River of the Sun, chapter 18 – Rider on the Dawn
The marshlands by the great river gave way to the firmer, broken rock of the valley’s floor as the mule track climbed towards the far hills. The many trails fanned away on either side, as the possible destinations thinned to a single, rocky path. The great white horse did not slow in its thundering passage. The finest breeders in Egypt’s long history had gradually refined the purposeful form of the mighty creature which now bore its rider up the steep incline in the pale light of a the high desert’s pre-dawn, with barely a faltering of its elegant speed.
The air was cold, but the rider felt little discomfort, assured within his lithe and powerful young body of the limits of his endurance. He did, though, pull his cloak around him against the last of the short night’s biting breeze. He smiled at the brightening rocks as mighty Ra edged over the far hills beyond the East bank of the great river, covering in a breath the distance the horse had travelled in the whole time since the boatman had rowed him ashore and made ready his prepared and favourite mount.
He liked to ride with the dawning sun behind him. It brought him into alignment with that very special feeling within his breast – that sense of immense destiny. He knew his real life was about to begin–could sense his passing father’s imminent death on the wind.
Pharaoh at last! No longer just the youth, the boy-regent, the King-in-Rising. Now Egypt would tremble in obedience to the ways of his mind, to the cleverness of his strategies; and he would, of course, tell them as his campaigns brought riches flooding into Egypt’s coffers, again, how very fortunate they were to have the Unchosen as their God-King.
Except that he never used the word Unchosen. It was his private key to inner power. It was a word that described how he would spring back from adversity, overcoming what may have appeared to have defeated him, what had stood in his way, as he played with it… teasing out victory in the manner of the truly confident warrior. “Learn to build greater edifices, Egypt,” he shouted at the dawn, “you will need them to honour me!” His voice, thin in the cold air, dissipated, unheard, on the ancient rocks that were turning to gold.
Approaching a plateau, he slowed and wheeled his great steed around in a tight circle. He let it rest and breathe, reaching into his well stocked provisions to open a skin of water and let it drink. He pushed himself high in the saddle. Now facing East, he had to shield his eyes from Ra’s glory as the rays streamed along the paths he had ridden, creating a shimmering ghost of his journey. “See how Ra honours me!” he shouted at the dawn.
And then his eyes caught the newly glowing top stones of the Isis temple on the island from which he had made an early departure, secure in the knowledge that his orders would be creating havoc, below. “I will have you, Neferaset!” he shouted into the golden light, his loins surging with energy. “But when all your choices have dried like water on the sand…” the white horse pawed the rock before them both, adding to the combined symbol of power, “…then you will come begging for the touch of royal flesh!”
He thrilled at the thought, imagining how he would prolong their lovemaking, how she would marvel at his prowess as her own body betrayed her in its writhings. But, then, she would be discarded, another fallen priest, if a pretty one. Trust none of them, his father had said the last time they had talked, the last time – he now knew – that they would ever talk. Events in Thebes had turned his father’s loyalty against the resurgent priesthood. There is coming a new age, he had said. In which the royal line will need to be much cleverer than its priests… Cleverer. That had become his watchword, first-chosen or not. A new age… and the mind would be the arrow that took the new royal line forward into that golden tomorrow.
He looked down at the vision of the brightening temple on the island far below. His beloved Talatat would be waking to the possibilities of the day, would be stretching mind and body in the service of the wishes he had left in coded form, written on Obion’s scroll. Poor Menascare, he thought. What chance do you stand now? He laughed, a bitter noise against the golden force of the rising sun. Perhaps it is time for you to die along with my beloved father?
The wings of light streaming over his head formed themselves into an imagined escort as he turned Salama to face their upward path, again. The narrow plateau echoed one last time to his laughter, and then there were only falling motes of dust to mark the passage of the rider; that and the sound of thundering hooves on the single trail.
The dull ringing of two alabaster goblets striking each other was an incongruous accompaniment to the rising of the sun over the natural walls of the place Rameses had named, The Crescent of the Lost. Sarkur was uneasy in the gesture, just as he was uncertain about the wisdom of drinking temple wine so early in the day, if at all…
“Come, old friend,” said the royal rider, smiling through the unwiped film of white dust that covered his face. “Drink with me and we will mark the birth of the day that will see you finish my Tower.”
Sarkur the Stonemaster did as his companion bade him. But sipped the wine, rather than gulping it down in his companion’s fashion. “Majesty,” he said. “We do not know if there are enough hours in this day to accomplish the task!”
Despite his years of experience with Seti, the master builder took no chances with his son. It was like dealing with a snake, indeed, one of the early royal child-names of Rameses had related to that similarity – and the watchful stare of his early guardian. You had to be certain of your intent before you responded – if you responded at all… Now, in the full glare of the other’s unblinking gaze, the older man swallowed, acknowledging by gesture that he was uncertain of the wisdom of what he had just uttered.
The Regent raised his hand, and, for all his strength, Sarkur winced at the anticipated royal strike. But Rameses cupped his head to his ear. “Hear that, Sarkur?” he said, smiling in a way that was more chilling than any royal rage could be. “Do you know what that is the sound of?”
Sarkur gulped at the wine, despite his earlier resolve. He looked down over the edge of the tower. Below, and under the Regent’s careful guidance, his men had formed a perfect moon crescent around two-thirds of the base of the edifice. The pillar on which the two were seated rose out of this cradle, phallic and proud. The human crescent mirrored the canyon walls in this airless place. Seated on the ground and chanting their prayers to the distant royal household, the stone workers below kept their eyes to the ground, well away from those of the royal predator above.
“He’s dying, Majesty.” said Sarkur. “They lament the passing of their great King,” and quickly added, “and the great fortune which sees his son, the King-in-Rising being with them at this terrible time…”
“Terrible?” whispered Rameses, looking up at the clear, blue sky, with its burning heat, and smiling, cruelly.
“Would you not rather be there, Majesty – at your noble father’s bedside while he passes from this world?”
Rameses lay back onto the stone platform, letting his palms touch the stone, and feeling how the heat had begun to make the perfectly sculpted blocks intolerably hot, despite the earliness of the hour. Sarkur watched as the Regent’s fingers traced out the strange design which the Stonemaster had, himself, carved and fitted.
“My father is Pharaoh of the whole world, Sarkur,” said Rameses. “It does not matter where his body is, he will pass from all the places in this land as sweat passes from the tiny caves in the skin.”
“This, then, is your chosen place for your witness-watch?” asked Sarkur, gently.
“There is no right place,” answered the royal son. “He is a great man and his passing may be honoured by all, everywhere…” his lips formed a narrow line. “And why should I bow to the rituals of another clutch of Priests?”
Sarkur said nothing, holding his breath and willing the moment to pass.
“Life and death,” said Rameses. “Your men are making the sounds of life and death.”
“This very platform is a place of life and death…” He turned his body over, lying prone on the hot stone and looking down over the deadly edge, again. The heat passed quickly through his robes, warming his lower body. The energy reminded him of the ride up to the Tower, of the heat in his loins at the thought of Neferaset’s slow demise. “Be careful which you choose, Stonemaster…”
Rameses uncurled and sat up, his strong back sinuous and flexible in its raising of the royal head. He held out his goblet for Sarkur to join him in the gesture. The older man did so, but much more awkwardly.
“To life, then, Majesty,” the Stonemaster said.
“To death,” said Rameses, the fingers of his other hand idly tracing the edge of the strange design now set into the stone. The Cobra’s eyes were fixed on the far horizon, where, through the smooth gap in the crescent canyon’s wall, the end of the trail up which he had ridden was visible.
But Sarkur was not following the King-in-Rising’s gaze. He was studying, in minute detail, the patterns made by Rameses’ stroking fingers.
Index to previous chapters:
Introduction to River of the Sun
In April 2015 a group of people gathered in the Derbyshire hills to enact the Silent Eye’s annual Mystery Play, entitled, The River of the Sun. The five-act mystical drama formed the backbone of that Spring weekend, and told the fictional story of a clash of ego and divinity set in an Isis-worshipping temple located on an island in the Nile, during the the fascinating period of the 19th dynasty, the time of Rameses the Great.
The 18th and 19th dynasties were a period of deep upheaval for ancient Egypt. The reign of the ‘Heretic King’, Akhenaten saw Egypt’s religious structure torn apart, as the revolutionary Pharaoh became what Wallis Budge called the ‘world’s first monotheist’; re-fashioning the power of the many Gods with one supreme entity – the visible sun disc, the Aten, for which Akhenaten, alone, was the high priest. Many have pointed to the failure of the ‘herectic’ Pharaoh’s politics, but few have doubted the sincerity of his religious vision. He will, forever, remain an enigma.
Whatever the nobility of his goal, the actions he took were ruthless, and included the shutting down of the annual deity festivals which were the sole point of ritualistic contact between the ordinary people of Egypt and their locally-worshipped gods. In addition, Akhenaten paid little attention to the domestic and military affairs of Egypt, allowing the country’s enemies to encroach on its borders, greatly weakening Egypt’s power at that critical time for the region.
After Akhenaten’s brief reign, culminating in the Pharaoh’s mysterious death, shadowy military forces took control of Egypt, instigating the 19th dynasty in the persons of Rameses I and, soon thereafter, Seti I, whose throne name derives from the god Set – often considered the ‘evil one’ because of his slaying of his brother, Osiris.
Seti I is judged by modern historians as having been one of the greatest-ever pharaohs, yet his importance in the 19th dynasty was eclipsed by the actions of his second son, the brilliant Rameses II, whose long reign of over sixty years included much self-promotion and the alteration of Egypt’s recent history. Both Seti and Rameses II (Rameses the Great) were passionate about the evisceration of the last traces of Akhenaten’s ‘chaos’, as they saw it.
But, although, by the 19th dynasty, the the ‘Son of the Sun’ was long dead and the buildings of his embryonic and doomed city of Tel-al-Armana were reduced to rubble, something of that time remained in the Egyptian consciousness. A new kind of connection between Pharaoh and God had been established, one which elevated mankind, if only in the being of the Pharaoh, to be someone who ‘talked with God’. It was, at the very least, a bold experiment and, though the world would have to wait until the 19th century to re-discover the ‘erased’ pharaoh, the philosophical waves of that period rippled out and dramatically affected the way the incoming 19th dynasty had to repair the worship of the Gods, uniting the people of Egypt under a trinity of Amun-Ra, Khonsu and Mut.
Our fictional story is a tale of politics, friendships, mind and faith. It is set against an historically accurate background, and at a time when Rameses was due to take the throne from the dying Seti .
Returning to Thebes in his swift warship, crewed by his fearsome Talatat mind-warriors, Rameses decides to mount a surprise night-time raid on the island-based Isis temple which has prospered under the sponsoring reign of his father. Rameses suspects that the inner teachings conducted by the revered High Priestess and Priest conceal views that relate to the thoughts of the heretic Pharaoh, Akhenaten. He plans to insert himself and his warriors of the mind into the islands’s Spring rites as the high priest and priestess begin a cycle of initiation for a chosen apprentice priest who has proved himself worthy of special advancement.
The resulting clash draws everyone, including the young Pharaoh-in-Rising, into a spiralling situation where each is forced to confront their own fears as well as living out the roles which life has allocated them. River of the Sun is the story of a spiritual and political encounter from which none emerge unchanged, including the man who will shortly be Pharaoh, the mighty Rameses II, whose secret name for himself is ‘the unchosen’.
Through the eyes and minds of those surrounding the chosen priest and the ‘unchosen’ Pharaoh, the River of the Sun takes us on a tense and compelling journey to the heart of power and its eternal struggle with truth.
The chapters of the book will be serialised in this blog. The finished work is planned to be available in paperback and Kindle in the Spring of 2016.
River of the Sun, serialised here, and its associated images, are the intellectual property of Stephen Tanham and is ©Copyright material.