The times were troubled. For the past two years the god Hapi’s annual inundation of the Nile’s life-giving waters had been reduced to a trickle. Temple granaries long established for such an eventuality had been partially emptied during the first year. When the second year’s inundation again failed, the inhabitants of that riverine environment had to make a dire choice. Save their emergency reserves for the next season’s planting, or consume them.
* * *
The Guardian of Ma’at, a giant of a man called Intef, gazed upon the dried-up barley field that had been transformed into a blood-muddied carnal house of the maimed, dying, and dead. These wretches had drawn their bow strings, thrown their spears, and wielded war axes just to fill their empty bellies. Wicker and spotted ox-hide shields had clashed. With each arrow cast and blow delivered, famine-starved ribcages stretched with supreme exertion, fueled by desperation. Such was their plight following the failure of two consecutive inundations.
The fallen two hundred represented the total martial capacity of two villages. The conflict had begun over an invented slight, which was ignited by a cruel rumor spread by a devious shaman-priestess named Sekmetemhotep. To the victor was promised a lavish feast of roast antelope, duck, quail, and goose, paired with freshly baked breads, fruit, cheeses, and overflowing jugs of cool beer.
The confrontation had been brutally intense. Only a handful of the victorious, carrying ox-hide shields, staggered from the field. Their calculation had been a simple one—the fewer who survived, the more food and drink for them and their village. Hunger, mixed with greedy self-interest, had combined into an awful force. Afterwards, the shaman-priestess Sekmetemhotep was nowhere to be found. Her promised feast likewise. It had all been a horrible lie.
The gentle breeze that carried the battlefield’s sweet stench of death, of loosened bowels, watered the Guardian of Ma’at’s eyes. In the shimmering summer heat and swirling clouds of black flies, the fallen had to be dealt with swiftly. By well-established custom, the Guardian of Ma’at came to his decision by casting gaming sticks. In essence, allowing the gods to make their choice.
The families of the dead yearned to gather up their fallen kin for proper burial. These were harsh times of dire scarcity. Wakes of vultures carpeted the western dunes. Their lengthening shadows in the fading sun advanced across the barley field like a funerary shroud. The witches of the magician god Heka stood at the field’s margin—each with a light two-wheeled hand cart, anxiously awaiting the guardian’s determination.
The guardian threw the gaming sticks. On this dread day, the families of the fallen had lost, the vultures too—their patron goddess Nekhbet would surely not be pleased. Instead, the casting fell to Heka’s own witches. Behind them stood the gaunt and dejected remnant of the two villages, among them several physicians.
Greatly disappointed at the casting’s result, the Guardian of Ma’at now was tasked to keep order and to make sure that none made off with the living, which they were known to do. They prized such “meat,” as the “most choice.” Such scavenged “man-meat” they would prepare in large clay cooking pots. From this boon the witches would sell off a bowl, cup, or jar of this awful stew for a copper or golden ring. The astute would even accept a newborn or youngling in payment for filling an entire family’s belly.
The Guardian of Ma’at surveyed the barley field on a mount eighteen hands high, with a coat, mane, and tail the color of the blackest char. Set was immensely strong, spirited, and loyal to his rider. In these times, imported horses were nowhere to be found. This made the warhorse all the more imposing, not to mention the dull glint of its scaled bronze armor. Across the gelding’s face, a segmented plate protected its eyes, while a vicious spike made him look like a sinister unicorn. Set knew well how to use it.
Set’s master was clad in a similar scaled panoply, backed with leather, making it difficult to separate him from horse as he blended so well within the saddle’s tall racking. The rider’s helm too was fashioned of bronze, but without a spike. Its faceless smooth surface was broken only by a single eye slit. Its cheek wings fanned broadly forward to guard the throat. A battle-scarred bracing ran along the helm’s crest.
For arms, the Guardian of Ma’at wielded a bronze sword, its scabbard attached to the saddle’s wickerwork. From it also, along his mount’s right flank, a box quiver hung with a compound bow. The butt of a spear tipped with bronze rested in a convenient leather pocket. Horus, the man’s double layered ox-hide shield, leaned against his left shoulder. To say that the rider cut a formidable image would be a waste of breath.
All knew of the guardian’s many deeds, some inscrutable, but all reasonable and fair. All acknowledged his devotion to his patron goddess Ma’at—the universe’s sole source of justice, righteousness, stability, and balance against evil’s dark chaos. Therefore, to have the Guardian of Ma’at oversee the contest was a guarantee of its fair conduct, for no one dared to question him—even Heka’s witches.
Set’s head bobbed and snorted as the last life-giving rays of Re’s light settled upon the mountains of the western horizon. He pawed at the ground, lifted his tail, and noisily voided in anticipation of what was to come. His rider nervously gripped the reins. Heavy leather gloves noisily crinkled in his callused hands. Then, the Guardian of Ma’at tilted back his helm, raised a ram’s horn stained a ruddy red, and licked at his cracked lips. He paused as the last glimmer of Re faded. Sighing heavily, he then drew in a deep breath and blew a mighty blast that signaled the Death Knell.
Upon hearing that baneful bugle, forty-two witches, one from each of Heka’s temples, descended like locusts upon the barley field. They jostled their way this way and that to whatever they considered prime material. Almost immediately, the Guardian of Ma’at spied that one of their number had hastened from that awful field with a heavily ladened cart. He quickly rode up to block her progress. Poking the corpse in the ribs with his spear, he heard a sad whimper. The rider’s next thrust pierced the hag mortally through her chest, creating an air-sucking, gurgling sound.
“Physicians,” He bellowed to the nearby crowd. “You missed this one!” And out ran three men to the cart.
“Attend to him.” The Guardian ordered.
And the three wheeled off the moaning man, using the dying witch’s cart now as an ambulance of life, instead of a mobile butchering board.
The guardian continued his sullen patrol, ever circling about, testing each with his spear as they left the barley field. Any that remained after the first selection were gratefully claimed by their kin for burial. As for those that were selected, their kin wailed greatly with much lamentation.
Thereafter, several lowly wab-priests of the god Anubis—morticians all, gathered the unidentifiable remanent into a bone fire. The guardian had firmly demanded this—a hateful thing that went against all pious belief and practice. But in Intef’s mind starvation was a sufficient scourge. There was no reason to tempt plague as well.
* * *
The guardian’s route wound along a worn and treacherous path through the rugged mountains that fronted the Western Desert. His goal was nothing less than the lofty Pedestal Temple of the magician god Heka and his high priest.
The late summer’s heat dried sweat into white bands of salt on man and beast. While on the way, the desert threatened to blind with grit and stagger with gusts the horse and its rider from those heights. Even steady Set shuffled his hoofs along the uneven or altogether missing path, testing for purchase. In many places, the route precariously narrowed at treacherous ravines where the rock had cleaved away. The bleached bones of many unfortunates littered their bottoms.
Since both steed and rider had been so mindful of the uneven way, they initially missed the towering eminence of the high priest’s Pedestal after rounding the final bend. Only at hearing the piercing screech of a soaring hawk, did Intef finally raise his fixed gaze. Like a herald, the raptor had announced their approach to that solitary outcrop. Eons ago it had split away from the main limestone massive. There, atop this stony finger stood, somehow, a bastion made of finely cut stone. Only narrow slits broke its otherwise smooth and inwardly sloped façade. A long and narrow wooden bridge provided access from the path for only one. From his vantage, Intef saw the heavy ropes that had lowered the foot bridge onto its socketed stone pier opposite. Grunting to himself, the Guardian of Ma’at took that as a good omen.
The quarrel, and hence the reason for Intef’s hazardous journey, was not with the god Heka, or its high priest in residence, but rather with his former pupil. She was the one who had caused such great anguish among the valley’s inhabitants. She had been the selfish one, who had defied the Nile god Hapi, and stolen the life-giving waters from the last two inundations. So, the guardian journeyed in peace to this lofty and sacred aerie in search of a solution.
“So, Intef, I see that you are well,” Greeted the figure wrapped in white linen from the center of his drawbridge. His heavy eye paint made his eyes appear like dark caverns. His shaved head shined in the brilliantly in the sun light and for good reason—it had been recently waxed.
“I have been better, oh Great One,” Intef bantered as he dismounted with a grunt. His saddle frame’s leather bindings creaked in near unison. From the footbridge’s far threshold, the guardian dared not tread upon it until invited. “Great One, I am here to discuss Sekmetemhotep and her latest mischief.”
“I suspected as much,” the high priest drily replied. “Secure your mount to the post ring next to you. I will have my wab-priest fetch Set and give him water and grain. As for you, noble Guardian of Ma’at, you may pass into my hospitality.” And with that the high priest turned and swiftly disappeared through a craftily hidden sally port in a shaded recess of the temple.
The act of crossing that tight span caused its rope bound beams to strain under the guardian’s weight. Pausing briefly in midcourse, he dared not peer over its rail, and so continued on briskly to the far threshold. Glad to be once again on solid ground, precarious as it was, Intef, using the same shaded entrance, passed into the high priest’s abode. Out of the wind and bright sunlight, Intef removed his helm and deeply sighed as the skin of his face rapidly cooled within the shadows of the Heka Temple. He found himself in the long and narrow audience hall with a gabled ceiling twice his own height.
“Intef, sit, and be at ease.” The high priest said from the opposite side of a long groaning board. Upon it waited two rough ceramic cups, a pyramid-shaped loaf of oven-fresh bread, a low dipping bowl of spiced sesame oil, and a roasted dove. “Eat and fresh yourself.” He commanded.
Again grunting, but this time as he gingerly sat down opposite his host upon a collapsible camp chair and duck-down pillow, its wood squeaked.
“Your hospitality, Great One, overwhelms this weary traveler. I raise my cup to your patron Heka in heartfelt benediction.”
With both cups raised and eyes locked, the pair drank deeply. Intef’s dust-coated throat was cleansed by the cool water that tartly smacked of limestone. The hungry guardian then reached over, tore off a leg from the dove, and bit off a piece. With the loaf, he did the same, first dipping the fragment in the oil and then smearing on it the juicy fat from his fingers. Nothing was to be wasted. Silent moments passed while the rider attacked his meal.
Then, at an appropriate moment, the high priest queried. “What do you want to know about my former pupil?”
Between chews, Intef bluntly said. “Can she be killed?”
“Ah, direct as always.” The high priest wryly smiled, but then his longish countenance took on a flat, serious look. “Intef, be mindful if she stands before you barefoot.” The high priest said while absently stroking his shaved head in a thoughtful manner.
“Barefoot? Can she commune with the powerful forces of the earth god Geb?”
“She can, and even through woven sandals, but far more directly if barefoot. As for killing her, she is like any other woman, I suppose.” The high priest stated with open hands spread wide before him. “She bleeds.”
“Is there anything else that you can offer, Great One?”
“Intef, when my pupil left me, she stood barely to my shoulder. Yet, I have been told she now possesses great strength and is as swift and powerful as a lioness. These things I believe she garnered from Geb. Against all of my teachings, she made a pact with that primal god.”
The high priest then added with sadness and a clear warning, “She has always been quite willful.”
“But why has she done this terrible deed, to steal two years of inundation?” The rider asked.
It was now the high priest’s turn to grunt. “Even the gods have limits to their patience with us mortals. I suspect her present actions portend a falling out with Geb’s limitless power. To challenge the natural way of things, and in such a manner, goes against everything that I tried to teach her.” A shrug, “Or, perhaps, that god’s power has clouded her thoughts. I am told such things have happened in the past. But the illicit acquisition of the god Hapi’s own waters, she probably needed them in order to feed her unnatural hungers. So, she selfishly took the waters for her own dark purposes.”
“Remarkable…But can one so powerful be killed?”
“Severe her head and crush it as if a ripe date. That would be my advice.”
Intef stopped eating. “Crush her head? The act of removing it would not be sufficient?”
“You must prevent her final breath from casting a death spell upon you.”
“Ah, fair point, Great One.” Said with a cock of the head and a raised eyebrow of amusement. “Can’t have that.”
“No, Intef, you should not,” the high priest said sternly and with hardened eyes. “All the more so, as you are the mortal carrier of the First Soul of Creation.”
The rider’s eyes glanced quickly to the high priest. “You know of this?”
“Most certainly, your golden aura makes it obvious, at least to anyone who can see it. Its radiance is truly magnificent. Dare I say, it is as glorious as Re’s first rays.”
Intef looked down into his cup wishing that it were a heady wine or better—beer. The weight of carrying that long-lived primordial soul tasked him. Intef imagined it as—her in his estimation, a firm wise one who protected him from the demons of the Underworld, demon-kind generally, and sometimes even from himself.
Reading the brooding mood of his guest, “Do you tire of your responsibilities, noble Guardian of Ma’at?”
“No, Great One, I do not. But in times such as these, with so much evil abroad, I feel as if I am constantly slaying it. And there seems no end to its slaughter.”
“Guardian of Ma’at!” The high priest said as a loud slap of his open hand struck the table. “Imagine a world without you! With evil everywhere rampant! Without any check upon it? Where would we be then? Without justice? Without righteousness? Without balance?”
Intef replied. “Standing defenseless before the snake-fanged and fire-spitting demon, Apophis.”
“But remember, Great One, I did not want this burden! The First Soul chose me!”
Ashamed at his expression of doubt and weakness, Intef waved his hand dismissively. “Great One, you should accompany me for just one day.”
The high priest stared back in shocked disappointment.
Then, holding that stare, he said, “As for Sekmetemhotep, she is still mortal, but is becoming immensely strong with each passing day and with many enchantments ready at her lips. Now Intef, venture out, remove her pretty head, and don’t forget to crush out its life with your heavy heel. Even better, have Set’s hooves perform the deed.”
And then the high priest offered the guardian a stratagem.
* * *
For the descent from Heka’s Pinnacle temple, Intef chose to go on foot and lead Set by his bridle. While slow, the pair made their way down from the windy heights and safely avoided its countless pitfalls. En route, the warrior had much to think about, not to mention the high priest’s parting thoughts. He devised a plan and shared it with Set, who bobbed his massive head as if in approval. They would be patient and dispatch their quarry in a moment of distraction. On this plan, the First Soul silently nodded her approval. This warmed the guardian’s heart.
* * *
Sekmetemhotep was a woman in her prime. Young, strong, and full in her powers. The dark priestess wore her hair in long dark tresses, instead of shaving her head and donning a common wig. To further set herself apart, she theatrically daubed her eye sockets with dark ochre that made her gray-eyed glance all the more startling. The look emphasized her long, straight, and bird-like nose. The whole oddly distracted from her striking natural beauty. Even her chosen name, “Sekmet is contented,” struck fear in all who heard it, for it referred to that bloody lion goddess, who almost destroyed mankind, before Re besotted her with beer colored like blood.
“Indeed, I am beautiful of face and form. These qualities, however, cannot command fear and respect. Only deeds horrible and shocking can. So, I mock the gods, or better, skillfully use them to my advantage.”
Dressed in ordinary linen, the young priestess walked as the common folk did—barefoot. When hooded, her striking visage remained hidden. When not, her vain, glistening locks announced her presence for all to see. These she fastidiously oiled following her daily ablutions in the Nile.
Sekmetemhotep shunned weaponry made of metal and relied upon her prideful mastery of heka, “magic,” for her wellbeing. For her, a spoken phrase, executed with a casual gesture, was all that was needed. Such subtle things, so easily missed by the ignorant, became all the more fiercely devastating in their sudden effect.
She did carry one favorite: a long, black obsidian knife hilted with ivory. It hung around her neck in a leather sheath by a simple thong. Its volcanic glass blade was hideously sharp; into its curved ivory handle was carved magical spells that prevented its shattering. Frequent blood-lettings lubricated its edge and strengthened its temper. But there was another dark spell as well.
Once the pupil of the high priest of Heka, Sekmetemhotep had first questioned, then spurned her mentor’s teachings. She did not share his view of Heka’s role as the sole source of magical empowerment and the creative force behind the gods. After her brief association with the earth god Geb, she came to understand the truth. She was destined to become a goddess herself.
* * *
Intef was careful to track Sekmetemhotep from afar as the priestess-witch made her slow progress through the valley. The guardian likened it to the insidious advance of a crocodile in a lotus pool, its presence betrayed by a subtle ripple. In a depressing village of exceptional squalor, most of its inhabitants moved about like living skeletons. They stubbornly struggled to carry on a normal existence, while trapped in abject privation. Many sat, listless and unmoving, stared vacantly, and waited for their deliverance or death, come what may. As the smugly smiling priestess passed among them, she liberally fed her obsidian blade using long and languid strokes, then gorged upon the dissipating life-force of those wretched unfortunates. At her passing, they silently toppled over as if wheat stalks falling before a farmer’s scythe.
When the Guardian of Ma’at witnessed this atrocity, his stomach’s bile revolted. He savagely gripped the hilt of his bronze battle sword, wanting there and then to end the casual slaughter of so many innocents.
But the words of the high priest slowed him, halted his natural impulse. “Noble Intef, I counsel patience. This hunt, for that is just what it is, will require great restraint. Your eyes will see dark deeds committed and monstrous things done. You can only act when the time is ripe.”
Sekmetemhotep exited the tiny village with an energetic stride, having absorbed at her passing much of its population’s life energies. Sated, she set out in search of the next collection of hovels along the river bank. Meanwhile, Intef and Set stalked her along a narrow reed-lined robber’s path that mirrored the river bank.
After passing a ruined and stubby wheat field, the young priestess-witch felt the need to relieve herself, having been so well fed. Gathering her linens high, she squatted down among the river bank’s reeds, entangling herself in its folds. Intef, mounted high on Set, saw this, grimly smiled, and quietly moved to an opening amid several near dead date palms.
Now, my Intef, the First Soul whispered into his mind. Aim well and fulfill your desire for justice.
Without another thought, Intef took up his compound bow, kissed an arrow with a silent prayer, nocked it, drew, and loosed it with a singing sound. The missile’s passage was swift. Its razor-sharp obsidian tip glinted in the sunshine. The arrow found its mark and lodged squarely in the throat of the renegade priestess up to its feathers. Gagging on the blood gushing from her throat and struggling to breathe, Intef seized the moment and galloped forth from the palms.
With a loud shout, Intef called out, “Sekmetemhotep!”
Reflexively raising her head at the brazen call of her name and exposing her mortally wounded neck, with one blow the Guardian of Ma’at decapitated the priestess with his bronze sword. With the young priestess’ head rolling freely upon the earth, Set charged forth and crushed it utterly beneath his hooves, leaving behind a great splatter of shattered bone and bloody gore.
When Sekmetemhotep passed, a great brightness shown forth from the stump of her neck. Its radiance dizzied Intef and blinded Set, who shied and reared wildly.
As the guardian and mount turned away from the glare, the river god Hapi’s own pent-up power was released back into the valley so cruelly denied of its life-giving waters. Far to the south an unseasonal thunder storm suddenly broke in the Ethiopian highlands. For the next week and a half, rain steadily fell upon those eroded hills. Water cascaded into dried and cracked streambeds. In two weeks’ time, the Nileometer at the river’s Second Cataract recorded the arrival of rare mid-season inundation. The sluggish low Nile slowly swelled. With its coming, a greening of the valley spread out like the spring flooding of a parched brook.
As for the remains of the once young priestess, only a white ash filled her tangled raiment, which now lay in her own excrement. But hidden within lay a long leather sheath. This Intef saw. He dismounted and reached out to take it, but the First Soul stopped him.
Soul Carrier! Do not directly touch that accursed object! First use a torn remnant of her cloak to protect the skin of your hand before grasping it.
“Why?” Intef blurted out without thinking.
Because, you thick-headed ox, that dark object, so full of dread and hate, will destroy your soul, and that means me!
Carefully following the First Soul’s directions, Intef placed the heavily swaddled object into a leather carrying pouch that hung from his horse’s side.
“Now, what should I do with such a dangerous thing?”
We must return to the Temple of Heka and give it to its high priest for safekeeping. While I know that the path is long and arduous, this is what we must do.
* * *
Intef did indeed return to the Temple of Heka to deposit the dreaded dark blade, but the course of time was not kind to that holy place and its priesthood as they went through many misfortunes. Eventually, their isolated finger of rock cleaved from the mountain during a great shaking of the earth by the god Geb. All died in that cataclysm, but the dark blade survived. Eventually, it was found within the fallen temple’s rubble by a priest of another god who knew what it was, and what it needed.
Sixteen lifetimes’ later, a high priest of Set displayed high above his head the same cruel instrument in his left hand. A sacrificial instrument of death, its handgrip’s inscribed glyphs damned the ka or soul of the blade’s victim to an everlasting perdition far beyond any hope of redemption. Now the sixteenth chief priest of that dark godhead, he prepared himself for the coming sacrifice.
With his right, the high priest steadied the squirming sacrifice and with one practiced motion slit the prisoner’s throat from ear-to-ear. Now struggling mightily but with no chance for escape, the first oracle of the god Set deftly shifted the implement in his left hand and buried its blade deep into the heaving chest. The strike had been sure. Moments later the victim lay still across the stone offering table. His blood captured in its many grooves, flowed into a black granite bowl carved for the purpose.
As for the engraved obsidian blade, the priest had left it within the victim’s chest so that it could drink deeply.