The white gaze of the moon, surrounded by innumerable stars, had replaced the sun in a blackened sky. Its light, faint as it was, guided me and Nebet through the maze of sycamore and palm trees. She tightened her grip on my breast with every bird squawk, monkey hoot, or coughing roar of the leopard. I myself felt cold serpents of fear slither up my spine despite the balmy humidity.
A twig cracked. Nebet yelped, and I spun around with hands clenched onto my spear. Across a nearby clearing bolted the shadow of a small antelope. Wait, once we had found what we were looking for, I might need that. With a singular throw, I managed to spear that duiker through the head.
“Is that for us?” Nebet asked.
“It’s for Sekhmet,” I said while hauling the carcass onto my shoulder. “Keeping hanging on there, little one. We’re almost there.”
From the corner of my eye I spied paw-prints bigger than most leopard tracks on the leaf-littered ground---tracks almost as big as a lion’s in fact. But lions were creatures of the open plain, not the forest, and Nebet had been scared enough times as it was.
We passed a vine-entangled falcon sculpture with a disc and a cobra mounted on its head. This was the likeness of Ra, the god of the sun which Akhenaten’s devil Aten tried to usurp along with all the other gods. Behind it a stout limestone obelisk towered up into the treetop canopy from a high slanted platform. Between them and the statue of Ra rose overgrown walls with a gatehouse bisecting them.
“This is a Temple of the Sun, like those built during the Fifth Dynasty,” I whispered to Nebet. “That would make it, what, over a thousand years old?”
“Whoah, that’s even older than Grandmother!” Nebet said. We chuckled together.
“It’s older than any of our grandparents, little baboon. Now these were built in honor of Ra, and was Sekhmet not born from Ra’s eye? We might speak to her through him!”
We pried open the temple entrance’s door and entered an open courtyard blanketed with undergrowth. The giant obelisk reared on its platform at the court’s opposite edge, with another likeness of Ra chiseled into its based. This time Ra was not all falcon but instead a man with a falcon mask who tread the python Apep underfoot. He did not watch his temple alone, but shared it with other animal-masked gods standing along the courtyard’s sides. I recognized Anpu the jackal, Sobek the crocodile, Hetheru the cow, Khnum the buffalo, Sutekh the aardvark, and Djehuti the ibis.
And then there was Sekhmet, she of the lion mask.
Her representation was over thrice the height of the one back in our hut. Not even centuries of erosion, or the creepers wrapped around her, could hide the glint of her ivory fangs or inlaid amber eyes. Under the moon, her glare blazed with more predatory brilliance than I had ever seen on her images.
“Look here!” Nebet had run over to a niche underneath the surrounding wall and was tapping on something wooden. “Drums!”
And she was right. Drums of all sizes had been cached in there, some as small as her own miniature one and others big enough for a grown woman like myself. My niece and I could drum together now!
I laid my duiker kill at Sekhmet’s feet and lit it with a makeshift torch. It blossomed into a huge ball of flame that made my previous offerings look miserly for the comparison. And with both Nebet and I holding drums between our legs, we recited our prayer with the full force of our voices.
All our ancestors must have been among the chorus that chanted with us, but the gods around us sang loudest of all. The beats came in many rhythms from both our drums, from my heartbeat, and from my memories. Entire armies thundered beside us, hooting and roaring, women shrieking and whooping like hyenas on the warpath. And as our larger offering crackled under the fire, so too did whole hordes of our enemies have their bones cracked and shields split asunder.
Again, it was building up from my lungs into my throat. I was ready to let it out like I never could at home.
What came was a roar. But not from myself, or Nebet. It wasn’t even Sekhmet’s roar, but that of a real, mortal feline.
There were three of them that had bounded into the temple’s courtyard. They were big and heavily built as lions, but had the hides of leopards, with two having spots and one a pure black coat. The larger of the spotted ones had a short mane like a young male lion’s. I had heard stories of rare crosses between lions and leopards, but had never seen one in all my hunts. Never mind a pride of three!
Blocking the way between Nebet and these half-bred cats, I jabbed my spear at them with a hiss and snarl. The male of the trio bared his fangs and answered with a deep, coughing roar that froze my flesh to the bone. At his sides his mates crouched, rolling their shoulders with glowing green leopards’ eyes on my niece.
We were outnumbered, but even I could not outrun half-lion, half-leopard felines in the woods at night. All I could do was teach them the fear of humanity. So I chose to charge them head-on.
The male cat met my challenge with the lightning quickness of his leopard parentage and the lion’s brute might. He had me pinned back-first under his paws, the weight of his muscles nearly crushing mine. He would have split my bones had I not gotten one stab of the spear into his flank. It did not fell him, but in his roar of pain he relaxed his pressure enough for me to roll free.
I jumped to make another thrust, aimed at his skull. Again his mixture of lion’s strength and leopard’s reflexes defeated my attack with a swat of his paw that took off the spear’s bronze head. The sudden force of his blow threw me off my footing into one of the statues’ bases.
Nebet’s scream of terror and pain pierced into my heart as well as my eardrums. The spotted female cat had already caught her by the skirt in her fangs! I threw my decapitated spear into the beast’s shoulder, saving my niece from the crunch of death, but the male of the pride had sprung for me. I darted out of his way, letting him collide with the statue behind me, and put Nebet onto my back. I beat away the spotted female half-breed’s next attack with the duiker’s charred corpse and hurried for the temple entrance.
From the head of another idol, the cat with the pure black coat shot down paw-first in my way and slashed its claws across my breast. I reeled back until all three of the pride were circling us like vultures over a kill. I had been a fool. There was no way to beat these cats in battle. The best we could do was break out of their trap and shut them in.
After one kick into the male half-breed’s face, I rushed past him through the entrance’s doorway. Together with Nebet, we slammed the old door closed. Though it throttled back and forth with the felines roaring behind it, the hard wood it had been hewn from withstood their attacks with resilience belying its antiquity.
I scooped my whimpering niece up and mumbled thankful prayers that the night’s violence had not inflicted fatal damage on her. “It’s all right, my sweetheart. We’re safe now.”
“Not any longer, O Takhaet!”
Ay and his squadron of soldiers had found us after all! Ringed by all their spears and axes, I had spent too much energy to defy them any longer.
“This time, I’ll make it simple. Surrender your dead faith or die!” Ay’s sneer had widened to an open grin of malevolent joy. “Choose rightly, and we’ll bring you home and act as if this never happened!”
It would have meant defeat for my cause, for the traditions I and all the people of Egypt had followed before Akhenaten’s ascent. But Sekhmet and her brethren had failed us twice. No, if those three half-lions were any sign, she must have turned on us, never mind all that we’d done for her. And as long as my niece’s life was no longer at stake, it no longer mattered whether we swore by Aten rather than the gods who had deserted us.
“How about this, old man?” It was Nebet who spoke. Not even the tears in her eyes could extinguish away the determination in them. “You tried to kill us, so why don’t we do the same to you?”
She tugged the handle on the door. I helped her, and we ran straight through the confused soldiers the moment it banged open again.
The clamor of feline roaring, splintering spears and shields, and the screams and death cries of men echoed between the trees. So did our laughter together.
“You are a clever little baboon, aren’t you? How’d you hatch that one so quick?”
“They came when we prayed to Sekhmet. She must’ve summoned them for something. And besides, you used wildebeest on those men earlier.” Nebet was beaming with the fierce pride of a triumphant warrior, a beam I had shown myself many times in my career. Like aunt, like niece.
“All right, you win!” A gagging Ay, with wig fallen off and a blood-sprayed leopard-skin mantle, had tripped off his cane behind us. “I’ll tell Pharaoh you surrendered, and have your whole village left alone. Truth be told, that bloated fool would rather laze around in his new ‘palace’ than run his kingdom as he should. Sole representative of Aten’s will, my smelly wrinkled ass!”
After helping him up, my niece and I nearly exploded from the hilarious irony of it all.