They pointed, amazed by the size of the glittering temples and by the long blue and crimson pennants that undulated in the night breezes, flying from high poles whose spires were tipped with crystal and gold. They were stunned by the vastness of the temples' gates, sheathed in silver and bronze, encrusted with gems. They marveled at the height and girth of the temple pylons on which painted carvings depicted Pharaoh's greatest triumphs -- triumphs over their own peoples.
Down at the harbor, crowds of families carried tiny reed boats to the Nile, each containing a wax candle shaped like an enthroned Osiris. In each miniature barque, according to ancient custom, the families had placed a limestone chip or piece of papyrus bearing a written prayer asking Osiris to grant their most cherished wish. At the Nile's edge, where the tall reeds grew, each family's eldest child lit his or her candle and launched their little ship. The current took the fleet of offerings north, to Abydos, where Osiris's body resided in a magnificent tomb. The entire breadth of the Nile was choked with thousands of the glittering miniature craft. Slowly the gentle Nile god gathered them up in his arms and bore them northward until their lights drifted out of sight at the bend in the river. At the river's edge families gazed at the little ships with avid eyes, for surely the good god would grant them their wishes.
One family, that of the stonemason Kaf-re, had at last reached the river after a tiring walk from the masons' quarter. Kaf-re's wife, Wia, held their baby girl in her arms, while their son, four years old, gripped a tiny reed barque in both hands. The children's eyes glowed from behind their palm-bark masks, entranced by the sights they had seen on the way here, and their bellies were full of the honeyed cake their father had bought them with a precious copper.
"Light the candle, sweetheart," Wia urged her son. She pointed to the charcoal brazier placed there for the purpose.
"No," the child said. Wia saw the stubborn line to his jaw harden beneath the palm bark. She knew that line; it was his father's.
Her voice became a little sharper. "Go ahead, silly, or the god won't grant our prayer!" The family had asked for a larger wheat ration from the temple guardians, for Wia was again pregnant.
"But there's nothing to it! Just hold the wick to an ember, and set the boat free by the reeds over there. The river will do the rest. Then we can go home. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Light...the...candle," his father said between clenched teeth.
The little boy screwed up his face. "Don't want to! Not while she's there!" He pointed to something in the dark water. "Scary. Ugly." The child exploded in tears.
"A crocodile!" screamed Wia. Kaf-re lunged forward and caught his son in his arms so swiftly that the child's mask was knocked from his face. Now the boy wailed in earnest.
Wia's panicked screams attracted the attention of a guard at a nearby wharf. He ran to where the family stood, holding high a long spear as he made his way through the throng. At the water's edge, peering into the dark reeds, he aimed the spear carefully. Then he looked closer, slowly lowering his arm.
"Why do you just stand there?" Wia shrieked. "Kill it! Kill it!"
The guard did not answer immediately. "It's not a crocodile," he answered almost apologetically. "And it's already dead."
He called for a torch, and someone brought one from a nearby stanchion. The crowd gathered round and stared. The guard held the torch close to the water...
The linen-clad body of Hetephras bobbed before them, face down, caught in a thicket of reeds. She still wore her gilded pectoral, but her skin was a ghastly, puckered white. In the wavering torchlight, the second gash made by the axe at the back of her skull was clearly visible. Blood and matter oozed from the wound, and a small cloud of tiny minnows darted in and out, feasting. One of her arms was outstretched, seeming to point accusingly toward the city itself. A chorus of gasps and screams filled the quay.
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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