IN THE RUINS OF BATTLE. A HERO MUST RISE. FOR THE FUTURE OF EGYPTBUY NOW
IN THE RUINS OF BATTLE. A HERO MUST RISE. FOR THE FUTURE OF EGYPTBUY NOW
IN THE RUINS OF BATTLE
A HERO MUST RISE
FOR THE FUTURE OF EGYPT
Years of Hyksos rule have seen the ruin and suffering of a once-mighty Egypt. Though Pharaoh is now restored to his rightful throne, his power fragile as some seek to take advantage of the ensuing chaos following the overthrowing of the Hyksos. Desperate to unite the two divided kingdoms of Egypt under Pharaoh's rule, great mage Taita sends his protégé, Piay, to discover the answer to a millennia-old riddle which has the power to secure the fate of Egypt forever. But in the chaos of war, a dark evil has thrived.
With the fate of Egypt at stake, Piay races across the desert chasing the clues from the riddle. Can he prevent their beloved land falling into the hands of those who would see its ruin?
Global bestselling author of River God and The New Kingdom, Wilbur Smith, returns with the next epic book in the thrilling Ancient Egyptian series.
Set in the land of the ancient Pharaohs, the fan favourite ‘Ancient Egyptian’ series vividly describes ancient Egypt and has a cast of unforgettable characters.
Under the chilly gaze of the glittering stars, in the flickering glow of the flames from the burning farmhouse, Akkan the Child-Killer drew back his curved bronze sword to the fullest extent of his out-stretched right arm. He paid little heed to the danger of exposing his chest to the short stabbing spear in the hands of the Egyptian soldier standing in front of him. He had no reason to worry – there was only raw fear in the other man’s eyes, no raging defi ance, no cool calculation.
The Egyptian had good reason to be afraid. Akkan’s torso was so solid and his shoulders so broad and heavily muscled that he fought with the strength of a buffalo, rather than a man. When he pulled his left arm hard behind his back, at the same time twisting his shoulders, swinging his right arm forward and putting the full force of his body behind the sweep of his blade, it sliced through the Egyptian’s neck like a farmer’s scythe through a sheaf of wheat.
Akkan watched as the head flew sideways. The body to which it had once belonged fell to the ground, blood spurting from the stump of its neck, to lie with the three other Egyptians whose lives Akkan had already taken.
On another night, Akkan might now have ordered one of his men to cut off the right hands of his dead enemies, to be taken to the king’s palace in the city of Avaris, where a warrior could expect a reward in gold for every man he slew in battle. But there was no time for that now, and besides, he was hunting something far more valuable.
A month had passed since Akkan had been summoned to the palace of Khamudi, King of the Hyksos, in the capital city of Avaris, on the banks of the Nile, not far from the waters of the Great Green Sea. Merchants, travellers and fortune seekers came there from every corner of the mortal plane. All agreed that there was no city anywhere to compare with the size and magnificence of Avaris.
The royal palace had been constructed high above the ground on a mighty stone pediment, as if to show the Egyptians whose lands the Hyksos now occupied that other men could match the pyramids of which they were so proud. The halls, chambers, galleries and cloisters where the king and his viziers conducted the administration of their lands were arranged on the second tier, alongside the private chambers of the king, the royal family and his majesty’s concubines.
The magnificence of the throne room, where the king held his audiences, was of a piece with the rest of the building. The ceiling was higher than any Egyptian temple, the columns supporting it were mightier, the golden decoration more dazzling. This was a fitting chamber for a monarch proclaimed Lord of Strength, by the grace of the Supreme God Re.
Yet when King Khamudi summoned Akkan, this vast chamber, capable of holding many hundreds of people, was virtually empty. The king was accompanied only by a dozen of his palace guards, his chancellor and two of the most eminent and learned priests in the land.
Akkan saw immediately that one of the priests came from the Temple of Re – that much was obvious from his garments and adornments. The other priest, it was equally clear to all those in attendance, represented the Temple of Seth, the Lord of the Red Land and god of storms, disorder and violence. Seth was an Egyptian deity, just as Re was merely another way of naming the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Hyksos, mindful that the land of the Pharaohs was also the land of the gods who watched over it, and not wanting to provoke divine wrath, had adopted both deities as their own.
Akkan had looked at Khamudi and noted the way his face twitched, and his body shifted and twisted on his gilded throne. He also noticed the urgency with which the priests were conferring with one another and the suddenness with which they fell silent when they heard his approach. They were uneasy, but then, in Akkan’s experience, most people were tense in his presence.
This, though, was something else. Akkan felt certain that these people had been apprehensive before the mighty double doors of the chamber had even been opened to allow him into the room. Now, he suspected, they were going to hand whatever it was that troubled them on to him, so that he might worry about it in their stead.
Akkan reached the foot of the step atop which the throne was placed. He got down on his knees and prostrated himself before the king, only rising when his ruler commanded him to do so.
‘Lord Chancellor,’ King Khamudi said, with a little flick of the hand that served as an order to proceed.
The chancellor was a soft man, as pampered as a temple cat and, Akkan wagered, as apt to run away at the first sign of a fi ght. When he spoke, his reedy, affected voice bore the accent and intonation of the high-born Egyptians who, though conquered, still clung to their airs and graces, lording their sophistication over mere coarse Hyksos like Akkan.
‘Greetings, Akkan, son of Abisha of Uru-Salim, in our fatherland of Canaan,’ the chancellor began. ‘For many years we have held the lands of Lower Egypt. The river delta is under our reign and the coastal lands, too. Memphis, ancient capital of the pharaohs, is ours and the pyramids that rise not far from its walls. Yet still the Pharaoh Tamose – that imposter – clings to Lower Egypt and raises his standard over the city walls of Thebes.
‘Now, though, we are ready to finish the conquest that our ancestors began. All the lands of Egypt lie within our grasp. The number of soldiers in the false Pharaoh’s armies has diminished day by day, like a storehouse from which grain is constantly taken, but which is never replenished. Our forces are growing mightier each day.
‘Soon His Majesty the King – may Re ever guide and strengthen his arm – will order our army to march on Thebes. We will drive the false Pharaoh and his followers out of the city, all the way south to the kingdom of Kush, to once again beg for sanctuary in those savage lands. Our victory is inevitable – that is beyond any doubt. Thebes will fall back into our hands, just as it did when our ancestors fi rst entered these lands and sent the rulers of Egypt flying away up the Nile, to the furthest cataracts. Our armies are strong, our soldiers brave, our generals possess supreme knowledge and our great king is wise. Above all, our Lord God Re protects us . . .’
But . . . Akkan thought, only just resisting the temptation to speak the word out loud.
‘But . . .’ the chancellor said. ‘There is a new element that will ensure that our victory is even more complete and render our rule over all the lands of the Egyptians both absolute and eternal. It would give us communion with the gods of this land, enable us to harness their divine powers for our own use.’
Akkan’s nature was untrusting; he was suspicious of any claims made by other men, but the chancellor’s words had gripped his attention.
‘Since this is a religious matter, I will let the priests explain it more fully,’ the chancellor said. ‘I believe that the venerable Mut-Bisir, High Priest of the Temple of Seth, will speak on behalf of both of our priestly guests, since you are yourself a man of Seth, is that correct?’
Mut-Bisir nodded. ‘It is so.’
The silver-haired priest stepped forward. Akkan noticed that he was holding a was-sceptre – the long staff, with a stylised animal head at one end and a two-pronged fork at the other, that was normally pictured only in the hands of gods and pharaohs. Avaris was evidently now such a powerful city that its priests had become gods themselves.
‘Greetings to you, Akkan,’ Mut-Bisir said. ‘Your devotion to Seth has been proved beyond any possible doubt . . .’
‘They call me the Child-Killer,’ Akkan said, bluntly, enjoying the discomfort that his words caused the eminent figures in front of him. A man who was willing to do what he had done, in order to quench his desires, was capable of anything. Such a man was very dangerous. But, by the exact same token, he could be very useful.
‘Indeed . . . indeed . . .’ Mut-Bisir said, before continuing, ‘And I gather that you are an initiate to the rites of the blue lotus, one of those whom the orchid transports to the very presence of Seth, the ever-merciful . . .’
It was all that Akkan could do not to laugh. Seth was as merciful as a viper’s bite. But then, the priest knew this only too well. Why else would he lie to gain favour with his god?
‘I am,’ Akkan said, straight-faced, without feeling the need to reveal that the savagery of his sacrifice had enabled him to enter the presence of Seth without the need for the tinctures brewed from the orchid’s leaves and seeds.
‘Very well, then,’ Mut-Bisir said. ‘Let me explain why we have summoned you to Avaris. Three months ago, a man arrived at the palace, still caked with dust from his journey, insisting that he had information of great importance to the realm. He said it concerned both mankind and the gods.’
‘The wilderness is littered with men like that, all claiming to be prophets,’ Akkan said.
‘Indeed it is,’ Mut-Bisir agreed. ‘But this man was Hyksos, a man of some substance and, ah . . . known to His Majesty’s advisors. We three broke bread together with him and he told us how he and his men had come across a traveller – a messenger, as it turned out, who had slipped while descending a steep hillside, injured his leg and was unable to walk. The man was covered in tattoos. His arms, his limbs, his chest were thick with strange symbols, and there were black circles of ink around his eyes and his nose too, so that he looked like a living skull.’
Akkan was intrigued. ‘What made anyone think he was a messenger?’
‘Because he was carrying a small bronze tube, in which was a rolled papyrus.’
‘And what was on this papyrus?’
‘More symbols. No one has been able to read them. And the injured traveller refused to utter a single word.’
‘So, make him talk.’
‘Our informant had already tried that, but the man died of his wounds, and, perhaps, from the means used to persuade him to talk. He refused to divulge any information, to even speak . . . except for one thing. With his final breath, the messenger uttered a single sentence – “You will not be the one to solve the Riddle of the Stars.”’
‘So, what is the riddle?’
‘That, too, is unknown to us. But for these past three cycles of the moon, priests from both our temples . . .’ Mut-Bisir paused to nod in acknowledgement to the other priest, ‘have been searching all the archives and libraries across our conquered territories. We have found fleeting references to this riddle. We have discovered that it dates back centuries. We understand that anyone who solves the riddle will be rewarded with wealth and power beyond any ever seen in this world. And we believe it has a connection with the gods. However . . .’
Mut-Bisir paused, to emphasise the significance of what he was about to say.
‘The power of the riddle will surely be bestowed on the wise one that solves it. Therefore, if the Egyptians should somehow learn of its existence and beat us to its solution, then they would be all-powerful, and we would be their conquered slaves. The whole future of our people is in danger. Either we triumph by solving this riddle, or we are destroyed. There will be no in-between.’
‘This much we also said to the man who first came to us with his story and his encrypted message,’ the chancellor said, re-entering the conversation. ‘We told him that if he could find the means to solve the riddle, he would be rewarded with treasures and estates that would make him the envy of all men. But he has not succeeded. So, now we make the same offer to you. Go to Memphis and consult with the scribes and scholars there. Learn all you can of this Riddle of the Stars. Then journey on to Thebes. His Majesty will be in residence there, once the remnants of the false Pharaoh’s army have been obliterated. There you can reveal the means by which men will share the power of the gods.’
The chancellor’s voice took on an encouraging, even ingratiating tone. ‘The task should be well suited to you, Akkan, since you are already a man who talks to gods.’
‘There are times when I hear Seth’s voice,’ Akkan said. ‘But I am his servant, not his master. He may or may not choose in his infinite wisdom to assist me, if by doing so I will serve his own, greater purpose. But he will not do my bidding, no matter how I plead. So, with respect to His Majesty the King, and you great men, this appears like a hunt that will never yield its quarry. Why should I waste my time on it?’
The chamberlain smiled, and Akkan realised that he had walked straight into a very carefully laid trap.
‘Because the man who came to us was your brother, Khin . . . your younger brother . . . whom you despise . . . So, do you really want to take even the slightest risk that he might become the richest man in all Egypt, because he accepted a challenge that you refused to face?’
The man who was sitting alone in the furthest corner of the tavern had long since forgotten his own name. It had vanished from his mind. Time – and there had been so much of that – had robbed him of many things, but it had also taught him much.
He understood how limited his fellow men were in their perception of the world around them. They only knew what their senses told them, and so were deaf to the sounds that could not be heard and the sights that could not be seen. And when they felt, without knowing quite how, that there was far more to existence than was apparent to them, they told themselves stories to explain the inexplicable.
So, for example, Akkan, son of Abisha, brother of Khin, would have entered the city of Memphis and then proceeded along a certain street, knowing that this was somehow not his idea. And, being the man that he was, with the beliefs that he held, he would, no doubt, be telling himself that it was Seth who was guiding him. And yet it was not so. Akkan was just a piece on a board. And there had been so, so many pieces just like him, over the years that stretched away into the distant past like a river flowing and disappearing into the morning mist.
One day, one of those pieces would survive until the end of the game, and they themselves would become the player. Maybe that piece would be Akkan, or perhaps it would be one of the others who were, though they might not know it yet, embarking upon the age-old quest. Only his old friend, time, would tell.
On entering the bar, the man had offered the innkeeper a small clay jar filled to the brim with salt, in exchange for a cup of beer and a small loaf of bread. It was far too generous – the innkeeper would have settled for a couple of fish or a few bright beads to pass on to his wife – but the man had no desire to haggle.
He had no interest in the food or the drink, either. But they were the price for the seat and table.
The man was tall and dressed from head to toe in a hooded black robe, like a desert tribesman, with the hood up and a black scarf across the lower half of his face. He had made very brief eye contact with the innkeeper and exposed his hand when he put the salt down on the counter. In time, the innkeeper would remember that the skin around the man’s eyes had been black, while that of his hands and wrists was unusually pale. But the man would be gone by then and had no plans to return.
A slave approached him, holding his bread and beer. She was a child, no more than nine or ten years old. So, even though the man was sitting at the table and she was standing, she still looked up at him when she placed the cup and the loaf on the table. And as she did that, the scarf slipped from his face. The slave girl’s eyes widened in shock and fear and she let out a little whimper – too soft, thank goodness, for anyone else to hear.
The man fixed his eyes on hers. ‘Ssshhhh . . .’ he said, very softly, raising one of his pale fingers to his tattooed lips.
She had no need to fear him. Yes, he was capable of taking a life without a second thought, but only when it was strictly necessary. He had no desire at all to harm an innocent child.
The girl sensed that she was safe with him. She gave him a little smile, then turned around and trotted back towards the counter.
The man replaced his scarf, wondering what the significance of it slipping might be, then smiling inwardly as he realised that he was no better than Akkan – just another mortal seeking to know the unknowable.
Then, as the name of Akkan entered the man’s mind, so the Child-Killer entered the tavern. The slave girl saw him and hid behind the counter. The innkeeper asked Akkan what he required and received no reply. Then Akkan saw the man and smiled, broadly.
Now he is congratulating himself, the man thought. He has decided that it was not his god that led him here but his own astuteness. Well . . . wrong on both counts.
As Akkan walked across the room, his brute physical strength was evident. So, too, was the sharp, predatory glint in his eye. This was a very powerful piece in the game, the man thought. One who might go all the way to the end of the quest. But perhaps his strength itself, and the degree to which he both took it and the power of his god for granted, might be his greatest weakness.
Fear could prevent a man from taking unnecessary risks, and a sense of his own vulnerability would cause him to enlist the help of others. This man was never afraid; nor were other people anything to him, apart from tools to be used and thrown away. But still, Akkan was as powerful as any man he’d ever seen, the man thought. He was not to be underestimated.
Akkan walked up to the table. He saw the man, and this time, when the scarf fell away, it was entirely deliberate.
For a second, even the mighty Akkan flinched. His right hand grasped the hilt of his sword. He was about to give an order, accompanied by a threat, but the man saw no need to go through that charade; it would draw too much attention to them both. He simply replaced the scarf, then got to his feet and started walking very calmly past Akkan, towards the door. And beneath the linen fabric that covered his mouth there was the merest hint of a smile.
Copyright by Wilbur Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsover without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information contact Bonnier Zaffre.