I woke with a start. Men shouted. There were thuds and thunks and groans. The fire dipped and then flared as somebody fell into it. Someone screamed. A shadow came flying towards me, firelight glinting on a dagger. I froze.
“Get up,” somebody said. He didn’t wait but grabbed me by the shoulders and hauled me to my feet. I had been sleeping with the cord from Istnofret’s bag wound around my fingers and I managed to keep hold of that but there was no time to retrieve my cloak. With one stroke of his dagger, the man sliced through the rope that bound me to the wagon.
“Go.” He shoved me towards another man before leaping back into the fight.
The second man grabbed me around the waist, threw me over his shoulder, and ran. I could do nothing other than hold on, even as my wig fell off. We reached the cover of some scrubby trees and he dropped me on my feet. My knees buckled, almost pitching me to the ground, and my head spun as I suddenly found myself upright again, but he grabbed my arm before I could fall.
He was short and muscular, and his face was concealed by a linen scarf, revealing nothing other than his dark eyes. He pointed behind me. “Get up.”
I turned and came face-to-face with a donkey, which drew back its lips and snorted at me.
“Hurry up.” He shoved me closer to the donkey and then someone grabbed me from behind and boosted me up. In very short order I found myself sitting astride the beast. It was only then that I noticed a second donkey bearing another man with a scarf wrapped around his face.
“Go,” someone said and the other donkey took off. My beast followed. They ran straight back to where the guards were still shouting and fighting and dying. I caught the glint of firelight on bronze spears and axes but there was no time to see anything else. I still didn’t know who these men were.
“Haw,” the man on the other donkey cried as we raced past the melee.
Someone called out, “They have her.”
“That will keep them busy for a while,” he yelled over his shoulder at me. “Now hold on.”
We sped past trees and shrubs, no more than shadows in the darkness. I clung to the donkey’s neck, waiting for an explanation that never came. The spell bottle, which still hung on a length of string around my neck, was cold. It had never failed to warn me of danger before so I could only trust that I was being rescued, rather than abducted.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Where are we going?”
The wind whipped the words away from my mouth and if the man heard, he made no reply. I didn’t ask again. A long time passed, at least a couple of hours. The donkey slowed to a brisk trot. The night air was cool and I shivered, wishing I had my cloak.
The sky was still dark when I saw a dom palm tree up ahead, its distinctive spiky outline framed against the moonlit sky. As we reached the palm, the donkeys finally halted, their sides heaving. Nearby was a small fire.
“My lady?” a woman called and I recognised her voice instantly. “Do you have her?”
“Istnofret?” I scrambled awkwardly off the donkey. My legs were stiff and I almost fell. Before my feet reached the ground, Istnofret was there and we wrapped our arms around each other. I couldn’t speak for some time. My shoulder was damp with Istnofret’s tears and I shed more than a few myself. At length I unwound myself from her.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Are you harmed? Did they treat you badly?”
“I am well, but where are we? Why are you here?”
“We came to rescue you,” she said, with a laugh. “You didn’t think we would abandon you, did you?”
“Rescue me?” I had had no thought of rescue until the moment I found myself on a donkey racing away from my guards. I had believed it would be up to me alone to keep both myself and my unborn babe alive.
A man approached from behind Istnofret.
“Renni? What are you doing here?”
He and Istnofret shared a long look before he answered. “Intef charged me with getting Istnofret and Behenu out of the palace.”
“Behenu? Is she here as well?”
“I am here, my lady,” came a sleepy voice from the other side of the fire. “Mau, too.”
“You brought Sadeh’s cat?” I laughed, hardly knowing what to make of all this nonsense. “But how did you get away? How did you find me? Who are the men with the donkeys?”
“We are Medjay,” came a voice from behind me. “We serve the true Pharaoh.”
I turned in time to see the man remove the linen scarf from his face. He was Nubian, that much was clear, with black skin and a slender build. He reminded me of Intef in the way he held himself, his back straight, his limbs ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. He was no common soldier. He was alert, prepared, efficient, just like Intef.
“There is no true Pharaoh at present,” I said.
He bowed his head. “The lady speaks truth, but that does not mean the time will not come when Pharaoh again sits on his throne. Until then, we serve as we may.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said. “It was going to be a very long walk to Nubia.”
He bowed his head again. “It would be better that we are far from this place before others come searching. Better that you are long gone also.”
“We will be leaving as soon as Intef finds us,” Renni said. “Thank you for your aid tonight.”
The Nubian nodded at him, then turned without another word. He mounted his donkey and set off again. The second beast trotted after them. I turned back to Istnofret and Renni.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “How did you get out of the palace? Who knows you are here?”
“Your questions will need to wait, my lady,” Renni said. “We need to break camp and be ready to leave. Ay’s men will search thoroughly for you and we need to be away before then. But here, let me remove that rope.”
Using his dagger, he quickly sliced through the rope still tied around my wrist. Then he returned to the fire and started dumping sand over it.
“My lady, where is your wig?” Istnofret asked.
“Oh.” I put my hand to my head, feeling its shaved baldness. “It fell off.”
“You should take mine.” She was already reaching for her wig but I put out my hand to stop her.
“No,” I said. “I will not wear a wig again until I return to Memphis.”
She studied me for a moment and then took off her own wig. “Then neither shall I.”
We looked at each other and she gave me an awkward smile.
“I should go help Renni, my lady,” she said. “It will not take long.”
“It is truly good to see you, Istnofret.”
She smiled again, less awkward this time. “You too.”
As Istnofret left, Behenu darted in and wrapped her arms around my waist. Unlike Istnofret and I, she had never worn a wig. It was her own hair which dangled in little braids to her shoulders.
“I thought I would never see you again,” she said.
“I didn’t expect to see you either. I thought I had left you safely at the palace.”
She pulled away and gave me a dark look. “There is no safety there for me without you. Horemheb would have claimed me again. I would slit my own throat before I went back to him.”
Her bald assertions shocked me and I had no reply. “Where is Mau?” I asked instead.
“Asleep on my blanket. I tied a rope around her neck and the other end to a basket so she cannot wander off and get lost. She doesn’t like it very much. She hissed at me at first but she is getting used to it.”
“Sadeh would be very pleased that you are taking such good care of Mau for her.”
I didn’t know what else to say. What does one say to those who have risked everything to rescue you? Thank you seemed too inadequate. Surely they knew I could give them nothing in return. Ay had taken everything from me.
The thunder of approaching donkeys made my heart pound. Had they found us already?
“It is all right, my lady,” Renni said. “It is Intef.”
Intef climbed down from his donkey and came straight to me. I didn’t know what to say and couldn’t bring myself even to look him in the eyes. This man had been in my bed. I had begun to think of him as something more than just the captain of my guards. But then he betrayed me to Ay. Or at least I thought he had. Now I was beginning to wonder if it had all been one of Intef’s unknowable plans. After all, Renni had said Intef did nothing without a plan. But if his betrayal had all been an act, what else had been a pretence? The only thing I knew for certain was that he had killed Sadeh. I hardened my heart and gave him a steely glare.
“You could have trusted me,” he said.
“You gave me no reason to.”
“No reason? After ten years of service in which you never once doubted my loyalty? After saving you from three assassins? After supporting your plans to usurp the throne? After…” His voice broke. “After inviting me to your bed. My lady, I may be foolish, but I thought we had a connection. I thought… I thought you felt something for me.”
His words felt honest and the armour with which I had shielded myself began to crack. I couldn’t let him see that, though. If he wanted me to trust him again, he would have to earn it. So I gave him my haughtiest voice.
“You told me once that you were paid well to look after me. I suppose I am no longer in a position to ensure that you receive payment so…”
Maybe I was trying to give him a chance to leave. I wanted him to go. I could never trust him again. But, also, I wanted him to stay.
“I thought you would want to be rescued. Perhaps I was wrong. Regardless, we need to leave before they come looking for you.”
He turned his back on me and walked away. Over to the smothered fire where Istnofret, Renni and Behenu waited, a pile of bags and baskets beside them.
“Any trouble getting away?” Renni asked him.
Intef shook his head but if he responded, I couldn’t hear him.
“Come, my lady,” Istnofret called. “We are ready to leave.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
She laughed. “Anywhere you want.”
“What is the plan?” I turned to Renni since I couldn’t look at Intef. “You must have some destination in mind.”
“Intef thought you would want to go to your sisters,” he said.
The world swam around me.
“My lady?” Istnofret moved to reach for me but Intef was quicker, leaping back to grab me by the arms and hold me up until my legs steadied. As soon as I could stand by myself, I shook off his hands and took a few steps away from him.
“My sisters?” I still couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “I thought you didn’t know where they were.”
“I don’t, but I know someone who can give us a clue. We travel to him first.”
“Let’s go. We should have been away from here already.” Renni began picking up various bags.
My feet had grown roots down into the sand. “I cannot. It would endanger them. Ay will be looking for me and I could lead him straight to them.”
“We will be careful,” Intef said. “Nobody will follow us.”
“You cannot be sure of that.”
“We will take every possible precaution.”
“No. I will not go to my sisters. They must be free to live their own lives.”
“Where will we go then?” Istnofret asked. “We cannot go back to Memphis.”
“Akhetaten?” The word was a whisper but even as I said it, I knew my childhood home was too obvious. If there was anything of the city still standing, Ay would send men there. Intef and Renni both shook their heads. “Where then?”
“You spoke of sending Sadeh to Babylon once,” Istnofret said, slowly. “Perhaps we could go there.”
Babylon. The world’s centre for learning. I had suggested Sadeh might want to go there to learn something. If we went to Babylon, it would feel like her ka was following us.
“No,” I said. “Behdet.”
“Behdet?” Renni shot me a quizzical look.
“There is an artefact there. It could help me regain the throne, restore my father’s dynasty.”
“You mean the Eye of Horus,” Intef said. Of course, he had overheard my conversation with Hemetre when she came to my pleasure garden to tell me about the Eye.
“The Eye of Horus?” Istnofret sounded sceptical. “What is that? It sounds gruesome.”
“I don’t know exactly,” I said. “It’s a very old artefact which is reputed to give much power to its holder. It could help me take back the throne.”
“And it can be found in Behdet?” she asked.
“I asked Hemetre once where one would go to seek the Eye. She didn’t know but said that she would start in Behdet.”
“Horus is greatly revered in Behdet,” Renni said.
Istnofret raised her eyebrows at him. “How do you know such a thing?”
“My grandfather worshipped Horus,” he said. “Many years ago. I remember an old family story about him travelling to Behdet to worship at an ancient temple there.”
“Have you ever heard of the Eye of Horus?” My hopes were crushed as quickly as they had risen when he shook his head.
“If my grandfather ever knew of such a thing, I never heard him tell of it.”
“No matter,” I said, briskly. “I will go to Behdet and see what I can find out.”
“We must leave.” Intef was looking up at the lightening sky. “We have lingered here for far too long.”
Eye of Horus releases 15 August 2020. Preorder now.