Danger stalked the land.
Since the death of Ramses the Great, after a reign of sixty-seven years, the people of the Place of Truth had been in a state of high anxiety. Their village on the west bank of Thebes was a place of secrets, and no outsider was allowed within its high walls. Its thirty-two craftsmen, the Brotherhood of the Place of Truth, worked devotedly at their calling, which was to construct and decorate royal tombs; the women were both housewives and priestesses of Hathor. Now the villagers wondered what fate had in store for them, for they were entirely dependent on the pharaoh and his first minister, the tjaty.
The seventy days during which the deceased pharaoh was mummified were nearly over. What would the new king, Ramses' son Meneptah, do? Ramses had been both protector and generous benefactor of the Place of Truth and of its craftsmen, allowing them their own courts of law and ensuring that food and water were delivered every day. Would Meneptah do the same? If not, what would become of them? Nor was that their only worry. The new pharaoh was sixty-five and was said to be authoritarian, stern, and just; but would he have the skill to handle the inevitable intrigues and rid himself of those plotters who sought to occupy the Throne of the Living and seize the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt?
The craftsmen were not the only ones worried about the village's safety: Commander Sobek had been losing sleep over it. The commander was a tall, athletic Nubian whose face was marked by a scar under the left eye. He and his men were responsible for guarding the village -- though even he was forbidden to enter it -- and now they had to be more vigilant than ever, for the craftsmen's work was vital to Egypt's spiritual survival.
Armed with sword, spear, and bow, several times a day Sobek patrolled the area around the village, checking that all was well. To reach the village, an enemy would first have to get past the Five Walls, the small forts along the road to the village. If he succeeded and reached the village, he would be confronted by high, strong walls and by the keeper of the great gate. There were two keepers, of whom one was on duty from four in the morning until four in the afternoon, the other from four in the afternoon until four in the morning. Sturdy fellows, adept at wielding their heavy cudgels, they prevented outsiders from entering the Place of Truth.
But these ordinary measures were not enough for Sobek. If there were serious riots, a mob might well try to attack the Place of Truth, for it was rumored that the craftsmen could produce fabulous wealth and even transform barley into gold. He had ordered his men to keep permanent watch on the surrounding hills, the path leading to Ramses the Great's Temple of a Million Years, and the paths to the Valleys of the Kings and the Queens.
Even if Sobek was the village's last defender left alive, he would never desert his post but would fight to the end. He had come to care for the people he protected. Although he was an outsider and did not know the craftsmen's secrets, he nevertheless felt that he was part of their enterprise, and he could no longer imagine living anywhere else. He had failed them once: he would not do so again.
The thought of that failure tormented him. Some time ago, one of his men had been murdered, and Sobek had received an anonymous letter accusing a member of the Brotherhood, Nefer the Silent, of being the killer. At Nefer's trial his innocence had been proved beyond doubt and he was reinstated in the Brotherhood; indeed, he had just become its new Master.
Sobek had been unable to discover either the real murderer or the author of the letter. As far as the letter was concerned, Sobek did have one trail to follow. He suspected Abry, governor of the west bank of Thebes, of being part of a plot to destroy the Place of Truth -- he only hoped Ramses' death wouldn't throw everything into such chaos that he'd be unable to investigate properly. But all his efforts to identify the murderer had led nowhere, and he was haunted by the fear that the killer might be hiding in the heart of the Place of Truth. Perhaps it was one of Nefer's fellow craftsmen, someone who hated and envied him? As he continued his patrol, Sobek considered that possibility for the thousandth time.
The Brotherhood of the Place of Truth were divided into "port crew" and "starboard crew," as on a ship; in fact, the village was often compared to a ship. As overseer of the starboard crew, Nefer's duty was to "create that which radiates light in the place of Light," to draw up plans and to assign work according to each man's skills. His responsibilities had become still heavier since the recent death of Kaha, leader of the port crew. Kaha had been succeeded by his spiritual son, Hay, a less experienced man who was a great admirer of Nefer. Sobek knew that all the craftsmen treated Nefer with great respect. Even crusty old Kenhir, Scribe of the Tomb and the tjaty's representative -- Kenhir was responsible for running the Brotherhood, which bore the symbolic name of the Great and Noble Tomb of a Million Years to the West of Thebes -- had recognized Nefer as someone exceptional, a man of great artistic gifts and incontestable authority.
But, he wondered, could Nefer the Silent fight the forces of darkness that menaced the Place of Truth? Nefer set great store by carrying out his task in accordance with the rule of seclusion followed by his predecessors, and he might have forgotten how cruel and greedy the outside world could be. Would he realize just how grave the danger was and be able to counter it? Would his personal magic be enough to drive away misfortune?
Sobek halted before a recess in the village wall. Within it was a delicate statue of Ma'at, divine ruler of the village, wearing as headdress the magic feather that enabled birds to find their way through the skies. The goddess embodied the Brotherhood's ideal, its aspiration to harmony and rectitude, essential elements of artistic creation. It was said among them that "to accomplish Ma'at is to do that which God loves."
Sobek was panting. It was hot, and the air was becoming more and more oppressive: the danger was getting closer. To calm himself, he raised his eyes to the pyramid-shaped Peak of the West, the highest of the mountains around Thebes. According to legend, the Brotherhood's first stonecutters had given the peak that shape as a southern echo of the northern pyramids.
Like everyone else, Sobek knew the sacred peak housed a fearsome female cobra, "She Who Loves Silence," and that an impenetrable barrier prevented unbelievers from disturbing her tranquillity. The pharaohs had placed their Houses of Eternity under her protection, and the villagers hoped she would protect them, too.
The towering peak was at the very center of the temples built by the pharaohs to make shine forth their ka, the inexhaustible energy spread throughout the universe. The temples formed a fan shape around the peak and offered up eternal homage to it. At sunset, when dusk covered the desert, the fields and the Nile, the peak was still in the light, as if the darkness had no hold upon it.
Sobek's musings were suddenly interrupted by a shout. He swung round. One of his men was yelling to him while another pointed urgently at the nearest of the Five Walls; outside the fort there was a commotion.
Sobek raced over to the fort, where he found several guards encircling ten or so terrified donkey drivers and beating them with sticks. The donkey drivers had their hands over their heads to protect them from the guards' blows, heedless of the fact that their animals were scattering in all directions.
"Stop!" ordered Sobek. "These are lay workers for the village."
At once, the guards stopped laying about them.
"We thought they were suspicious characters, sir," one of them explained, "who'd try to force their way through to the village."
Sobek scowled. His men should have realized that these "suspicious characters' were simply peasants bringing, today as every day, the water, fish, fresh vegetables, oil, and other provisions the Place of Truth needed. The hardiest donkey drivers were recapturing their donkeys while the others moaned in pain or voiced their protests. Commander Sobek would have to write a lengthy report to explain the incident and justify his men's actions.
"Take care of the wounded," he said curtly, "and have the donkeys unloaded."
When the procession arrived outside the village, the main gate opened a little way, and the craftsmen's wives and children came out to collect the provisions. Before Ramses' death, this had been a time to chatter, to call out, to laugh over nothing and at least give the appearance of haggling over the best meat, fruit, or cheese. Now, everyone, even the children, was silent. The women took their supplies without a word, then went back into the village to continue their daily work of kneading dough to make bread and beer. In each woman's mind was the question: how much longer would they be able to carry out these simple tasks?
The water carriers, meanwhile, had taken their loads to the Place of Truth's two reservoirs, one to the north of the village, the other to the south. They emptied the pure water into the reservoirs; the villagers would draw water later and use it to fill the enormous earthenware jars, all made with a pale yellow or dark red glaze, that stood in the narrow streets, sheltered in recesses to keep the precious contents cool. Some were inscribed with the name of Amenhotep I, of Tuthmosis III, or of the queen-pharaoh Hatshepsut, and they were a reminder that Egypt's rulers cared about the villagers' well-being.
The reservoirs were not the Place of Truth's only source of water. Within the walls, some sixty paces to the northeast of the Temple of Hathor, there was a deep well. It was a true masterpiece, with its vertical walls, hewn at right angles to one another, its limestone tiles and its superb stairs, which allowed the ritualists to go down and draw water for the ceremonies. But it could not provide enough water for washing, cooking, and cleaning -- and cleanliness was central to the craftsmen's lives -- so the water deliveries were awaited impatiently each day. Not that there had ever, since the Brotherhood was created, been a shortage; indeed, there had always been more than enough, which was vital for the survival of the little desert community.
A young policeman ran toward Sobek. "Sir, sir! There's another group coming!"
"More lay workers?"
"No, sir, soldiers with bows and spears."
Copyright © 2000 by Christian Jacq