From the diary of Ellen Lambert:
Egypt - Life & Death
Unrest rumpled beneath the fine veneer of the palace.
Queen Kiya, a jealous and conniving woman, had always wanted her son to rise to the throne as Pharaoh Nepherites II, even though Anoka’s son Maimon would be the natural successor. It had been rumored that Queen Kiya had ties to the netherworld and practiced the forbidden arts of black magic. Of course, no one in the house of Queen Anoka had ever witnessed Kiya’s sorcery, but many speculated that she was a disciple of Nor-Sekhmet, the goddess of dark forces and magic. Although there were no stone images of the goddess, it was said she took the form of a black demoness, with a snake’s head and a scorpion’s body.
Somehow Queen Kiya found out about my assignations with Darshak and used this knowledge to force me to align myself with her house. I had no choice. Should my indiscretions become public knowledge I would not only be ostracized but subject to strict punishment, even death. The queen took advantage of my tenuous situation by offering me a reward if I aided her in her plan to assassinate Pharaoh’s first born, Maimon, therefore making her son Nepherites the next heir apparent.
Queen Kiya planned a swift and forceful coup. She would blame the murder and the ensuing consequences on outside forces, the Persians who threatened to invade and conquer Egypt for the second time. They wanted our country’s wealth and power; but instead of assassinating Pharaoh, they planned to hurt him to the quick by taking the life of his favorite son and heir.
I was to serve as the bait, bidding Maimon to follow me on some urgent matter into a secluded part of the palace where Queen Kiya’s guards awaited. Once the guards murdered Maimon, I was to sound the alarm and wait for Pharaoh’s guards to arrive. When they did, I had to misdirect them to the outside parameters of the palace where the assassins had fled, probably into the city proper. But one assassin would remain, hidden in the shadows, to wait until I was alone. Then he would kill me as well so I could never reveal Queen Kiya’s murderous deception.
Fortunately, I would not remain dead for long, for the queen had promised me resurrection. She alone held the secret of life imparted to her by the Goddess Nor-Sekhmet and she would deign to make me immortal. But in return I had to leave the palace and even my country, leave behind the only world I knew. Yet I had no choice. If I gave the queen the slightest hesitation, or if I gave her any reason to distrust me, she would have me killed, and I would be dead for all eternity.
I would have died for nothing.
And yet, I had little to live for. As soon as the queen proposed her scheme, the scribes who had been preparing Darshak for his avocation quickly whisked him away, forbidding him any contact with me, or any woman for that matter. Tomorrow Darshak would enter a private enclave to take his vows and would have no communication with the outside world for a month. My heart sank in despair. I could not even try to see him on the sly. Our love had not endured the obstacles ahead; and in all consciousness, I could not hold him honor-bound to marry me after our intimacy. Even if I made our love public knowledge it would do no good. The scribes would make Darshak deny it all. Thus I had to accept the inevitable: I had lost my lover, my love, my mate, forever.
I was alone now, alone and afraid...deathly afraid. My charge, Princess Tadu, had gone to Mendes with her sisters to oversee the building of a new temple dedicated to the princesses so I had no pressing duties at the moment.
Queen Kiya assured me that I would have a guardian to watch over me during the two days I would rest, in death, in the preparatory room the funerary chamber. I would remain there in total oblivion, hopefully resurrected before the preparers cleansed my body, anointed it with musk and myrrh, and then embalmed and wrapped me in clean linen for my eternal rest in my family tomb. The person who would guard me against these last few steps of the death ritual happened to be the nurse, Nyree, the old woman I suspected all along of spying on me when I met with Darshak. She had to be the one who revealed my indiscretion to the queen. Now the old witch held my life—and my death—in her hands.
The day of the assassination I felt a strange calmness, my anxiety and fear no longer pressing down on me like a heavy stone weight. That day I made sure to see my parents one last time. I found my father, Abiasaph, in his surgery near the front of the palace, preparing for the day’s patients. My father was a quiet, gentle man, his face long and lean, his gaze and expression always thoughtful as he practiced his profession. Although he catered to those who could afford to pay for a physician’s skill, he used his own time to help those who could not pay in coin but would offer whatever they had in return. My father accepted no recompense for his service to these people who had so very little, the beggars in the street, the sick and infirm peasants of the city and countryside, and even the lepers.
I talked at length with my father, of simple topics such as the weather and what we could expect in the coming year with the blessings of Hapi, our river god, and Geb, god of the earth. When we exhausted our conversation, I kissed my father on the cheek, my mood light as I left him with a smile on my face.
Next I found my mother, Obiama, in the chambers of Princess Merytaten where she had been helping the bride-to-be choose the gowns and accessories she would take to her new home when she married Ranofer. Again, I spoke to my parent at length, our conversation pleasant, the topics we preferred to discuss centered on everyday events and feminine matters, clothing, jewelry, hair styles, who would be married next, who would likely become pregnant. Again, as I had done with my father, I kissed my mother after our talk and bade her good bye. As before, I felt at peace.
Early in the afternoon, I went in search of Prince Maimon and found him in his private chamber, peering over a scroll of some academic text. The prince took great pleasure in learning all he could and so employed several tutors, each an expert on a certain subject, be it art, music, drama, politics, or economy. At sixteen, Maimon possessed the maturity and physical attributes of a man with his tall, lean body and attractive features. Indeed he was a man, groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom. But that would all end in an instant.
Thankfully, I found the prince alone. He acknowledged me with a slight nod and bade me to say what I had come to say. I told him that he was wanted in the nether chambers of Queen Kiya where an important message awaited him. Without hesitation, the prince stood and walked with me to the passageway that led to Queen Kiya’s harem quarters. If he thought the arrangement odd that he should receive a message in his father’s second wife’s domain, Maimon said nothing, nor did he appear concerned or anxious.
When I showed him into the small antechamber where he was to wait for the bearer of the message, I bowed to the prince and then left the room. I waited in the corridor as the siege began, my mind blank, my body amazingly calm and steady. I heard the sound of swords coming out of their sheaths. Four guards would surround the prince but only one would slay him. It took very little time before three guards rushed out of the chamber and past me. One would stay behind, waiting for me when the time came.
As I played my part, I looked into the chamber and spied the dead Prince Maimon lying on the hard stone floor, prone on his stomach. I couldn’t see his face, whether he looked surprised or dumbfounded when he spied the guards with their swords unsheathed and raised against him. I saw only a small trickle of blood seep from beneath him, scarlet red against the pristine white linen of his kalasiris. The one chosen to slay him had been precise, striking at the prince’s heart. Next, I hurried to the large public hall in front of Pharaoh’s private reception chamber and cried out the news that infamy had taken place: Prince Maimon had been slain. The priests and scribes who occupied the area jumped up and quickly began to chatter in high-pitched voices, their shock echoing throughout the hall.
From then on time moved at a slow, heavy pace. I sat quietly in Pharaoh’s reception chamber while two of his senior guards questioned me. Did I see the assassins? Could I describe them? Which way did they come into the palace? Which way did they leave? I told the guards that as far as I knew the trio of murderers had escaped via a back passageway and then left by one of the anterior gates not guarded. I didn’t have to tell them that once the assassins left the palace they would travel the public throughway and then, no doubt, disappear into the city proper.
Finally one of the guards allowed me to leave. I had expected Pharaoh himself to question me, but I figured that he would be in deep mourning now and would dispense with the formalities. The guards would report to him later and relate my story. By then I would, no doubt, be dead as well.
As I returned to Queen Kiya’s chambers, I tried not to think about what awaited me. I would not know when the sword would strike, where or when. I was to go about my business as if just another day in the life of the palace. One of the queen’s maids bade me to take a small fold of linens to the bed chambers of the upper corridor reserved for the more important household servants. To do so, I had to cross a dark hallway and then walk up a narrow staircase to the servants’ wing.
As I walked along, I spied the dark figure of a man lurking in the shadows. I froze and dropped the linens. The form quickly approached and confronted me with is sword raised. Despite the deepening shadows of the hall, the blade still glinted in the muted light of the chamber behind me. I tried to back away but I had been cornered with expert maneuvering into a small niche of the corridor with walls on either side. My assassin wore a black mask, his face, head and neck covered except for a slash between his brows and the bridge of his nose to allow for sight, his eyes now dark and gleaming with the lust to kill. For a moment I met his hard, steely gaze with determination in my eyes, daring him to do the deed. He instantly complied, shoving the blade of his sword into my chest cavity and then just as quickly pulling it out. At first I felt nothing, and I laughed a little because it seemed so ironic. Wasn’t violent death supposed to hurt?
My murderer narrowed his eyes to quizzical slits, as if to say: why are you laughing at me? I have mortally wounded you, and soon you will die. That is nothing to laugh about. Scream! Cry! Howl in pain! When I made no sound or moved, he turned swiftly and ran down the dark hallway with his sword still in hand.
I felt the pain then, a sharp searing stab through my insides. I slid down to the floor, but before I passed out in preparation to die, I felt a hand at my back. I forced open my eyes and looked into the withered round face of Nyree, the old nurse. She knelt beside me and lifted me up a little with a surprising strong arm along the back of my neck. Now she placed the rim of a vial to my lips. The foul smell of its contents made me wince.
“Drink this, Ayelet! You must drink this before you expire or the spell will not work. Drink the nectar of the immortal ones, given to you by the goddess herself.”
She forced the liquid between my lips, the taste just as vile as the smell, although the color of the elixir itself was a pretty green. In my mind’s eye, the liquid shimmered like an emerald glass river, although my gaze grew weaker with each passing moment.
“Drink!” the old lady commanded again. “Drink to live forever!”
As I drank, I felt the warm vile liquid go down my gullet while my blood—hot and heavy—seeped from the gash near my heart. After I finished, Nyree staunched my wound with a linen wrapping and then gently laid me down along the floor. “Now you sleep, my dear. Sleep well and sleep heavy with no dreams to harm ye. I will wake you in two nights hence and you will be reborn.”
Would I sleep here, or would I be taken somewhere else? I wanted to ask the old lady but no words left my lips. I felt sluggish and disoriented as the elixir took effect. I felt like one of the mummies, of someone wrapped up still alive, a rare practice but still done to those who violated the sacred rituals and sinned against the gods. I was able to see and hear but could not respond with words or even touch. In fact, I could no longer feel my limbs.
“Sleep, my child, sleep.” Nyree tenderly stroked my fevered brow as her words soothed and comforted me like the sweet refrain of a mother calming her little girl. Inwardly I smiled fondly as I began to slip into the dark netherworld of nothingness, no life or death, just sleep...endless sleep.
When I awoke, I found myself lying along a stone slab in the first chamber of the preparation vault. I felt a bone-numbing chill, my only garb a thin linen shroud around my pale, lifeless body. Yes, lifeless. I was laid out in the death house, awaiting my anointing and embalming. Then I remembered how I had come to be here. To my family and all the other members of the palace, servants and royals alike, I had been murdered...dead.
Forcing myself to sit up, I lifted the hem of my shroud and examined my mid-section, the flesh white and thin as papyrus. Only a small scar remained where the sword had pierced through the skin and entered just below my heart, a hair’s breadth beneath my pale left breast. I wondered why the marksman hadn’t aimed directly at my heart. Had it to do with my rebirth? Did I need a whole, untouched heart to live again? A torch on either side of the wall gave me some light but the corners of the dank vault entertained murky shadows. This vault paid homage to both Anubis and Nephthus, the god and goddess of the dead and the rites of embalming. Their stone-carved icons stood like eerie giants behind my stone slab. Voices from the shadows began to whisper to me, the siren words of death. Osiris, the God of the Underworld, still waited for me on the other side of the River Styx. I had only to cross the river in the ebony barge he provided. Once in his realm, I would have riches beyond imagination, all the food I desired, all the comforts of the mortal world transcended to appease the dead.
But I was not really dead...nor was I really alive. A sudden panic replaced the void where my feelings had once been. I slid off the slab and went over to the door, or what appeared to be the outline of a door along the smooth stone wall. Pounding on the wall or calling out would be fruitless. No one could hear me through the thick rock. Either someone would come to me soon or I would be locked in here, this vault, this tomb for at least another day. Above the door hung another stone-carved likeness of the Goddess Nephthus who would care for me during the normal funerary process. But I had forgone the traditional way and now no god or goddess could protect me from the forces of evil that crouched like dark, horrible behemoths waiting to devour me.
Since my awakening I had felt a gnawing hunger, but a strange sort of hunger. I craved nothing that I had eaten in my mortal life, no fruit, no vegetables, no grains, no meat. My hunger seemed to be more of a thirst, a desperate thirst for something liquid to appease my parched throat. I tried to speak but her words came out a jarring croak. It hurt to just open my mouth.
The door in the wall began to open slowly. I backed away, unsure of what to do or say. What if the embalmers had returned and found me alive instead of dead? What would happen? But to my relief, Nyree, the old nurse and now my appointed guardian, came into the room. When she saw me awake and standing, she smiled.
“Good, dearie! You have survived so far with no apparent ill effects. But now we must work quickly to complete the process.” From the fold of her tunic, she extracted a vial similar to the one she had used right after I had been slain. This time the vial held a deep red liquid.
“Sit down on the slab, my child. You are very thirsty, no?” When I nodded, the nurse continued. “Yes, that is to be expected.”
As I returned to the slab and sat on the cold stone, Nyree approached with the vial in her hand. “You must drink this, but slowly at first. You must get used to the taste and the feel.”
Still ignorant of the forces at work, I asked, “What am I, Nyree? Am I alive or dead?” My voice had returned, slow but steady.
The old nurse offered a nod and a crooked smile. “You are both, dearie. You are now the living dead. Thanks must be given to the Goddess Nor-Sekhmet for your rebirth. You must place an offering of gratitude on her altar before you begin your journey.”
Begin my journey? I thought of that voyage along the River Styx. Perhaps I must cross to the other side where the dead dwelled before I could return to the living.
“Take this and drink it all.” As Nyree held the vial to my parched lips, I grasped it carefully between both hands and took a tentative sip. The elixir had a strong metallic taste and I grimaced as it went down my throat.
“What is it?” I asked, refraining from taking another drink.
“It is your nourishment from now on, dearie. You must drink the blood of the living in order for you to live, for the blood is the life. I will show the manner in which you will extract your life force.”
The idea of drinking human blood repulsed me so much that I spurted out all the liquid that remained in my mouth as well as what I had digested. I couldn’t believe I had drunk so much, the blood seemingly an endless, sickening stream that drenched my robe and my bare legs. If it didn’t stop soon, I would create a lake of red within the vault. Finally, the gush ceased, but now I choked and gasped, my body wracked with violent heaves. I couldn’t get any air until Nyree slapped my shoulders and back with hard strokes.
“Calm now, my dear, calm. You will be calm.” Her words had an oddly comforting effect on me, and I finally ceased choking, taking in huge gulps of air now to steady myself.
“Careful, careful,” the nurse continued to soothe. “Small sips first. You will acquire a taste for it soon enough as you learn the way bestowed upon you by our goddess. Nor-Sekhmet has given you a great power, Ayelet, and very soon you will enjoy your rebirth and drink of the bounty awaiting you in the world. The goddess will transform you, and Anubis will sustain you. Now you must finish, a little bit, a little bit at a time”
With her wrinkled but strong fingers, the old woman returned the vial to my lips and coaxed me to drink. My thirst outweighed my revulsion and soon I sipped greedily of the nourishment, the blood now tasting sweet like honeyed nectar. I didn’t want to think of what I had become, what the future would hold, an endless, endless future before me. I had so many questions to ask. For instance, if the old nurse was a minion of the Goddess Nor-Sekhmet in conjunction with Anubis, why didn’t she help to bestow this gift to others, like the princesses once in her charge? Surely there were many more deserving recipients who would welcome this gift of everlasting life.
“I will teach you, dearie,” Nyree whispered as she tipped the last of the blood into my mouth. “I will teach you the way. And as I do so, your questions will be answered.”
Had she read my thoughts? I felt a sudden lethargy overtake me, the blood both restoring and relaxing me greatly.
“Come!” Nyree commanded. “You will rest for awhile in my chambers.” The now-empty vial disappeared into the folds of her tunic. “Then we will begin the process of teaching you the way. But we must be quick. We cannot tarry or allow the priests of the burial rites to find you in this state. Ultimately, the journey will be yours and yours alone, but you will leave here fully prepared to pursue your new life.”
As she helped me down from the slab, the nurse grasped me around the waist and assisted me to the chamber door. Afraid that I would be seen drenched in blood, I glanced down and found to my surprise that the shroud I wore had returned to the state it had been when I awoke, clean and white, my body also cleansed of the blood.
This strange occurrence should have awed me, or perhaps caused me untold fear. Instead, I wanted to learn much more about my transformation and how I would live as an immortal among those who simply lived. For the first time I felt free, absolutely free of all earthly bonds.
As I left the funerary chamber, I donned a smile steeped in joy, wonderment and gratitude.