Authors: Luke Talbot
was born in Suffolk, England, in 1979 and moved to the south of France when he
was eleven. He spent his early years exploring the mountains and ruins of the
Languedoc and became obsessed with the ancient Romans and their architecture.
the United Kingdom to study archaeology at Southampton University, he graduated
with honours and moved on to technology, achieving a Master’s in Information
Systems from Portsmouth University in 2002.
Since 2003 he
has worked in telecommunications and he currently lives in Southampton,
England, with his Spanish wife, two children and their goldfish, Pancho IV.
Copyright © 2013 Luke Talbot
First published in
the UK in 2013. This edition published in the UK in 2014 by Perseo Books
the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in
any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and
publisher of this book.
This is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places and incidents are creations of
the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance
to actual or other fictional events, locales, organisations or persons, living
or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Tiago
da Silva, www.tiagodasilva.com
A CIP catalogue
record for this book is available from the British Library
(B Format Paperback)
Printed and bound
in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.
Typeset in Adobe Garamond
and Adobe Trajan Pro Regular
To my wife, Sonia, for taking my dreams and
making them real.
It was an unsatisfying knock,
hesitant, the hard wood swallowing the dull thud almost instantly and making
him wonder if it could possibly have been heard from within. He tried again
harder, more assuredly.
flinched as the noise echoed down the corridor behind them.
“Enter!” a wheezy
voice snapped from beyond the small, heavy door.
sideways at his partner, by an inch the taller of the two and holding a leather
satchel against his chest, before lifting the latch and pushing inwards. The
door groaned on its hinges like an old man turning in his sleep.
into the room, a mess of papyri and clay-dust. The walls were covered in
shelves stacked high with documents, and a vast workbench made of stone and
wood filled almost all the remaining space. The dry, musty smell of scribe’s
ink hung in the air.
Perched on a
stool at the far end of the workbench, holding a simple reed quill, was the
source of the voice: a small, leathery man, his wispy remnants of hair held
back by a colourful band of cloth across his forehead. He quickly hid his work under
a flat, polished piece of wood, and gave them both an irritated look. “Oh, it’s
you again,” he said dismissively.
They looked at
each other and then back at the scribe. The one with the satchel opened it and
pulled out a large clay tablet. “We bring news from
,” he said, walking forwards and placing the tablet next to the
The scribe looked
at the clumsy document and sighed. The simple indentations in the clay were
like the random impacts of rain in sand compared to the graceful hieroglyphs to
which he had devoted his life. Even his shorthand was more elaborate. Tapping
the nib on the side of his ink-palette, he placed his quill in a slot on the
workbench and glanced over the end of his nose at the cuneiform tablet.
for money, soldiers, and a dozen other things,” he said, clucking his tongue.
He pulled the tablet off the desk and walked slowly towards a shelf at the far end
of the room. “And I know what the king would like me to do with your news,” he
said as he tried to find the perfect place to file it. “Whine, moan, never
happy when we’re around and when we’re not just complaints that they need help.
Thank the Aten this doesn’t need to go on much longer,” he muttered under his
The man with
the satchel leaned over the workbench to look at the papyrus the scribe had
been working on, its top half still protruding from under the piece of wood.
The scribe spun round. “And spies, indeed!” he threw the tablet on top of a
large pile of similar rectangles of hardened clay and dashed back to cover his
work, waving the two messengers away with his hands.
gesticulations, the man who had knocked on the door stepped forwards.
travelled for many days to bring this news to your king,” he said. “We will not
simply turn on our heels and go back. We demand an audience with Akhenaten.”
looked at them both and sneered.
don’t. Nobody demands that. I am not just Suten Anu, the royal scribe,” he
breathed in deeply, seeming to grow taller by several inches. “I am the royal
architect. I am working on the commission of my king and queen. That commission
has significance beyond these four walls, beyond the royal city of Akhetaten,
beyond this great kingdom of Egypt and yes indeed, beyond even that of your
beloved Shuwardata of Keilah.
“And yet even I
do not demand to see them. You arrived without fanfare, but nonetheless they
know that you are here. If your presence was desired or even required, they
would already have sent for you by now.”
uneasily on their feet at this statement from the diminutive scribe, royal
architect, who then softened and gave them an insincere smile.
shouted unexpectedly at the top of his voice. The messengers looked towards the
course,” he continued sympathetically, the wheeze returning to his voice, “I am
sure you will be welcome to stay and enjoy the evening’s festivities!”
At that moment
Mahu, chief of police, burst in with two foot soldiers and after a short
scuffle the door closed behind them, leaving the scribe alone with his work.
his papyrus and looked at it uneasily, his shoulders sinking as the adrenalin
in him died. There it was: his treason, his betrayal in black and red ink as
clear as obsidian and blood on sand. But it had to be that way. He couldn’t let
this secret, this terrifying truth, be buried in the desert for all eternity.
rolled the papyrus up and slotted it into a wooden tube, which he then capped
with canvas bound with twine. When his tasks in Akhetaten were complete, he
would travel south, away from this crumbling kingdom. He didn’t yet know what
to do with his treacherous document, but instinct had taken him this far and
would lead the way again, he was sure.
morning, just before the sun rose above the hills to the East and enveloped the
regal capital of Akhetaten with its warm embrace, the scribe greeted Queen Nefertiti
on a cliff-top a mile to the north of the city. The king, Akhenaten, was
already too weak to make such trips and she had now, albeit unofficially,
assumed almost full control.
In her absence
from the palace, the king usually busied himself playing as best he could with
his son, the disobedient and contrary Tutankhaten. The child was not
Nefertiti’s, and even though he was barely four years old she could sense where
his defiant nature would ultimately lead. Akhenaten would not last much longer,
and on her own she didn’t know for how long she could retain control of the
already fragmenting kingdoms of Egypt.
The scribe directed
her to a hole in the ground hidden inside a large tent. Steps hewn into the
bedrock descended into darkness.
“How safe will
it be?” She was all too aware of the grave robbing that took place in the
kingdom; sometimes mere months after a tomb had been sealed.
secure there has ever been,” he said proudly. “The workers are brought here
blindfolded. On the surface they work only at night, and underground none have
visibility of the overall plan. When we finish only I shall know where and how
to enter, and what is inside.”
She looked him
up and down. This small man and old friend had already devoted most of his
working life to this task and she held him in the highest regard. That he was
the only one apart from the king and queen to know the full details of what lay
beneath their feet was a great comfort to her.
over to his portable work-bench and picked up a small wooden tablet and a lump
of charcoal with his right hand, an oil lamp with his left. Together they went
down the steps, the empty tent above them beginning to fill with the golden hue
Nefertiti’s soft voice barely echoed in the narrow tunnel, “what you have built
here is important, but what it conceals even more so.” She stopped before the
end of the steps and turned to him. For a moment he looked her in the eyes but
quickly looked down. “No,” she continued, lifting his chin with her hand. “I
want you to see me when I tell you this.”
He let his
eyes draw uncomfortably-level with hers.
within must not be found,” she pleaded with him. “Not by our people, or by the
kingdoms we barely keep at bay. It must be held secret and safe for thousands
of years, and what you have built must protect it.”
difficult to hold her gaze and he found himself once more looking to the floor.
He tried hard not to think of the scroll hidden away inside his workbench.
she pulled his chin up again. “The secret of what lies beneath us must die with
you. Can you guarantee me that?”
his tablet and charcoal tighter still and fixed her penetrating gaze as best he