“Do I give it to you, or do I just leave it on the altar of Neferamtat?”
Behren was his name, Jeshed remembered. He raised cattle in his modest pasture to the east of the village. He made offerings sparingly, usually only on the most important days like the rest of the villagers. They gave what they could and that usually meant they gave the least amount they could part with. Jeshed held no ill feelings towards them. Life was hard in the desert so when the dusty man arrived with a package of the choicest beef cuts, Jeshed was surprised.
“For which god is this?” Jeshed asked.
“Well…” the man stammered. “Not a god, exactly. More like for the little one who was brought here by the river.”
“Yes, master.” Behren squirmed uncomfortably under the priest’s scathing glare. “Me and my wife, we had ten children, all of them with black hair. The eleventh? Hair as red as blood. Can you believe it? I figured it was because we hadn’t been offering like we should have. I thought I could get rid of the bad luck we brought by helping to feed a girl who was blessed by the gods themselves.”
“I see.” Jeshed tugged his beard. “It is proper to offer it to the gods at their altars, where they will take the essence of the sacrifice. Ashira is but a girl. A very lucky girl. Bring no more sacrifices to her. Instead, bring it to the shrine of Neferamtat. She brought Ashira to us and so it is she that should be thanked.”
“I understand,” Behren said. “Master?”
“If she was brought by the river, how come she doesn’t stay with the priestesses of Neferamtat? They’ve got flowers and dancing. And…you know…light. You would think a girl would like that a lot better than being in a dark basement,” Behren ventured.
Jeshed’s glare could have blasted the flesh off any of Behren’s cows. “She was brought to us on the river, yes, but it was during the khemu flood. She is a gift from Enu-Bal as much as Neferamtat.”
The rancher visibly withered. “Yes! Of course, master! So…then should I put it on Enu-Bal’s altar?”
“Enu-Bal has no need of an altar. Leave it on Neferamtat’s.”
“Right! Thank you master!”
Jeshed watched the man scuttle away and sighed. This was not the first offering to Ashira he had witnessed, and it made him uneasy. He felt he had to put a stop to it, but he did not know how. Jeshed just knew that Ashira did not need to be venerated. The gods might get angry at such a thing.
“Do we get to eat it later?” a voice piped up behind him. It had been a month since Ashira was able to leave her bed. Jeshed was delighted, of course, but soon remembered that a child should have something to do. She should learn responsibilities. Just because she could now run about the temple didn’t mean she should.
“To eat it would be sacrilege,” Jeshed replied.
“But the food never goes away. It doesn’t get eaten,” Ashira said.
“The gods partake in the essence of the offering.”
“Oh.” Ashira looked down at her new sandals. “Can we eat it after that?”
“Well, yes. Of course,” he explained. “But only once the gods are done.”
Ashira nodded sagely. Gods were tricky, she was learning.
“I need your help, Ashira,” Jeshed said. “I am going into town and I’ll need you to carry some things back for me. You can do that, can’t you?”
Ashira beamed. “Yes!”
“Then remember this list. I need two jugs of palm wine, a bag of figs, and a jar of natron. I will not tell you again. This is your job to remember,” Jeshed said. “Do you remember what I need?”
Ashira’s eyes went wide. “Can you tell me just one more time?”
They walked down the hilly path that led from the temple to the town. It was just past dawn, cool and quiet, but Ashira soon broke the serenity with her questions. Jeshed did not mind. The chatter meant she was feeling better.
So early in the morning, Jeshed was surprised to see a somber old woman with a caged pigeon in her hand. It was undoubtedly a sacrifice. Jeshed figured her son or maybe her grandson was in the army and she was giving it to Ghuris, god of warriors, to watch over him as he served his time in the Legion. Ghuris was a popular one lately. Once the new outpost was built in town, more and more young men joined up with the Legion and more and more mothers wept for their lost sons.
She gave the slightest of nods to Jeshed, but her face gave way to a wrinkled smile when she saw Ashira. “A good day to you, River Child! Is it an auspicious morning to sacrifice to Ghuris?”
Jeshed was sure the girl didn’t know but was astonished when she answered. “Any time is good!” she said with all confidence.
The crone nodded. “Can you bless the bird? It might make it better in the eyes of the gods.”
Ashira nodded and took the cage. “Make this pigeon worthy in the eyes of Ghuris!”
“What are you doing?” Jeshed demanded.
“Blessing her bird,” Ashira replied.
“You can’t go around giving blessings if you are not a priest!” he snapped.
“You can’t…” Jeshed faltered. “It just isn’t done!”
“Isn’t done what?”
Jeshed handed the squawking bird back to the old woman. “Here. Take it to the temple and offer it to Ghuris but leave the girl alone.”
The old woman set off on her way, muttering her dissatisfaction.
“Ashira, don’t do that,” Jeshed said.
“But it made her really happy,” Ashira replied.
“You have no place giving out blessings of any kind. It displeases the gods.”
“I just wanted to help.”
“Then help me. What are we getting again?”
Ashira stopped walking. “Two jugs of palm wine…some figs and a….jar of natron.”
“It’s a substance I use in my work. It helps me preserve the bodies.”
As they traveled, Jeshed tried to explain the intricacies of what he did without giving her too many grisly details. Soon they passed by a young man tugging a sheep behind him. Jeshed didn’t recognize him but from the flour on his shirt and hands, he guessed he was a baker. Sheep were good in the eyes of all sorts of gods, so he could have been sacrificing to anyone.
“Good morning!” the young man called to them. The sheep stopped to nibble at a bit of scrub grass, and the man could not get it moving again.
“Good morning!” Ashira replied.
“You’re the girl who was brought by the river, right?” he asked.
Gods below, Jeshed thought. “Yes,” he answered quickly for her.
“I like your sheep!” Ashira said.
“It…it’s yours!” the man said and held out the tether.
Ashira gasped. “I love him! Thank you!”
Jeshed knelt next to her. “How are you going to help me carry things if you have your hands full with this sheep?”
“I don’t know.”
“Which is more important? Keeping your word or accepting this sheep?”
“…keeping my word…” Ashira’s face said it was the most difficult choice she ever had to make.
“And we don’t have a place to take care of a sheep anyway. We have no pasture. It would be a very sad sheep if it stayed with us, don’t you think?”
Jeshed handed the tether back to the man. “Take it to the temple. You know what to do.”
“Thank you, Master,” The man peered at Ashira again. He pulled again at the sheep and went on his way.
The town at the bottom of the hill grew larger and larger as they approached. Jeshed could tell it was busy already. They wove their way through the crowded streets, looking for a certain fruit vendor. His figs were not the best in town. They weren’t even particularly good, but Jeshed could forgive old Wed for that. The old man kept his ear to the ground and told him things that priests in their lofty temple might not know otherwise.
It was midday and the marketplace sweltered under the fierce high sun. Jeshed had to hold Ashira’s hand to keep them from being separated but she was getting slower and slower. They eventually had to stop in the shade of a doorway for relief. The air had a thick, baked taste to it, but looking outward at the street, Jeshed saw it didn’t stop the daily trade. Everyone was rushing, shoving, and shouting, all vying for the best deal. Some villagers who had rented fellahin from the temple were loading up their unbreathing servants with their purchased goods.
“Where is that man from? He looks strange.” Ashira pointed to a short, olive-skinned man arguing with a linen vendor. His dark hair curled neatly around his ears. His forearms had hair nearly as thick as that what was on his head. He wore a large placard on a loop around his neck and there were symbols on it that Ashira guessed to be letters. She had recently learned about letters, but she hadn’t seen these before.
“Don’t point,” Jeshed said. “He looks to be from Entikythos.”
“What’s that thing around his neck?” she asked. “Are those letters?”
Jeshed closed his eyes. “It marks him as being owned by one of the Alvari living here. He’s come to buy goods for his master, no doubt.”
“Entikythans are a very learned people. They’re popular among the Alvari patrons as seneschals and stewards,” Jeshed explained.
“But how can someone own him? He’s still alive!”
Jeshed shook his head. “He is a slave, little rabbit. The Alvari don’t wait for someone to die before they put him to work.”
Ashira frowned and pointed at a trio of masked servants. They were dressed in plain white kilts, but someone had seen fit to give one a necklace of bronze. Together, they pulled a large cart loaded with various pots and urns. “There are some perfectly good fellahin right there. Why don’t the Alvari just rent them out from the temple, like everyone else?”
“The Alvari look down upon the use of the dead,” Jeshed said. “I see the kiosk. We’re nearly there.”
Old Wed dashed from side to side, haggling with four different customers on four different transactions. He was stronger than he looked and twice as sharp, so the strain of business wasn’t as taxing on him as he would like others to believe. Jeshed was about to approach him but a loud heavy stomping stopped him. The largest, heftiest woman he had ever seen stampeded towards the kiosk.
“That melon was all rind, you cheat!” she shouted. The fruit vendor held up his hands in defense, but she had already snatched him up by the collar and shook him. Everyone scattered to get away from the scene. Their struggle knocked over a stand and, in the chaos, dozens of tiny green olives spilled out onto the ground and were trampled.
Jeshed sighed. This would take longer than he thought. Ashira leaned against the wall, recovering from the long walk, and Jeshed waited with her. Wed’s two large sons noticed the situation. Jeshed knew they were used to chasing down pickpockets and thieves, not subduing giant, furious women. They finally decided on taking a mostly-polite double handful of woman and did the best they could to get her away from the kiosk. Ashira had to muffle her laughter when the furious lady’s dress ripped down the middle and the two boys went as red as pomegranates.
“Are you feeling better?” Jeshed asked.
Ashira nodded but Jeshed thought she still looked weak.
“Wait here. I will speak with Wed and then come back.” Jeshed gave her a pat on the head and approached the kiosk. Wed nearly bent over double when he saw the priest and they set about to talking.
Ashira heard a sigh beside her. A small boy huddled against the doorway with his knees drawn up to his chest. He was spindly, and like most boys of the village, his head was almost completely shaven except for a single thick knotted braid down the side. Ashira thought he looked like any other boy until she noticed his withered and stunted leg. She tried not to look at his deformity, but she couldn’t help but stare. She had never seen such a thing before.
“Hello,” was all Ashira could think to say.
“Hello,” he replied. “You’re that girl living with the priests of Enu-Bal, aren’t you?”
“That’s me. I’m the River Child.”
He didn’t look very impressed like all the others. He merely shrugged. “That’s all right, I guess. Did you really drown?”
“That’s what they say,” Ashira answered.
“I almost died too. I was really sick and then my leg got like this,” the boy continued.
Ashira nodded. There was nothing to say to that.
“Do you think it’s because of evil spirits?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’m just here to buy figs,” she said.
“That’s my father’s stall,” he gestured to the fruit kiosk. “He had customer problems.”
“I saw,” Ashira giggled. “You’re Wed’s son?”
“Yes. And I know what you’re going to say. I’m not big and strong like my brothers but I can do numbers twice as good as they can and besides, they’re going off to join the Legion soon. They’re going to fight the Gusaan barbarians, I think,” he answered. “I’m Geb.”
“Do you want to see my house? I have a set of toy lions. I made them last Harvest,” he offered.
Completely forgetting Jeshed’s command to wait, she eagerly followed him into a little one room house behind the kiosk. It was like many of the others in Uftem; simple, with one room and no windows. It was painted proudly in bright reds and blues. Five reed pallets lay on the dirt floor and a wooden ladder led up to the roof where the family would sleep at night. Frowning at the stuffiness of the house, she was glad the temple at least had windows to let in the breeze.
From a corner of the room, the boy pulled out a small box. Inside were four figures made of clay. They had four legs and a head and could be called lions if she squinted.
“I made them,” Geb boasted again.
“Which one is the king?” she asked.
“This one.” He held up one that was identical to the others. “I tried doing a mane, but it cracked in my uncle’s kiln.”
“Maybe you should make a tiny straw skirt and put it around his head,” Ashira suggested. Geb’s eyes went wide.
“That’s a great idea!” he cried.
Wed drew aside the thick curtain that served as the house door. “Geb, I need you to go out there and pick up the olives that damn hippo of a woman didn’t crush,” he ordered. He glanced at Ashira and smiled.
“Ashira, how are you? It is good to see you out and about.” Wed adopted the wheedling voice he used for his job.
“I’m fine.” She stood and dusted off her knees. “We just came to get some things.”
“Of course, of course. And I see you’ve met my son. No one plays with him, you know, on account of him being a cripple. He does what he can though. He does what he can.”
Ashira nodded. Geb fidgeted but said nothing.
“Now, Geb’s busy helping me right now but you can come by and play with the crocodiles anytime,” Wed said happily. “It’s nice to see he has a friend.”
“Lions,” Geb muttered.
“They’re lions, not crocodiles.”
“Are they?” Wed squinted. “Ah well. We all do our best, don’t we? Geb, come now. We have work to do.”
Ashira left with the old man and his son. Jeshed had already purchased what he needed and beckoned Ashira over to him.
“I told you to stay put,” he glowered.
“I was just behind the stall. Wed has a son and he’s my friend now.”
“You need to let me know where you go.” His scolding had no teeth to it and he handed Ashira a pouch of coins. “Never mind about that though. What was it that I needed?”
“Ah…” Ashira furrowed her eyebrows. “Two jugs of palm wine, a bag of figs and a jar of…um…”
The two men waited.
“The stuff that you use to preserve bodies,” Ashira said.
“Natron,” Wed said and cocked his eyebrows at Jeshed. “You’re teaching her to be an Embalmer?”
“I’m teaching her responsibility,” Jeshed said. “Embalming wouldn’t be appropriate work for a girl.”
“Why not?” Ashira asked, rising to her feet. “I want to be an Embalmer like you!”
“I don’t have enough time right now to explain. Instead, I will teach you about money. Give Wed fifty-two denarii.”
Ashira listened carefully at how the different coins meant different amounts but she couldn’t stop watching Geb. He was still picking up olives at the kiosk and Ashira could see bending was difficult for him. He had to be very careful and balance on his good leg. She looked away and slowly counted out the money Jeshed had given her to pay for everything.
Wed smiled as she handed over the coins. “Such a darling. Ibez always wanted a daughter but the gods saw fit to give us enough sons to eat us out of house and home. Try not to bark too much at her, Jeshed, and be thankful for what you have.”
“I will if she doesn’t cause my heart to give out.”
Wed laughed. “That’s how all girls curse us in the end.”
Jeshed took the two jugs and handed the natron jar and bag to Ashira.
“The journey to the temple is much more difficult when going back uphill, you’ll find.” Wed smiled. “You’re a good girl for helping that sour old man.”
Ashira laughed and waved at Geb. “I’ll be back soon,” she said.
“You really will?” he asked. His eyes said he did not believe her.
“Sure. I’ll bring my cow doll. We can have the lions eat him.”
“I’ll be waiting!”
With that, Ashira and Jeshed made the long journey home. Wed was right. It was harder walking up the hill with all her things in tow. Her arms grew tired and her back ached. It was early afternoon and the sun was doing its best to sap her strength.
They arrived at the temple sitting smugly atop the cruel hill. A narrow stone staircase led up to the wide front garden. The temple itself was made of great stone blocks that looked older than the oldest mountains. Rows of pear-shaped columns lined the entrance and Ashira knew that each one had been carved from single pieces of stone. Statues of the gods loomed alongside the columns, looking regal and proud. She knew them well now.
Together they made their way to the catacombs. Along the way, Ashira could hear prayers coming from some of the other chambers but she knew she would hear nothing when she went downstairs. The crypt was always quiet. Light streamed through the high shuttered windows and made a pretty slatted pattern on the stone floor. The light would not reach her room, she knew, but she wanted to be out of the sun anyway. She had gotten her fill of sunshine.
About the author
I'm the author of the Dusk Eternal trilogy, an Egyptian-inspired fantasy adventure. I'm also a freelance blogger and content writer. I love reading ancient history and playing Dungeons & Dragons.