Chapter 1 from Theft of an Idol

The first chapter from the third Eye of Isis novel.


“How deep is it?” In spite of every effort to keep it steady, Henu heard the tremor in his voice.

“If you fall in you won’t care because you’ll be dead, and if you don’t fall in you won’t care because you’ll be rich, so what does it matter how deep it is?”

The darkness of the tomb was stifling, the light cast by the flickering torch negligible, and the depth of the shaft seemed endless. Henu rested his forehead against the rope he was clinging to and felt as if he were entering the realm of Anubis well before he was expected. “Are you sure we entered by the correct door?”

“There is only one door to this kind of tomb!” The reply was somewhere between a groan and a hiss. “And would you, for the love of Ra, the giver of all that is bright and good in this world, please stop asking me that!”

“Would the both of you shut up and keep moving? It’s no fun down here, either, with Henu’s feet smelling of pig shit!”

The wavering light of the torch Nakht held above them cast moving shadows that had faded to black by the time they reached Merimose, who was moving steadily down the rope. Henu, just above him, didn’t want to move out of the light of the torch but it was either that or Nakht’s feet in his face as his were in Merimose’s. The torch that they had dropped down the shaft before they began their descent had begun to sputter, casting grotesque shadows that in Henu’s imagination took on the shape of the jackal god himself, manifesting outrage at this desecration of his realm.

The shaft was made of smooth granite blocks that seemed to press in on him ever more closely with every course of stone that rose above him. At least the pig pen on his father’s farm was out in the open, where there was air to breathe. His heartbeat thundered in his ears and every labored gasp tightened his throat. But there was nowhere left to go but down, and so he loosened one reluctant, sweaty palm at a time. Beneath him came a steady, low-voiced cursing. Henu wondered how Merimose had the breath for it.

“I’m at the bottom!” The old soldier’s voice was hoarse with excitement.

Henu himself was nearly delirious with relief and his sweaty grip loosened of itself. He slid the rest of the way, uncaring that the rope was burning his hands. His feet touched the floor and his knees gave out and he landed in a clumsy heap. Merimose was shouting up the shaft. “Throw down the other torch, Nakht!”

Henu raised his voice. “Yes, throw it down!”

“I heard him the first time! Watch your heads!”

A moment passed, another, and there was the sound of something whistling through the air, followed by a thump. “Ouch!”

“Sorry. I meant to catch that.”

Merimose didn’t sound very sorry. Henu rubbed his head and tried to be charitable. They were all stuck in this tomb together and everyone was scared. He took a deep breath, trying to suck in air from what felt like an airless and, at this point, eternal existence. There was the scrape of flint, a crackle of flame. The atmosphere and his spirit lightened when the torch caught and began to burn. Merimose’s intent face coalesced out of the darkness.

“Will the ladder reach?” Nakht’s voice from on high.

Merimose raised the torch and they both looked up to see a pale and distant smudge staring down the shaft. “I think so! Send it down!”

Wood scraped on stone and one of the ladder’s feet hit one of Henu’s. “Ow!” He hopped around, holding the injured foot, and bumped into Merimose.

“Be still, you fool,” Merimose growled, and thrust the torch into Henu’s hands. He muscled the ladder against the shaft. Henu tried to flatten himself against the wall and mostly failed, but he was past complaining, especially since— if!—they were almost at their goal. He watched the flame of the torch leap and fall and thought dreamily of the riches that awaited them, and what he would do with them when they at long last regained the living world.

His were modest ambitions. Pay off the debt on the family farm so that the Nomarch of the White Walls would never again have cause to take half a year’s grain for back taxes, leaving the family to slowly starve through eight long months until the next harvest. Even better, his father-in-law would have no further cause to bemoan his daughter’s choice of husband, especially when he saw the new house Henu would build for her. No mud hut this; it would be made of the finest Syene granite in meticulously quarried blocks polished to such a shine that it would hurt the eyes to look upon it when Ra’s golden chariot was at its height in the sky above. And never again would he have to watch his wife go hungry in order to spare their sons a bite of bread.

The ladder creaked and groaned. Henu hoped it wasn’t going to disintegrate beneath Nakht’s weight before they had a chance to collect the wealth he had already spent in his imagination.

“What’s the holdup?” Merimose said, looking up the shaft. “It’s damn close in here, I can hardly breathe!”

“Sobek’s balls! I can’t see a hand in front of my face and the ladder doesn’t reach the tunnel edge so I have to feel around with my feet for the top of it! If you think you can do any better, Merimose, get your ass up here and change places with me!”

Defeating both speed and silence, the two essential things Nakht had grimly emphasized to both his co-conspirators. Again Henu held his tongue. He wanted nothing more than for them to complete their task and get out of this accursed place. He rested the back of his head against the stone shaft, closed his eyes, and concentrated on breathing in and breathing out.

Merimose had served a full sixteen years with the Roman army, including with Crassus at Carrhae, and could go on at tedious length about Crassus’ total lack of ability to successfully prosecute any action bigger than a fistfight. The old soldier had a taste for wine, women, and gambling, and he had frittered away most of his pension indulging himself in these activities, a common story among veterans. If this mad gambit paid off, Henu could see Merimose moving to Alexandria in search of bigger game on all three fronts. The danger being that the sharps in Alexandria were even more adept at fleecing their prey than the ones in Memphis.

He knew what Nakht needed the money for, or what he said he did, although he kept the details so vague as to be invisible. The law forbade marriage between Greeks and Egyptians. Unless, of course, one knew a friendly judge with flexible ethics who might be willing to look the other way when issuing a license in exchange for a fat purse. As a professional scribe, Nakht probably knew many such judges. More scraping of wood on stone, a slip, a flurry of movement, and a series of panicked oaths as Nakht slid the rest of the way down the ladder, ending in a loud thump and more curses. Henu opened his eyes to see the scribe in a heap on the floor of the shaft.

“Are you hurt, Nakht?” Merimose said with a concern belied by the wide grin spreading across his face.

Henu thought he could hear Nakht’s teeth grinding together, but the other man saw something behind Merimose and his expression changed from annoyance to intense excitement. He scrambled to his feet and pointed, forcing the other men to turn to look. Henu thrust the torch forward and the light picked out rocks and mortar formed into a solid wall dividing the base of the shaft and what lay beyond. “That will lead into the serdab.”

“Are we going to be able to get through it?”

“It’s already crumbling. Look.” Nakht snatched the torch from Henu and held it close to the wall, showing a small pile of rocks beneath a growing hole. “The mortar is so old that it has dried out entirely.”

Merimose stepped up beside him and kicked at one of the larger rocks. Under the force of the blow the stone dislodged easily and flew backwards out of sight. There was a crash and a tinkle of something falling and possibly breaking.

“You idiot! Stop that! You may have broken something valuable!” Nakht looked around. “Henu! Another torch! Quickly!”

Henu fumbled for the torch they had dropped from the top of the shaft and lit it again, and the three of them went at the wall with a concentrated intensity. Nakht was right; the mortar crumbled at a touch and mostly they had to catch the rocks before they fell on their feet. Soon there was a ragged, gaping hole, like the menacing maw of a great beast, but it was big enough for them to scramble through and that was all that mattered. Henu and Merimose pushed their torches inside and all three of them stared, barely breathing.

The chamber was small and square and occupied chiefly by a stone sarcophagus, richly carved and painted. Crowded around the walls and tucked into shelves as high as the hand would reach were boxes and bags and bundles and the four canopic jars containing the dead man’s organs. There was enough room for a thin man to walk between the shelves and the sarcophagus and not a finger’s width more.

“It’s intact,” Nakht said, a note of wonder in his voice. “Didn’t you say it would be?” Merimose said, gloating.

“You’re the one who found the reference in those old records. You said no one had looked at them for hundreds of years.” “Yes, but…” Nakht pulled himself together. “Henu, start looking for jewelry and art. Small pieces, the most valuable and portable and easily sold, as we discussed. Merimose, help me move this lid. Let’s see just how rich this priest was.” The bags deteriorated at a touch along with their contents, bread and meat and fruit and the like. Henu ran his fingers lightly along a shelf lined with tiny statues carved from wood and painted in bright colors. Ushabti, servants made to serve the dead in the next life.

He heard the grinding of stone on stone and looked over his shoulder to see the lid of the sarcophagus pivoting open. The wrapped body of the mummy lay within, and Henu was relieved to see there was no death mask. He didn’t know how they would have managed to get something that large up the ladder and he was certain both Merimose and Nakht would have insisted that they try.

There was a broad collar with large gold terminals in the shape of Seshat. Merimose made a purring sound and removed the collar with more haste than care, tearing the gauze wrappings. Nakht lost no time in searching for the amulets the priests had folded inside the shroud when they wrapped the body. Such amulets were usually made of gemstones, especially if the dead were wealthy enough to pay for a tomb as rich as this one.

Henu continued around the chamber, passing a stand hung with spears and swords, all marvelously intact, and a small table topped with a chessboard and an exquisite set of chessmen carved of ebony and ivory. The ebony ones were shaped like Nubian warriors, the ivory as Egyptian soldiers. He scooped them up and put them in the sack he had tied around his waist. The board was too bulky and probably too heavy; he left it behind, not without a pang.

He came to a wooden bureau shaped to look like a tree trunk, with shelves formed from spreading branches. Each shelf bore a small box. The first one he opened held a full set of matching bracelets in what looked like gold. The contents dropped into the sack with a satisfyingly solid clank. He hoped they hadn’t broken any of the chessmen.

“Ah, you found the jewelry, then,” Nakht said at his shoulder. “Good. What are you staring at?”

The wall above the bureau was covered with carvings of every imaginable creature living on, in, or around the Nile. A fat crocodile with a long-jawed smile curled his tail over an ibis with a beak as long as her legs, next to a vulture with a topknot. Cobras raised their hoods, jackals their ears, bulls their horns, snails their tentacles. It was an entrancing fantasia of the animal kingdom, beautifully carved and richly colored in red and blues and yellows that glowed even in the dim light of the torches, still vibrant centuries after their creation.

“They knew how to draw back then,” Henu said, hardly knowing he spoke.

“Yes, yes, obviously done by a master’s hand. Now, what’s in the rest of these boxes?”

The bureau proved a treasure trove: six separate tiny, exquisitely made chests filled with collars and bracelets and earrings.

“Quite the dandy,” Merimose said with a snigger. “Well, he won’t be needing them now.”

They were all three of them sweating profusely even though the air of the tomb was dry and chill. “That’s enough,” Nakht said as they emptied the last box. “We have to be able to carry all this up the ladder.”

“A problem I am happy to have,” Merimose said. He hoisted his bag over his shoulder and fastened the strap in a secure knot.

“And we can always come back for more later,” Henu said. Something bright caught his eye. He paused, raising the torch higher. Tucked into a corner was a small tiered shelf, each of its three layers occupied by a small statue inlaid with gemstones. They depicted the three manifestations of Seshat: the goddess of wisdom with the cheetah’s hide worn as a cape, the goddess of writing with palm leaf rib and stylus in hand, and the goddess of knowledge with the knotted surveyor’s cord at her side. They were made of ebony, alabaster, and gold respectively. The craft of their makers was manifest down to each individual toenail, and each statue was as exquisite as it had been the day it came from the artisan’s hand. He realized he hadn’t taken a breath since seeing them and huffed in a great lungful of air before he stuffed all three figures in his sack. He knotted the strings firmly against further temptation. The sack was heavy enough, and his new house had acquired a tiled roof.

He edged around the sarcophagus and the lid that remained askew. The mummy, stripped of valuables, stared faceless at the tomb’s ceiling, oblivious, past need or care.

Henu didn’t believe in ghosts. Not even in gods, not really. His closest relationship was with the earth, with the dark, rich soil of the banks of the Nile, not with omnipotent beings who by all accounts proved capricious and malicious and vengeful with each other and even more so toward all those less powerful than themselves. Those distant rulers in Alexandria who paid homage to the gods by assuming their appearance on earth were no better. When did they ever forgive a tax when the harvest was bad? When did they open the granaries when the people were hungry? They’d rather sell it to the Romans, whose armies marched on Egyptian grain.

No, Henu believed in the Nile and that it flooded every year, except when it didn’t, and when it didn’t, in finding other ways to feed his family. Such as this one. If the sack he carried held what he thought it did, and if he managed the proceeds wisely, he would never have to fear the absence of a flood again.

“You go first, Henu,” Nakht said. “I know how much you hate the dark. Be first out.”

Henu had lost his fear of the dark and of traps laid by the tomb’s builders with the first sight of the treasure within, but he didn’t argue. He cinched the sack’s straps tighter around him and almost scampered up the ladder without once looking down. At the top he took the guttering torch he had left in the ring socket on the wall and kindled the last remaining torch they had left behind. He looked down into the dark shaft that no longer seemed so bottomless.

Nakht picked his way up with the same care he had shown going the other direction, slowly, steadily, making sure of his footing. In the flicker of the torch he looked like a giant camel spider, pale, all legs and arms, the engorged bag on his back resembling a sac full of eggs. He reached the top safely and turned to crouch at the edge of the shaft, Henu behind him still holding the torch high. Far below, Merimose began to climb. He was bigger than the other two men and the ladder creaked loudly but held. His progress was slow and steady. Henu could see him quite clearly over Nakht’s shoulder.

Midway, the wood creaked again. “Hurry!” Nakht said. Merimose, his face a sweaty grimace, increased his speed.

He had very nearly reached them when the ladder gave another ominous crack and the ladder seemed to shift beneath his hands and feet.

“Hold on!” Nakht said, bending forward, his hands on the ladder’s ends, out of Henu’s sight.

But the ladder shifted and tilted up. Merimose yelled, “Grab my hand! Grab my hand, Nakht!”

“Here, Merimose, right here!”

But it was too late. The ladder was falling into the dark and Merimose with it. Frozen with horror, all Henu could do was listen to Merimose screaming as he fell, the sound ending abruptly with a thud of flesh hitting stone.

“Merimose? Merimose!” Henu shoved Nakht to one side and hunched at the edge of the shaft. He screamed down into it, repeating Merimose’s name over and over again. His voice was swallowed by the darkness, like Merimose had been, who made no response.

“He’s gone,” Nakht said. He put a hand on Henu’s shoulder. “It’s awful, I know, Henu, but we have to leave.” A pause. “We’ll recover his body and bury him decently when we come back.”

And retrieve the contents of Merimose’s sack, Henu thought numbly.

All he could do was think of Merimose’s last, furious cry.

And wonder whether he had truly seen Nakht’s hands shove the ladder away from the wall of the shaft, or if it had only been his imagination.

There are now three Eye of Isis novels, most recently Theft of an Idol, which published on November 3, 2022.

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Chatter Eye of Isis

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