The violaters of the Houses of a Million Years could not believe their luck. They had swept into the Valley of the Nobles, a deep gully to the right of the soaring peak of Meretseger, the Silent One, which overlooked the Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the temple complex of Karnak. The tomb guards had posed little problem, nothing which a silent knife thrust or the tight cord of a garrotte string couldn't resolve. Their leader had given them precise details regarding the princely tomb they were to ransack. Once inside the valley, garbed in black from head to toe, they had swept like ants along the branching trackways. None of them knew or recognised any of his companions. They were united by one stark purpose: the pillaging of a tomb, the rifling of treasures of the ages from a House of Eternity whose owner had long gone across the Far Horizon into the Eternal West.
Now they were finished, sweeping up the moon-washed valley. They had enough light to see their way, a long line of fast-moving figures laden down with booty, so excited they were oblivious to the roars, grunts and growls of the night prowlers, the lions, the hyaenas and jackals which lurked on that broad wasteland between the City of the Dead and the scorching desert which stretched like an eternity. They'd thought their night's task was finished when their
leader paused, holding up his dagger. Abruptly he left the narrow track, plunging down the shale and sand, sending dust flying as he moved between two jutting crags on to an unseen ledge and a carefully masked cleft which concealed the door to another tomb. The leader gestured for the rest to follow, calling them down by imitating the âyip, yip' of a night fox. The violaters, who took the name of the demon Sebaus, would never have dreamed of searching for such a place.
The group gathered in the small porchway and quickly dug away at the plaster-covered entrance. Once inside, the pot of fire was brought, pitch torches, taken from a sack, quickly lit and pushed into crevices along the wall. The Sebaus had long lost their fear of the Kingdom of the Dead. They glanced around, realising that the tomb consisted of four roughly hewn chambers, a main one with three storerooms leading off. The tomb had been hastily prepared. No paintings on the wall, no dried-out baskets of flowers, whilst the plaster coating hadn't been properly finished or smoothed down. Nevertheless the burial chamber and adjoining storerooms were full of costly artefacts: precious game boards, ivory shabtis, mother-of-pearl boxes, chairs and stools of the finest wood inlaid with precious metals, boxes of precious oils, caskets of brilliant jewels, trinkets, bracelets and floral collarettes. In the far corner a collection of costly weapons lay heaped: knives and swords in jewelled scabbards, a magnificent bow of honour. Next to this was an exquisitely carved wooden casket containing the canopic jars, but the real prize was the red quartzite sarcophagus with the wadjet, the Eye of Horus, painted on each corner. The Sebaus' leader, a former scribe, crouched down and read the hieroglyphs.
âRahimere,' his muffled voice grated, âformer Grand Vizier of Egypt. Well, let's see what this lordly one holds.'
Using crowbars and mallets they prised the lid loose, letting it fall to the ground with a crash, ignoring the
great crack which appeared along the side. They climbed up on to the side, staring down at the luxuriously painted coffin casket within. Tools were hastily brought, the lid wrenched off and the casket inside brought out and thrown unceremoniously to the ground. The Sebaus leader wrenched off the beautiful face mask, ordering one of his men to break it up while the rest began to plunder the mummy, unwinding the bandages, fingers probing and searching for the sacred jewels and amulets.
The leader returned to the sarcophagus. He swung himself up, lowered himself gently down and searched around. His hand grasped a costly leather case. He picked this up, opened it and took out a book wrapped in the finest linen. He had been expressly ordered to look for this and leave the case deliberately on the floor. He climbed out and gazed round the burial chamber. His companions, faces and heads masked and hooded, were now seizing whatever they could carry. Baskets were emptied, chests and coffers kicked over, sacks and pouches hurriedly filled. The leader of the Sebaus wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled contentedly. He knew none of his companions; he had simply been given his orders, precise directions, where to go and what to do, and had memorised every detail. He rejoiced in the great honour shown to him. Just before midnight he had gone out to the Dried Oasis to the north of the valley and met the Khetra, their silent, secretive master. The Khetra had stood hidden in the shadows, as he had done when the Sebaus leader had last met him, on that desolate island of Khnum to the north of Thebes. As usual, he had relayed his orders through another, so softly the leader couldn't decide whether the Khetra was man or woman. He could detect nothing but moving shadows and that pervasive smell of jasmine. Was the Khetra a woman? In the past the Sebaus leader would have found this disturbing, yet didn't Egypt have its own Pharaoh Queen? Wasn't the Khetra a deep fountain of knowledge about the Valley of the Kings and all
its treasures? What did it matter! He or she was making all of them rich beyond their wildest dreams.
The Sebaus leader, cradling the book wrapped in linen, wondered where the Khetra could have acquired his knowledge about a hidden tomb like this. How could he have possibly known? Yet the orders had been quite precise, to follow the trackway above the two crags, reach the middle point and plunge down to the waiting ledge. The leader watched one of his gang empty a pure alabaster oil jar which had been filled with pearls. The wealth of this tomb spoke for itself. He recalled what he knew of Rahimere. Hadn't he once been the Grand Vizier who'd opposed Pharaoh Hatusu and been given no choice but to drink poisoned wine? His family had been disgraced and must have chosen this lonely, hidden spot to protect Rahimere in the afterlife. There were scores of such tombs; some were discovered by accident, but others would remain as they were, a hidden horde of treasures.
The Sebaus leader, cradling the linen parcel, walked over to the wall and unwrapped it. The book itself was composed of papyrus sheets sewn together with a strong twine; the writing was that of a learned scribe. The Sebaus leader, who had knowledge of such writing, began to read carefully, and as he did so, his heart skipped a beat. He hastily closed the book and rewrapped it in its linen sheet. The pitch torches were burning down and, going to the entrance of this man-made cave, the leader peered out. He glimpsed the stars low against the blackness of the heavens. His orders had been quite precise: to ransack this tomb and return to the Dried Oasis, where the Khetra would be waiting.
âEnough!' He turned to his companions. âTake what you have.' He held up a hand, his wrist bracelet glistening in the light. âRemember, nothing must be withheld, nothing taken. Theft by one of us is a danger to all.'
The gang nodded in understanding. The Khetra was ruthless; any theft meant instant death.
They left the tomb, slippering and slithering up the shale. A number of objects were dropped, but the leader, distracted by what he had read in the book, ordered them to be left. Speed was the order of the night; although it was still dark, they had to reach the oasis before dawn. They left the lonely valley, climbing over the limestone gullies, sinister shapes, the only sound their grunts and groans as they carried their heavy burdens. To their left glowed the lights of the Necropolis, and across the river was the shadowy mass of Thebes.
The Sebaus leader urged his men on, although he remained distracted. He was frightened, for deeper fears had now been stirred. The robbing of the royal tombs had already caused scandal in the city. The Medjay police and the chariot squadrons were being deployed, and troops would soon be dispatched. The situation was growing more fraught by the day. The leader climbed a rocky outcrop, skirting the tall posts driven into the ground bearing impaled corpses, now only tattered remains after the vultures and desert prowlers had taken their share. The lights of the city had disappeared. They were now on the borders of the Red Lands, yet they moved carefully, wary of foot patrols or chariot squadrons camped in some ravine. On the night air throbbed the heart-chilling roars of the night creatures.
The rest of the gang were climbing the rocky escarpment now, fanning out and peering down at the Dried Oasis below. The fire bowl was brought; a light flared, which was answered from the oasis, its bent, twisted trees black against the starlit sky. The Sebaus moved down the rocky outcrop and across to the oasis, where they squatted in a semi-circle, as they had been ordered to, around the crumbling wall of the old well. On the far side of this lurked other Sebaus who had not taken part in the raid, and somewhere in the trees beyond them was the Khetra. Orders were issued, the plunder collected, men were beckoned forward to be rigorously searched, the choice being indiscriminate.
Once the Khetra was satisfied, rewards were distributed, the profits from previous raids, now converted into gold, silver and precious stones. Some of the robbers were selected to take the new plunder to certain places in Thebes. No home or person was named, only this pleasure house or that beer shop, or some other anonymous location. All they had to do was leave the treasure; it would be collected, and sometime in the future the price would be paid.
At last the Sebaus dispersed and the oasis fell silent. The leader of the tomb robbers had been given strict instructions to remain. He did so, still cradling the book wrapped in its linen shawl.
âCome!' a voice whispered through the darkness.
The Sebaus leader moved around the well.
The tomb robber did so. He was aware of dark shadows coming towards him; the smell of jasmine was very strong.
âYou have what I told you to find?'
A pair of hands abruptly plucked the book away.
âDid you read it?'
âYou lie. You opened it when you should have been watching those who were with you.'
The Sebaus leader heard a faint sound, followed by the twang of a horn bow. The arrow took him deep in the chest, loosed so close it flung him back to lie coughing and kicking in the sand. The last words he heard, as he choked on his own blood, was the order for his corpse to be taken and buried deep in the desert.
Three days later a sweat-soaked runner raced up the Avenue of Sphinxes towards the soaring pylons of the Divine House, the Palace of Hatusu, Pharaoh Queen of
Egypt. The runner, the swiftest in the imperial corps, was covered in dirt. He had to wash and purify himself before being allowed into the entrance porch, where he was anointed and perfumed in preparation for being taken into the Kingfisher Chamber â a beautiful room with light-green-painted walls. The kingfisher bird was everywhere, its vivid plumage accurately depicted in a number of scenes, perched above ever-blue water or plunging life-like into some reed-ringed pool.
Inside the door the messenger knelt. The man squatting on cushions on the dais at the far end of the room ordered the gauze linen curtains to be pulled aside to reveal a strong man, his balding head glistening with oil. He had a soldier's face, with hard eyes and harsh mouth, and he was dressed in a simple white tunic, although costly rings glittered on his fingers. The messenger, beckoned forward, nosed the ground before the dais, then, grasping the step before him, gasped out his message to Lord Senenmut, Grand Vizier of Egypt, First Minister and, some claimed, lover of the Pharaoh Queen.
Senenmut threw down the map he was studying, hiding his alarm as he listened intently to the message. Once the runner had been rewarded and dismissed, he rose to his feet and strode through open acacia doors on to the balcony where Hatusu lay on a silver couch under a perfume-soaked awning. She was laughing and chattering with her maids, but broke off as Senenmut came across, catching his glance, and dismissed the maids.
âThey have found the tomb. Rahimere's. It has been robbed and the coffin opened.'
The lovely faience goblet slipped from Hatusu's fingers as she stared in horror.
âIt can't have been,' she whispered.
âThe tomb was robbed,' Senenmut confirmed. âA leather case was found which must have contained the book. There's
no mistake. Rahimere died and took his secrets with him; now they're in the hands of some tomb robber.'
âSo the Temple of Isis was right, the information they gave us.'
Hatusu crunched the broken glass under her sandal.
âEnough is enough!' she whispered. âAsk Lord Amerotke to be here by dusk. I'll instruct him to root out these robbers. Somewhere in this city is a merchant or official who's helped them; he can be easily broken â¦'