Lynda Robinson: Heretic's dagger

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    Heretic's dagger
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Lynda S. Robinson


Heretic's dagger

Thebes, Year Five of the Reign of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun


There was a right order to things when one accompanied a living god on military training exercises. The first maxim was not to outpace pharaoh's chariot. To Meren, confidential inquiry agent and mentor to King Tutankhamun, such rules of conduct were second nature. Thus he reined in his team of thoroughbred chariot horses so that they kept even pace with the fourteen year old boy who rode at the head of a company of Egypt's finest cavalry.

The rumble of wheels over rock, the stamp of hooves and occasional crack of a whip bounced off the high desert cliffs to their right as they rode south from the palace. Meren glanced to his left past the green fields that bordered the Nile and caught sight of the opposite east bank. There, more fields bordered the river with the city districts perched close behind them, and after that, the eastern desert. This was Egypt, a narrow band of luxuriant life hemmed in on the east and west by vast deserts that were the home of sand dwellers, outlaws, and the dead.

The company proceeded at a walk so as not to tire the horses before the training exercises. Pharaoh, who could hardly contain his impatience to attain the status of seasoned warrior, had brought with him an unusual companion. Sa, The Guardian, a black leopard stalked beside the king's chariot, tethered to pharaoh by a gilded leather leash. Meren smiled as Tutankhamun leaned down to stroke the animal's sleek head. Sa had been with the king almost from birth. Anyone wishing to harm the boy would have to kill Sa to get to him. Sa lifted his giant head and gazed calmly at Meren. Meren bent over the cab of his chariot and made a low trilling noise in the back of his throat, holding his hand out to the big cat.

Sa rubbed his head against the hand, then jerked it away and lifted his muzzle to the sky. Meren heard a loud sniff. Sa dug in his paws. The leash tightened and the king hauled on his reins.

"What ails you, Sa?" the boy asked as the company slowed to a halt behind him.

Meren watched the cat begin to circle, his tail lashing, his nose quivering. Suddenly a low growl made Meren grip the hilt of his scimitar.

"Majesty, he scents something." Meren signaled to the commander of chariots, and scouts broke from the ranks. At the same time orders were shouted. Chariots wheeled and turned, drove ahead and around the king.

Tutankhamun rolled his eyes. "Meren, it's probably a dead animal."

"No doubt, Golden One."

When Meren failed to recall the chariots, Tutankhamun sighed and tugged on the gilded leash. Sa ignored his master. Just then the north breeze picked up, and Sa gave another rumbling growl. Backing up against the leach, Sa gave a hard tug. The king lost his grip, and Sa whirled, springing past horses and chariots alike.

"Sa, return! Sa!"

"Majesty!"

Meren cursed as Tutankhamun launched his vehicle after the leopard. He slapped his own reins and hurtled after the king. Executing a tight turn, Meren followed the king through the ranks of charioteers. In moments he had broken through the lines and was careening after the youth in the golden chariot that gleamed like the solar orb in the early dawn light. They raced across the rock desert after Sa, their wheels sending grit and sharp rocks flying as they headed west toward the wall of limestone cliffs. Here the land undulated toward the base of the escarpment where the cliffs dropped back to form a small bay. Ahead, Meren saw the black streak that was Sa angled sharply to the north and vanish over a small hillock.

Shouting for the king to wait, Meren watched with dread as the boy vanished over the hillock without slowing. This was danger, a young king rushing into the unknown, heedless of peril. For Tutankhamun ruled over a kingdom in disarray. His brother and predecessor, Akhenaten, had almost brought about civil war with his heretical policies. Obsessed with his god of the sun disk called the Aten, Akhenaten had disestablished the old gods of Egypt who had protected the kingdom from the beginning of time. He persecuted those who wouldn't follow his precepts, and Egypt suffered. Only now had order been restored, but there were factions in the land who hated anyone who shared the blood of the heretic, even an innocent boy. Other groups wished to restore the heresy, and others lusted for the power invested in this slim youth with the great dark eyes and compassionate nature. All this flashed through Meren's thoughts as he gained the summit of the hillock. So many lay in wait for a chance to catch this youth alone and unprotected, where a seeming accident could cut short a promising reign.

Meren caught sight of pharaoh as he plunged down the opposite side of the hillock. The boy was drawing close to Sa, who had stopped at a lump on the desert floor, a smudge of dark brown against the cream of the limestone rock. Vultures flapped their wings and retreated from Sa in an ungainly stumble before they launched into the air. Meren scanned the area for danger as the rest of the charioteers rumbled up behind him. Satisfied that there was no peril lurking nearby, Meren jumped out of his vehicle and walked over to where the king was stooping to grasp Sa's leash.

"Meren, look!"

The big cat was sniffing a bundle of linen covered with flies. As Meren got closer Sa pawed at something-an arm. The king's guardian had scented the blood that smeared the rocks in a trail that originated somewhere at the base of the cliffs.

Meren glanced over his shoulder at the commander of charioteers. "Stay back and deploy the guard."

The body was lying face down and was clothed in a kilt and cloak, both of which were caked with blood. Meren thought briefly of sending the king away, but the boy would see more carnage than this at the head of the army.

"The poor man. Turn him over, Meren."

Complying, Meren beheld a man of middle years, neither a youth nor an elder, with a wound in the abdomen that must have caused a slow and painful death. Quickly Meren noted the short-cropped hair, the swelling, overfed stomach that seemed at odds with work-roughened hands. His clothing was made of ordinary smooth cloth, the quality used by most Egyptians. It was a much thicker grade of textile compare to the fine royal linen worn by pharaoh and the aristocracy.

"Do you know him?" the king asked as they stared at the corpse.

"No, majesty, but he's most peculiar. He has worked hard with his hands like a peasant yet had enough food to get a paunch, something one seldom sees in a farmer."

"And his nose is red under all that dirt."

"Yes, majesty, from drink rather than the sun. Do you see those spidery veins?"

"Someone stabbed him, didn't they?"

"Aye, majesty. I'll have the city police investigate."

Tutankhamun handed Sa's leash to a bodyguard. "But we should follow his trail now."

Meren hesitated, knowing the king's curiosity had been aroused. He chaffed at the constraints placed upon him by his position, and Meren couldn't blame him. To be a living god was to live surrounded by ritual and formality. To govern an empire required exhaustive training in the ways of Egypt's vast governing bureaucracy, in diplomacy and in military affairs. The boy rarely had a free moment. When he wasn't reading and interpreting reports of the season's harvest he was receiving envoys from foreign kings or studying with his tutors. Most important of all, pharaoh was the mediator between the gods and his subjects, and through him the balance of the world was maintained. The son of the chief god, Amun, the king propitiated the deities of Egypt to hold at bay the forces of chaos and evil when he celebrated the secret rituals in the temples of the gods. Thus Tutankhamun lived with a great burden for one so young. Meren noted the sympathy in the king's eyes as he gazed at the dead man, and the spark of inquisitiveness. Perhaps this was an opportunity to teach the king something of his methods of investigation and at the same time relieve the tedium of royal duties.

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