The two men crept along the edge of the moonlit barley ﬁeld. Sweat trickled down their taut bare backs. Fingers were tightened around the hilts of bronze swords and their eyes darted. Along the horizon a red glow wavered from the blazing farms littering the lush Nile Valley, and a warm desert wind whipped sheets of smoke across the stars. The men choked on the reek of burning, their ears ringing with the cries of the dying which shred-ded the stillness like the howls of wild cats. This was grim work, but they were ready.
They were a mismatched pair. Piay was tall and muscular with a strong jawline, high cheekbones and dark eyes that turned the heads of the women who served the Pharaoh. Hannu, his assistant, walked with a limp. He was squat, with a thatch of black hair covering his body, and a jagged scar carved down his left cheek to an unkempt black beard. As he looked around, he glowered with eyes like hot coals.
‘Go much further and you will not return,’ Hannu grunted as they halted to search the way ahead. ‘The Hyksos swarm across this land like rats at harvest time.’
‘Courage, my friend,’ said Piay. ‘Faint hearts will not drive these invaders back to their distant home.’
Hannu snorted. ‘Courage. If that was all it took, we would have been victorious ﬁfty years gone, when they ﬁrst came here. See how courage helps when you’ve got one of their beasts thundering towards you and a crescent sword hacking off the heads of your friends.’
Piay jabbed a ﬁnger. ‘We have a job to do.’
‘Aye. But not at the cost of our necks. “Get as close as you can,” Taita said.’
‘And we can get closer! I will not return to my master empty-handed.’
Piay glanced back at the six soldiers who had been sent to accompany them on this spying mission. They were young, their blades wavering in their hands as they crouched, waiting for an order. So many of the experienced soldiers had been killed in the ﬁ ghting that they were recruiting boys who a short while ago had been working in their fathers’ ﬁelds.
Piay peered into the dark ahead. What were the barbarians planning to do next? That was the question he needed to answer.
This interminable war had been rolling back and forth along the valley of Mother Nile for nigh on half a century. The barbarians had superior numbers – what appeared to be an endless supply of the best ﬁghting men in the world. They had the greater weapons – those cruel swords and bows that were three times as powerful as any in Egyptian hands. Most importantly, they had those damnable beasts that so terriﬁed Hannu – the horses, powerful and well trained, able to pull gleaming chariots from which each warrior could loose a hundred arrows as they advanced.
Many had lost hope that Egypt would ever be free. But not his master. Taita the Wise, the Pharaoh’s mage and counsellor, insisted that a moment would come when they could drive the Hyksos out once and for all. They had to watch and wait. Taita had sent his agents out time and again to learn the valuable information that would turn the tide of battle. And every time, those spies had failed.
Piay felt his chest harden. Not him. He was the best of them all. He would succeed. He glanced at the white kilt he wore, embroidered with the yellow orb of Ra’s ﬁery chariot. It was his most prized possession, a present from Taita on the day he had ﬁnished his studies, and each time he had worn it, he had experienced good fortune. This was his moment. Glory awaited him.
‘You asked me to tell you if your conﬁdence swelled your head to the point where it might burst,’ Hannu cautioned. ‘It is happening now.’
A terrible scream tore through the night and Hannu stiffened. Piay ﬂinched. His soldiers’ faces were as bloodless as if they had seen the dead return from their tombs.
Piay would not show fear. These men depended on him to lead them into this blood-soaked territory. The Hyksos had advanced again, reclaiming land they had been driven from only two years before. They were showing no mercy to anyone they encountered. To save themselves, the farmers would follow the orders of their new masters. They always did.
Hannu’s gaze skittered across the dark ﬁelds. He wasn’t scared, Piay knew – he was never afraid. The instincts he’d honed in battle during his former life as a soldier were coming to the fore.
Piay remembered stumbling across Hannu begging on a dusty street in Thebes. His ruined leg, hacked in some battle, meant he could no longer be a member of the elite Blue Crocodile Guards. Many thought he was useless, with no future. But Piay had seen something in this ﬁerce little man that day, in his incisive stare and his contempt for well-educated strangers. He was also knowledgeable and wise, two things that an even wiser man valued. Piay had hired him as an assistant, an occasional advisor, servant and diplomat.
Hannu took it upon himself to keep Piay’s feet upon the ground.
‘I admit I sometimes let my conﬁdence get the better of me,’ said Piay.
‘And your mouth.’
Piay tightened his lips. ‘I am a spy of great renown, foremost in all skills—’
‘. . . trained in the arts of war and peace, by the great Taita himself, but I defer to your knowledge of blood-soaked battle-ﬁelds and the smell of defeat.’
Hannu narrowed his eyes.
‘We will continue with caution. And at the ﬁrst sign of trouble we will retreat. Is that fair?’
Hannu grunted again. His assent wasn’t convincing.
Piay raised his hand and snapped his ﬁ ngers forward. Away they went, deeper into enemy territory.
Laughter split the air across the swaying crops. Piay could smell the heavy musk of the barbarians’ beasts. The horse had once been unknown in Egypt, so he had been told. But that was long before he had been born. Taita had told him the story of when the Hyksos had ﬁrst swept like a storm upon the backs of their mounts. Taita had witnessed this fearsome sight himself, so he said, and if that were true then Taita must have been blessed by the gods, for he looked barely older than Piay.
Piay heard the beasts snort and stamp their hooves. They were close but not close enough.
They’d known of these strange barbarian people from the distant east, the Hyksos, for many years, Taita had said. They came from a mountainous land and had once been farmers until they learned the way of the crescent sword and the bow. When their small bands had started to move into the Sinai and along the fringes of the Nile, the Hyksos had been considered little more than an irritant, raiding caravans and turquoise mines and isolated settlements.
In those days, who could have guessed they had designs upon Egypt itself?
But their king had been planning for a long time. Reports reached Thebes of a vast army bearing down upon this civilised land. The Red Pretender, that false pharaoh in the Lower Kingdom, with all his forces, had been crushed as if he were nothing. And then the Hyksos had turned their attention to the south, to the Upper Kingdom.
The Hyksos wanted it all.
In Thebes, the Pharaoh heard these tales of blood and destruction from the north and dug deep into his coffers to repel any invasion. New galleys were built and the army was marched along the banks of the Nile to destroy these arrogant intruders. Even after hearing what had been wrought upon the Red Pretender, the Pharaoh still drank deeply of the heady brew of the myth of Egyptian supremacy.
Taita had trembled when he recounted how the great Egyptian army had been routed in just one day, and his master was not a man given to displays of emotion. Galleys sank in ﬂames and the Hyksos drove the remnants of the once proud force south, harrying them at every opportunity. It had turned from battle to mere sport.
Since that day, Egypt had known endless war and bloodshed and death. Fifty years of it. After Thebes had fallen for the ﬁrst time, Taita had ﬂed south with the current Pharaoh. The great king had only been a boy then. After a stay in the lands beyond the cataracts, Taita had returned with renewed vigour to drive the enemy out of the City of a Hundred Gates and back towards the Lower Kingdom. But the Hyksos never relented, pressing ever onwards, recapturing land lost only to lose it again. And under Taita’s guidance the brave resistance had continued. But over time the Egyptian army became diminished, the chance of reclaiming the land of their birth beginning to fade like the morning mist.
Now they had reached a time of desperation.
Smoke swept across the ﬁelds from the farmstead blazing nearby, the roar of the ﬂames combining with the laughter of whoever was gathered out of sight.
Piay pushed the ﬂat of his hand down and the men behind dropped lower. He slipped forwards below the level of the swaying barley, sensing Hannu at his back.
The laughter was louder, and he could hear the guttural notes of that strange barbarian tongue.
On the edge of an irrigation channel, Piay dropped to his belly and slid forwards like a serpent. The steady heartbeat of the shadoof rolled out as the water wheel turned, plunging the bucket on the pole into the water, then swinging it back up with the counterweight.
Ahead, the ﬂames of a campﬁre rose towards the stars. A constellation of sparks drifted on the night breeze. Around the burning sods of animal dung and straw, six barbarians lounged in their leather caps and breastplates, gnawing on what looked like strips of cured meat. Their crescent-shaped swords were sheathed, their bows set aside. They were not expecting any attack. Why would they? They were masters here.
One of the barbarians picked through a pile of swords, amulets and rings – booty taken from dead Egyptian soldiers.
Piay blinked away tears as the smoke stung his eyes, and when his vision cleared he glimpsed another ﬁgure on the edge of the circle of wavering amber light. This man was hunched over, but when he raised his head the dancing ﬂames picked out blood caking the edge of his mouth and his left eye. Bruises mottled his skin. An Egyptian soldier, a captive, beaten for information on what remained of the ﬂeeing force.
Piay felt anger simmer in his breast. One of the barbarians heaved himself up and sauntered over to the captive. Squatting beside the bloodied man, the Hyksos warrior grunted some-thing in the captive’s ear. It must have been in the Egyptian tongue, for the soldier shook his head. The Hyksos warrior cuffed the brave Egyptian round the ears and laughed as he returned to the ﬁre. The others chuckled and fell back to their conversation.
Piay studied the group, looking for any signs of weakness. His attention settled on one he sensed was the leader of the band. The captain sat apart from the others and rarely joined in with their chatter. His back was as straight as a rod, his chin held high. Above his black bristles, his skin was scarred with the marks of the pox. His eyes moved slowly and sullenly across the dark countryside beyond the ﬁ relight. Piay felt a power rolling off him like the rippling waves of heat that rose from the baked desert sands.
This was a dangerous man, he was sure. He would be the greatest threat.
Piay steeled himself. Here was a situation that would bring him all the glory of which he had ever dreamed. The band was small. The element of surprise would allow them to counter any superior battle skills these seasoned warriors might possess. This was a ﬁght they could win easily. They could not leave an Egyptian in the hands of such barbarians. Who knew what terrible things he would be forced to endure before they took his life?
What secrets had the captive overheard? Piay could bring back valuable information. Perhaps even to turn the tide of battle.
Piay beckoned his men to crawl up behind him. Their faces were taut, their eyes widened. They were anxious, but they would obey his orders to the last.
Hannu came up beside him and whispered, ‘Now’s not the time for an attack, we’ve not scouted the surrounding land.’
‘We don’t have the time,’ Piay breathed. ‘We act now. The longer we wait, the more chance we might be discovered. And then we would be slaughtered.’
Piay knew he had brought them to the point of no return. He could almost hear Taita’s praise ringing in his ears.
Piay noticed the captain had taken himself further away. He was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the circle of ﬁrelight, looking up at the stars with his lips moving as if he was praying. He dipped into a leather pouch that hung at his waist.
Piay levelled his left hand to signal for his men to wait. The captain unfurled his ﬁngers to reveal a handful of small ﬂowers. The petals were dark and Piay shivered when he recognised their distinct shape. The blue lotus. He had heard it called the Dream Flower, sacred to Ra, for it rose from the waters of the Nile at ﬁrst light and disappeared as the sun fell. The priests of the temples had drunk it in a brew from the days of antiquity, for it allowed them to contact the gods themselves. Some said it transported the Ka to the afterlife to learn secret knowledge before returning to the land of men. Others, that it ﬁlled those who consumed it with supernatural powers.
‘Wait,’ Piay whispered. ‘The blue lotus will suck their leader into dreams and visions. Then our advantage will be greater still.’
The other barbarians laughed and chewed and tossed more sods on to the ﬁre, sending golden sparks cascading towards the heavens. The captive’s head nodded on to his chest. For him all hope was gone – he had resigned himself to death.
The captain let his eyes drift to the stars, and the full moon, and gradually his lids weighed down.
Easing up his sword, Piay pushed himself onto his haunches and uttered ‘Now.’
The Egyptian band surged forwards. Blood-curdling screeches rang out across the lush ﬁelds.
Piay bounded ahead. He was strong and fast, and the memories ﬂooded through him of all those lessons with a sword from when he had been barely old enough to lift one: sweating under a hot sun, parrying and thrusting and moving with the grace of a temple dancer until all of it became second nature. He told everyone he was the best swordsman in all Egypt. Few argued.
By the time he could feel the bloom from the heat of the campﬁre, the barbarians were on their feet and fumbling to draw their curved blades. Except the captain, who remained cross-legged, drifting in whatever netherworld the blue lotus had imprisoned him.
Piay darted in front of the ﬁrst Hyksos warrior. As his opponent swung his weapon to hack, Piay rammed his blade through ﬂesh and bone to the heart. He wrenched his sword free and spun to confront the next opponent.
But all the other Hyksos warriors were engaged. Hannu swung his weapon with the strength of a man twice his size. One Egyptian soldier reeled from a deep gash on his upper arm, but he would survive.
Piay leaped to the captive. The man looked up with wide eyes, scarcely believing what he was seeing.
‘You came for me,’ he croaked.
‘Remember to tell your friends who it was that saved your life. My name is Piay.’
His name sounded from behind him in little more than an exhalation, almost lost beneath the hissing of the ﬁre. He turned and saw the captain’s eyes begin to focus as he dragged himself out of his trance.
Piay sawed at the strips of hide that bound the captive’s wrists. He pulled the man to his feet.
‘Away,’ Piay said. ‘We will guide you home when we are done here.’
‘Piay.’ The captain’s voice was stronger now.
Piay moved round. Levelling his sword, he said, ‘You have been defeated by better men. You can keep your life if you ﬂee. Tell the others like you that Egypt will never be vanquished.’
The captain eased himself up to his full height, a head taller than Piay, without a hint of bewilderment from the blue lotuses he had consumed. A grey ﬁre seemed to ﬂicker in his eyes. The captain’s unkempt black hair was bound with strips of hide on which hung small bones that clacked together in a macabre music of death every time he moved his head. He drew his lips into a wolﬁsh grin.
Piay had seen many Hyksos in his time, but none like this. He saw the swirls of intricate tattoos along the captain’s arms, symbols which seemed to tell a story.
‘I see you,’ the captain breathed. ‘Your god Anubis stands at your shoulder.’
The captain peered past him with that strange, implacable stare, as if something lurked in the shadows.
‘Flee,’ Piay said as the battle raged behind him. ‘My patience is not endless. This is the last time I will show mercy.’
‘I have walked along the shores of the black ocean to the very edge of the afterlife,’ the captain continued, as if he had not heard Piay’s words. ‘I have heard the whispers of the gods.’
He drew his own blade. The reﬂected ﬁrelight glinted along it in amber ripples as he waved it in front of Piay.
If the liquor of the blue lotus still coursed through his veins, it did not diminish his potency. The movements of the blade were precise, the skill of a master swordsman.
‘My name is Sakir,’ the captain said in a rumbling voice. ‘Known by many as the Red Hawk, by others as He Who Walks With the Gods. Of all the Hyksos you could have chosen to make an enemy, you have found the worst. I do not fear death. I embrace it. And now that you have stirred me from my dreams, I will bring that death to you.’
Piay laughed. ‘You think highly of yourself. But you are just another ﬁlthy invader trampling across the glory that is Egypt. You are a passing shadow on this land and soon you will be gone.’
Sakir pushed two ﬁngers in his mouth and blasted out a long whistle.
Piay glanced at the ﬁghting barbarians, trying to comprehend what their captain was signalling to them. They seemed unmoved, still attacking in the same chaotic manner. Suddenly Sakir swung his sword in an arc with such strength it could have cleaved Piay in two had not Piay swept up his own blade and, with a delicate ﬂick of his wrist, positioned the weapon at an angle to deﬂ ect his enemy’s strike.
Sakir hacked again, driving forwards. Piay danced back. He felt his concentration narrow. The Hyksos captain was as good as he’d said.
They moved around the campﬁre. Piay’s nostrils sucked in the drifting smoke and his eyes stung with tears. Sakir appeared unmoved. He was barely blinking. Their blades sang into the night.
Sweat drenched Piay’s back and soaked into his kilt. He forced a grin to hide his unease. He had never faced an opponent as skilled as this warrior. They were evenly matched.
I will not be defeated, he told himself. I am the best swordsman in all Egypt.
Piay kicked at the campﬁre. A burning sod ﬂew up and hit Sakir’s thigh. Not a wince crossed the captain’s face. It was as if he could feel no pain.
There was a sound like distant thunder. An instant later Piay heard cries ring out.
Hyksos riders pounded along the track towards them. The whistle blast had not been intended for the barbarians engaged in that furious battle. Sakir had summoned reinforcements.
Piay felt his stomach knot. Hannu had been right – he had been too conﬁdent. He should have scouted the area before launching his attack.
Dropping, he spun on his left hand and swung one foot in an arc. Sakir’s legs ﬂew out from under him and he crashed to the ground. Piay threw himself forwards. He stamped his foot on the wrist of his opponent’s sword-arm and rammed the barbarian’s head down. The left side of Sakir’s face crunched into the hot embers. This time he howled. The stink of searing ﬂesh ﬁlled the air.
Piay darted away. ‘Come!’ he yelled to his men.
Hooking one hand under the Egyptian captive’s arm, he dragged him away.
He glanced back and horror ﬂooded him. The Hyksos warriors had fallen upon the rest of the scouting band. Hooves shattered skulls. Swords cleaved through necks and chests. The screams of the dying spiked deep into his heart.
Piay felt someone slam into him and he pitched into the shadows of an irrigation ditch. Snatching a gulp of air, he plunged into cold black water. Two other ﬁgures splashed beside him. One was the Egyptian soldier, the other Hannu.
His assistant grabbed him and whispered, ‘Ahead, as fast as you can, but quietly. This has bought us a little time, but that is all.’
Piay grasped the arm of the former captive and together they half-swam, half-waded away from the rolling thunder of hoof beats circling the area.
‘I will come for you, Piay!’ Sakir’s voice boomed through the night. ‘Run as fast as you can, run for days and weeks and months. But there will come a time when you turn and I will be there and then your life will be over!’
As he pushed through the cold water, Piay’s mood darkened. The faces of the young men he had commanded ﬂoated into his mind. Barely more than boys, innocent, trusting in him. He had failed them.
Could he ever make amends? Piay felt the murk of the ditch seep into him and close around his heart.
Hannu pulled at his arm and pointed. Ahead, caught in silver glints of moonlight, writhing rats swam away from them. Where the steep bank had partially collapsed, they scrambled up the black earth into the ﬁeld beyond.
‘Follow them,’ Hannu breathed.
Piay dug his ﬁngers into the soft mud and hauled himself up the side of the irrigation ditch. At the top, he dragged the battered soldier up behind him, and then Hannu. For a moment their eyes met, and Piay communicated a silent look of thanks for his accomplice’s quick thinking at the campﬁre.
The bellows of the roaming Hyksos warriors thundered as they searched for their prey. A moment later a roar rang out.
‘They’ve seen us,’ Hannu gasped. ‘Into the ﬁelds.’
Piay and the two men scrambled into the golden sea of barley, keeping low. Their passage opened up a channel through the crop that would be visible in the moonlight, but what choice did they have? Piay pushed on, zigzagging until they were far from where they had been seen.
Piay threw himself on his belly. The soldier and Hannu collapsed beside him. As his breathing subsided, Piay strained to listen. In the distance, hoof beats thrummed off the tracks that criss-crossed the fertile land beside the Nile, and the call and response of the barbarians echoed.
‘Let us be away,’ the soldier said. ‘My wounds are burning—’ Piay clamped a hand on the man’s mouth and pressed a ﬁnger to his lips. His instincts told him they were not yet free.
Piay sensed the sharp reek of smoke. An instant later, a dim crackling became a low roar, rising in intensity.
‘They are burning the ﬁelds.’
Piay looked back towards the irrigation ditch. Smoke swirled above a crimson line glowing in the night. The ﬂames licked up and raced across the ﬁeld with gathering speed.
The soldier cried out. Scrabbling to his feet, he lurched away. Hannu threw himself at the escaping man like a bull, knocking him to the ground again.
‘We must ﬂee!’ the man cried.
‘That’s what they want,’ Hannu spat. ‘They’ll be waiting for us on the other side.’
‘We can’t stay here.’
Piay glanced one way, then the other, as he found his bearings, then beckoned for the two men to follow him parallel to the line of ﬁre.
‘Are you mad?’ the soldier cried.
‘Most likely,’ Hannu grunted.
Piay sprinted, ignoring the blaze rushing towards them.
The ﬂames leaped as high as his chest, and his ears ached from their hungry roar. Whipped up by the wind, the choking smoke swallowed them so that he could no longer see the way ahead.
When his lungs began to sear from the hot air, Piay felt hope begain to ebb. But the wind gusted, the smoke cleared and a black expanse opened up.
‘Here!’ he called.
The canal ran straight and true from the Nile, taking the life-giving water deep into the fertile countryside. The blaze scorched Piay’s ﬂesh. He choked on thick smoke. But his step never faltered as he dived off the edge of the canal. When he thrust his head up from the chill depths, he heard the two men entering behind him.
‘This time your gamble paid off,’ Hannu said.
He shook the water from his beard like a dog. In the midst of danger, Hannu was the level-headed and wise seasoned warrior, but Piay could see he had now reverted to his usual sharp-tongued self.
With the ﬂames crackling above their heads, they dragged themselves along the edge of the canal and when they reached a ﬂoodgate, they hauled themselves out of the water.
At the top, Piay glanced back. Silhouetted against that infernal glow a ﬁgure stood, as rigid as one of the temple statues. Though it was too dark to tell for sure, Piay was convinced it was Sakir, and that the Hyksos warrior was staring directly at him.
The rushes along the banks of the Nile rustled in the breeze. Breathing in the dank scents of the river, Piay tentatively made his way along the papyrus beds, fearful of disturbing any resting crocodiles. When he was a boy, he’d seen one of those monstrous beasts swallow a child whole. Life was ﬁlled with lessons, his master Taita said, and he had taken this one to heart.
Hannu whistled from further along the track. He had located the skiffs they’d hidden when they had arrived on the eastern bank earlier that night.
The skiff was small enough for one man to row, the hull constructed from rolls of papyrus reeds bound tightly together. Astern, a ﬁlthy linen sheet was tied across a frame to shelter from the sun during the day.
Piay crawled beneath the shelter and lay with his hands behind his head. The rescued soldier collapsed in the prow. Hannu lowered himself on to the bench and grasped the oars. He showed no sign of exhaustion. All those years in the Blue Crocodile Guards had given him a hardy disposition.
Once they were in mid-stream, Piay allowed himself to relax and stopped glancing back at the eastern bank. But the memory of the Hyksos captain silhouetted against the ﬁre had burned its way into his mind. He saw it even when he closed his eyes.
‘Tell me, my friend,’ he called to the soldier, ‘why did the Hyksos take you captive instead of killing you on the battleﬁeld?’
The soldier levered himself up on his elbows.
‘The barbarians are planning an attack on Thebes. They wanted to know the strength of our army – if we could defend the City of a Hundred Gates. I told them . . .’ His voice broke. ‘I told them nothing.’
‘You are a brave man. You’ll be well rewarded when we return.’
Piay leaned back so he could watch the milky river of stars that mirrored the Nile in the heavens. An attack on Thebes! This was the kind of information that Taita had dispatched him into the enemy’s territory to ﬁnd.
And yet he could not revel in the success of his mission. Six lost lives weighed upon his soul. Six Ka's forever denied the afterlife.
It was his error of judgement, his reckless gambling, that had led them into danger. He would never be able to forget the toll of his own failings. Bowing his head, he muttered a prayer for his lost men. It was not enough.
After a while, Piay felt he could not stare into the darkness inside himself any longer.
‘The captain of the Hyksos band will have to explain to his generals how he lost a valuable captive. That will teach him not to be so arrogant.’
The soldier stirred. ‘I would not want Sakir for an enemy.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘He is crazed. His own men fear him. He has given himself fully to the dreams of the blue lotus. The barbarians whispered that he has walked with the gods and they have given him powers beyond mortal men.’
Piay laughed. ‘What do you say, Hannu?’
‘I remember digging a grave for an enemy who said he walked with the gods,’ said Hannu. ‘Two or three of them, if truth be told.’
‘Mock all you want,’ the soldier said. ‘But I looked into his eyes, and I heard what his men said about him when he was not present. Trust me, he will never forgive you for what you did this night. His heart burns—’
‘And his face,’ Hannu interjected.
‘His heart burns with hatred and that will fuel him. He will not relent until he has his revenge.’
‘Let him come,’ Piay said with a waft of his hand. ‘I’m no stranger to enemies who bear a grudge. If he thinks he can slit my throat in the middle of the Egyptian army, then I will bow to his greater skills.’
The conversation drifted into silence until there was only the gentle splash of the dipping oars and the lapping of the river currents against the hull. In the stillness, Piay drifted with his own memories. In his life, the ﬁ ghting was all he had known. His master Taita always spoke fondly of the great age of peace before the Hyksos came, when there was music and art and trade and learning. But even then the Pharaoh had been at war with the Red Pretender, the false pharaoh who had seized the Lower Kingdom.
Now, though, no one knew peace, only periods of great ten-sion punctuated by ﬁerce battles as one side or the other tried to gain an advantage. The Hyksos coveted all Egypt and perhaps far beyond its boundaries, too. Taita, the master tactician, knew that if the barbarians were allowed time to occupy the entire land it would be nigh on impossible to uproot them. They were clever, those barbarians, quickly getting the people on their side. Daily life was rarely disrupted for the conquered. The people were allowed to govern themselves, or given the illusion of governing, with the Hyksos generals standing in the shadows directing and taking their share of taxes.
The people only wanted peace and the chance to live under th e eyes of the gods. That left Taita’s war council with few options.
Yes, Taita was Piay’s master, but he had also been like a father to him. Piay closed his eyes and tried to summon up the faces of his parents, but they hung, as always, in shadow. He’d seen only ﬁve spring ﬂoods of Mo ther Nile when they’d brought him to Taita. They’d begged the Pharaoh’s wisest advisor to teach their son so he could claim a good life for himself, one free of the hardship they had endured in the disputed territory where the Hyksos continually raided.
He remembered crying as they walked away that night, or thought he did, but from then on his days had been a whirl of learning under his eunuch master. Taita had a dagger-sharp mind and did not suffer fools. But he was kind and quick to praise when it was merited. Piay had come to love him, and his life had been immeasurably better than anything his parents could have offered, surrounded as he was by all the riches of the court and the most beautiful women in all Egypt.
But he had earned it. He recalled the sting of pain when Taita had lashed his rush switch on the back of his hand every time he got an answer wrong or failed to wield his sword with the necessary expertise. More than anything, Piay had wanted to make Taita proud, and in that he had succeeded time and again.
But how would he explain the lives he had lost and the miseries he had inﬂicted on the men’s families? A lesser man would pretend he had played no part in it. That the gods had decided upon the outcome. But he could not lie to Taita. Honour was more important than gold – that was how he had been raised. He would take his punishment even if it destroyed him in the eyes of his master. And how devastating that would be. For as long as he could remember, he had only ever wanted Taita’s approval.
Piay felt his heart sink, but he would not allow his guilt to show to Hannu or any others. Conﬁdence in all things was the rule he lived by. Weakness was for lesser men.
In the abiding dark of the far bank, lights glimmered among the swaying date palms silhouetted against the starry sky. They had returned alive. And now he would face his judgement.