35

I walked slowly up my street towards my house, my case in my hand, my journal in my case, my heart singing like a bird in my chest. I was returning home at last. I was older now. How many years had passed? I could not tell, and it no longer mattered. Time was a long, slow river. The early evening sun inscribed shadows on the clear air. People turned to look at me and waved as if I had been gone a long time.

I stepped through the gate and opened the door into the courtyard. The children’s toys lay scattered about on the tiles. I entered and called out. Tanefert? Sekhmet? Girls? No answer came. I passed through the sitting room. In the kitchen, fruit rotted in the bowl, and the dishes served only the dust of many days. The children’s room, where I had last held them and kissed them goodbye, was empty, the beds unmade. One of Sekhmet’s stories-she had written hundreds-lay scattered across the floor. I bent to pick it up and saw with horror on the papyrus the imprint of a dirty leather boot. My hands started to shake.

I ran through the rooms, shouting their names, throwing aside chairs, opening doors, ransacking storage chests to see if they were hiding inside. But I knew now they were gone and I had lost them for ever. In that moment I heard a howling, like a grieving animal, from very far away, lost in a dark, dead wood.

I woke to that strange howl. It was my own bitter, unanswered cries. There were disgraceful wet tears on my face. I struggled to become myself again, out of the misery and confusion of the dream. I wanted to sleep so deeply I could know and feel nothing, but someone was telling me I must not. I must wake up. Suddenly I felt frightened of what would happen if I did sleep.

No light entered into whatever place this was. So much for the god of the sun; he had deserted me. I could see nothing. My body was far away. It occurred to me I must bring it back. I recalled I had muscles for use. I concentrated on the word ‘hands’ and something stirred, but coldly, remotely, heavily. I switched to ‘fingers’, and this time I could feel them moving more clearly. But what was this, rough and harsh? A crude shackle around my wrists, which were wet. I brought my hands slowly together and discovered they were linked to a rope. I struggled to bring everything towards my mouth, for taste was the only sense I could believe in. I licked something familiar and strangely comforting. A memory came in a flash: a knife blade held to my lips. Then it vanished again, and a feeling of implacable sorrow replaced it. I struggled against it. No! Keep thinking! The shackles had worn away the skin and flesh. I must have struggled, in my dream, to free myself from my bondage.

I let my fingers move across my face: eyes, nose, mouth. Chin. Neck. Shoulders. Keep going. Chest. Nipples. Arms, two-abrasions, places that hurt, suddenly, when I touched them. Bruises? Wounds? More. Find yourself. Belly, thighs-and another sudden flash: I saw boots kicking again and again into my groin, and the torn sensations of agony, rage and vomiting. Now my mouth recalled its own taste: stale, parched, disgusting. Suddenly I wanted to drink and drink. Water!

My fettered hands scurried, desperate as rats, across the invisible floor of this place. A jar. I raised it to my lips, the contents sloshing over me, stinging where the flesh was cut, and then I sent it flying into the dark. Cold piss. My wrists throbbed where the short ropes yanked against them. My gorge rose, but spewed nothing more than a dribble of some intense bile whose bitterness flooded my throat.

Then I remembered. Mahu. The rooftop. Before I jumped. This was his work. He was to blame. Then my fetters were tearing again at my flesh. I was raging, raging like a demented animal, kicking against my confinement.

There were commands, shouts. A door slammed open and a jar of cold water was thrown over me. The shock of the light, the freezing shock of the water and the fear of reprisal made me crawl back into a corner of the cell, its filth and stone walls partly revealed. There were strange markings gouged into these walls, the desperate signs of the condemned who had passed through here on their way to death and oblivion. Now I was one of them.

Two Medjay guards aggressively hustled me into a standing position. Fetters ached and weighed, cutting into my ankles as well as my wrists. My nakedness was exposed to the light. The guards ignored me, and no-one gave me clothing. I found I wished to speak, but what came from my mouth was the croak of a crow. They laughed, but one of them gave me a jug. I held it, trembling, and a little cool water entered my mouth. Tears filled my eyes at the same time. Then the guard roughly pulled the jug from my grasp.

I cannot tell how long we stood there like that. I was so tired, but they forced me to stay standing, prodding me with their batons as I wavered on the spot like a drunk who has lost his memory and his way.

Then a thick shadow appeared, moving slowly, purposefully, one step at a time, in no hurry at all, towards the door, as if descending into a tomb. It stooped to enter the cell. Mahu. He looked at me casually. The guards stiffened to attention. Suddenly I broke out towards him, punching, lashing out, desperate to beat his smug face with my bare fists, my feet, anything. But I was stopped by the ropes as short as a mad dog’s, and I fell jerking and thrashing at his feet. At that moment I hated him and his thick panting hound. I would have torn his squat throat apart with my bare teeth, smashed open his ribs and feasted on his entrails and his fat heart.

He smiled. I said nothing, trying to control my ragged breath and the storm of hatred inside me. He shrugged, waited, patient as a torturer, then leaned down near me. I could smell his stale scent.

‘No-one knows you’re here,’ he said.

I returned his gaze.

‘I warned you, Rahotep. You only have yourself to blame. If you are suffering now, that is good. If your suffering has taught you hatred for me, that too is good. It is a fever that will infect, corrupt and rot your soul.’

‘I will kill you.’

He let out a short laugh, a bark of contempt, rolled his head on his solid neck, and nodded. The guards held my arms, and he grasped the hair of the back of my head with his meaty hands, forcing me to look up. His breath was hot and foul on my face. His teeth needed cleaning. His nose, I noticed, carried tiny broken red lines under the greasy skin. His spittle, as he spoke, flecked my face.

‘Hatred is like acid. I can see it now, penetrating and corroding your mind.’ Then he methodically and casually worked two fingers into my eye sockets, and pushed until brief stars of agony exploded in the red sky of my head. I thought he would crush my head in his hands. I struggled in my bonds, spat at him, flailed uselessly. ‘Before you lose your mind, I want answers. Where is the Queen?’

I refused to answer. He pressed harder. My head lit up with incandescent arcs of pain.

‘Where is the Queen?’

I still refused to answer. Would he crush my eyes in my head? Suddenly the pressure vanished. I blinked but could make out nothing but a strange vision of whirling shapes and colours. I shook my head to try to clear my sight. His kick caught me in the face. The force of the blow travelled fast through my head. Acrid bile seeped into my mouth. Sickly sweet blood dripped from my split lips. I could feel the outline of my teeth blooming and swelling on my bruised mouth.

Through the roaring in my head I heard him ask again, without changing the expression of his voice: ‘Where is the Queen?’

‘As it is said in the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day.’

‘What?’

‘As it is said in the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day.’

‘I dislike riddles.’

‘Her sign is Life.’ And this time I smiled.

He punched it off my face. ‘I will break every bone of your fingers if I have to. And then how will you write in that little journal? You won’t be able to hold your own cock to piss.’

I waited a little while, then with all the strength I had I said, ‘Do you go down into the Otherworld.’

His anger showed in his face. Good. Then, with a sigh, as to a recalcitrant child, he casually picked up my left hand and with a swift motion jerked back the little finger. The tiny crack echoed around the cell. I cried out.

He looked closely into my eyes, as if to enjoy at close range the spectacle of my suffering. I saw the black dots of his pupils, and my own distorted face reflected in his eyes. ‘No-one is going to save you this time, Rahotep. It is too late. Akhenaten himself does not know you are here. You have disappeared into thin air. You are nobody. Nothing.’

The pain was still singing in my hand, and I feared I would vomit again.

‘You have very little time left to find the Queen,’ I croaked. ‘And if you cannot, then the Festival is going to be a catastrophe for Akhenaten, and for you and for this city. I am your only lead. You cannot afford to kill me.’

‘I don’t need to kill you. Others will take care of that. But I find I do need to hurt you very badly. And we can go on for some time.’

‘No matter what you do to me, know this: I will not tell you what I know. I would rather die.’

‘It is not you who will die. Do you understand me?’

I looked into his eyes. I understood his threat. Hathor, Lady of the West, forgive me now. I did the only thing possible.

‘As it is said in the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day.’

His eyes turned colder, as if all light had suddenly abandoned them. He reached for my hand again. I prepared myself, silently uttering a prayer. My whole body was shivering now. He waited, relishing my suffering, timing his move.

‘Tell me where she is.’

I looked into his eyes with all the defiance left in me. ‘No.’

He grasped another finger to snap the next little bone.

Contents