Catalyst – Chapter One

“Neb,” I called. “Sensen. Come eat while it’s hot.”

The two girls who came running over looked nothing like the princesses I fled Akhetaten with two years ago. They were taller and their dark skin was now sun-browned. Nef was ten years old, long-legged and possessing her mother’s effortless elegance. Seti was nine, a little chubbier than her sister, and wild.

They flung themselves down on the blanket where Hennie and I sat and reached for the food. Around us, other children returned to their families as the Sand Wanderers settled in for the evening meal. Children often went to whichever group they chose, and it was a rare night when Hennie and I ate with both girls and none of their friends.

A large central campfire gave us plenty of light to see by as the sun sank below the horizon, far away across an endless desert. Small groups sat at different points around the fire. The tribe was mostly made up of the families of the sons of the Sand Wanderers’ chief, Old Man. We were the only tribe members who weren’t related by blood or marriage.

I studied Nef and Seti as they gulped down the soft white cheese we ate with bread and olive oil. Where Nef’s hair hung to her shoulders in neatly plaited braids, Seti’s was a tangled knot that looked like it hadn’t met a comb in months. Nef kept her clothes tidy and almost always wore sandals, whereas every day Seti seemed to have a new hole in her sleeve or a frayed hem on her skirt. Her feet were typically bare and dirty.

“What did you do today?” I asked.

Seti didn’t reply, too intent on swallowing her food as fast as possible. Nef, always the politer of the two, set her food down while she answered.

“We built a sand fort and hid inside it,” she said. “We pretended we had run away and men were searching for us.”

It was interesting how often their games revolved around fleeing and hiding. Seti swallowed the last of her food and licked her fingers.

“I am finished,” she said. “May I go?”

“Come give your grandmother a hug first, Sensen,” Hennie said. Despite how long we had lived with the Sand Wanderers, we still always used our cover names. It had been a long time since Seti had complained about being called Sensen. “I have hardly seen you for days.”

Seti cast a glance back towards her friends, but seeing the other girls were still eating, she allowed Hennie to pull her in for a hug.

“Oh, phew.” Hennie pushed her away. “Sensen, you reek. When did you last bathe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you bathed at all since we arrived here?” Hennie asked.


The look on Seti’s face indicated she was pretty sure she hadn’t bathed since the last oasis.

“First thing tomorrow morning,” I said. “I don’t want to see you at breakfast until you have bathed.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Seti’s immediate acquiescence meant she had little intention of complying. I made a mental note to make sure she did bathe tomorrow. Mothering the girls didn’t come easily to me and I often forgot to remind them about things like bathing or wearing a clean tunic. I figured they would do it themselves when they smelled bad enough, but perhaps I needed to pay more attention. It seemed smelling vile was no deterrent for Seti.

“I mean it, Sensen,” I said. “There will be no breakfast for you if you come without having bathed.”

“Uh huh. Can I go now?”

Nef set down her bowl. “I am finished too and I bathed yesterday. May I leave?”

“I am sure your grandmother will want a hug from you too, especially if you smell better than Sensen. You can both go, but Neb, please remind your sister when she wakes up tomorrow that she needs to bathe.”

Nef hugged Hennie, and the girls ran off.

“I suppose they have more important things to think about than cleanliness,” Hennie said.

We were silent for a few moments, watching as the girls quickly became immersed in a new game with their friends. I finally realised I hadn’t replied.

“It does not excuse Sensen from not bathing until she smells worse than a donkey,” I said. “But I don’t think they have ever had friends before. I suppose this is all still new and exciting for them.”

The girls had adapted to life with the Sand Wanderers with apparent ease, swiftly making friends with the other girls, although I had forbidden them from revealing their identities or their real names to any of the children. They slept on blankets on the sand and washed in the oasis — or at least Nef did — and ate what the tribe did. They seemed happy, and it pleased me to see them playing with the other children without complaints or airs. I couldn’t remember the last time either had mentioned palaces or servants, hot baths or soft beds, or that their older sister was the Queen of Egypt. Perhaps they were starting to forget they had once been princesses. I supposed children forgot quickly at their age.

Hennie, too, had settled into our desert lifestyle, although perhaps not as easily as the girls. Her old joints pained her at times and she found it increasingly difficult to get up and down from the sand. Still, she didn’t complain and she seemed content enough. The girls called her Grandmother and if either she or they remembered she wasn’t really, it didn’t seem to bother any of them.

Our original plan had been to make a life for ourselves on the Red Sea coast. We would have fished and eaten eggs from the sea birds. I could still picture the little house I had intended to build for us. But it seemed I was the only one who wanted this, despite the promise of cool breezes and a more moderate climate.

The longer we stayed, the more restless I felt. It seemed unlikely the men searching for the missing princesses had given up. They had gotten to Nef once and stolen her away, presumably intending to take her back to Akhetaten where they would kill the queen and put Nef on the throne — with one of their own to act as regent, of course. Eventually, they would catch up to us again. The only thing I didn’t know was when.

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