Valley of the Kings, Egypt
1074 B.C., during the time of the 18th Dynasty
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
High above the valley, at the edge of a cliff, a bearded man named Khemet lay flat on his stomach, sweating beneath the noonday sun, looking for any sign of movement. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, a fly buzzed around his ear, but nothing moved down below.
The valley was still—as the resting place of the buried Pharaohs should be. The only movement was a dust devil that rose from the southern end and danced across the sand.
Khemet slid back from the rim. Several men in linen robes crouched there. A boy stood next to them. Khemet addressed the child. “What is it you’ve brought us here to see?”
Villagers in Thebes called the boy Qsn, which meant Sparrow. They used the term not because he was small for his age and tended to chirp as he spoke, but as an insult. To the people of Egypt, the sparrow was a nuisance, stealing food and spoiling fruit. The townspeople saw the orphaned boy in the same light.
Khemet knew differently. The child was a beggar, not a thief. In fact, he worked hard for the smallest of coins, watching everything with sharp eyes, gathering information. His size and age meant he was often invisible even in plain sight.
The boy crawled to the edge of the cliff, looked down into the valley and then tugged Khemet’s arm. He extended a tiny finger, pointing. “Pharaoh’s tomb has been opened. The stone has been thrown aside.”
Squinting to see in the bright sun, Khemet looked past the magnificent three-story temple of Hatshepsut, with its long central stairway and rows of towering columns, and ignored the piles of rubble sealing the entrance of some lesser-known ancestors, finally focusing on a gap in the rock where smooth limestone blocks denoted the entrance to the tomb of Horemheb, one of the more recently buried Pharaohs.
His eyes weren’t as sharp as the child’s, but after shielding them from the sun he began to see into the shadows. The whitewashed slab that had been used to seal the tomb lay on the ground, broken in two where it had fallen. The path in front of the tomb was heavily rutted from the wheels of carts and trampled with the hooves of oxen.
“The boy is right,” Khemet said. “The tomb has been violated.”
“And just what does he want us to do about that?” one of the other men said.
The boy looked back, unafraid to address the adults. “You are the Medjay,” he said in his high-pitched voice. “You are the servants of Rameses XI of Memphis. You guard the resting place of the Sons of Amun.”
Khemet smiled. He had been a captain in the Medjay—a force of warriors appointed by the Pharaohs to guard the tombs of their ancestors—but his position had been swept away in the political upheaval that was dividing Egypt.
“Perhaps the Sparrow doesn’t hear everything,” one of the men said. “We’re no longer needed by the Sons of Amun.”
“Rameses rules in Memphis and Alexandria,” Khemet explained more patiently, “but this is Upper Egypt and Herihor has taken the title of Great House for himself.”
The boy’s face showed contempt. “Herihor is not only the High Priest, he is—”
“Here, he is a King,” Khemet snapped. “There are those who would cut your tongue out for saying otherwise.”
The boy shrank back.
Khemet allowed the lesson to sink in before adding, “Fortunately, we’re not among them.”
The men behind them laughed. The child looked relieved.
“Egypt is not what it was,” one of his men said. “The weaker it gets, the more Pharaohs it needs. Soon there will be one in every region.”
This brought more laughter from Khemet, though the boy looked stricken. He was still young enough to believe in concepts like duty and honor and, above all, the glory of kings descended from the gods. Those beliefs were not unlearned without great pain.
Khemet turned his attention back to the open tomb. “We should investigate and see what they’ve taken.”
Leaving the cliffside, he led the group around and down a secret trail that took them to the valley below. These were hidden paths only the Medjay knew.
When they arrived, the light was brighter and more dazzling, as if they were walking the path to Heaven itself. Unlike the tawny cliffs around them, the valley floor was covered with pulverized limestone and white dust, chips and shavings from the great blocks that had been cut and worked and manhandled into place almost continuously for the past thousand years.
The reflected light caused Khemet to pull a scarf across his eyes and he entered the tomb of Horemheb looking like a bandit.
Once inside, he removed the scarf and stood in the entry corridor. The cool air caressed his body while his eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. As his pupils dilated, the splendor of the artisans’ work appeared before him. Ceiling and walls, whitewashed and covered in hieroglyphics. Statues, carvings and other works of art. All lit up by the light coming in from the entrance of the tomb and from the torches mounted on the walls, which gave off an even purer light as they burned a smokeless blend of castor oil and natron.
Khemet took one of the torches and moved forward. His men followed close behind, the boy at his side.
Passing a second doorway, they entered the burial chamber reserved for lesser wives and servants.
Khemet stopped and pushed the boy back into a cleft in the wall. “Quiet, now,” he said. “We’re not alone.” Reaching under his garment and pulling out a short sword, he waved the men to move up beside him. “Be ready.”
Without a sound, Khemet stepped through the next doorway. He passed two statues of Anubis, the flickering torch in Khemet’s hand casting shadows across the unmoving beasts on the far wall.
“Worthless guards,” one of the men whispered of the Anubis pair, “sitting idly by as robbers plunder the belongings meant to equip Pharaoh in the Afterlife.”
The sound of a tool hitting stone could be heard up ahead. Moving into Pharaoh’s burial chamber, Khemet found the source of the noise, a priest and a stonecutter carving a message into the far wall. Between them lay the stone sarcophagus of Horemheb. Its heavy lid had been thrown down and discarded. The golden coffin, death mask and mummified Pharaoh were gone.
The priest and the stonecutter noticed the flickering torch light. “It’s high time you’ve returned,” the priest said without looking back. “We have more items that need to be moved.”
“You mean stolen,” Khemet said.
Only now did the priest turn. “Who are you?” the priest demanded.
“I am Khemet, Captain of the Guard. And you are a thief.”
The priest did not back down. “I am the hand of the Great House. Servant of Pharaoh Herihor. I do the Pharaoh’s work. You men are trespassers and deserters.”
And I will be a hero when I serve your head to Rameses, Khemet thought.
He stepped forward with his sword raised. “What have you done with the Pharaoh? Where are his gifts?”
“They have been relocated,” the priest said, “to keep them safe from scavengers like you.”
The priest’s voice had turned snide and awfully bold for a scrawny man facing a soldier with his sword drawn. At the sound of movement, Khemet knew why.
An arrow flew down the corridor, piercing one of his companions from behind. The man fell with a grunt and nothing more.
A spear followed, catching another of the men as he turned.
Khemet pressed himself against the wall as a second arrow flew past. This one sailed into the burial chamber and hit the stonecutter in the stomach. He tumbled off the ledge and hit the floor, writhing in pain.
With the reflexes of a veteran warrior, Khemet dropped low and charged the archer in the hallway, upending him before he could nock another arrow. Thrusting his sword, Khemet pierced the man, yanking the blade back violently and pulling it free.
Seeing the last of his men speared, Khemet threw his sword, impaling the attacker. The man dropped to his knees and then fell sideways. Only the priest and Khemet remained, but the priest had used the fighting in the outer chamber to his advantage.
With Khemet engaged, the priest had drawn a cobra-headed dagger from beneath his gaudy robes. He rushed forward, plunging it into Khemet’s side.
Khemet twisted and slashed with a dagger of his own as he fell back. A hand closer and it would have been a fatal strike, but the priest had pulled out of range.
Falling to the ground, Khemet reached for the knife he’d been stabbed with. He could not remove it. The blade was deep, the wound burned strangely.
Fueled by anger, he stood, raising his weapon. The priest backed off farther but, curiously, did not flee.
“Face me,” Khemet said, “and I will send you to the Afterlife you claim to adore.”
He stepped forward trying to close the gap, but his feet were unsteady. He swayed to one side, placing a hand on the wall. Steadied, Khemet remained upright, but his head swam.
This was strange, he thought. He’d been wounded in battle a dozen times, and once he’d almost bled to death, but never had he felt like this. He reached for the dagger, pulled it from his side and noticed an empty niche cut into the center of the blade.
“The poison was meant for the stonecutter,” the priest said. “To keep him quiet when his work was done. It will serve its purpose just as well in your blood.”
Khemet threw the cobra-headed knife down. Steeling his resolve, he stepped forward again, but by now his eyes were playing tricks on him. The shadows around the tomb came alive. The Anubises and the crocodile moving and speaking.
The chamber began to spin. Khemet’s own dagger fell to the ground, clanging against the stone floor as it hit. Fighting to remain upright and summoning the last remaining stores of his strength, Khemet pushed forward, lunging for the priest with his bare hands, grasping at the man’s robe but catching nothing but air.
Khemet landed facedown on the stone and rolled over on his side. He heard music. Voices. But saw only the face of the treacherous priest. The man leaned over him, mouthed a curse, then straightened, raising a stone over his head, preparing to smash Khemet’s skull.
Before he could strike, the priest’s face tensed in agony as the tip of a blade burst out through his belly. The stone fell backward and the priest toppled over dead. And looked quite surprised to be so.
The boy appeared from behind the body.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rushing to Khemet. “I shouldn’t have told you. I am Qsn—the Bringer of Sorrow.”
Khemet tried to focus on the child. As he did, a swirl of light and shadow grew behind Qsn, spreading like wings. In his delirium, Khemet saw the boy as a living bird, but not one so small and weak. “You are the falcon,” Khemet told him. “You are Horus, the last protector of the Pharaohs . . .”
He reached out and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. And then the world turned to blinding gold. And all he saw and knew vanished.