The Gods Among Us Book Two
William L. Deen
Versipellis – Shape-shifting, capable of transforming itself or altering its appearance. Cunning, sly, or crafty.
EGYPT 3000 B.C.
King Hsekiu trudged toward a tall tawny wave of sand. Puddles of grit spread outward with the impact of his steps. His sandals sank and displaced granules returned to cover his feet. On each side and behind him, guards provided safe passage to the perimeter of the war zone. Ahead, he recognized faces of twelve officers gathered at the dune's base. Fifty battle-hardened soldiers took positions nearby. Together, they protected his army's rear flank and best commander, Kneph.
Visits to the battlefield while conflicts still raged were rare for this king. He hesitated when war cries, painful screams, clanging metal, and the clamor of battle echoed from beyond the dune. The reverberation grew in intensity as he drew nearer. Upon seeing him, the officers and troops fell to one knee. He placed a finger to his lips before they could speak, walked past them, and then motioned for his guards to remain behind. Their narrowed eyes and wrinkled brows conveyed their concern with the command.
He ascended the dirt mound to join Commander Kneph and view the ongoing battle. Kneph stood alone atop the mound. His form undulated with waves of warmth rising from the heated desert. Hsekiu lost his balance twice when the soft sands shifted under his feet and strangled his ankles. An extended arm and hand countered the clumsiness. When he reached the dune's peak, he approached quietly, still desiring to keep his presence undetected. He took a moment to evaluate his army's status. Corpses lay scattered across the endless tanned terrain. Dark spots of blood-soaked sand dotted the landscape. Good fortune and the gods insured his soldiers were among the minority who lay silent and still.
Though his pride swelled from their success, he didn't have time to dwell on the inevitable victory. His thoughts had already turned to the future. The approaching battle at Ta-Khentit would end the war between the two lands of Egypt. This final conflict and the responsibility of becoming king of all Egypt weighed heavy on his mind.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back as the sun's warmth on his face provided a calm respite. Heat radiated from the burning sand and wrapped him in a soothing cocoon of warmth. When his eyes opened, vultures filled his vision. They circled high above, waiting to fulfill their duty as scavengers. How many of my enemy will they devour? His lips pressed tight. They were good soldiers and men. Just on the wrong side.
“Tighten that formation!”
Kneph's words shook him from his contemplation. He is still unaware of my presence. Though they'd fought and trained together as youths, it was the first time as king he'd observed his greatest commander in action. Kneph's long raven hair was matted with sweat and hung between his shoulder blades. The Commander's bronzed skin glistened with in the sun. Dirt and blood clotted on his arms and face. Fortunately, superior battle skills insured the blood didn't belong to him. His daggers hung on a leather strap around his waist. A wooden shield, sword, bow, and arrows lay in the sand, waiting to be used if needed.
I will let him know I am here. Four steps placed him just behind Kneph's right shoulder. “The time of unification has arrived.” His voice startled Kneph. Recognition quickly replaced the surprise. Kneph fell to one knee and bowed his head.
“My king! Your presence at this time was not anticipated.”
Hsekiu extended his hand and Kneph kissed his gold signet ring. “Stand, Commander Kneph. I appreciate your concern for my safety.” He lifted a hand to his forehead to block the brightness and survey the battlefield. Waves of sand encompassed a desert valley filled with bodies and combatants. A gust of wind delivered a blinding blanket of stinging sand. It forced both men to withdraw and protect their eyes.
“It is not your safety that concerns me, my king,” Kneph said when the wind died down.
Hsekiu lifted an eyebrow, hesitated, stared, and asked, “Should that not be your first priority?”
“No, I am selfish in this regard. I was thinking of myself. If tragedy befalls you, my sister will blame me. I will be forced to care for her and listen to her constant complaining.”
“You would speak this way about my queen?”
“She was my sister before she was your queen.”
Hsekiu rubbed his close-cropped beard and cast a wary eye. Unable to contain himself, his laughter filled the air. “I will try to stay alive and prevent such suffering and misery from being visited upon you.”
Kneph joined the merriment and the two friends embraced. But the sound of approaching soldiers interrupted their camaraderie. Smiles and mirth vanished as troops marched in formation from the battlefield. A line of prisoners, soon to be slaves, stumbled at the forefront.
Hsekiu clenched his teeth as the muscles flexed within his taut jawline. When the soldiers drew closer, his chest expanded with pride. He bowed his head and clasped his hands in front as they drew nearer. Two hobbled past him, injured from the recent fight. His pride swelled when four wounded men limped by while assisting others more seriously injured. When painful moans and sobs sounded from the ranks, he fought back against the lump developing in his throat. Once the men had passed, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Kneph. They watched the wounded soldiers ascend a path of a small dune until they disappeared on the other side.
“If I fall in battle, Captain Osorkan should replace me.” Kneph's words broke the silent stillness of the somber moment. “He has proven to be a skilled tactician and leader. I am confident he will fill the void left by my death.”
“Let us pray to the gods, this does not become necessary.” He placed a hand on Kneph's shoulder.
“Eighteen days have passed since our forces crossed into Ta-Shemau. It seems another lifetime ago.” Both men's memories returned to the beginning of the campaign.
In preparation for the planned unification of the two lands, the officers of Ta-Mehu had recruited soldiers from every nome of the land. From Sema-Ta Khentit to Kaset and as far south as Khensu, citizens became soldiers and joined with the army of Ta-Mehu. An army of six thousand soldiers attacked Atef-Pehu. A separate attack advanced on the nome of Atef-Khent. The armies of Ta-Mehu marched along the banks of the Nile uncontested. From one nome to the next, they found little resistance and the enemy almost nonexistent.
The years of peace between our two lands caused complacency. Their sense of security was a mistake, Hsekiu thought.
During the next three days, Ta-Mehu forces attacked and secured five additional nomes within the interior of Ta-Shemau. They regrouped and rested for a day before Captain Osorkan’s forces traveled east, taking the nomes of Wn and Dw-f. The army then advanced along the Nile and secured Minu and She-Shesh. Kneph's troops, drove west to Set and secured three additional nomes before rejoining Captain Osorkan outside Wast.
“You stand as Ta-Mehu’s greatest commander, Kneph. Only Utes-Hor and Ta-Khentit remain. Within days, Egypt will be one land. The gods have blessed us.”
Kneph folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head. “You know I do not believe in the gods.”
“Let us hope they did not hear you say that.”
“The right flank falters!” The voice of Captain Osorkan rang from the desert floor.
Hsekiu and Kneph scanned the battlefield searching for the source of the warning. Hsekiu shuffled back two steps. Without realizing, he reached and grabbed Kneph's arm. Kneph pulled away. Both men soon discovered the reason for the command. Ta-Shemau reinforcements had arrived. They poured through a broken shield-wall. With his lips trembling, heart racing, and hands twisting together, Hsekiu's eyes fell upon the vast expanse of open ground that now existed between the dune and charging enemy forces.
Kneph’s order shook him from his paralyzed state. Ta-Mehu soldiers rushed past him responding to the command. In a matter of seconds, the fifty troops and officers became a daunting formation of battle-ready soldiers, standing ten men wide and five deep. They rushed down the sand hill and his fear vanished.
“Stay with the king!”
Hsekiu’s emotions transformed with the bark of Kneph’s command. Pride and confidence became concern and fear when he witnessed Kneph running toward the faltering shield-wall. The Commander's long black hair flowed behind him. A full arrow sheath bounced on his back. He carried a flint tipped throwing stick in his left hand and a bow hung on his right shoulder.
He runs like the wind! He watched with amazement while Kneph sprinted several paces in front of his troops.
“Attack!” Kneph’s voice rang out again.
Hsekiu stared in admiration at the army’s skill and discipline. They ran across the desert sand keeping pace with their commander. He marveled when Kneph stopped, fell to one knee, pulled an arrow from the sheath, targeted an enemy commander, and launched it from twenty rods away. His amazement continued when Kneph, without hesitating, rose to his feet, pulled another arrow and sprinted closer to the enemy, all before the previous arrow reached its intended target.
It is one thing to be told of Kneph’s military skills and exploits. It is another to witness them! He watched in awe as Kneph drew back his bow and launched the arrow from five rods away. Without missing a step, he began running again just when the arrow left the bow. The projectile found its intended target as it struck an enemy commander in the chest. The enemy troops hesitated and searched for leadership. The momentary confusion halted their advance.
I understand Kneph’s strategy now! Kneph shouted orders. The fifty soldiers who accompanied him fell to a knee, loaded their bows, and fired at the equivocating enemy. Half of the enemy forces were cut down. With the enemy's loss of their commanders and the forceful Ta-Mehu counter attack, the soldiers under Kneph closed the shield-wall.
“Kneph!” A loud cheer rose from the ranks. Kneph lifted his bow high in the air. He ordered an attack on the enemy's right flank. A second legion led by Captain Osorkan advanced from the left. Kneph disengaged, withdrew, and allowed his soldiers to rush past and complete the victory.
With a sudden shock, the moment in time stopped for King Hsekiu, the image forever ingrained in his mind. His mouth fell open, posture stiffened, and he struggled to speak. Breathless with his heart racing, his jittery voice whispered, “No, no.” He braced himself with a hand on a lieutenant's shoulder before he crumpled from dizziness and nausea. In horror, he watched Kneph fall to his hands and knees. Blood pooled in the sand below the Commander.
Without concern for his own safety, Hsekiu ran toward the battlefield. He rushed to Kneph's side while the lieutenant and guards fell in behind him. With minor skirmishes of single combat around him, he dodged and maneuvered between the paired combatants. Fortunately, the enemy soldiers were too immersed in their own conflict. They didn't realize their enemy's king was within striking distance.
He fell to his knees beside Kneph’s body.
“Close ranks!” A contingent of twenty-two soldiers responded to the lieutenant's command by encircling Hsekiu and Kneph's body.
“Kneph!” Hsekiu lifted his friend’s head and laid it in his lap. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His lips parted but no words were uttered. He slowly shook his head with the realization that life no longer existed within Kneph's body. He laid Kneph’s head on the soft warm sand. His shoulders slumped, arms hung loose by his side, and his chest heaved with sobs.
“My king! It is not safe to remain here.”
Hsekiu ignored the lieutenant's warning.
“Take the Commander!” Two soldiers each clutched one of Kneph's legs. Two more his arms. They quickly carried the body from the battlefield.
Hsekiu sensed the grasp of strong hands on his forearms. They assisted him to stand. He stared at the darkened stain in the sand where Kneph's body had lain.
“We must go, my king!”
Hsekiu stumbled with his first step. He grabbed hold of arms that supported him and he lumbered from the desert floor. His feet hung loose as soldiers carried him to the top of the dune. He collapsed to a sitting position and placed his arms across his knees. He gazed upon his troops and the carnage below. Bodies bludgeoned by the weapons of war littered the sands. He again stared at the spot where Kneph's body had fallen in battle.
The goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet will receive and care for him now.
Soldiers advanced past the elevated mound. He glimpsed at each face of the commanders who accompanied their troops from the battlefield. Their long faces and demoralized manner were obvious. It was clear the loss of Kneph transcended the elation of victory.
“Captain Osorkan is here, my king.”
The lieutenant’s words shook him from his mental lethargy. He gave a single nod and attempted to stand. The lieutenant reached to assist and he slapped the hand away. “I do not need any help!” He wiped the sand away from his garment, lifted his chin, and clenched his teeth. “Stand with me, Captain Osorkan.” Osorkan approached, stood before him, and bowed to one knee.
“Rise and take your place by my side. We have paid the ultimate price for our victory. Soon I will wear the red crown of Ta-Mehu and the white crown of Ta-Shemau. All of Egypt and the surrounding kingdoms will know me as Ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt.”
“Yes, my king.”
“Kneph wished you to replace him if the worst happened. Now it has.”
For the army of Ta-Mehu, and as often happens in war, great men rise to the occasion. No one doubted Osorkan would be a successful and beloved commander.
Perhaps he will become as good a friend.
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