many dead.
She had never seen so many pieces of men.
The battlefield was a nightmare tangle of blackened legs and arms, heads, torsos and intestines. Everywhere the flies buzzed. She waved them away from her as they swarmed about. Where open wounds festered, the flies were so thick as to make the wound seem to be a writhing metallic black mass. And the stench. She had smelled the same odour at the temple after a great sacrifice, when the blood smell of the dead filled the air with the smell of the charnel house. The reek of body fluids was almost more than she could bear as she picked her way through the carnage.
She lifted her skirts so the blood would not stick, but the slimy fluids from the corpses squeezed up through her papyrus sandals and between her toes, making it difficult to walk in them. Finally she reached the Kandake who stood holding a papyrus as she spoke with two of her commanders and Aristophanes.
Amniteri smiled at Miri's approach.
"Your Highness," replied Miri.
"This is not the place for a mother of Auset, Satem," said the Kandake kindly, "Your place is with the living!"
"Perhaps," replied Miri, "But in all the excitement, I still have not delivered my greetings from the High Prophetess of the Temple of Isis in Philae!" Miri reached into her leather bag and produced the scroll she had carried and for which she had almost been killed.
The Kandake passed her own open scroll to one of her commanders and received the papyrus from Miri.
"Thank you, Satem!"
"It is a great Honour, Kandake Amniteri!" replied Miri. The Kandake passed the scroll directly to one of the scribes who hovered about her without even glancing at the scroll. Miri was terribly disappointed,
"Aren't you going to open it?" she asked, her mind filled with the great effort she had expended in bringing the missive to the Kandake.
The Kandake looked at her in irritation, offended by one so young questioning her, but as the queen saw the great disappointment in Miri's face, she smiled sympathetically. She waved the others off and stepped forward, putting her arm about Miri and taking her aside.
"Sati, I am not one to mince words, but I must tell you first, that we are greatly served by your presence here. You have faithfully carried out your orders from the High Prophetess of Isis at Philae, and in that, you have shown great valour for one so young." The Kandake sat Miri down on a boulder and settled beside her. "You know also that forces beyond our ken are always at work.
This is the way of the gods.
We do not know why we are called to do certain things, and sometimes we are not always aware of their designs. If a certain cat should cross your path, is it an omen? Is it ill or good? It is not always apparent until much later. Some signs can be read only in hindsight. And if they are seen only after the event has taken place, how then could it be considered a sign? Certainly, this we know, whichever goddess sent the cat, the cat itself is unaware of the greater role it plays in your life as it walks before your path. Very often, something which you have done in one thought and feeling resonates with a very different regard in remembrance. It is then that we see the footsteps of the goddess in the sand beside our own. So it is sometimes with Pharaohs and the Kandake.
Your mission was very important to me, yet it was not what you had thought. The scroll you brought contains a false message. It was never intended to reach me!"
"What? You mean I went through all that for nothing?"
The Kandake put her fingers softly to Miri's lips.
"No, of course not! We had heard a secret imperial mission was underway to depose me and support a palace coup, but we had no idea of who was involved, though I had my suspicions!
We could not tell you of our purpose, for you may have given up the scroll too easily! Taharka would have sensed something amiss. Everyone knew you to be the herald who brought important news to Amniteri. The story that you and your sisters were travelling to Meroway to search the Waters of Life was true enough for we could send no one from Meroway down to Philae for fear they might betray us to the Romans. The story was good enough to start rumours which would reach the ears of the Roman spies. It was paramount one so young as you acted as naturally as one convinced of the veracity of the cover story. You truly had to believe it.
You were the mouse in the trap to draw out the cat. You see, you served me in a greater manner than you even imagined. Taharka saw you and could resist you no more than the leopard can ignore a tethered goat in the clearing."
Now that we have rid ourselves of our enemies at our back, we can attend to my cousin!"
Amniteri stood up quickly. She patted Miri on the head.
"I am in your debt, Satemashtoreth, for you risked your life for mine! I shall never forget that! Go back to Mother Merit. I must gather my forces and advance upon the City of Meroway and free my husband from my cousin's grip! There is still much to be done."
Amniteri held her hand out to Miri, and as Miri grasped it, pulled the girl to her feet.
Her ears hot, Miri turned her face to where Mother Merit attended the wounded. Her cheeks burned in embarrassment, for she felt stupid and out of her league. She picked her way back through the field of the dead, absorbed in self-doubt and pity. How stupid she must seem to the others. How is it she could be aware of so many things and yet not notice the duplicity in the people around her? She could not imagine how she could have been so easily duped, but at that moment, a solitary white cow ambled across her path, and blocked her way.
Both Miri and the animal stopped and stared at each other, and Miri had the distinct impression that the cow was trying to tell her something, and she half expected the animal to speak to her. The beautiful brown eyes blinked languidly at her, and Miri reached out to touch the wet nose. When her fingers were but a hairbreadth away from the creature, the cow turned and trotted off. Miri shook her head, took a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh.
She was suddenly reminded of her vision in the temple of Hathor, and the images came back to her in a flood, washing away for a moment her presence in the desert. Though she had no later recollection of the images, she realized after their passing that her warning to the others of the danger to the Kandake from which the Mothers of Auset were to save her had not yet occurred.
She shivered and quickened her step to the field hospital to lend Mother Merit and the other physicians a hand.
When the army of the Kandake reached Napata, a young man of great stature and beauty came out to meet her.
The Kandake leapt from her chariot and hugged the young man.
"Ari!" she cried as she stared into his beautiful dark eyes, "You got my message!"
"It's good to see you, Mother!" replied Ari with a great smile, "Arik is already on his way to Meroway from Axum. He will wait for us there!"
"Excellent! Have you eaten? You seem hungry!"
"You have been fighting again, Mother!" laughed Ari, "You should have waited for me!"
"And fight penned up inside the city walls? That's not my style, Ari!"
Arm in arm they walked through the gates of Napata.
"Who is that?" Miri asked Merit.
"Prince Arikakhatane!" replied Merit, "One of Amniteri's three sons: Arikakhatane, Arikhankharer, and Sherkarer. Sherkarer is held captive in Meroway with their father Netekamani."
"He is very handsome," said Miri wistfully.
Merit frowned at her young companion.
"Yes. Yes, he is."
Miri sighed and followed the troops through the gate, carrying her small bundle of healing herbs.
As Miri moved off, Apusim came alongside Merit.
"Mother Merit," she began, "I have something I must tell you!"
Merit smiled. "Yes?"
"I, I cannot tell you here!" said Apusim breathlessly, "But I am leaving the order!"
"I am going to marry Aristophanes!"
"Well, not marry, exactly! We're going to just live together!"
"Oh, it'll be just as if we are husband and wife! So you see, I can't remain celibate-well- it's too late now anyway! We already-"
"I've broken my vows!"
"Not all of them! Just- well, you know, the important ones!"
"Oh dear Mother!" declared Merit.
"Are you angry?"
"Angry? Are you angry with me?"
Merit began to laugh. "Oh dear, no! No, of course not! I am happy for you! I am happy for us all!"
With the arrival of Arikakhatane and his troops, the town was extremely crowded. Troops were billeted everywhere, and the population of Napata was now double its normal size and growing. From about the countryside men at arms were streaming into the city. There were Medjay archers who had proved so deadly in the skirmish Miri had witnessed with the Roman commando force, Nubian horseman and charioteers, lancers from Kush and the elite palace cavalry corps who so skilfully handled their chariots.
Miri no longer had a private apartment in the palace but all the sisters of Philae were billeted in the large guest room in the temple of Auset. Used to sleeping alone in tiny cells, the sisters looked forward to the prospect of sleeping together and sharing each other's company. The air vibrated with excitement as they chose their sleeping places, talked over the past events, and speculated as to their immediate future.
"Where's Apusim?" Miri asked one of the sisters, after everyone seemed relatively settled.
"Haven't you heard?" the sister said with relish, "She's left the order!"
The sister nodded. "Yes, it's true! She's joined that Greek we travelled with!"
"I knew it would happen!" said another.
"We all saw it coming!" added another, "The way she looked at him!"
"It was inevitable!" declared a third.
"What?" asked Miri incredulously. "Nobody even as much mentioned it!"
"Well, it is a sin to gossip!" said another indignantly.
The mothers all nodded their heads in agreement.
At that moment Mother Merit entered the apartment, and the mothers suddenly went about their business whispering furiously.
"Miri, you have been requested to attend the Kandake!" said Mother Merit.
"Now?" asked Miri.
"'At your convenience,' I believe she said," replied Merit, "But I would not suggest you keep her waiting!"
Miri dashed for the door.
"Wait!" called out Merit. "Come back here!" Merit motioned to Miri. "Come sit here!" She patted the bench beside her. "First, we must make you up as is befitting a sister of Philae!"
The making up took a considerable length of time for the mothers of Philae bathed Miri and anointed her with perfumes and fragrant oils. They dressed her in a fresh linen dress, and each contributed to her makeup and suggestions as to the appropriate jewellery. All the while, Merit advised her as how to act in Court.
"This is not the same as the tribunal," she said, "You are a guest of the Kandake this time and your very presence must do her honour! She is a goddess, remember, not just a normal woman of flesh and blood. Revere her as you would Auset herself!"
Miri tried to concentrate on Merit's advise, but the moment the words reached her ears, they dropped out the other side of her head. Finally, her toilet was finished and the others all stood back to admire their handiwork.
"Magnificent!" said one.
"Adorable!" said another.
"Sheer perfection!" chimed a third.
"Thank you!" gushed Miri, "You have all been so kind!"
"Remember!" called out Merit as Miri floated out the door, "You are there for all of us!"
The door closed.
"Mother help us!" muttered Merit under her breath, "Arikakhatane will have her for breakfast I'm sure!"
There was some truth to Merit's fears, for Arikakhatane was an extremely attractive man, and he was not without a sultry animal charm. His harem was filled, said a serving girl, from wall to wall, and should one of his wives or concubines slip on the polished floor, there would be no room for her to fall. Nonetheless, that was what was said. And no one who said such things had been inside the harem itself.
At least that is what Arikakhatane told Miri.
"I am, if truth be known," he confessed to Miri, "A very lonely man!" His breath was hot and sweet on her neck, and she felt goosebumps run down her spine. The sensation rippled over her and splashed ashore between her legs, and she shifted her position on the cushions in the banquet hall.
The Hall was the same Great Hall where she had been put on trial, but the banners had changed, and tables were spread with food throughout. The moment he had seen her, Arikakhatane began to close in on her, and insisted she dine at his side. The invitation both pleased her and made her feel out of sorts, and as the banquet proceeded, Ari, as he asked her to call him, came closer and closer to her, touching her at every opportunity. His motions did not seem out of place at first, but, at one pass, Miri did catch a fleeting warning glance to him from the Kandake, who lay at the head of the same table.
Thankfully Ari's attention span was that of a puppy, and soon the wide hips of the serving girl caught his fancy. Miri took her leave in a twinkling. When his attention returned to her, she had already slipped through the crowd and made her way to the women's toilet. The room set aside for the women to freshen up was spacious. A great number of female guests filled the room, and, in a back room, she spied the Kandake being attended by several slave women. They were changing her dress into a more formal, golden shimmering gown. Amniteri motioned her over to her side.
"Merit tells me you had visions," she said matter-of-factly.
"Yes, your highness," replied Miri politely.
"I would like to hear of them."
"I- I cannot remember them!" said Miri.
"Not at all?" asked the Kandake in surprise.
"Well, I have a vague feeling they were concerning you-"
"Me?" asked the Kandake, and Miri realized the Queen was feigning surprise, and that Merit must have told her about the visions in the temple of Hathor.
"Yes! You were in great danger!"
"And what is the nature of this danger?" asked Amniteri.
"I am not sure," replied Miri, "But I know that only I can protect you from it!"
The Kandake's eyes narrowed as she sized up the little prophetess.
"How is that?" she asked coldly.
"I- I don't know!" blurted out Miri, taken aback by the fierce nature suddenly surfacing in the Kandake.
Amniteri realized she had shown her claws unnecessarily, and mellowed.
"You will sit at my left hand side, Satemashtoreth, for I have more questions about your visions!"
"Thank you, your Highness," replied Miri.
"Karima will show you to your place!" said Amniteri motioning her slave to attend to Miri.
The interview was over. Karima took her by the elbow and steered her through the room. Miri did not at all like being ordered about. In this court the rules were so strict, she felt more controlled and closed in than she did in the Temple at Philae.
"Please stop!" Miri asked Karima, who immediately obeyed. However, she did not remove her hand from Miri's elbow. "I'm sorry, but I am not used to the Court! Do we have time to get a breath of fresh air?"
Karima did not answer.
"Please?" pleaded Miri.
Karima nodded reluctantly, and led Miri to a small alcove that twisted about into a hallway of cloumns. They padded across the hallway and there, the walls fell away to reveal an exquisite garden. In the centre of the lush greenery was a peaceful pool, and Karima led her to the edge of the water. Miri sat down on a low stone wall that led all around the pool, and Karima stood beside her. Miri pulled Karima down beside her.
"Thank you, Karima, thank you!"
They sat in silence. The peacefulness of the garden filled Miri with a sad longing for the relative quiet of the Temple at Philae, and her nostalgia for the temple, brought to mind thoughts of Israel. That she would end up here in Napata with the Kandake of Meroway was further than she could ever have imagined being. Why, she had never even have heard of Meroway until a few days be-
No, wait! She had heard of Meroway! Suddenly, a long forgotten tale about Moses sprang into her mind. Manasseh had told her the story on a hot summer day as they lay in the fields with their sheep and stared up at the incredibly beautiful blue sky. The tale had been sparked by a flight of storks passing overhead-
Karima tugged at her sleeves. It was time to go.
Refreshed by the visit to the garden, Miri allowed Karima to steer her to her place at the Kandake's side. Amniteri had not yet made her entrance to the Great Hall, and Miri took her place beside some very elderly gentlemen. She caught Ari's sheepish glance. Amniteri had separated the two young people, and placed them purposefully on opposite sides of the court.
With a great fanfare of curved trumpets, Kandake Amniteri entered her court. The Great Double Doors at the far end of the hall opened and Amniteri, seated on her throne in her full radiant glory was carried into the court on a gorgeous gilded litter. Behind her came her Royal retinue: fan bearers, arms bearers, her eunuchs and officials of every kind. Slowly the procession mounted the steps to the dais and Amniteri and her throne were gently lowered to the floor facing the court. Chieftains from all over the country were introduced to the Kandake one by one, and all pledged their fealty to her and announced the number of warriors they had brought with them to aid her in her rescue of her husband and her son Sherkarer.
Once the formalities of allegiance were taken care of and everyone found their place in the Great Hall, Amniteri motioned for the entertainment to begin. Miri was mesmerized by the dancers who appeared first on the bill, but her attention was diverted by Karima, and Miri looked up and the Kandake motioned Miri to her side. Miri approached the Kandake.
"I have seen these dancers a thousand times," said Amniteri.
"They are very good," replied Miri.
The Kandake simply grunted. "So tell me of your visions!" she commanded.
"I am not sure that the visions-"
"These men," said the Kandake waving vaguely at the men surrounding Miri, "are all magicians and prophets of great skill. I am sure they can judge your visions even if you cannot! Proceed!"
Miri licked her lips nervously. Her mind was completely blank!
Closing her eyes, she took a breath and her mind flowed back to the peace of the garden she had experienced earlier, yet no sudden burst of inspiration came to her and she reluctantly opened her eyes.
Miri's ears burned hot and her cheeks turned red.
"I am sorry, Mother," Miri replied meekly, her voice catching in her throat, "I cannot give you my vision. I don't remember it."
"You're sure you have no recollection of your visions?" the Kandake asked again, a trace of suspicion behind her level gaze.
Miri shook her head, unable to speak. The Kandake turned her head elsewhere, and Miri stood, feeling terribly alone in the great crowd of people. Her embarrassment was acute and she wanted turn and run from the room, but she had the dignity of the sisters to uphold.
A hand touched her elbow. It was Ari.
"Come," he said gently. She followed him through the crowd, and he led her out to the garden and sat her down beside the pool.
"My mother is a very busy woman," he said gently, putting his arms around her, "You must forgive her for being brusque, but she has many things to do. She is quite charming when she is at home!"
Ari's warm smile calmed her. She felt safe wrapped in his embrace, yet at the same time, she realized perhaps this wasn't the best situation for a sister of the Order of Auset to be in, and stared down at her feet.
"You are a beautiful girl!" said Ari. He touched her cheek and brought her face to his. Miri definitely decided she had let the situation get out of hand. Though she tingled at his touch, she was not comfortable with him touching her. She squirmed to avoid his lips, but as she moved out of his way, his hands pressed hard into her flesh. Miri put up her hands to push him away, but he grasped her arms tighter, and she tried to wriggle from his grasp.
"Let go!" she whispered fiercely.
"But you will run away!" he said smiling. "That will not suit me at all!"
He bent her backwards and pinned her against the stone bench, and Miri's heart beat like a bird's in the jaws of a cat.
"Stop it!" she said.
"You don't mean that!" replied Ari, "I know you don't! It's your nature! A creature like you is wasted in the Order! We both know that!"
His knee pushed between her legs, and her dress ripped as it caught on his ceremonial armour. He unclasped his belt. The belt and his sword fell away from his waist. His shirt fell loose about her. His oiled body, hardened by war, pressed down upon her. Miri cried out as Ari bit into her neck, and Miri began to kick frantically with her legs, but her struggle only encouraged him.
The word shot through him like a bolt, and he stood up immediately.
Her hands on her hips, the Kandake stood on the porch.
"Is this the way I raised you?" she demanded, "Is this the way for a son of the Kandake to conduct himself?"
Ari shuffled before his mother, and stared down at the ground.
"Is it?" demanded the Kandake.
Ari continued to stare at the ground.
"No," mumbled Ari, not looking up.
"What? I can't hear you!"
"No!" he replied finally, his face coming up to meet her gaze defiantly, "No, it's not!"
"This girl is not some slave! She is a prophetess of Auset! You will apologize to her! Now!"
Ari bit his lip and looked directly at Miri.
"I am sorry for your indignity," he said, though his apology was especially forced, insincere; he seethed beneath his subjugation to his mother with anger, resentment and humiliation.
"My behaviour was unbecoming of a prince of Meroway!"
A hatred she had not sensed before flashed at Miri through from his dark eyes as he spoke. How could she have missed such a strong feeling within him?
"How do you expect us to go to war, when you are sabotaging our chances by violating a daughter of Auset?" asked Amniteri, "Do you expect to fight the gods as well as your cousin? You will go to your quarters and remain there until I call for you!"
Arikakhatane picked up his belt and scabbard which had fallen to the floor during his struggle with Miri, and gathering his tunic about him, he slinked away.
"Are you all right, child?" the Kandake asked as she motioned for Karima and another woman to attend to Miri. Her wrists were sore, and she felt a sharp pain where Arikakhatane's armour had pinched her skin.
"You will come with me," said the Kandake quietly and held her arm out to Miri. Karima and the other attendant lifted Miri to her feet and guided her to the Kandake's arms which wrapped about her. Like a wounded chick within a mother bird's wings, Miri cowered within the Amniteri's embrace, the Kandake's sleeves wrapped about her like the wings of Auset. "You will sleep with me tonight," whispered the Kandake, "I have a daughter the same age as you. Tomorrow, we shall go to the Temple of Auset, and I shall lead the prayer for forgiveness from the Queen of Heaven!"
Miri felt quite small folded into the Kandake's arms. The fragrant oils rubbed into the flesh of Amniteri were exquisite, and her ample body seemed to fill Miri's consciousness. She had no recollection of the walk to the Queen's Chamber, nor of anyone or anything else from the moment of the Queen's first embrace until she lay snuggled in the queen's bed. Amniteri's arms wrapped about her and the Kandake's huge hands softly stroked Miri's hair. Miri had not felt as warm and safe since she lay with Yohanna, Martha and Miriam.
In the deep dark quiet of the night, wrapped in the warm embrace of the Queen of Meroway, and serenaded by the distant song of the cicadas, Miri felt at peace. The Queen's chambermaids all lay about them in the netherness between waking and sleep and the wings of Nepthys closed over them.
"You are not an Egyptian, are you?" Amniteri asked her huskily.
Miri shook her head. "I was born in Canaan, in Israel."
"Our nation has a long history connected to the children of Israel. Did you know that?"
Miri shook her head again.
"Then I will tell you a story," whispered the Kandake.
"The legend of your Redeemer, Moses."
Faces turned to the Kandake, and with her head resting on Amniteri's breast, Miri listened languidly to the queen's bedtime story.
"It is a tale I heard as a child. I had forgotten it until today for it is a fairy tale, they say. They say the hero Moses, the Redeemer of the Hapiru, journeyed to Meroway during his exile from Egypt, and the Kandake of Meroway at this time was called Amanitakhete.
There was at that time, however, an evil wizard by the name of Seth, who had charge of the diamond and gold mines of the Kandake. He had not always been wicked, but deep within the mines, an ancient jinn by the name of Balaam, had been sealed within a tomb at a great depth by the god Amun. There he had been charged with guarding the gems and gold for safekeeping of those who had passed into the Great Beyond. However, Balaam coveted this wealth and his head was turned by such riches, and he began to steal from the wealth of Amun and the Righteous. After centuries of Balaam hoarding his plunder, Amun noticed the Treasury dwindling, and after confronting Balaam, Amun discovered the terrible addiction that had taken control of the jinn. He therefore chained the jinn by the doorway to the Treasury, and returned to running the world. However, the jinn was crafty, and had realized there was no magic enchantment upon the chains, and that he could slip free of his bonds at any time
Then, one day, the miners of the Kandake found the stone and called Seth. He immediately recognized the seal, and after sending the workers away on some pretext, he called out an incantation and opened a way to the jinn Balaam. He then agreed to supply the jinn with human flesh in exchange for knowledge of magic. Balaam readily agreed for he had developed a fondness for human flesh and many, many years had passed since he had tasted this macabre delicacy. As their partnership developed, Seth learned more of the black arts of magic, and brought Balaam live victims at each dark moon, for that is when the jinn craved human meat the most.
"The fresher, the better!" Balaam declared. Their depravity knew no bounds, and the victims became younger and younger. The more innocent, the wider their eyes, the smaller the bones, the greater their combined magic seemed to be. There in the bowels of the Earth, Seth and Balaam formulated a secret pact to seize the realm of Meroway for themselves, and free themselves from the Underworld in which they conspired.
As time passed, Seth suffered from the same addiction of greed which plagued Balaam, and the two became comrades in crime and horded the best jewels of the Kandake for themselves, and skimmed off a great deal of gold while they waited until the stars favoured Seth's ascension to the throne of Meroway. He used some of his wealth to bribe officials of the Great Court, and through them, he knew everything that passed before the Queen. When the stars were in his favour, he paid bandits in the East to arise against the Kandake, despite the fact she had always ruled with fairness and equanimity.
So, it came to pass that the children of the East rose up to join the Axumites and attacked possessions of the Kandake in the Eastern provinces of Kush. She sent her husband, the great general Kikamani, and her two sons to ensure her possessions were secured against the invaders.
Under cover of night and within a Fog of Invisibility, Seth, with his two evil sons and Balaam, entered the Queen's Chambers by force, and took Amanitakheti prisoner. Seth demanded she annul her marriage with her husband Kikamani, and marry him, for he could not attain the husbandry of Meroway without her consent. Of course, the Kandake immediately refused.
"I will never marry you, Seth!" Amanitakhete shouted at him, "Even if one by one, every other man in the world should fall dead, and you were the last man standing, you could never be my husband!"
"We shall see!" he shouted back, for the Kandake's words had given him an idea. He placed Amanitakhete under house arrest and walled up the windows to her apartments with stone, closed the doorways with huge granite slabs, then sealed these with a magic charm. He left only a single opening through which food and drink could be passed.
Then each night he brought a young man or boy of Meroway to the opening in her chambers and bade her watch as Balaam ate him piece by piece. After each sacrifice, Seth asked the Kandake the same question. Would she annul her marriage and consent to marry Seth?
Knowing once he was a legitimate ruler of Meroway and under her blessing, he would have supreme authority in Meroway, she always gave the same reply, though now it had an eerie ring:
"I will never marry you, Seth!" Amanitakhete shouted at him, "Even if one by one, every other man in the world should fall dead, and you were the last man standing, you could never be my husband!"
And each night, Seth set his jaw and replied, "We shall see!"
As the month's passed, the people of Meroway began to despair, as their finest boys were being eaten by the jinn one by one, and although no one knew for sure what occurred within the palace in the dead of the blackest night, there were rumours, and many turned against the Kandake for they thought it was she who sacrificed the sons of Meroway for her own ends.
The wily Seth knowing his reign could not go on with such losses from the population, bewitched the people with his magic, and after each sacrifice, he poured out wine for all, mixed with a powerful potion. The drug caused a lapse in memory concerning the day on which it was imbibed, and soon the sacrifices were but a nagging sense of something not quite right with the Universe. The island of Meroway slowly fell into disrepair. Over time, the memories of the people faded, and they indeed forgot the Kandake Amanitakhete and her consort Kikamani altogether.
Kikamani and her sons meanwhile had no inkling of their wife and mother's fate for Kikamani's messengers were met at the palace gate by one of Seth's sons who passed messages back to them which seemed as though they came directly from Amanitakhete's lips, though they did not. The corpses of the Queen's enemies which were slain in battle by Kikamani and his soldiers were revivified each night by the secret magic and by power of the jinn Balaam and the nefarious sacrifices of Seth. However, those dead that were badly mutilated never recovered the full vigour of their true life, and fought less and less like men against Kikamani, but were, as time went on, harder and harder to kill.
Though Meroway itself was practically impregnable, with the island surrounded by the swift waters of the Nile and the Astobarus, Seth was not content, for he knew Kikamani would one day return. Kikimani's love for Amanitakhete was too strong for him to be kept forever from his wife's side. Accordingly, Seth raised the walls of the city where it met the Nile, and on a third dug a wide canal to channel the swift waters of the Nile through it, so that no one could approach the city even after beaching on the long shore. The fourth side was a twisting maze of fens and marsh, and with his enchantments and judicious sacrifice to the Python, the bogs filled with all manner of creeping and crawling creatures over which he held dominion. The marsh thus became a den of vipers and spiders, scorpions and all manner of poisonous creeping things. No living creature who wandered into the marsh ever returned, and the people had to stand guard that their cattle would not stray into the marsh
In time, Kikamani overcame the evil forces of the living dead in the East, and his army weary from their seven-year battle, trudged back to Meroway. But they no longer recognized the land for it had fallen into disrepair. The green fields were blackened and the trees had been stripped bare by locusts. The fat cattle were lean and gaunt, and everywhere the people sat listless. No one tilled the soil, nor planted the crops. The wells were not drained and the ditches were filled with stagnant water. They could not approach the city for it was blocked by a foul morass on all sides. Though he enquired often of the whereabouts of his wife, no one could even remember her, nor did they care he had returned.
"Seth is our Lord and Master," they replied in a dull monotone when pressed as to who resided now in the palace. Valiantly, but in vain, Kikamani stormed the city, but each time, the snakes and scorpions of the marsh inflicted terrible casualties upon his brave men, and they began to lose heart.
"We can fight other men, dead or living, no matter they be seven feet tall and bristling with seven right arms, as long as they be men," they told him, "But we cannot fight snakes and sorcery and magic!"
As he could not reach the city walls, Kikamani could do nothing but lay siege to his own city, and so he closed the roads to Meroway, and threw up siege works and trenches about the city so that none could leave nor enter. And the siege lasted for nine long years. Kikamani lost many men out on patrols into the swamps, and even his brave heart began to falter. Being so close to his true love, and yet unable to touch her or speak to her, Kikamani grew ill, and his men began to lose hope. For seven days the general lay unable to move from his sick bed.
Then one day, Moses, then fugitive from Egyptian persecution, appeared at the gates of Kikamani's camp. He walked unchallenged past the sentries and called out to Kikamani. Such was his radiance and beauty, and such was his prodigious physical strength, all who beheld him thought he must be a god come into their midst.
Weakened though he was, Kikamani welcomed Moses into his tent and the general and his officers dined with him, and marvelled at the presence of this stranger in their camp. They took it as an omen of good fortune and sacrificed to Moses, and the great feast lasted well into the night.
Moses took the sacrifice and held it aloft for all to see.
"You have sacrificed to me this day as though I am a god! Know ye I am not as great as the One who sends me! By morning my God shall deliver you from the oppression of Seth, and you will see His Power!"
Much impressed, the soldiers retired that night in great wonderment at this stranger in their midst. But in the morning their elation was turned to despair for Kikamani had died during the night. Some of the soldiers seized Moses for they began to believe perhaps he was a demon come into their midst to take their beloved leader away from them, and they wanted to put Moses to death by fire.
Others prevailed that Moses must at least be allowed to defend himself before a tribunal, and one was assembled on the spot. Accusations were hurled at the Hapiru Redeemer, and he remained silent before the charges. Witnesses declared they had seen him use the same cup as Kikamani. He dipped his bread in the stew in the same spot and just before the general dipped his bread. It was well known they said that the Hapiru were masters of magic and poisons. Such were the charges levelled at Moses, but he held his counsel until all had finished.
Finally, when called upon by the Tribunes to answer the charges, he stood bravely before the angry and bereaved men.
"Men of Meroway, hear me! Have I not said you have sacrificed to me this day as though I am a god! For this, your general was struck down, for the god who sends me will accept no mortal as his equal! It is not me who has laid Kikamani low, but you yourselves!
It is not by my doing! Know ye have been told I am not as great as the One who sends me! I have said that by morning my God shall deliver you from the oppression of Seth, and you will see His Power! This is so!
Above all else, Kikamani would have you take the palace! He could not do it as a man! But now he has passed on to another place, and from there he will direct you in battle. From the Astral Plane where he awaits your brave hearts, he will battle for us the demons of Seth! After the third day of his death, he will return to you, for it is only on the Astral Plane can we defeat the demons of Seth! As he fights in the Heavens, so shall you fight here on the sacred soil of Meroway! My God will smile down upon us all from the Seventh Heaven, and today, our efforts will bring us victory!
All Hail the God of Glory!"
The men responded with quickened hearts and cried out to a man, "All Hail the God of Glory!"
Three times did the shout ring out from the camp, and Seth in the tower he had built for himself in the city, he heard the joyous shout from the army below and he felt the very stones beneath his feet tremble as they called. Quickly, he descended the tower to mount his troops upon the ramparts. The rooms in the casement walls he filled with rubble to strengthen them, and even at their great height, he raised the walls by another cubit.
He called on Balaam to summon the forces of darkness, and the city prepared for war.
The men about Moses told him of the fearsome barriers about the city, but Moses asked simply, "Where are the walls the lowest?"
The men answered him that the side facing the swamp had the lowest walls, but the swamp was protected by thousands of poisonous snakes who struck from unseen hiding places.
"Then we shall attack from there!" declared Moses. The men were sore afraid, but such was the confidence of Moses they were willing to follow him.
"For the rest of the day," said Moses, "Every man shall snare and net as many birds as he possibly can, and the engineers shall build enough cages to house them unharmed. On the day after next, we shall storm the gates of Meroway!"
Perplexed, but thinking the birds were for a great sacrifice, the men rushed about netting as many birds as they could. As the Nile at that time was rising, there were many hoopoes and ibises in the nets, more than could be counted. These they put in cages as instructed by Moses. The spirits of the men was much lifted by the hunt, for they enjoyed the chase, and it was great sport for all of them.
Tired, but happy for the first time in a long time, they retired for the night. The next day Moses addressed them at an assembly.
"Tomorrow, my friends, is the third day, and we attack with first light! As the disk of Aten rises above the horizon, so shall we rise above the walls of Meroway. By the time the sun sets in the West, Meroway shall be in our hands! But today, we must give ourselves to fasting! No food is to pass your lips, only water soaked in fermented barley! The same for the birds we have captured! On no account shall anyone feed them, for they too must fast with us! Pray righteously to the Great Hidden God, for he will deliver us from this evil done to your land!"
And so, the true army of Meroway fasted, and none fed the birds, though the temptation to do one or both was always with them, and in the morning they rose to greet the dawn. As the first rays of the Aten rose above the Eastern Horizon, the army moved into the swamps. Each man carried as many cages of birds as he could handle, and then at the command of Moses, those in the front released the birds into the swamp.
Once released, the hungry birds sought out and found food, for they ate insects and snakes of most kinds, and so as wave after wave of hoopoes and ibises, herons and the like entered the swamp, they devoured the snakes lying in wait for the army of Meroway. A path was cleared by the birds who spread out foraging along the flanks of the army, and under the protection of the flocks of birds, the army of Meroway passed unharmed through the marshes, and arrived at full light below the unprotected walls of Meroway backed onto the marsh.
That day, they scaled the walls and opened the gates and the great army slew the forces of Seth and Balaam. Moses released the Kandake from her prison, and in the Great Hall, she pronounced sentence upon Seth and Balaam. Though their magic protected them, they were sentenced to be sealed together in the very tomb that Osiris had closed on Balaam. There they remain to this day and as their natures are not the kindest, they rail against each other continuously. Sometimes their disagreements can be heard, and when their arguments get out of control, the very earth beneath Meroway vibrates with their fighting!"
"But what of Kikamani?" asked Karima sleepily.
"Kikamani appeared to Amanitakhete," said Amniteri, "After the Great Funeral, he returned from the Astral Plane to rejoin her. So great was his love, that the Women of the Court marvelled at his countenance, for he glowed with a soft inner light. His radiance was a marvel to behold. A great feast was held, and after the libations were poured and the people fed, Amanitakhete and Kikamani retired to her Royal Bed.
After they made love, Amanitakhete noticed a mist arose all about their bed, and she became alarmed.
"Do not be afraid," whispered Kikamani gently, "For I cannot stay with you. My time has come. Take Moses unto you as husband, for he is divinely blessed. He shall be as father to your sons, and husband to your possessions!"
With those final words he was taken up into the mists and the mists became as clouds in heaven.
And so it came to pass, Amanitakhete took Moses to her marriage bed, and he was, at her pleasure, consort to the Queen of Ethiopia. As time passed her sons grew in wisdom, for they were taught by the Redeemer Moses. And the Kandake bore from Moses a daughter. After fourteen years, however, the Kandake died, and the daughter of Moses took her place.
But the heart of Moses pined for his homeland. Seeing her father's unhappiness, his daughter, Makeda the First, released him from his kingship and chose one of her brothers as husband of her lands.
The people of Meroway, their enchantment by Seth long lifted, held a great festival in his honour on his abdication, and Kandake Makeda presented him with a bronze standard bearing the image of the snakes he had defeated, showing his power over them. This standard, they say, he carried with him into the land of Canaan."