THETTET: ancient Egyptian, âto destroy'
You hold the hidden flame,
Who give birth to the truth,
Oh come forth,
Lady of strength, divine daughter of truth â¦
The chapel priest of the Temple of Ma'at intoned the hymn of praise to the Goddess of Truth. He sprayed holy water over the small naos containing the statue of the Goddess and lit the two thuribles before her shrine, sprinkling them both with incense before opening the doors of the tabernacle to expose the statue itself. Amerotke, kneeling on a cushion, bowed his head. He intoned his secret prayer that, despite the dangers and the worries which confronted him, his heart would be true and his tongue utter just judgements. He bowed, pressing his forehead against the cold, hard floor. The priest once more incensed the tabernacle and quietly withdrew. Amerotke got to his feet and took his seat in the Chair of Judgement. The tabernacle was situated on a plinth behind him, but the judge felt the power from that holy place all around him.
âThis court of the Hall of Two Truths,' Amerotke intoned, âis now in session. All those who have business before the Divine One's justice, approach and state your case.'
Amerotke finished the usual ritual and the court settled
down to deal with the business of the afternoon. The day's heat had now lessened. The shadows in the gardens outside had grown longer, creeping across the grass, whilst a cool breeze wafted in the perfumed fragrance of the flowers. The sacred bar was in place, dividing the place of judgement from the rest of the court. Amerotke, face oiled, adorned with all the regalia of the Supreme Judge, sat more easily in the Chair of Judgement, grasping the flail and the rod. He tried to lessen the tension caused by others hurrying to their places by staring to the left through the great window which opened up on the pastures of Ma'at, where the flocks of the Goddess, her trained gazelles and dappled deer, grazed on the lawns. To the right of the window squatted the line of clerks, Prenhoe amongst them, heads bowed, pens at the ready over scrubbed sheets of vellum. These scribes would take down what was said. Amerotke's Chief of Cabinet, his collector of words, would write up the official report, copying it for the Divine House and for the office of the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh.
Lord Valu, he of the fat face and the bland smile, had apparently enjoyed a good lunch. He knelt on his cushion behind the bar, tapping his fingers on his stomach; now and again he would pick up a small bottle of perfume to savour its sweetness. In a semicircle behind him squatted his retainers, the carrier of his sandals, the holder of his wig and the guardian of his portable toilet, for the lord Valu's insides were sensitive in the extreme. Nevertheless Valu, despite his indulgent ways, was a mongoose in human flesh. Keen of mind, with a dagger-like wit, he was apparently very satisfied with the convictions he had won that morning and more than pleased with the secret arrangements he had made with the Chief Judge regarding two of the prisoners not sentenced to death. He now smiled conspiratorially at Amerotke. The judge hid his unease. The tenor of the day was growing more complex, and once this
session was finished, he still had business in the House of Chains below.
Amerotke accepted that the matters before him were very serious. To his right, further along the bar, squatted the three leading members of General Suten's household, his lady wife Lupherna, Chief Scribe Menna and the dead general's valet Heby.
âMy lord Valu, we are ready?'
âI call on General Omendap.'
Amerotke moved slightly. He now realised which path Valu was going to pursue. General Omendap was the Divine One's favourite commander. He had played a vital role in Hatusu's seizure of power four years earlier. Suten had been Omendap's lieutenant, so an attack on Suten was an attack on the power of Pharaoh.
General Omendap, in his pleated robe, a pectoral of dazzling blue lapis lazuli glittering on his chest, was called to kneel on the witness cushion to Valu's right. A tall, elegant patrician, sharp-faced, with close-set eyes, he bowed towards Amerotke and grasped the gold-cased Feather of Truth brought across by Prenhoe as he took the solemn oath and declared his identity.
âYou're most welcome,' Amerotke declared. âYet General Omendap, why are you here?'
âI knew General Suten,' Omendap's voice was low but carrying, âwhen he was a colonel in the Swallows, one of the swiftest and bravest chariot squadrons of Egypt. He was honoured by the Querret.' Omendap used the old Egyptian word for the Royal Circle. âHe won collars of valour and the silver bees of braveryâ'
âYes, yes,' Amerotke broke in tactfully. âBut why are you here?'
âNine years ago,' Omendap took no offence at the interruption, âColonel Suten, as he was then, took a force of chariots out into the eastern Red Lands. He was pursuing a band
of Libyan marauders who were attacking villagers, isolated oases. So ruthless was he in his pursuit â¦' The court was now hushed as General Omendap launched into a graphic description of an ordeal many people in Thebes regarded as a legend. âSo ruthless was he in his pursuit of the enemy,' General Omendap repeated, âthat Colonel Suten became lost in a violent sandstorm which must have come straight from the Underworld. By the time the storm was finished, he had become separated from the rest of his companions. He made sacrifice to Red Eyes, Lord of the Storm, but his luck had run out. He and his charioteer were captured by a band of Libyans. They took Colonel Suten to a place of snakes in a rocky valley, a narrow tunnel scooped out from beneath the rocks. It was known as a place of abomination because of the hordes of snakes which swarmed there. Colonel Suten and his charioteer were placed in that place of horror and both entrances to the passageway were sealed with rocks.'
Omendap raised his hand at the low moan from the people standing at the back of the court.
âCan you imagine, my lord judge, Colonel Suten and his charioteer squatting in that underground cavern while horned vipers, poisonous and deadly, curled and snaked all about them? The heat was intense, their mouths and nostrils were coated with sand, their eyes stinging. The sun turned the cavern into an inferno, baking the two men, provoking them to move, yet Colonel Suten sat still. He did not panic, he did not surrender to hysteria, but for hours persuaded his charioteer to stay as motionless as himself.'
General Omendap paused for effect.
âAny other man, my lord, would have died from the heat, his ravaging thirst or the sheer terror of what was happening around him. Yet we have the evidence of Suten's own charioteer, a soldier who has since gone across the Far Horizon, that the colonel showed no fear and persuaded his companion to remain still.' General Omendap paused again to sip at a beaker of water brought by an attendant.
âNow Colonel Suten had been captured early in the day. The Libyans thought he would die in the horror they had created. They decided to light a fire and celebrate their success, sharing out the plunder taken from Colonel Suten's chariot. The smoke of their fires was seen by the rest of the squadron, who moved quickly to attack the marauders. They launched an assault at dusk. The Libyans had drunk deeply and were incapable of organising any defence. Our chariots swooped in like hawks. Every Libyan was put to death, except a young boy who showed the squadron where Colonel Suten and his companion had been imprisoned. The place of horror was opened, Colonel Suten and his charioteer were found safe. Even then the brave colonel did not panic or give way to hysteria. He ordered his rescuers to stay outside, quietly telling them to bring fire brands. Eventually a path was cleared and Colonel Suten and his companion escaped unscathed.'
âMy lord,' Valu purred, âI thank General Omendap for his evidence, which is vital to this case. Colonel Suten's escape from that abode of abomination was an act of bravery but it scarred his soul. I can produce witnesses by the score who will testify that General Suten had a deep, abiding detestation of snakes. He survived the torture of the Libyan marauders but it cloaked his heart in darkness. Even members of his own household will testify that General Suten was most insistent that his house be searched morning, noon and night for traces of any snake. He imported specially trained mongooses to eradicate such reptiles, whilst his practice of using the roof terrace of his house was not just to catch the cooling breath of Amun; he also saw it as a place of safety. On the night he died, as witnesses will testify, General Suten, as was his custom, ordered the roof terrace to be scrupulously searched. This included baskets, the sheets upon his bed, beneath chairs and tables. No trace of any horned viper could be found. Yet within an hour of his household leaving him, General Suten
was heard screaming in terror. When his servants returned to the roof terrace they found a swarm of horned vipers. I ask, my lord, how could so many snakes appear on a roof terrace unless put there deliberately?'
Amerotke nodded in agreement. Now the three principal members of General Suten's household took the oath. Lady Lupherna spoke first. She was a small, comely woman with a delicate, pretty face. Amerotke had to ask her to speak louder so the rest of the court could hear. She was followed by Chief Scribe Menna, a strong, harsh-faced man who spoke bluntly and to the point. Finally came slender, thin-faced Heby, who kept plucking nervously at his robe as he described how he had guarded the steps leading up to the roof terrace.
Amerotke moved on swiftly. Other witnesses, servants and retainers were called. Valu kept his main thrust of attack very clear: General Suten had hated snakes. On the night he had been murdered - Valu deliberately used that word - Suten had dined with his wife, chief scribe and valet on the roof terrace. They had eaten dishes of fish and drunk beer and wine before General Suten declared he would continue writing his memoirs, a favourite pastime, which he hoped to present to the Divine One. Before they had retired, Menna, Lupherna and Heby, along with other servants, helped the general search the roof terrace for signs of any snake. Of course, none was found. The household left and General Suten returned to his memoirs, with Heby guarding the stairs. Suten's screams had been heard, the household was roused, but there was nothing to be done. They had contacted a member of the local Medjay, Standard-Bearer Nadif, who had hurried in to help. Nadif too gave evidence, in a clear, strong voice, about his surprise at how General Suten had died.
âThere is,' Valu finished, spreading his hands, âonly one conclusion. Those horned vipers were placed there deliberately.'
âHow?' Amerotke queried
Valu smirked. âA question I keep asking myself. Could they have been thrown from another roof? That's impossible, there is no other building. The mansion stood in its own grounds. Could they have been hoisted up from a window below? But the rooms below were occupied by others; such a task would have attracted attention. There is only one way those horned vipers could have been brought to the roof terrace: by the steps. The only person on those steps that night, a man who by his own confession never left his post, was Heby.'
Amerotke gazed at Heby, who put his fingers to his face and moaned, staring around at his companions for help.
âWhy should I do that?' he wailed, ignoring the shouts of the court ushers to keep silent. âI loved my master. I always guarded the stairs, I never saw or heard anything amiss, not until my master's screams rang out.'
Amerotke raised a hand for silence. The valet was clearly terrified. If he was convicted, he would die a hideous death out in the Red Lands, bound to a thorn bush and burnt to death.
âThe court must answer the question,' Valu pressed his point, âwhy should a general with an obvious and understandable hatred for snakes be found dead on his roof terrace with horned vipers curling all about him, bitten at least fifteen times, a roof terrace which, according to everyone, was scrupulously searched for even the smallest snake? Can horned vipers fly?' Valu paused at the ripple of laughter his words provoked. âCan at least two score of them crawl up the walls of a house without being noticed? Perhaps someone in the garden was able to hurl them up?' Valu clapped his hands softly. âSuch explanations are foolish. There is only one answer: Heby placed them there.'
âBut why?' Amerotke asked. He turned to the valet. âHeby, how long had you served General Suten?'