"Satem! Wake up!" A hand shook her, but Miri could not open her eyes, nor would her body respond. Hands gripped her, and she was lifted from the dirt. She was aware of being carried, but she could not move. She tried to call out, to tell whoever carried her to let her sleep, but her words slurred into a painful moan. She was laid on a soft bed, and the smell of incense filled her lungs. A beautiful perfume filled her mind, infusing her being with the aroma of lotus blossoms, of magnolias, of jasmine- and roast lamb!
Her empty stomach complained loudly to her and bullied her eyes into opening. A spoon was held to her lips. Delicious onion soup soothed her throat and warmed her insides. A slave held her upright, and another passed a spoon to her lips. Miri soon regained her composure and control of her limbs, and helped herself to several dishes laid before her. Halfway through the delicious meal, a summons arrived from Amniteri via one of Amniteri's household and escorted Miri to the Queen's tent.
Surrounded by generals and officers all with details requiring her consideration, the Kandake looked up at Miri as she was led into the tent. Amniteri addressed Miri immediately.
"I have no time for pleasantries, you are to remain at my side until I regain Meroway or die trying!"
Miri was taken aback by Amniteri's gruffness, but considering the enterprise the Queen had undertaken, and the demands upon her time, it was not entirely unseeming behaviour. Miri doubted the Queen had slept much in the last few days. Still, that she should be ordered about was more than Miri thought was her due.
"May I ask why?" she asked after drawing a deep breath.
"I believe in your visions, and if you are fated to save my life, I want you where you may fulfill that destiny!"
The Kandake returned to her deliberations, and left Miri standing in the middle of the command tent with a feeling she was very much underfoot. Thankfully, the slave who had brought Miri to the audience with the Kandake took Miri by the arm and placed her in a chair in a relatively quiet corner of the tent. As she adjusted to her new quarters, Miri was grateful the Queen's command required her only to remain by her side, as she had no energy to actually perform any other task but that. She looked up at the slave standing beside her, and patted the chair next to hers in offering. The slave shook her head and remained standing. As chief after chief and officer after officer came and went, Miri began to understand Amniteri's plan of assault. She had laid down her siege walls and brought up her engines and begun constructing her siege towers to give Karkameni the impression she was still laying her plans for an assault. Her engineers and their slaves were preparing to lay rubble and lumber in a ramp leading to the main gate. Two expeditionary forces were to feint an exploratory attack on the North and South gates, and therefore draw the main part of Karkameni's fighting forces away from the eastern Lion's Gate. The southern attack had to be mounted by boat, for the great canal between the Nile and the city ran directly beneath the city walls. This force would be in greater danger than the other, for armoured fighters did not float at all, and once the action started there was a very real danger to the troops from both crocodiles and hippopotami. They decided to man the oars as much as possible with their prisoners under the direction of as few a troops as possible. The northern assault was the safer diversion. Under cover of their shields and carts covered in hide, they stood less chance of casualties. It was decided the northern attack would start first and therefore lessen the number of men available to counter the flotilla approaching from the South. The main part of her forces was to remain in full sight of the walls under the main western gate, and engage in preparations for an assault. Huge platforms had been prepared and buried under cover of darkness which would soon serve as bridges over the dike and across the huge water filled ditch. The elephants, protected by huge hide shielding would pull these platforms into place. They would be supported over the water by boats and strapped together. Once a path had been laid, the catapults would be concentrating their fire upon the main gate. Hopefully it would be weakened enough that a battering ram could be brought forward.
There was some doubt from the engineers that the ram could be ready, for they still had to preserve the idea the engines were not yet ready. Once a siege was laid, it was very difficult to surprise the besieged, for they were constantly on the alert for an attack. The Kandake, who favoured an immediate assault reluctantly agreed to delay the attack for two days.
Once the decision to stand down was made, Amniteri dismissed her chieftains, and retired to her quarters. The slave behind Miri poked her into action as the Kandake retired to her sleeping quarters. Miri pushed aside the drapery to the sleeping area, and the Kandake, being undressed by her attendants, turned to her.
"Well, what do you think of my plan?"
"I have no experience of such things!" replied Miri nervously.
"Sit!" said the Kandake indicating a chair nearby. Miri sat on the edge of the chair, feet together, her hands placed tidily in her lap.
"Tell me of Karima!" commanded the Kandake.
Miri related the tale of their escape from Meroway to Amniteri. If she left out a detail, the Kandake would make her go back over the telling again. Miri wondered how the Queen could sense that something was missing from the action.
"Karima was the bravest woman I know!" declared the Kandake. "There will never be another like her!" For a moment a look of sadness crossed the Queen's face, but the look of the eagle, the stalking lioness, pushed whatever sentiment drove it aside.
"Could you remember the way back into the sewer?" she asked.
"I- I think so," replied Miri hesitantly, "I am-"
"Never mind thinking!" interrupted the Kandake, "Could you get back inside?"
"Yes!" replied Miri. Despite the twists and turns, Miri had the confidence the Great Mother would show her the way if her memory failed her.
"Good! I shall be sending you back in the day after tomorrow!"
"Alone?" asked Miri, "What could I do?"
"One person unarmed can slip through openings an army could not breach!" declared Amniteri, reciting some past learned maxim. "But I shall not send you alone! Your friend Apusim will go with you, and the warrixen chieftain Taragamenit!"
"Who is she?"
Amniteri smiled. "The chief who captured you three days ago! She has the best elephant corps in all of Afrika!"
"Three- I have been asleep for three days?" demanded Miri incredibly. "How could I have been unaware of that much time?"
The Kandake smiled.
"You needed the time to recover. Apusim fed you a draught to keep you in the world of the gods until you were ready to return to us! There were many prayers said for your recovery. We laid you in a stone cave with many charms. Taragamenit will be especially pleased by your recovery! I told her if you die, then so will she!"
Miri was stunned by the sense Amniteri would put to death Taragamenit for such a reason.
"Do not look so!" said the Kandake petulantly, "She mistreated you all, and you are under my protection. I would have put her to the sword at once had I not needed her!"
"But why?" asked Miri.
Amniteri reached forward and lifted the amulet around Miri's neck. "This pendant has my seal upon it. Though I gave it to the warrior Ari-Kakante for his service, any who wear it is my friend and companion. Taragamenit should have seen it. You had nothing else on!"
Miri was taken aback by the apparent ruthlessness of the Kandake and was in awe of such power of life and death over her subjects. She supposed it must be so throughout the world where a sovereign rules over the masses, but never had she been so close to that power, and in that moment she knew it was wrong. She realized the war was being fought by a few at the expense of the many, that most beings wished only to live their lives out by their hearth and home, and that such power of one human over another was never meant to be. And yet, here she was, allied with a woman who had that power. She had chosen the lesser of two evils. Or had she? There was no way of knowing the reasons the rebel forces held the capital.
The Queen's slaves stripped Amniteri who lay upon a low table and her women rubbed her skin with deliciously perfumed oils. The aroma was so potent, Miri felt her head swim, and her heart melt. She sank deeper into her chair, and grasped the arms.
"How is Apusim?" asked Miri, her thoughts suddenly turning to her sister.
"Aristophanes is attending to her," replied Amniteri sleepily, under the spell of the attentions of her slaves at the massage table.
A clay pot flew past Aristophanes ear and smashed against a tent pole. Had he not ducked, it would have caught him full in the face. He opened his mouth to speak, but had no time to utter even a single word for a golden goblet whizzed by and clattered behind him, spraying him with wine as it passed.
"I hate you!" came a scream, "You are the most despicable, cowardly, unthinking man I have ever met!"
Apusim was beside herself. She had awoken to find the man who she had given up her vows for, the man who had sent her to her death in Meroway, the man who thought so little of her, the man who thought he could just pick up where he had left off after he used her as a pawn in a deadly game as if she were just a piece of meat which could be passed from hand to hand-
Her thoughts turned to words and filled the air, and Aristophanes sought to silence her with terms of endearment such as lotus blossom and honeycomb and sweet rose, but they were not as effective as he hoped.
"What were you thinking?" demanded Apusim, "Just what were you thinking?"
"I-" began Aristophanes, but Apusim was not in the mood for explanations.
"How could you suggest to Amniteri I should go and stand in the lion's maw and not think its teeth would close on me? Do you know what I gave up for you? Karima, Merit, and all those others are dead! Dead! Have you no conscience? Their lives are over because of you! Murderer! Murderer!"
"Listen, I had no choice!" protested Aristophanes.
"Murderer!" shrieked Apusim.
"Listen to me, please!"
"Listen?" demanded Apusim, "Listen? Why? So you can send me back to the enemy camp? So countless other women will die because you have an idea?"
"It wasn't me who sent you!"
"Oh, no! But it was your idea!"
"No, I only mentioned the Trojan horse! It was Odysseus's idea!"
"Oh, so now you're saying some ancient hero of yours, who I've never heard of and sure as Tuat never heard of me, decided to send me into Meroway?"
"No, of course not! I thought perhaps we could send a force disguised as priests coming to sacrifice into the city, and they could open the gates for the Kandake! I had no idea she would send you with them!"
"None?" Apusim was not convinced, but it appeared her anger had subsided.
"None!" declared Aristophanes, sensing he had made some inroads.
"So, you're saying it was all Amniteri's doing?"
"Yes!" declared Aristophanes.
He stepped forward to embrace Apusim, for he thought the time was right, but a flying bowl of pomegranates hit his head, knocked him unconscious, and he fell backwards to the floor.
The paddles dipped into the water and the canoe pushed into the opening to the sewer. Already the smell was overpowering. Apusim sat behind her. Ahead, the bulk of Taragamenit blocked her view. The canoe bumped against the stone shelf alongside the waterway, and the three women disembarked. They were all naked, and their clothes were bundled and sewn into waterproof skins. They threw their packs onto the shelf and climbed one by one, onto the stone. The canoe silently backed away, and Tara, as Taragamenit was called to her intimites, swung the gate closed, and locked it.
Apusim and Miri were both apprehensive about being locked in.
"Crocodiles!" whispered Tara, then slipped from the shelf and into the water. She lifted her pack to her head and waded into the dark gloom. Miri and Apusim followed her. As the tunnel closed in on them Miri felt the nausea rising, but she held it under control. Tara uncovered the lamp she had been carrying, and the faint yellow light gave Miri no comfort for the objects it illuminated were worse than the darkness. The corpse of a small newborn floated eerily past.
"Wait!" Miri called out weakly, then retched violently. Luckily, Miri had fasted all day knowing she would probably lose her lunch as soon as she went back into the sewer, and she was soon over her sickness. Going in, the way appeared very different, for where on the outward journey the downstream flow of water pointed the right way to the outside, returning upstream was not as easy for liquid flowing from every aperture flowed toward the way they had come and could not be used to simply guess they led to their goal. They quite readily became lost.
The three women reached another shelf, and hauled themselves from the water to rest and take stock of their situation.
"Perhaps we should go back," suggested Apusim.
"The Kandake would behead us all!" said Tara grimly, "She is not one to suffer cowardice gladly!"
"I cannot remember the way!" said Miri despondently.
They sat silently listening to the passing water and the spitting of the lamp as drops of water which had fallen inside them mixed with the burning oil and turned to steam. Suddenly, they heard something moving in the water!
"What's that?" whispered Apusim.
"Someone's coming!" said Miri, recognizing the sound of a person wading through the muck. Tara quickly covered the lamp and drew her curved knife from its sheath. A flickering light bounced weakly on the tiled brick of the sewer walls. The three women sat motionless in the dark as the light grew closer. Someone was following them!
A dark figure appeared and as it waded closer and closer, and the women held their breath so as not to make a sound. Suddenly, Apusim called out as she recognized the figure.
"Apusim?" called Aristophanes as he held his blazing torch higher. The moisture on the ceiling hissed above him. Apusim slipped from her perch and waded towards her lover.
"What do you think you're doing here?" she demanded.
"I couldn't leave you to go alone!" he confessed, "So I snuck out from camp, and followed you here. I must admit it took me some time to unlock the gate!"
"You unlocked the gate?" asked Tara.
The three women looked at each other in shock.
"Crocodiles!' answered the three women simultaneously.
Both Apusim and Aristophanes seemed to rise from the water as if by magic. The old man and the three women sat huddled against the sewer wall, as far from the edge of the shelf as possible.
"So," asked Tara at long last, "Who wants to go in first?"
Karkameni sat uneasily on his throne in the palace. The incident at the city gate with Amniteri's personal guard had filled him with a deep foreboding. That the warrixen of his cousin could have so easily entered the city worried him. Not that it could happen now the gates were closed, but the fact it had taken place at all was disconcerting. He glared at Taharkameni, who oblivious to his father's glance, chatted and laughed with friends in an alcove of the Great Hall.
His handling of the Temple incident was atrocious. The people were now mumbling about the revenge of the gods. The thunderstorm had not helped, for people had fled to the temple of Amun, sure that Taharkameni's sacrilege had brought the vengeance of the seventy gods upon their city. His spies had reported many were talking of storming the palace. He did not fear such talk, but doubled the guard just to let the peasants think an assault on the palace was a senseless venture. Those who had been the most vociferous, he had nailed to crosses in the plaza. The people, dumb brutes they were, blamed the slaughter of the templars of Auset on the new king, and his Kandake.
His Kandake! She sat beside him on Amniteri's throne stuffing herself with sweets. He was disgusted. Though she was attractive, she had none of the backbone or brain to match his cousin or their grandmother Amanishakti. It was her Greek blood, he decided. It was she who had suggested his alliance with the Emperor of Rome. It was clear Tiberius was no Augustus! He should never have travelled to Italy!
As a child, he had been sent by his grandmother before her death to be educated in the Emperor Augustus' care. Educated! He had been treated like some exotic animal. He had been a hostage! Just as the others had been a hostage! The prince of Cappadocia! The sons of Herod of Palestine! Young and ingrained in the Roman tradition, trained by Greek minds, he had lost himself somehow. He had become embarrassed of his country ruled by a woman! It was not the Roman way! No woman should rule over a man!
It was a woman's lot to be chattel of her father, sold to her husband, then drudge to her sons! He had been doomed from the start! He was no longer Merotu and never had been Roman! His Queen was a spoiled petulant coquette! He could not imagine how he had ever been attracted to her. He had been young, and the Emperor had encouraged the union. Now, look at her! She was of no use in battle! He remembered Augustus's wife Livia! Now there was a woman! Deadly and certain of her position! He had a grudging admiration for Livia, but now saw that he was only just another tool to preserve the glory of Rome!
He spat on the floor.
Rome! They had promised support! Did they think a small commando force was sufficient to conquer a nation as large as Meroway? Had he not told them of the forces the Kandake commanded? He could not understand Rome's indifference to his plight. It was in their interest to support him. Had he not told them Amniteri held back the bulk of the wealth of Kush, so that the Romans would overlook her Realm as a prize worth taking? Had he not told them he could secure four times the iron Amniteri traded to them, ten times the gold, twenty times the ivory, a thousand times the precious stones?
Why had they forsaken him?
"Praying for a miracle?" asked a taunting voice.
Karkameni glanced at the filthy and dishevelled man in the cage below him. It had once held the Royal Lions. Now it had two rather tattered human occupants.
Natkamani and Sherkarer.
He kept them alive as bargaining chips. Amniteri's love for Natkamani would give him some leverage for now his thoughts were of flight. He just had no way of ensuring his own safety once he let Natkamani go. Neither Natkamani nor Amniteri nor any of her sons would rest until they hunted him down, and torn him to pieces.
He thought of executing them both several times, for he hated Natkamani with a passion he could not control. Everything about the man infuriated him. Even the fact he needed to keep Natkamani alive to ensure Amniteri was overly cautious in her moves against him angered him. She would do nothing to jeopardize her husband's safety.
Unfortunately she would do everything within her power to free him as well.
Hand over hand, the four intruders climbed up the access pipe. Handholds had been cast into the ceramic pipe to allow easy egress from the sewer. Tara reached the top first, and pushed the grate at the top. It was not built into the floor, but the iron grating was heavy and took considerable effort to open. Inside the dark silent building, the sound of the metal grating scraping on the stone as she lifted it seemed deafening, but there was no other way to escape. She slid the grate aside and climbed out, then gave a hand to the others as they came up after her. When all four were secured, Tara looked about her, and then crossed herself in horror.
"May the gods forgive us!" she cried.
Miri looked about for the source of Tara's anguish.
"We are in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Amun!" wailed Tara. "We shall all be blinded!"
"Not necessarily-" began Aristophanes.
"Nonsense!" interrupted Apusim, "Only the impure of heart have anything to fear."
"Obviously, we are all pure of heart!" said Aristophanes, with a touch of sarcasm. It was clear he was about to proceed to some logical exposition, but Apusim gave him a warning glance and he receded beneath her gaze.
"What now?" asked Miri.
"We must proceed to the East Gate!" replied Tara as if it were a Sabbath walk.
"How can we open the gates?"
"There is no need," replied Tara. Beneath the gatehouse is another tunnel. It is used in time of siege to refresh the stores of the city, but known only to the Kandake and her servants."
"Then why couldn't the Kandake use it? Why does she need us to risk our lives behind enemy lines?" asked Apusim.
Tara sighed. As chief, she was not used to explaining her actions. "It can only be opened from the inside."
"And where is this secret entrance?" asked Aristophanes.
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" asked Miri in dismay.
"I told you, it's a secret!"
"Then how will we find it?" Miri asked in exasperation.
"Agyda will show us the way."
"She is the wet nurse who raised Amniteri. She lives quite near the East Gate."
"Well, why didn't the Kandake send us to look for Agyda instead of attacking the main gate?" asked Miri.
Tara smiled. "Agyda may be dead!"
"Oh, dear Mother!" muttered Apusim hopelessly.
"Dead?" asked Aristophanes.
"She was extremely old and had caught a terrible fever. Before she left for Napata, the Queen's doctors told her Agyda had only one or two days to live!"
"How long ago was that?" asked Miri.
"Three weeks," said Tara with an uncomfortably fatalistic turn of voice.
"Oh Dear Mother!" declared Apusim again.
Outside the city walls, Amniteri's army was moving into place. The unfinished siege towers were never intended to be used as towers. They were shields for the war elephants who would move the large pieces of the bridge into place. Everywhere in the camp, men and women were moving purposefully through the night. Unseen and with a darker purpose a lone archer scaled the siege walls and slid along the embankment thrown up by the city defenders and notched a single arrow in his bow. He pulled back on the bow, and under the silver moonlight targeted a sentry upon the wall. He let the arrow fly and it flashed into the darkness. He heard a cry and a thud as the sentry he had targeted fell, an arrow in his back.
The sentry's companions rushed to his aid, but the man's life ran out from him into the cracks between the masonry. One of them noticed a note attached to the arrow, and reached out and untied it. Within minutes, the note was in the hands of Karkameni in the Palace.
The streets of Meroway were dark and deserted. Under martial law, the usually uninhabited streets were now completely devoid of any movement at all. Not even the feral urban cats and stray city dogs lurked in the gutters. A great dreadful calm had fallen upon the city, and the very walls of the buildings seemed to be straining to hear the slightest sound.
Miri's heart thudded loudly within her breast, and every footstep slapped loudly on the cobbled brick road. She slid along the plastered walls of the houses that crowded the street in a single, undulating, unbroken wall. Ahead of her the dark mass of Tara blocked her view down the street. Behind, Aristophanes, his white robe a beacon in the darkness, led Apusim by the hand.
The street twisted and turned to such a degree, Miri could not see more than twelve cubits in any direction. Suddenly Tara stopped and Miri bumped against her. A sweet fruit smell filled Miri's nostrils, mixed with the must of the warrixen's sweat, and Miri breathed it in deeply, her fear soothed as the perfume filled her being. She placed her hand softly on Tara's back. The skin was hot and warm, and Miri's sense of well being blossomed. She felt the strength within Tara's soul, and felt invincible. Aristophanes and Apusim squeezed up against them.
"Agyda's house should be the next street to the sinister," whispered Tara, pointing to the gap to the left of the wall ahead of them.
"Then the third door on the dexter."
She held up three fingers on her right hand.
"Is it open?" asked Aristophanes.
"Shhh!" whispered Apusim.
All four conspirators held their breath.
"Come!" whispered Tara, and as silently as a cat, she ran into the darker alley that led to Agya's house. The others followed her, and they ran swiftly to the end of the alleyway and secreted themselves behind several large pithoi, and judging from their smell, they had held fermenting beer at one time. Hardly had they hidden behind the large jars, when a group of armed men slipped into the alley and gathered by Agya's door.
Tara reached down for her sword, her body tensing to leap up, but Miri grasped her wrist to stop her. The odds were too great for one woman, even one of Tara's great size.
Wood creaked and splintered as the men used a metal bar to pry open the door. Once the door squeaked open, the bandits slipped into the house. Furniture was overturned, a woman screamed, and the muffled shouts of men followed. Then silence.
"She's dead!" cried a man.
The intruders spilled back out onto the street, and the leader motioned for the others to follow. Then he pointed to the two men bringing up the rear.
"You two stay here!" he commanded, "No one is to enter or leave!"
As the others left, one of the guards left behind swore.
"Well, you asked for graveyard duty!" teased the other, then sat down on the steps. "Relax!" he said to his companion, "We'll be here till morning now! Might as well-"
He never finished his sentence for Tara had exploded from behind the pithoi, and in a single movement, severed his head almost completely from his neck. She spun around and the scythe of her curved dagger sliced open the second man's throat, as her foot lashed out and took out his legs. She was upon him in an instant and drove the deadly blade of her sword into his body, gutting him in one stroke. The blood gurgling from his expired breath, he stared in disbelief at Tara for only a moment, then died. Tara growled in disgust, and pushed him away.
Aristophanes and Apusim froze in shock at the savage attack, but Miri immediately slipped in to the house to search for Agyda.
She did not have to look far, for though the streets were dark, a lamp burned on a lamp stand in the main room. Lying on the floor was the corpse of an old woman. Agyda!
Miri knelt beside the body, and reached down to clasp the shrivelled wrist. The body was almost as desiccated as a mummy, but Miri knew she had been dead for only a few hours. She had an ability to sense a person's soul, and the ka of Agyda had not yet left its ancient home. Perhaps it had spent so long within the withered skin and bones, it had lost its sense of connection to the afterworld. Whatever the reason, Miri knew Agyda was still there. Here.
Agyda had been waiting for her. She sensed the approach of Miri from the vantage of one to whom all time is in the present. Miri could sense that now. Agyda was almost at one with the Great Mother, a sparkling flame on the edge of the great white light of the goddess. Miri folded the ancient hands over the sunken chest and gently pushed the gray crinkled hair from the old crone's face.
Agyda returned the caress, and all that which was Agyda entered Miri, and the secrets of a lifetime passed from one generation to the next. For an instant.
And then it was gone.
Miri remained in the world of Agyda, unwilling to relinquish her grasp on the immortal, but try as she might, she found herself surrounded by Tara, Aristophanes and Apusim in the here and now.
"Now what?" asked Apusim.
"I know where the entrance is," said Miri rapturously, still intoxicated by her union with Agyda. "A snake rises to the sound of a flute like smoke billowing from a lotus growing within a forest by a quiet pool. Its head is the head of a lion, and its arms- the arms of a warrior, the arms of a lover!"
"How poetic!" said Aristophanes, "But I for one, cannot imagine-"
"I know the place!" declared Tara, "By the East Gate!"
"The Lion Gate!" declared Miri, knowing instantly the symbolism in her vision.
"There is a man who is renowned for his ability to charm snakes, and he demonstrates his skill there beside the pool!"
Tara stood up immediately, and turned without waiting for the others. Aristophanes offered his hand to Miri and pulled her to her feet and they followed the warrixen Tara into the alley.
Tara was already at the corner of the main street, and the moment she knew her companions were behind her she moved down the street and for the East Gate. They left not a moment too soon, for as Miri, who was bringing up the rear, glanced back as she rounded a corner, she caught a glimpse of a band of soldiers coming up the street behind them.
"Hurry!" she whispered and the four of them broke into a run. Miri glanced back, but they were not being followed, though she was sure a hue and cry would soon be raised when the two slain guards were discovered. It was not easy keeping up with the pace set by Tara, and Apusim and Aristophanes were soon lagging behind. Finally, Apusim stopped and leaned against a wall, her hand on her chest.
"You go on ahead!" she panted, "I will come later!"
Aristophanes was bent over his hands resting upon his knees.
"It's alright, Satem!" He placed his hand upon his side, but reached into his leather pouch with the other. He produced a handful of rose petals. "Just scatter these at each turning point! We shall follow!"
Miri hesitated. She did not want to leave her friends behind.
"It's alright!" urged Aristophanes, "We shall catch up to you!"
He pushed the petals into her hand. Tara hissed at them from the darkness beyond. Miri took a deep breath and ran after the impatient warrixen.
Miri's lungs burned at the strain, but with a great determination, she kept on Tara's heels as best she could. As they ran into a large market square, now empty and still, Miri realized with a great shock, she had forgotten to lay the petals for the last few turns!
She gasped at the realization and turned to look back into the darkened street from which they had emerged onto the plaza. She looked down at the petals in her hand, and let them slip through her fingers and fall to the ground. They fluttered lightly to earth, little pink butterflies in a black world. A great melancholy overwhelmed her.
But there was no time to correct her mistake. Tara grasped her arm and led her to the edge of a beautifully clam pool, upon which floated a large number of lily pads. The white flowers had opened their hearts to the moon, and stood out against the intense blackness of the still waters.
"So what about the snake rising from the lotus?" asked Miri.
"The snake charmer always sits near the edge of the pool," replied Tara. "Over there!" she pointed and immediately marched toward the spot. They both stood where the old man charmed his snakes, staring at the ground. Tara scraped the dirt with her foot.
"There is nothing here!" she said grimly.
"A secret passage would not be out in the open where everyone could see it!" said Miri. "We must search for something else!" And as she said the words she spied a great baobab tree standing in the middle of the square.
"Within the forest!" she whispered excitedly, and she and Tara ran toward the great baobab. Within seconds they squeezed between the multitude of trunks and runners of the baobab. The vast network of branches separated them and they called to each other in whispers. The tree closed in on Miri and pressed against her from all sides. The passage between the boles and branches closed about her. It was as though she had entered the very belly of some alien creature who now held her fast within a nightmare network of woody tentacles. Panic rose within her, and she began to squirm frantically through the branches, gasping for breath which seemed to be sucked out of her by the spirit which resided in the tree.
It was a living being, and at that point, she was convinced the spirit that inhabited it was malevolent, and moreover, its evil humour now turned against her. Miri found she was wedged between several branches and was unable to move back or forth. She moaned and pushed against the wood, but the tree held her fast.
"Oh Mother!" she whispered helplessly.
Suddenly a huge strong hand lifted her from her trap and pulled her into a small clearing within the heart of the baobab.
Miri hugged the warrixen in gratitude, and Tara looked about them with the intense stare of an eagle.
"There!" she cried, and pointed at a gilded carving in the living body of the baobab. The moonlight, filtering through the leaves sparkled upon the golden image of a lion-headed god with the body of a snake. They both rushed closer to the image. Tara ran her fingers over it.
"Perhaps there is a key here, or a handle-" she began, but Miri was staring at the ground. Beside them was a large ceramic pot.
In the shape of a lotus!
"Help me move this!" whispered Tara excitedly, and the two of them bent to lift the pot. It was too heavy, but with a great effort they heaved it sideways and it fell upon its side on the ground. In the ground where it had been sitting gaped a hole large enough for someone to crawl into.
They looked at each other and Tara opened her hand to Miri in invitation.
"You first!" she grinned.
As Miri lowered herself into the hole she felt a rising panic, as her feet did not touch the ground.
"There's no-" she began, but her grip slipped and she fell downward into the darkness. The fall was not immense, but she had hurt her ankle. The hole over her head reminded her of the moon in a starless sky. Tara's head appeared in the moon in silhouette.
"Satem!" she called out anxiously.
"I'm fine!" anwered Miri.
"I'm coming down!"
Tara was on the floor almost as the words left her lips.
"Which way should we go?" she asked peering hopelessly into the darkness. The moonlight illuminated nothing within the cavern they were in. By the echoes, the room or whatever it was, seemed to be quite large, and carved from or built of rock. They explored the room- it was square- by touch, and Miri found a lamp on a stand in a niche in the wall. She called to Tara and took it from its stand and shook it.
It had some no oil in it.
No problem!" said Tara and slipped a flask from her pouch and shook it.
"The best olive oil money can buy!" she said triumphantly.
She unshouldered her bow and expertly twisted the string about an arrow and began spinning shaft with the bow. Miri split several threads from her dress and wrapped them about the arrow, then poured the oil into the lamp. Smoke arose from the pile of cloth and eventually a small flame popped up. Tara held a small piece of twisted cloth soaked in oil over the little flame and the oil soaked cloth caught alight. With a quick twist of her wrist, Tara coiled the cloth into a string and stuffed it into the lamp.
The small yellow flame retreated for a moment, then rallied and the lamp cast a small pale glow on the ground around them. There was no way out of the room, but at one end, a huge round stone was set up against the wall. Several smaller stones set against it held it in place.
Miri and Tara removed the smaller stones, almost a hundred in all, and then tried to roll the stone along the gutter in which it was set. The stone would not move. Tar found that several keystones were set into the wall to hold it in place. The keystones also fit into notches carved in the large round stone, and prevented it from moving. One by one, the two women removed the stones.
As they loosened the last one, the stone rolled sideways of its own accord and Miri scrambled frantically from the gutter where she stood. The stone caught her dress as it passed by, badly ripping the cloth, but thankfully, she was unharmed.
Tara lifted the lamp up and peered down a long exposed tunnel.
"After you!" said Miri with mock politeness.
Tar grinned back at her and stepped into the tunnel.
Aristophanes and Apusim clutched each other in fear. Spears pointed at them from a dozen directions. The soldiers had caught them by surprise.
"Where are the others?" demanded a fierce bushy bearded warrior.
Neither Aristophanes nor Apusim had the courage to speak.
The warrior slapped Apusim hard across the face. Aristophanes stiffened, and the warrior caught the slight movement in the corner of his eye.
"So, you don't like to see this woman slapped?" he asked mockingly. He backhanded Apusim without even looking at her. His gaze was fixed on Aristophanes. Blood dripped from the corner of Apusim's mouth.
"There are no others!" blurted Aristophanes.
The warrior struck Apusim again.
"Stop it!" cried Aristophanes, "There are no others! Just us!" His resolve was weakening, and the warrior smiled at him. This time he punched Apusim across her jaw and she spun about. Two soldiers grasped her by the arms and held her up as her legs buckled.
"You're not a convincing liar," replied the warrior. He drew out a dagger, and inches from Aristophanes face, toyed with it. "I shall begin to cut a piece of this woman from her each time you lie to me. Where shall I start?"
The blade pointed to Apusim, and hovered a breath away from her eye.
The point travelled to her throat, and pressed lightly into the flesh at her jugular.
The point scratched a path across her skin down her neck, and the warrior grasped her breast, and held it as though about to slice it from Apusim's chest.
"Stop!" cried Aristophanes.
The knife pressed harder into the cupped breast. Apusim quivered in fear, unable to control the spasms that ran through her. The edge of the dagger bit into her flesh, and the sheer indifference of the warrior to her fate filled her with dread. She could see the agony in Aristophane's eyes as he weighed whom he would betray.
A wall of fallen stone blocked the passage. Tara passed the lamp back and forth across the broken face of the rock fall, but the rubble had hardened to a single conglomerate covered in decades of sifting sand and desert dust. She stared at Miri. Her disappointment mirrored Miri's own.
"Perhaps there is another way-" Tara began, her voice trailing off.
Miri cast her eyes about them. On every side except the way they had come and thee passage which was blocked all she saw was solid stone.
"We must go back," she said earnestly to Tara.
Tara sighed and resigned herself to retracing their steps. Their passage through the rock tunnel was quicker on the return trip for they were confident of their way and feared no pitfalls hidden in the gloomy darkness, and they were impelled by a sense of entrapment and a growing fear of entombment.
Suddenly Tara stopped and held up her hand. Miri bumped up against her. From somewhere ahead of them, they could hear muffled voices and footsteps! Tara scanned the walls about them for some hiding place, but the smooth rock face betrayed no dark niche of sanctuary.
"We must go forward," whispered Tara, "For there is only a wall at our backs." She drew out her dagger and handed it to Miri. "We shall have to face down whoever stands between us and the night air!"
With that, Tara drew her sword and kissed the blade. "May The Great Mother protect us!" she prayed and stepped forward, lamp in one hand, sword in the other. Miri clutched the dagger in her hand, but it felt awkward and heavy. She was sure she would be no help whatsoever to the warrixen if they should have to fight their way out of the tunnel. They pressed ahead cautiously.
They had walked a considerable distance before Tara stopped. "We have gone too far!" she whispered. I am sure we should have found the entrance by now!"
The two stood silently, surrounded by their own breathing and the dark musty dustiness of a thousand years.
"The voices are behind us!" cried Tara.
They both looked back into the darkness from which they had come. Somehow, they had made a wrong turn and entered a second corridor. Yet neither of them had noticed a significant turn or bend.
"How can that be?" asked Miri plaintively.
And with that, the lamp flickered out. And far away, the voices and footsteps faded, leaving Miri in a dark desolation she could never in her wildest imagination have imagined. Instinctively, she reached forward to Tara, her palm touching the warrixens broad back. Tara clasped her hand in hers and they stood in complete darkness, their only contact of hand upon hand and the sound of their own voices.
The next morning, the forces of the Kandake stood patiently upon the earthworks, arrayed in polished armour and armed for battle. As the first rays of the sun rose above the horizon, the battle force cried out to the god Rei, and the powers of Neith, goddess of battle for their aid in the coming fight.
Their shouts of Glory were echoed from the soldiers upon the battlements, for they too prayed to the very same gods for aid in their battle. The voices of the warriors and warrixen were joined by the battle elephants who sensed from the shouts that the fighting was soon to begin. Weapons were clashed against shields to add to the sound and competing war chants rose to a crescendo as Rei climbed into the cloudless sky, and his light shone upon the world.
As suddenly as the shouting began, a tense iron fisted silence descended upon the battlefield and gripped the city. From somewhere inside the city walls, a crow cried out. Three short caws, and then silence. From the ranks of the besiegers, Amniteri strode out, dressed in a fine coloured tunic and wrapped in golden armour. From her shoulders a leopardskin hung down her back. Her war helmet was crowned by magnificent red and white plumes, and a white scarf was wrapped about it, tied at the back, and the ends dangled behind her to the middle of her back. Several paces ahead of her army, she stopped, feet apart and placed her hands on her hips.
"Karkemani!" she bellowed, "Show your face to the rightful Queen of Meroway!"
It was not Karkamani who showed his face on the ramparts, but his son, Taharkameni. He and his friends had drunk beer far into the night, and he was suffering from the after effects. He held his hand over his eyes to shield them from the glare of the hot Afrikan sun as he stepped onto the ramparts to the lee of the main gate of Meroway.
"Who calls for an audience with the Great Karkemani?" he asked, sneering at his aunt.
"So the lion sends a jackal to do a man's work!" declared Amniteri. "I have called the name of Karkemani, for I wish to allow him the opportunity to end his own life before I end it for him! You, however, have not enough honour in your being to live the life of an alley dog!"
"Then, as a dog, I send you a gift!" laughed Taharkameni, whereupon he lifted his tunic and peed from the battlements.
A slow, grim smile passed across Amniteri's lips, as she earmarked Taharkameni for a slow grim death. He would pay dearly for his insult. Her resolve and heart suddenly caught in her throat, for some of Taharkameni's forces rolled two large cranes onto the battlements. Dangling from each was a cage, and within the cages, she instantly recognized her husband, Natkamani, and her eldest son, Sherkarer. The cranes were swung outward and the cages dangled precariously outside the city walls.
At that moment Karkameni, dressed in golden armour stepped out onto the city walls, followed by his wife and several courtiers. Taharkameni grinned idiotically at his father, who tried his best to ignore him. It was almost impossible to maintain any dignity whatsoever with a son like Taharkameni around.
"I think we should discuss this regrettable situation which has developed between us," Karkameni called to his sister, and idly pushed the cage which held Natkamani causing it to spin on the rope which held it aloft. Natkamani growled and reached out through the bars for Karkameni, but his hands fell short.
"You see, the times are changing. The wind of power is blowing from the North. No longer shall a woman sit upon the throne of Meroway. This is a man's world. The old traditions are not enough for a modern civilization like ours. A woman's place is in the home, not the throne! Ruling a nation is a man's job! Women are subject to the vagaries of their biology and the humours of their seasons. It is their part to raise sons who can manage their affairs for them!
The time is over when a woman shall pass down her property to another. This is not a rational existence. It is your lot to serve me, Amniteri! I could not call myself a man if I were to allow you to rule over me!"
He gave the cage another spin.
"There are none here who would call you a man, even now!" shouted back Amniteri.
Her remark riled Karkameni and he gave the cage holding Natkameni an angry shove. The cage swung out in a wild arc, poised in midair for brief heartbeat then plunged back toward Karkameni. Too late, he saw the cage flying down upon him, and it crashed into his entourage, sending them all flying. All except Karkameni. Natkameni had seized him through the bars by the throat.
The cage swung out over the walls once more, but this time with Karkameni screaming in terror. Reflexively, he had grasped Natkameni's wrists to pull them off, but he had instantly realized the only thing between him and the rocks at the base of the walls was Natkameni's grip on his throat. He grasped the bars of the cage and desperately held onto them.
The swing of the cage had caused the boom of the crane to swing further out from the wall, and now the two men, one inside and one not, were beyond the reach of the others on the battlements. There was no time to react, for at that precise moment, the scaling ladders of the southern expedition, sent out by Amniteri before sunrise in the boats clattered upon the southern ramparts and the hue and cry arose from the defenders on the wall in the southern quarter of the city.
Taharkameni, realizing without his father, he could not defend the city, moved to push the crane away from the edge of the wall. The horrible war cry of a screaming eagle caused him to turn around. His eyes opened wide in disbelief.
What he saw was the huge form of Tara, weapons drawn, leaping down from between the crenellations on the rampart of the main gates. To his mind, she was a screaming banshee descending upon him from heaven. Had he remained where he was, she would have crushed him in a single blow, but he managed to scramble out of her way.
Seeing her opportunity, Amniteri waved the siege machines forward. Tara, surrounded by the enemy was a great she elephant fighting off lions. She shook off her adversaries like a dog shaking water from its back. Miri, hiding behind the same ramparts from which Tara had sprung realized her friend would soon be overwhelmed, but her heart froze as she saw several of Taharkameni's cronies hacking away at the knot which held the rope fastened to Sherkarer's cage.
She could not leap the gap which Tara had cleared, but she thought she could at least jump as far as Sherkarer's cage, then from there, she could reach Tara. Without any hesitation, she threw herself from the battlements toward Sherkarer. She hit the cage with such force that the boom holding the cage swung about and smashed into a crowd of men on the rampart and crashed into a tower wall. The impact knocked Miri onto the stone battlement and split the cage open, spilling Sherkarer on top of her. The cage then swang back the way it came and wrapped about the rope of the other. The two cages became entangled and spun crazily about each other. Natkamani lost his grip on Karkameni, who leaped desperately from the cage to the wall.
As he landed on the rampart, a huge grating sound reverberated through the stone and caused the participants in the melée to freeze.
The main gates were being opened!
A great shout went up from the siege forces beyond the walls and men and machines converged on the great gatehouse. Below the walls inside the gatehouse, an elite corps Amniteri's foot soldiers strained to turn the great wheels of the gates. Tara smiled in triumph and with a great roar fell upon the enemy about her with renewed vigour.
The bridges were laid across the moat, and the first of the war elephants thundered across the wooden road. Sherkarer had grasped a sword from a fallen man beside them and cut his way through the enemy like a plough through dry soil toward his father, still in his prison dangling from the crane.
Miri's heart suddenly froze, for she saw Karkameni standing as though he were at target practice pulling back on his bow. He was aiming directly at Amniteri! Miri leaped from her spot and charged Karkameni.
"Nooooo!" she screamed as she reached out and shoved him. Her hands connected with the middle of his back, and the impact pushed him forward, his back arching awkwardly. With agonizing slowness, he fell forward, and his feet flipped straight up in the air. As his stomach hit the stone parapet, Karkameni, screaming, somersaulted over the wall and disappeared.
Miri did not remember much of what happened afterwards. She curled herself into a tight little ball and huddled against the parapet wall where Karkameni had stood only moments before. She was oblivious to the carnage about her. The fight on the walls ended quite quickly, but on the streets, the angel of retribution exacted her toll.
Though the garrison surrendered without much of a fight, many were still put to the sword. Though some part of her was aware of the battle, the sounds did not seem to penetrate Miri where she sat. Amniteri established herself in the palace with little resistance. Taharkameni had fled the city. Gradually the cries of the dead and dying were replaced with song and rejoicing. There was no line between the great mad battle and the great mad celebration: cries of fear and agony mingled with shouts of victory, until the latter finally drowned the former.
Miri could only see Karkameni's feet disappearing over the parapet.
The victory celebrations lasted three days, but the death of Karkameni weighed heavily upon Miri's soul. Apusim and Aristophanes, safe and sound, had tried to comfort her, but their efforts hardly reached into Miri's heart. Tara tended her when she could, but she had responsibilities to her tribe and their elephants. The Temple of Auset was cleansed and resanctified, and the sisters of Meroway came and bore Miri to the temple, and laid her on the cool stone bench of a cell.
A single word passed Miri's lips as they lay her down.
A physician prepared a drug for her, and she slipped away from the horror of war into a deep velvet oblivion. Within the darkness of her own soul, passage of time ceased and she could touch Eternity. Whenever the fog of the drugs wore off, and Miri returned to the land of the Living, she could not shake the ghost of Karkameni. His ka, remained at her left shoulder, and she could not shake his presence. She cried uncontrollably, and the doctors would give her another dose of the drug and she would return thankfully to the dark world where she could be safe from thought.
While she lay unconscious, a prophetess of great healing was brought in from a nearby village on command of the Kandake. It was she who saw the soul of Karkameni sucking the life from the girl who had taken his. With great solemnity, they prepared the sleeping body of Miri with magic charms and incantations, and called upon the ancestors and the gods to call away Karkameni.
His body was exhumed and examined, and the examiners found several mistakes in the order in which he had been prepared for his journey to the Western World, and he was rewrapped and new spells were cast, and his ka was sent to the Otherworld with several every powerful orders not to return.
Miri, in the world of Dreams, saw his passing. The gods poured their blessing upon her and Ausar himself came to her aid.
"Your sins are forgiven!" he said simply, and she awoke.
Amniteri received her with great honour in her court. She had heard the tale of how Miri had indeed saved the Queen's life. She had heaped gifts upon her young saviour, but Miri declared as a sister of Auset she could not accept gifts for her services, but that she would accept them on behalf of her sisters who had fallen on the expedition, and would return them to the temple of Auset at Philae. Though the Kandake made it known she would like Miri to stay on in Meroway, Miri had decided she had not yet fulfilled her obligation to Mermaat, and should return to Philae.
However, when Miri heard that the forces of Amniteri intended to pursue the fleeing Taharkameni, she asked to accompany the Kandake on the hunt.
"I owe that much to Karima," she said defiantly. "She was my sister and I would rest better once I have seen Taharkameni brought to justice!"
Her ferocity of feeling overwhelmed Miri. Her head swam for a moment. It did not seem like her at all to desire such vengeance against the defeated prince, yet she could not deny her feelings.
The Kandake laughed out loud.
"You are my lucky charm! Of course you can come!"