Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria. The mud brick dwellings burst with anguish, as the sorrow swirled into the night desert. But the winds ferried more than just the cries of mourning.
They carried the stench of death.
A mysterious scourge had descended upon the land, striking at nearly every household. The young were most afflicted, but not exclusively. The claws of death had grasped even the royal family, snatching the Pharaoh himself in their cold grip.
Crouched in the shadows of the Temple of Aten, a young woman tried to block the din and odor. As the moon slipped from behind a cloud, casting its glow over the landscape, she rubbed a heavy gold amulet on her chest and listened for sounds of movement. The rustle of leather soles on stone pricked her ears, and she turned to a figure running toward her across the temple’s front portico.
Her husband, Gaythelos, was tall, with dark curly hair and broad shoulders. His skin was damp in the hot night air as he grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet. “The way to the river is clear,” he said in a low voice.
She gazed beyond him. “Where are the others?”
“Securing the boats. Come, Meritaten, let us delay no further.”
She turned to the shadows behind her and nodded. Three men emerged from along the temple wall, armed with spears and heavy khopesh swords. As she followed her husband, they took up a triangular defensive position around her.
Gaythelos led them away from the temple entrance and down a side street, their sandals kicking up dust. Despite the late hour, many houses showed the gleam of burning oil lamps through cracks in their shutters. The group moved at a quick pace, keeping silent as they crossed the former capital city.
The road sloped gently toward the riverside, where rows of small merchant boats were tied to a dock. As they moved along the bank, two men arose from the reeds. They wore long gray beards and were dressed in shabby linens.
The escorts raised their spears and sprang forward.
“Guards! Cease!” Meritaten cried.
The armed men froze.
She stepped past them and greeted the two men. “Osarseph, Ahrwn, what are you doing here? Why have you not departed?”
The younger of the two men stepped forward. His eyes held a determined look, shrouded by a weathered face. “Meritaten,” he said, “we could not taste freedom without offering you our thanks. Your influence with Pharaoh was instrumental in his edict. I am saddened for you to learn of his passing at Amarna.”
“My influence was debatable,” she said. “What is not questioned is that Pharaoh’s high priests are now in control of our lands— and have blamed the royal family for the sorrows brought upon Egypt.”
“You are guilty only of having an open heart for the downtrodden.” He slipped a goatskin bag from around his neck and passed it to her. “You saved us from the tainted waters of the Nile. I pray it is now time to save yourself.”
“You took heed where Pharaoh did not. It is Gaythelos you should thank, not me.” She nodded toward her husband. “He knew the power of the apium.”
Osarseph turned and bowed to the man. “You will join us?” He waved an arm toward the river. On the opposite bank, the glow from a thousand campfires dotted the horizon.
“No,” Meritaten said. “We will cast our fate to the sea.”
The old man nodded, then knelt before her. “My brother and I shall carry your deeds close to our hearts. May you live in peace for the life of the stars.”
“And you as well, Osarseph. Good- bye.”
The two men climbed aboard a small raft, pushed into the dark river, and paddled for the opposite bank.
“Perhaps we should join them?” she whispered.
“The desert brings nothing but hardship, my love,” Gaythelos said. “More hospitable lands await. We must delay no longer.”
He led the company along the shoreline, turning away from the vessels at the town’s landing to a trio of boats hidden in the reeds downriver. As they approached, they were challenged by armed sentries, who then guided them aboard one of the boats.
Meritaten and Gaythelos took a seat on a bench beneath the lone mast as the boat was released from its mooring. Crewmen rowed away from the bank, following the other two vessels to the Nile’s center.
Meritaten cast an uneasy eye about the boat. It was less than 100 feet long and open- decked, with an upward- curving hull stem and stern. Pots and baskets filled with provisions littered the deck. Soldiers lined the gunwales, most rowing with short oars. The other two boats, veteran merchant ships that had crossed the Mediterranean many times, sat equally low in the water.
Square mainsails were partially raised and rigged fore and aft for maneuvering as the boats navigated north, propelled by the current. Small oil lamps dangled off the prows, providing faint light to the dark waters ahead. Leaving the city of Memphis in their wake, the boats sailed silently, except for the slap of water against their hulls and the dip of oars into the river.
Twelve miles downriver, murmurs rippled through the boats. Ahead, a string of lanterns had appeared. It was a vessel moored in the center of the river.
Meritaten squinted at the illuminated barge. Ropes stretched from it to either shore, to serve as a ferry during daylight hours, while at night it served as a tax station for passing merchant boats. But shouts of alarm from the barge revealed it was prepared this night for more than tax duty.
“Extinguish the lantern!” called the captain of Meritaten’s boat, a gruff man with a clean- shaven head, and looked to the other boats.
Too late. All three had been seen. A team of archers assembled on the barge let loose a barrage of arrows.
Gaythelos shoved Meritaten to the deck. A crewman screamed and grabbed his neck where an arrow had struck.
“Stay down!” As two guards stood watch alongside, Gaythelos dragged a sack of grain across the deck and covered his wife with it.
Under the sack, she could only listen to the battle. The three boats turned to the far shoreline, putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the barge. The first boat approached one of the barge’s ropes, and men with swords leaned over the bow to sever it. Several were picked off by the archers, others sliced the barrier free.
The three boats continued downriver, but the barge released a small chase vessel, filled with warriors and more archers. Putting oars to water, the pursuit craft made for the closest merchant vessel, the one carrying Meritaten and Gaythelos. It closed the distance quickly and pulled alongside. Its warriors swarmed over the side, expecting little resistance.
Gaythelos and the armed contingent sprang from the shadows, thrusting spears and striking their attackers with bronze swords. Hand-to-hand fighting spilled across the deck as every crewman fought to repel the boarders. Archers on the attack boat fired arrows into the melee, killing warriors on both sides. Bodies of the dead splashed into the Nile. The battle raged back and forth until the attackers seemed to gain the upper hand. Sensing defeat, Meritaten rose from her hiding place and picked up a dead warrior’s sword.
“Seize victory!” she implored, plunging the blade into an attacking boarder.
The defenders rallied at the sight. Charging the attackers, they drove them to the stern, killing them without mercy. The attack boat came next. The princess’s raging swordsmen jumped into the vessel and massacred the remaining archers, then shoved the boat to drift away with its cargo of the dead.
Meritaten stepped to the bow in search of her husband. The deck was soaked in blood, dead and wounded men lay everywhere. Gaythelos appeared, holding a bloody dagger. She wrapped her arms around him.
“We are safe now,” he said. “You have led us to victory.” He turned to the captain, who sat at the steering oar, an arrow protruding from his shoulder. “Isn’t that true?”
The man nodded. “There will be no more obstacles. We are nearly to the Delta— and multiple paths to the sea. By morning, Egypt will be in our wake.”
The armada sailed through the night, squeezing down an eastern branch of the Nile Delta bordered by fields of ripe barley. The Mediterranean soon beckoned, and the three boats glided into the turquoise sea. They kept their distance from an approaching line of trading ships from the Levant as the sun brightened the morning sky.
Meritaten sat with Gaythelos as the Egyptian shore drifted away behind them. She clutched the goatskin bag tight to her chest, contemplating her future. While she had saved untold lives, she had also sacrificed everything she held dear.
Rising to her feet, she stepped to the ship’s bow with a newfound sense of destiny. Facing the horizon across the open sea, she gazed toward the unknown world that beckoned her.