Heart of the Gods
It was a shaken, terrified and desperate man who stumbled into the little temple to the shock of the priests and priestesses who served there. His face and hands were scoured and bloodied by the desert.
Abdul ignored them, prostrating himself before the figure of the Goddess. The priests and priestesses couldn’t help him, only a Goddess could.
They’d lost Mustafa in the desert that first night.
At first Abdul thought it safe to rest and so they’d stopped to set up what camp they could.
The wind had come up. All of them had looked up, knowing the signs in the clouds, in the haze in the sky behind them.
They found what shelter they could and hunkered down to weather it out.
Still something sent a shiver down Abdul’s back. He weighed his chances.
Something told him his chances were better in the sandstorm.
As the first rush of blowing sand reached them, he leaped for his camel.
Seeing him, Najib followed.
Mustafa had not.
Even over the sound of the storm they heard him scream in abject terror and then in delirious bliss, a dying gurgle of immense pleasure.
And yes, there was something about the sound of that ecstasy that drew their manhood tight and sent a chill through them. Even as it called to them.
Najib’s eyes had turned white at that cry.
It had been a race then, to see which camel could run or be goaded faster against the fury of the storm.
Once again, Abdul won, his fingers clenched around the figurine of the little priestess as he heard the cry out of the darkness.
Still he couldn’t shake the idea he was still hunted. He could feel it.
Desperate, he raced into the first temple he found and threw himself on mercy of she who ruled there.
All he had to offer was the golden figurine of the priestess.
“Take it,” he said to one of the priests, thrusting it into his hands. “Take it as my offering to her, to Sekhmet.”
The Goddess of War.
Instead the priest looked toward the open door of the temple and his face grew grim and set. As one, he and the others backed away, disappeared into the shadowed depths of the temple.
Nearly weeping with terror, Abdul slowly turned.
Sand swirled through the entrance. Something stepped out of it.
He looked from the figure in his hand to the terrible one who stood in the doorway.
The Guardian of the Tomb.
They were the same.
His cry was first of sheer terror and then of a deep and horrifying ecstasy.
When silence came once again to Sekhmet’s temple, the priests and priestesses emerged.
All that remained of the old thief was a dry and empty husk.
The wind gusted and swept the temple clean.
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Watching the news out of Egypt, I could have cried. Like the long ago Library of Alexandria, the richest and most celebrated library of the ancient world, it burned by ‘accident’ when the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at a neighboring building. The Library of Alexandria burned in much the same way, depending on the story.
“The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended,” the director of the institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, told state television over the weekend. The building was managed by a local non-governmental organization.
So much knowledge lost.
According to some accounts the Library of Alexandria burned as the Roman Emperor Aurelian tried to save his ships from Zenobia of Palmyra, an Arabian Queen. The fire spread to the Library of Alexandria, as Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer and the last scholar of the library, tried to save it. (According to some reports.)
Ironically, considering current events, Hypatia was murdered by Christians who accused her of creating turmoil. They stripped her, dragged her through the streets and flayed her with pot shards.
But history has long recorded the complaints of the upstart, educated women of Egypt.
If the military government had only read their history, they should have known better than to attack one. I can only cheer as the women in Egypt rise up in protest against the army stripping a woman, then dragged her through the street as they stomped on her.
They are demanding a return to the Egypt of old, and the rights they once were given, that celebrated and honored it’s strong, intelligent and capable women. They are not standing silent as their rights are assaulted but standing up and fighting for the rights.
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Servant of the Gods
A child of prophecy, in her life she would bear three names, one as a peasant and mercenary, yet another after she was captured and enslaved. Despite it all she would rise to become Priestess of Isis and High Priestess of all Egypt and face her greatest challenge…an nearly immortal evil.
It was late in the afternoon when they came within sight of the tall, thick walls of the fort, slowing to a canter as they approached.
An eerie silence prevailed, unbroken by the sound of the birds that normally scavenged the refuse and detritus of the fort’s dunghill. All they heard was the wind blowing over the sand, a soft ominous hiss.
Khai looked to the walls.
They were empty. The gates were open wide, almost in invitation. No one could seen, within or without.
Something was badly wrong.
Instinctively, nervously, the archers strung their bows and carried them at the ready as the charioteers held their horses on a tight rein, the animals tossing their heads restlessly.
At Irisi’s side, Nebi made an anxious noise low in his throat, shaking his mane uneasily as his tail twitched.
Unsettled as well, Irisi reached behind her to loosen her swords in their scabbards.
The towers at each corner were unoccupied, as was the interior as far as they could see through the narrow aperture of the open gates. Nothing moved beyond them. The garrison should have been bustling with men drilling and patrols coming and going. Especially in light of the stories they’d heard.
Everyone looked around nervously as they rode through the gates in the outer wall.
No one challenged their right to enter. Shadows pooled unnaturally beneath the walls.
They passed through the first wall then through the second and into open marshalling yard.
To all appearances, the complex of barracks and buildings was completely empty. The square before them was barren, no soldiers drilled, no one repaired their gear or sharpened their swords, nor did the commandant come to greet them.
It was unnatural, eerie and disquieting. The entire garrison seemed to have vanished.
A silence unlike any other, broken only by the whistling of the wind, surrounded them.
“How many?” Irisi whispered.
Khai shook his head. “A hundred, perhaps more.”
The enormity of it…
With gestures, Khai split his people and sent them scouting carefully through the complex.
He and Irisi dismounted to cautiously approach the commandant’s quarters.
They could see nothing within the shadows of the entry but those shadows seemed darker than usual.
Nebi pressed protectively close to Irisi. Out of habit, she rested her hand on his head, her fingers in his mane.
Darkness seemed to press against her, though the sun was still high in the sky. Something was wrong… The closer they walked to the commander’s quarters the more disturbed she felt. She tried to tell herself it was her imagination.
Malevolent… Evil… Gathering…
With a great coughing roar, Nebi suddenly crouched.
“Khai,” Irisi shouted and threw herself at him.
Nebi leaped just as something with wicked teeth and claws erupted from within the concealing darkness.
Whatever it was that burst from the cover of the commandant’s quarters was like nothing Irisi had ever seen before… And yet it was familiar in a strange way, something she’d only read about, something to haunt her nightmares.
Nebi met it, snarling and roaring.
More of the thing bounded out in the wake of the first.
They looked like hyenas but they weren’t, everything about them was slightly wrong, from their oversized teeth to the too long claws on their feet, yet the powerful bone-crushing jaws of the hyena they resembled were still very much a danger.
Irisi spun away from Khai, throwing her swords up to defend herself as one of the things launched itself at her.
“Call your people back, Khai,” Irisi cried. “Get them back.”
The thing twisted to evade the iron in the rough steel of her swords.
Khai shouted for his people as more of the things and new, different, ones erupted from the shadows where they’d been hiding.
Things that resembled smoke but weren’t flowed from the barracks around them in rolling billows. That smoke transformed into creatures that were shaped roughly like men. It was there that all resemblance ended.
Rough creatures, their skin was as black as charcoal and rimose, threaded with glints of red like the coals of a banked fire. Their eyes were narrow glowing slits, their noses and mouths a slash of embers. Others shifted shape and form, some appeared to be men who’d suffered a terrible battle – all bore fearsome wounds. Khai feared he knew who they were and from where they’d come… The fallen of the fort.
With a howl, a hyena thing leaped at Irisi. She spun away, her swords flashing. It screamed in frustrated fury as her blade cut it while another leaped at Khai himself.
Khai took the thing down with a two-handed swing of his own sword, sending it tumbling across the ground. It instantly rolled to its feet and raced toward them once again. A spear thrown by one of his men pierced it. It howled, rolling, scrabbling and biting at itself.
“Don’t let the shadows touch you,” Irisi cried out in warning, as she cut an ifrit in two.
If she was right… Fear shot through her.
Gesturing, she called up a burst of wind to drive back the shadows closest to them and their people.
“What are they?” Khai demanded, turning to put Irisi at his back as his people raced to join them, most of them ducking, dodging and fighting the creatures that seemed to burst through or ooze from nearly every orifice of the fort.
He saw the smoke that wasn’t smoke swirl around one of his men.
Screaming, the man’s eyes bulged as he fell, his clothing stained red even as he toppled.
Irisi threw herself against Khai as he instinctively responded, going to the aid of his man.
“No,” she cried, “you can’t save him.”
More of the things appeared.
Nebi leaped past them to take another, his massive jaws locking on the throat of one of the hyena things.
“Djinn,” she answered as she looked around in horror. “They’re Dark Djinn…”
They came from everywhere.
Ifrit in the shape of hyena, sila – fire demons – ghuls who would eat the dead or a man alive…and the marid, beautiful spirits who would steal a man’s soul.
In all her reading Irisi had never heard of such a thing. Djinn didn’t fight together. Djinn never fought together. They were solitary creatures. And yet here they were.
United like this…
They couldn’t fight so many, not with so small a force.
Dear Gods and Goddesses, help us, she thought.
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To Khai’s horror, his fallen man rose up to take sword against them.
One of the things I find amusing is to listen to people talk about ancient cultures and describe the lives of those who lived then as ‘hard’. In comparison to ours, they definitely were. After all, most people barely lived past the age of forty and cause of death would be as likely from tooth decay. That was for men. We act shocked by the idea that young women of that time were married by twelve and old maids at fourteen, without considering that by the time their children were adults they’d already lived over half their lives. That’s if they survived childbirth, one of the leading causes of death for women. Many children died young, either in childbirth, or from disease or accident.
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Yet if you asked those people if their lives were hard, they’d be surprised at the very notion. After all, it was all they knew. It was life, they lived and loved, worked and fought, had children they nurtured. Just like us.
Many archaeologists and historians, though, operating under modern prejudices of society and faith, made similar assumptions and judgments – those ancient cultures were barbarian, filthy and pagan, they must have led a miserable existence. This despite all evidence to the contrary. Don’t believe me? See how many movies portray the people of eras as unwashed, as if they didn’t know simple hygiene. Yet ancient Egyptians used makeup, balms and ointments – many scented – and were nearly obsessed with cleanliness. It would take Christianity to make bathing a sin. In truth most ancient cultures were far more advanced, happy and egalitarian than assumed.
For the ancient Egyptians, its clear from their writings and their statuary that marriage was a sacred institution for them, and husband and wife were considered equal. As were women in general, many of whom ran their own businesses.
In most ancient societies the relationships between people, whether as couples or friends, were important and valued. If you read their writings, without the cynicism imposed by our own society, you can see it. In ancient Egypt husbands wrote to wives and wives to their husbands, of their devotion to each other without shame or embarrassment. Something that in our society until the last half century. Imagine something like that now.
There are tales throughout history of friends who sacrificed their lives for each other – now we refer to such friendships in derogatory terms like bromances, or BFFs.
People also had rights many today would envy. In early Rome women could get divorced and own their own property, something that didn’t exist in some parts of the US until this last century.
Yes, there was slavery, but slavery still exists in this world, and many slaves had better rights than many of those who work on production lines or in cubicles, since their owners were at least required to feed and clothe them.
Cultural assumptions were also much different, or non-existent. Homosexuality wasn’t an issue. In many cultures no one cared.
Sexual roles were also less defined. Without the societal assumption that women were the ‘weaker’ sex, women in those ancient cultures were able to do any job or hold any career they wished. Even serve in the army.
For example, in some pre-puebloan societies it was men who did the weaving – a task considered women’s work for many these days – and a boy who wished to court a girl took a particularly fine blanket, woven by his own hands, to his prospective mother-in-law for judgment.
Yet in much of our writings we tend to condemn those societies based on our own cultural assumptions. It’s easy to do so, after all, through the lens of our own judgments.
For instance, we condemn Cleopatra and portray her as being a harlot for marrying her brother but by the terms of Egyptian culture, what she did wasn’t sacrilege or incest, it was their culture. After all, the Gods Isis and Osiris were also brother and sister (a neat way to explain how the first gods managed the whole procreation thing, unlike in the Bible, where a whole different tribe just appears).
What we do tend to forget is that some of these cultures existed, relatively peacefully and successfully for centuries longer than ours has.
We are fond of the image of Rome as that of the Coliseum and the ‘poor Christians’ being thrown to the lions. It was a fairly common, if brutal, punishment for criminals in those days. Yet from the point of view of the Romans, many of those early Christians were
criminals, condemning the religion of others, fomenting rebellions, stirring up slave riots and fighting among one another. And much of that image isn’t historically accurate either.
We condemn ancient Rome for its excesses and yet some in the US Congress or on Wall Street could certainly give them a run for their money. As we also tend to look down on the pharaohs and early Caesars but most of them understood they held their place at the will of their people. More than one ruler found himself overthrown when they forgot that. Some folks in power now might do well to remember it.
Given the importance of interpersonal relationships among those early societies, an argument could be made that the first sign of their failure was when those relationships were devalued, when the excesses of those in power diminished the value of those relationships and began to take away their rights. Not that they were all perfect, but in many cases they were far better than we’ve assumed.
Some of what we know now appears relatively new, but isn’t, but the assumption that there’s nothing new to learn is equally untrue.
The burial place of a female gladiator was only recently – relatively – accepted as such, in spite of the fact that all evidence pointed to her sex as being female. The evidence for it long existed, it just couldn’t be seen past the lens of our own assumptions.
We’re still uncovering new information. They just recently discovered previously untouched (except by thieves) ancient Egyptian tombs.
We now know that we understand much less about the ancient Incan culture than we once did, based on new discoveries.
So, are you or will you write your novel from the point of view of your cultural upbringing, to espouse a certain concept, or will you try to write it without preconceptions? And how will you market it? As ‘factual’ or as a ‘re-imagining’?
There is a group of reviewers that say they’ll review your novel, not just the quality of the writing, but for historical accuracy. My only question is, whose history? From which point of view?
For example, if you’re writing a western, and you want your female character to do certain things, would her actions have been acceptable or even possible for the period? I had started one, but was caught short by questions about that era. A little research reassured me that not only was my concept possible, it was even more likely to be right than the images we have of western women now. I’ll definitely be citing my research on that one.
In a few days I’ll be releasing a new book, a thriller/horror/romance based in time of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt. I’ll make no claims that it will be 100% historically accurate – it is fiction after all – but I did try to stay as true to that era as possible. For example – I had my heroine riding a horse, possible given where she’d come from but unlikely even then, and certainly in ancient Egypt. The horses of that time hadn’t advanced so much, they were much smaller. Breeding and time would change that.
The problem is that many people assume the author made the effort to do the research and so believe a lot of what they read. However I know a lot of books that were/are wildly inaccurate historically, others just mildly. Bodice-ripping is much harder to do than most assume. And let’s not talk about the movie Pocahontas. I also had someone chide me about the danger of using the word Nike in the title of my book Nike’s Wings – it was clear the individual had no clue that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory and not just a shoe manufacturer. Most of us know of a few novels written about ancient cultures from a specific point of view and some of those authors have quite a devoted following. If the native cultures they described could read those books, I wonder if they would recognize themselves? Especially given that some historians and archaeologists now question some of those assumptions?
So, what does this mean to us as fiction writers? (Non fiction writers have different issues) What are our responsibilities when it comes to referring to or describing these incredibly complex ancient cultures? First, before we put pen to paper, we must decide how true to that culture we want to be, how fictional is fictional? What do we owe those ancient societies? What do we owe our readers?
Honesty, that’s all.