Egypt, 1350 BC
I entered the sanctuary area at the back of our hut with a bowl of gazelle meat. Beside me my niece, little Nebet, hugged her miniature drum as if it were a doll. The likenesses of our forefathers and mothers watched our passage with painted eyes, their altars adorned with weapons and the gold flies their valor had earned them in life. But it was the gilded likeness of Sekhmet, she of the lion mask and blood-dyed gown, who awaited our arrival against the wall. Despite the dimming of the sunlight through our hut's narrow windows, Sekhmet's amber eyes blazed with the same fire that had emboldened generations of our ancestors.
Many times I had knelt before her as I did now, lighting the meat I laid at her feet. The scent of its burning recalled battle after battle of blazing tents and enemies being speared, shot, or cleaved into pieces. The warmth channeled the sun’s blazing heat, which glossed my dark brown skin with perspiration. Even the crackling of flesh breaking down into ash became the cracking of bones and shields as I yelled the battle roar of Sekhmet in my memories.
This evening I would consult our matron for a different battle. This time, our enemies were not Kushites with ochre-reddened hair and leopard-belted kilts. Nor were they easterners like the Hittites or Babylonians, with light-skinned faces and loosely curled beards. No, they were Egyptians like ourselves, fellow children of the Black Land who had fallen under the influence of the false Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Already they had dragged little Nebet’s father away to slave away in the lair that tyrant had built for himself and his cult of lies. I did not even want to guess what his minions had done to her mother. Only I remained to protect and teach the girl over the past year, and never would I let her suffer the same fate as her parents.
I gave her a nod and she pounded her drum with more unbridled passion of a temple ensemble. Together we sang our prayer for Sekhmet’s vigilance, for her guidance, for the courage with which she would imbue us in the face of war and persecution. The fire on my offering continued to flicker on our ancestors’ faces as their spirits’ voices joined ours in a greater chorus. The thumping of my heart became a rhythm complementing Nebet’s drum, as did the war drums that had thundered before all my past battles. Alongside the music’s growing fury there rose an energy within me that flamed as hot as Sekhmet’s gaze. As she opened her jaws to bare her fangs in my vision, so did I.
It built up from my breast to my throat, ready to be released over a climax of cracking drums and shrieking cries.
Instead came the hoarse bray of a royal trumpet. Then followed silence, and finally the rapping of a bony knuckle on our door.
Nebet embraced the drum with shivering arms. I murmured to her that it would turn out all right, for you could never tell a frightened child anything else. Even I didn’t want to believe otherwise.
Outside the door, as expected, awaited Vizier Ay with his leopard-skin mantle, accompanied by royal guards with spears and cow-hide shields. He greeted me with the usual sneer on his dark, wrinkled date of a face, and the night-black dreadlocks of his wig clashed with the scruffy white stubble around his mouth. But judging from the way his eyes ran up and down my figure, he had more than uppity pride spreading that filthy smile of his.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Egypt’s distinguished champion, Takhaet,” Ay croaked. “I understand you’ve earned yourself a whole swarm of flies, yet your beauty remains unworn after so much combat.”
I scoffed. “Most men say my beauty is enhanced by that. But maybe strong women are too much for you to handle, old Vizier.”
“Don’t you dare disrespect a servant of Pharaoh, young lady!” The Vizier spat into my face and banged his staff against the dirt road. “This business is so important, may I inform you, that defiance could cost you your very life---or your adorable little niece’s. Tell me, O Takhaet, was it to our Aten that you were praying to?”
If I were to lie, I could spare myself and Nebet whatever this ancient monster and his master had planned for us. But I could not deny our lyrics had named Sekhmet rather than Akhenaten’s pet demon. Nor could I deny that our drumming had spoken in her favorite rhythms rather than any other god’s. And even if it would save my family, I could never betray the men and women of my village by pointing to them. A painful truth was better than a lie that hurt others.
“No, but it’s neither your business nor Akhenaten’s! You can prostrate before that devil you call Aten all you want, but you can never claw out your subjects’ deepest beliefs, no matter how you try!”
The sneer returned to Ay’s face. “But I can silence them. And I have, many, many times. Why, I must’ve…disciplined more commoners like you than all the barbarians you’ve ever slain, Takhaet. But, this time I’ll be diplomatic.”
I was not surprised when I saw one shriveled hand of his glide back and forth over his crotch. That gesture wrung my stomach like a wet rag inside.
“I know what you’re thinking, withered son of a jackal’s bastard. And I could rip out what remains of your manhood with my bare fist!”
The Vizier stepped back, cackling like a sickly hyena. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean that kind of deal. I meant something that would strike closer to your heart. Get the child!”
One of his soldiers shoved me aside, by happenstance touching the back of my hip, and marched into our hut. Nebet screamed and flailed her arms when he yanked her up between his arms.
“Isn’t this a sweet, plump young piece of crocodile bait!” he said. “Hopefully they’ll leave one piece for my supper!”
“You savage!” I lunged after him, but one of his comrades wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me away.
“So what shall it be, O Takhaet? Your little Nebet or your loyalty to dead gods?”
I could not allow my niece, all that remained of my blood-kin, to fall into the clutches of men viler and more wretched than any Babylonian or Kushite I ever slew. Too many children, probably thousands, must have already been tossed to the crocodiles at Akhenaten’s behest. If either her father or mother still lived, only knowledge of their child’s survival could keep them going. Caving into Ay’s demands would keep her alive. It would also further fuel his swollen Vizier’s pride and embolden him to seek out more victims, more children to threaten and kill. Sekhmet could never die, but both Nebet and all the other children of Egypt could.
I answered his dilemma with a kick of my heel into my arrester’s shin.
Breaking myself free of his chokehold, I tore the knife out from under his belt and chucked it into the brow of Nebet’s captor. My niece hopped and clung onto my back even as I caught the soldier’s fallen spear and used it to pole-vault over the rest. On the other side waited Ay’s personal chariot. After knocking the driver out with the spear’s butt, I grabbed the reins and whipped the horses into a neighing gallop.
Driving the chariots was always my favorite part of battle.
Huts, villagers, and trees blurred past me. The wind blew in a cool gale against my face. I couldn’t help but yell with girlish glee as I relived the thrill of a chariot chase, even with all its bouncing jolts and veers.
Nebet, much to my joyful surprise, squealed and laughed with me. “Can we do this again sometime, Aunt Takhi?”
“Next time he comes, I promise!” I said.
Our fun ended with the bang of a thrown spear against the chariot’s wheel. It threw us into the sky over the skidding horses until we crashed onto a hut’s thatched roof. Only by the mercy of the old gods did I catch Nebet before she hit something harder.
Ay’s thugs encircled the hut and hurled more spears at us. As I dodged their throws with Nebet on my back, I observed we had reached the village’s edge. Beyond the outer palisade sprawled a grassy field with scattered acacias, which in turn gave way to forest on the horizon’s edge. The shelter under those trees would be our only hope.
I picked up another spear and vaulted from the roof, over the palisade, and into grass that stretched higher than my knees. I sprinted as if I were racing a cheetah, but Ay’s cursing guards were closing behind me. My calves and thighs flared like a bush fire under my skin. A slung stone grazed my hip, but it made me stumble a couple of steps.
Ahead grazed a herd of wildebeest. I ran straight through them, and they scattered in all directions. I hoped their stampede would run over my pursuers, or at least that they would lose us among the panicking animals. I did not hear any men scream death cries, but neither did I see them behind me anymore. It was better than nothing.
I had burned away so much of my energy that evening that I slowed into a panting stagger upon entering the forest. I put Nebet down and collapsed into the low crotch of a sycamore fig tree, letting out a relieved exhale. The darkness under the treetops would be our sanctuary this night, because I had worn myself out for the day.
“Cower all you want in those woods, traitor!” Ay’s croaky voice, muffled as it was by the foliage, was unmistakable. “The leopards shall do our work instead!”
Nebet buried her head in my bosom like a baby nursing her own mother’s milk. Her teary eyes and cheeks reflected even the little waning sunlight that shafted through the canopy. “We’re never going back, are we, Aunt Takhi?”
I stroked her disheveled puffs of hair and gave her my most motherly smile, because I could not give her anything else. Not even a lie. “Only the gods know what lies ahead, my sweetheart.”
“But they failed us. Sekhmet failed us, they all failed us! That old guy was right, they are dead!”
“But his never existed. Why else would we be able to get away from him? We even killed at least one of his minions!” I wrapped my arms around my niece. “Besides, our prayer got interrupted. What if we were to finish it? This time, we’ll pray on behalf of all Egypt against Akhenaten’s oppression!”
“But we don’t have my drum. Or her idol!”
She was right, we could not go home to our hut’s sanctuary. And Akhenaten had robbed all the temples in Egypt of the gods’ likenesses in favor of that Aten monstrosity. Or rather, all the temples still in use. Egypt’s history, with all its chieftains and kings with their various works, ran many centuries further in the past than those. Many of those past works lay buried under wilderness like the forest around us.
“We may not need them,” I said. “I can think of something even better. And it shouldn’t be far from here at all.”