Miri walked beside the Kandake in the moonlight.
For as far as she could see in either direction before and behind her, stretched the Queen's army. A quiet determination had descended upon the column, for the wells in this desert were a hard night's march apart, and women, men and animals were stretched to the limits of endurance by the trek. Very often, the baggage carts, pulled by great oxen, bogged down in soft sand and as many men as could, placed hands upon the vehicles and pushed them through difficult stretches of desert.
The ten baggage carts carrying the tents were the only wheeled vehicles in the column. The narrow wheels of the chariots could not be used over the soft sand and rocky trails and had been dismantled by the engineering corps. The pieces packed by the charioteers on pack donkeys. All the other military equipment was carried on the backs of the army.
Miri, Merit and Apusim were the only sisters of Philae on the journey. The others, under the wings of Amuneferit were on their way back to Philae with the sacred water from the source of the Nile. Two of the Temple Guard Totmose and Amenenki, had volunteered to accompany the Mothers of Philae to Meroway, but Amenenki later confessed to Miri they had chosen lots amongst the others and he and Totmose had lost. Though they were guards, they had little taste for real soldiering, but they put on as brave a face as she had seen amongst the Merotu. The Kandake, for her part, had seemed to have forgiven Aristophanes for his part in the palace coup, and found his mind to harbour a brilliant mathematician. Facility with numbers at the degree of understanding Aristophanes had attained was considered by all to be divinely inspired, and he was looked upon by the other prophets and sorcerers in her cabinet as something of a grand magician.
The desert wasn't entirely inhospitable, for there were great stretches of acacia and other bushes and a few of the wadis were almost lush in their greenery. Yellow and green birds flitted about the branches of the trees, and groves sometimes sheltered goats and their owners. More than one owner offered a tithe from his flocks to serve the Kandake, and was honoured by her passage through his patch of desert.
A pride of lions travelled in more or less the same direction as the army, and both lions and troops kept their distance and a wary eye on each other. A kinship seemed to pass between the pride and the army. Amniteri felt it was a good omen, for the leonid god Apedemek was revered by the Merotu, and the presence of the pride seemed to improve the spirits of the troops.
Arikakhatane kept his distance from his mother and Miri and rode at the head of his cavalry, but even though she could not see him, Miri sensed his presence. He was still smouldering. She could almost see the smoke rising from him in his place in line. After seven long nights, Amniteri called a halt.
The eighth night, she called a meeting of her chiefs.
"We are a night's march from the edge of the forests," she announced, "and we must reach the trees before dawn. This will be our longest march. Tonight we shall sacrifice and feast, for we cannot be seen here from the edge of the tree line. Tell your people we can light the fires and dance, but we must rest as much as we can. We shall sleep tomorrow until sunset, and then set out for the cover of the trees. I have sent scouts ahead to see if Prince Arikhankharer is in position. If men from my son return by sunset tomorrow, then I will know he is there. If not, then I must assume he is not, and we will have to take Meroway by storm."
Her chiefs protested.
"We cannot possibly storm the walls!"
"We have no siege machines!"
"We have only spearmen and archers!"
"Chariots are of no use to us in Meroway!"
The Kandake held up her arms.
"Silence!" she roared, and the protestors settled down to their places. "I have a plan to open the gates! The Greek has suggested a clever ruse to open the city gates, and I like its chances!"
"The Greek?" asked a Nubian warlord, "How can we trust this Greek? They are shifty and not worth their word!"
"I risk very little, and gain much!" replied the Kandake. "That is why I like his plan! It doesn't matter whether we trust him or not! We have nothing to lose!"
"What is this plan?" asked another.
"In due time, brothers and sisters, in due time!" replied Amniteri smiling, "Come let us sacrifice to Apedemek! Then we shall dance for the Lion King!"
The sacrifice and feast ran on for several hours, but Amniteri excused herself, and retired to her tent early. She sent Karima to fetch Merit, Apusim and Miri. Karima led the three mothers by a route which skirted the festivities and the grand bonfire around which the warriors danced, and led through the back of the Kandake's tent.
"Sisters!" declared Amniteri, as Karima ushered them into her private sleeping room, "Sit down! Sit down!"
Her attendants offered plates of steaming goat meat, and various stewed delicacies, and the three mothers of Philae accepted with grace and gratitude.
"I have called you because you three are integral to my plan of entering the city. You have heard of the Trojan horse?"
Merit and Miri nodded, but Apusim frowned, for she had not.
"Well, the Greeks at Ilium had fought for ten years, then gave up their fight and sailed back to Greece. They left a peace offering on the beach to the Trojans within the city. The area about Ilium was, and still is, renowned for its horsemen and their training of horses. They have a long tradition of riding that stretches back into antiquity. They worship the horse. The Greeks left them a large wooden horse as a peace offering to the Trojan gods, and the Trojans brought it into their city and celebrated long into the night.
Unbeknown to them, Odysseus and several Greeks had secreted themselves within the thorax of this horse, and when the Trojans slept, Odysseus and his men crawled from hiding and opened the gates of Ilium. The other Greeks had meanwhile returned to Ilium in their ships, and the Greek army slaughtered the Trojans in their sleep, and the terrible war was over!
I need you to be my Odysseus!"
There was stunned silence from the sisters.
"You want us to hide in something and then open the gates of Meroway to your army?" asked Miri incredulously.
"No!" whispered Amniteri, "You have no need to hide! My cousin will let you in as soon as he knows who you are!"
"Why would he do that?" asked Merit.
"Because he adores the goddess Auset more than any other!" said the Kandake, "That twelve Mothers of Philae have journeyed this far to speak to him will fill his ego as full as he can stuff it! He will make a great production of it! And you will be safe within the Temple of Auset!"
"But there are only three of us!" declared Miri.
"I shall send Karima and my attendants with you. You three shall be the horse that gets my squad into the city. You will do all the talking, and they, the sacred sisters they are, shall be veiled. This way no one will recognize them!"
"It is they who will overpower the guards at the gates and open them for the rest of my army! While the fighting continues, you three will stay inside the Temple sanctuary. I shall send word when you can come out of hiding!"
"There will be some atonement to be made to the Great Mother for using her servants for treachery!" said Merit evenly.
"But you will do it?" asked Amniteri.
Miri could hardly contain herself, but somehow she managed. Fire burned in her veins at the thought of actually being a key element in the Kandake's plan. She itched to agree to the action, but she knew it was Mother Merit's decision.
"I shall do it, but I cannot allow Satem nor Apusim to risk their lives," replied Merit.
"I'll do it!" cried Miri, "I have to go!"
Merit shrugged and Amniteri smiled.
"I have two, then!" declared the Kandake.
"I heard you say earlier that Aristophanes had a plan to enter Meroway," replied Apusim, "Then am I to assume that what you have described is that plan?"
"Yes, of course!" replied Amniteri.
Apusim frowned. "Then I shall go!" she said grimly. "Though I cannot believe he would put us in jeopardy! I have misjudged him, perhaps!"
"Oh dear!" said Merit, embracing Apusim. "You must not go out of anger!"
"I am going!" declared Apusim.
"Excellent!" said Amniteri, "You leave immediately!"
"What?" asked all three mothers together.
A black line across the horizon grew wider by each hour.
"The trees!" whispered Karima, "We shall be there soon."
Each woman rode a beautiful horse selected from Amniteri's royal stable. Miri soon was aware the Queen's attendants were not just chambermaids. Each was a warrior of great prowess, picked from thousands to be the last line of defense for the Kandake. Miri was proud to be riding with these wild women. Alone in the desert, they seemed to take on a totally different character than the chambermaids they played in the view of others. They were daughters of the desert. Their nostrils flared in the wind like the horses they rode, their ears turned on every sound across the desert plain, and their eyes saw through a darkness so deep, Miri could only see shadows.
The martial presence of Totmose and Amunenki seemed almost comical in contrast to the Afrikan amazons, but it was decided they must go to preserve the appearance of a delegation from Philae.
"This way!" whispered Karima, and guided her horse into the underbrush, and into a small clearing. After every one dismounted, they unloaded their bags from the horses, and tied the animals together.
"Nadia and Miknya will ride back with the horses tomorrow night!" said Karima, "The rest of us must press on foot until daylight!"
She shouldered her pack and kissed Nadia and Miknya goodbye, and turned down a narrow path through the thorn trees. In turn, the other women and the two men followed Karima down the path.
Just before dawn, they stopped and sat down to rest in a small grove of trees. Exhausted Miri fell asleep before her buttocks touched the ground.
From a distance, the city of Meroway seemed to rise up from the water, yet as they approached, it became evident a long narrow strip of beach separated the city from the Nile. The central fortress of Meroway towered above the main city, a hodge podge of red brick buildings. Thick black smoke rose over the city, and Miri had thought perhaps Sherkarer had already begun his assault, but Karima told her the smoke rose from the iron smelters on the opposite side of the town. A dike ran about perimeter of the suburbs, and the land between the dyke and the river was crowded with tents of itinerant workers, traders and herdsmen. The sounds of the city drifted toward them as they walked toward it. The bellowing of cattle, the braying of donkeys, the occasional shout. As they drew closer, the three sisters, Totmose and Amunenki, Karima and her escort became part of the stream of traffic flowing into the city. Meroway was in chaos. Everywhere they looked, tents were being dismantled an
Miri's heart began to pound noticeably as they approached the gate itself. On either side of the portal, soldiers stood guard and occasionally searched the belongings of people they deemed through some seemingly arcane process to be suspicious, but for the most part it appeared their main interest was simply to keep traffic flowing.
"Oh, Dear Mother!" declared Apusim under her breath.
"Hush!" whispered Merit, "The Great Queen of Heaven shall be our shield!"
Only Karima and the Queen's handmaids seemed calm. Miri glanced back at them. They were veiled, and she could not read their faces. Totmose and Amunenki both seemed definitely nervous. As the gateway loomed closer and towered over them and the entrance gaped open like some menacing maw of a great brick beast. Miri became even more nervous. She felt sure the soldiers would pull them from line and expose them.
But she passed the first flanking soldiers and nothing happened! They were going straight in without even being questioned! She could not believe her luck! Still she kept her face cityward and avoided eye contact with the gatekeepers. She even managed a smile at Apusim.
"Hey you!" called a loud voice, "Stop!"
The entire procession of people passing through the narrow gate slowed and each person in the slowing stream turned to face the voice, praying it was not them who had been singled out.
"You!" shouted a soldier, pointing at Totmose and Amunenki, "Yes! You two! Come over here!"
Totmose and Amunenki looked nervously at each other, then to Merit, then back at the soldier.
"Come here!" shouted the soldier impatiently.
Reluctantly, the two temple guards moved slowly toward the soldier and the stream of people began to move past again, everyone relived they had not been the one called.
"Keep going!" hissed Karima.
Merit sighed and pushed back against the flow of traffic.
"We're through!" said Karima and grabbed Merit's arm. "Forget about them!"
Merit slipped free from Karima's grasp.
"They'll give us away in a moment!" whispered Merit, "Just the hint of a hot iron, and they'd sell their real mothers!" She pushed toward her two hapless escorts.
"Oh, Holy Mother!" spat Karima, then followed Merit. The others fell in their wake, and surrounded the soldier who had pulled Totmoses and Amunenki aside.
"Who are you?" he asked gruffly.
"I am Mother Merit of the Sisters of Philae, and we, my sisters and I, have made this pilgrimage to the Temple of Auset to atone for misdeeds and dedicate ourselves to the Great Mother of Meroway! These two men are our escorts."
"You have papers to this effect?" asked the soldier, a little more convinced of their veracity, but still not satisfied.
"I have a letter to the Mother Superior of the Temple here in Meroway."
"May I see it?" asked the soldier impatiently.
"Oh, of course!"
The retinue of women had caught the attention of several soldiers by this time and the sisters were surrounded by men staring intently at each of them in turn.
Merit produced a scroll from her robes, and handed it over to the soldier.
"It has been opened!"
"Yes," replied Merit calmly, "We have had to produce it several times on our journey here!"
"What kind of language is this?" asked the soldier looking up from the papyrus. His eyes narrowed suddenly.
"Latin!" replied Merit.
He frowned back at the paper, then shook his head.
"Where are you staying?"
"The Temple of Auset!" replied Merit.
"Alright!" he said quickly, "Be on your way!"
The entire party turned in unison, held its breath and walked stiffly through the gate. Mother Merit rolled her eyes as soon as she was sure her face could not be seen by the gate sentries.
"Good heavens!" she said when they were out of earshot of the guards, "I thought our goose was cooked!"
"Where did you get that scroll?" asked Miri.
"It is a piece of scrap I was writing on to keep a record of our journey for the Reverend Mother," replied Merit.
"But why Latin?" asked Karima.
"Very few people south of Philae understand it, so it is safer than Greek," Merit explained, "I just thought it might be safer!"
Karima laughed and slapped merit on the back.
"You old vixen!" she laughed, "It's lucky you're in the Order because you'd give any man a run for his money! This way!"
Karima led the sisters through the maze of streets. They crossed a large plaza and passed a huge temple to Amun, some three hundred cubits long, then headed north along a wide avenue of sphinxes until they finally reached the Temple of Auset.
"How will you pass as sisters of the Order?" Apusim asked Karima, "The mothers will be sure to notice you don't know the litanies!"
Karima smiled as they came to the huge open doors leading into the hypostyle hall.
"The High Priestess is my mother!"
To be inside the cool interior of the Temple of Auset was being home. Miri pressed her back against the cool marble bench and wiggled her toes. She shared the cell with Karima and Nadia, another of Amniteri's amazons, but the two warrixen chafed at being penned up. Miri, for the moment, was content to remain in her cell. A thin shaft of sunlight blasted into the dark interior and opened a brilliant patch of light on the red brick tile floor. She slid onto the solid plastered shelf that was built into and completely around the room and served as bed, bench and table; there was no other furniture. The Spartan interior soothed Miri's jangled nerves. She had had enough excitement for a while, and decided she was happy to wait in the temple until Karima and her squad opened the Temple gates and Amniteri was back in power. She lay down on the shelf, and closed her eyes for a moment. Miri was surprised she craved the peace and tranquility of the temple confines back at Philae. Af
"So," she asked the other two, "When do you have to open the gates?"
"The Kandake will give us a sign," replied Karima.
"She will find a way!"
Miri closed her eyes and then drifted off to sleep.
When she opened her eyes, she was back in the forest of Meroway. She couldn't imagine how she had ended up back outside the city walls, nor to where everyone else had disappeared. She sat up. All about her was dark, but the full moon shone down upon her and the silvery light caressed her skin. She was hungry and so she stood up, thinking she might find something to eat. A movement in the undergrowth startled her, and she froze immediately, and stepped back into the darkness of the jungle. The hair on her scalp tingled with fear, every pore of her skin was an eye searching the shadows of the jungle.
A hooded figure passed by quite close to her, but her senses told her the dark form passing by was not friendly. As the silhouette passed through a small patch of moonlight, she recognized one of the Kandake's court. He stared furtively about the clearing then disappeared into the trees. Miri waited for a painfully long time. Mosquitos began to bite her skin and the bites itched terribly, though she dared not scratch them for fear of betraying her presence. Finally, the maddening buzz of the insects and their sting won out and Miri shook herself, wiping her hands over her body to remove the mosquitos attacking her.
Far too many of the infernal insects came in on her and she danced in agony as more and more of them bit her. She could stand the torture no longer and she awoke with a mournful groan.
There were no insects. She was back in the cell in the temple of Auset in Meroway, but Karima and Nadia were gone. Miri sat up the instant she felt their absence, and looked about her. A thin line of moonlight pointed to an empty spot on the floor and Miri tiptoed to the window slit to see if perhaps she could spy her friends making their way through Meroway, but the window offered nothing but a view of a wall some distance opposite.
She sighed and rested her hands on the cool stone window ledge and stared up at the moon. The horns of the crescent moon were pointed almost straight up. She was used to a slightly less perpendicular angle to the moon, and it struck her as extremely significant. From here in Meroway, the horns of the crescent really resembled the horns of Hathor. She could see the distinct disk shape within the horns, and for the first time, the horns of Het-Heru and Auset suddenly seemed to manifest themselves within its curve.
Though she had grown up in Canaan thinking the moon was male, here she saw it was truly female. The image of the Hathor came back to her, and she was filled with her benevolent warmth. For a fleeting moment, Miri was at peace with the world and within herself.
But suddenly the night was shattered by the clash of metal on metal and the unmistakable shouts and shrieks of combat. Karima and her squad had been discovered! Miri's heart leapt about, trying to free itself from its cage of ribs and fly to the aid of her Merotu sisters. She pushed her head into the narrow window opening, but her view did not improve. She cursed in frustration, then leapt from the shelf and flew out through the door. Her bare feet slapped on the tiled floor as she dashed through the temple.
She reached the large double gates to the sisters' quarters, and pulled on the great handles. The doors boomed in the dark silence of the temple, but they were barred and would not open. Her efforts to leave had awoken others, and soon one of the Merotu prophetesses held her by the shoulders and attempted to calm her down.
"Let me go!" she whispered to the Mother who held her.
"Shhh! Shhh!" said the priestess, "There is no use struggling! The gates are firmly locked! There is no use in going outside!"
"But Karima! My friends! They're out there!"
"Shhh! Shhh! Their fate is in the hands of the gods!" said the priestess soothingly, "There is nothing to be done! You cannot help them, little sister! They are all trained warrixen! They will fight for their Queen as they have sworn to do!"
"But if they fail!"
"How can they fail when their hearts are true?" asked the priestess.
Slaves aroused by the commotion arrived with lamps, and in the warm yellow light, Miri recognized a strange familiarity in the priestess.
"You are Karima's mother!" exclaimed Miri.
"I am everyone's mother!" replied the Mother Superior, "This was part of our vows when we entered the order. Mother to the needy. Wife of the poor. Sister to the sick! Surely the vows at Philae are the same?"
"Yes! Yes, of course," replied Miri, "But you are her progenetrix!"
"I am," replied the Mother Superior, "But I have many children, and she is only one. Her course she has chosen of her own free will, and she follows a far different path than many of her sisters! I wish that she had taken gentler vows, but Karima was always headstrong! She kicked in the womb like a colt and butted her head against my hands like a yearling ram when they rested upon my swollen belly. Though she never abided my wishes, she was a fine girl, and a magnificent woman!"
"It is not her fate to contemplate in a quiet atrium. The sword is her tongue and her heart is a shield. She was born with a bronze helmet upon her head, for nothing I ever said seemed to penetrate her tiny skull!"
The Mother's voice faltered.
"I shall miss my sweet little lioness! But I have pined for this day since I can remember, for I knew it would come! Those who live by the edge of the sword are fated to die at the end of a sword. Please, do not end your own life as futilely as my little Karima!"
The sisters gathered fearfully behind the door for they could hear the sound of ordered marching steps closer outside it. The steps came to a halt, and a stiff silence descended upon the temple. After an agonizing moment that stretched to eternity, a loud knock sounded upon the gold leafed cedar doors.
"Open these door, Mother Matima!" cried a loud male voice, "I have a warrant for your arrest written by Karkamani in the name of the Kandake!"
"Karkamani has no authority here until the Kandake has been buried in accordance with the Law!" shouted back Mother Matima. "Until then, you are defying the Law of the Gods! You are disrupting the Maat by which all beings are governed, and shall suffer the full effect of the sacred curses uttered by the Neteru and their people for your disturbance! I am sure they will forgive your zeal in serving a man who rules over you at the point of a sword, but only if you repent of this evil! Beware your deeds, young Taharkameni!"
"I cannot leave without you, Mother Matima!" shouted back Taharkameni.
"Then lay siege to my gates, Taharkameni!" challenged Matima, "But know that you are acting against the will of the gods!"
"So be it!" retorted Taharkameni, "But it is on your head, these curses must fall on you, not I, for it is you who have sent your own daughter against the true Kandake! It is you who will suffer her torture if you do not relinquish yourself to the Court of Karkamani. She shall be transfixed to your Temple doors and flayed alive! The choice is yours!
A great anguish washed over Matima, and her knees buckled momentarily. Miri grabbed her and held her in a tight embrace. They remained standing together before the great gold leaf doors. A loud thunder rolled from the great doors as something was thrown against it and several sisters screamed in response. But from without came a long scream punctuated by the sound of a mallet smashing against the door.
Karima was nailed to the outside of the temple door.
Tears streamed from Matima's eyes, and splashed onto Miri's bare arms like hot lead. Both women flinched at each stroke of the mallet. Karima's voice called out to them.
"Mother! Don't open these doors while I am nailed to them! Half his men tremble in fear at what they are about to do! In the morning the people will see what Karkamani has done, and that the gods have forsaken him!"
Then came the slash of a whip, the metal pieces strung on the leather rattled against the door. Karima screamed in agony. The poor sisters of the Temple were huddled in frightened clumps. Each slash of the wicked whip against Karima's flesh made them jump. The screams of the Warrixen Karima cut their hearts open and left their souls raw and bleeding. The thought that they might be next filled them all with dread. Some could not believe that either Karkamani or Taharkameni could commit such a crime at the very doors of the Great Mother's House. These men, men of Meroway, were not barbarians, and yet they could not have been of the same race to perpetuate such a heinous crime! Where did they learn such things? Were they not sons of mothers? What had happened from their leaving the womb to manhood that could have turned them into such terrible monsters?
Karima's screams became more desperate. Then suddenly she called out.
"Remember the oblations!" she cried.
The scourge struck again and she screamed in agony. Her sobs could be heard through the thick temple doors.
"The oblations!" Karima cried again, "The oblations will save you!"
Matima frowned, perplexed by her daughter's words.
"Follow the oblations!" screamed Karima.
Again the whip pulled away pieces of her flesh. Karima's blood began to seep into the Palace under the doors.
"The oblations will save you, if you-"
The whip struck again. And again.
The iron studded whip ripped into Karima's muscle down to bone and cartilage. Mercifully, thankfully, Karima's screams were stilled, though the sisters could still hear the crash of the iron rakes rattling on the temple doors. The large dark red stain spreading from Karima's body and into the hypostyle hall grew larger. Matima freed herself from Miri's grasp and stepped forward and bent down to dip her fingers in Karima's blood. She pressed her fingers to her lips and kissed the blood of her blood.
At that moment, her eyes lighted in communion with Karima.
Suddenly a great boom thundered through the temple, and the temple doors shuddered. Plaster fell from the roof.
The soldiers outside had brough up a battering ram.
Matima turned to Miri.
"Follow the oblations!" she whispered. "Follow the oblations!"
Another great crash echoed in their ears and many of the sisters began to wail.
Suddenly animated, Matima cried out, "Follow me sisters! Follow me!"
Miri reached down and placed her hand flat in the pool of Karima's blood as a fond farewell, then swept down the hall after Mother Matima. One by one, two by two, three by three, the others followed suit. Each reached down and gathered some of the blood of Karima and touched it to their lips, then swiftly flowed into Matima's wake.
Miri ran to catch up to Matima.
"Where are you going?" she asked the Mother Superior.
"We shall gather everyone up and follow the way Karima has pointed to us!" replied Matima grimly, and then turned to her flock.
"Quickly!" she cried, "Gather everyone, and we shall retire to the Hall of Purification!" The voices of the sisters and the slaves buzzed, and shook their heads, for they could not see why the Mother Superior would call them all to the slaughterhouse where the animals were prepared for sacrifice. Perhaps some suggested, she was about to perform a miracle! Many firmly believed it and rushed to get a good view of the miracle in the abbatoir. Once they all crowded onto the killing floor, Mother Matima held up her hands for silence.
"Sisters, brethren, please! You all know of the disaster I have brought down upon us by offering sanctuary to my daughter Karima and her friends! I have not erred out of malice but of compassion, but that is of no consequence. We shall all be strung up for my acts, and this I cannot bear! We have two alternatives. We can remain in the Temple and beseech the mercy of Karkameni and Taharkameni, or you may choose another way out and remain with me in this last refuge. I cannot guarantee your safety, but I can certainly give you a chance greater than waiting for Taharkameni to break down the temple doors! Those who feel safe with Taharkameni, I will ask to leave! Those that do not will follow me to a better place! I shall cast a magic spell to transport us from the confines of these walls! But you must believe in me! You must truly know that Auset will not allow us to fall into the hands of Taharkameni! You have only a few breaths left to decide where your fate will lie!"
A prophet stepped onto a table.
"Friends! Brothers! Sisters!" he cried out, "We all know this calamity was brought down upon us by Mother Matima and her daughter Karima! Should we not open the doors and hand over Mother Matima for trial? Shall we not be spared death for such an act?"
"How could we betray the Mother for granting sanctuary to her own daughter, and these others?" asked a eunuch, "That Karkameni does not respect the laws of the gods should not allow us to deny sanctuary! It is not we who are transgressing the law, but Karkameni! The rewards we would reap from betraying our Mother would be stripped from us in reaching Tuat! Within the hour we may all be facing Ausar in the Great Judgment Hall. How will you stand before the Lord of Resurrection and defend this betrayal?"
People looked deeply at each other, many wanting someone else to make a decision for them. Searching for the right answer. No one moved, but it was more from indecision than by choice to remain with Mother Matima.
"I shall be closing the doors!" called out Mother Matima, "This is your last chance! Once the doors are closed, you will be on one side or the other and Death may be waiting at either side!"
Several people were galvanized by the last words of the priest and followed him as he strode back into the main hall of the temple, and wails from the sisters began to rise as friends and companions separated. By now, they seemed to sense that they were simply choosing the way they would die. With the Mother Superior, or at the hands of the soldiers at the front gates.
Their faith was being sorely tempted, and the gathering was rent in two. As the last few slipped across the threshold, Matima nodded and the huge doors to the slaughterhouse closed. The bar fell across the doors and locked them into place. A hushed silence fell over the remaining sisters as the booming echo of the closing doors reverberated through the Temple.
Outside the abattoir, the priest raced to the front doors and called out.
"Hurry! Hurry! We must let Taharkameni into the temple!"
Others ran after him, and several men and women reached the doors and strained at the large locking pins that held the doors fast. The battering ram crashed rhythmically against the doors, and as the pins slid out one by one, the doors weakened and groaned in their hinged sockets. The combined onslaught from without and the releasing of the pins within finally had an effect, and the great doors cracked and bent inwards. The survivors inside screamed, scrambled and ran as the giant doors fell inward. The soldiers poured in over the fallen doors and those templars who were not crushed by the doors, were cut to ribbons under the soldiers' blades.
The men rushed about seeking gold and plunder, and slaughtered anyone they found hiding in the Temple. Several men encountered the locked doors to the abattoir, and attempted to open it, but because others were already carrying away temple treasure, decided they had better seek their fortune elsewhere.
Taharkameni stood in the Temple doorway, flanked by his lieutenants. A soldier ran up to him.
"We cannot find Mother Matima!" the man huffed.
"Find if anyone is left alive, and bring them to me!" he growled to another.
He glanced at the dripping corpse of Karima hanging from the temple door, and his eyes narrowed for a moment in lust and hunger, then he turned his face to the carnage before him.
The soldier called again from the shadows of the temple.
"They are in the slaughterhouse!" he shouted.
"How appropriate!" he remarked, and then motioned for his own corps and bodyguard to follow him. He strode purposefully through the chaos towards the abattoir. The battering ram made short work of the slaughterhouse door, and the guards rushed in, but to their amazement, the room was empty! Nothing remained of the brothers and sisters of Auset, but their jewellery and clothes!
The priest, the very one who had urged the others to seek clemency from Taharka, was thrown at his feet.
"Have mercy, Lord Taharkameni!" cried the priest. He held his arms out in supplication, and bowed his head before the warrior.
"Where are they?" Taharkameni roared at the unfortunate man.
"I-I have no idea your Excellency!" replied the priest desperately, "Please! They were here only moments before we opened the doors to you!"
Taharka lifted the man to his feet with one hand.
"Where in the name of the gods are they?" he shouted angrily. His spittle sprayed the face of the hapless priest.
"She- she transported them away by magic!" cried the priest desperately.
"Magic?" shouted Taharkameni, "You are lying, priest!"
Taharkameni held the tip of his sword to the man's throat.
"Tell me where she is, or I'll slice you apart right here!"
The priest cried and babbled, tears flowing down his cheeks, but he was so struck by fear he could not speak. He gibbered and dangled in Taharkameni's grasp like a demented monkey. Taharkameni lost his patience and pulled his blade across the man's neck, and a fountain of blood sprayed Taharkameni's face. Roaring with and animal rage, Taharkameni shook the priest maniacally. He opened his mouth and drank the blood of the priest as a reveler drinks from a punctured wineskin, and began to laugh, revelling in the power he commanded with his warrior's fist.
The stench was incredible. It was wet and dark. And Miri was covered in slime. It was not just slime, she knew, it was blood and bodily fluid. The first few breaths overwhelmed her and she gagged on the foul air. Her throat formed a protesting knot and a fist seemed to ball in her stomach and she vomited. Each breath she took seemed worse than the last and she steadied herself against the slimy wall as she retched uncontrollably. It seemed as if her very organs were being thrown from her through her mouth.
"Quickly!" A hand grabbed her in the darkness and pulled her forward. It was Merit. Apusim, recovering from her own nausea, pushed Miri from behind. The space was confined and the women stooped low to pass through the sewer.
They had, with the others who had stayed with Matima, descended into the stone channels that washed the blood and offal from the temple into the Nile. Daily sacrifices required that a water-washed sewer ran from the temple and carried away the charnel to ensure the purity of the Temple. And now the entire congregation was wallowing in the filth they themselves had created. It was as though the gods were rubbing the noses of the sisters into the true reality of daily sacrifices. The stench and the gruesome feel of the slimy walls and floor of the sewer pushed their senses as far as they could go. Miri was convinced if there was indeed a hell, a Gehenna, then this was certainly the entrance to the greater horror.
"We must be careful," whispered Matima, "For where the tunnel ends in the Nile, there are crocodiles there. They are drawn by the taste of the blood!"
"Oh good grief!" declared Miri. With crocodiles added to the soup of animal entrails, she truly had entered the horror of Amenti. Something swam by her. She screamed and the animal, a rat, responded to her sudden movement by squeaking in fright. As they waded through the terrible liquid, the current became stronger, and her feet slipped and she fell forward. Her head went under the surface, and she frantically scrabbled to maintain her balance. She squeezed her eyes tightly, unable to bear the thought of her eyes coming in contact with the putrid water which engulfed her. Thankfully she regained her feet quickly and spluttered to the surface. All around her the others splashed as they fell, unable to stay upright on the slimy stone.
But they pressed on. Slowly, the water became less contaminated, and the tunnel widened. Soon a faint light glowed ahead, and the hearts of the refugees brightened with the growing intensity of light. The tunnel opened into the Nile, and in the last thirty feet, the water channel was flanked by stone walkways on both sides. The sodden men and women, all naked, heaved themselves from the water and onto the wide stone walkways. They were a ghastly crew. As well as the incredible odour, they were blackened with blood and their hair matted with gore, and it was hard to believe from their appearance these people were uninjured.
The entrance was blocked by a massive iron gate. The bars were to keep the crocodiles and other scavengers from swimming up the sewers into the city.
"Now what?" wailed one of the sisters, "How will we get through these metal bars?"
"We open the gate!"
"But what about crocodiles?" asked another plaintively.
"We pray!" came the answer.
Groans erupted amongst the bedraggled company.
Merit spoke up.
"Quiet! Quiet! We are alive! We have much to be thankful for! Do you not remember who we are? Shall the Great Mother Auset forsake us in this moment when we are so close to freedom? Have you so little faith? Hush now, and do not allow your thoughts to ascend to Heaven that she might hear only our ingratitude!
Call out her name!
An echoing answer greeted her words.
"Praise be the Mother of God!"
Spontaneously the low hum of a song of thanksgiving rose from the throats of the fathers and the lips of the sisters of the temple. Miri knew the song for it was sung at Philae, and she added her hushed voice to the others. The voices of the mothers and fathers gathered there wove into a rich tapestry of quiet harmony that thrilled her soul. Though she had sung the hymn many times in mass, never had the words of Salvation carried so much meaning as at that moment. The glory of the Great Mother of Philae filled the cramped space, and the stench lessened and a soft breeze blew through the iron bars. While their hearts were still filled with thanksgiving and elation, Matima unlocked the pins holding the gate closed and lifted the great latch. The gate swung reluctantly outwards, protesting its being moved with a long drawn out screeching. One by one, still softly singing, the templars slipped from the shelf and waded out into the neck deep water.
As it came Miri's turn, though she sang the hymn still, great dread entered her being as she passed through the gate. As the sky opened up above her head, she could see both sides of the Nile. Amongst the reeds, she could see the still forms of the basking crocodiles, and her heart beat wildly within her breast. She willed the crocodiles to stay unmoving, but her thoughts were so forced, she could not imagine they were doing anything but gaining the attention of the crocodiles. She prayed to the god Sobek to keep his minions onshore.
Suddenly one of the crocodiles moved forward and splashed into the water. The entire bank exploded into motion as others ran forward and dropped into the water. The sisters began to scream, and everyone splashed madly toward a stone jetty only a few cubits away. Absolute chaos reigned. Panicked sisters and brothers trained to be polite and thoughtful of others suddenly had no other thought except for themselves. Miri seemed to see the moment only in fractured images. She was above water, the air filled with panicked screams. Underwater, the muffled bubbling sound of the frantic struggles of the people about her. Gasping for breath: a crocodile struck someone nearby. A ghastly scream! Someone grappled with her waist from below. Underwater. Gaping wide maw of a crocodile drifted almost lazily by. Swimming for the jetty. The rough scraping of her thigh against a crocodile's side. The water alive with frantic people. Water boiling with fear. Panic. The fury that propelled the cr
Her hand reached the stone wall, and she pulled herself from the water. A crocodile turned toward her. Her fingers slipped on the wet stone. A hand reached for her. Another hand! The crocodile opened its huge mouth. She was pulled free of the water just as ther crocodile breached the surface and those terrible jaws behind her snapped shut, missing her legs by a hairsbreadth!
Miri had time to gather neither her sense nor her breath. She joined the others in hauling their fellows from the water. A ghastly contest erupted between those on the jetty and the crocodiles, each side pulling the people left in the water either to doom or safety. One of the priests reached down to help a floundering sister and suddenly a crocodile opened up beneath him and pulled him from the jetty by the head and shoulders. The screams and struggle eventually died down, and the calm silence of the Nile resumed. Birds settled back to their perches, the crocodiles returned to the shore to digest their prey, and the people on the jetty collapsed from exhaustion of body and spirit. A calm breeze blew softly over the burbling water and the survivors.
Miri shook uncontrollably. She closed her eyes, but the terrible images of battling the crocodiles came back to her, and she her eyes snapped open as soon as they had closed. She moaned. Her shaking didn't stop. A warm hand grasped her shoulder.
It was Merit.
"We must help the others!" Merit lifted Miri by the shoulders. Still shivering, Miri blinked in the hot sun. Inches from her, lay several injured people with bad wounds.
"We have work to do!" urged Merit softly, "Come, help tend the wounded!"
By a will not her own, Miri was carried along to bind leaves against the wounds and weave tourniquets from grass fibres. Soon her shaking diminished by the familiarity of tending those who were in need. She thanked the great Mother for her training in medication and healing, for the help she brought to others flowed back into her own heart and made it strong again, and her shaking stopped.
In the midst of caring for the injured, Miri glanced up at Mother Merit, and realized for the first time Merit herself was bleeding from a double row of jagged holes across her thigh.
Miri called to Apusim, and rushed to Merit's side. "Mother! Mother!" she called
Merit turned to her, and seeing Miri's expression of shock tried to turn her away.
"You are hurt!" cried Miri reaching the older woman.
"It is nothing!" replied Merit, "See to the others!"
"Nothing?" cried Miri, "You are dressing scratches, and not attending these deep teeth marks? Why didn't you say something?"
"Come, Mother," urged Apusim as she pulled Merit by the arm. "Let us clean your wounds and dress them. Then, at least you will be better able to attend to others."
Merit resisted momentarily, but seeing her two sisters were right, she meekly allowed herself to be laid down on the grassy knoll behind the jetty. Flies buzzed everywhere. They were drawn by the offal floating from the sewer, and now, by the oozing blood and body fluids of the refugees. One of the sisters from Meroway, a native girl, had taken some others to a nearby well, and they had fashioned buckets from huge leaves, bringing fresh water to cleanse the wounds of the injured. As Miri washed the area around the gouges in Merit's thigh, she wondered how the Mother still managed to be so active. She glanced up at Apusim, and saw she too was very concerned for Merit. The cuts went deep beneath the layers of skin and fat into the muscle. One by one she and Apusim poured the clean well water into the wounds, then closed them tight wrapped in herbs and leaves gathered by the others. As the two sisters worked silently on her, Merit began to shake. The tremors ran through her bod
Miri finished wrapping the last cut.
"There!" she said cheerily, "That ought to hold you for a while!"
She turned to Merit, and her contented smile drained away immediately. Her eyes met Apusim's, but not Merit's.
Merit was dead. Her lifeless eyes saw nothing; her pupils were dark and empty. For a moment, Miri felt a wash of comfort as Merit's soul passed through her, then nothing! Her friend was gone! The three sisters sat for an Eternity. Apusim rocked Merit's lifeless body as if Merit were still alive, and Miri sat motionless at her side, one hand caressing Merit's leg, and the other at her own mouth to stop the sounds of grief from escaping her. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the two remaining sisters, but in neither one did thoughts form which did not have to do with Mother Merit.
Night fell, and the mosquitos tormented them mercilessly. The survivors moaned and groaned, and tossed and turned, but the onslaught of the terrible stinging allowed no rest for them, and since they could not light a fire so close to the city, it was eventually decided amongst them they must find open ground and pray to the gods for a cold night breeze. The little band of survivors rallied and slipped away from the jetty and made their way to a road downstream of the city. In answer to their prayers, a rather forceful breeze sprang from the southeast, and although it was warm and moist, it was enough to blow away the mosquitos. Thunder began to roll in the distance, and the wind began to blow in erratic gusts, whipping up dust from the road, and blowing it into their eyes, mouths and nostrils.
For some, the electrified air preceding the storm generated a great dread, for they saw the storm as a sign that the gods were angry at their deserting the temple. Others saw it was a good sign. The rain would wash away their sins. The rain would cool the air. The rain would cover their tracks and their spoor that the dogs of the Royal Guard would never find them.
Neither theory held water. Not that much water. For at the sizzle of lightning and a great clap of thunder that shook the earth beneath their feet, more water than Miri ever imagined could be carried on the winds fell upon the already battered band. The jungle and marsh about them steamed as the first wash of water rattled down on the earth. Within a short few breaths, the road became slippery with mud which rose from squeezing above her toes to ankle deep, and then halfway up her shins and calves. Progress became impossible, and the little band of survivors, carrying their injured on litters, struggled into the jungle for relief from the rain.
They pushed through the forest, and the leaves cut their skin, and mosquitos, free from the onslaught of the rain under the palm leaves and drawn by the smell of their bodies, plagued them mercilessly. The stinging and itching was maddening, and Miri cursed the jungle. She was sure if anyone spoke to her she would bite their head off. Mitama finally, led them into a rain-drenched clearing and the party sank thankfully to their knees. They all sat out in the rain. Although their skins became wrinkled and soft from the water, and the drone of the raindrops on their skulls was terrible, it was preferable to the torture of the innumerable mosquitos.
The moon was completely obscured by pitch-black clouds, and only in the flash of lightning could they see about them. They sat on a raised hummock, and soon the hummock became an island as the water rose about them. They sat in the darkness, and the rising water pushed them into a tighter and tighter knot. A small snake slithered between Miri's legs, and gave her a start, but she remained motionless as it slithered over her. Soon all manner of small animals swam to the knoll, but as the space they had to sit became smaller, no one dared moved, for there was no way of telling whether a hand misplaced or a sudden movement would anger a poisonous snake enough to strike.
Miri and Apusim sat shoulder to shoulder. Somehow the presence of Apusim made Miri feel the loss of Merit even more and her heart ached for the loss of her companion and friend. They wrapped their arms gently about each other. A huge python glided over their bare thighs. Apusim and Miri shivered in fear. There seemed to be no end to it, for coil after coil it slowly looped itself in their laps and about their waists. The largest part of the snake was as thick as Miri's thigh, and the mass of it was immense. Neither sister could have stood up under the weight of the looping coils. They held each other in the rain and cried together, for they could not imagine feeling any worse than they felt at that moment.
But as a flash of lightning illuminated the scene, Miri was suddenly overcome by a peaceful calm. The python no longer seemed a threat, but a friend, and Miri released Apusim from her embrace. She gingerly touched the great snake. His skin was soft and smooth. She needed to share her bondage, and grasped Apusim's hand, then pressed the other sister's hand against the snakeskin. She sensed the change in her companion, and Miri felt Apusim slowly relax. The two sisters both rested their hands on the coils of the great snake and stroked it gently as others would stroke a sleeping cat.
Miri was enveloped in a great sense of calm and belonging. For a moment, she thought of Noah and the Flood, and thought perhaps she could see the ark floating away in the distance, and she and Apusim were the last survivors, the last people left alive on Earth as the waters arose about them. There was a calmness and an acceptance of Death, and a purity in a noble end. A great sweet sadness for every being who had died since the beginning of time, for their friend Merit, and a knowing that despite the efforts of Noah and his clan, they would all be reborn again when the waters receded. She felt pity for the python who would drown, for it would know only death was stalking it and fear would be its last thought. Only a woman could accept death as a natural part of existence, for she knew dying was only the passing from here to there. One day she would be back. She would return, and all who had known her would know her again. Slowly the ark sailed toward the horizon, and the wat
In the instant brilliance of a flash of lightning, Miri was suddenly reminded of her dream of the gardener, and she opened to Apusim, and began to relate the tale to her friend. The others, many still frightened, listened too, and soon the calmness of her voice and the joy of the tale of such great abundance transformed for all of them this nightmare in the jungle into an enchanted fairyland. Before the rain stopped, the inhabitants of the island people and animals alike, slowly drifted off to sleep.
They awoke in the brilliant hot glare of the late morning sun. The animals had already retreated into their jungle homes, and the water had subsided.
The mosquitos did care for the brilliant rays of the hot sun. Miri noticed for the first time how humid Meroway was. For most of her life she had lived in dry climates and now she was in a tropical setting, she could not believe how close the air was on her skin. She felt she would be able to carve the air with a spoon, deposit it in a sack and carry it home. She could feel the air. Even when it did not move.
The world was so alive here! Ants crawled over her skin and all manner of insects scuttled about. Butterflies flitted everywhere, and bright flashes of bird wings flitted along the periphery of her vision. A lizard scrambled by. Unseen insects buzzed incessantly. It seemed the entire forest was alive! A large spider stepped onto her hand. She shivered, and quickly flicked it off. Inexplicably, the forest about her became a menacing being. She felt that any moment the entire world would close in on her and swallow her whole. She could not shake the feeling, and became extremely agitated.
"What's wrong?" asked Apusim, rousing groggily from a deep dreamless sleep.
Miri didn't answer, but stood up and peered fearfully into the forest. Others about her followed her gaze, and Miri stepped cautiously toward the edge of the forest. A branch cracked somewhere in the emerald gloom. Miri stopped still. Another cracking! She looked back at the others. Awoken by the sounds, they were frozen in a strange tableau of fearful anticipation.
The sounds of breaking branches continued. Louder. Closer. The splashes of huge footsteps in water! It seemed as though giants were closing in on them from the forest!
Miri turned to move away from the forest. The others came to their feet, and the entire group edged away from the sound. Suddenly, the crashing increased and with a loud call, a huge elephant erupted from the brush.
The animal was covered in protective armour, and a castle mounted on his back carried four armoured spearmen and a turbaned driver. The naked refugees in the clearing screamed, and suddenly from behind, and then from every side, war elephants loomed up from the forests! The animals' trumpeting deafened the sisters and brethren huddled together within the impassable forest of elephants' legs.
Spears at the ready, warrixen and warriors squeezed between and beneath the huge animals, encircling Miri and her friends.
A huge woman wrapped in leopardskin, her head crowned with black ostrich feathers, appeared.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"Prophetess Matima of the Temple of Auset in Meroway, and these are the mothers and fathers who serve Auset there!"
The large woman surveyed the naked band and frowned. "Then what are you doing here?"
"Prince Taharkameni has plundered the temple and driven us from its walls!" answered Matima. "We have run from him for he means to kill us all!"
"The city is under siege!" replied the warrixen, "How did you evade the patrols?"
"We came through the sewers!"
A smile passed her lips, but her suspicion was unallayed.
"You!" she pointed at Miri. "You are not from Meroway!"
"I am a sister of Auset at Philae," replied Miri, "I was visiting our sisters in Meroway when Taharkameni invaded the sanctuary!"
The warrixen motioned to her soldiers and said something in an unknown language. The spear-carriers moved in on the naked band, and forced the templars to their knees. Each was bound with both arms behind the back by a massive man whose face was buried beneath a massive beard. Most of the men wore beards and with their bushy black hair, they seemed to Miri more like a band of furry animals than men.
Each of the captives was attached to a line held under the control of a soldier, who led the prisoner by a combination of prodding with his spear and tugging the line. The elephants turned and plodded single file back into the forest. The prisoners and their captors followed the line of elephants.
Miri found the walk through the space cleared by the passage of the elephants to be harder than their earlier trek through the forest, for they left broken tree trunks lying in the trail, and it was extremely difficult to climb over them with her hands tied behind her. If she wavered, the soldier who held her tether yanked hard on her line, often pulling her over the obstacle. She was soon raw and bleeding from a thousand cuts. To add to her misery, she could not always step aside to avoid the large piles of dung occasionally left in the wake of the war elephants, and once inside the greenery, the mosquitos returned.
The march was long and several brother and sisters of the Order fell and had to be carried. The weaker members were trussed up and tied to the backs of the elephants. The ride looked sufficiently painful that the temptation to give in to fatigue was dispelled somewhat. Eventually, Miri's thoughts narrowed and became solely focused upon placing one foot before the other, and even avoiding the elephant dung was no longer important. She stumbled and slipped several times, only to be prodded and pulled back into line by her handler. She began to feel she was a simple beast of burden. An ass. Held by a rope and prodded by a sharp stick. Her throat was parched despite the humidity. She felt she could drink the mouthfuls of air, but her tongue stuck to her teeth, and her mouth was raw.
In a rare moment, she raised her head and looked behind her. The line to which she was fastened was now part of a longer cable of twisted rope held fast in the trunk of a large and wrinkled female elephant. She was caught by surprise that she and her companions were now held fast by the strange looking beast. She stumbled and turned her attention back to walking, but she began to glance back at the infinitely calm and peaceful monster that held her by a tether.
Finally, the line of prisoners, elephants and soldiers broke free of the jungle and onto a grassy plain. There, ahead of them stood the city of Meroway, and before its walls, thousands of men and animals, tents and siege machines. Huge black pillars of smoke rose from within the city, and from the fires of the besiegers. There were pennants of many tribes before the walls, and Miri recognized the flags of the Kandake Amniteri.
The Kandake! She would vouch for Miri and her friends! Her heart surged joyously, though she had no energy to pass to her legs.
As they walked through the camp, Miri saw a familiar face in the crowd of gawking soldiers. Ari-Kakanti! The man who had passed his amulet on to her! It still dangled between her breasts, but she could not hold it up for him to see.
"Ari-Kakanti!" she called out, "Tell the Kandake I am here. Tell her Satemastoreth is here!"
"Silence!" commanded the soldier handling her and jerked her rope viciously. A sharp jolt passed through her arms as they were snapped upward, and the spear jabbed into her side, not cutting deep, but still drawing blood. The prisoners were herded into a corral. The enclosure was packed with others, and Miri managed to squeeze in but was pushed painfully against the acacia thorn fence. She scratched her skin on the cruel thorns, but she didn't care. All she could think of was to lay her head against the ground and sleep. She pressed beneath the cruel thorns and closed her eyes. The pain no longer mattered. She could rest. She closed her eyes.