The unsteady rocks gave way. The alabaster chalice flew from her hand, smashing to pieces on the valley floor below, spilling its lode of oil and sweetmeats. Hetephras pitched forward, a scream caught in her mouth. The wig saved her from dashing her brains out on the sharp rocks as she rolled swiftly downward. The landslide that had caused her accident now served as a kind of steep, sloping causeway to the floor of the valley. Her shoulder twinged as she tumbled, and she tasted blood. A rib cracked, and the sharp rocks stabbed her thin shanks. She landed with a soft thud on the valley floor.
Hetephras lay gasping. Aside from her shoulder and rib, she felt no other injury. She laughed weakly, weeping too. "I am not dead!" she said in giddy relief. "I'm not dead!" She moaned as she sat up. She would be horribly bruised, crippled even, but indeed, she was still alive.
A rustling from behind silenced her. Dark shapes began to emerge from the earth itself. Dark, animal shapes -- beasts with ears and snouts. She gasped. Hyenas and jackals, even the occasional lion, were known to prowl the Great Place at times. All around her the animals sprang up, and fear cleared the clouds from her eyes. She opened her mouth to scream --
Yet before she could utter a sound, the first true rays of the sun reached their length into the valley and she saw -- she saw! -- no pack of slavering beasts but the golden faces of the gods themselves! Anubis the jackal god, Thoth, Set...Horus the hawk! And everywhere, everywhere the flash of gold emanated from them as the sun's rays caught their unblinking eyes.
The old priestess was seized with a holy rapture, which drove away all her pain. Here, today, after so many years, she was graced at last to meet the gods of Egypt in their incorruptible flesh of gold!
"Ay-aa!" she cried out in reverence.
"It's Hetephras!" one of the gods said. He seemed to be in as much wonder as the old woman.
"Yes! Yes! I see you, August One! I know who you are!" Hetephras burbled. "My eyes see everything now!" But somewhere at the rim of her consciousness another thought nagged. Curious that the god -- she believed it to be ibis-headed Thoth -- curious that he reminded her of someone she knew, someone against whom she held a recent grudge...
"What will we do?" Thoth faced the other gods, his youthful voice querulous. For gods they seemed extremely perplexed. But Hetephras had not much time to wonder.
It was the god Horus who walked decisively to where Hetephras lay. She raised her face to him with a smile so completely believing, her cloudy eyes turned so joyously upward, that for the briefest moment the god hesitated. And then he reached into his belt. He held something high. Hetephras could vaguely see the flash of cold blue metal in the sun's rays before it came down.
The axe bit deep into her neck, tearing across her throat and spilling blood down the front of her linen sheath. Her blue wig was knocked from her head, and it tumbled down the rest of the sloping valley like a weed in a windstorm. The bald old woman raised her hands in feeble supplication. The axe raised high again, and once more descended.
Hetephras, without further sound, entered the Gates of Darkness.
It was the last night of the Osiris Festival, and bonfires lit every street corner in Thebes. The avenues overflowed with riotous Egyptians. Foreigners were there, too, invited by Pharaoh from tributary nations to attend the Osiris festivities. They were easily distinguished from the Egyptians -- their dress was barbarously colored, the men were bearded, and their women did not even shave their heads. The fastidious Egyptians averted their noses at the outsiders' oily reek. The foreigners were barefaced, too, not intelligent enough to know that during the Osiris Festival one went about sensibly masked. It was the only time of year when Osiris allowed his dead subjects to revel with the living. Practical Thebans wore masks lest a resentful spirit, the enemy of some ancient ancestor, had come to the festival to harm them. Unconcerned, the foreigners instead gazed at the wonders of Thebes, barefaced and unprotected.
Copyright © 2005 by Brad Geagley
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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