I left Memphis as a slave and a prisoner. I was no longer the queen — that title was stolen by Ay who forged my signature on a marriage certificate and thereby made himself pharaoh. Once he had secured the throne, he no longer needed me, so he sent me to labour as a slave in the Nubian gold mines.
Now I was walking to Nubia, surrounded by guards who were not my own men. They had little interest in my well-being, let alone my comfort, and would likely give me no more than what was necessary to sustain my life. Hannu — one of the men who had caught Renni and I when we tried to flee the palace — was the only one I knew by name, and only he might show me any kindness. But I could count on nobody other than myself. If my unborn babe and I were to survive this journey, it would be up to me. Thankfully the babe was still small and the hottest months of akhet had passed. Now the days were easing into peret, which was the coolest time of year and the shortest days. Nights would be cold out here but at least the days would be bearable.
We walked all through the day and didn’t stop even for a few moments. The soldiers ate and drank as they walked and nobody thought to offer me anything. My mouth was dry and my stomach growled but I was determined to ask for nothing from these men. Ay had taken from me everything he could but the one thing I had left was my dignity. I could barely remain on my feet by the time we stopped for the night.
“Tie her to the wagon,” the captain said to nobody in particular.
“Is that really necessary?” Hannu asked. “We are in the middle of nowhere. She will die if she tries to run off.”
The captain shot him a look. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Hannu retrieved a length of rope from the wagon. He pitched his voice low so that only I could hear. “I am sorry, but you heard him.”
“I need some privacy first.”
He shot a glance towards the captain.
“Be quick.” He led me behind the wagon so that I was somewhat concealed from the rest of the squad and turned his back while I relieved myself. When I was finished, he held out the rope.
“Give me your hand.”
As he tied the rope around my wrist, he glanced down at my feet. He had offered me some bandages earlier when he noticed I was limping.
“Did the bandages help?”
I wanted to snarl at him. However nice he was being right now, he was still Ay’s man, but I swallowed down my pride. If Hannu was inclined to help me, I couldn’t afford to alienate him. “They did.”
He nodded but made no further comment as he finished tying the rope around my wrist.
“What did you do to get sent away?” I asked.
Before Hannu could answer, a shout came from the other side of the wagon.
“Over here,” Hannu called and led me back to where the rest of the squad was. “She needed to relieve herself.”
“She is a prisoner. She could have gone where she was.” The captain shot him a disgruntled look.
“Come on, man,” Hannu said. “She’s a lady. We can afford to give her a little privacy when she needs to do her business.”
The captain huffed and turned away.
Hannu tied the other end of the rope to the wagon’s wheel. “The wagon will give you some cover from the breezes overnight. Someone will bring you food later. I wouldn’t suggest trying to get away. Even if you could untie the knot, we are a full day’s march from anywhere. There is nowhere to hide out here.”
He returned to the soldiers. They were setting up camp for the night: making a fire, laying out their blankets, tending to the horses that pulled the wagon.
I spread out my cloak and sat where I could lean against the wheel. It seemed nobody had thought I might need a blanket and I thanked Isis for Istnofret’s forethought in giving me the cloak. I tucked her little bag beneath my skirt where it would be out of sight if anyone came near. Then I waited.
As darkness fell, two of the men returned to camp, each bearing a pair of hares. I hadn’t even realised they had disappeared. I should take more notice of the men guarding me, starting with how many there were. Study them. Learn their habits. Despite Hannu’s words, there might be an opportunity to escape and I would need to know all I could about these men. The two guards handed over their hares, and others quickly got to work skinning and gutting them, and setting them to roast over the fire. My mouth watered. We would have a hot meal tonight and that was more than I had expected.
Under the cover of darkness, I began to investigate the little bag. There were several small packets, presumably food of some sort. Dried meat perhaps, maybe some dried figs if I was lucky. Something hard — a chunk of cheese? A tiny bottle with a stopper, which I would have to examine by daylight. It was too small to ease my thirst and I couldn’t imagine what else Istnofret might have thought I would need. A roll of cloth. Ha, I hadn’t needed Hannu’s bandages after all. Four finger rings. Why on earth had she thought I would want jewels?
A shadow loomed and Hannu crouched down to offer me a mug and a chunk of bread. I glanced towards the fire. Were the hares not ready? Hannu read the question in my eyes.
“Only bread and beer for prisoners,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Surely they wouldn’t make me sit here smelling their meal and then not let me have any? I needed the strength that meat would give me if I was to walk so far every day.
“Take it. It’s better than starving.” Hannu was still holding the miserable meal out to me.
I took it silently and he retreated back to the fire. To his portion of the roasted hares. I was thankful for the dark as I gnawed on the bread because it meant nobody would see my tears. The beer didn’t quench my thirst but at least it washed the dry crumbs away.
Nobody else came near me for the rest of the evening. It was like I was trapped in a shadow world as I sat alone in the dark, with the wagon wheel hard against my back and the rope around my wrist. The men paid no attention to me as they sat around the fire, gnawing on hare bones, drinking mug after mug, and laughing and talking amongst themselves. Eventually I wrapped the cloak around my shoulders and lay down, cushioning my head with my hands. I may as well sleep while I could. Tomorrow would be another long day.
I was almost asleep when I heard footsteps and opened my eyes in time to see a shadow pass by. Something dropped onto my cloak with a soft thud. I waited to make sure that nobody was watching before I took up the small package wrapped in linen. I pulled it in under the cover of my skirt while I unwrapped it. The chunk of hare it contained was cold and greasy by now but it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. I ate every morsel and then licked my fingers clean. Feeling more like I had eaten a meal, I fell asleep.
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