by Judith Tarr
The power was in the name. The name was power.
Beloved of Amon, son of the Sun, Great House of Egypt, Protected of Horus, Lord of the Two Lands.
Nekhtharhab. Nectanebo to the sea-peoples, the raw young Hellenes who served so well on all sides of the world’s wars.
He stood on the horizon and looked down. It grew like the lotus flower, his land, kingdom and empire and heart of the world. Long slender stem of Black Land against the pitiless red of desert, great dark flowering of Delta on the edge of the Great Green that was the name and essence of the sea.
Life-blood of the lotus was the stream of the Nile, quiescent now, shrunk to its least extent, while its people tilled the black earth that was its gift. Almost, like a god, he could reach, touch. Almost, like a god, cup it in his hand.
The air sighed about him, a whisper like wings, a glimmer as of falcon-eyes. Memory touched, passed: sunlight, singing, the weight of the Two Crowns new and terrible upon his brows; and names on him, new names, strong names, god-names for a god-king.
Here in Amon’s temple was silence and shadows, and the basin on its four clawed feet, and Egypt in it, the rich black land of Khemet, shadow-shaped in water of the Nile. The walls were alive with painted gods and kings and queens, beasts, birds, lotus, palm, papyrus, all the many-colored splendor of Egypt. Barbarians had not touched these. Not they, not the Parsa, though they had wrought horrors enough in other temples than this of Amon in Thebes.
They were gone. He had driven them out, he and his people; and if there had been more than simple human force in it, then that was no more than the enemy deserved. Their names would die with their memory, and they would be gone for all of eternity.
Nectanebo bent over the basin. The lappets of his headdress swung forward, nearly brushing the water. He thrust them back.
One shoulder ached. A Persian mace had broken it in that last battle, just before he knew that he had won. The bone had healed well, but the ache had never wholly faded.
It was distracting him now, making the image waver, the power drain away. He drew a sharp breath, and the image steadied. It did not change. Persia was coming—not soon, perhaps; not for years, it might be—but inevitable, and inescapable.
There was no power in Pharaoh, even in a pharaoh who was a great mage and master of the hidden art, to overcome an enemy so implacable. Their gods were young and few and eager for empire. His were old beyond telling and numerous beyond counting, and they had never willingly been gods of war.
“I can hold,” he said, soft in the silence, “with the gods’ help. But my body will die, and I become Osiris; and who will be Horus to defend my lands? I had a son. He is dead; the Parsa killed him. I have a wife. She is with child; and if it is a son, will his strength suffice for what I foresee? Who will defend my kingdom? Who will wrest it from the Persian’s fist?”
The air sighed again, louder. The lamps flickered, casting long shadows. Painted kings seemed to stir, their eyes to kindle. Painted gods drew breath like living things. The ranks of hieroglyphs quickened, beasts and birds and stylized men shifting, stretching, yearning toward freedom.
Nectanebo breathed a word. The lamps ceased their swaying. The walls stilled. Something chittered away overhead. Bat; or spirit blown from its course and fluttering lost among the pillars. Nectanebo took no notice of it.
The water blurred and rippled. A new vision grew in it.
Almost, he laughed. He had asked the gods, and they answered, from the very beginning.
Lamplight limned it, granted it more shadow than light, but there was no mistaking the name of that dance. The man was as eager as a ram, and built like one, a heavy gleaming creature with muscles that rolled like water. The woman was nigh as tall as he, but if he was a ram, she was a tigress, turning suddenly in his clasp, locking legs about his middle and raking claws down his back.
He grunted. She laughed, arched, sank teeth into his shoulder. Her face through streams of red-gold hair was wild, a little mad.
Her teeth had drawn blood. He took no notice of it, though it ran in the lamplight in streams the color of wine, or of the Tyrians’ purple. Their shadows leaped and danced, a mingled shape of dark and light upon the wall. For a stretching moment it was a ram, a ram crowned with the sun, and a serpent coiled about him, locked in passion that was half war.
It broke, blurred, scattered. They dropped down in a tangle of limbs and bodies and coppery hair.
There was a silence. Nectanebo, trapped in the scrying, watched the wildness flow out of them. The man laid his head on the woman’s breast. His hair was black and thick, cut as the Hellenes cut it, and he wore a beard like a Hellene, and that was a Hellene’s face, though ram-heavy, ram-strong. She was slighter as befit a woman, but her beauty was as Greek as his, the full rounding of her body even in its slimness, the strong oval face and the long broad nose and the wide low brow: to an Egyptian, heavy and somewhat coarse, but striking for all of that. Her hands were long and strong, stroking the knotted muscles of his back, smoothing them one by one.
“A god was in us tonight,” she said. Greek indeed, but not as it was spoken by envoys in the courts of the Two Lands: broader and softer, with the hint of an antique lilt.
“Not one of your damned snakes again?” His voice was deep, with the hint of a growl.
She laughed in her throat. “Not tonight, my jealous lord. Didn’t you feel it? Didn’t you see the light that was on us?”
“I saw you,” he said.
“My lord.” It was a purr. “My king. Were you Herakles tonight? Or were you more? Were you even—”
His hand stopped the name. His scowl was terrible. “I was myself. Or am I not enough for you?”
Over the heavy black-furred hand, her eyes danced with mirth. A gasp escaped him. His hand snapped free. She bared her sharp white teeth. “See, my lord, I prophesy. We’ve made a king tonight, you and I and—who knows? A god may pass where he will. I for one shall welcome him.”
“Raving madwoman.” His body was reviving. He rose above her. “We’ll see if I need a god to do my rutting for me.”
She smiled long and slow, and pulled him down.
Nectanebo straightened slowly. There was his answer. There, if he read it rightly, was his king: a spark in the womb of this woman, this wild barbarian creature who could not but be a queen. Her king was man enough, and strong enough, but Nectanebo was a mage, and he knew that this man was not what he was seeking.
Barbarians. Aliens. Foreigners. Had he wrested his lands from the Parsa, only to surrender them to the Hellenes?
He rose to his full height. He was aware as he had not been in a long while, that even in Khemet he was not tall; that in the world without, he was a small man. A little thin brown man with a scarred and stiffened shoulder, a suggestion of Ethiopia in the fullness of his lips and the broadness of his nose, but all Egypt in the long dark eyes made longer still with kohl. He was greater than he looked, and stronger. He was Lord of the Great House, master of the Two Lands. He had conquered the Parsa and freed his people, and restored the worship of his gods.
He did not kneel as even Pharaoh should before divinity. The mood was not on him. The power was in him still, though it had begun to ebb. “Why?” he demanded of the air.
It whispered, but it spoke no word that he could understand.
He stooped toward the chair that sat by the basin, caught up what lay there: the crook and flail of the Great House. He held them high. “Am I the last, then? Is the Great House to fall? Shall no man again be Lord of the Two Lands, but that he be the king of an alien people?”
The echoes died unanswered.
He sank down. The floor was stone, and cold under the thin linen of his kilt. Crook and flail drooped on his knees. “At least,” he whispered, barely to be heard, “at least, if ever you have loved me, let me know his name.”
The stillness deepened. His shoulders sagged. The gods had forsaken him. Even his power was gone, drained away like water from a broken pot. He was mere man, and mortal, and deaf to aught that the heart could hear.
It was a whisper, fainter even than his own. It could have been the slap of bare feet on stone, the rustle of linen in a priest’s robe, the hiss of a cat as it warred with shadows.
Every muscle stretched taut. He strained to hear.
Yes. Yes, he had heard it. A name—alien name for an alien king, but his king, his god, his hope.
The sea roared, crashing on stones. Louder by far were men’s voices, the ring of bronze and precious steel, the neighing of horses, the mingled tumult of battle; and a name over them all, ringing up to heaven.
Meriamon had been walking since the world was made. She had had a horse, but the Parsa had taken that, farther back than she could remember. That they had not taken more was a mark not of their restraint but of hers. They would pay in their due time.
She crested the last, pitiless hill. The battle spread below, a seethe and clash of men and beasts, shouts and cries and the clangor of metal on metal. It sounded like nothing so much as a cattle market beside a smithy. But the drovers were Hellenes—Macedonians, she must remember to call them—and what they drove were Persians. Parsa. The enemy.
Her mantle heaved, struggling. A narrow tawny head thrust through the wrapping, opened eyes the color of minted gold, uttered a single, emphatic mrrrttt. Meriamon gasped. Sekhmet’s claws were wickedly sharp. The cat sprang free, hissing her displeasure; shook from head to tail; and vanished behind a clump of scrub.
Meriamon drew the cloak tighter about her stinging breast. The wind plucked at her, whipping the muddied hem against her legs. She was wet with the unwontedness of water that fell from the sky, she was colder than she had ever been in her life, and there was a fire in her.
The sun, sinking toward the sea, freed itself from its prison of cloud and thrust a long lance across the battlefield. It caught a splendor of scarlet and gold. God or man, she could not tell, so bright as it was: blinding her through all the shields of body and souls, down to the heart of her.
Dimly in the afterblaze she saw a shadow, a quenched and stumbling thing that quailed before that shape of fire, and knew with a fierce dark joy that she looked on the Persian king. He turned, with his bodyguard all fallen and his enemies surging upon him; turned his glittering chariot and fled.
A roar followed him. The Macedonians surged in his wake. His people, loyal even in their shock, died defending his cowardice. His enemies laughed. The one who led them—flaming even in the last of the light, his little thickset black horse prancing and snorting and flagging its tail—shouted something in a high fierce voice. The Macedonians shouted back. “Alexander!”
Meriamon smiled. Sekhmet returned from her errand, haughty and much displeased. “Walk with me, then,” said Meriamon, “if riding warm and dry-footed is beneath your dignity.”
The cat filliped her tail and started down the slope, picking her way delicately through mud and stones and scree. Meriamon sighed, half laughing, and followed her.
A shadow followed them, a shadow within the woman’s shadow, and its shape, if shape it truly had, was strange.
Meriamon knew about camps. She had lost her horse outside of one. This one was different, its people louder, dirtier, and infinitely more shameless, but men were men wherever they were. She kept her mantle wound tight and drew down a little of the twilight on herself, putting a twisting in it, willing eyes to slip aside.
Macedonians were not like the Parsa, who brought their whole households to war as if it were a hunt for the court, though they had their servants and their camp followers. She did not care to be seen as she was: not only a woman but a stranger, and alien, and perhaps an enemy.
The camp was quiet, as camps went. All the noise and terror was in the other, among the Persians, as some fought and most fled and the women, trapped in their tents and their modesty, shrieked and wailed. Even over the sounds of battle and camp, Meriamon could hear them.
They had laughed and chattered while their kings made a mock of her gods. They had fluttered and cooed in the Great House of Egypt, and simpered as their men called themselves masters of the Two Lands. Now they would know what it was to be conquered.
Meriamon’s jaw ached. She was grinding her teeth again. Hate was a fine fierce thing, but it was little enough to live on. And she had eaten the last of her bread yesterday.
Water at least there was in plenty. She would eat later, when she found what she had come for. People were beginning to mill and throng about her, soldiers coming back from the battle, the wounded limping or leaning on spears or carried on their shields. Their curses were a long drone, punctuated by cries of pain.
Meriamon drew still more shadow about her. The crowd had thickened, the tumult risen, surging from the battlefield.
There was order in it, and purpose, however frantic it might look.
“You!” Something caught her cloak. She wheeled. A man stood over her. He seemed as high as the sky. He reeked of sweat and blood. “Go to the surgeons’ tent,” he said. “Tell them we’ve got one out here, and he’s giving trouble.”
She could understand him. Just. Macedonian, her teachers had told her, was Greek, but barely so. Her own Greek, gods be thanked, was where she needed it. “Why don’t you tie him and drag him in?”
The man laughed: a sharp sound, with a catch in it. “Tie him? Tie our Ajax? Take a look at him!”
She had thought this man was huge. The one on the ground, in what looked to be a convulsion, stretched as long as a tree. There were two men on him, holding him. One fell away. The other rocked and swayed.
Her lips tightened. She stepped round the man who had spoken—commanding her like a servant: how dared he?—and approached the fallen giant. Even in dusk and fitful torches, she could see enough. “He has fits?” she asked.
“He got hit over the head. He keeps trying to go back and fight Persians.” The lesser giant dodged a flying foot. “We’d clip his ear to keep him quiet, but we’d kill him if we tried.”
“You had better not try,” said Meriamon, evading flailing limbs, closing in on the man’s head. He had lost his helmet; his hair was matted with something dark and glistening.
Blood. She knelt, took the tossing, thrashing head in her hands. Lost it. Won it again, and held. She spoke a word, an ancient word, a word with power in it. Peace.
Little by little he stilled. Her shadow bent over him, enfolded him.
“Take him now,” she said. Her voice sounded faint and far away. “Gently; jostle him as little as you may.”
The Macedonians obeyed her. She was a little surprised, but dimly. So thin, her magic was, so far from the source of its strength. It was all she could do to quiet the man, to keep him so while his companions carried him to the surgeons.
Very likely he would die. She was no adept of Imhotep’s temple, to work miracles with healing magic. She had only the one small gift of quiet, and knowledge enough if she were given light and space to wield it.
The man who had stopped her was still beside her, steadying the giant’s shoulders with one long arm. The other two men had the rest of him. They were all wounded, she noticed. One limped. They all walked stiffly, with now and then a catch of breath.
The surgeons’ tent was an image from the Persians’ hell: dim lamps, leaping shadows, groans and shouts and howls of agony. The stink caught at her throat. “Over there,” someone snapped, harried. ‘There’ being by the far wall, in a space barely large enough for a man of normal dimensions, and far from the nearest lamp. That at least Meriamon could remedy. She pointed with her chin. “Bring it here.”
Two of the bearers were already gone, one at something like a run. The third looked ready to bolt. He brought her the lamp instead, and paused, swaying a little, frowning at her.
She was under him when he went down, catching the lamp before it fell, bracing the worst of his weight. But she was small even in Khemet, and he was Macedonian.
They went down together, half on the giant, half in the passage between rows of bodies.
Meriamon struggled from beneath him. The lamp was safe. She used it to look at him. Not all the blood on him was his friend’s. And his right arm—the one that he had kept out of her sight—did not look well at all.
The giant would keep. She attacked the smaller man’s armor. It came free more easily than she might have expected, though it jarred him. She was glad that he was not awake to feel it.
There were no other wounds on him that mattered: cuts, bruises, one that might have been bad if it had been a little deeper. His arm was bound up roughly in strips torn from someone’s tunic, stained solid with blood both dried and new-wet. With teeth-gritted care she peeled away the wrappings.
It could have been worse. A wound ran down the length of it, thin and not remarkably deep. Sword-cut, and a glancing one at that. It was little enough. The worst was what it ended in. The bone was broken at the wrist, the hand dangling like a dead thing. It seemed a clean break, no shards or splinters to foul the wound. But whatever had done it had crushed the flesh and ground the muscle into the tortured bone. A little more, and he would have lost the hand.
She could save it. Maybe. Care now, prayer, time and the gods’ protection against fever—he would not be a one-armed man. Whether he could win back full use of arm and hand, only the gods knew.
Her eyes found a man hovering—no, boy, though he was bigger than most men in Khemet: wide curious eyes, idle hands. “Splints,” she said. “Bandages, thread, needles. Water, as hot as you can get it. Herbs to wash a wound.”
The boy was obedient, and quick about it. Maybe it was the weight of her shadow with its gleam of eyes.
When she had done all she might for the wounded man, she looked up. The tent stretched away in front of her.
She blinked hard. It shrank somewhat. It was mostly a roof and poles, and sides that rolled up or down at need—all down now, closing in the sight and scent and sound of pain. Too much pain.
She turned to the nearest man, awareness narrowing again, to focus on this one, endurable center. Little as she might know beside a healer-priest, she knew enough for this; more maybe than the Greek surgeons did. She could tell what needed stitching, what was broken and what was strained, when a limb could stay and when it had to come off; how to draw an arrow from a wound.
People tried to speak to her once or twice. They might be asking what a woman was doing in the surgeons’ tent. She did not answer. They had eyes. They could see what she did.
None of them interfered. Her shadow took care of that.
News came in with new waves of wounded: remnants of the fight, men returned from the pursuit, others who had taken wounds and only now troubled to notice them. The enemy was driven far away. The Persian camp was taken, and the king had taken the Great King’s tent.
“And the Great King’s women,” said a man who had lost a hand. He had dropped his shield and used the strap to bind the stump and gone on fighting, crazy-mad as men could be when their blood was up. He was numbed now, part with wine, part with shock; and dizzy with victory. He grinned. He had excellent teeth, Meriamon noticed.
“Would you believe it? They take their wives to war. And their concubines. And all their slaves, and their brats, too. And a whole squalling pack of eunuchs.” He glanced at Meriamon and started, and fell suddenly silent.
She almost laughed aloud. She had forgotten the coat and trousers under her mantle. Parsa makeshifts, despicably barbarian, but warm. Was that why no one had named her female and cast her out?
The poor man was blushing. So was the one she was tending, who had a sword-cut the length of his side, shallow but bloody. She bound off the bandage and patted his shoulder. “Go on,” she said, “and keep it clean. Come back here in a day or two. I’ll give you a salve to help it heal.”
He muttered what might have been thanks, and escaped into the night. All of them did who could; the ones who stayed were the helpless, the dying or the unconscious.
They were all being looked after. There was order in it, a rhythm born of long practice, a precision that should not have startled her: she had seen how this army fought. No magic here, no chanting of spells that had been old when the gods were young, but they did not do so ill without it, for barbarians.
She turned toward the door. She needed food and sleep; and Sekhmet was gone. Too much noise and stink here for a cat. Too much for a woman, too, worn as she was from the long road.
Something—maybe only the way the bodies lay, maybe the need to evade a knot of surgeons struggling with a writhing, screaming victim—sent her round the long way, back to where she had begun.
The giant was unconscious, but his breathing was steady and deep. The other was awake. Golden cat-eyes opened in the hollow of his side. Sekhmet yawned and sat up and began to wash her tail.
Somehow the Macedonian had got himself clean. From the tautness about his lips, it had cost him more than he expected.
After all the men she had tended, he did not look quite so huge. He was taller than some but lighter in the bone, lean and rangy rather than bull-solid. Like most of the young ones she had seen, he wore no beard; the stubble on his cheeks was the color of barley straw, a shade or two lighter than his hair. His eyes even in the dimness were light, a clear pale grey like the sky in earliest morning.
They shocked her a little. Light eyes—sky-eyes—were alien in Khemet.
He glowered at her. “I can’t get up,” he said, as if it was her fault that he had torn his arm to pieces.
“You won’t, either,” said Meriamon, “unless you want to set the bones awry.”
“But I have to get up,” he said with an air of sweetest reason. “I’m on guard duly.”
“Not from here, you aren’t.”
He sat up. His face went grey. Meriamon lowered him down again, gasping a little: he was heavy.
And furious. “I was just bringing Ajax to the surgeons, damn it. You can’t keep me here.”
“I’m not,” she said. “Your body is.”
His good hand seized her coat. Sweat beaded on his brow, but he kept his grip, twisting. “Let me out of here!”
“There now,” said a sharp voice behind Meriamon. “What’s this—Nikolaos, is it? Let the boy go.”
“Boy?” The soldier—Nikolaos—laughed, though he choked on it. “What do you mean, ‘boy’?”
Meriamon looked over her shoulder. She had seen the man here and there about the tent, commanding the others when they seemed to need it. He was not young, but neither was he old; his hair was grizzled, his beard cut short.
He wore a robe, much stained but respectably rich, and a mantle that had been crimson before it faded. He peered at Meriamon, frowning.
His frown deepened to a scowl. “Young woman, is this your idea of a prank?”
Meriamon drew herself up. Nikolaos’ hand dropped. She straightened her coat with a sharp gesture and lifted her chin. “I come from Egypt,” she said, “to serve your king. That service, now, seems best performed here.” She paused. “Have I failed to provide satisfaction?”
“Egypt, you say?” The physician seemed interested in spite of himself. “How did you get in? Who sent you here?”
“I walked,” she said. “These gentlemen brought me. They seemed to think I was a servant. That,” she said, “I am not.”
“So you say,” the physician said. He rubbed his jaw. “We can’t have you here.”
“Does this look like a place for a woman?”
She considered it. “It’s cleaner than a birthing, mostly. Quieter, too. Have you looked at the man with the broken thighbone yet? I set it, but I could have used another pair of hands, to make sure the bones are lined up properly.”
“You’re the one who did that?” The physician looked her up and down. “You’re no bigger than a kitten.”
She smiled thinly. “I’m stronger than I look.”
“Well,” the physician said, rubbing his jaw again. “Well. If the men can keep their hands off you. and if you know what you’re doing… with Andronikos down with the flux, and Thrasikles, the blasted fool, running off with that boy from Pergamum… Well. I won’t say we can’t use you. Egyptian, you say? Trained in a temple?”
“I was a singer in the temple of Amon in Thebes.”
He eyed her narrowly. She did not look particularly august or terrible, she knew that, but she did not look like a Hellene, either. “I didn’t think,” he said, “that there were healer-priestesses.”
“There aren’t,” said Meriamon. “I’m an oddity.”
“Very odd,” said the Greek. And yet he sounded comforted. A woman in his army—that was appalling. A woman who was a priestess, and probably a witch: that, it seemed, he could understand. It set her outside of normal reckoning, but it named her, too, and gave her a place in his world. Hellenes: they could endure anything, if only it submitted to their categories.
“So then,” he said. “You’ve earned a bed for the night at least, if you don’t mind a tentful of apprentices. Have you eaten?”
The thought made her head swim. She held herself erect by main force. “I… would be glad of a bite or two.”
“You look it,” he said. He raised his voice a fraction. “Kleomenes!”
A boy appeared at his elbow, owl-eyed but alert. Meriamon remembered him: he was the one who had brought her what she asked for, for Nikolaos. She admired his discipline. “Yes, sir?”
“Take this—boy”—the Greek hardly choked on it—”and see that he’s fed. Give him a mat in the ’prentices’ tent. If anybody lays a hand on him, give the fool a thrashing. I’ll see you both in the morning.”
That was a dismissal. Meriamon decided to accept it.
Nikolaos was asleep or feigning it. Sekhmet had vanished. The physician bent to examine the soldier. Satisfied, Meriamon followed her guide into the startling quiet of the night.
Somewhere in the hours of her field surgery, the camp had settled to sleep. There was a little drunken singing still, the odd wail that marked a mourner, a murmur of men coming back late from pursuit or from securing the enemy’s camp. The king was over there, they said, sleeping in the coward’s bed. They did not leer at that as the earlier man had. He was alone, they said. He was odd that way, the night after a battle.
Her guide did not take her far. He roused a sleepy cook in one of the mess-tents, got bread and cheese and a skin of wine, and settled cheerfully to eat most of it. The bread was barley bread, fresh from the baking; it was good. The cheese was rank. The wine, even watered, gagged her with its sweetness.
The boy chattered without regard for her silence; or maybe it was his version of tact. It freed her from the need to speak, let her slide, warm and sated, into a drowse. She started awake when the boy lifted her in his arms. “You Macedonians.” she said distinctly, “are all so big.”
“You Egyptians are tiny,” said Kleomenes. He grinned at her. They all had such splendid teeth. How did they do it? “Go to sleep, little Egyptian. I’ll look after you.”
She would not have trusted him. But her shadow was quiescent, and she so tired. She laid her head on his broad bony shoulder and sighed, and slid down into sleep.
by Judith Tarr
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-134-4