“Harder,” Intef said. “You’re not trying.”
He stood behind me with his arm hooked around my neck. I was supposed to stomp on his foot as I tried to escape his grip.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.
I felt rather than heard his laugh. “You won’t.”
“You think I cannot?” I twisted around to glare at him. He released my neck and dropped his hand to my waist. Even with one arm, he could keep me pinned against him if he wanted.
His eyes were amused and he grinned. “Maybe you could hurt me if you actually tried, but you won’t.”
I looked away, not wanting him to read the truth in my eyes. I could hurt him, if I really had to. If I thought there was no other choice and I had reason enough to do so. But Intef would never hurt me. I sighed.
“This is pointless,” I said. “I couldn’t get away from you if you really wanted to restrain me.”
“You can learn to defend yourself against other men. Not everyone is trained the way Renni and I are.”
“When am I likely to need such a thing? I’m never without at least one of you.”
“We have a long way to travel yet and no idea who we might encounter. I need to know you can protect yourself if you must. And our babe.”
He placed his hand against my belly, which wasn’t even protruding yet.
“You know?” I asked.
“You’ve been vomiting every morning for two weeks.”
The first time I had woken feeling nauseous, I barely had time to get out from under my blanket before I threw up. The others had been concerned but I waved away their questions. When we left Babylon four weeks ago, I had suspected I was with child, but it wasn’t until the daily vomiting started that I was sure. Each morning I woke feeling unbearably ill, but it passed by the time the sun was at its peak.
“I was going to tell you, but I wanted to be certain first.” I hadn’t wanted to disappoint him. We would never know whether Setau, the child who had been born too early and who Intef had named for his father, was really his, but this babe definitely was. “It’s a daughter.”
I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth.
“Did you…” His voice trailed away, no doubt realising that if I had taken any tests to determine whether the child was a girl or a boy — such as peeing over unsprouted barley and emmer — he would know. There was little scope for secrets when one travelled as we did. If I had brought trays of seeds with me, they would all know.
“I dreamed of a girl child,” I said. “Once, a long time ago.”
“Tell me. If you think it was our babe you dreamed of, tell me everything.”
I suddenly realised my mistake. How could I tell him that I had seen myself on my knees before Osiris, offering the child up to him? I had no knowledge of the child’s fate past that moment, although it hardly seemed likely she would live. In the other future, I had seen myself imprisoned, heavy with child, and knowing that death approached for both of us. I couldn’t tell Intef about either dream.
“Does this child, too, have a sad fate?” he asked, when I didn’t answer.
I dearly wished I could give him the assurances he needed. He had lost so much already — our son, his father, his arm. It was cruel of me to dangle the promise of a daughter in front of him, knowing that she too would be ripped away.
“I have seen only a glimpse of her future, and I have no idea what will push her towards one fate or the other.” It wasn’t quite a lie, but it wasn’t really the truth either. “You know it never goes well when I try to choose the future that seems most desirable.”
But was either future really desirable? If I reached that moment where I offered her up to Osiris, at least both the babe and I survived her birth. Perhaps we both survived the other future. Or perhaps neither of us did.
Intef looked into my eyes for a long moment, maybe searching for some sign of what I was hiding from him. Eventually he moved his hand to my shoulder and spun me around so that my back was to his chest. He looped his arm around my neck.
“Again,” he said. “And try this time.”
I stopped on his foot as hard as I could.
I was breathing heavily by the time Intef decided I had trained enough for today. Nearby where we had piled our belongings, someone had built a fire pit and lit the kindling, although the afternoon was still warm. I was sweating from my exertions and pulled my blanket further back from the fire. Istnofret sat with her arms clasped around her knees as she stared into the flames. Mau snored beside her.
“Did you have fun?” Istnofret asked as I sat down.
“I don’t think Intef intends these sessions to be fun.”
“He wants to prepare you. You cannot be mad at him for that.”
“I’m not mad. Just exhausted.”
She returned her gaze to the fire. “The babe is probably fatiguing you. You will build strength the more you train.”
“You, too? Does everyone know?”
She shrugged. “Renni has said nothing but Behenu suspects.”
“I should have told you, but…”
She glanced over at me when I stopped. “But what?”
“It’s nothing. Just a superstition.”
“I thought maybe I could protect the babe if I pretended not to notice. I know it’s silly.”
“After what you went through last time, nobody could blame you for being protective.”
“Where are the others?” I changed the subject before I was tempted to say too much.
We lapsed into silence and Istnofret continued to stare into the flames. I lay back on my blanket. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue with just a few puffy clouds. Renni and Behenu returned soon after, carrying a young deer between them.
“He’s going to want to smoke the extra meat.” Istnofret was already on her feet. “I’ll go find some sticks.”
“I’ll help you.”
I started to get up but she waved at me to stay.
“No, you rest. You’ve been training while I sat on my behind. It’s my turn to do something.”
“I don’t mind helping.” Even after all these months, I was still careful to do my fair share of the work. I didn’t want to give them reason to leave me. At some point in our journey together, we had become friends. I would never be able to complete my quest alone but, more than that, I wanted to contribute.
“You can start sharpening the sticks,” she said.
Istnofret’s dagger was in her hand as she headed to the nearby bushes to slice off some thin branches. I, too, carried a dagger now, although mine was usually in my bag, which was more of a sturdy sheath on a rope I could drape over my neck or shoulder. Istnofret and Behenu had both taken to wearing belts around their waists with their daggers stuck through. They had encouraged me to do the same but I felt uncomfortably conspicuous at being visibly armed. As a compromise, I tried to make sure the little bag I carried my dagger in was always close at hand, although I had left it in my pack while I trained with Intef. I retrieved it now while I waited for Istnofret.
Renni and Behenu set the deer down some distance away. Behenu came to retrieve some bowls from one of our packs while Renni began butchering the beast.
“I got a deer.” She beamed at me. “Renni says if we smoke the extra meat, we won’t need to hunt for at least a couple of days.”
“You killed it yourself?”
“We kind of stumbled over it. We were tracking a hare and we came around a bush and the deer was just standing there. I grabbed it and slit its throat before I even thought about what I was doing.”
“You must have been very fast.”
“Renni said I moved like a deer myself.” She took the bowls back to Renni, who had already slit open the deer’s belly and begun removing its organs.
Istnofret dropped a bundle of green branches beside me.
“Think that’s enough?” she asked. “It’s only a small deer.”
“I’ll trim them and let’s see.”
She sat beside me and we quickly stripped the twigs from the branches and sharpened the ends. We would thread strips of meat onto them and smoke them over the coals when the fire died down.
Intef came to pour himself a mug of beer. He downed it quickly, then left to tend to the horses. They were not far away, hobbled so that they couldn’t wander, but close enough that we would hear if somebody thought to sneak up and steal them. There were eight horses, one for each of us to ride, plus three for our supplies. I was reasonably confident in my ability to stay on a horse by now, although I was still sore by the time we stopped each day. The only other beast I had ever ridden was the donkey that carried me away when the Medjay rescued me from Ay’s men as they escorted me to the Nubian slave mines.
My horse was quiet with an agreeable temperament, and I had named her Nedjem, which meant sweet. Having never named a beast before, I had been at a loss as to what to call her. I would have simply called her Heter, which was no more than our word for horse, if Istnofret hadn’t already named hers that. So I called mine Nedjem and it suited her as well as anything.
We passed a companionable evening around the fire. Renni roasted chunks of deer in the flames. They were charred and flavourful, and a welcome substitute for the hares and field mice we had been eating since we left Babylon. We carried plenty of supplies but there had been few nights when Renni had failed to catch something to supplement them with.
The night air was refreshingly cool and carried on it the quiet nickers from the horses and the chirping of bugs. The smoke from the fire mostly kept the mosquitos at bay although we had taken to sleeping with our blankets pulled up over our heads to avoid being bitten. Intef lay against my back, his arm draped companionably over me.
“You have been very quiet this evening,” he said. “Are you well?”
“Just tired. I wish we could afford to rest for a couple of days in the next town.”
“We can. There is no deadline for us to reach Crete. In fact, maybe we should find somewhere to stay for a few months. Pick up our journey again after the babe is born.”
We travelled in search of the Eye of Horus, an artefact that initially we weren’t even sure existed outside of legend. The Eye was believed to bestow great power on the one who possessed it, but it could only be used once and never for ill intent. If I could find it, I could use it to take the throne back from Ay. If I was queen again, I could resolve the simmering tension between Egypt and Hattusa. We had heard numerous stories of skirmishes between the two countries. There had been minor battles, and it seemed there would be no reconciliation until Egypt and Hattusa faced each other in outright war.
The Hittites had not forgiven us for the death of their prince, Zanzanna who was murdered as he travelled to meet me in Memphis. Although Ay was the one who ordered his death, I felt responsible. After all, if I hadn’t sent a message to his father asking him to send me a husband, Zanzanna would have had no reason to come to Egypt and our two countries wouldn’t be on the brink of war.
I feared that war with the Hittites would be something Egypt would never recover from. Too many would die — on both sides — and if Hattusa was victorious, we might well lose control of our own country. If I had borne an heir back when the advisors first told me to, things would be different. If I had been stronger when my brother Tutankhamen was young, we might have fended off the advisors together. If I had been wiser when I chose a man with whom to have my first affair, I might have made a strategic alliance that could have helped me fend off Ay. But I wasn’t yet out of hope.
We had tracked the Eye to a man named Djediufankh, who had lived in Babylon. Shortly before his death, he gave the Eye to his friend, a Greek priest named Antinous. Djediufankh had urged him to hide the Eye where it would never be found. We knew Antinous had intended to take it to Crete and it was his trail we followed now.
Although I prayed the Eye was still in Crete, my dream of handing a newborn babe to Osiris told me we would be back in Egypt before she was born. Maybe the Eye was indeed in Crete and we found it in time to return home before her birth, or maybe we found only another clue and Egypt was just the next stop on our journey. But the dream of myself imprisoned, feeling the babe within me move, suggested other things might yet delay us. If the babe was to be born in Egypt, I had to move forward while I could.
“I think we should keep going,” I said, at length. “We have no idea what is ahead of us yet.”
I felt rather than heard his sigh.
“I just want what is best for you and the babe.”
“Me, too,” I said, very quietly. “Me, too.
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