Namose huddled with his brother behind a line of palm trees hiding them from the road leading to the temple. A loud sound reverberated in the air. Shouts and screams followed.
“What was that?” Namose asked.
I don’t know.” Kashe grasped Namose’s shoulder. “We need to enter the temple, find Tira and Merin and escape.”
Namose listened while Kashe explained his plan. He heard shouting coming from the village and froze. “Father.” He shivered and thought of how he’d been his father’s prisoner until Kashe rescued him.
A camel burst from the temple gates and tore past them. The rider evaded an arrow. The animal ran through the barley field and clattered across the bridge over the irrigation canal.
“That was Merin.” Namose crept closer to the road. He saw men carrying his father’s palanquin.
“Namose, come here at once.”
Years of obedience to that voice goaded Namose to respond. He stepped from the hiding place. Kashe caught his ram. “We can’t obey. Run to the barge.”
Namose shook his head. To disobey meant another flogging. “I must go.”
Kashe followed him. “Namose, stay.”
“Kashe of Mero, you are no longer my son.” The nomarch repeated the words three times.
Namose gasped. He froze. Kashe raised his mace and charged the guards surrounding the nomarch. Drawing deep breaths, Namose ran until he reached his brother. As a team back to back they fought their father’s men. Then the action drew them apart, Namose stumbled. As he straightened he saw the priest’s chariot.
The priest’s grin chilled Namose. Like staring into the eyes of a serpent. He couldn’t move. The evil one grabbed Namose’s arm and dragged him into the chariot. Namose struggled but the grip tightened.
Namose watched his brother turn and lunge toward the chariot. He missed. A crowd of the guards surrounded him.
“No!” Namose screamed. He tried to jump from the moving vehicle. The priest’s fist smashed into his jaw. Namose fell to the wicker floor.
“Be still. You are mine.”
“Return my heir,” the nomarch shouted.
“He is mine.” The priest laughed. “I am Hebu, beloved of Aken Re.”
The chariot raced through the barley field crushing plants beneath the wheels. The clatter over the bridge hurt Namose’s ears. He huddled on the floor expecting some disaster during the frantic flight to overturn them. His body slammed against the sides of the car. The jostling brought acid into his throat.
Why had this priest taken him? Namose couldn’t think of a reason. He remained a boy in years, just sixteen years, though in four lunars he would gain another year. Then he would be considered a man.
In time the chariot slowed. Before Namose stood, the priest pressed a foot against his back. He bound Namose’s arms behind his back with a length of leather cord.
“Why did you take me?”
“In time you will learn.” Hebu bent closer. “I have a use for you.” Hebu’s laughter showed no trace of humor. “You’ll serve me and in time you will swear allegiance to Aken Re, the true and only god.”
Never. The words reverberated in his head. Though he didn’t voice his denial, thoughts of defiance filled him with purpose. He would never swear to the god of the Hykons. Of the Three of the Two Lands, Toth had his heart. For that reason he had struggled to learn how to read some of the words written in the ancient language he’d discovered in some of the scrolls his father had “borrowed” from the Toth temple guarding the Valley of the Pharaohs,
Hebu waited while the horse drank from an irrigation canal. Namose wished the priest would offer him a drink. Instead the man emptied the water sack and tossed it aside. Hebu took his place and urged the horse forward.
Namose dozed and woke when the chariot stopped a second time. He rolled to his side and peered through the woven side of the cart. The sun was far to the west.
“Who goes there?” a gruff voice asked.
“Hebu, beloved of Aken Re. Is the boat ready to cross the river?”
Hebu prodded Namose with a booted foot. “Up. If I free your arms will you follow my orders?
Since he had no idea where he was he had no weapons and no choice. He nodded. He wished he was more like his brother. Kashe understood strategy and planning. As the youngest son, Namose hadn’t trained in the ways of a warrior or like the oldest son to rule.
Hebu pulled him from the chariot and freed his arms. Namose sucked in a cry of pain. He refused to let the evil man see him cringe. Needles of pain pricked his hands and arms. He rolled his shoulders to ease the stiffness.
“Pick up the bundle and carry it to the boat,” Hebu said.
Namose obeyed. He limped to the small river craft and stepped on board. He placed the bundle in the tiny shelter near the rear of the deck. Hebu entered the shelter. Namose sank on the deck and leaned against the side.
“Wake me when we near our destination,” Hebu said.
The old man set the sail. A younger man untied the ropes and leaped over the side. He looked at the old man. “I’ll take over when you’re tired.”
The boatman nodded. He gestured to Namose. “Boy, can you man the sweep?”
“Yes.” Namose moved from his position. “Is there water?”
The old man pointed to a leather flask. “There’s cheese and dates, too.”
Namose drank and carried some of the food to the rear of the boat where he used the long paddle to help guide the direction. Sometime during the night, the aging boatman relieved him. Namose curled on the deck to sleep. As he drifted off he wondered where they headed and if he could escape. Where could he go? He’d never left the compound in Mero.
“Priest, we come to Tebes.”
Namose rubbed his eyes. Could he find a way to leave the priest?
Hebu emerged from the shelter. He handed the bundle to Namose. “Don’t think to escape. I have followers watching for my return.” He waved his hands. Three men saluted.
There was no escape today. Though Namose had sparred with Kashe, Tira and Merin he wasn’t’ fast enough to fight three and expect to win. When the boar touched the dock, he felt chilled. All the men had long knives attached to their belts. He hoisted the bundle and followed Hebu.
Surrounded by the men, he was escorted to where camels waited. Hebu pointed to one carrying supplies. “You’ll ride this one. You can sit like a man or be wrapped in a blanket. Any move toward freedom and that will be your lot.”
Namose cleared his throat. “I’ll ride but I don’t understand why you took me.”
Hebu smiled. “Though your father promised me Kashe would be mine, your brother chose another path. Pian, your oldest brother is dead. Kashe is disowned. You are the heir and more. I also have other reasons to keep you.”
Hebu tapped the bundle. “You are a scholar and I need one.”
Namose bowed his head. He wasn’t a scholar. He was only a boy who liked to read. As to being his father’s heir, Hebu was a fool to believe that would come to pass. A man didn’t order his heir flogged.
He sat on the saddle. His hands were bound so he couldn’t escape. The camel he rode was tied to one belonging to the animal ridden by one of the priest’s companions.
Namose’s spirits fell when they avoided the market. They left Tebes using outlying streets. They rode north and east in the same direction where the Hykons had come to invade the Two Lands.
During the heat of the day a huge tent was pitched. Namose crawled inside and feigned sleep. Before long he heard a chorus of snores. He slid under the edge of the tent and started walking. The sand burned through the soles of his sandals. Perspiration poured from his pores. He slogged until exhaustion brought him to his knees.
“You are a fool.”
Namose sprawled on the sand. The grains rubbed his cheek. Hebu looked down from his seat on a camel. The animal lowered its body. Hebu leaped to the ground and flung Namose belly down in front of the saddle and rode back to the tent. There, once again Namose’s arms were bound.
There is no escape,” Hebu said.