I’ve loved the Egyptian Gods and early Egyptian society since I learned about it as a kid, despite the tendency of teachers to talk about the Greek/Roman pantheon. The Greeks/Romans were a better contrast of pagan beliefs to Christian than the egalitarian Egyptians. After all, what other society valued marriage as much? Why else do so many hieroglyphs and images portray both husband and wife side by side?
Okay, and to be honest, the Mummy movies (one and two, let’s not talk about three) didn’t hurt either, even though poor Anubis got such a raw deal. I guess a jackal head and being the god of mummification and afterlife seemed more threatening than a ‘Set animal’ or typhonic being – in other words, the first shapechanger – than Set, the god of chaos and darkness. After all, it was Set who chopped up Osiris and scattered him across Egypt. And Isis who rescued him.
That was part of the attraction – that it was Isis who rescued her beloved Osiris, and that women in Egypt were largely as autonomous as the men. They could have businesses, serve in the army, do anything and everything that men could do.
So, what was it that triggered Heart of the Gods, what made me write this story?
Like all of us, I was as intrigued by the process of mummification as the next person and there was the mythology of the Mummy movies – the person unwillingly mummified. Alive.
And then the scene that opens Heart of the Gods was in my head –
Egypt, 17th Year of King Narmer’s Reign, Early Dynasty
Torchlight flickered over the stone walls of the immense cavern, bathing them in a soft golden glow. That light danced over the massive figures of the Gods, giving the faces of the statues the appearance of expression. It illuminated as well the faces of the priests and priestesses gathered around the stone pedestal that served as an altar. The air was pungent with the scent of burning incense. Chanting echoed throughout the chambers, a sound that rose and fell, a low atonal hum that resonated in the bones.
Mummification had never been intended for use on the living but it was as it must be and none of those gathered there could gainsay what was about to happen. Not General Khai, nor any of the priests and priestesses of the Gods, nor even the High Priestess Irisi herself. Who were they to second-guess the Will of the Gods?
Irisi could not and would not.
It was as the prophecy had decreed however much they wished to deny it. Kahotep’s prophecy. He who was Priest of Horus, the Falcon-God, whose Eye saw everything.
“A darkness rises, oh Pharaoh, to be unleashed across the world. It comes as a shadow rising from the desert laying waste to all of Egypt, scouring the earth as it passes. Death and destruction follow in its wake, and the cries of the people of the world are terrible. From the north comes a warrior, a crowned and golden servant of the Gods with eyes like the sky, bearing swords in hand to rise up and drive the terrible darkness out of the world, and to stand against it for all time.”
That shadow had risen and the battles had been terrible. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here.
Servant of the Gods. Irisi was that, she was priestess to both Isis and Sekhmet. To stand against it for all time? What was prisoned in the chamber below would live forever. And so, therefore, must she.
And so, this.
For it to have any chance at success she knew she must accept it without protest, she must give it both her Ba and Ka, her heart and soul, willingly, and so she steeled herself to face it.
There was no other way and there was no other to do it, only she, both warrior and priestess, could, however terrible it was.
Irisi knew only she must accept it without protest, willingly, if this they did were to have the slightest chance of success and so she steeled herself to face it. Even as that other below, Kamenwati, did not. He fought them, writhed and screamed in protest, in outrage. He chanted spells against them even as Awan, High Priest of Osiris, Kahotep, High Priest of Horus and Djeserit, High Priestess of Sekhmet struggled to contain him and his terrible magic. In the back of Irisi’s mind she chanted the words of the two Books she knew so well, the Book of Life, known only to the priests and priestesses of the temples…and the Book of Emerging in Daytime – what some called, wrongly, the Book of the Dead.
Of the priests and priestesses only Rensi, High Priest of Anubis and gentle Nafre, priestess of Hathor, stood with her in the upper chamber. Representatives of their Gods, each had their task. Rensi made certain the rites done this day were done as they must be to keep Irisi’s soul alive against all the odds and to preserve her body in the hope that someday she might reach the afterlife.
Nafre gave comfort to help ease her passage.
And then there was Khai, Irisi’s beloved Khai.
She looked up at him from where she lay on the cold stone of the plinth.
Her breath caught as it always did to look at him. He was so beautiful and she loved him so much. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving him.
Gleaming black hair streamed in shining waves to his shoulders and framed his strong handsome face, high cheekbones and beautiful long-lashed dark eyes. Deep within those dark brown eyes was the hint of warm gold she knew so well. There was grief in his eyes, the sure knowledge of what they were about to do. She knew what it cost him to stand aside and watch, how little he loved to feel helpless, but for once his strength and courage could avail him nothing. This was for her to do, and her alone.
She longed to touch him once again, treasured the memory of his hands on her, his body against and a part of hers. The thought was bittersweet. In that Kamenwati had succeeded, he’d kept them apart for so long. Surely the Gods wouldn’t deny her this much? In her heart of hearts she felt the sweet benediction that was the blessing of her Goddess, Isis, who, having lost her own beloved Osiris for a time, understood her fear and her pain at having to give up her own beloved.
Here, finally for this one time and with these trusted few around them, they could do as they’d wished for so long to do openly.
While Irisi had been Kamenwati’s slave that hadn’t been possible. Or while under his threat. Only that had kept Irisi away, the sure knowledge that Kamenwati would kill Khai had he but known of their love.
His lips touched hers, so warm, the feel of them firm but gentle, a soft caress.
Reaching up, Irisi touched Khai’s stern handsome face for one last time even as the sharp pain of the reeds lanced through her wrist, her ankles. She wouldn’t cry out, not looking up into that beloved face. It wasn’t in her to make him suffer any more than necessary. She loved the Gods, she loved Egypt her adopted home but above all else she loved Khai. It was only for her duty, for Egypt and its people, and the people of all the lands she’d known, that would she would leave him.
The Gods understood.
As did he.
“You are Nife-an-Ankh to me,” she whispered, “and Nomti…I love you, I will always love you. Forever.”
Breath of life and strength he was to her. Her heart.
She’d loved him from almost the first moment she’d seen him that long ago day in the desert, standing surrounded by her dead and theirs. He’d offered her honor, then, as one warrior to another. She loved him for that, for his honor, courage and for his great heart.
He was beautiful to her in all ways.
“Irisi,” he said and lowered his proud head to hers.
Khai looked down at his beloved Irisi laid out upon the altar and wanted to cry out his denial of what was to come but he could not. Leaning over her with one arm braced on the stone he touched her face, looked into her lovely eyes, at the glorious length of her hair as it spilled over the sides. So beautiful, so alive…
Breath of life and strength as she was to him as well.
Blood flowed through the reeds, her blood, drained out of her… her lifeblood. The rich coppery aroma of it filled the air, mixed with the scent of the herbs in the Water of Life as it was drawn into her.
It must be and they both knew it. She was the one who must go and he the one who must stay.
Egypt needed her only surviving General.
Irisi’s successor had already been chosen.
Slowly, he touched his lips to hers, the kiss soft as the priests and priestesses chanted around them. Her hand was warm on his face as their lips found each other. Grief lay heavy on his heart. Duty lay heavier. He couldn’t bear to let her go and yet he couldn’t keep her, however much he wished it. He, too, served the will of the Gods. And he could see no other choice, no other way.
The herbs, the potions, flowed into her, burned in her veins. Irisi fought the pain of it with warm feel of Khai’s lips, so long forbidden, on hers…and with the surge of love that washed through her.
“Irisi,” he whispered. “You are my heart.”
As he was hers but she could no longer speak the words or else break the chant that echoed endlessly in the back of her mind.
The stone of the altar was cold and the chill seemed to soak slowly into her flesh.
Around her Irisi could hear the chanting, the minds and voices of the priests and priestesses raised in support of her and of those who fought below, mixed with the drone of the Horn in the chamber far below.
It had taken some little time for Irisi to achieve the semi-trance state necessary to endure what was done, yet some of the pain and the weakness seeped through to batter at her will. As did the will of the creatures in the darkness of the chamber below – the magic of the Horn and her own will, joined to these others, was all held them there. She dared not falter.
She felt her lifeblood drain swiftly away even as she felt the embalming fluids flow in, the natron and herbs bit sharply into her veins. It burned as it went but she turned her thoughts away from it as she turned them away from the other things they did.
Her arms were folded across her breast with a hand on each shoulder and bound so tightly with lengths of linen that she could barely breathe. Her hair was coiled up as the cloth was wrapped around her throat, around her head to cover her mouth and forehead. All but her eyes.
Cold fluid brushed across her belly, followed by numbness. Something pressed just below her breastbone. There was a sense of invasion as they finished wrapping her body in the last long lengths of linen.
Warm liquid soaked her from collarbone to feet. It drenched the linen and stung sharply in the cuts they’d made.
A cry echoed from the darkness below. That, too, fell on deaf ears.
She bit back her own cries. Fought the sense of being constricted.
Remaining still by an act of will she kept her eyes focused on his dark ones, sought the gold within them, the warmth even as her own drained away. His will melded to hers, lent her the strength she needed to do this as the weakness grew within her until he stepped back as, finally, he must.
Her heart hammered in her chest, drawing in the sacred herbs, natron and fluids through her veins even as it pumped her lifeblood out. Mixed among the herbs was the blood of the one who lay below so she would be bound to him and he to her.
The last length of linen went across her eyes. The light disappeared behind the linen to take her down into darkness.
Pain flashed, sharp, sudden, within her to leave a sense of absence, a stillness within her.
It would go quickly now and she was grateful for that.
And it did.
She felt them raise her to carry her swiftly out.
A coughing roar echoed down the tunnel that led outside. They followed that sound, she knew.
The lions, her lions…gifts of the lion-headed Goddess Sekhmet when that Goddess had turned her away and sent her to Isis’s service instead. They would come with her, to keep her company through her long duty so she wouldn’t be utterly alone.
Watching, Khai bowed his head and looked away as they tipped her up for he couldn’t watch as her linen-wrapped form slid with a splash of the Water of Life into the hollow in the stele they’d prepared for her.
He could wish this had been done in sunlight as Irisi was and always had been a creature of light and not darkness.
Grief burned. If only he could have gone in her place…
He could not, he was no priest, he had no magic, nor as Egypt’s only surviving General could he leave his country and its people undefended any more than Irisi could have refused this.
Duty and honor wouldn’t allow it.
He laid a hand against the cold stone, listened as the hammers beat above him, pounded the sealing stone into place with steady rhythmic blows so much like the sound of a heartbeat. Sealing the stele with Irisi inside it. What was it like for her in there, in the darkness filled with the Water of Life?
He willed her the strength and courage to endure. Like the beat of her valiant heart, each blow of mallet on stone reverberated, echoed from the distant walls, to whisper back over the grassy hollow within them.
Above, through the narrow break in the cavern roof Khai could see the stars glitter coldly.
Desperately, instinctively, Irisi’s lungs sought air, her body fought…even as she clung to trance, to will, to the spells in her mind, to the endless mental chanting of the words from the Book of Emerging into Daytime – the Book of the Dead.
She had to hold against the grief and the fear, the close space that enveloped her. What lay below, him and them, battered against her will.
Khai was still here, though, her beloved Khai and these others she loved, Awan, Kahotep, Djeserit, all the priests and priestesses with whom she’d served over the years. Even poor Saini in the distant chamber below, seeking his redemption, watched the last faint light disappear as the doors shut on him to seal him in among the Dark, among Them…
She could almost pity him, not knowing which of them suffered the worst fate.
Faintly, she could hear the Horn call as he blew endlessly, drawing air in through his nose, blowing out through his mouth. That sound must not falter until the doors were shut and sealed. Forever.
Beyond, outward, there was all of Egypt, all of the world. They couldn’t let what resided so restlessly within that chamber escape to lay waste over it. Not again. She couldn’t set what lay within the tomb loose upon the peoples of this world, not with what they now knew of them. Those below would devour every living thing, turn the people of the Nile, the distant peoples from which she’d come and those of all the lands where she’d served and fought as a mercenary into cattle, chattel, something to feed upon…and their feeding…the torment of it…
Horror shook her.
If they were to be free, safe, she must hold, even as her body bucked, fought for air…and so she held. It seemed an eternity and yet it was only minutes.
She remembered…and clung to her memories, lost herself in them, held them against the pain, against the cold that seeped into her. The cold and the darkness.
Alone in the dark she remembered the ones, the one, she loved and would always love.
His hand upon the stone, Khai remembered, too, remembered his beloved Irisi with her swords flashing, her hair swirling around her as she did battle that first day he’d seen her and all the days thereafter. Priestess and warrior. So lovely, strong, so seemingly indomitable. It was her laughter though, that rang in his memory most. That beautiful hair, her glorious eyes…her laughter and her joy.
In grief and sorrow he touched the face carved into the stone of the stele…laid his forehead against the cold stone forehead of it as he would do with her in life.
His fingers traced the words engraved in the stele, the chants for Coming Forth into the Day, for Going and Coming Out of the Realm of the Dead, and For Taking on Any Shape. She would need to know them.
He willed her strength and he willed her love. How did she fare within? Was her struggle over yet, had the Gods taken her, given her surcease? Were her ba and ka yet free of her body?
He looked to Awan, to Djeserit, and saw the same thoughts mirrored there in their faces.
In the darkness of the cavern far below, the great iron doors slid closed as bands of gold and silver were hammered across it to secure it with the powers of the Gods Ra and Isis. The seal, carefully balanced, was placed in its niche to enclose what lay within, hopefully forever.
The chanting did not end…it was not done, not yet.
As one, the priests and priestesses closed around the stele. Each lay their hand on the stone and willed strength to the one within. The Gods came to the one within then, all of them but Set, each to render her a gift.
Sekhmet was the last.
In the chamber below the great iron doors were closed and sealed, and she set to stand guard over it, to ensure it remained sealed, forever.
Alone through the ages to come.
Tales were told of one’s life flashing before the eyes as one died, but Irisi was not dying nor would an afterlife await her.
So many memories…
Heart of the Gods was originally written a much larger book, but once it was written I realized it was two separate books, both intertwined. Servant of the Gods, the prequel to Heart of the Gods, will be released in September of 2011.
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The sounds of battle, the cries and screams, the clash and ring of steel on steel that echoed from the streets below and down in the Great Hall drew Oryan High King out of sleep instantly. A rush of fear chilled his bones even as he leaped for his sword and chased sleep from his mind. He paused only long enough to pull on his trews, before drawing his sword from the stand.
Gwenifer scrambled from their bed and raced toward the doors, her long, deep chestnut hair streaming loose, wearing only a thin shift over her tall, slender body, her own swords already in hand.
Knowing that where she went there was no chance of return, he wished keenly to be able to wrap his hands in that hair once again. He loved her hair. He loved her. Passionately. Grief already twisted his heart, knowing where she was going and what it was they faced.
With her hand on the door, she looked back at him, her gray eyes despairing.
“Go for Gawain,” Gwen cried. “Morgan will be with him if he’s returned, if he can reach him. I’ll hold them as long as I may.”
Gwen knew Morgan would try to get to him first, if he’d returned, if he could reach him in time.
Her eyes lingered on Oryan’s longish, much beloved face. Once upon a time she’d feared he’d married her only for her lands and title, for she’d always known she was plain and the only thing she could give him was tall sons and daughters. She’d been astonished to find he’d married her for her heart and mind.
As much as he loved her, she loved him. She knew she was going to die, if there were shouts in the Great Hall the odds were already against them. She wanted to run her hands through her husband’s dark brown hair one last time, to stroke and touch and hold him, but the cries and clamor below told her time was too short.
She was the Queen. She could go, run with Gawain herself, provided there was any place safe for them to run to. She would then be only the dowager Queen, guardian to Gawain until his adulthood, should he live so long, and dependent upon the charity of one of their vassals or neighboring kingdoms. Oryan was King and there were those who would flock to follow him because he was their King. And to Gawain, their prince. Their son. Her son.
As High King, even in exile, Oryan could protect him far better than she.
As she ran down the long hall, the stone cold beneath her bare feet, a thousand thoughts raced through Gwen’s mind.
Most of them were of Oryan and Gawain.
Precious Gawain. She pictured her son in her mind’s eye, so astonishingly beautiful to his mother’s fond eye, with his father’s thick brown hair and her gray eyes. She thought of the thousand things she would now never see. She wouldn’t watch him grow to manhood, or marry, or have children she could bounce on her knee. A part of her wept. Sorrow and fear burned in her chest like acid, threatened to turn her nerves to water.
Knowing who the cause of this likely was she could also too easily see her son bloody and broken on the stones below her windows. Thrown there by his uncle, Haerold, her husband’s half-brother―no other would have done this―as a sacrifice to his own ambition, or he would raise her son to be another such as he. Better dead than that. Anything but that.
She wanted to weep but instead grasped her swords all the tighter. Morgan had said she was one of his better students with a sword. Now she would have the chance to prove it. She would make him and Oryan proud.
Oryan’s heart cried out in grief and in protest as he watched her go but in his King’s heart he knew she was right.
“Go,” he shouted, in place of the kiss he should have given her.
His heart tore but she’d already flung the door open and was racing away down the hall. Away from him.
The clash and clamor of battle came all the louder through the open door as he ran through it behind her.
Close, far too close. How had they gotten in so quick without the alarm being raised?
With the battle so close and Gwen going to face it, Oryan ran the other way, toward their son, toward Gawain and Morgan, if Morgan had returned in time. Morgan, Oryan’s High Marshal, wouldn’t let the boy die, not if there was life and breath in him to prevent it.
Whatever power resided in the earth and sky, in the fields and flowers, Oryan prayed to it and to every other god as he ran down the stone halls, his heart torn between his beloved wife and the son they had made between them.
Gawain was all, he was everything. If anything was to be preserved from this betrayal, it lay in Gawain.
This was Haerold’s doing, of that Oryan was certain.
His brother, or half-brother and Oryan cursed the day his mother met the infernal wizard who helped her make him.
Some strange magic crackled and snapped in the air, prickling his skin, while flashes of it lightened the sky through the arrow slits like greenish lightning, but not as pure. No, not as pure. If he dared allow himself the luxury of weeping in rage and sorrow he would have.
Gwen. His heart was breaking.
Just the thought of her, alone… He could picture her in his mind’s eye as she fought on the stairs, her swords slashing, holding and defending…dying…to buy them time, to save him and their son.
Gwen’s thoughts were of Oryan as she raced down the stairs to the landing to find the enemy in Haerold’s colors of black and gray coming up, their feet pounding up the stairs toward her.
She stopped to face them down, lifted her chin and swords defiantly.
And they came.
Steeling herself, she parried with one sword while she slashed with the other, taking the first with a kick, to send him staggering back against his brethren. She cried out her fury, her rage and despair as she slashed and battered at them, driving forward and the surprise of her attack pushed them back, a step, two, until she gained the landing. It was hers now and she would hold it as long as she could…
Above, Oryan rounded the corner to find Morgan there, strong, sure, capable Morgan and he blessed whatever Gods there were on earth or heaven for the man who stood before him.
Morgan. Thank the Gods
A tall man, Morgan was built solid with deep broad chest, broader shoulders and strong arms. He was so fair in skin and hair he was like a beacon of light in the flickering glow of the torches in the hall. That torchlight sparked like fire from his close-cropped hair, glints of gold and red. He stood four-square at the entrance to the hallway, one brow lifted, pale blue eyes watchful, his full mouth tight, determined, his swords bared as he faced the servant’s stair and looked to see who came from the direction of the King’s quarters.
Their eyes met and Oryan saw clearly in Morgan’s what he feared to see.
It was over. They were lost. Whatever faint hope Oryan had entertained for retaking the castle vanished in that single glance.
Seeing his King, Morgan pushed back grief and anger. He’d only held long enough to learn if the King and Queen or the young Prince survived.
Oryan had, and the boy.
Not the Queen.
The attack couldn’t have been planned better, coming as it did when he’d been supposed to be gone and the attackers arriving in the darkest hours of the night. If he hadn’t returned earlier than expected…
Others of Morgan’s men brought the boy, Oryan’s son, from the Prince’s bedroom, young Gawain frightened until the boy saw his father and Morgan, faces he knew and trusted.
With a faint smile and a touch of pride, one of the men held up the boy’s sword. “He held this until he saw our cockades, Captain, Your Highness. He was very brave.”
Gawain said, “Father?”
“There’s no time to explain, Gawain,” Oryan said, with a nod and brushed a hand over his son’s hair with a mixture of pride, grief and fear. “Stay with me.”
“Where’s Mother?” Gawain asked.
Oryan couldn’t answer, it was too wrenching…
Now it was only to run, to survive and live to fight another day, to take back his crown if they could, for his people and for his son.
“Go, Morgan,” Oryan said.
Morgan went, gesturing to his people to proceed and to follow, to guard the King and the Heir.
“They came from nowhere and everywhere,” Morgan said, explaining as they raced down the hallway.
He hesitated only a fraction of a moment, waiting for Gwen, hoping still but even then knowing that if Oryan was here alone then Gwenifer wasn’t coming. Grief stung him for Gwen, for Oryan his King and for young Gawain, but there was no time for it.
“The raiders had already broken through the great doors to the castle proper in numbers when we arrived.”
He and his people had watched as some kind of magical portal opened and men poured out of it. More men than his small party could handle.
Morgan’s choice had been made for him then, in that moment, the only thing left was to try to reach the boy and the King and Queen if he could. The Queen…
“Liliane,” Morgan said, “take the boy.”
The woman, one of his best soldiers, nodded.
“Where?” Oryan asked.
Morgan met his eyes and saw the grief there. His own heart ached with it.
“There is only up,” Morgan said, evenly.
The same thought was in both their minds.
Oryan looked at him.
The Hall below had been aboil with the invaders. Morgan and his people had been lucky to get past them unnoticed.
Only one ally might yet save them…if their embassy hadn’t been attacked as well.
The Court wizard had no doubt been among the first to die, as had Morgan’s, but there was another, another chance, or so legend had it. Focusing both heart and mind, Oryan sent out a Call, picturing the one he needed so desperately…
Ahead of them they heard the sounds of fighting.
Oryan swore. “Whatever happens, they must not take Gawain.”
All of them knew it. If Oryan’s line was to survive the boy was their only hope. All of them knew of Haerold, the rumors and the truths—which were far darker.
Morgan and his men sprinted ahead in a great flying wedge, Morgan at the lead as the last of the King’s men defending the back servant’s stair fell before the surge of invaders.
In a clash of steel and flesh they came together, Morgan’s Marshals and the intruders, the intruders caught unprepared for the new assault.
No one stopped for even a second nor even paused.
Liliane looked the boy Gawain square in the eyes.
“On my back,” she said, fiercely, “and you stay there. You don’t let go. You hear me?”
The boy nodded and she swung him around behind her, freeing her hands, freeing her swords.
They would have to kill her to get to him.
Swords flashed as Morgan hacked a way through and his people drove into the mass of fighters, scattering them, cutting through, cutting past. The dark clad invaders fell but they took Armand with them, an ill-timed thrust getting past his guard and armor both.
An invader leaped at Oryan but the King, no slouch with a sword himself, cut the man down on the fly with one quick swipe of his longsword as those of Morgan’s men behind him joined the battle, too.
Then they were past. Not a single invader survived that assault.
Distantly behind them they could hear the sounds of running men coming toward them, boots clattered. There was the crash of doors being kicked in, shouts of frustration and fury. Searching. Not theirs then.
Pain pierced Oryan’s heart. Gwen? If they had come so far…then she was fallen… Gwenifer!
Grief nearly swallowed him. He knew then that his beloved Queen was gone.
They raced up the stairs of the circular tower, desperate to reach the top before Haerold’s men reached them, before his magic found them.
Below on the stair came the sound of battle, the clang and clamor of steel on steel, the grunt and groan of men in combat as Morgan’s men held the door. They hammered the invaders back and back, slammed the door shut and barred it quickly. It wouldn’t hold long.
They burst out into darkness as the wind whipped at their hair, their clothes, as it battered at them.
Far beneath them in the courtyard below, the castle Guard fought a hopeless battle. Steel rang on steel, metal crashed on wood… Light flashed luridly, greenish and unnatural… magic… Men died in the roar of the flames…Shouts, screams and desperate cries filled the air clearly even so high above.
Oryan looked up to the black night sky to find it filled with gossamer wings…
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