The cannon were keeping up well with the chariots; Pharaoh would be pleased.
Djehuty, Commander of the Brigade of Seth, was a little uncomfortable on horseback even after months of practice with the new saddle with stirrups. Still, there was no denying it was convenient. He turned his horse and rode back down along the track beside his units, with the standard-bearer, scribes, aides, and messengers behind him. The rutted track was deep in sand, like most of the coastal plain of Canaan . . . where it wasn’t swamp mud or rocks. The infantry in their banded-linen corselets plodded along, their brown faces darker yet with dust and streaked with sweat under their striped headdresses of thick canvas. Big round-topped rectangular shields were slung over their shoulders, bronze spearblades glinted in the bright sun. After them came a company of Nubians, Medjay mercenaries from far up the Nile. Djehuty frowned; the black men were slouching along in their usual style, in no order at all . . . although anyone who’d seen one of their screaming charges could forgive them that. Then came one of the New Regiments, with their muskets over their shoulders and short iron swords at their sides. They wore only kilts and pleated loin-guards, but there were leather bandoliers of papyrus cartridges at their right hips. Djehuty scowled slightly at the sight of them, despite the brave show they made with their feet moving in unison and the golden fan standard carried before them on a long pole.
Their weapons are good, he acknowledged. “But will they stand in battle?” he murmured to himself. They were peasants, not iw’yt, not real soldiers whose trade was fighting, raised from childhood in the barracks.
After them came the cannon themselves, wrought with endless difficulty and expense. Djehuty’s thick-muscled chest swelled with pride under his iron-scale armor at the number Pharaoh had entrusted to him—a full dozen of the twelve-pounders, as they were called in the barbaric tongue of their inventors. Each was a bronze tube of a length equal to a very tall man’s height, with little bronze cylinders cast on either side so that the guns could ride in their chariot-like mounts. Very much like a chariot, save that the pole rested on another two-wheeled cart, the limber, and that was hauled by six horses with the new collar harness that bore on their shoulders rather than their necks.
Better for the horses, he admitted grudgingly, passing on to the chariots. Those had changed in the last few years as well. Besides a compound bow and quiver on one side, there was a scabbard on the other for two double-barreled shotguns, and the crew was now three, like a Hittite war-cart—one being a loader for the warrior who captained the vehicle.
He reined in and took a swig from the goatskin water bottle at his saddle. It cut gratefully through the dust and thick phlegm in his mouth; he spat to the side and drank again, since there were good springs nearby and no need to conserve every drop. Years of work, to make the Brigade of Seth the finest in Pharaoh’s service, and then to integrate the new weapons. Something his father had told him . . . yes: To be good commanders, we must love our army and our soldiers. But to win victories, we must be ready to kill the thing we love. When you attack, strike like a hammer and hold nothing back.
“Stationed in Damnationville with no supplies,” he said, quoting a soldier’s saying as old as the wars against the Hyksos.
“But sir, there are plenty of supplies,” his son said.
Djehuty nodded. “There are now, boy,” he said. “But imagine being stuck here on garrison duty for ten years.”
The young man looked around. To their left was the sea, brighter somehow than that off the Delta. The road ran just inland of the coastal sand dunes; off to the right a line of hills made the horizon rise up in heights of blue and purple. Thickets of oak dotted the plain, and stretches of tall grass, dry now in midsummer. Dust smoked off a few patches of cultivation, here and there a vineyard or olive grove, but the land was thinly settled—had been since the long wars Pharaoh had waged early in his reign, nearly thirty Nile floods ago.
And those did not go well, he remembered uneasily—he’d been a stripling then, but nobody who’d been at Kadesh was going to believe it the great Egyptian victory that the temple walls proclaimed.
A village of dun-colored mud brick huts with flat roofs stood in the middle distance, dim through the greater dust plume of the Egyptian host passing north. The dwellers and their stock were long gone; sensible peasants ran when armies passed by.
By the standards of the vile Asiatics, of the hairy dwellers in Amurru, this was flat and fertile land. To an Egyptian, it was hard to tell the difference between this and the sterile red desert that lay east of the Nile.
“War and glory are only found in foreign lands,” the younger man said stoutly.
“Well spoken, son,” the commander said. He looked left; the Ark of Ra was sinking towards the waves. “Time to camp soon. And Pharaoh will summon the commanders to conference in the morning.”
Pharaoh was a tall man, still lean and active in the thirty-sixth year of his reign despite the deep furrows in his hawklike face and the plentiful gray in his dark auburn hair. He stood as erect as a granite monolith, wearing the military kilt and the drum-shaped red crown of war with the golden cobra rearing at his brows, waiting as still as the statue of a god. The officers knelt and bowed their heads to the carpet before him in the shade of the great striped canvas pavilion. There was a silence broken only by the clank of armor scales and creak of leather. Then the eunuch herald’s voice rang like silver in the cool air of dawn:
“He is The Horus, Strong Bull, Beloved of Ma’at; He of the Two Goddesses, Protector of Khem who Subdues the Foreign Lands; The Golden Horus, Rich in Years, Great in Victories; He is King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Strong in Right; He is User-Ma’at-Ra, Son of Ra; Ramses, Beloved of Amun.”
The officers bowed again to the living god, and Pharaoh made a quick gesture with one hand. The officers bowed once more and rose.
Djehuty came to his feet with the rest. Servants pulled a cover off a long table. It was covered by a shallow-sided box, and within the box was a model made of sand mixed with Nubian gum, smelling like a temple on a festival day. Its maker stood waiting.
There is the outland dog, he thought. Mek-andrus the foreigner, the one who’d risen so high in Pharaoh’s service. He wore Egyptian headdress and military kilt but foreign armor—a long tunic of linked iron rings. Foreign dog. Disturber of custom.
“The servants of Pharaoh will listen to this man, now Chief of Chariots,” Ramses said. “So let it be written. So let it be done.”
Djehuty bowed his head again. If Pharaoh commands that I obey a baboon with a purple arse, I will obey, he thought. Mek-andrus was obviously part Nubian, too, with skin the color of a barley loaf and a flat nose. The will of Pharaoh is as the decrees of fate.
The foreigner moved to the sand table and picked up a wooden pointer. “This is the ground on which we must fight,” he said. His Egyptian was fluent, but it had a sharp nasal accent like nothing any of the Khemites had ever heard before. “As seen from far above.”
All the officers had had the concept explained to them. Some were still looking blank-eyed; Djehuty nodded and looked down with comprehension. There was the straight north-south reach of the coast of Canaan, with the coastal plain narrowing to nothing where the inland hills ran almost to water’s edge; a bay north of that, where a river ran into the sea. The river marked a long trough, between the hills and the mountains of Galilee to the north, and it was the easiest way from the sea inland to the big lake and the Jordan valley.
“The Hittites, the men of Kar-Duniash, the Mariyannu of the Asiatic cities, the Aramanaean tribes, and their allies are approaching from the northeast, thirty-five thousand strong not counting their auxiliaries and camp followers, according to the latest reports.”
The pointer traced a line down through Damascus, over the heights, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, then northwest from Bet Shean.
“Of those, at least five thousand are infantry equipped with fire weapons, with thirty cannon, and four thousand chariots.”
None of the Egyptian commanders stirred; there was a low mutter of sound as the Sherdana mercenary commander translated for his monoglot subordinates, their odd-looking helmets with the circle of feathers all round bending together.
“Favored of the Son of Ra,” Djehuty said. “If we are here”—he pointed to a place half a day’s march before the point where the coastal plain pinched out—”can they reach the sea and hold the passes over Carmel against us?”
Mek-andrus nodded; he no longer smiled with such boorish frequency as he had when he first came to Egypt. “That is the question. They were here”—he tapped the place where the Jordan emerged from Galilee—”yesterday at sunset.”
Another rustling. That was a longer distance than they had to travel, but it was over flat land with supplies to hand; in time of peace the harvest of the Jezreel went to Pharaoh’s storehouses. The Egyptian force must cross mountains.
“Thutmose did it,” Mek-andrus said. “If we take this pass”—his finger tapped—”as the Great One’s predecessor did, we can be here and deployed to meet them before they expect us.”
Thutmose . . ., Djehuty thought. Then: Ah. One of the great Pharaohs of the previous dynasty, the one that had petered out after the Accursed of Amun tried to throw down the worship of the gods. His eyes narrowed as he watched Mek-andrus. How did the outland dog know so much of Khem? Djehuty knew the barbarian didn’t read the Egyptian script, so he couldn’t have simply read the story off a temple wall the way a literate, civilized man might. The fire weapons themselves weren’t sorcery, just a recipe, like cooking—plain saltpeter and sulfur and charcoal, whatever the peasants might think. But there was something not quite canny about Mek-andrus himself.
Yet the gods have sent him to us. Without Mek-andrus, the Hittites and Achaeans and other demon-begotten foreigners who knew not the Black Land or the Red would have had the new weapons all to their own. That would have been as bad as the time long ago when the Hyksos came with their chariots, before any Egyptian had seen a horse, and it had taken a long night of subjection and war to expel them.
“Who should take the vanguard?” Pharaoh asked.
Mek-andrus bowed. “Let Pharaoh choose the commander who has both wisdom and bravery . . . and many cannon, so that they can hold off the enemy host until the whole army of Pharaoh is deployed.”
Remote as jackal-headed Anubis deciding the fate of a soul in the afterworld, Pharaoh’s eyes scanned his generals.
Djehuty fell on his face as the flail pointed to him. “Djehuty of the Brigade of Seth. The vanguard shall be yours. Prepare to move as soon as you may. You shall cross the pass and hold the ground for the rest of our armies. So let it be written! So let it be done!”
It was a great honor . . . and possibly the death sentence for the Brigade of Seth.
Djehuty slid gracelessly down off the horse, keeping a tight grip on the reins as it whinnied and shied sideways. Its iron shoes struck sparks from the rocks beside the trail. The column was winding its way upwards, through rocky hills covered in resin-scented pine forest, towards the saddle between two peaks. He tossed the reins to a groom and walked back down the narrow twisting passage—it would be boastful to give it the name of road—as the sweating files of infantry and charioteers made their way upwards. The chariots were no problem; even the heavier new models could still be lifted easily by two strong men when the going became very rough. The cannon, though . . .
A wheel lurched over a rock and came down with a slamming bang that made him wince as if his testicles were being drawn back up into his gut. He let out a sigh of relief as the wheel stayed in one piece and the tough Nubian ebony of the axle didn’t crack.
“Halt!” he called. “You, Senefer—get a company of infantry up here, a hundred men, and ropes.” They could repeat the process with each gun from this point to the saddle of the pass, changing the infantry companies as needed.
He ran a hand along the sweating neck of the lead horse in the gun team, murmuring soothingly when it blew out its lips in weary protest.
“Peace, brother of the field of war,” he said. “So, so, my pretty. Soon you may rest.”
An officer must be thrifty with Pharaoh’s goods. There was no sense in killing valuable horses with overwork when peasants were available.
“I do not like the thought of cowering in a hole,” Djehuty said.
The valley stretched out before him, land flat and marshy in spots, in others fertile enough even by an Egyptian’s standards. Stubble stood sere on that half of the plowland that made this year’s harvested fields, blond-white and knee high; the fallow was densely grown with weeds. Olive trees grew thick on the hills that rose on either side of the southeastward trend of the lowlands; orchards of fig and pomegranate stood around hamlets of dark mud brick, and green leafy vineyards that would produce the famed Wine of the North. These lands were well-peopled, a personal estate of Pharaoh and on a route that carried much trade from the north in times of peace.
“All the courage in the world won’t stop a bullet,” Mek-andrus said. “A man in a hole—a rifle pit—can load and fire more easily, and still be protected from the enemy’s bullets. They must stand and walk forward to attack; and the Divine Son of Ra has ordered us to defend.”
Djehuty made a gesture of respect at the Pharaoh’s name. “So he has,” he said. You purple-arsed baboon, he thought to himself. Pharaoh was a living god, but a commander in the field was not always bound by his sovereign’s orders—it was the objective that counted. And occasionally Egyptians had committed deicide . . . No. He thrust the thought from him. That was a counsel of desperation, and Ramses had been a good Pharaoh, strong and just.
“How do you advise that we deploy, then?” Djehuty said.
He looked back. The land fell rapidly from the saddle, and most of the Brigade of Seth were out, forming up in solid blocks.
“Let us keep the pass to our backs,” the foreigner said.
“So—half of a circle?” Djehuty said, making a curving gesture.
“No, not today. That would disperse the fire of our guns. Instead—”
Mek-andrus began to draw in the dirt with a bronze-tipped stick he carried. “Two redoubts, little square earth forts, on either end of a half circle whose side curves away from the enemy. That way they can give enfilading fire.”
“Please, O Favored of the Divine Horus, speak Egyptian; I plead my ignorance.”
Mek-andrus looked up sharply. Djehuty gave him a bland smile; let him see how a civilized man controlled his emotions.
The foreigner nodded. He held both hands out, fingers splayed, then crossed those fingers to make a checkerboard. “Enfilading fire means that the paths of the balls or grapeshot from the cannon cross each other so,” he said. “Instead of one path of destruction, they overlap and create a whole field where nothing can live.”
The Egyptian’s eyes went wide. He struggled within his head, imagining . . . and he had seen what cannon could do. Those Nubians who tried to raid the fort, he thought. A great wedge had been cut through their mass, as if sliced by the knife of a god. Within that triangle only shattered bone and spattered flesh had remained. Some of it still twitching and screaming. In his mind’s eye he overlapped that broad path of death with thirty more, and put Hittite charioteers in place of naked blacks with horn-tipped spears. His hand went of itself to the outlander’s shoulder.
“I see your word!” he exclaimed, smiling broadly. “Your word is a thing of beauty. And how shall we place the musketeers?”
Djehuty’s son listened closely, waiting in silence until Mek-andrus strode away. “Father and lord,” he said hesitantly. “Is it possible that . . . some among us have been mistaken concerning the outlander.”
His father shook his head. “He knows much,” he said. “But it is still a violation of ma’at, of the order of things, that an outlander should stand so close to the Great One. And to be granted a Royal woman as his wife! Not even the Great King of the Hittites was given such honor, when we were allied with them and at peace. No,” he went on, dropping his voice. “The day will come when the foreign dog who knows not the Red Land or the Black will have taught us all he knows. On that day . . .”
Father and son smiled, their expressions like a wolf peering into a mirror. Then Djehuty raised his voice: “Officers of Five Hundred, of a Hundred. Attend me!”
“They come,” the Medjay scout wheezed, pointing behind himself with his spear. His body was naked save for a gourd penis sheath and his skin shone like polished onyx with sweat. His tongue lolled, his smell rose rank, compounded of seldom washing and the cow tallow mixed with ochre smeared on his hair. “Their scouts chased me, but I lost them in rough ground.”
Djehuty nodded; the Nubian mercenaries in Pharaoh’s host were recruited from desert nomads south of the great bend of the Nile—hunters, herders, and bandits. They could outrun horses, given time, loping along at their tireless long-legged trot. And they could track a ghost over naked rock, or hide in their own shadows. Djehuty knew it too well. His first command had been patrols along the southern frontier. You didn’t forget waking up and finding a sentry with his throat cut and his genitals stuffed into his mouth, and nobody in camp any the wiser until the Ark of Ra lifted over the horizon. That was Medjay humor . . . but they were useful, no doubt of that, and true to their salt.
“Many?” he said.
“Many,” the barbarian confirmed, opening and closing his hands rapidly. “As a Real Man runs”—that was their heathen name for themselves—”an hour’s distance.”
“Fetch my war harness,” he said to his son. To a runner: “A message to the captains that the enemy approaches.”
His chariot came up, the plumes on the team’s heads nodding, and the Egyptian commander ducked into the leather shirt of iron scales. Sweat soaked the linen backing almost immediately; he lowered the helmet over his head and buckled the strap below his chin. The sunlight was painful on the bronze and gold that decked the light wicker and bentwood of the car, and the iron tires shrunk onto the wooden wheels. He climbed aboard, his son after him; the boy made a production of checking the priming on shotguns and pistols, but he was a good lad, conscientious. More eager than was sensible, but this would be his first real battle.
“Keep your head,” his father warned, his voice gruff. “It’s the cool-blooded man lives long on the threshing ground of battle.”
“I’m not afraid, Father!” Sennedjem said. His voice started low but broke in a humiliating squeak halfway through. He flushed angrily; his mother had been Djehuty’s first woman, a fair-skinned Libyan captive, and the boy’s olive tan was a little lighter than most men of Lower Egypt.
“That’s the problem, lad,” Djehuty grinned. “You should be frightened.” He turned his attention to the work of the day.
The signal fire on top of the bare-sloped hill to the southeast went out. “Soon now,” Djehuty said.
Dust gave the chariots away. The Egyptian squinted; his vision had grown better for distant things in the last few years, worse for close work. Chariot screen, he thought. Thrown forward to keep the Egyptians from getting a close look at their enemy’s force before they deployed for battle. Whoever commanded the enemy host was no fool. Now he must do the same. Without a close description of his position, the enemy commander would be handicapped.
“Forward!” he barked.
Well-drilled, the squadrons fanned out before him. The driver clucked to his charges, touched their backs gently with the reins, and the willing beasts went forward. Walk, canter, trot; the dry, hard ground hammered at his feet below the wicker floor of the war-cart. He compensated with an instinctive flexing of knees and balance, learned since childhood. The enemy grew closer swiftly with the combined speed of both chariot fleets, and he could feel his lips draw back in a grin of carnivore anticipation.
Syrians, he thought, as details became plain—spiked bronze helmets, horsehair plumes, long coats of brass scales rippling like the skins of serpents, curled black beards and harsh beak-nosed faces. Mariyannu warriors of the northern cities, some rebellious vassals of Pharaoh, some from the Hittite domains or the ungoverned borderlands.
They came in straggling clumps and bands, by ones and twos, fighting as ever by town and by clan. He could see the drivers leaning forward, shouting to the horses in their uncouth gutturals, the fighters reaching for arrows to set to their bows.
“We’ll show them our fire,” he said.
A feather fan mounted on a yard-long handle stood in a holder at his side. He snatched it out and waved to left and right. The Egyptian formation curled smoothly forward on either hand. Fast as ever, he thought—the new harness let a team pull the heavier chariots without losing speed or agility. A drumming of hooves filled the air with thunder, a choking white dust curled up like the sandstorms of Sinai. The horses rocked into a gallop, nostrils flared and red, foam flecking their necks. The first arrows arched out, the bright sun winking off their points. Djehuty sneered: much too far for effective archery. Dust boiled up into the unmerciful sky, thick and acrid on his tongue. Soon . . .
“Amun! Amun! The Divine Horus!” the Egyptians roared. Savage war cries echoed back from the enemy.
“Gun!” he barked, holding out a hand. Check-patterned acacia wood slapped into it as Sennedjem put the weapon in his hand.
Thumping sounds smashed through the roar of hooves and thunder of wheels. Syrian chariots went over, and the high womanish screaming of wounded horses was added to the uproar. Djehuty crouched, raking back the hammers with his left palm and then levelling the weapon. Now. An enemy chariot dashing in out of the dust in a dangerously tight curve, one wheel off the ground. Close enough to see the wild-eyed glare of the Mariyannu poised with a javelin in one hand. Bring the wedge at the front of the paired barrels to the notch at the back. It wasn’t so different from using a bow, the body adjusting like a machine of balanced springs; but easier, easier, no effort of holding the draw. Squeeze the trigger, nothing jerky about the motion . . .
Whump. The metal-shod butt of the shotgun punished his shoulder. Flame and sulfur-stinking smoke vomited from the barrels, along with thirty lead balls. Those were invisible—strange to think of something moving too fast to see—but he shouted in exultation as he saw them strike home. The horses reared and screamed and tripped as the lead raked them, the driver went over backward.
“Gun!” Djehuty roared, and Sennedjem snatched away the empty one and slapped the next into his father’s grasp, then went to work biting open cartridges, hands swift on ramrod and priming horn. Djehuty fired again. “Gun!” Sennedjem put a charged weapon in his grip. “Gun!”
They plunged through the dust cloud and out into the open; the surviving Syrian chariots were in full retreat. Others lay broken, some with upturned wheels still spinning. One right at his own horse’s feet, and the driver pulled their team around. A wounded Mariyannu stumbled forward with a long spear held in both hands; Djehuty shot him at ten paces distance, and the bearded face splashed away from its understructure of bone. Some of the shot carved grooves of brightness through the green-coated bronze of the man’s helmet. Out of the corner of his eye he was conscious of Sennedjem reloading the spent shotgun, priming the pans and waiting poised.
“Pull up,” Djehuty rasped. “Sound rally.”
The driver brought the team to a halt. Sennedjem sheathed the shotgun and brought out a slender brass horn. Its call sounded shrill and urgent through the dull diminishing roar of the skirmish. Man after man heard it; the Captains of a Hundred brought their commands back into formation. Djehuty took the signal fan from its holder and waved it.
Meanwhile he looked to the northeast. More dust there, a low sullen cloud of it that caught the bright sunlight. He waited, and a rippling sparkle came from it, filling vision from side to side of the world ahead of them like stars on a night-bound sea.
“Father, what’s that?” Sennedjem blurted; he was looking pale, but his eyes and mouth were steady. Djehuty clipped him across the side of the head for speaking without leave, but lightly.
“Light on spearpoints, lad,” he said grimly. “Now it begins.”
The redoubt was a five-sided figure of earth berms; there were notches cut in the walls for the muzzles of the cannon, and obstacles made of wooden bars set with sharp iron blades in the ditches before it. Djehuty waited atop the rampart for the enemy heralds; they carried a green branch for peace, and a white cloth on a pole as well—evidently the same thing, by somebody else’s customs. And flags, one with white stars on a blue ground and red-and-white stripes. His eyes widened a little. He had heard of that flag. Another beside it had similar symbols, and cryptic glyphs, thus: U.S. Coast Guard. He shivered a little, inwardly. What wizardry was woven into that cloth? A touch at his amulet stiffened him. Gilded eagles topped the staffs, not the double-headed version of the Hittites, but sculpted as if alive with their wings thrust behind them and their claws clutching arrows and olive branches.
So that is why the strangers from the far west are called the Eagle People, he thought. It must be their protector-god. He nodded; whatever else you could say about them, they must be wise in the ways of war.
“I am Djehuty, Commander of the Brigade of Seth in the army of Pharaoh, User-Ma’at-Ra, son of Ra, Ramses of the line of Ramses, the ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt,” he barked. “Speak.”
“Commodore Marian Alston,” the figure in black-enameled steel armor said. He lifted off his helm. No, she, by the Gods—the rumors speak truth. Odd, but we had a woman as Pharaoh once, and she led armies. Djehuty’s eyes went wider. The enemy commander was a Nubian; not part-blood like Mek-andrus, but black as polished ebony. His eyes flicked to the others sitting their horses beside her. One was a woman too, yellow-haired like some Achaeans; another was a man of no race he knew, with skin the color of amber and eyes slanted at the outer ends; the other two looked like Sherden from the north shore of the Middle Sea as far as their coloring went, although their hair was cropped close. A Sudunu stood uneasily by the foreign woman’s stirrup; he stepped forward and bowed with one hand to his flowerpot hat to keep it from falling off.
“I shall interpret, noble Djehuty,” he said uneasily; the Egyptian was fluent, but with the throaty accent of his people. Djehuty glared for a second. Byblos, Sidon, and the other coastal cities of Canaan were vassals of Pharaoh; what was this treacherous dog doing aiding his enemies? Then he nodded curtly. Sudunu would do anything for wealth.
“Tell this woman that no foreigner goes armed in Pharaoh’s dominions without his leave, on pain of death. If she and her rabble leave at once, I may be merciful.”
The Sudunu began to speak in Akkadian, the Babylonian tongue. Djehuty could follow it a little; it was the tongue kings used to write to each other, and not impossibly different from the language of the western Semites, which he did speak after a fashion. The interpreter was shading the meaning. That often happened, since such a man was eager to avoid offending anyone.
“Tell her exactly, as I told you—don’t drip honey on it,” he broke in.
The swarthy, scrawny man in the embroidered robe swallowed and began again. The black woman gave a slight, bleak smile.
“Lord Djehuty,” the interpreter began. “Commodore—that is a rank, lord—Alston says that she is empowered by her . . . lord, the word means Ruler, I think—Ruler of an island across the River Ocean—and the Great King of the Hittites, and the Great King of Kar-Duniash, and their other allies, to demand the return of George McAndrews, a renegade of her people. If you will give us this man, the allied forces will return past the border of Pharaoh Ramses’ dominions, and peace may return.”
Djehuty puzzled over the words for a moment before he realized that the name was Mek-andrus, the outland favorite of Ramses. “Barbarians make no demands of Pharaoh,” he snapped. Although I would send him to you dragged by the ankles behind my chariot, if the choice were mine. “They beg for his favor, or feel the flail of his wrath. Go, or die.”
The coal-black face gave a slight nod. No, not a Medjay, Djehuty thought with an inner chill. Except in color and cast of feature. They were like fierce children, their ka plain on their faces. This one had discipline; doubly remarkable in a woman. And she showed no sign of fear, under the muzzles of his guns. She must know what they can do. Mek-andrus is of her people.
If the stranger was a renegade from the service of his King, much was explained. He schooled his own face.
“Pharaoh commands; as it is written, so shall it be done,” he replied. “This parley is over. Depart his soil, at once.”
The twelve-pounder leapt back, up the sloping ramp of dirt the gunners had shovelled behind it, then back down again into battery. Stripped to their loincloths, the crew threw themselves into action. One man shoved a pole with a wet sponge down the muzzle, twisting and withdrawing it, and the hot metal hissed. The powder came forward in a dusty-looking linen cylinder, to be rammed down with a wad of hemp and then the leather sack of lead balls. Stinking smoke drifted about them, and the confused roaring noise of battle, but the men labored on, wet with sweat, their faces blackened by powder fumes until their eyes stared out like white flecks in a black mask, burns on their limbs where they had brushed against the scorching bronze of the cannon.
These are men, Djehuty thought, slightly surprised. More than that, they are men worthy to be called iw’yt, real soldiers.
He wasn’t sure about the warriors surging about his line, but whatever they were, they didn’t discourage easily. He squinted through the thick smoke that stung his eyes, ignoring the dryness of his tongue—they were short of water, and he meant to make what he had last. This band of the foe looked a little like Hittites, stocky and hairy and big-nosed, but taller and fairer, and their gear was different. They didn’t shave the front of their heads, either.
Here they came again, over ground covered with their dead. Swarms of them, sending a shower of javelins before them as they came closer.
BAAAAMMMM. BAAAAMMM. The guns were firing more slowly now, conserving their ammunition. Grapeshot cut bloody swathes through the attackers, but they kept on. Dead men dropped improvised ladders of logs and sticks; others picked them up and came forward. Their cries grew into a deep bellowing; the first ranks dropped into the ditch around the redoubt, where the spiked barricades were covered with bodies. Others climbed up, standing on their shoulders to scramble up the sloping dirt or setting up their scaling ladders. Some of them knew enough to cringe at the sound that came through shouts and cannonade. The sound of thumbs cocking back the hammers of their muskets.
“Now!” Djehuty shouted, swinging his fan downwards.
All along the parapet, hundreds of musketeers stood up from their crouch and leveled their pieces downward into the press of attackers.
A noise that thudded into chest and gut, like one long shot that went on for a full second. A fresh fogbank of smoke drifted away, showing the ruin below—the muskets had been loaded with what Mek-andrus called buck and ball, a musket ball and several smaller projectiles. The ditch was filled with shapes that heaved and moaned and screamed, and the smell was like an opened tomb that had drained a sewer. Djehuty winced, very slightly; he was a hardy man and bred to war, but it was one thing to see men fall pierced with arrows, or gashed with the sword, but this . . . this was something else. Not even the actions in the south had prepared him for it; the barbarians there were too undisciplined to keep charging into certain death as these men had.
“They run away, Father!” Sennedjem said.
“Down!” Djehuty barked.
Everyone in the little earth fort took cover. Away in the gathering dusk, lights blinked like angry red eyes. A long whistling screech came from overhead, and then the first explosion. The enemy cannon were better than the ones Mek-andrus had made in Khem; instead of firing just solid roundshot or grape, they could throw shells that exploded themselves—and throw them further. He dug his fingers into the earth, conscious mainly of the humiliation of it. He, Commander of the Brigade of Seth, whose ancestors had been nobles since the years when the Theban Pharaohs expelled the Hyksos , cowering in the dirt like a peasant! But the fire-weapons were no respecters of rank or person. And they will shred my Brigade of Seth like meat beneath the cook’s cleaver. So Pharaoh had ordered . . . and it might be worth it, if it turned the course of the battle to come.
Earth shuddered under his belly and loins. He had a moment to think, and it froze him with his fingers crooked into the shifting clay. Why only cannon? he thought. From the reports and rumors, the newcomers had taught their allies to make muskets too, and better ones than the Egyptians had—something to do with twisting grooves inside the barrels. Yet all the infantry and chariots his Brigade had met here were armed with the old weapons; some of them fashioned of iron rather than bronze, but still spear, sword, bow, javelin.
The barrage let up. He turned his head, and felt his liver freeze with fear. Sennedjem was lying limp and pale, his back covered in blood. Djehuty scrambled to him, ran hands across the blood-wet skin. Breath of life and pulse of blood, faint but still there. He prayed to the gods of healing and clamped down; there, something within the wound. A spike of metal, still painfully hot to the touch. He took it between thumb and forefinger, heedless of the sharp pain in his own flesh, and pulled. His other hand pressed across the wound while he roared for healers, bandages, wine and resin to wash out the hurt. When they came he rose, forcing himself to look away and think as his son was borne to the rear.
“I don’t like the smell of this,” he muttered, and called for a runner. “Go to the commander of the northernmost brigade of Pharaoh’s army,” he said. “Find why they delay, and return quickly. Say that we are hard-pressed.”
“Back!” Djehuty snarled.
He smashed the pommel of the sword into the fleeing spearman’s face, feeling bone crunch. The witless howl of panic stopped as the man dropped boneless. Behind Djehuty, the men of his personal guard leveled their double-barreled shotguns, and the madness faded out of the faces of the soldiers who’d panicked. Those who still held their spears lowered them, and in the uncertain light of dawn he could see them shuffle their feet and drop their eyes.
“If you run from death, it follows you—and death runs fast,” Djehuty said, his voice firm but not angry. “Remember that it is ruin to run from a fight, for you cannot fight and flee, but the pursuer can still strike at your naked back as he chases you. Return to your positions.”
“Sir—” one said, desperate. “Lord, the thunderbolts strike us and we cannot strike back!”
“I know,” Djehuty said. The bandage on one forearm reminded them that he ran the same dangers. “But they cannot take our position unless they send men forward to claim it, and those men you can strike.” Those of you still alive. “Return to your companies! Strike the foe!”
He turned, stalking through rows of wounded men groaning on the rocky dirt, through shattered carts and dead horses—someone was skinning them for cooking, at least, and he must find who’d thought to organize parties to fill waterskins—and looked up the pass. Nobody, nobody but his reserves, and they were few enough.
If Pharaoh does not come, we will die here, he thought. Unless he withdrew now, leaving a rearguard . . . No. We have lost too many of our draught beasts. I cannot save the cannon or the chariots. A grim satisfaction: I have done my part, and my men as well. If the plan fails, it is not our doing. Pharaoh’s doing . . . he thrust the thought from him.
Then there was something in the pass: a messenger. A mounted messenger, plunging recklessly down the steep rocky way, leaning back with feet braced in the stirrups as his horse slid the final dozen yards almost in a sitting position. It hung its lathered head as the messenger drummed heels on its ribs and came over to him, wheezing as its flanks heaved like a bronzesmith’s bellows.
The man looked nearly as done-in as his horse, his face a mask of dust. “Here,” Djehuty said, passing over his waterskin.
The man sucked at it eagerly; the water was cut with one-fifth part of sour wine.
“Lord,” he gasped after a moment. “From Pharaoh.”
He offered a scroll of papyrus; Djehuty touched it to his forehead in the gesture of respect and broke the seal to read eagerly, his eyes skipping easily over the cursive demotic script, so different from the formal hieroglyphs of sculpture and temple.
Enemy ships with many guns at the Gateway of the North, he read, and grunted as if shot in the belly. That was the fortress of Gaza, the anchor of the Royal Road up the coast. Only if it was securely held could even a single man return to Khem across the deserts of Sinai. Troops armed with fire-weapons are landing and investing the fortress. Pharaoh marches to meet them. Hold your position at all hazards; you are the rear guard.
Djehuty grunted again, as a man might when he had just been condemned to death. That was where the cream of the enemy forces had gone, right enough.
“Sir!” Another messenger, one of his own men, and on foot. “Sir, the enemy attack!”
The steel kopesh was lead-heavy in Djehuty’s hand as he retreated another step; the ring of Egyptians grew smaller as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the standard.For Khem, he thought, and slashed backhand. The edge thudded into the rim of an Aramanaean’s shield, and the leather-covered wicker squeezed shut on the blade. The nomad shrieked glee and wrenched, trying to tear the weapon from the Egyptian’s hand. Djehuty’s lips bared dry teeth as he smashed the boss of his own into the man’s face, then braced a foot on his body to wrench the sickle-sword free. For Sennedjem! he thought, swinging it down. Distracted, he did not see the spearhead that punched into his side just below the short ribs. Bent over, wheezing, he saw the spearman staring incredulously at the way the bronze point had bent over double against the iron scales of his armor, then scream frustration and club the spear to use the shaft as a bludgeon. Exhaustion weighed down his limbs as he struggled to turn, to bring up shield and blade. Something struck him again, he couldn’t tell where, and the world went gray. His last thought was that the earth tasted of salt with blood.
Bits of the formulae for addressing the Judge of the Dead flitted through Djehuty’s head along with blinding pain as his eyelids fluttered open. But it was not jackal-headed Anubis who bent over him, but a foreigner with a cup of water. The Egyptian sucked it down gratefully before he thought to wonder at it.
Prisoner, he thought. I must be a prisoner. But he was not bound, and beneath him lay a folding cot with a canvas bead, not the hard ground. He turned his head carefully. He was under a great awning, amid rows of others. Sennedjem! His son lay not far away. Djehuty gasped relief to see his chest rising under a mummy’s swath of bandages. But what was held in the clear glass bottle that was connected to his arm by a flexible tube?
Djehuty’s eyes went wide when he realized that the same piece of sorcerer’s apparatus drained into his own arm. Gradually the fear died, and the pain in his head became less. When the foreigner’s black commander came, he was able to stare back with something approaching dignity as she sat on a folding stool beside his cot.
She spoke, and the Sudunu interpreter relayed the words:
“You and your men fought very well.”
Djehuty blinked, then nodded. Nevertheless, the scales had swung against him. “You deceived us very well. Ransom?” he went on without much hope.
She shook her head. “When the war is over, we will release all our prisoners.”
Djehuty blinked again, this time in surprise, caught between relief and doubt. It would take a strong commander to deny victorious troops the plunder of victory, and the sale of prisoners was an important part of that. Even Pharaoh, the living God, might have difficulties. With an effort, he fought down bitterness against Ramses; what the Pharaoh decreed, must be done . . . even if it destroyed the Brigade of Seth at the word of the foreigner Mek-andrus.
“Your king must be a ruler of great power,” he said.
“We have no king,” she said, and smiled slightly at his bafflement. “We come from . . . very far away,” she said. “In distance and years. You might call us exiles.”
“Your whole nation?” he said in bafflement, as the explanation went on. Powerful sorcery.
“No,” she went on. “Just one small island of us, and a ship. So we were stranded here and now.”
“Ah,” Djehuty said bitterly. “And with arts of war like none we know, you seek to carve out a great empire.”
Long black fingers knotted into a fist on a trousered knee. “No. Some of us saw that they might become kings here, with what they knew. The rest of us . . . must fight to enforce our law upon them.”
“No king . . .” Djehuty frowned. “I find that hard to believe. Only a powerful king can make a people strong in war.”
She shook her head. “That is not so, Djehuty of the Brigade of Seth. We have arts that your people do not, is that not so?” He nodded, reluctantly. “Well,” she went on, “not all those arts are arts of war. We have found that one man’s wisdom is not enough to steer a great nation, and how to . . . to melt together the wisdom of many.”
“I do not understand.”
“Let me tell you,” she said, “of a thing we call a Constitution, which is a government of laws and not of men . . .”
When she rose with a promise to return and speak more, his head was whirling as badly as it had when the spearshaft clubbed him. He heard words in the foreign commander’s language:
“And that’ll cause a lot more trouble than gunpowder, in the long run.”
“Wait,” he said. “One thing—what name will this battle be given? Surely it is a greater one than Kadesh, even.” Let the chronicles remember it, and with it the name of Djehuty. Chronicles that did not lie, like the ones that called Kadesh a victory for Ramses.
She turned, smiling wryly. “We will name it from the hill that overlooks the battlefield,” she said. “Har-Megiddo. Armagedon , in our tongue.”