As the days wore on, and the winter solstice approached, and the air in the temple became strained and Miri commented on the tension she felt to one of the mother priestesses in the library, but the sister turned away and did not answer her comment. The woman's reticence puzzled Miri, so she sought out Nefrit who she found meditating in the garden.
At first Miri hesitated to bother Nefrit, but as Miri approached, Nefrit opened her eyes and smiled.
"Sati!" she exclaimed, delight sparkling her eyes.
"I am sorry to bother you, Mother Nefrit," Miri began, "I-"
"Not at all, Sati," said Nefrit her smile widening, "I need a break from doing nothing!"
"I just feel something is wrong, and everyone in Philae knows the cause except me. Why are there so many long faces in the courts?"
"It is thought to bring bad luck to speak of things which are needed," replied Nefrit.
"But how can a solution be sought from a problem which is never articulated?" asked Miri.
"There is nothing to be done but wait," replied Nefrit.
Nefrit looked about her to ensure no one was listening and drew Miri close.
"We are waiting for the water from the source of the Nile, and it is overdue."
"But how can that be, when the Nile has spread over the entire valley?" asked Miri, "Surely some of that water emanates from the well in the Abaton in Biga?"
Nefrit took a deep breath. "It is only the priests of Biga who claim the well beneath the Abaton is the source of the Nile. Just as the priests of Ammon in Elephantine claim the Nilometer beneath their walls is the source of the Nile."
"How can both claim to be the source of the Nile when it is obvious the water flows from up in the South?" asked Miri.
"At one time it could be claimed, for at various times before both Elephantine and Biga were the furthest reaches of the Egyptian Empire. It was, I think, politically expedient for the Pharaoh to claim these places as the source of the Nile, for the people would question why he did not rule over it. And military expeditions into the darkest reaches of the continent have always been expensive and doomed to failure. There is another nation which rules over the source of the Nile.
Some call it Nubia, some Kush, but this land is named Meroway after its chief city Meroway, and somewhere it is said, in a land of greenness which is so overwhelming in its density that none can enter there, is the spring, which feeds the Nile. It is said the people of Meroway are descendents of a lost division of the Pharaoh, but their skins are black, and they differ from us in many other ways."
"But why have I not heard of this place?" asked Miri.
Nefrit winced, and led Miri into the shade of a date palm.
"I am not entirely sure, but I think the rulers of our world are ashamed that there exists a land many say is greater than the whole of the world about the Mediterranean, ruled by a woman which they cannot subdue!"
"A woman!" exclaimed Miri excitedly.
"They are ruled by a Queen, a Kandake, who is as fierce a warrior as Hippolyte of the Amazons, and her magic guards the source of the Nile, and none can enter there but the Kandake herself! Her name means Great Mother, Protector, Nurturer, and it is said she is the incarnation of the Great Mother Het-Heru herself! Others say she is Mut! The true source of the Nile, it is said, is a primordial fountain of everlasting life. As a gift to the servants of the gods, each winter solstice, she or one of her servants bring enough holy water from the spring to wash the cult statues of Auset and Ausar for the year."
"How far away is this land?" asked Miri.
"At one time," answered Nefrit, "the Realm of Meroway included Philae and the Elephantine, and some say it's borders extended as far as Thebes. The island of Philae has always been a most sacred site in the world of the Kandake, second only to the island of Meroway itself. I have heard the distance to Meroway is greater than the distance from here to the Mediterranean Sea!
Some even go as far as to say that the first man and woman were created in Meroway. You have heard of the land of Punt. This also is thought to be Meroway. Many people say the first man and woman were created by Thoth on his potter's wheel from the mud mixed with the waters of the sacred spring of Meroway, and that Life was breathed into them by his sister Auset, and Words of Power from her lips animated them. Many say we, the Greeks, and every other nation on Earth are descended from this man and woman! The Table of the Sun in Meroway is the birthplace of humankind!"
Nefrit stared intently at Miri.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
Miri shook her head to clear it of her consternation.
"I'm sorry, she said, "But I heard the same legend in my own country as a child, yet our Eden was not in Africa! We Samaritans claim Eden was on Mount Gerizim where I lived. And I had not thought of it, but I have heard others say the first people were fashioned in Mesopotamia! How can so many places claim to be the source of all people?"
Nefrit laughed. "Who does not believe they are the chosen people, the specially favoured of their gods?"
"But they cannot all be right!" protested Miri.
"So does that make them wrong? What is the main thrust of the legend? What do they all have in common?" Nefrit touched Miri's shoulder. "You-" she said placing her palm over Miri's breast, "And I-"
She touched her own heart.
"-we share the same ancestor. That is what the stories and the people who tell it have in common. We are all sisters. We are family: Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Nubian. We are all as one. There is the seed of Truth in the story of Creation. How it grows from that small seed does not matter. It could be taken up and planted in a cultured garden such as this-"
Nefrit's arms swept the cloister.
"-to be carefully tended and pruned and brought to bear ripe luscious fruit. Or in another, tended for the flowers which blossom from its branches. Or left in the wild to grow in all directions with myriad branches akimbo!"
Miri's thoughts bubbled around Nefrit's words, but not for long. Her original query came back to her as two sisters bustled passed them, concern clouding their faces.
"Couldn't we go and get the water from the spring ourselves?"
"Only the Kandake can collect the water from the sacred spring. If another were to take the water, the Life within it would become tainted, and the magic, which is its essence, would turn malevolent, and destroy instead of nurture.
A few years ago, great tribulations were caused by the delay of the holy water to Philae. After the rule of Cleopatra, when the Romans claimed Egypt for the Emperor, life here changed little by little. For some time, neither the Romans nor the Kandake clashed, and she traded with the Egyptians as she had always done, though the Romans under Augustus claimed Philae as part of the Empire. All was well until the governor, Publius Petronius, attempted to tax the goods entering here from Meroway. As this included the annual tribute of sacred libation from the sacred spring to the temple here, the Kandake, Aman-i-Shakti, objected to this imposition on her gift to the goddess, and refused to pay the tax. When confronted by the Roman garrison, Aman-i-Shakti resisted their attempts to apply surtax to her gifts and they seized her libation vessels. She retreated, then regrouped and attacked the Romans with her own army and seized not only Philae, Syene and Biga, but Elephantine as well, defeating the three cohorts stationed there. Aman-i-Shakti commanded all statues of Augustus Caesar be thrown down, and those inhabitants who had collaborated with the Romans were executed without trial. The heads of the idols of Caesar and the survivors of the garrison, she sent back to Meroway as spoils of war!"
Miri sat enthralled, her blood racing at the thought of the warrior queen defying the Romans.
"Publius Petronius then lead a Roman army into Meroway, and he gained the upper hand in the first battles, but then, because they had unlawfully seized the Waters of Life, the magic of the Kandake turned against them and the Romans were struck down by a plague. Disease badly weakened their resolve, and the soldiers of Aman-i-Shakti, men of great stature -giants they say- slew them as easily as a farmer cuts down a field of wheat!
The soldiers of the Kandake who had been captured by the Romans also died of the malignancy. It is said those who she rules remain alive only because of her magic, and once they were removed from the influence of her life force, they were doomed. For this reason they fight fiercely, and would commit suicide rather than die in agony far from her. She is their mother, they say.
To make a long story short, neither side could muster the forces to produce a clear-cut victory, so Petronius arranged a truce and the Kandake sent an embassy to Augustus who was at that time, residing on the Isle of Samos. After hearing their deposition and the report given by Petronius, he signed a treaty of non-aggression between Rome and Meroway, and the Kandake became a Friend of Rome. In exchange for sovereignty over Philae, Rome granted tax-free status to the Kandake, and an exemption from tribute to the Empire. This enabled Aman-i-Shakti to consolidate her authority over the iron merchants of Meroway and act as sole bargaining agent for her country. The lands between Philae and Naqada were to be a free trade zone open to both sides. In reality, the Romans have only ventured as far as a fortress called Hiera Sycaminos, a day or two's journey from here. In effect, because of the dominion of Augustus over the province of Egypt, merchants of both countries had to obtain a license to trade, and the two monarchs were in reality trading with each other."
"So what has all this got to do with the tension I feel around here?" asked Miri.
"Each year, at the winter solstice, the Kandake, or her consort arrive with water collected at the source, the true source, of the Nile, to be used as ablutions for the coming year at the temple of Auset, whom they call Anket-" Nefrit paused.
"And?" prompted Miri.
"The pilgrims are late!"
"Yet the solstice has not yet arrived," said Miri.
"No," admitted Nefrit, "But usually the first of hundreds of Merotu have arrived by now in advance of the Royal Party in order to witness the arrival of their monarch at the temple. This has not happened, and this is the cause of the consternation to everyone here. Without the purifying waters of life from the source of the Nile, the rituals cannot continue, and the Legions of Set will surely descend upon us and bring about the End of Times!"
"Do you really believe that?" asked Miri incredulously.
"It is written!" said Nefrit firmly. She then stood up quickly and returned to the course of her duties, leaving Miri sitting in the cloister.
The next day, during the duty roster after Matins, Miri was summoned to see the Mother Superior. She entered the High Prophetess's offices and was perfunctorily shown a bench upon which to sit. Miri had never, since she had arrived, been called into audience with the Reverend Mother. She wondered if perhaps she had transgressed some unknown rule of the Order, but she couldn't imagine what it might be. It was well known that the only reason for the Holy Mother to take notice of one of the sisters was when that sister had overstepped the conventions of the temple, and Miri began to feel more than a little insecure.
The wait didn't help. It seemed interminable. Several older sisters silently came and went, intent on some mysterious business, and their seeming obliviousness to her presence unnerved Miri. A sister was seated for the most part at a desk, diligently writing, and was just as diligently avoiding all eye contact with Miri at all. Miri cleared her throat several times to get her attention, but the woman absolutely refused to look at her. Even when one of the mysterious messengers came to a halt at her desk, the woman looked up only briefly to either accept or bestow a scroll upon them, and returned to her obsessive writing. The sound of the scratching of her stylus on the papyrus began to irritate Miri, and Miri became convinced the secretary was really making the scratching noise for the sole purposely of annoying her.
Just at the moment Miri was sure she would explode and strangle the woman, the secretary looked up from her desk and looked directly at Miri.
"The Reverend Mother will see you now," she said in a business-like monotone, then returned to her writing as Miri stood up.
The Mother Superior sat behind her desk and looked up as Miri entered.
"Ah, Satem, Satemashtareth," she asked benignly, "How are your studies coming along?"
"Very well, Reverend Mother," Miri answered meekly.
"Fine! Fine," replied the Mother Superior, her mind obviously concentrating on something else besides her charge's academic progress. Miri was in terror of some awful accusation suddenly leaping from the Reverend Mother's lips, and the suspense was compounded by a very long, intentional, and well thought out pause.
"You have expressed concern about the libation being delayed." she stated.
"I-" began Miri, but the reverend Mother silenced her with a wave of her fingers.
"I share your concern, Satem," she continued. "And I also admire your desire to do something to alleviate this intolerable situation. You shall, with others I have selected, disembark tomorrow at dawn with a message to the Kandake. You, Satem, are to carry the scroll from myself to the Kandake. The scroll is not, under any circumstances to be allowed to fall into any hands other than the Kandake herself. Is that understood?"
Miri, too dumfounded to answer, nodded.
"Good!" stated the Mother Superior with an air of finality. "I shall speak to you in the morning!"
The Reverend Mother had meant her final sentence to be a dismissal, but Miri had failed to take notice of it. Her mind was bubbling and racing like a river through a narrow gorge. She was to meet the Kandake! What an honour! What a-
"You may go!" commanded the Mother Superior, annoyed her previous dismissive tone had not the effect she had attended.
"Oh! Oh, yes!" blurted Miri as she resurfaced from her reverie, "Yes, of course! Thank you very much Reverend Mother!" She backed out of the office barely able to contain herself from skipping and jumping about like some demented grasshopper.
"I'm going to meet the Kandake!" she gushed to the secretary as she passed the secretary's desk in the outer office. The secretary looked up momentarily and gave her a wan smile.
"How nice!" she said, barely able to contain her disdain for all but the writing before her.
Miri turned. The Reverend Mother stood in the doorway of her office.
"Not a word of this to anyone!" she commanded sternly.
The secretary gave Miri a sideways look, full of satisfaction that the Reverend Mother had finally reigned in the bubble-headed jill-in-the-box interrupting her at her desk.
Miri slept little that night. Her mind flipped cartwheels at the thought of advancing adventure in an alien land, and several attempts to drop into meditation ended in failure. Finally, she fell into a fitful momentary sleep until a rustling at her door brought her to full attention.
Nefrit stood in the doorway of Miri's cell, a lamp in her hand.
"It is time! Get dressed!"
Dressed, but still a little groggy from her short nap, Miri made her way to the hypostyle hall. Nefrit greeted her and introduced her to the others who had been chosen to search out the Kandake. To her surprise, the mother Superior's secretary was among the delegates. She introduced herself to Miri as Merit. Several of the temple guards had been chosen, and they were dressed in full battle gear. There were others there she knew: Dorcas, who had been initiated at the same ceremony as Miri; Tamara and Cleopatra, Apusim, an elderly mother who worked in the bakery, Amunsat, Reisat and Amuneteru. Nefrit wrapped a heavy cloak about Miri.
"May the Goddess of Fortune smile upon you, Sati!" she whispered, and was gone. In the darkened passageway, each of the expeditionaries was assigned a bundle to carry, and the women carried their parcels from the temple, across the sacred grounds and down to the wharf. There, the Mother Superior waited standing over a large river barge manned by several swarthy paddlers. The nuns threw their burdens to the paddle men already in the boat, and began climbing in. One by one, they settled into the boat.
When all was ready, the High priestess, the Mother Superior, stepped forward emerging from a cloud of incense billowing from burners held by two altar girls at either flank.
"May the Great Mother Auset grant you safe passage. We shall pray to Nefrit and Anket and the Lord Hapi to guide you on your way. We have provided gifts for the Kandake, and amulets for her protection and ask that you bring safely the sacred waters of the source of the Nile. The Lord Rei marks his time across the sky and soon will cross from The House of Scales to the House of Scorpio and rise under the star Sothis. Bring the Kandake to us by the time of the Solstice. May the gods aid you in your quest, Hail Ausar-Un-Nefer!"
"Hail, Ausar-un-Nefer," responded the occupants of the boat.
"Hail Auset-het Heru!" came the chorus.
As the paddlers pushed off from the wharf, and the narrow boat slipped into the mist rising from the Nile, the first point of the disk of Aten, the boat of Rei sparkled on the horizon. Miri sat transfixed by the spectacle of the island of Philae half hidden in the morning mist, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As the disk of Aten rose higher, its fingers of light touched the rooftops of the temple of Auset, and the buildings on the island seemed to glow of a pink and gold light all of their own.
The glory of being chosen as the herald to the Kandake and the beauty of the moment filled her breast and her heart swelled with ecstasy that made her entire body tingle. She felt as though each pore of her skin were breathing in the world and all matter was of a consistency of air. When she breathed in, the entire world filled her being with its essence. Her hand caressed the leather bag which the Reverend Mother had given her. Inside was the scroll destined for the Kandake, and Miri was thrilled to have it in her possession. She had been instructed under no circumstances was it to be given to any other but the Kandake herself.
The boat suddenly lurched and spun about as the sail was unfurled and caught the wind. Miri grasped the gunwhale with both hands. The paddlers dug into the water to keep the craft pointed upstream through the rushing water, and the craft pulled upstream.
They passed an open beach in the morning mist, and shrouded like wraiths, Miri pointed to the vague figures on a small island in the cataract.
"Look!" she whispered, "Legionaries!"
Sure enough, the silhouettes in the fog wore the helmets and finery of the Imperial Army. All conversation on the boat ceased. Though they were not at war, as subject people to the Empire, all the occupants of the boat had grown up with a natural inclination not to draw the attention of any Roman to themselves.
"There are so many of them!" said Tamara, standing up to take a better look at the soldiers.
"Get down!" whispered one of the members of the Temple Guard, who, to a man, crouched with their weapons ready.
"What on earth are they doing here?" asked Dorcas, the initiate from Miri's class.
Merit shushed them.
"They must be travelling to relieve the fortress at Hiera Sycaminos." she said. "It is the furthest south the Romans have penetrated into the Nile valley."
"But there are so many of them!" said Tamara as she sat down beside Miri. "Why did they not stop to sacrifice at Philae?"
Though the soldiers faded into the mist, they were not soon forgotten, and as the day wore on, Miri's excitement did not diminish.
The fog was quickly burned away by the rays of the sun, and the character of the river changed. Large rocks and islands like dragon's teeth protruded from the water, and the water beagn to dance arounf the obstructions. The men at the oars heaved hard and brought the boat swiftly into the shore. Everyone except the crew disembarked and they began a long trek through the first cataract. The walk was arduous, as they all had great bundles to carry with them. The open Nile valley narrowed upstream of the Elephantine. At first, the great cliffs on either side of the river passed by with agonizing slowness, but soon the river broadened and its surface smoothed.
There, floating gently by a spit of sand was the sister ship of the one they had left behind. After a small luncheon of dates, bread and cheese, the sisters and the temple escort loaded their belongings into the boat, and with a new crew, set sail. The wind blew steadily from the North through the canyon and they sailed on from the islands of the first cataract.
Within Egypt, the Nile seemed benevolent, bestowing life to the land as it glided through its course, but here it seemed the river passed through the bare rock canyon without spreading any of its benevolence to the land around it. It seemed the rock and the water did not mix as well, and the surface of the water welled upward over hidden rocks and the land closed in on the Nile. As the walls of the escarpment rose above her, she imagined they would travel deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Earth until they grew to a great height and enveloped them completely.
Still, the wind, on the wane, pushed their craft southward against the current. The silence was overwhelming. Only the creak of the mast and the boom, the rippling of the sail and the gurgling of the passing water reached Miri's ears. All in the craft, their initial excitement subdued, sat motionless as the stately cliffs floated past them. It seemed the boat was stationary and the earth and the river moved with majestic slowness beneath its bow. Though there were signs of people, houses, cultivated plots, date palms, even temple and tombs, it seemed all living beings had been plucked from the area by the gods, and a great trepidation filled the occupants of the boat. Frightened whispers began, seeds of doubt blossoming from their bosoms filled their thoughts. Would they, too, be lifted from the Earth and carried away to Tuat, never to see the world of the living again. Hands wrapped about amulets and prayers wafted to the heavens to whoever would hear them.
But as the sun disappeared behind the cliffs to the west, hope returned to the travellers, as the inhabitants on the shore emerged from their small houses and began chores which would have been arduous beneath the glare of the face of Rei. As the shadows grew longer and the cliffs turned from red to purple, lamps were lit along the shore wherever settlements rose from the Earth, and the hearts of the occupants of the craft lifted and their voices began to babble, and laughter sprang from their breasts.
Some began to speak of beaching the craft, but Merit reminded everyone they were not out on a pleasure cruise, and that their mission was to reach the Kandake with all possible haste.
"Yet, might we not pass by them in the darkness?" asked Apusim.
Heads nodded in agreement with Mother Apusim's logic.
A discussion of the merits of continuing ensued, and finally Merit relented, and the helmsman steered the boat to the Eastern shore. As they approached the edge of the water, they realized there was no beachhead and another discussion erupted as to the merits of continuing, and everyone agreed they should press on.
The sail was let out a little to slow the craft and one by one the sisters and paddlers took turns as lookout on the bow. Night became day and day, night. In the darkness they passed a Roman fortress, high above the river, lights flickering upon the ramparts, but no challenge was sounded as the boat drifted silently upstream.
As the sun arose on the third day, the travellers were awed as they passed a great sand fall at the foot of which stood four colossi of Rammoses and two of Nefertari which flanked a temple of Hathor carved from the western cliff face. They could not pass by the temple without making an offering, and so, for the first time in their journey, they beached the craft on the beach at the foot of the sand fall.
They were welcomed by excited retinues of priests and priestesses from the shrine, eager to stake their importance against the others. There was strange undercurrent of desperation amongst their hosts, and as they approached the temple, Miri could see the reason for it. A great sandslide sifted over the escarpment and some other shrine had been already buried beneath it. The colour on the temple walls was faded, and there was a general air of decay about the place. Here, on the edge of the Egyptian empire, the great memorials of the past were eroding into desert dust. A great sadness overcame Miri. A prescience that even the great Realm of Egypt could not withstand the onslaught of Mother Nature hung about the shrine. The great wonders of the oldest civilization in the world were slowly being covered by the desert sands and would perhaps some day remain only in lost memories.
As the other travellers formed into a procession about her, Miri regained her sense of the here and now, and she joined her sisters in carrying offerings set aside before the voyage by the mother Superior from the main gifts to the Kandake. Solemnly, they walked towards the shrine of Het-Heru. As the delegation from Philae entered the temple, the sun shone into the darkened interior and illuminated the cult statues within the hall leading to the Holy of Holies. The temple was, like so many others in Egypt of great antiquity, but there was a special feeling within this shrine to Hathor, for it was carved from solid rock. The plaster facade was far from fresh and the paint was fading and peeling from the rock and plaster, but Miri felt a special closeness to Hathor that morning. She felt more affinity with the mother Het-Heru, as Hathor was called in Rei-en-Kaam, for there was a greater joy in the great goddess than in the incarnation of Auset. Het-Heru was the guardian of Fecundity and Joy, Music and Dance, far more akin to Astarte than Auset, though the aspects of Het-Heru and Auset mingled and were often confused. The Greeks associated Het-Heru with Aphrodite, but the Greek mind and language was far too contaminated by a heavy patrifocal perspective. The Greek Goddesses were but one-dimensional cartoons compared to lushness of the Egyptian and Oriental goddesses. The orderliness and logic of Greek had isolated each aspect of femininity and separated motherhood from sexuality, and sexuality from fertility, fertility from motherhood, so that Aphrodite was merely the goddess of Sexual Love, as if Love itself could be splintered and channeled. The Greek goddesses represented the relationship of a woman to a man and ignored what the woman was to herself.
But Het-Heru! There was a goddess! Queen of Dance! Mother of Music! Mother of God! Goddess of Love! Lover of Life! As the chants arose about her and the incense filled her senses, Miri was lifted above the temple, above the rock, and her soul rose above the Earth.
Below her, she saw the Nile as it slid towards the Mediterranean Sea, and began to twist about as her eyes followed its course into the depths of Africa. She was aware of each and every living soul for thousands of miles. She saw the world as Het-heru saw it and the laughter and love of Life filled her with ecstasy. Every particle of her being vibrated, and her limbs stretched out as she began to dance a great dance upon the carpet of the Earth beneath her feet. And as she danced, the particles of which she was composed vibrated at such a rate they vanished, and her dance filled the trees of Africa with her essence and they swayed in time with the timbrels and the cistra of the worshippers in the rock temple of Hathor.
She danced a great circle, passing over land and sea like a great cyclone swirling in a vapour of clouds above the Earth. Faster and faster she whirled in her timeless dance until, finally, exhausted, her energies diminished, her being shrank and recomposed and she fell senseless to the temple floor.
Before she became completely conscious, she spoke in a narcoleptic trance to the priestesses attending her.
"The Kandake Amanitare! There is great danger along her path, and we must continue without delay, for we are the instruments of her salvation! There, at Napata, we shall meet her and honour her! We must hurry if we are to retrieve the Water of Life!"
The other sisters were amazed by her prophecy and the temple buzzed with the miracle of the young novitiate who was so blessed by the Great Mother. The high priest and priestess however sensed an authority from this young girl that they themselves could never muster despite the power of the hierarchy that supported their exalted position as prophets of Het-Heru. To emphasize as well as preserve their own authority, they blessed the travellers, then secured new provisions and even supplied fresh Nubian rowers and guides to help speed this young prophetess along her way.
Just as the retinue from Philae was pushing off from the bank, a voice called out:
"Hi! Hi! Ai! Wait! Wait!"
An old Greek carrying bundles of papyrus scrolls and leading a rather obstinate donkey struggled across the sand toward them.
As he reached within reasonable earshot of the gathering, he stopped short of breath, huffing and puffing and smoothed down his huge white beard.
"By Zeus!" he huffed, "This is most opportune! Most opportune! Thank the gods! Are you by any chance travelling as far as Napata?"
The sisters looked at each other, not at all sure they needed a mad Greek as a travelling companion, but after some negotiation, Aristophanes (the Younger, as he was wont to call himself) gained passage on their vessel. After a tearful farewell to his ass, Aristophanes clambered, or attempted to clamber, on board. It was evident even before he set foot in their craft, contrary to the usual abilities of his race, he was not at all at home in a boat. As the Greek and several oarsmen struggled to haul two large chests on board, it dawned on one or two of the sisters, that perhaps, Aristophanes was not suited to the world, for no matter what he touched, the object either came off in his hand or hit him with some force in the forehead. One of the sisters, stifling her giggles, even suggested perhaps he was from another world altogether, one where the very Laws by which Nature governed were not Maat. This notion, the others agreed, when applied to Aristophanes, did not seem outside the realm of possibility.
However, the sails billowed as they should, and the masts and ropes creaked under the breath of the wind, the travellers settled into the nooks and crannies of the craft, and Farash, the Nubian helmsman, absently staring off down the valley, turned the boat upstream. A wonderful calm settled over the boat as the waters of Hapi slid beneath the prow and the red banks of the Nile drifted swiftly by.
However, at the site of the first ruin, Aristophanes jumped up excitedly, and stepped on everything and everyone to reach the stern of the boat, leaving a chaotic jumble of disarrayed sisters in his wake. He demanded the nature and name of the landmark from Farash, and repeated his erratic passage back to his place amidships, where he feverishly wrote all he learned from Farash on a half-finished scroll. At the next temple, he again clumsily groped his way back to the stern of the boat, but everyone insisted he remain beside the helmsman, and passed his writing paper and utensils from amidships back to him. There he interrogated the remarkably patient helmsman at length, and happily recorded the Nubian's words upon his paper.
As it was nearing noon, Merit called for a halt and they beached the craft on and island hard by the western bank. On the eastern shore lay a small town, and by landing on the island, she sought to avoid any trouble with the Nubians, who in these frontier parts were not always well disposed to Egyptians. Unfortunately as their craft beached itself, they realized the far side of the island was guarded by a large fort. And it was occupied. And, as soon as their feet touched down, armed soldiers poured from the fortifications.
Merit, with Aristophanes dogging her every step, walked forward to meet them, flanked by the temple guards and explained their mission. The name of the Kandake had a great effect, and quickly a messenger was dispatched to the fort, and soon the garrison commander in full battle dress rode out in his chariot to meet them. Although Merit explained the reason for their mission to find and honour the Kandake, the commander ordered his troops to search the boat. Somewhat mollified of their intent, he examined the seal of the Mother Superior on Miri's letter to the Kandake, and although he ached to open it, decided he dare not risk the wrath of his sovereign by verifying its contents.
He was, they discovered, a commander in the Kandake's army, and that they were now deep within her realm. The Roman garrison they had passed in the night was the furthest outpost of the Roman Legions. Miri was thrilled by the news. For the first time in her life she was in territory not ruled by a Roman dictator! She felt an unexpected and sudden elation, as though a terrible burden had been lifted from her back. And yet, at the same time a great trepidation, a thrilling fear entered into her, and she relished in it. The danger of the unknown energized her.
She was so excited, when the others settled down for prayers and a meal supplied by the Merotu soldiers, she asked the commander if she could not perhaps wander about. The commander grudgingly acquiesced, but insisted two of his soldiers accompany her 'for her own protection'.
She readily agreed, and flanked by two very tall black men dressed in fine battle gear, hiked back into the sandhills. She just wanted to be away from the others and soak in the atmosphere of this new land. Walking across the sand, she realized why she felt such excitement at being within the Merotu Realm.
There was no longer a Roman overseer. No troops of occupation. This land was free! And ruled by a woman! She could not wait to actually meet the Kandake, and she fairly vibrated with anticipation of meeting her.
Suddenly, behind the castle, they came upon a rock cut temple dedicated to Hathor and attended by eunuch priests. There, she and the two soldiers offered prayers together to Hathor, and shared the breaking of bread and pouring out of the sacred beer with the priests.
After some time examining the holy scrolls of the priests who proudly displayed their sacred relics to her, she decided to return to the beach. The priests were terribly disappointed, as they were greatly honoured by having Miri as a guest, espacially one who could read their scrolls. They argued for some time as to who amongst then should escort her back to the beach, and finally two of their number were appointed to see her back to the boat, but each of the others insisted she take some plate of food or flask of beer for the sisters on the beach. By the time she returned, the others had rested and were now preparing to disembark. She said goodbye to her escorts, who had been pleasant companions for the afternoon. One of the soldiers removed his necklace of shells and placed it over her head.
"Thank you," she said gratefully, overwhelmed by the gesture.
"You just accepted his hand in marriage!" said Farash in Greek and burst out laughing at the expression on Miri's face. The soldier did not understand Greek and looked as puzzled as Miri looked horrified.
"Oh Great Mother! I didn't know!" she exclaimed, "I must give it back!" she began to lift it from her neck and then the soldier appeared horrified.
Farash could barely contain himself. "No! No! Leave it on!" he shouted between fits of laughter, "I was just joking! It's just a joke!"
He called out to the soldier and told him in a strange dialect of Rei-en-Kaam Miri could barely understand, about the joke. The man laughed and placed his great hands on Miri's shoulders.
"Little sister, it would be a great honour to be your husband, but my first wife would chop off my private parts without a moment's hesitation if I began a hareem! I gave the gift for your protection! Your pilot is an evil man!"
He hugged her, and as his arms wrapped about her, the closeness of his body produced an intense tingling which ran through her body and gave her goosebumps. The hardness of his muscles and the pleasant smell of his flesh was almost overwhelming. Merit frowned at Miri, and Miri snapped herself from her sudden strange desire to be squeezed as tightly as he could, but her fingers and toes still tingled as she stepped on board the boat.
The big man called to her. "As long as you wear that amulet, you will be under my protection. I, Ari-Kakanti, shall be your saviour!" With that he waved, and their ship cast off.
For the rest of the day, Miri sat in a daze, disturbed by the strange effect Ari-Kakanti's hug had caused within her. It was as if her blood had suddenly swirled about her body, rippled wildly through her, and flooded every fibre of her being.
By late afternoon, Farash pulled the helm to the Eastern shore. Ahead, lay a sleepy Nubian town, and beyond lay an angry cataract; the water boiled and frothed through the gorge and over hidden rocks. Clutching his writing materials, Aristophanes bumbled over the side of the canoe and landed more or less upright beside Miri.
"Farash says there is a path beyond the town along the river we will follow," he said to Miri. "Ah, look!" he pointed along the shore.
In the distance a line of donkeys approached sedately.
"The animals will haul our ship through the rapids, but for safety's sake, we must walk alongs-"
One of Aristophanes' papyri suddenly leapt from his arms, and each item in his grasp seemed to take the opportunity to flee its master. His efforts to retrieve then would have done justice to any juggler, for Aristophanes seemed able to at least keep most of the objects airborne by his efforts to recapture them. Unable to hold back, Miri reached for various objects whizzing about him, and two other sisters including Merit were drawn into the chase, and a mad scramble ensued, pierced by the shrieks of the sisters as they caught, or nearly caught, juggled and grasped at the ink block or the box of styli, unravelling scrolls and the like. Finally the excitement died down, and Aristophanes and the sisters about him stood breathless, each holding a bundle of the same size as the one which had originally escaped its owner as if while they were in the air, the instruments and papyri had multiplied fourfold.
By the time Aristophanes was reunited with his belongings, the boat had been unloaded and the donkey train reached the beachhead. Farash was involved in an energetic discussion with the donkey herdsman, and finally after much shouting and gesticulating, the helmsman approached Merit.
"He says the waters today are very treacherous, and he fears his donkeys may not be able to haul the weight of our boat. He says his cousin has a boat at the other side of the rapids which will transport you as far as the next cataract."
"But how shall we continue our journey?" asked Merit, "We must have transport beyond that point."
"He says Amun will provide," replied Farash
Merit frowned and pushed Farash aside.
"I will talk to him myself!" she said grimly.
She marched toward the caravaneer, and Farash followed in her wake, somewhat concerned his role as a middleman had been brought to and end.
Aristophanes sat on a nearby bale.
"It seems we are in for a long wait," he said.
One of his papers fell from his arms.
Followed by an ink pad.
And a box of coloured pigment cakes.
One by one, as the discussion between the caravaneer and Merit became more and more animated, the sisters began to make camp. The shadows were growing longer, and there would be no passage until the morning. Miri plonked herself beside Aristophanes. He smiled wanly.
'You must think I'm a clumsy old fool," he said glumly.
"Not at all," replied Miri as if the thought had never crossed her mind. "But the great gods have not exactly granted you the grace of a gazelle."
"I have never been what you would call an athlete. My mother in Sparta almost exposed me on the hillside at birth!"
"She wouldn't do that!"
Aristophanes nodded. "Yes she would!"
"But she didn't!" said Miri encouragingly.
"It wasn't for lack of trying!"
"The dog brought me back!"
Miri smiled, despite herself. "The-"
"Dog!" finished Aristophanes. "My father had trained him for hunting waterfowl. He was a big old black grizzly retriever. When my mother saw how spindly I was, she couldn't wait to turf me out. She carried me swaddled out to the mountain as soon as she could walk, and left me for wolf bait!"
"How awful!" commiserated Miri.
"But dear old Rufus-"
"The dog- " Aristophanes explained, "My mother had hardly sat down to supervise Helena the housemaid in shelling peas, when Rufus, tail wagging, dropped me at her feet!"
Miri clapped her hands in delight.
"Not for my mother. She was incensed. She chained Rufus to the courtyard post, and carried me far beyond the city walls. For good measure, she waded through a cold stream, grumbling the whole time, then doubled back for a doubly good measure before she hung me from the branch of an evergreen tree in a remote clearing. Satisfied I hung low enough the wild beasts would have me for dinner before Rufus could track me down, and sure he could not untie me, even if he did discover her trail from the stream, she returned to our farm."
"Oh it's quite common in Sparta. Or it was. They expose girls mostly now, at least until a son is born to be eldest. The practice is widespread in a number of tribes and races. Especially those who rely on their warrior castes for wealth," replied Aristophanes glibly. "As a matter of fact, this practice has made it quite easy for warrior kings to justify their legitimacy to the throne. They kill the old king and his family, then make up a story about being abandoned and found by, say a shepherd, or whatever, who raises him as his own son. Then the gods reveal his true nature, and he returns with their blessing to claim the throne that is rightly his! Darius of Persia used such a legend. He was abandoned. Set adrift on the Euphrates or Tigris, I don't remember which, in a reed boat, then rescued by a cowherd, and when he reached manhood, led an army of men to take Persia. As he claimed descent from kings, the priesthood, under the threat of being put to the sword, no doubt, confirmed his rights to the throne of Persia, and eureka! Ulysses your uncle!"
"But how did you survive? Who found you?"
"Well, as my mother was tying me to a tree, my father, Aristophanes the Elder, had returned from business in Athens, and the first task he set for himself was to untie poor old Rufus who was having a conniption at the end of his chain in the courtyard. As soon as the chain dropped from his collar, Rufus raced away at breakneck speed and up into the mountains, baying as if Artemis herself were leading him. My father, understandably perplexed, but sensing Rufus was on the scent of some worthwhile quarry, seized his shield and spear and ran after him.
My mother, meanwhile, fearing Rufus might follow her scent backwards from her return trip had made her way to the farm again by a more circuitous route! As she came back to the house by the main road, she failed to notice Rufus had been freed, and she settled down to some sewing."
"How could a mother abandon her child to wild animals?" asked Miri, "Had she no conscience?"
"Apparently not!" replied Aristophanes, "You must remember exposure is quite common in Greek society. Even today! The Romans as well. Their rubbish tips are full of the bones of unwanted children! You'd be amazed at how many babies born of freedwomen are abandoned to the temple courts or the refuse dump, only to be picked up by others to raise as slaves!"
"I most heartily agree! But then, I have a personal bias against the practice! Well, anyway, Rufus found the tree where I hung, and my father, not knowing he had come upon his own son, and amazed by the dog's actions, was now convinced Artemis herself had indeed entered the dog and brought him to this place to discover a divine child! To confirm his thoughts, a stag passed by the clearing in which the pine stood, and was caught by its antlers in thick brambles. My father quickly brought it down with his spear. He promptly erected an altar from the stones round about, then dedicated the fat, entrails and head of the stag to Artemis and burned the animal as a holocaust. Not having anything to clean his hands with after the sacrifice, he unwrapped the swaddling from about me, and wiped the blood of the stag from his hands with some of the swaddling linen. Elated by this sacred experience, he triumphantly carried the child - me - wrapped in his cloak back to our farm.
Meanwhile, my mother had time to regret of her actions, and had begun to have second thoughts. She had realized she had acted a bit rashly, and should have at least waited for my father to return from Athens before exposing me. I was after all, his child too, and he would not take too kindly to having his newborn son whisked away from under his nose before he even had the chance to smell it! So, not knowing my father was about to return at any moment, my mother sent Helena out to the tree to recover me.
Helena unfortunately took a wrong turn, and missed my father and Rufus as they descended the mountain, though she did eventually retrace her steps and put herself back on the right track. Because he sensed this was an auspicious moment, my father came around to the front entrance of the house, and my mother, who was in the courtyard, heard him enter. Realizing she was no longer bulging with child, she quickly stuffed an undergarment beneath her dress so that she would appear to her husband as pregnant once again.
Waddling into the reception room, her hand over her belly and one on her back as though she were bearing a great weight within her womb, she came face to face with my father, who held his cloak out to her. She moved to take it from him, as she mistakenly thought he wanted her to hang it up for him.
When she saw me wrapped in the folds, she let out a long shriek and dropped me. Luckily, my father managed to grab me before I hit the marble floor. My mother fairly swooned. Almost! But not quite! As my mother was not prone to such behaviour, my father was quite concerned, and holding the baby in one hand, patted one of hers with the other.
He then related the strange events, which had unfolded, and declared that in order to honour Artemis, the two of them were bound by his oath to the goddess to raise her son as their own. My mother smiled as gamely as she could, for her mind at this point was racing. She knew the child my father had brought was her own, but now she had to think quickly to head off Helena, then decide what to do about the fact her husband would expect her to deliver another baby quite soon. Feigning weakness, she told my father she had to lie down for a bit. The excitement was too much for her she said.
I, oblivious to the drama being played about me, promptly fell asleep. My father laid me gently on the couch, bundled in by the folds of his cloak and went about searching for a basket in which to place me. Rufus, who everyone had ignored, then, true to his retrieving training, picked me up and carried me in to the person to whom he knew by the smell I belonged. My mother!
At that moment, Helena, having found the swaddling clothes drenched in blood by the tree, and bloody linen in hand, burst into the house.
'May the gods preserve us!' she screamed hysterically, 'The child is dead! The child is dead!'
Whereupon my father came running at her shouts, and seeing the bloody swaddling grabbed the screeching Helena.
'Wild animals have taken him!' She wailed, 'All is lost! All is lost!'
'Where?' cried my father.
'Out on the mountain by the spruce in a small thicket!'
Instantly recognizing from her description the place he had found the child, my father grabbed his spear and shield, calling for Rufus, who bounded from his mistress's boudoir where he had placed the baby between her sleeping feet and followed his master back up the mountain, tail wagging.
Helena then ran to her mistress's bedroom to tell her of the fate of the baby, but stopped dead in her tracks as she saw me unharmed and gurgling happily between my mother's legs. The shock was too much for her for she thought I was a ghost, and she let out a long horrible scream, convinced they were all cursed by the gods by her mistress's deeds.
Which, of course brought my father running back down the mountain, Rufus in tow, and woke my mother from her nap. Seeing me lying between her feet, she plucked me up and hugged me to her bosom."
Aristophanes looked directly at Miri.
"-as much, I think, to ensure I was not some phantom, as from maternal love! Anyway, at that moment, my father entered the room, and seeing her opportunity, my mother whisked away the undergarment stuffed under her dress.
'Look, darling, our son!' she cried out happily.
My father, overwhelmed by the days events sank to his knees at her side and took his son in his arms and wept!"
Miri sat in stunned silence.
"That's quite a story!" she said finally.
"Yes, isn't it?" replied Aristophanes enigmatically. And with that he gathered up his robes and went for a walk.
Taking a moment to relax, Miri closed her eyes. Aristophanes mad story had drained her. She took three deep breaths expelling all the air from her being with each exhalation, and allowing herself to relax as the air left her. Her breathing became deep and slow, her heartbeat slackened and she lifted her face to the heat of the sun. As she soaked in the last of the dying power of Rei, she could sense her spine growing roots, which pushed their way into the sand beneath her, and she stretched out her arms to embrace the red rays of Rei. Through the Earth she sensed the movement of her fellow travellers, and became absorbed in their doings. Aristophanes walked along the beach, murmuring to himself, absorbed in a mathematical process in which he had reached an impasse. She nudged him gently, and a bright light exploded from him as he solved his equation. She shared in his joy, as she sensed the conflict between Merit and the donkey driver. The joy of Aristophanes washed over the donkey driver, and Miri brought the faces of his children to the surface of his consciousness, and he mellowed and faltered, realizing that we are all just children of god. She absorbed the oarsmen, and sensing their aching backs, gently massaged them, the warmth of her light caressed their sore muscle and eased the knots in their shoulders. The light of the sun grew bright within her, and she radiated the warmth and love outwards to her companions. The radiance dispelled all fear of the world and fear of exposure to others and the entire party in the valley experienced a connection with each other and the world which was a unison of all which existed, and just as they felt the answers to the questions they had carried about their own existence had been answered, the world imploded and they all suddenly returned to the here and now.
Merit stood over Miri, blocking the sun.
"We have settled our differences," she announced.
Miri opened her eyes.
That night, sitting on the beach about a fire of donkey dung cakes, they sang hymns to Auset, to Ausar, Het-Heru, and Harpocrates, and Aristophanes sang a strange song dedicated to Poseidon from his native land. It was a wonderful night of camaraderie and laughter, and ended with a round of river shanties led by the oarsmen. After all the company bedded down Miri lay within her travelling robes, and stared up at the night sky. She could pick out several constellations from her studies, and realized there were stars in the sky she had never seen before. She wondered how that could be, but sleep soon overtook her, and she sank into a wonderful deep velvet blackness.
Merit woke her.
"Farash and the driver will dismantle the boat, and put it back together on the other side. Unfortunately, untying the rope bonds and retying them will add two days to our journey!"
Miri blinked. It was morning. Still groggy, Miri stood up and dusted the sand from her robes, then took a deep breath.
"Then we shall give them a hand and reduce the delay to no time at all," she said and walked over to the boat where Farash and the donkey driver were arguing how best to begin untying the rope bonds of the boat. Merit stared in wonder at the self confidence in the young woman, and realized with great admiration the Mother Superior had seen this quality in Satemashtoreth that she had not.
The sisters took over untying the boat, and Farash hovered and fluttered about the boat, pointing and advising the women how to untie the knots that held the boat together. Later, Aristophanes said he was reminded of a demented hummingbird trying to find an open spot amongst a swarm of bees on a particularly fragrant blossom. Indeed, Farash was kept hopping. If he failed to point out the intricacies of the design, the sisters proceeded without him, and so he ran madly back and forth, supervising the dismantling. By the time the planks had been untied and packed on the donkeys, Farash dripped with sweat from his efforts, thanking the gods he had kept some measure of control over these women who had nearly destroyed his boat.
The sisters walked silently alongside the donkeys. Miri loved every minute of the walk, even down to the smell of the donkey that plodded beside her. The rich fecund hairy smell reminded her of the meadows of Israel. The day filled her with contentment. It all fit together. The rhythm of her walk, the plodding of the pack animals, the smell of the donkeys, the flaring cloaks of the sisters and the laughter of the oarsmen freed from their back-breaking labour, the squeaking of the leather and wood harnesses, and the soft clicking of the donkey's feet on the path.
Everywhere about them, stood ruins untouched for centuries, and had they not been on an urgent mission, Miri would have begged Merit to call a halt to their passage to explore these strange places and search for some sign as to why they had been abandoned. There were mysteries abound to be explored in Egypt. A thousand lifetimes of sifting through the sands could pass by and still questions would remain unanswered here. She realized she loved the desert. Here, her soul was quiet and at peace. The timelessness of her surroundings almost overwhelmed her. Their mission seemed futile and childish against the backdrop of such grand emptiness. A scorpion scuttled between rocks at her feet, and she felt a curious affinity with the little creature on its own unknown expedition across the hot sand. How far apart are our worlds, she thought, yet how similar we act! The chatter of Farash and the others seemed as senseless as the idiotic quacking of ducks, and yet at the same moment, they all seemed to be an integral part of the great design of things.
Ahead of her, Merit, astride the donkey directly behind Farash heard him comment to the donkey driver, "Women have no appreciation for the art of boat building. It should be savoured. You would never find men rushing a job like that!"
She smiled and said nothing.
Upstream of the cataract, they came to the town of Kawa. There, the members of the expedition were taken into the sanctuary of the Temple of Auset. Waiting in the hypostyle hall while arrangements were being made, Miri read the inscriptions carved under the reign of the Kandake Amenshakti, and she reached up to touch the Coil of Infinite Life wrapped about the name of the great warrior queen. She sensed a wonderful connection with the Kandake who had stood up to the Roman war machine and remained independent of their influence.
She realized from the inscriptions she was now in the land of Kush.
The reconstruction of the boat took more than a day, and Merit fretted over the delay. There was not enough rope to finish the rebuilding, and so she had to engage in tense negotiations with the donkey driver to purchase the cargo strapping he used for his donkeys. She drew it from him inch by inch, and suffered from a fitful nightmare when she napped later in the day where she had to pull the rope hand over hand from the donkey driver's mouth.
But on the third day, they were on their way, with an escort of two narrow riverboats loaded with additional gifts for the Kandake, manned and supplied by the temples of Auset and Amun and the lion god Apedemek. Sitting stoically between the double rows of paddlers on the accompanying boats were soldiers of the Merotu army, assigned to escort the sisters of Philae to the city of Napata. As they began sailing upstream, Merit sighed in relief as she waved goodbye to the donkey driver on the shore.
"Remind me to buy some extra rope when we get a chance," she said, turning to Miri.
"For the boat?" Miri asked.
"No," replied Merit grimly, as she gave the donkey driver a final wave, "I need enough to hang that goddess damned donkey driver!"
The passage over the water calmed her down and the party relaxed. Miri marvelled how travel upon the back of the river seemed to imbue the traveller with such a sense of peace and rightness with the world. It was as though she were resting in the bosom of her mother, slowly rocked by gentle maternal arms.
By afternoon, the wind died down, and the three boat crews had to bend their backs into their paddles and push hard against the current as the river narrowed. It became apparent the boat from Philae was making no headway at all. Finally, Miri seized a spare paddle and found a place beside the men. The man before her stared back in surprise, then grinned at her.
"Push hard, princess," he said encouragingly, and the others laughed. Following her example, the other sisters took up all the extra paddles, and anything that would serve as one, and everyone, including Merit joined the paddling. Even Aristophanes found a board with which to contribute, though after a few minutes, it seemed to leap from his hand into the river, and immediately swam as far downstream from its master as possible.
Farash laughed and patted Aristophanes on the shoulder. "Hey old man, you take the bow and keep an eye out for hippopotami!"
Glad to have a purpose to which he could apply himself, Aristophanes eagerly made his way to the bow, and completely disrupted the rhythm of the paddlers. The chaos left in his wake, stalled the boat's forward momentum and Farash grimly pulled hard on both rudders to keep the craft from turning about in midstream.
The crisis passed and the craft nosed upstream, her occupants fighting for every inch of headway. By sunset, they beached the boat beside the Kawan crews already encamped on a sand spit, and the travellers sank wearily into the dry sand. They slept without any thought to food, and awoke the next morning, tired, sore and hungry. The Nile had started to turn, and the wind began to blow hard against them. At one point, they tried to haul the boats up river from the shore, but made little progress and almost lost one of the boats when its lines snapped.
But cubit by cubit, they had moved up river. Finally, the wind changed to blow westward, and Farash re-rigged the sail so they could tack at a good angle to windward, and the breeze soon propelled them once again upriver. The Nile was now flowing southward, and the native Egyptian sisters aboard were amazed for all their lives they had been taught the Nile flows down from South to North.
Signs of life appeared along the river. The occasional tiny boat. Small mud brick buildings. A fisherman who stared in wonder at the ceremonial barge full of women sailing up the river.
"We are coming close to Napata," declared Aristophanes, as he pored over a papyrus map. "Here there is a Temple of Amun. The town was called Meroway by the Egyptians as it was the staging point for a cross-desert trek to the real Island of Meroway. The town is situated just down river from the Fourth Cataract, a fearsome rapid for any craft. Both passages are daunting and dangerous."
"The desert is impassable except by donkey train and the way is haunted by the most fearsome assortment of wild carnivores. The river teems with hippopotami and crocodile. It is said there are water plants grow so thickly upon the river further upstream, that no boat can navigate through it. They have tendrils that grasp at any voyager and drag them beneath the surface and drown them. The swamps are infested with poisonous snakes and fearsome insects with bites so strong they will either kill a man or drive him mad. Many have been so oppressed by them that they have thrown themselves into the water to escape them and were drowned by the sucking tendrils of the water plants! The scorpions are so large they can-"
"Enough!" commanded Merit, cutting Aristophanes off for she could see the alarm growing in her charges. "Please, we must prepare to greet the townspeople of Napata."
She motioned to the sisters and after stowing away all loose belongings, the women retired to the cabana to change into ceremonial dress. The women came out one by one, dressed in their finest linen, and with ceremonial headdresses and jewellery. The sun sparkled off the gold necklaces and bracelets. Farash lowered the sail and he and two other paddlers removed the cloth and stowed it under the forecastle, then fastened a newer and more elaborately decorated sail, pristine white, to the yardarm, and hoisted it aloft. At that moment, the breeze blew from the southwest and billowed the sail out grandly and swept the boat swiftly upstream, leaving the other two boats in her wake.
To the westward, but on their left instead of their right, tombs of great antiquity passed by their gaze. They passed a small village. Several children playing by the river ran along the bank, and waved to the wonderful women in the beautiful boat passing by their shore.
Merit sat upon a throne that had been placed amidships from storage, where it had been hidden amongst the cargo. She motioned Miri and Dorcas to stand either side of her. The two young girls were given great ceremonial fans of ostrich feathers, and began to slowly fan their superior.
Merit shook her finger at them and smiled. "Not yet!" she admonished them with a smile. "You will tire before we reach Napata! I will give you a signal!"
"The village of Tangasi," declared Aristophanes from his perch in the raised bow, looking up from his geography. Soon, they sailed to the lee side of an island, and as they rounded the point, a great town came into view.
"The city of Napata!" announced Aristophanes triumphantly, and all on board held their breath, for a grand ceremonial boat, pennants flying and bedecked with flowers sat beached at the quayside. The whole town was on the shore, and it was obvious they had arrived in the midst of a frenetic festival. Absorbed as the townspeople were in their festivities, everyone stopped to stare at the river barge approaching their town. The boats from Kawa pulled alongside the sisters from Philae.
It was as if the entire town held its breath while the expedition from Philae and Kawa dropped anchor at a respectful distance from the grand barge. Merit sat on her throne beneath a gaily-coloured canopy, regal in her ceremonial attire, flanked by Miri and Dorcas. Her experienced and steady gray eyes took in the scene and read the signs displayed along the quayside.
"It's the Royal Barge of the Kandake!" she announced to her sisters, "I had expected to meet with her proxy, but we have arrived here to meet her!" She frowned briefly at Miri, then waved her hand.
"You may begin!"
For a brief moment, Miri didn't understand what she was supposed to begin, but then realized she held the ostrich feather standard, and she began to wave it to create a soft breeze wafting over Merit. On the other side of the throne, Dorcas had already begun. they exchanged brief glances and synchronzed their fanning.
An official of the Royal court came out in a small canoe to meet them. As his small craft pulled alongside the boat from Philae, he stood up, vainly trying to maintain a dignified pose as he stood up in the small wobbly canoe. He hailed Merit, as, from her ceremonial garb and seated pose, she was obviously the most senior official on board.
"Kandake Amniteri sends you her greetings. She apologizes to her sisters from Philae for the delay in bringing the Waters of Life to the temple of Auset and Ausar."
"Her apologies are not necessary" replied Merit formally, "We have come to pay homage to Amniteri, and bring gifts for her well-being and that of her husband Natkamani. That the Kandake is here in Napata, doubles our pleasure in the giving. We have brought with us gifts for Her Eminence, and our cousins from Kawa have been dispatched by the will of Apedemek to do likewise. Please advise Amniteri we have been sent by our Father, Ausar-Un-Nefer, and our Great Mother Auset to seek her council, and that the matters of the delivery of the Waters of Life are but a part of our mission!"
The official frowned, then bowed and his canoe pushed off from the boat from Philae and returned to the beach of Napata.
"Now what?" asked Miri, as she stopped waving the ceremonial fan
They sat at anchor for most of the afternoon. They had prepared an official banquet of fruit and bread for diplomatic reception, yet no diplomat had availed themselves to their attention. Flies began to accumulate on the food, attracted to the sweet smell of fruit exposed to the afternoon heat. Miri and Dorcas were assigned to using the ceremonial ostrich feathers to brush the flies from the food. It was such an exercise in futility, Miri eventually wrapped the hanging sides of the tablecloths back up over the platters, then stood leaning on her ostrich feather standard. The pouch containing the scroll for the Kandake still hung against her hip from the shoulder strap, and she fell into a daydream about meeting the Kandake.
The Kandake, she imagined would be tall. Strong. Of great beauty. She was surprised as she found herself thinking of Yohanna. Yohanna would be a great Kandake, she decided. Her long muscular legs, her wide, strong shoulders-
Merit's voice broke through her daydream.
"Back to your stations!"
Miri opened her eyes, and caught Merit's imperious gaze.
"Uncover the food!" she commanded.
Miri obeyed and rushed back to her post as official fan bearer, an honour almost equal to that of herald. The official who had spoken to them earlier once again made his way out to them by boat in the river shallows.
"Permission to come aboard?" he asked loudly.
"Granted!" replied Merit.
The courtier, dressed in fine gold and linen, wrapped in a leopardskin cloak, stepped on board their boat, followed by two guards and a scribe. The small canoe that had brought them paddled back to the beach.
"I am Taharka, and Kandake Amniteri has asked that I send you her greetings and offer our best wishes to you and your company. She requests that you now come ashore! She will see you as soon as time permits. You and your retinue are her honoured guests and accommodations will be made for all!"
"Your mistress is most kind. We have prepared an offering for you. Please avail yourself of our hospitality!"
Merit arose and took the courtier's arm. She led him to the food prepared for the reception. After the diplomat swallowed a symbolic fig, a morsel of bread, and was given a goblet of fine barley beer, the others on board, most of who had not eaten for a fair while, joined in and soon a great party had formed. Aristophanes joined the scribe in an animated conversation about the wonders of Alexandria about which the scribe was fascinated, but had never visited.
Merit, in a moment she seemed to have picked, drew Miri to one side.
"Do not drink any of the beer, for you must have your wits about you!" she whispered. "There is some talk that Amniteri may not long be acclaimed the Kandake after all. It seems her cousin Karkamani has seized the true city of Meroway in her absence, and is holding her husband Natkamani and her son Sherkarer hostage in the Royal Palace. Karkamani is claiming his consort is the true Kandake."
A knot formed in the pit of Miri's stomach. "What can we do?" she cried. Her voice was loud enough for many heads to turn in her direction. Merit pulled her aside quickly so their backs were to the others.
"You have brains Sati, but little experience! You must draw upon the part of you which is always kept secret! Remember your meditations, and ask the goddess who rules you to take you into her arms! Now, more than ever, you will need her guidance! When we are admitted to an audience with Amniteri, you will be at my side! The message you are carrying is to the Kandake. Remember, Amniteri has not yet stood at the Regal Balcony of the Royal Palace! We-"
Merit stood up straight and turned just as Taharka came abreast of them.
"A most gracious reception, Mother Merit," he said pleasantly. He had a dashing arrogance about him, which would have charmed most women out of their sandals, but Merit seemed capable of resistance.
"Thank, you, Lord Taharka," she replied.
There was something not entirely sincere about his manner Miri sensed, and decided he was not to be trusted. She stepped behind Merit for protection.
"And who is your charming companion?" Taharka asked pleasantly.
Merit stepped aside and took Miri by the elbow.
"Satemashtoreth: Lord Taharka!"
"I am honoured," said Taharka as he bowed and took Miri's hand. He kissed her fingers with such softness, it sent a tingle of goosebumps up her arm.
Taharka had seen the ripple race up Miri's bare arm. He squeezed her fingers so slightly, and Miri felt a surge of pleasure at the pressure of his touch, and he smiled up at her with the look of a contented cat. She realized in an instant she was the tasty mouse, and withdrew her hand.
Without skipping a beat, Taharka slid his arm inside the crook of Merit's elbow and led her away to speak to her. Her attention was seized by the sound of a fanfare of trumpets from the shore.
The fanfare was a signal they were welcome to beach their craft in Napata. The paddlers rushed to their positions and took up their paddles. Four men ran to the forecastle and began to haul on the anchor. The boat slowly began to slide forward along the anchor line as it was pulled in and the paddlers began to push their paddles into the water. The anchor was brought on board, and their craft slowly turned in a graceful arc, followed by her sister ships from Kawa.
Miri was a bundle of nerves. She was upset by the news Merit had given her, and she began to sense that she and the other sisters were in some danger of becoming embroiled in palace intrigue. It also dawned on her that her own behaviour might determine whether she and the other expedition members lived or died. Her feet were trembling as she stepped from the gangplank onto the wet sand of the River Nile.
The beach was alive with people. Miri felt as a leaf swept along by a whirlwind. Men and women assailed the newcomers from all sides hawking fresh food, jewellery, animal skins and ivory, even live birds and monkeys. A contingent of the palace guard tried unsuccessfully to keep the hawkers at bay, and the air was filled with shouting and waving arms. Someone tried to abscond with one of the packages being unloaded from the boat, and a scuffle ensued and the unfortunate thief was carried away screaming his innocence by two guards. For a moment Merit's face appeared from the melée.
"Keep your hands firmly wrapped about your purse," she said, then disappeared. Miri instantly clutched the leather bag at her waist with both hands, and tried to stand against the tide of humanity about her. To no avail, she tried to maintain her position and space upon the beach, soon she found herself pushed along the main street and separated from her companions.
Panic set in, and she edged toward the periphery of the crowd, and finally won a space against the mud brick wall of a tavern.
A huge hand wrapped about her mouth and an arm wrapped about her torso, lifting her completely from the ground. She struggled, but the arm held her fast and in an instant carried her backwards into a side door. She kicked with all her might, but she could not free herself.
The room into which she had been carried was completely dark, but she could smell the distinct smell of cinnamon and honey. The smell was familiar and she realized she had smelled the same perfume earlier that day. She had no need to search her memory for the source, for at that moment an inner door opened, and following a slave carrying a lamp, in walked Taharka.
"I must apologize for the unorthodox handling of the Imperial Herald to the Kandake, but, you see, as a loyal subject of the Queen, I must be sure that her person is secure. For that reason, I must ask you give me the scroll you are carrying!"
"No!" replied Miri fiercely, "The scroll is for the eyes of the Kandake only!"
Unperturbed, Taharka moved toward her with the grace of a panther, never once taking his dark eyes from hers. Miri felt entranced by his gaze, and was sure if she tried, she would be unable to move. As he came face to face with her he bent down, his hypnotic eyes inches away from hers, and slid his fingers under his chin.
"You are such a sweet girl," he said as he lifted her face to his, "I can almost taste the honey dripping from your skin!"
His nostrils flared as he took in her scent.
"Do you know how exquisite you are?" he asked softly, and his lotus breath filled her lungs and she felt herself rising to meet him, as though his lips drew hers towards him. She could not feel her feet touching the ground, and she felt a rising glory in her nipples and between her thighs. She wanted him to touch her.
He suddenly pushed her away with an unbelievable force, and she fell to the floor. She felt a brief stab of pain, as the shoulder strap of the leather pouch was ripped away from her, and she instinctively scrambled away. One of the men reached for her and she squealed and scuttled from his reach, and banged heavily into the wall. She instantly stood up, and seeing Taharka about to open the sacred pouch, she cried out and ran at him. She leapt as she had done over the stone walls in Israel when playing with the goats. He had no time to react. She landed square upon his back and she wrapped her legs and arms about him. Taharka, as big as he was, fell forward and dropped the leather pouch. As the diplomat hit the floor, Miri was carried away by the momentum of her leap, and rolled head over heels under a table. A sharp pain stabbed swiftly into her temples as her head smashed against the metal leg of the table, and the table clattered sideways to the floor. As she put her hand to the floor to push herself up, she felt the leather strap of her pouch and seized it as she rose to her feet.
In the confusion, the lamp had shattered and now the room was in complete darkness.
"Find her!" roared Taharka.
Thankfully, the fallen table had taken several chairs with it as well, and the jumbled furniture lay between the men and Miri. She scrambled to the edge of the room and slid quietly along the plastered surface. The men in the room shouted obscenities at each other as they tripped over each other and the broken furniture.
Suddenly the wall behind her disappeared and Miri screamed as she lost her balance and fell backward. Her weight on a wooden door caused it to swing outwards, and Miri found herself tumbling down what was apparently a set of steps. She somersaulted cup over teakettle and came to an abrupt halt, bruised, but thankfully with her limbs intact, at the bottom. The men in the room had heard her, and surmising what had happened now groped their way down the pitch black stairs.
"Where is she?" asked one.
"Shhhh!" came the reply.
Miri held her breath, lest the men heard her breathing.
"Do you think she's dead?" asked another.
She could hear their heavy feet upon the flagstone, and the rustle as they bunched together down the narrow staircase.
She stood up slowly and feeling with her bare feet along the dirt floor, inched away from the stairwell.
"Stop pushing!" whispered one of her pursuers.
"I'm not pushing!" retorted his companion.
"Yes, you are!"
"No I'm not! This- is pushing!"
Miri heard a grunt, and a yell.
"You son of a bitch!" cried the pushee, and Miri sensed his attack on the other man. Their grunts and groans were mixed with Taharka's voice:
"Stop it, you idiots! You're going to-Ow!" Although Miri could not know it at that time, one of the combatants had hit Taharka in the eye. A general scrap ensued which consumed the kidnappers to a man, and Miri quite sensibly made her way down the corridor. She soon realized she was in some warehouse, and the dusty smell of wheat told her it was a granary. After several turns and some backtracking, Miri saw a touch of daylight, and followed the light to its source. It was a door. To the outside, for beams of daylight streamed in through the cracks between the wood. She pushed at the door and she realized it was barred. From the outside.
"Oh Mother dammit!" she whispered desperately.
She could hear the shouts of the kidnappers and realized they had settled their differences and were now coming down the corridor toward her. Once they made the last turn they would see her!
The way ahead of her was blocked. She had to get out of the door!
Frantically she began to bang on the door.
"Help!" Help!" she cried.
She could hear the kidnappers running. They were homing in on her voice!
"Oh Mother!" Miri cried desperately, "Help me! Help! Open this door!"
Outside a slave passing by with a sack of grain over his shoulder hear her muffled cries. He stopped to listen.
"Help!" cried Miri peering through a crack in the door, "Help! Over here!"
The slave cautiously approached the door.
"Yes! Yes! Over here!" she cried out, "Open the door!"
As he reached the door, he peered in through one of the cracks but could see nothing. Miri desperately shook the door with all her might. She could hear the pounding of Taharka and his cronies' feet coming closer.
"Let me out!" she screamed at the slave. He cautiously pulled at the door. It didn't move. He pulled harder. He shook it.
"Remove the bar!" screamed Miri hysterically. Taharka and his men had rounded the last corner, and she knew they would be able to see her by the door.
The slave looked at the bar. This end. Then that.
"Lift it up!" screamed Miri barely able to contain herself.
A light came on in the slave's eyes and he set down his sack of grain and placed both hands on the bar. With a deep breath, he raised the bar with such an excruciating slowness, Miri lost her composure completely and began bouncing off the door to hurry him up. As the bar cleared the metal hooks which held it fast, the door exploded outwards with a high pitched female scream and hit him in the head with such force as to knock him out.
His face took on a moment of surprise, then his eyes closed and his knees buckled. But before he collapsed, Miri pulled the bar from his hands and slammed it back against the door and down into the metal hooks that held it closed. Not wasting a moment, Miri looked about her.
She was in a courtyard, and through an open gate, she spied a busy street. She sprinted through the archway and out into the street. She ran until she felt she had put enough distance between the granary and herself then, panting, she leaned over, with one hand against an adobe wall.
A bony claw touched her shoulder. Miri screamed and clutched her diplomatic pouch. She turned found herself face to face with an old woman. She could not see the details of the woman's face for it was hooded and veiled, but there was something strangely familiar about the form.
"Alms for the poor, mistress," croaked the woman.
"I- I'm sorry, old woman, but I have no money," panted Miri.
She stared inquisitively into the darkness beneath the crone's hood, for the voice had a familiar ring to it, but the woman turned and melted into the crowd and Miri lost track of her.
Normally, Miri loved the crowded marketplace. She loved the contact and the nearness of the people. Coarse woolen robes, fine silks, cotton shirts, all brushed against her arms as she pushed through the streets between the stalls. The smells of spices and cooking, fresh bread, the shouting and the hustle of the hawkers, the braying of unhappy donkeys and the complaining of wayward donkeys filled her being. But here in this strange town, the same things that usually brought her pleasure, instilled a great foreboding within her.
She felt an overpowering need to talk to the strange old woman, and searched the crowd for a glimpse of the black hood. She spied it momentarily as the old woman turned into a side street. Miri pushed through the throng toward the corner. She arrived in time to see the woman disappear down another alley. She followed brief flashes of the black robe, but soon was lost in the tangle of alleyways, hemmed in on all sides by mud brick walls. She was not sure which way she had come, and the streets here were deserted, every door along the street closed. Miri moved nervously for two steps in the direction she had come and looked behind her at the sound of swirling cloth.
There was no one there.
Her hand reached instinctively for the wall beside her. The feel of stone reassured her and she cautiously stepped around the corner. The street to her left bent around and there was no exit she could see; to her right a blind alley. She did not panic, but her senses were alert and ready for the unexpected: the hair on her body raised from the skin and her stomach tightened into an ache. Clutching her leather bag, she cautiously moved to her left. The curving street did not seem familiar, and with some foreboding, she realized the sun was setting, for the shadows grew longer and the dark recesses seemed darker. She turned to the right at another street.
She was lost.
There was no doubt. She had gotten completely turned around and now had no idea of which way to go. Miri started as a shadow moved beside her.
"There is no need for alarm," whispered a female voice, "Take this!" the shadow passed a small cloth bundle to Miri. The contents rattled inside. "Know that hearts are with you!" said the shadow, then disappeared into the gloom.
"Wait!" called out Miri, but the shadow had gone.
Holding her free hand on her leather pouch, Miri walked quickly down another alleyway. Thankfully, it opened onto a street, and under the moonlight and the dull glow of lamplight from town house windows, she eventually came out into the centre of Napata where she spied her companions making their way toward the Royal Palace. She rejoined them, but not one of them had really noticed she had been missing. The strangeness of her day began to sink in as they reached the high walls of the Royal Palace.
As Herald of the High Priestess of The Temple of Auset at Philae, she was given her own room, complete with two female attendants. After a brief supper and a bath, the slaves assigned to her returned to their sleeping space in an alcove beside her apartment. Alone in her room, she lay on her bed and opened the small bundle the strangress had given her. She gasped as a handful of brilliant sapphires tumbled out onto the clean sheets. There was enough there to ransom a prince!
She quickly scooped them up and looked about her. There was nowhere she could hide the sapphires, so she returned them to the cloth bag and slipped the bag into a fold of her robe. She quickly realized the Taharka might find her here, for as a courtier of Amniteri, he would surely have access to the palace. She realized she could not stay the night in her room. She wrapped her robe about her and slipped the courier satchel over her shoulder.
Cautiously, she opened her apartment door and peered down the corridor. Two guards sat at the end of the hallway, involved in a board game. Her bare feet soundless on the marble floor, Miri left her own apartment and slipped into the doorway of the next apartment. A yellow light shone under the door. She knocked on it softly.
To her great relief, Aristophanes opened the door. He opened his mouth in surprise at finding the young sister at his door. Miri put her finger to his lips to silence him and pushed him gently back into his room, and closed the door behind her.
"I need to spend the night here!" she said in a whisper.
Aristophanes did not quite know how to answer, so he gaped in stupefaction at Miri. She caught his bewilderment.
"Can I trust you not to say anything?" she asked hopefully.
Aristophanes mouth opened and closed like some strange bearded fish. His mind had begun to speculate on this strange turn of events, and being a man, his desire had begun to get the better of him despite his advanced years. Either he was easily deceived or this young devotee of Auset had decided to put an end to the celibate lifestyle his aging frame had imposed upon him.
Miri slipped off her robe and draped it over a chair. She walked towards him His eyes followed her bare arm to her shoulders and followed the curve of her pectorals to her firm, ripe-
"Someone is trying to kill me!" she blurted out.
Aristophanes blinked. He had expected something quite different than Miri's actual outburst, and he blinked again.
His ears burned and he knew they were bright red. He was suddenly ashamed of his wild fantasy.
"This afternoon, I was abducted by Taharka!" said Miri.
Aristophanes recovered and led Miri to his couch.
"Sit! Sit!" he said reassuringly, "What on earth happened?"
Miri related the afternoon's events to an amazed Aristophanes.
"We must get word to Amniteri!" he declared. He thought for a moment. "Who else have you told of this?" he asked.
"No one!" declared Miri.
"That's good! That's good!" Aristophanes declared, "This is a terrible turn of events indeed! I fear this is all my fault!"
"Your fault? But how?" asked Miri.
Aristophanes sighed and took a deep breath.
"I have brought a parchment to Taharka from the Roman Governor in Alexandria! I discovered from Taharka after delivering it to his hand in a market stall, it was an agreement to pay for his bringing the Realm of Meroway into the Roman Empire!"
"What?" asked Miri incredulously.
"I never thought to question the reason for it, for all I could think of was that I would be guaranteed safe passage to Meroway. No one from the Mediterranean has ever penetrated into the heart of the Island of Meroway, much less found the source of the Nile! So, I accepted his offer! The Roman governor said it was a personal message to Taharka and his clan, and would help bring peace to the region! I swear by Zeus' beard, I had no idea I was acting as an emissary to a palace coup d'etat!"
"But how could that be your fault?" asked Miri.
Aristophanes avoided her gaze.
"Alright," he admitted finally, "I told Taharka about the message you were carrying to the Kandake. Just like my dear old Rufus, his ears pricked up! I regretted my saying it as soon as it came from my mouth! The speed at which he dismissed me told me I had erred. He threw a bag of silver pieces into my hand and departed immediately! I hurried back to find you, but you had already left the beach!"
"Oh Great Mother!" cried Miri, "We have to get to Amniteri without anyone knowing!"
"Mother Merit!" declared Aristophanes, "She will know what to do!"
"Of course!" cried Miri, "Why didn't I think of it? Do you know which room she is in?"
Aristophanes shook his head.
Miri took a deep breath.
"Well, we'll just have to find out!"
"How?" he asked.
"We'll knock on every door until we find her!" said Miri.
So, Miri and Aristophanes quietly tiptoed out of his apartment, and into the hall. The guards at the end of the hallway were still immersed in their board game. Miri darted across the hall to the alcove opposite. Keeping out of sight of the guards, she knocked on the door. No answer. She pointed at the next door down and Aristophanes darted across the hallway to the entranceway of that apartment.
Dorcas opened the door behind Miri.
"Yes?" she asked loudly, and Miri put her finger to her lips ands slipped inside. The closing door caught the attention of one of the guards, and he looked up from his game. At that moment, the door opened to Aristophanes as well and he slipped inside that door much in the same way as Miri had, but the guard caught a glimpse of the light from the open door shining onto the marble floor, and adjusting his helmet, got up to check what was going on.
Inside the apartment, Dorcas and Cleopatra, billeted together, told Miri they didn't know to which Mother Merit had been assigned. Miri thanked them and slipped out the door. The guard was now knocking on the door into which Aristophanes had disappeared. Miri ran across the hallway to another doorway. The sound of her bare feet and the rustling of her clothes caught the guard's attention and he looked about, but Miri was already hidden in the doorway.
"Thank the Great Mother for these thick walls!" said Miri under her breath.
In the other apartment Aristophanes and Apusim were scrambling, for Apusim was very concerned about her reputation and the fact that being found with a man in her room was not compatible with the vows she had taken when she had entered the service of the Goddess Auset. Aristophanes quickly secreted himself behind a wall tapestry, and the good sister opened the door a crack.
"Yes?" she asked.
"Is everything alright, Mother?" asked the guard.
"Yes! yes, quite alright!" Apusim declared and moved to close the door.
"I'll have to look around," said the guard pointedly, his foot preventing the door from closing.
"I- I'm very tired!" said Apusim just as pointedly, pushing harder against the door.
"Just the same-" said the guard and heaved open the door with his shoulder. "I have my orders! I would be strung up on the royal gibbet if something were to happen to you!"
He stepped into the apartment and began to search the room. Apusim moved to the couch in front of the tapestry in an effort to forestall the search, but deceit did not sit naturally upon her shoulders and the guard became suspicious, slowing in his peering and poking, all the time closing in on Apusim and the tapestry.
"So, how long have you been in the Palace Guard?" Apusim asked in her best coquettish manner. She was unfortunately very much out of practice. The guard reached out and pulled the tapestry away from the wall. Apusim screamed in fear, and the guard looked suspiciously at her. He looked back behind the tapestry.
There was the sound of running footsteps in the hall.
Apusim smiled apologetically at the guard.
"You gave me quite a start," she said weakly.
The second guard appeared at the doorway, sword in hand.
"What's going on here?" he demanded loudly.
"Nothing!" said Apusim quickly and smiled wanly at the guard, then at his companion.
At that moment, Miri slipped out from another of the rooms, and ran across the hall to the next. Unfortunately the commotion had aroused other occupants of that palace wing, and heads began to poke out from the alcoves.
The two guards closed the door to the Apusim's room, and found themselves amidst a curious sea of faces.
"It's alright, everybody! No cause for alarm, Just a routine door check is all! You can all go back to your rooms, now! Everything's fine!"
Miri peeped out from her hiding place. None of the people walking back to their rooms was Merit. At that moment, Taharka appeared at the guard post at the end of the hall. Miri's heart popped into her mouth. The diplomat talked briefly to the guards, holding up a scroll much like the one Miri carried in her satchel. In response to a question from Taharka, one of the guards pointed towards her room! Taharka saluted the guards, who responded automatically, and turned on his heels, walking straight for Miri's quarters. Miri thanked the Fortuna she wasn't in her apartment.
Taharka knocked quietly on Miri's door, and receiving no answer, looked about, opened the door and slipped inside. The instant he closed the door behind him Miri dashed for the room she had seen Aristophanes enter. Without knocking, she opened the door and slammed it behind her. Apusim stared at Miri in amazement.
"Sister Apusim, where's Aristophanes?" Miri demanded brusquely.
"Who?" asked Apusim as innocently as she could.
"The Greek!" shouted Miri, "Where is he?"
Both Miri and her sister stared at each other.
"Did you hear that?" asked Miri, "Where did that come from?"
"Help!" the old man's voice was barely audible.
The two women stared at the window. Barely visible on the outside edge of the windowsill were the fingers of Aristophanes.
"Help!" he called out again.
Miri rushed to the window. Aristophanes was hanging three stories above the ground by his fingertips. Miri grasped his wrists and called out to Apusim to help. With a great deal of effort the two sisters were able to haul the trembling old man back into the apartment.
"Great Zeus!" he panted weakly, "I'm too old for this abuse!"
A loud knock came at the door.
"What's going on in there?" It was the guard again!
"Quickly!" cried Apusim to the others and held out the tapestry for them to hide. Unfortunately the guard did not wait for them to answer, and opened the door from the outside. Miri quickly closed the tapestry on Aristophanes and Apusim, and turned to face the guard.
"Who are you?" he asked in surprise.
"Pardon me?" asked Miri innocently.
"Who in Tattu are you?" asked the guard.
"I am Satemashtoreth," replied Miri, "Who are you?"
"You're not the woman who was here a moment ago!"
The guard suffered a moment's doubt.
"Wait here!" he said grimly, then turned on his heels and back into the hallway. He called his companion.
"Askemani! Come here!"
In an instant, Miri and Sister Apusim changed places and managed to do so a fraction of a heartbeat before the two guards came back into the apartment.
The first guard stared at Apusim in astonishment.
"What?" asked Askemani.
The first guard gaped like some strange fish faced with the ineffable, then shook his head. "I've got to lay off the barley beer!" he muttered. Still muttering to himself, he turned and left the room.
"I'm sorry, Mother," Askemani said to Apusim, "My friend has been under a lot of strain. His fiancée just left him for someone else, and he hasn't been himself lately!"
Askemani backed out the door and closed it as he exited.
"Oh, Great Mother!" declared Apusim as her knees gave out and she flopped down on the couch. Miri and Aristophanes came out quickly from behind the tapestry.
"What on Earth is going on?" asked Apusim.
"Taharka tried to kill Miri!" blurted out Aristophanes.
"And he's here! Now!" cried Miri.
"What!" cried Apusim and Aristophanes together.
"He's in my room this very instant!" said Miri, "We have to find Mother Merit!"
"She's in the west wing!" said Apusim.
"Are you sure?" asked Miri.
"Of course!" replied Apusim, "I took some toiletries to her earlier this evening. She's on the second floor, quite close to the Kandake!"
"Thank the Good Mother!" cried Miri.
"But I don't think you can get through there! The security is very tight about the Kandake! I had to have a special pass!"
Do you still have it?" demanded Miri.
"Yes!" replied Apusim, brightening, "Yes, I do!"
She stood up and walked over to a desk and removed a special amulet on a gold chain. "Here it is!" she said and proudly held it up.
The flickering light of the room's lamps glittered on its polished golden surface.
Miri grasped the amulet and slipped the gold chain over her head and about her neck.
"I shall make my way to Mother Merit and from there we shall try to reach Queen Amniteri, and warn her of Taharka's intentions," said Miri. "You two stay here and wait for me! If all goes well, I shall return!"
"But if you do not?" asked Apusim.
"Then you must use Plan Beta!" said Miri with a smile.
"Plan Beta?" asked Aristophanes, "We have no Plan Beta!"
Miri paused at the doorway, and turned good-naturedly to the old man.
"Must I do everything myself?" she asked in mock annoyance, then slipped out the door.
Apusim and Aristophanes looked at each other. They stood very close to each other and their proximity embarrassed them both. They each took a sideways step away from the other.
In the hallway, Miri peered around the corner of the doorway, and spied the two guards. They were once again absorbed in their board game and at that moment were rather heatedly arguing over whose turn it was. Miri took a deep breath, and deciding the best offence was a bold frontal attack, she stepped from hiding and marched as authoritatively as she could towards the two arguing men.
They looked up in surprise at her approach and she addressed them before they had a chance to challenge her first.
"Which one of you is Askemani?" she asked in the most regal manner she could muster. Much to her surprise, her manner was far more imperial than she would have given herself credit for.
"I- I am, Mistress!" answered Askemani.
"Good!" said Miri. "My name is Satemashtoreth of the Delegation of Philae! You are to escort me to the chambers of the Kandake forthwith, Askemani," said Miri as she held up the Royal Amulet in front of her. Askemani obviously was impressed by the Royal Seal, and leapt immediately to his feet, adjusting his uniform as he straightened himself out.
"The Kandake!" he whispered in awe to his companion. He stood smartly to attention and saluted Miri, then bowed and extended his hand.
"This way, Holy Mother!" he said deferentially.
They descended the broad staircase, and at the bottom, sentries stepped into their path, and challenged Miri and Askemani.
"I am escorting Satemashtoreth to an audience with the Kandake!" he announced proudly.
The sentries nodded and stepped aside.
Miri marvelled at how well her plan was working out. As long as Askemani did all the talking, there would be no problem gaining entrance to the Royal Enclosure of the Palace. Or so she thought.
The sentries at the gates to the Royal Enclosure were more security conscious than Askemani and his partner. And there were many more of them.
The Captain of the Guard was summoned and in his wake followed an obsequious scribe, who fawned terribly about the very much larger captain. He frowned at Askemani, which caused Askemani great discomfort, then glanced disparagingly at Miri, his eyes quickly running up and down her form without giving away his thoughts.
"I have no orders to admit you!" he said gruffly, "What did you say your name was?"
"Mother Merit!" declared Miri with a sudden burst of inspiration.
"Mother?" asked the captain, checking the scribe's tablet.
"Merit?" asked Askemani plaintively, realizing the young woman had given him more than one name, and he might quite likely be hanging from a gibbet by the time the sun kissed his face again.
"Yes, Mother Merit!" replied Miri firmly, as she craned her neck to read the wax impressions on the tablet. Annoyed by her intrusion, the scribe whisked the tablet from her view.
"We have no Mother Merit schedul- Wait! Wait, I see your name now!" he frowned and looked at her closely. "You were already admitted this afternoon!"
"Impossible!" declared Miri.
The scribe suffered a moment of indecision.
The captain lifted Miri's Royal Amulet and turned it over, scrutinizing it carefully.
"The amulet is genuine, is it not?" he asked the scribe, who nodded. The captain then pointed to the tablet. "Whose watch was it?"
The scribe traced his stylus along the wax impression.
"Amun Akis!" he replied.
"Perhaps he was mistaken! Look! Here! The ambassador from Napata has not been marked in, yet I know he left only a few hours ago! Perhaps he put the wrong mark!"
The scribe shook his head.
"Then why would he write 'She has entered' beside her name?"
The captain frowned at Miri.
"You will come with me!" he commanded Miri sternly.
Miri smiled encouragingly at Askemani, but his harried expression showed he was deeply concerned about not collecting his pension. She followed the captain meekly, and two guards fell in beside her, one on either side. Miri began to feel very, very, small.
She was led into a cell.
"Sit there!" commanded the captain, pointing to a stone bench running the length of the back wall. She sat and faced the captain and the two guards. "I have sent the scribe to check on the quarters assigned to you, Mother Merit! If they are empty, then I shall admit you, but you will be placed under guard until we can sort out what went wrong at the gates. If there is, as I suspect, already a Mother Merit in the apartments, then I shall have to call the magistrates to determine which of you is the genuine Ambassador! In the meantime, I must ask you turn over your bag so I may examine it!"
"I-I cannot!" replied Miri, with more firmness than she truly felt. "The message I bear is for the eyes of the Kandake only! You must wake her up immediately!"
The captain smiled ironically. "That message would have to be a matter of Life and Death for me to disturb the Kandake!"
"Be assured that the tidings I bear are not of great joy!" replied Miri, "And that indeed they are a matter of Life and Death!"
For a brief moment, the captain faltered, and Miri saw a cloud of uncertainty colour his eyes.
While Miri was being interrogated, Aristophanes and Apusim fretted in Miri's absence. Apusim was on the verge of tears and Aristophanes had sat down beside her. He wrapped his arms about Apusim to comfort her, and at the instant of his touch Apusim began to wail.
"I should never have let her go on her own!" she cried.
"There! There!" He said softly, "Satem is a very competent young woman with a good head on her shoulders. I'm sure she's just fine!" Had Apusim been able to see Aristophanes' face, she would have seen he was as concerned about Miri as she. They sat rocking each other for comfort for a considerable time. Their souls, each isolated in their own closed worlds for so very long, he in his studies and his geography, and she, in her scriptures and healing works, began to glow as they held each other.
Apusim could hear the solid thud of Aristophanes heart as she rested her head against his chest and the heat of her flesh beneath his palms had caused Aristophanes to feel that tell-tale rising tingle from his groin. Apusim's hand slid across Aristophanes chest and wrapped gracefully with the stealth of a snake about his neck. Her own heart beat so loudly beneath her breast, she knew Aristphanes could hear it. How could he not?
Imperceptibly, their bodies, as if drawn to each other by some unseen magnetic attraction, pressed harder together. Their hands, as if denying their own conscious thought, slowly stroked the body they held. Flesh pressed against flesh. Soul against soul. Apusim lifted her head. Aristophanes' neck arched above her like an eagle staring down from his aerie.
And their eyes met.
Though each resisted the impulse of their own bodies, their conscious thought was not enough to stop that which was about to happen, their lips parted. Their necks bent to each other, and their lips touched.
Never had either felt such agonizing ecstasy. The years of celibate living each had imposed upon their self, burned away like papyrus wrapped about hot coals, and the embers of passion, in all their glory bust forth into ardent flame!
They kissed, and the passion drove them hard into each other. They writhed in pleasure at each touch of flesh upon flesh. The aches of old age dissipated as if by magic, and their souls tore at each other as though they were teenagers again, and all the sweetness which two adolescents deeply in love could feel exploded within their veins!
The door burst open, and the two lovers sprang apart as nimbly and frantically as grasshoppers beneath the harvester's scythe.
They blinked in horror at the intruder.
"Where is she?" he growled at them.
"See here, young man-" began Aristophanes, in as dignified manner as he could muster.
"The Egyptian sister! The one who carries the pouch for the Kandake! Where is she?"
Taharka moved about the room, searching the nooks and crannies. Apusim smoothed out her disarrayed robes. Her right leg was exposed as far as the thigh, and she wrapped her dress about her lower limbs. Both lovers were in shock. Not only could they not deal with the passion that had erupted between them, they had been caught in delecto. Beyond that, they both knew the young Satem was in very serious trouble.
"If you told us what you are looking for, perhaps we could help you," said Aristophanes nervously.
"Old man, you are this close to being run through" growled Taharka, holding up thumb and forefinger, and advancing upon Aristophanes.
"No!" screamed Apusim, throwing herself across him.
An evil smile passed across Taharka's face.
"So," he said menacingly, "What have we here? A little nooky-nooky between the scholar and the priestess? How long have you been breaking your vows, little mother?"
Tight lipped, Apusim cringed as Taharka bent towards her.
Taharka was face to face with the couple.
His smile disappeared as Aristophanes struck his jaw with a wicked left hook. Unfortunately, Aristophanes was unskilled in the art of boxing, and Taharka's head resumed its original position, and he sneered at the old man.
"So, the little squirrel has chosen to fight for his oats, has he?"
He pushed Apusim aside and lifted Aristophanes to his feet by his toga.
"Where is the girl, Ari?"
"I- I don't know. The last time I saw her was at supper!" he answered nervously.
Taharka dropped him in disgust, and turned to the door.
"If I find you have deceived me, things will not go well for you, Greek!" threatened Taharka, "Friend of Rome, or no!" As the door closed, Taharka spied the lone guard.
"Hey, you! Where is your friend?"
The door closed and Aristophanes and Apusim stared blankly at each other.
"I-" he began.
Apusim put her fingers to his lips.
"Don't speak!" she said softly. "Don't speak!"
The captain bowed down to enter the cell, and behind him came Mother Merit.
Miri jumped to her feet.
"Mother Merit!" she cried out happily.
"Sati!" exclaimed Merit in surprise.
"She's your daughter?" asked the captain in surprise, as the two women embraced.
"She is our herald to the Kandake!" Merit looked sternly at Miri. "Now, Sati, what is this all about?"
"It's about treason! That's what its all about!" roared a challenging familiar voice.
Miri screamed in fear and the entire company in the cell whirled about. Taharka seemed to fill the entire room. "These women have come to assassinate the Kandake!" he said, pointing his finger directly at Miri. "I have proof right here!"
He held up a tattered and sodden scroll.
"This is the true message from the High Priestess at Philae, and they have sought to bring a forgery to Her Highness! Here," he said, waving the damaged scroll, "-is the evidence of their deception!"
"That's a lie!" retorted Miri, "It is Lord Taharka who has betrayed the Kandake!"
The Captain of the Guard realized her was in no position to judge in such weighty matters declared everyone involved must be incarcerated until the situation could be decided by a panel of magistrates. Accordingly, he placed Mother Merit, Miri and Askemani under house arrest and put the three of them under guard until a court could be convened. Despite his protests of innocence and his demands to see Amniteri immediately, Taharka was confined to his apartment. The Captain was not a man to take chances.
In the morning, a guard awoke her. Remembering the events of the day before, Miri instinctively reached for the sapphires. Satisfied she still had them, she checked to make sure the diplomatic bag was still strapped to her shoulder, a soldier brought a small breakfast platter, bread and beer, but Miri ate little. Her stomach was still a little nervous. She sat alone on the stone bench for some time, but eventually began to pace back and forth across the floor of her cell. Finally, the door to her room opened and a scribe stood in the opening.
"I must ask you a few questions!" he said quietly, and motioned for her to sit. Your case is not being heard by the magistrates for Queen Amniteri has heard of the events that transpired here last night, and has decreed she shall here the case herself! This is in accordance with the Law!"
He unfolded his tablet and smoothed the wax with his fingers as he spoke.
"I must ask you if anyone can corroborate your story!"
"Yes!" cried Miri, "Mother Apusim of Philae and Aristophanes the Geographer!"
"Geographer!" shouted Miri. "The Greek who came with us from Philae!"
"They can witness for you?"
"Mother Merit, of course!"
The scribe smiled apologetically.
"I'm sorry, Mother Merit is one of those accused. She cannot be a witness!"
The scribe stood up brusquely.
"You will wait here until you are summoned!"
With that he exited and the door slammed closed.
The bolt shot across the door and all was silent in the room.
Miri plunked herself despondently down upon the stone bench. The wait seemed interminable, and slowly she nodded off to sleep.
She was awoken by the sound of the bolt slipping back.
The scribe who had questioned her earlier poked his head into the cell.
"It is time!" he announced and Miri stood up, smoothed her dress, and followed him into the hallway.