Pharaoh, страница 1
To Nina and Patrick—this adventure is for you!
Much love, Jackie
Table of Contents
Notes on the Text
Life in Narmer’s Egypt
A Very Quick History of the Middle East
About the Author
Other Titles by Jackie French
About the Publisher
The Season of Flood (Early Autumn)
On one side of the cliff was the Endless Desert, a land of wadies, heat and rock. On the other side the dark flood spread across the valley, bringing the rich black soil that fed the land along the River.
Narmer loved it up on the cliff. He could see his whole world from here: the town of Thinis, safe from the flood within its high mud dyke, and its fields, still covered by the silt-laden waters, smooth as polished tiles except for the white froth at their edges.
Hapi, god of the River’s flood, had sent his people a good flood this year. It had risen sixteen cubits, up to the twentieth measuring stair by the palace walls. A small flood, or none at all, meant famine. A giant flood washed across the dykes, sweeping away houses, orchards, animals and people.
But this flood had been perfect. A sign that the King and his sons had pleased the gods.
Narmer was his father’s heir. He and the King were responsible for the land’s Ma’at, or wellbeing.
Narmer grinned. Except when he escaped for a day by himself.
He glanced down at the two lizards strung onto the belt of his kilt. Not much to show for a day’s hunting. But Ra the sun god was beginning to sail his ship down the sky. High time to head home. His father would forgive a day spent hunting, but he’d be genuinely angry if Narmer were late to greet their guests.
Narmer broke into a jog, the dry desert wind washing across his face, spiced with the scent of flood.
‘Hail, Prince Narmer!’
Narmer stopped. He peered down into the wadi where the sound had come from. But there was nothing except a wildcat sitting in the shadows, as tall as his knees perhaps, its fur the same colours as the rock and shadows, a patchwork of orange and black.
It was the fattest cat he’d ever seen.
The wildcat regarded him lazily. Narmer lifted his spear. The skin would make a fine mat for his floor. But then the words came again.
‘Hail, Prince Narmer!’
Narmer felt his skin prickle. How could a cat talk? Magic? Or maybe it was a demon! One of the palace women had told him the Sand People’s tale of the afreets who roamed the Endless Desert, sucking the life out of unwary hunters. He grasped his spears more firmly.
The cat licked one of its enormous paws and began to clean its tufted ears. Why wasn’t it afraid of a boy with spears?
Magic or demon, this needed to be investigated. Narmer began to climb into the wadi. A few stones trickled downward as his bare feet half slid down its slope.
The wildcat was washing its nose now. He could smell it from here: a musky scent, not unpleasant, of fur and wild animal.
‘Go no further, o great and wondrous Prince.’
It was a female voice, Narmer now realised. It was beautiful, like water cascading down a wadi.
But this time he had been watching the cat when the voice spoke, and its mouth hadn’t opened. The voice had come from the rock just in front of him. From a sheer, smooth rock face…
Narmer flung himself face down onto the stones of the gully. ‘Great One! What should I call you? Are you a demon? A goddess?’
‘Neither.’ The voice sounded scornful.
‘What, then?’ demanded Narmer, still face down. ‘What sort of creature speaks but is invisible?’
The voice was silent for a moment. And then it said, ‘I am an oracle. You’ve heard of oracles, haven’t you?’
‘Of course.’ Narmer kept his face against the ground. Seknut had told him about oracles too. They brought advice from the gods. But he’d never heard of an oracle near Thinis.
An oracle! Speaking to him!
‘You may sit up now, o great king’s son,’ said the Oracle.
Narmer brushed some of the dust off his bare chest and kilt and sat upright. People had told him he was special all his life. But to speak to an oracle…
‘Does my father the King know about you?’ he asked the rock. How did one address an oracle? ‘O mighty Oracle,’ he added, hoping he’d got it right.
‘No,’ replied the Oracle.
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Then why have you come? Am I allowed to ask you questions?’
‘I suppose so.’ The Oracle didn’t sound very concerned.
The cat was washing its whiskers now. Even if it couldn’t speak, there was something eerie about a wild animal that showed no fear of people. But Narmer forced his voice to remain calm.
‘What can you tell me, o Oracle?’
‘Well,’ said the Oracle slowly, ‘You are the son of King Scorpion of Thinis, one of the most powerful towns along the River.’
‘The most powerful,’ corrected Narmer automatically—then wished he had held his tongue. Had he offended the Oracle?
‘So sorry,’ conceded the Oracle. To Narmer’s relief she sounded almost amused. ‘King of great and glorious Thinis, the most powerful town in the world.’
Narmer frowned. What was funny about saying that Thinis was the greatest town in the world? It held more than a thousand people! It was bigger than Yebu, twice as big as little towns like Min…
‘You are young, you are noble, you are handsome,’ the Oracle continued. ‘Your brother Prince Hawk is older than you. But the King chose you to rule the country after him.’
Narmer nodded impatiently.
‘They call you the Golden One.’ There was an almost bitter sound to the Oracle’s words now. ‘Beloved of your father, beloved of the people. The women exclaim as you walk past.’
The wildcat stretched and strolled towards Narmer, then sat down a spear’s length away and stared at the dead lizards. Narmer shivered. He had never been so close to a wild animal before—not a live one, anyway. But he wasn’t scared of a wildcat, he told himself, no matter how large it was or how strangely it behaved.
‘Um…does the cat belong to you?’ he asked, trying to ignore its smell. ‘To your shrine, I mean?’
The oracle giggled. It sounded like a chord played on a lyre. Narmer had never realised that oracles giggled. ‘Cats belong to themselves. But it stays near me, if that’s what you mean. Throw it one of your lizards,’ she commanded. ‘That’s what it’s waiting for.’
Narmer untied the longer of the two lizards and threw it at the cat. The cat placed one heavy paw on the lizard’s tail, then ripped its head clean off. Narmer could hear the crunch of bones as the great anim
Slurp…the cat licked out the entrails.
Narmer stared at the massive animal. Was he really here, speaking to an oracle and watching a wildcat gnaw at one of his lizards? But it was true. And if an oracle had decided to speak to him it was time he found out something useful.
‘Please tell me something I don’t know, o mighty Oracle,’ said Narmer quietly.
‘Er…what do you wish to know, o great Prince, beloved son of Thinis?’
‘Ah,’ said the Oracle, ‘that’s easy. You’re going to be King of Thinis. And in two new moons’ time you’ll marry the beautiful Berenib, Princess of Yebu, may she live as long as the River and her face never lose its bloom.’
Yebu was nearly as big as Thinis. Marrying Berenib would help keep peace between the two kingdoms.
‘Is she beautiful?’ asked Narmer. ‘I’ve never seen her.’
‘Princesses are always beautiful,’ said the Oracle. ‘At least, if you’re wise you say they are. Is there anything else you want to know?’
‘Everything! Will there be peace? War? A long life? Will I have sons?’ Narmer had never thought about all this before, but suddenly he wanted to know.
‘All of those,’ said the Oracle shortly. ‘And one final thing…’
‘It’s time for you to go home. You are supposed to meet the trader from the north this afternoon—or had you forgotten?’
‘Of course not.’
How could he have forgotten the Trader? He and his porters had arrived late last night, tired and dusty. They had still been asleep in the palace guesthouse when Narmer left that morning.
Other traders came along the River, carrying ebony wood, or ostrich feathers, or lion skins to trade for Thinis’s grain. But this trader had come across the Endless Desert! No trader had come that way since the time of Narmer’s grandfather. What would the Trader look like? Narmer wondered. Would he have black skin like the southerners? Or look even stranger, like the slave with eyes like the sky whom a trader from the Delta had brought last year?
‘You don’t want to offend the Trader by being late,’ said the Oracle firmly. ‘You’ve never seen treasures like the Trader carries! All the glories from beyond the furthest horizon! Worth all that the kingdom of Thinis can offer! Off you go, o great Prince Narmer, may your name be remembered for generations. But you may leave the other lizard for the cat.’
Narmer wasn’t used to being dismissed. Even by an oracle. And there were so many questions he hadn’t asked. Besides, he wanted to hear her voice again.
‘May I come again, mighty Oracle? Tomorrow?’
‘Tomorrow?’ The Oracle sounded surprised. For a moment the wadi was silent, apart from the awful sounds of crunching from the cat. Finally she said quietly, ‘Tomorrow, then. But tell no one! And on no account are you to come before Ra climbs a handspan into the sky.’
‘What will happen if I do?’
The Oracle sighed. Her sigh sounded like a flute in a far-off courtyard, thought Narmer. ‘Plagues of locusts. Boils filled with pus. Sandstorms. Now go. The oracle is finished.’
‘May I bring the King? He will have questions too.’
There was no reply.
‘Oracle?’ called Narmer, then more loudly, ‘Mighty Oracle?’
‘Prraw,’ said the cat. There were a few shreds of lizard skin stuck to the fur around its mouth. Narmer looked away from the gruesome sight. He placed the other lizard on the ground and glanced hopefully at the rock again.
But the Oracle was silent.
Did it really happen? thought Narmer, as he climbed out of the wadi again. Did I really speak to an oracle?
He glanced back into the wadi, but there was only red rock and shadows. Even the cat had vanished.
Shadows…how much time had passed down in the wadi? He was going to be late. He broke into a run as he headed back along the cliff.
Down below on the River men fished from their small reed boats. Teams of naked workers repaired dykes, lifting baskets of mud up to the thick walls that protected the town and the palace, its painted colonnades gleaming in the sun.
Other dykes protected the orchards, with their tall date palms, sycamores, figs, grape vines and carob trees, tiny islands in the flood. From up here on the cliff Narmer could see the rounded shapes of the giant stones that marked out the boundaries of the fields, too. More workers planted papyrus, sedges and lotus in the shallows, all the while keeping an eye out for crocodiles lurking in the water.
A crocodile had already taken a small boy a few days ago. The bereft family had searched everywhere, but there had been no sign of the child, or the crocodile. As he ran Narmer shivered at the thought of the child’s small body being pulled down into the dark water. The croc would be sleeping off its meal now, its long body the same colour as the mud.
Narmer glanced back down into the wadi. Maybe tomorrow the Oracle could tell him where the crocodile was, before it could kill again.
There was so much else he could have asked her!
Tomorrow, he thought. I will speak to her again tomorrow.
Her voice had been so lovely…
It was a line of brown geese, marching back home after a day puddling for half-submerged grass.
It was time he was home too.
He ran faster, half sliding down the hill towards the town. He’d already broken one rule: hunting without his guard. The King indulged his younger son, but he might not be so forgiving if Narmer turned up late and muddy for a feast. Especially not this afternoon, when there was a guest like the Trader in the palace.
Imagine a trader crossing the Endless Desert! Only the People of the Sand lived out there!
There were stories about a world beyond the Endless Desert, of course. That was where ebony came from, and cinnamon, and the more-than-precious myrrh, beloved of the gods for its rich scent and healing powers. What had the Oracle said that the Trader had brought with him? ‘All the glories from beyond the furthest horizon!’
The Trader and his men had rested in the guesthouse today. This afternoon there was a feast, as befitted an honoured guest, and there would be another feast tomorrow. Only on the third day would business be discussed and the treasures unwrapped. And on the fourth day the Trader and his men would be gone, before the dew had risen from the ground. This was tradition too—no guest stayed for more than three days of hospitality.
One day I’ll have to deal with traders by myself, thought Narmer. One day when I am king. I’ll be the one who bargains our grain for ebony, or ivory from the south. The thought excited him.
He was near the town now. He splashed through the shallows up to the dyke, then ran along its top till he reached the gate in the high mud-brick walls, the first defence against the attacks of the People of the Sand from the desert, and the people of Yebu to the north.
Now that the water was falling Narmer could see where the flood had eaten chunks from the walls. They’ll have to be repaired as soon as the water recedes a bit more, thought Narmer automatically.
That was the first question he’d ask the Oracle tomorrow, he decided: when would the People of the Sand attack again? And was there any way to arrange a truce with them, as his father had done by arranging a marriage between Narmer and the Princess of Yebu?
Now he was through the gate and into the main street, past Seto the flint knapper, past the barbers, still with a few customers to be shaved and oiled, past the bakers, their ovens cooling now in the late afternoon.
People stopped their work to stare at him as he ran past, to smile and bow. One of the bakers shuffled out, his body bent over as he held out a gift for Narmer. ‘For you, o Golden One! May your beauty live a thousand years!’ he cried, still bowing respectfully.
Narmer stopped and accepted the offering. It was a flat cake of date bread, sweet with wild honey and rich with sesame seeds.
The man’s face lit up at having his name remembered. ‘Yes, o Golden One. Blessings on you and your father and your father’s house.’
‘Blessings on your house too, Fenotup, and on your good bread and your oven.’
Narmer broke into a jog again, still munching on his bread. It was undignified, running and eating in full view of the people. But better than being late. And besides, he was the Golden One. Whatever the Golden One did must be right.
The palace stood higher than the rest of the town, on its own man-made hill, surrounded by high walls that were topped with sharp stones. Narmer climbed the steps and ducked through the low stone archway that led into the First Courtyard, with its long pool and fruit trees.
From here he could see the other courtyards through the colonnades: the women’s quarters, where Father’s women lived, and further along the servants’ quarters, then on the other side the kitchen courtyard, with its lotus pool and fish ponds. Narmer glimpsed the flickers of a fire already lit for the afternoon meal, a platter of vegetables waiting to be peeled, giant pots of palm sap or date beer brewing in the shade of the date palms, and women sitting in the shade of acacia and sycamore trees, grinding the wheat and barley for tomorrow’s bread.
The guest quarters were in their own walled area beyond the main palace, though guests were attended by the palace servants. Guests were strangers, so it was safer not to admit them into the heart of the palace itself.
Narmer’s rooms were near the King’s. He had moved there from the women’s quarters when he was six. His brother Hawk’s rooms were further away, fine rooms, as befitted a son of King Scorpion. But neither as grand nor as near the King as Narmer’s.
He could hear old Seknut’s cough as she approached while he was washing his face and arms in the basin in the corner of his private courtyard. Seknut had been his mother’s nurse, then his nurse after his mother died when he was born. Sometimes Narmer wondered what it would be like to have a mother. But even though Seknut was a servant, not even able to touch her royal charge these days without permission, Narmer was sure that no one else could have cared for him so devotedly.