Hey. I'm Sang. I've been in love with Ancient Egypt since my formative years, ever since my grandmother took me to an exhibit on Egypt when I was about seven. Obsession resulted. I now am the owner of a prodigious amount of books on the culture of that fascinating people, and have long desired to write something about them. This is my first-ever posted piece of work, so please give me tips and feedback. If you catch me using obvious anachronisms, misspelled words, or facts about ancient Egypt that are incorrect, please let me know.
This is not set in any specific period of any Egyptian dynasty (though if you want a VERY GENERAL time frame, think New Kingdom between the 17th and 20th dynasties).
This is primarily a romance story, though I hope to work in some political intrigue and drama as well.
All characters, plot points, and events are mine—any resemblances to other works or factual occurrences are entirely coincidental.
I know that Ancient Egyptian and Arabic are NO WHERE NEAR the same, but I'm using a bit of creative license to keep them in the same neighborhood (though still miles away from one another). You'll see what I'm talking about later on this chapter.
Other than that, please enjoy and help a new author get going by reviewing!
Oh, and this chapter is LONG, so please give all of it a chance before saying "I'm bored" and clicking the back button. Thanks!
By Seulement Sang
"The Thief, The Girl, The Caravan"
Nothing but sand, as far as the eye could see.
Upon my wrist, Djal shuffled back and forth, back and forth, falcon talons clicking against my leather-gauntleted arm in avian agitation. The hollowed-out water gourd on my belt bounced against my thigh as I trudged over the dunes, and the sound of its empty shell smacking against my woven sword belt only served to remind me of the abundance of our water supply—or lack thereof.
Water is priceless in the desert—more essential than food, more costly than clothing, and more precious than coin. A man could die for lack of it in hours; a man could—and would—kill for it if he had to. I'd seen it happen. In fact, I'd done it.
But there was no one around to kill. Nowhere to get water.
My tongue—as dry and weighty as uncompressed papyrus—worked in my mouth until precious drops of saliva coated my tongue. I was able to talk, though softly, and my usually-smooth voice rasped in my throat. "Djal," I said, "do you smell anything?"
The falcon dipped and bobbed on my forearm, wheeling around and around on clumsy taloned feet as he sniffed the hot air. Sun beat down on my head, and with a toss of my shoulders I managed to make the hood of my dun-colored robe fall farther over my eyes. The cloak—the same color as the desert sands—shielded me from the scorching heat, but still did not protect me from the thirst that accompanied dehydration.
Djal, still bobbing restlessly, at last settled motionless onto my fist. He hunkered down sullenly, feathers rumpled, large gold-rimmed eyes cross. He was as thirsty as I was.
We had not had a taste of water in over four hours.
It was all my fault, of course. The caravan one of my scouts had spotted had been moving uncommonly slowly through the thief-infested desert, and I had—stupidly—thought that it would be easy pickings. Likely it was a trader hailing from Upper Egypt, unused to the southern heat, who had left his city without an ample water supply. So I took four men with me to raid the trading party, and low and behold, the caravan was not as ill-equipped as I had imagined. At lest twenty armed guards had burst out from under the shade of the last camel-drawn cargo box, and rushed us with scimitars and bows. My men—too close already—were easily picked off by the archers. My horse—an Arabian black of excellent quality—threw me in the confusion. It was only with luck I had managed to escape, on foot and pursued, into the wild desert.
But now I was lost. Unequivocally, irrevocably lost, with naught but Djal for company.
A fine mess for the dreaded "Kind of Thieves" to land himself in.
It wasn't fair, I fumed as I marched over the desert sands. There was an oasis nearby, and I knew the general direction in which it lay, but had no idea how far it actually was. 'The King of Thieves' wasn't supposed to mess up like this. I was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of merchants. After all, it was a well known fact that if a trader saw a cloud of dust rising and then the gleam of a shock of long white hair come up over the horizon, they were doomed. The white-haired King of Thieves took no prisoners.
Sun blinded me for a moment as a hot wind swept my hood off. My scalp, coated thinly by my short-cropped yet thick white hair, began to sweat, and beads of the liquid coursed down my brown skin. Some of it pooled in the hollow below my nose and above my lips, so I wet my dry tongue with it before pulling the hood back on.
"Water," I said aloud. "Damn it to the underworld, I need water."
As if on cue, Djal began to pace agitatedly on my fist.
He smelled water.
"Good boy, Djal!" I crooned to my companion, stopping abruptly. "Now, which way is it? Can you smell it, my hope?"
In response, he spread his wide, wide wings and attempted to fly—or bate—off of my fist. I clutched tightly at his jesses—the strips of leather bound around his right leg—to anchor him until he calmed down and stopped pumping frantically at the air. Eventually he tired, stopped flying, and hung limp beneath my fist by one leg like a mal-formed teardrop of feathers and bone.
I picked him up with my left hand, cradled him against my chest for a moment, and eased him back onto my gauntleted arm. "Calm down," I admonished, and his gold eyes delivered unto me a baleful stare. "I know you're thirsty, but so am I, and you are not to leave me behind." Djal was unfailingly loyal, and would, I knew, have returned to me once he had drunk his fill at the oasis. However, that might take several hours, and I knew I only had about two until I succumbed to dehydration or desert fever.
As Djal started to pace on my wrist, I reached into my robe and pulled out a creance, a length of thin leather I tied securely to Djal's jesses. "Ready?" I whispered, then pumped my fist and launched Djal high into the air. He sailed high, catching an updraft quickly, and began to fly eastward. The creance kept him from outpacing me, but
I could not help smiling as I saw my tawny-gold friend circling above me like a 'kite' traders from the Orient often brag upon.
The oasis lay less than a mile away, but a mile in the desert without a mount—camels are the best, though horses are faster—is torture. Djal set a grueling pace, and I was barely able to keep up. If I had had any tears to shed upon seeing the oasis over the crest of a monumental sand dune, I would have created a new Nile, I am sure.
The oasis was a small one, well off the beaten path, and had been ringed on three sides with high stones to keep out sand and wandering animals. Palm and date trees grew in abundance around the crystal blue water, and the utterly still surface of the mid-desert lake reflected the images of serenely waving fronds and fruits back up at their parent images. The whole scene was so peaceful I had to stop for a moment and just look; stand still and draw the sight in like a cool drink.
Speaking of which…
I felt the tug of the creance in my hand; Djal was anxious to get at the water, and had flow low to bate at the end of the leather strip in his haste.
I laughed freely as I ran, unafraid to speak now that relief was in sight. "Good boy, Djal!" I panted as I neared the oasis. I quickly shucked my sandals and robe in the shade of a date palm, and lashed Djal's creance around the same tree's trunk. Well within the reach of the water, the falcon descended onto the un-rocked shore and dipped his beak into the cool blue.
I followed suit, and flung myself into the water. What most people don't realize is that the skin, along with the mouth, plays an important role in a human's water intake. If one were to not hydrate the skin, it would dry out and split like a ripe fruit. No amount of water taken through the mouth could alleviate the pain of cracked, dehydrated skin.
Dipping my head beneath the water, I slowly swallowed mouthful after mouthful while scrubbing the caked sand out of my hair. I came up when I needed to breathe, then lunged back in. However, a noise soon made me jerk out of the water in surprise.
Djal had flown up to perch in a palm's fronds, and was chattering like an old hen at a black horse wearing expensive riding tack. I recognized the stallion as the one who had thrown me earlier, bent over on splayed legs to greedily suck down moisture, and laughed. Slogging out of the water, I caught the horse's reins and patted the side of his working throat.
"While I'm happy to see you alive," I said, "I will ask you to not throw me again, in future. Is that to your liking, Horse?"
The horse, in a perfect replication of human emotion, rolled his eyes, raised his head, and butted me in the chest with a friendly forelock.
I rubbed his ears absently, enjoying the way the sun dried the water on my skin. "Ah, well," I said. "It all turned out right in the end."
Djal began to chatter again, more vehemently than before. I glanced up at him. His feathers were ruffled, wings outstretched, eyes huge and glowing.
I frowned. "Djal, you know Horse. Stop that."
He refused, and chattered more loudly. That was when I noticed that his coin-bright eyes were focused on the oasis, and not my horse. I turned to look, and my breath caught in my throat.
On the rocks—great brown crags of sandstone—surrounding the oasis lay a person.
At first, I thought they were dead. Facedown, they lay as still as a corpse, but eventually my sharp eyes discerned the rise and fall of a breathing back. As I watched, they stirred faintly and breathed a low moan, then toppled off the rocks and into the water, where they quickly sank from sight. Ripples marred the still surface, making the reflections of the palms grow distorted and jagged.
I moved before I even thought about it, flinging myself into the water headlong, where I broke out into an arm-over-arm swimming stroke. I quickly cleared the pool (which was only about fifteen feet across) and dove beneath the surface.
No decaying body would poison the cool waters of the oasis on my watch.
It was deeper on this side, plunging to maybe ten feet as opposed to the earlier three. The other side, I supposed, had filled up with sand, as it was not protected by friendly rocks. It grew murkier, as well, or at least darker because of the rock's shade. It took me a moment to find the outline of the drowning person, but when I did I made short work of pulling them to the surface and tugging them to the sandy edge of the round pool.
Coughing (for I had inhaled a little bit of water in my haste to save the stranger) I glanced down at the still body. My lungs, for the second time that day, forgot to work.
First of all, the stranger was a she. Skin—paler by far than any Egyptian's—covered delicate bones and minimal curves. Had I not noticed the subtle camber of her boyish hips, nor the slight swell of her small breasts, I would have mistaken her for a child, so underdeveloped and thin was she.
The rest of her was even stranger than her face, for the skin of her legs was blue! Or so I though upon first glance. On further inspection, I realized that she was covered from the hips down by close-fitting blue cloth. So tight was it that I wondered: 'Has she been sewn into this garment?', for I had never seen anything like it in all my travels. A line of shining stones—diamonds, perhaps?—lined the seams down the sides of her legs.
"Rich, then," I murmured, turning her until she faced the sky. "No pauper would possess so many stones." There had to be at least a dozen on each leg.
I noticed, then, that she was not breathing, and her lips were tinged blue about the edges.
After a moment of panic, I rose to my knees and pressed my fist against her chest, compressing her unseen lungs until a thin stream of water poured out her parted mouth. Then I bent, pressed my mouth to hers, and exhaled into her throat. She promptly lurched and began to cough. I smiled in satisfaction. During my boyhood, which had been spent in the port city of Beni Suef, I had once seen a man, half-drowned, brought back to life by the technique I had used on the strange girl. 'Nifé-en-Ankh,' the man who had performed it had said. It meant 'breath of life.' I later learned he was one of the Pharaoh's chief surgeons.
"Are you well,sheriti?" I asked. The name I called her meant 'little girl,' or 'maiden.' Hair—a pale brown made darker by the water—adhered to her pale skin in snaky tendrils, clinging to her lithe neck like a tattoo. It struck me, then, that her face was passing attractive, though not unduly so.
But then she opened her eyes, and she was almost beautiful.
It was not that the eyes were well-shaped. In fact, they were so large that the earlier illusion of childishness struck me again in even greater force. They were rimmed by thick, dark lashes, however, which was nice, but their color was what made then stand out. They were blue: bluer than the sky, than the oasis, than lapis lazuli, than sapphires. I had never, ever seen blue eyes before, and these stole my breath away.
I breathed again when those eyes fluttered closed. Her lips—rosy, but not wide nor full enough to be exceptional—quivered as she murmured something so low I could barely hear it.
"What did you say, sheriti?"
Her eyelids fluttered again, but remained. "Where…where am I?"
I started. She was speaking Egyptian, but strangely. The base of the words was somewhat similar, but too different to be a dialect of Egyptian, however distant. I caught the gist of her words, however, and responded: "An oasis in the middle kingdom, sheriti."
This time her eyes came open, and in them was unconquerable confusion. "How… do you know my name?" she gasped,
I couldn't answer. Those eyes froze me. The sun glinted off of them like it would jewels, and they seemed to glow in the sunlight.
Nonplussed by my silence, she repeated "How do you know my name?", and began to cough.
I leapt to my feet, fumbled with my clothes until I found my water gourd, and filled it. When I brought it to her, however, she had passed out. I could tell by the whiteness of the skin around her lips that she needed water, so I dragged her to the shade, took a swallow into my own mouth, and once again pressed my lips to hers. The water flowed down her throat easily, and soon I had her sitting up and drinking of her own accord.
"Your name is 'sheriti'?" I asked when she seemed to be slowing down.
She stared at me for a moment, as if processing my words, then put the gourd down. "My name sounds like that," she said (or, at least, that's what I thought she said—I recognized a strange version of the word 'my,' 'name,' and 'sounds like,' at any rate). "It is actually 'Charity.'"
"Charity," I repeated, tasting it. It felt new and exotic, despite its similarity to 'sheriti.' "From what nation do you hail, Charity?"
She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. "I… do not know," she said, and I could see from the oncoming franticness of her eyes that she was about to become hysterical.
Hysteria is like a wave: since there is no way to stop it, the only option is to ride it out like a summer storm. I let Charity ride out the wave. First, her blue eyes filled with tears that rolled won he cheeks like fat rain drops. Then the silent crying gave way to loud, abrasive sobs (pale noses, I realized, turn red after crying, which was singularly unattractive) that, in turn, made way for quiet shudders. She sat there, motionless except for her trembling, arms clutched tight around her shoulders, and I felt sorry for her.
"Do you know where you came from?" I asked, but had to repeat the phrase with hand motions and over-enunciated syllables until she understood.
"N-no," she stuttered. I gleaned her meaning from the shake of her head and the desperation in her eyes as opposed to the unintelligible syllable she uttered. "I remember a boat, and a face, and water, and then—" More shudders. "Then you, bending over me. Oh, God, where am I?"
The time it took for me to answer her questions with broken Egyptian and hand signs frustrated me, but I persevered. "Egypt. The Middle Kingdom." Then I added: "The closest city is Abydos, home of the temple to Horus and the rest of the Triad."
Charity didn't seem to understand anything beyond 'Egypt' and 'temple to Horus.' Her blue eyes lit up like jewels whose center houses a flame. "Horus!" she said, and the rest was gibberish. "Horus!"
"Yes, Horus," I repeated. She had a sweet, high voice that seemed more inclined to singing than speaking; every word from her was like a note from a bell. It was pleasant to hear her talk, even if I could not understand. "God of the sky and the kings. You know him?"
Her explanation was garbled, but I cam to understand that she had learned of him from a teacher, which struck me as odd. Girls were never given formal schooling in Egypt, unless they were royalty. Was this girl of the royal family?
I did not think so, for I knew the royal family had no daughters—only two sons, one of which was presumed dead and the other in line for the throne. Besides, she knew no true Egyptian. What princess would be unable to speak the language of her country?
"What is your name?"
The question startled me: firstly, because it was he first time she had asked of me, and secondly because no one had asked me that in a long, long time. I was known as 'thief' to anyone who mattered.
I stared at her a moment. Her eyes—so blue, though now I was getting used to them—were curious, a little scared, and innocent. "It's Khai," I said, and smiled.
She smiled back, though hesitantly, and reached out a hand to touch my short white hair. I could see in her eyes that she was confused by its color. Everyone was when they saw it next to my dark skin, so I was used to being ogled. Oddly, I experienced a moment of kinship with the little girl. Surely she was ogled, too, for her eyes.
I let Charity touch me for a moment, but her hand pulled back abruptly when Djal began to chatter in the palm tree.
I stood. "What is it, Djal?" I looked up at him, shading my eyes against the sun. He was facing west, so I looked in that direction, too. My heart picked up speed as I saw a cloud of sand on the horizon. It was gaining fast.
"Traders," I cursed. Or slavers. Or a king's caravan. Any of the three could spell death for me. It didn't matter to me which, for I was all at once unarmed and a wanted man.
I turned to the girl, pointed at her, pointed at the horse, and pointed at the rocks. She got the message. Slowly, on shaking legs, she took the horse by the reins and led him around the rocks on the pool's other side and out of sight. Meanwhile, I coaxed Djal out of the tree with his creance, donned my clothing, and joined her in hiding. A tiny gap between two boulders afforded us a clear—though somewhat obstructed—view of the oasis.
The caravan pulled up to the oasis minutes later, and I learned that it was indeed a slaver's convoy. Pulled by camels, four wooden cages on wheels housed over twenty black-skinned Nubian children who were bound wrist and ankle in a long line. A large Egyptian with a whip led them to the water's edge for a drink.
By my side, Charity drew in a quick breath, and I caught the words 'children,' 'misfortune,' and a word that sounded suspiciously like 'slave.' So she knew what they were, then. Interesting.
Besides the slave pens there was a large, tented liter carried by four grown men bearing swords. From it stepped a man in rich ocher robes who dripped both in jewels and sweat. He wore a large headdress as well, one that looked like it did little to protect him from the heat. His face—pinched, thin, with glittering black eyes—surveyed the captive children with a calculative gleam.
Charity grabbed my arm. "I know him!" she hissed—or, that's what it sounded like, at any rate. She made to stand, but I stopped her.
"If you go out there—"I signed/said, "you'll be taken as a slave!"
She shook her head, and her mostly dry hair—which shown the color of teakwood in the light—rippled about her features, the darkness of the strands throwing her bright eyes into sharp relief. "He might know how to get home!" she said, and shook me off.
I grabbed after her, but missed; she was quick, owing mostly to her size. The top of her head only reached my collarbone. Watching her go made my paternal side go mad. I shook with rage as I saw her be thrown to the ground by the man with the whip, then be examined like so much meat by the rich man, who she said she knew. It appeared that he did not recognize her, however, for as she clung to his robe all he could look at were her blue eyes and pale skin.
I would have rescued her, had I been able to. Five men—the man with the whip and the four men who carried the liter—were no match for me; I could take eight and win. But I was unarmed, and without a sword or a spear I would lose in moments.
It was either let her go, to be rescued at another time, or be killed and condemn her to her fate.
I chose the former, for as I watched her be bundled onto the back of a spare camel I realized that the blue-eyed girl named Charity was a lot like me. We were both odd—her for her eyes and strange language, and I for my villainous status and hair, which had dogged the steps of my entire life like a determined ghost. My chest, however, did pang when I heard Charity cry "Khai!" as the men bound her wrists together and tied her to the saddle.
Though she did not know it, I had every intention of saving her.
As the caravan began to roll onward with a creak of wooden wheel and clop of camel's hooves (both of which were unable to drown out Charity's shouts of my name), I mounted my horse and transferred Djal to my shoulder. I let the caravan ride out of sight (and Charity's voice with it), then tracked in which direction they were headed by the wheel ruts in the sand. It seemed they were heading for Abydos.
From the depths of my robe I pulled out a scrap of thick animal-hide parchment. I cut a message into it with my fingernail, tied it to Djal's leg, and looked straight into his eyes.
"Head back to camp," I told him. "Fly fast. The King of Thieves is going on a holiday." Then I pumped my fist, launched Djal into the sky, and set off after the slavers.
"I'm coming, Charity," I murmured, and rode after her.