Lauren Haney: Face Turned Backward

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Lauren Haney Face Turned Backward
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    Face Turned Backward
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Lauren Haney

Face Turned Backward

Chapter One

“Lieutenant Bak!” The scribe Hori plunged through the portal atop the tall, twin-towered gate and raced along the walkway, oblivious to the heat, the heaviness of the air, the sentry whose duty it was to patrol that sector of the battlements.

His attention was focused on his superior officer, a man in his mid-twenties, taller than average with broad shoulders and black hair, cropped short. “Sir! A man’s been hurt!


Bak, head of the Medjay police at the fortress of Buhen, swung away from the crenel through which he had been watching the men working below. Soldiers, sailors, traders, fishermen going about their business in and around the ships moored along the three sandstone quays that reached into the river. “Who? Don’t tell me the archer May went back to Dedu’s village!”

The chubby youth wiped rivulets of sweat from his face.

“No, sir. A night in the guardhouse cooled his temper, and his ardor as well. He had many long hours to think about Dedu’s threat to unman him. He swears he’ll avoid the old man’s granddaughter as if she were of royal blood.” He drew in air, then blurted, “It’s the farmer Penhet. His wife found him in a field, bleeding, a dagger laying in the dust beside him.”

“Penhet.” Bak’s smile at May’s plight turned to a frown, and he searched his memory for a face. When the answer came, he glanced across the river toward the long strip of 1

2 / Lauren Haney green on the east bank. The oasis, like Buhen, was a bastion of life in the midst of a golden desert barren of all but the most hardy creatures. “Yes, owner of a good-sized farm near the northern end of the oasis, the one whose wife has always worked the fields by his side.”

Hori’s eyes were wide with boyish excitement. “She saw the man who stabbed him, sir. Another farmer, the neighbor Netermose. He was kneeling beside her husband when she came upon them, and he was smeared with Penhet’s blood.”

“Netermose?” Bak’s frown deepened. “I know him from the market. He’s often here when his crops are prime, trading dates, melons, vegetables. He seemed a gentle man. Not one to show violence to a neighbor, I’d have thought.”

Hori shrugged, his good humor wavered. “I only know what the servant told me, the one mistress Rennefer sent to summon you.”

Bak gave the scribe a sharp look. “She wishes me to come?

I’m amazed! The local people always want their own headman to balance the scales of justice.”

“I asked the servant, but he could give me no reason.”

“Never mind. I’ll find out soon enough.” Bak laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder and they walked together toward the tower. “What does Penhet say? Surely he knows who thrust the blade.”

“The attack came from behind, I was told. He saw nothing.”

Bak glanced at the lord Re, a golden orb veiled by dust.

Tendrils of light filtered through the yellow haze, the god’s last ineffectual attempt to stave off the brewing storm. He set aside the questions crowding his thoughts. “Go find Imsiba. He should speak first to the servant, then meet me at the quay.”

Hori’s eyes darted toward the sky. “You mustn’t be on the river when the wind rises, sir.”

The crime appeared straightforward and of small significance, yet Bak could not set aside the summons. Normally he was the last to hear of an offense in the nearby oases- unless a man from the garrison was involved. Even then his help was accepted grudgingly, for he was looked upon as an outsider interfering in local affairs.

“Each hour that passes makes the truth harder to search out, Hori, and in this case I must be doubly sure of the truth.

If I think Netermose guilty, I’ll have no choice but to take him before the commandant, charged with attempted murder.

How will the villagers react should I err?”

Bak, armed with his baton of office and a sheathed dagger at his belt, hurried through the towered gate, staying well clear of the ant-like line of men, backs bent low beneath heavy sacks of grain, who were unloading a squat cargo vessel and hauling its contents to a storage magazine inside the fortress. Their dissonant voices rose and fell to the words of an age-old workmen’s song. The stench of their sweat and the earthy smell of grain tickled Bak’s nose, making him sneeze.

He turned right onto the stone terrace that paralleled the river and hastened along the base of the fortress wall, white-plastered mudbrick, strengthened at regular intervals by projecting towers. Heat waves rising from plaster and stone had driven away the children who usually played along the water’s edge. Near the northern quay, he found his Medjay sergeant Imsiba waiting beside their skiff, beached on the stone revetment that defended the riverbank from erosion.

Bak vaulted the wall and dropped onto a lower terrace, jumped a second wall, and landed on the revetment.

“You spoke to Penhet’s servant?” he asked, tossing his baton into the shallow-keeled boat. It struck Imsiba’s black cowhide shield with a thunk and rolled off the edge to lay between the lowered mast and the Medjay’s long, bronze-pointed spear.

“Barring infection, he thinks his master will heal. Other than that he told me nothing.” Imsiba’s eyes flashed contempt. “He’s a cowardly creature, afraid of his own reflection in a pool, I’d guess, so he pleaded ignorance.” The 4 / Lauren Haney sergeant was half a hand taller than Bak and a few years older, a dark, heavy-muscled man with a firm jaw and a le-onine grace of movement.

Bak leaned against the prow and together they put their weight behind the push. “Did you threaten him with the cudgel?”

“Even that wouldn’t loosen his tongue.”

Bak was neither surprised nor disappointed. He mistrusted the use of force as a means of learning the facts. Too often the man who was beaten voiced whatever the man with the stave wished to hear.

The skiff slid into the river, making barely a splash, and they clambered aboard. Bak scrambled aft to the rudder and Imsiba took up the oars to row out past the vessels moored at the quay. A sailor fishing from the high prow of a sleek, brightly painted traveling ship shouted a warning when they ventured too close to his lines.

“What do you know of Penhet, Imsiba?”

“I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard talk. I sometimes stop for beer in a house of pleasure near his farm.”

Beyond the quay, the current caught the skiff and swept it downstream. Bak adjusted the rudder, setting a course that would carry them across to the oasis. The river was high, its life-giving waters not long returned to its banks. Its surface was mirror-smooth, a glistening reflection of the sun and the torrid golden sky. Now and again a fish broke the calm, leaping high and falling with a splash. A flotilla of six fishing vessels raced downstream along the far shore, making for home before the storm struck.

Using an oar, Imsiba pushed away a floating branch torn from an acacia tree. “All who live within a day’s march know of his wife’s devotion, and most know of the trouble he’s caused among his neighbors.”

“Trouble?” Could something as simple as a neighborhood squabble be the reason for Rennefer’s summons? Bak wondered. Perhaps she thought only a man indifferent to local quarrels would see justice done.

A breath of air touched his cheek, a hint of a breeze so hot it dried the sweat it sucked from his flesh. He prayed the storm would hold off until after they saw the field where the attack had taken place.

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