Kuhre fingered the binding of the knot. It was her collar, constant reminder that she belonged to Sekmeht.
There were ways the knots, complex though they were, could be untied, but there was little chance of such a thing, little profit in untying. She never imagined it, never even dreamed of it.
The collar, the knots, were crafted in finely braided red flax. This collar contained a high magic. Kuhre knew that only a priestess could remove it. If she herself discarded it, the goddess would find her--in the day, in the night--in the Red Land, or the Black--and eat her, liver first, as lions customarily did.
Jaws dripping silver in the moonlight, a crocodile yawned. Kuhre could smell creature, the dangerous muddy reek on the faint breeze which floated across the water. She imagined her churning the brown Nile with her great tail, a cloud of blood welling in the shallows. She had seen this once, another child--her older brother--playing too close to the shore, taken, right before her eyes. The great creature had popped from the element of water onto the shore, and then was gone. The instant of flying mud and failing limbs had left behind only a shriek, his last cry hanging like a stricken bird in the buzzing, superheated air. How here parents had grieved, shaving their eyebrows! Kuhre had wept, too, although she'd felt more shock than grief for the brother, the child her parents most favored. Soon after, in the famine time, her parents had delivered Kuhre up to the temple and left her there, not seeming to care if she would serve there, or be sold as a slave in Canopus.
That long ago afternoon had left Kuhre with a terrified fascination for the armored one, these children of Sobek, Lord of the Dark Water. She had learned the safest time to watch them in the papyrus swamp below the temple was at night, when they were sleepy and cold, but the death she’d witnessed had taught a her a lesson, about how Death walked always at your side. Death could come and seize you in her black jaws in an eye blink. Laughter could, in an instant, become a scream, and you would be no more. Devoured, body gone, your Ka would be lost, doomed to wander forever in the realms of utter night.
Kuhre knew she was in little danger here, atop the flat sanctuary wall, lying on her belly, a white linen shawl wrapped around her against the chill, gazing down at the lush scene --the lazy curve of the backwater--the papyrus, the low spreading pads of the lotus, their flowers closed tight like sleeping eyes, the tall palms outlined against the sable arch of Nut, her star children sparkling upon her curved belly. It was night, the great blinding heat of Ra behind--and ahead. Kuhre knew that as servant here, she had no father, no mother, no past, no future, only the Goddess whom she had been brought to serve seven inundations past.
Ah, the Goddess! If any of her lamps went out, old Kennet would have her hide! Thinking of that, Kuhre finally arose. After first stretching her slim brown body against the velvet sky, she dropped down onto the other side of the still warm brick wall, into the holy precinct's well-watered garden.
She loved her ferocious Goddess. She enjoyed most of her simple tasks, keeping the holy rooms swept clean, and the altars dressed with flowers, although she did not particularly love washing the piss of the sacred cats from the feet of statues and the tall papyrus inspired columns. She loved dancing and singing for Sekmeht, shaking the sistrum, performing with the other girls beneath those cat eyes of palest gold, while the priests and priestesses chanted or sang the hymns that praised her. In the night, led within the darkest holiest place, the small temple within a temple, she had once been allowed to look upon the smallest and most perfect golden statue of Sekmeht, the light forever shining upon her, the ureaus crown gracing her lion’s head.
Carefully padding through the garden, reed sandals squeaking softly as she went, she tugged her shawl close with a shiver. She had stayed longer atop the wall than she had intended, watching death lolling, Sobek’s children spilling silver water from from her scales.
In the garden perfumes lingered. The smell of green, of flowers and trees was pronounced in the dry night air, now flowing into the valley from the desert. There were other smells, too. The strong smells of the sacred lions and leopards who regularly marked certain parts of the garden. They were loose in this place, but Kuhre was not afraid of them. They belonged to Sekmeht, and she belonged to Sekmeht, so there was nothing to fear. They had their moments, when they were cubbing or breeding, when it was not so safe to walk among them, but she was never afraid, never had been, even when she’d first arrived here as a child.
Perhaps she should have been as afraid of the sacred lioness as she was of the crocs. She had, after all, seen two lions eat a man once, and in the same way that cats eat mice. A pounce, a bite, then the screams, the limping attempt at flight, the blood. Another ambush, more screams, then an encouraging slap of a great paw, suggesting escape, followed by another pounce, another broken limb, and so on, until the man’s spine broke, and the game ceased to be interesting. This was how Kuhre knew that lions liked to eat prey belly first, tearing out the soft parts, ignoring the dying gurgles, the useless, flapping hands. She’d sat on the wall and watched, with a mixture of disgust and fascination, along with other temple servants.
Still, she knew the big cats who lived here were not, as a rule, dangerous. Like her brother, the victim had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. That man had been more than heedless; he had been a criminal. The young man was a gentleman from another city, but he was of Egypt, and should have known better. He and his companions had entered the sacred precincts without devotion. Perhaps drunk, they had teased the lions in the garden, and then run. It was just at sundown when this blasphemy occurred; the cats were hungry.
No one interferred, except that the priests came out and drove his impious friends back with whips and staves, prevented them from offering aid. It was clear they had treated the lionesses, (and therefore, the Goddess) with great disrespect. Such flouting of the proper order of things must never be tolerated. The rest of this group, the ones caught by the priests, had gone to the Natrum mines in the desert. Perhaps the leader, the one eaten by the lions, had been given the softer punishment.
So Kuhre walked on, taking the quickest way back to the temple. The moon was old, but still sufficiently gibbous to give good light for her human eyes. She saw the lionesses’ eyes glowing, as they watched her cross the garden, but she did not fear, for she knew they had been well-fed at dusk. On every side, fountains tinkled and night-fallen dew dappled across the leaves. Above, a vast host of trembling stars spangled the night with white, blue and red...
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