Like an uncoiling serpent, a line of fighting chariots wound swiftly down the gut of the valley. From where he clung to the dashboard of the leading chariot the boy looked up at the cliffs that hemmed them in. The sheer rock was pierced by the openings to the tombs of the old people that honeycombed the cliff. The dark pits stared down at him like the implacable eyes of a legion of djinn. Prince Nefer Memnon shuddered and looked away, furtively making the sign to avert evil with his left hand.
Over his shoulder he glanced back down the column and saw that from the following chariot Taita was watching him through the swirling clouds of dust. The dust had coated the old man and his vehicle with a pale film, and a single shaft of sunlight that penetrated to the depths of this deep valley glittered on the mica particles so that he seemed to glow like the incarnation of one of the gods. Nefer ducked his head guiltily, ashamed that the old man had witnessed his fleeting superstitious dread. No royal prince of the House of Tamose should show such weakness, not now when he stood at the gateway to manhood. But, then, Taita knew him as no other did, for he had been Nefer's tutor since infancy, closer to him than his own parents or siblings. Taita's expression never changed but even at that distance his ancient eyes seemed to bore into the core of Nefer's being. Seeing all, understanding all.
Nefer turned back and drew himself up to his full height beside his father, who flipped the reins and urged the horses on with a crack of the long whip. Ahead of them the valley opened abruptly into the great amphitheatre that contained the stark and tumbled ruins of the city of Gallala. Nefer thrilled to his first sight of this famous battlefield. As a young man Taita, himself, had fought on this site when the demigod Tanus Lord Harrab had destroyed the dark forces that were threatening this very Egypt. That had been over sixty years ago but Taita had related to him every detail of the fight, and so vivid was his story-telling that Nefer felt as if he had been there on that fateful day.
Nefer's father, the god and Pharaoh Tamose, wheeled the chariot up to the tumbled stones of the rained gateway, and reined in the horses. Behind them a hundred chariots in succession neatly executed the same manoeuvre, and the charioteers swarmed down from the footplates to begin watering the horses. When Pharaoh opened his mouth to speak, the coated dust crumbled from his cheeks and dribbled down his chest.
'My lord!' Pharaoh hailed the Great Lion of Egypt, Lord Naja, his army commander and beloved companion. 'We must be away again before the sun touches the hilltops. I wish to make a night run through the dunes to El Gabar.'
The blue war crown on Tamose's head gleamed with mica dust, and his eyes were bloodshot with tiny lumps of tear-wet mud in the corners as he glanced down at Nefer. 'This is where I will leave you to go on with Taita.'
Although he knew that it was futile to protest, Nefer opened his mouth to do so. The squadron was going in against the enemy. Pharaoh Tamose's battle plan was to circle south through the Great Dunes and weave a way between the bitter natron lakes to take the enemy in his rear and rip an opening in his centre through which the Egyptian legions, massed and waiting on the Nile bank before Abnub, could pour. Tamose would combine the two forces and before the enemy could rally, drive on past Tell el-Daba and seize the enemy citadel of Avaris.
It was a bold and brilliant plan which, if it succeeded, would bring to a close, at one stroke, the war with the Hyksos that had already raged through two lifetimes. Nefer had been taught that battle and glory were the reasons for his existence on this earth. But, even at the advanced age of fourteen years, they had so far eluded him. He longed with all his soul to ride to victory and immortality at his father's side.
Before his protest could pass his lips, Pharaoh forestalled him. 'What is the first duty of a warrior?' he demanded of the boy.
Nefer dropped his eyes. 'It is obedience, Majesty,' he replied softly, reluctantly.
'Never forget it.' Pharaoh nodded and turned away.
Nefer felt himself spurned and discarded. His eyes smarted and his upper lip quivered, but Taita's gaze stiffened him. He blinked to clear his vision of tears, and took a pull from the waterskin that hung on the side rail of the chariot before turning to the old Magus with a jaunty toss of his thick dust-caked curls. 'Show me the monument, Tata,' he commanded.
The ill-assorted pair made their way through the concourse of chariots, men and horses that choked the narrow street of the ruined city. Stripped naked in the heat twenty troopers had climbed down the deep shafts to the ancient wells, and formed a bucket chain to bring the sparse, bitter water to the surface. Once those wells had been bountiful enough to support a rich and populous city that sat full upon the trade route between the Nile and the Red Sea. Then, centuries ago, an earthquake had shattered the water-bearing stratum and blocked the subterranean flow. The city of Gallala had died of thirst. Now there was scarcely sufficient water to slake the thirst of two hundred horses and top up the waterskins before the wells were dry.
Taita led Nefer through the narrow lanes, past temples and palaces now inhabited only by the lizard and the scorpion, until they reached the deserted central square. In its centre stood the monument to Lord Tanus and his triumph over the armies of bandits who had almost choked the life out of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. The monument was a bizarre pyramid of human skulls, cemented together and protected by a shrine made of red rock slabs. A thousand and more skulls grinned down upon the boy as he read aloud the inscription on the stone portico: 'Our severed heads bear witness to the battle at this place in which we died beneath the sword of Tanus Lord Harrab. May all the generations that follow learn from that mighty lord's deeds the glory of the gods and the power of righteous men. Thus decreed in the fourteenth year of the reign of the God Pharaoh Mamose.'
Squatting in the monument's shadow Taita watched the Prince as he walked around the monument, pausing every few paces with hands on hips to study it from every angle. Although Taita's expression was remote his eyes were fond. His love for the lad had its origins in two other lives. The first of these was Lostris, Queen of Egypt. Taita was a eunuch, but he had been gelded after puberty and had once loved a woman. Because of his physical mutilation Taita's love was pure, and he had lavished it all on Queen Lostris, Nefer's grandmother. It was a love so encompassing that even now, twenty years after her death, it stood at the centre of his existence.
The other person from whom his love for Nefer sprang was Tanus, Lord Harrab, to whom this monument had been erected. He had been dearer than a brother to Taita. They were both gone now, Lostris and Tanus, but their blood mingled strongly in this child's veins. From their illicit union so long ago had sprung the child who had grown up to become the Pharaoh Tamose, who now led the squadron of chariot that had brought them here; the father of Prince Nefer.
'Tats, show me where it was that you captured the leader of the robber barons.' Nefer's voice cracked with excitement and the onset of puberty. 'Was it here?' He ran to the broken-down wall at the south side of the square. 'Tell me the story again.'
'No, it was here. This side,' Taita told him, stood up and strode on those long, stork-thin legs to the eastern wall. He looked up to the crumbling summit. 'The ruffian's name was Shufti, and he was one-eyed and ugly as the god Seth. He was trying to escape from the battle by climbing over the wall up there.' Taita stooped and picked up half of a baked-mud brick from the rubble and suddenly hurled it upwards. It sailed over the top of the high wall. 'I cracked his skull and brought him down with a single throw.'
Even though Nefer knew, at first hand, the old man's strength, and that his powers of endurance were legend, he was astonished by that throw. He is old as the mountains, older than my grandmother, for he nursed her as he has done me, Nefer marvelled. Men say he has witnessed two hundred inundations of the Nile and that he built the pyramids with his own hands. Then aloud he asked, 'Did you hack off his head, Tata, and place it on that pile there?' He pointed at the grisly monument.
'You know the story well enough, for I have told it to you a hundred times.' Taita feigned modest reluctance to extol his own deeds.
'Tell me again!' Nefer ordered.
Taita sat down on a stone block while Nefer settled at his feet in happy anticipation and listened avidly, until the rams' horns of the squadron sounded the recall with a blast that shattered into diminishing echoes along the black cliffs. 'Pharaoh summons us,' Taita said, and stood up to lead the way back through the gate.
There was a great bustle and scurry outside the walls, as the squadron made ready to go on into the dune lands. The waterskins were bulging again and the troopers were checking and tightening the harness of their teams before mounting up.
Pharaoh Tamose looked over the heads of his staff as the pair came through the gateway, and summoned Taita to his side with an inclination of his head. Together they walked out of earshot of the squadron officers. Lord Naja made as if to join them. Taita whispered a word to Pharaoh, then Tamose turned and sent Naja back with a curt word. The injured lord, flushed with mortification, shot a look at Taita that was fierce and sharp as a war arrow.
'You have offended Naja. Someday I might not be at hand to protect you,' Pharaoh warned.
'We dare trust no man,' Taita demurred. `Not until we crush the head of the serpent of treachery that tightens its coils around the pillars of your palace. Until you return from this campaign in the north only the two of us must know where I am taking the Prince.'
'But Naja!' Pharaoh laughed dismissively. Naja was like a brother. They had run the Red Road together.
'Even Naja.' Taita said no more. His suspicions were at last hardening into certainty, but he had not yet gathered all the evidence he would need to convince Pharaoh.
'Does the Prince know why you are going into the fastness of the desert?' Pharaoh asked.
'He knows only that we are going to further his instruction in the mysteries, and to capture his godbird.'
'Good, Taita.' Pharaoh nodded. 'You were ever secretive but true. There is nothing more to say, for we have said it all. Now go, and may Horus spread his wings over you and Nefer.'
'Look to your own back, Majesty, for in these days enemies are standing behind you as well as to your front.'
Pharaoh grasped the Magus' upper arm and squeezed hard. Under his fingers the arm was thin but hard as a dried acacia branch. Then he went back to where Nefer waited beside the wheel of the royal chariot, with the injured air of a puppy ordered back to its kennel.
'Divine Majesty, there are younger men than me in the squadron.' The Prince made one last despairing effort to persuade his father that he should ride with the chariots. Pharaoh knew that the boy was right, of course. Meren, the grandson of the illustrious General Kratas, was his junior by three days and today was riding with his father as lance bearer in one of the rear chariots. 'When will you allow me to ride into battle with you, Father?'
'Perhaps when you have run the Red Road. Then not even I will gainsay you.'
It was a hollow promise, and they both knew it. Running the Red Road was the onerous test of horsemanship and weapons that few warriors attempted. It was an ordeal that drained, exhausted and often killed even a strong man in his prime and trained to near perfection. Nefer was a long way from that day.
Then Pharaoh's forbidding expression softened and he gripped his son's arm in the only show of affection he would allow himself before his troops. 'Now it is my command that you go with Taita into the desert to capture your godbird, and thus to prove your royal blood and your right one day to wear the double crown.'
Nefer and the old man stood together beside the shattered walls of Gallala and watched the column fly past. Pharaoh led it, the reins wrapped around his wrists, leaning back against the pull of the horses, his chest bare, linen skirts whipping around his muscular legs, the Blue War Crown on his head rendering him tall and godlike.
Next came Lord Naja almost as tall, almost as handsome. His mien was haughty and proud, the great recurved bow slung over his shoulder. Naja was one of the mightiest warriors of this very Egypt and his name had been given to him as a title of honour. Naja was the sacred cobra in the royal uraeus crown. Pharaoh Tamose had bestowed it upon him on the day that, together, they had won through the ordeal of the Red Road.
Naja did not deign to glance in Nefer's direction. Pharaoh's chariot had plunged into the mouth of the dark gorge before the last vehicle in the column went racing past where Nefer stood. Meren, his friend and companion of many illicit boyhood adventures, laughed in his face and made an obscene gesture, then raised his voice mockingly above the whine and rattle of the wheels. 'I will bring you the head of Apepi as a toy,' he promised, and Nefer hated him as he sped away. Apepi was the King of the Hyksos, and Nefer needed no toys: he was a man now, even if his father refused to recognize it.
The two were silent for long after Meren's chariot had disappeared, and the dust had settled. Then Taita turned without a word and went to where their horses were tethered. He tightened the surcingle around his mount's chest, hiked up his kilts and swung up with the limber movement of a much younger man. Once astride the animal's bare back he seemed to become one with it. Nefer remembered that legend related he had been the very first Egyptian to master the equestrian arts. He still bore the title Master of Ten Thousand Chariots, bestowed upon him with the Gold of Praise by two pharaohs in their separate reigns.
Certain it was that he was one of the few men who dared to ride astride. Most Egyptians abhorred this practice, considering it somehow obscene and undignified, not to mention risky. Nefer had no such qualms and as he vaulted up on to the back of his favourite colt, Stargazer, his black mood started to evaporate. By the time they had reached the crest of the hills above the ruined city he was almost his usual ebullient self. He cast one last longing glance at the feather of distant dust left on the northern horizon by the squadron then firmly turned his back upon it. 'Where are we going, Tata?' he demanded. 'You promised to tell me once we were on the road.'
Taita was always reticent and secretive, but seldom to the degree that he had been over the matter of their ultimate destination on this journey. 'We are going to Gebel Nagara,' Taita told him.
Nefer had never heard the name before, but he repeated it softly. It had a romantic, evocative ring. Excitement and anticipation made the back of his neck prickle, and he looked ahead into the great desert. An infinity of jagged and bitter hills stretched away to a horizon blue with heat haze and distance. The colours of the raw rocks astounded the eye: they were the sullen blue of stormclouds, yellow as a weaver bird's plumage, or red as wounded flesh, and bright as crystal. The heat made them dance and quiver.
Taita looked down on this terrible place with a sense of nostalgia and homecoming. It was into this wilderness that he had retired after the death of his beloved Queen Lostris, at first creeping away like a wounded animal. Then, as the years passed and some of the pain with them, he had found himself drawn once more to the mysteries and the way of the great god Horus. He had gone into the wilderness as a physician and a surgeon, as a master of the known sciences. Alone in the fastness of the desert he had discovered the key to gates and doorways of the mind and the spirit beyond which few men ever journey. He had gone in a man but had emerged as a familiar of the great god Horus and an adept of strange and arcane mysteries that few men even imagined.
Taita had only returned to the world of men when his queen Lostris had visited him in a dream as he slept in his hermit's cave at Gebel Nagara. Once more she had been a fifteen-year-old maiden, fresh and nubile, a desert rose in its first bloom with the dew upon its petals. Even as he slept his heart had swollen with love and threatened to burst his chest asunder.
'Darling Taita,' Lostris had whispered, as she touched his cheek and stirred him awake, 'you were one of the only two men I have ever loved. Tanus is with me now, but before you can come to me also there is one more charge that I lay upon you. You never once failed me. I know that you will not fail me now, will you, Taita?'
'I am yours to command, mistress.' His voice echoed strangely in his ears.
'In Thebes, my city of a hundred gates, this night is born a child. He is the son of my own son. They will name this child Nefer, which means pure and perfect in body and spirit. My longing is that he carry my blood and the blood of Tanus to the throne of Upper Egypt. But great and diverse perils already gather around the babe. He cannot succeed without your help. Only you can protect and guide him. These years you have spent alone in the wilderness, the skills and knowledge you have acquired here were to that purpose alone. Go to Nefer. Go now swiftly and stay with him until your task is completed. Then come to me, darling Taita. I will be waiting for you and your poor mutilated manhood shall be restored to you. You will be whole and entire when next you stand by my side, your hand in my hand. Do not fail me, Taita.'
'Never!' Taita had cried in the dream. 'In your life I never failed you. I will not fail you now in death.'
'I know you will not.' Lostris smiled a sweet, haunting smile, and her image faded into the desert night. He woke, with his face wet with tears, and gathered up his few possessions. He paused at the cave entrance only to check his direction by the stars. Instinctively, he looked for the bright particular star of the goddess. On the seventieth day after the Queen's death, on the night that the long ritual of her embalmment had been completed, that star had appeared suddenly in the heavens, a great red star that glowed where none had been before. Taita picked it out and made obeisance to it. Then he strode away into the western desert, back towards the Nile and the city of Thebes, beautiful Thebes of a hundred gates.
That had been over fourteen years ago, and now he hungered for the silent places, for only here could his powers grow back to their full strength, so that he could carry through the charge that Lostris had laid upon him. Only here could he pass some of that strength on to the Prince. For he knew that the dark powers of which she had warned him were gathering around them.
'Come!' he said to the boy. 'Let us go down and take your godbird.'
0n the third night after leaving Gallala, when the constellation of the Wild Asses made its zenith in the northern night sky, Pharaoh halted the squadron to water the horses and to eat a hasty meal of sun-dried meat, dates and cold dhurra millet cakes. Then he ordered the mount-up. There was no sounding of the ram's horn trumpet now for they were into the territory where often the patrolling Hyksosian chariots ranged.
The column started forward again at the trot. As they went on the landscape changed dramatically. They were out of the bad lands at last, back into the foothills above the river valley. Below them they could make out the strip of dense vegetation, distant and dark in the moonlight, that marked the course of great Mother Nile. They had completed the wide circuit around Abnub and were in the rear of the main Hyksosian army on the river. Although they were a tiny force to go in against such an enemy as Apepi, they were the best charioteers in the armies of Tamose, which made them the finest in the world. Moreover, they held the element of surprise.
When Pharaoh had first proposed this strategy and told them he would lead the expedition in person, his war council had opposed him with all the vehemence they could muster against the word of a god. Even old Kratas, once the most reckless and savage warrior in all the armies of Egypt, had torn at his thick white beard and bellowed, 'By Seth's ragged and festering foreskin, I did not change your shit-smeared swaddling sheet so that I could send you straight into the loving arms of Apepi.' He was perhaps the one man who might dare to speak to a godking in this fashion. 'Send another to do such menial work. Lead the breakthrough column yourself if it amuses you, but do not disappear into the desert to be devoured by ghouls and djinn. You are Egypt. If Apepi takes you he takes us all.'
Of all the council only Naja had supported him, but Naja was always loyal and true. Now they had won through the desert, and were into the enemy rear. In tomorrow's dawn they would make the one desperate charge that would split Apepi's army, and allow five more of Pharaoh's squadrons, a thousand chariots, to come boiling through to join him. Already he had the melliferous taste of victory on his tongue. Before the next full moon he would dine in the halls of Apepi's palace in Avaris.