by Arthur D. Howden Smith
( from the June 23rd, 1927 issue of Adventure)
"The King, himself, he led the way of his army, mighty
at its head like a flame of fire, the King who wrought with his
It was quiet as death in the lofty chamber. The sculptured friezes on the walls were not more motionless than the lean figure of the Pharaoh on his lonely throne and the slave girl who crouched against his knees. From afar came a mournful chanting of priests, and closer at hand the apartments of the palace gave forth a subdued, murmurous hum, like the buzzing of a beehive about to swarm. But in the throne room was only silence-a silence that smote the eardrums.
The Pharaoh's chin rested on one clinched fist; his thin lips were pressed tight; his eyes stared unseeingly at the carven scenes of his father's triumphs. The girl at his feet stole an upward glance from under the masses of her hair, and moved closer to him. And that lithe, rippling sway of her torso broke the spell that had bound the two. His free hand sought her cheek, and his voice echoed under the painted roof.
"You gave the message, Asta?"
"Yet he does not come! You spoke with the captain of the guard?"
Her almond eyes studied his stern features a second time.
"Yes, Lord," she murmured.
"Except you, whom can I trust?" he exclaimed fiercely. "But I shall find a way to tame these priests. By the splendor of Ra-"
The heavy curtains at the opposite end of the hall were thrust apart, and a tall man in priestly raiment entered, his stave of office ringing on the stone floor.
"The favor of Amon upon you, Lord of the Two Lands," he boomed. "Your servant comes-"
The Pharaoh's lips tightened; his body snapped erect.
"Twas not you I sent for, Hapuseneb," he interrupted. "The guards were bidden to admit the General Thutiy."
"I ventured to counsel them to admit me, Lord, knowing the Pharaoh would never keep waiting the high priest of the god." Hapuseneb's square-jowled features were impassive, but his small eyes glittered with an angry light, as he strode toward the throne.
Thick-set, imperious in manner, resonant of voice, he moved as one accustomed to obedience.
"I am come to inform you of the ceremonies planned to achieve the honor of the sister-wife, whose death has burdened you with the task of fulfilling the requirements of the god. You, who have dwelt so long amongst priests, need not be instructed in the opportunities Amon has conferred upon you-"
The volcanic passion in the Pharaoh's face stemmed the tide of the high priest's eloquence.
"Stay!" The command rang out like a trumpet-blast.
"The priests no longer rule
The girl cowered away from the, throne, almost
as if she expected to be struck.
She fled, and her master turned again upon Hapuseneb,
whose haughty mien was
"In my father's time he ruled," the Pharaoh stormed on. "He ruled the Two Lands, and the priests served the temples. After, when my sister Habshepsut succeeded him, because she of his children only was of the untainted blood, you priests were swift to seize the chance to bend a woman to your purpose."
"It was we priests, Lord Thutmose, who advanced you to rule with your sister," interposed Hapuseneb.
"For your own ends," snarled the Pharaoh, "For a time you thought it would be easier to have a man puppet, instead of a woman. But when you learned I was loath to become a mere mouthpiece of the god-"
"Blasphemy!" cried the high priest, covering his ears.
"-you had me shorn of all power," Thutmose swept on, "You made me of no more account than the slave girl, Asta. For you knew, priest, that if I had a voice in the palace there would be an end to the flow of wealth that you sucked up out of every corner of the land. Yes, you sought to make Egypt a desert of temples and tombs-"
"Oh, blasphemy!" lamented the high priest again.
"-and the people you would have become builders and repairers of temples and tombs or servers of them. And this when the frontiers were crumbling, and the stranger peoples overrunning the countries my father conquered-my father and Pharaohs before him! I say you have much to answer for, Hapuseneb, and not the least is your insolence in countermanding my orders to my own guards."
Hapuseneb was purple with wrath and outraged pride.
"Lord Thutmose, you overstep the god's mercy," he stammered, "You-you speak wildly, without reason. Pharaoh though you are, you may not assail the righteousness of Amon, nor dare you deny the god his due of reverence and fitting service."
"Dare not!" The Pharaoh's bony height reared above the high priest as he bounded to his feet. "Beware, priest, you and I may come to a trial of strength, if you do not watch your tongue. But I will teach you what I intend. You shall learn through another's doom that when I say come, he I command must come, as when I say go, that man shall go promptly."
The high priest turned hastily on his heel at sound of a clank of metal behind him. Two men were following the slave girl Asta up the long room. One, Hapuseneb recognized as the captain of the king's guard in the anteroom without, the other was of sinewy middle-age, his skin tanned by the desert sun, his hands calloused by the reins of the war-chariots, his eyes peering hardily from between puckered lids. Both wore armor, but the guardsman's gear was spotless and shiny, as his skin was soft and smooth; the equipment of the second man was dinted and worn. The captain of the guard, too, had a look of concern on his face; the stranger swaggered after the slave girl as if he feared nobody.
The pair tramped up to the steps of the throne and sank to their knees with a final clash and stir, the guardsman shooting a glance of appeal at Hapuseneb, who, by now, had regained his ordinary impassivity.
"You are the General Thutiy?" Thutmose addressed the stranger.
"Stand, Thutiy. I have a task for you."
"I am accustomed to tasks, Lord," Thutiy answered bluntly. 'But I hope you will give me more means to accomplish it than we have had in recent campaigns."
For the first time the Pharaoh's lips twitched slightly.
"You need not fear," he reassured his general. "This task you may accomplish unaided."
"You are captain of my guard?" he challenged the other.
The man's voice quivered.
"I sent you an order that the General Thutiy, being fresh come from the land of Zahi, was to be admitted to me at once?"
"And the high priest, Hapuseneb, bade you disregard that order?"
"Lord, he said that there were matters of great moment you must be told before-"
"Said he so! And you disregarded my orders?"
The guardsman hesitated.
"Lord, I-the high priest-he-"
The Pharaoh stepped down from his throne.
"The Pharaoh rules the soldiers, not the priests," he said harshly. "I shall prove it to both-that there may be no mistake in future. Thutiy, your sword!"
The general drew the bronze blade, and offered it hilt first. Hapuseneb took a step forward.
"Lord Thutmose!" he protested. "The man but did as I-"
"And for that must he perish," rasped the Pharaoh.
He lifted the greenish blade above his head, and slashed downward at the base of the guardsman's neck. The man dropped without a cry, his spine broken, his head hanging by a shred; but the sword was bent and twisted on the upper edge of his corselet.
Thutmose cast the battered weapon on the floor.
"You shall have a new sword, Thutiy. But it is not a strong blade for a man to put his trust in."
The general shrugged his shoulders.
"Why, Lord Thutmose, it answered my needs.
Any sword will bend under a shrewd
"Not the sword I wield," said the Pharaoh.
She wavered toward him.
"Bid in the slaves to carry out this carrion."
Hapuseneb hammered his stave upon the floor as he pushed himself in front of the frightened girl.
"This is an ill deed you have done, Lord," he said grimly.
"Do you think so?" questioned Thutmose. "I did it as Pharaoh, not as priest."
"Priest or Pharaoh, any man does ill who slays a servant who has not intended to offend him," persisted Hapuseneb. "It was I-"
"Yes, priest, and look well to it that you do not so offend me again," rebuked the Pharaoh. "I wish to be alone."
The high priest clutched his stave fast.
"This-this-Lord, in my temple did you serve for twenty-eight Niles! In all that time you showed no symptom of blasphemous intent or unwillingness to heed the god's commands. In all that time the god was honorably served. His temples waxed prosperous. His servants-"
"Waxed rich," concluded the Pharaoh, "But tell me this, Hapuseneb; what has it profited the god to have the lands overrun by stranger races?"
"Pay the god honor, and the lands shall be protected."
"Honor the god has had! By your own contention, Amon has been placated with out stint for twenty-eight Niles. With what result? The strangers are in Naharin, and the black people assail our garrisons in the south!"
"It may be that thereby Amon gives warning of greater afflictions if his service be reduced," fumed the high priest.
"It is a sorry warning," Thutmose seemed to grow as he stood there, frowning down on the high priest.
The long face became longer, the lean body lengthened out.
"Who will serve the god, who will build him temples, who will new tombs for the dead, if the land is ravaged by the strangers? But enough! I must bid you be gone: I will talk privately with Thutiy."
The heavy jowls pendant on either side of Hapuseneb's jaw became a fiery red.
"I go, Lord Thutmose. You bid me, and I go. But going, I say to you, I, who am versed in the high mysteries, I, who am the mouthpiece of the god, I, whom the sister-wife delighted to honor, I, Hapuseneb, high priest of Amon, I say you set your feet upon a stony path. You would veil your eyes to make your blindness blinder. You would put your trust in a sword-"
"Ha, you have said it," exclaimed the Pharaoh. "Yes, I would put my trust in a sword. Too long have we put our trust in temple-building. I think a wise god will have his people strive for themselves betimes."
"A wise god!" The high priest tossed his arms aloft. "O Amon, heed him not. But I must go. I, Hapuseneb, am thrust forth from the Pharaoh's presence like a tax-collector who has shortened his accounts!"
And he whirled about, and stamped from the chamber.
"I gave you an errand, Asta," the Pharaoh reminded the slave girl in the gentle tone he reserved for her.
She started, a crimson glow spreading across her Semitic features, and sped after the high priest.
Thutmose turned to Thutiy.
"Everywhere around me are spies." There was a note of weariness in the Pharaoh's voice. "I can learn naught of what goes on in the land, save by chance, and what I have learned causes me great distress. It was for that reason I summoned you when I heard you were sending word to certain men in Thebes that the frontier must break before the strangers in another Nile."
"I sent such word also to you, Lord," replied the soldier.
"Hapuseneb must have kept it from me. Here in the Two Lands the high priest is become mightier than the Pharaoh. See what comes of having a woman Pharaoh. Always the priests have striven for power, but never have they possessed so much as under Habshepsut."
"That is what the people say. The Pharaoh and the sister-wife have given all to the temples."
"Blame me not, Thutiy! In the beginning there were three of us, for I had a brother, besides Habshepsut. The priests persuaded my father to name Habshepsut to succeed him, then they married us. I was cautious, and when she fell ill they put forward my brother and me. For five Niles we ruled jointly; but Habshepsut was always in the palace, and I dared not try to break free. It was well I did not, for she cast off the illness which had weakened her and resumed her rule. My brother died. I-there were times I wished myself dead. I am an old man, Thutiy. See, there is gray in my hair. Twenty-eight Niles have I waited!"
"That is a long time, Lord," said the soldier uncomfortably. "I cry to Amon it be not too long."
The Pharaoh regarded him sharply.
"That is to be seen. Now, do you tell me your troubles."
"They are soon told, I have few men, and no money to pay those few. >From all sides the strangers are hammering at us-the Shesu-Beduins-on their horses from the desert, myriads as dense as the sands; the Zahi Phoenicians-in their galleys, and on the land; the Khita-Hittites-and the Mittani-unnamed people from east of Euphrates-who come from beyond the sky and are powerful men of war. Everywhere the word has been carried that the Pharaoh weakens. All the Febuku-Asiatics-are mustering against us."
"Have you prayed to Amon?" demanded Thutmose sarcastically. "Have you offered fitting gifts?"
Thutiy rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"We have made prayers, Lord. As for the gifts, there has been scant plunder on the frontier."
"So the god has abandoned you?" sneered the Pharaoh.
The soldier became articulate again.
"I am no priest to say why the god shows favor or disfavor. But I know that men who should be on the frontiers are building for the priests, and funds we should have to keep back the Fehuku and the black folk are spent the same way."
The Pharaoh eyed him with a certain cold respect.
"I have never had much to do with soldiers," he said. "Are they all like you?"
"I do not know, Lord," rejoined Thutiy. "Those in Thebes like that-" he jerked a thumb at the corpse of the guardsman, which still bloodied the steps of the throne -"are of a piece with the priests. They are not real soldiers. Curtain-holders I call them. The men on the frontier are a different breed. They eat little, and labor hard, and die soon. Their clothes are dirty, and their skins are black. They grumble when they are not fighting, and they grumble more when they are."
"But they do not talk as that priest did about leaving the god to defend the land. They go out and fight with such swords as you bent her, and some of the strangers, the Zahi and the Khita, have better weapons than we make, Lord. Ah, they are master smiths!"
"Can we defeat these strangers, with their better weapons?" asked Thutmose eagerly.
"Why not, Lord Thutmose? All that is required is a man and a sharp sword. Let such a man curb the priests until they adjust their demands to what the land can afford, and there will be soldiers to follow his sword to conquest. But he must be a man of men, Lord, one to wield a sword as you did on this dog who lies dead beside us."
The Pharaoh's hand clinched until the knuckles showed white.
"I like the feel of a sword," he said hungrily, "Yes, we must find a way to make the land safe. So do you bide in Thebes, Thutiy. I have much to accomplish, who can reckon upon the loyalty of one soldier and a slave girl-I, who hold in my hands the shadow of the scepter Hapuseneb holds! But perhaps we shall find a god with open ears to our needs, if we pray loud enough. Or perhaps we may hew ourselves a path."
He snatched up the crooked blade at his feet.
"Ah, gods of the underworld-Amon or Aten or Baal or Ashtoreth or Yahoveh, whichever will aid me-grant me a sword that will not bend in my hand! No more I ask of you."
The high priest dropped the papyrus he had been scanning,
"If this continues there will not be one stone capping another in any temple of the Two Lands," he exclaimed bitterly. "Everywhere the Pharaoh drains our workmen from us. All the funds he took to the weapon-makers. Ah, I should have bidden one with a sure hand make away with Thutiy when first he came to Thebes. But perhaps it is not yet too late to quench this fire of heresy in the palace. Tell me, Asta, what does Thutmose talk of these days?"
"Always the same thing," she answered sullenly. "When he is with Thutiy it is of men and chariots and horses and weapons and of how the desert shall be passed and the strength of towns."
"Yes, he is forever asking Thutiy to bring him a sword which will not bend. He has a block of cedar, and on it he tries each blade."
Hapuseneb's eyes kindled with a light of inspiration.
"And they all bend to the stroke?"
"All, O Hapuseneb. The bronze is not forged in Thebes can support the vigor of the Pharaoh's arm and the thickness of the cedar."
The high priest rose from his chair, and strode up and down the room, immersed in thought.
"Yes, that is the way," he decided at last. "If I can not shortly convict him of heresy against the god he will become greater than I, the lands will be plunged in war and the temples will be empty of offerings."
He came to an abrupt halt.
"Look you, girl, men say that some of your wise men are at once wizards of great power and smiths who handle a metal which can shear through bronze as bronze hews flesh."
"It is so," she conceded.
"Is there one such in Thebes?"
Her heavy-lidded gaze surveyed him inscrutably.
"None is mightier in the sight of Baal than Sutekh, who dwells in the street of the goldsmiths."
"And can he work in this hard metal?" pressed Hapuseneb.
"He has the secret of the gray strength, which comes from beyond the country of the Mittani, from beyond the rising-place of the sun."
"Oh, Amon, be thine the glory!" The high priest's voice rang with exultation. "Go to the Pharaoh, Asta, put in his thought the plan to sample Sutekh's sorcery. And I will catch him in the act of his heresy. Yes, I will come upon him as he blasphemes, and I will make his name a shame and a mockery throughout the Two Lands. He shall be denied the rites of sepulcher. He shall be consigned to the outer darkness. The farther world shall be barred to him. He shall never tarry in the west where dwell the folk who have received the god's favor. He shall be no more than a handful of dust scattered in the winds that blow out of the red land."
But Asta tarried as if she had not heard him.
"And what reward shall I reap?" she asked.
He waved her away.
"Do as I have bidden you, and you shall have what you will."
She left him softly, her sandals whispering over the stone floor. Her long, black hair hung down to the kilt which was her only garment, and under the veil of her locks her face was convulsed with passion.
"Fat pig!" she muttered. "You, too, shall die on Baal's altar. Out of the land of Zahi shall blow a flame which will devour you, and the courts of Amon shall be buried under the sacrifice. Yes, high priest and Pharaoh together!"
She walked swiftly through the long corridors and hallways, crossed a courtyard and entered the section of the palace reserved for the Pharaoh's accommodation. None of the guards or chamberlains ventured to halt her, for she had access where no other might pass. Men might whisper behind cupped palms, as her slender figure flitted betwixt the pylons.
"Asta, the Pharaoh's slave girl! She has come from the high priest." But he who was addressed would answer curtly:
"Psst, you fool! What she does is of no concern to us. Would you have Pharaoh or priest lusting for your death?"
When she came to the great, bare throne room, where Thutmose sat in lonely state, frowning gloomily at a twisted sword that lay across his knees, she tossed back her hair and ran forward with short, quick steps, as if, having been long gone, she could not regain his company too soon.
"My lord is unhappy again," she murmured,
dropping at his feet, her warm body nestling lithely against
She drew closer to him, and locked fingers around the wrist of his sword-hand.
"Would you be happy with a sword which did not bend to your stroke, Lord?"
Her voice was shy, gentle as a child's.
"Not otherwise shall I ever find happiness,"
he groaned. "For I have a feeling that one who is temple-bred
requires a sharp sword to master his foemen. And how shall a
man fight confidently, knowing his blade will twist in his hand?"
"Do you mean the blades that the Khita and the Mittani carry?" he interrupted eagerly. "Those of which Thutiy has told me?"
"Yes, Lord. There are not many even in the stranger lands, but-"
"You know of one who could make me such a sword?" he cried, more impatient than ever. "Where is he, Asta? In Thebes?"
She lowered her head to conceal the triumph that flared up in her face.
"Yes, Lord. Sutekh the smith, who dwells in the street of the goldsmiths, is a wizard who holds the old powers."
The Pharaoh shuddered involuntarily.
"What god serves he?"
"Baal, Lord," she sighed. "If the priests came to know that you had used him, they would cry out that you had betrayed Amon, and-"
"Let them," Thutmose rasped hoarsely. "What has Amon done for me that I should hesitate to employ a wizard of Baal? Go, Asta, and bring Sutekh to me. See that he has whatever tools he requires, At once! Do you hear, girl? At once!"
She appeared to hesitate.
"But-but what of Thutiy, Lord Thutmose?"
"I have dispatched him on an errand without the city. But Thutiy is no craven priest. He is willing to accept a keen blade if he can find it, whether it was tempered in Baal's name or Amon's. You need have no fear of him! Nor of me. Amon is become greedy, and I am of a mind to make trial of Baal. If I can have of him the sword I seek- But go, Asta! Fetch me the smith."
"Stand, Sutekh," commanded the Pharaoh.
The smith straightened his sinewy body, and Thutmose was conscious of an instinctive revulsion against the cruel eyes and wide mouth as merciless as a crocodile's.
"I have been told you are a wizard," continued the Pharaoh.
"Men-and women-say that which comes into their minds, Lord," replied Sutekh.
"You have not answered me!"
"Who am I to boast, Lord Pharaoh?" rejoined Sutekh. "If you employ me, it maybe you will know better of your own knowledge how I am gifted than if I claimed what you were ill-disposed to credit."
"There is reason in what you say. I am told, too, that you are a smith, acquainted with the secret of the metal your people call the gray strength."
"That is true, Lord," Sutekh admitted composedly.
The Pharaoh curbed his anxiety. No ordinary man, this Baal-worshipper, who could meet the Pharaoh of the Two Lands face to face, and contrive to show independence without evidence of disrespect. Thutmose surveyed the thick, furry limbs, the matted barrel-chest, the big face and predatory nose and the spreading black beard that mingled with the curly body hair. Not a tall man, Sutekh yet gave an effect of towering stature. There radiated from him a sinister authority more impressive than Hapuseneb could achieve.
"I require a sword such as you can forge me," said the Pharaoh slowly: "No ordinary sword, Sutekh, but a sword of conquest, a sword which will not break in my hand, a sharp sword before which all peoples shall bow down and bend the knee."
The smith smiled evilly.
"A sharp sword I can forge you, Lord Pharaoh," he assented. "But if it is to possess greater powers than the metal contains I must have help from you."
"Two bodies-of man or woman-one you love and one you hate. A blade tempered in their bloods will triumph over any enemy."
Thutmose smiled wryly.
"One I love, and one I hate," he reflected. "Concerning one I hate, that would be easy, but I am poorly supplied with people I love, Smith. No, I will not ask of you this measure of wizardry. Forge me a sure sword of the gray strength, and I will be content"
He clapped his hands, and Asta glided through the outer curtains of the chamber, peering covertly from Pharaoh to smith.
"You have your tools? Then it is my will that you begin your work. A place has been prepared for you, and this slave who guided you hither will fill whatever wants you make known to her."
The lamps made pools of light in the shadows; one by the throne and two by the portal which communicated with the anteroom.
The Pharaoh's tense figure appeared and disappeared with rhythmical precision as be strode from the folds of the door curtains to the steps of the throne and back again. Hands clasped behind him, now and then he inclined an ear toward the low doorway in the vast chambers rear wall through which came the monotonous rumor of the smith's efforts.
Cling-clang! Cling-clang! Sssss-ssss, sswooooish! as the bellows blew upon the flaming charcoal. Hissss-ssssisstst! as the molten metal was plunged in the tempering trough. Cling-clang! Cling-clang! again.
"He should soon be finished," Thutmose murmured abstractedly. "But I must be patient."
He laughed sardonically.
"Who can be more patient than I, who have waited twenty-eight Niles to be my own master!"
An echo of laughter, biting in its mockery, rolled from the curtains at his back. He spun upon his heel, startled, almost unmanned by the suddenness of it.
"Your pardon, Lord Pharaoh, but how comes it that you have not been your own master, you who can afford to flout the god in his temple and deal in the foul sorceries of stranger lands? Surely, one who is greater than Amon is master wherever he stands!"
Hapuseneb stepped from the curtains' folds, big-bodied, proud and intolerant of face, radiating contempt, assured of himself. And beneath the bare white arm that held the high priest's ivory staff of office Thutmose had a glimpse of heavy lidded eyes that shone with a snaky malignance. Involuntarily the Pharaoh stooped forward.
"Asta!" he gasped. "You!"
She writhed out from the curtains, and fronted him silently, hatred vibrant in every muscle; and sick with revulsion he gave ground before her. He was appalled, his manhood tottering. Asta an enemy! Asta betraying him to the high priest! Asta, whom he had regarded as the one living soul who loved him, the one soul he had loved!
When she spoke it was to the high priest.
"Do you hear, O Hapuseneb?"
She raised her hand, and the Cling-clang! Cling-clang! of the smith beat upon the Pharaoh's brain.
"So!" exclaimed Hapuseneb. "The Pharaoh deserts Amon! It will not be Amon who suffers."
"Who shall say?" answered Asta in a voice Thutmose had never heard before. "A priest of Baal celebrates in the palace of the Pharaoh! Will Amon retain any honor henceforth?"
The high priest's heavy features became suffused with blood; he swung up his ivory staff as though he would strike the Pharaoh.
"Desecration," he gritted angrily. "Oh,
what punishment shall suffice to atone for this!"
"There is no harm done," he expostulated. "I am having a sword forged, that is all."
"O tool of wickedness," boomed Hapuseneb, "of what use is it to add falsehood to your sins? I know what you would do! I know that within there you are harboring Sutekh, who is a priest of Baal, and who, by his unholy rites, propitiates the god he serves, to the despite of Amon. You forge a sword for the benefit of the stranger peoples, a sword to be put to our necks."
"It is the truth, O Hapuseneb," cried Asta with an irony the Pharaoh did not miss. "Loud shall the Fehuku acclaim that sword!"
Thutmose retreated behind his throne.
"I have done no wrong," he pleaded. "Come, Hapuseneb, you shall see. With your own eyes you shall see."
The high priest swept forward impulsively.
"By the splendor of Ra, that will I," he retorted. "And I will blast this Sutekh with a curse which will condemn him to the outermost darkness."
He caught from the Pharaoh's hand the curtain veiling the low door in the rear wall of the chamber, and followed Thutmose across a shallow anteroom. A reek of soot gagged him as they passed a second curtain into the chamber which was Sutekh's smithy. The high priest's ear ached from the clangor, his eyes smarted as he strove to peer through the swirling smoke and steam to where the smith labored, incredibly gigantic in the eerie light.
Beside Hapuseneb the Pharaoh rapidly surveyed the room. Midway was a stone trough heaped high with ruddy coals; a huge block of stone served for anvil, whereon the smith was pounding a hissing bar of metal; beyond the anvil was a second trough, into which Sutekh plunged the metal as Thutmose watched. The cloud of steam that responded was like a fog in which a man could scarcely see his hand in front of his face.
The Pharaoh leaped sidewise, and fastened one hand on Hapuseneb's fat neck; with the other he clutched a knot of the high priest's robe.
"O fool," he snarled. "You, who so dread sorcery, shall be the occasion of it. I am of a mind to see if Baal is not potent over so sorry a wretch as you."
Hapuseneb struggled feebly, and a choking cry escaped his lips. The smith whirled around as he was about to pluck the cooling bar from the water trough.
"Who comes?" growled Sutekh.
"I, smith," replied the Pharaoh. "I am of a mind, after all, to try your sorcery. Therefore I bring you one I hate that the gray strength may be tempered in his blood."
A yell of laughter came from Sutekh.
"Baal calls you, Pharaoh? But what of one you love?"
"Be patient," answered Thutmose grimly: "I deliver one at a time."
"That is just," endorsed Sutekh, and staring closer through the smoke-clouds, "Will you have help?"
"No, if you will make ready for him."
The smith lifted the metal bar and buried it in the coals. From his leathern apron he drew a curved knife such as Thutmose had never seen-a gray, hollowed blade that was marked by innumerable bluish whorls.
"I am ready," he said. "Drag him here."
The high priest kicked and twisted, but Thutmose inexorably forced him across the blackened floor and pressed him to his knees, with his head over the edge of the trough on the right of the anvil.
"Ho, it was time," commented Sutekh. "I was running short of water. Lift his chin a little, Lord Pharaoh. So! You are new at this, but-"
The gray knife flashed, one bubbling cry-and the red blood foamed from the sagging corpse.
Sutekh propped his victim in place and reached for the glowing bar of metal which was to be the Pharaoh's sword.
"Now, you to your work, and I to mine," he exclaimed. "With the blood of hate, remember, I can achieve naught, unless it be followed by the blood of love."
He turned from the Pharaoh, and fell to pounding the bar so that the sparks flew up from the tortured metal. Cling-clang! Cling-clang! He paused, laid down his hammer and seized the bar in a pair of pliers. Thutmose, watching fascinated, saw it flash, then drop into the red heart of the trough.
The metal sizzled, and an acrid, meaty odor permeated the humid air.
"Pour in your might, O hate," prayed Sutekh as he lifted the bar again.
Cling-clang! Cling-clang! went his hammer, and accompanying its beat his voice snarled out:
"Make the blade keen and terrible, O hate that was relentless unto death.
"Let the edge be without mercy, and the point as cruel as your purpose. Gift this sword with a rage which shall never know fear. Be ever hungry of life, O gray strength. May the flame of your wrath bear down all who oppose you. Temper the metal with-"
The Pharaoh remembered he had performed but half his vengeance. He tore his eyes from the savage spectacle, and brushed through the curtains into the anteroom. The far curtain over the door to his throne-room was stirring as he entered, and he ran to it, suspecting Asta's intent. Yes, he had been right. She must have spied upon him close enough to suspect the high priest's doom, for she was hurrying toward the stiff folds of the curtain which shut off the Pharaoh's apartments from the rest of the palace.
"Asta," he called.
She looked over one shoulder, ashen faced and trembling, then tried to run again; but he caught her short of the pylons of the portal.
"So you loved me, girl!"
She cowered before the cold cruelty of his tone.
"Yes, yes-always-suffer me-"
The torrent of his wrath swept on, unheeding.
"You loved me that you might tell my thoughts to the high priest. Yes, and I believe you would have betrayed him, too, in time. False? You are all falsehood."
She fumbled with, groping hands at his fingers that were sunk deep in the flesh of her arms.
"You do not understand!" she gasped frantically, "Hapuseneb-I-I-"
"Do you know now you shall repay me?" he went on as if she had not spoken. "This smith of yours will temper my sword in the blood of you whom I loved-and you, who would have betrayed me, shall guard my life in the gray strength's fabric!"
"No, no, no. I cannot die."
"Die?" His mirthless laugh echoed hollow in the vastness of the throne-room. "It is more than death I shall take from you. So long as I live you shall serve me, dead and forgotten though you be. Oh, I owe you much, Asta! You have taught me that only a fool would love. You have shown me how to obtain a sword which will triumph over all others-and you shall give me the blood of your veins to make the sword resistless!"
She sobbed and pleaded brokenly as he dragged her by the shadow of the throne.
"Sit with me, Lord-it was there I-my head against your knees-"
But he said no more to her. It was as if he did not hear her, and presently she ceased to struggle. With one hand clamped over her mouth, he carried her into the reeking smithy, where Sutekh hammered at the sword that glimmered on the anvil.
"Is this the one you love?" called the smith, craning his bull-neck as be tried to piece the eddying smoke. "A woman? That's well, Lord. My knife is by the other there. If you will slit her throat, I'll soon make an end of things. Careful! Don't waste a drop."
Thutmose flung his burden beside the high priest's body, and snatched the knife from the floor. She lay supine, eyes closed. For a moment his resolution weakened. He shuddered as he had when she told him of Sutekh's powers. That neck he had often caressed. Those eyes had lighted answering fires in his heart. And the recollection of her treachery nerved his shaking hand. The knife-blade crimsoned. Her muscles tautened, and went limp. He wiped the knife on a fold of the high priest's robe, and thrust it carefully into his belt. Sutekh had set the fire to roaring again, and the hammer beat its resonant accompaniment to the smith's prayer as the terrible odor of cooking blood mingled with the stench of the charcoal.
"Pour your vigor into this metal, O blood of the loved one! Let the sword thrill with affection. Nerve the blade with the valor of forgetfulness. Toughen the gray strength with the sacrifice that has been offered. Sharpen the point against all enemies. Speed the edge when it strikes. Let no weapon resist it. Let no brain outwit it. Be a staunch guard for him who holds the sword. Resistless is Baal, O love, and in Baal's name, I conjure you, fight always for the sword's master. O Baal! Great is Baal! Over all other gods is Baal."
The anvil-music died away, and the roaring of the fire became a crackling buzz. The smokeclouds eddied roof ward, and Sutekh's swart figure assumed its true proportions. The smith's face wore a derisive leer. In one gnarled fist he clutched the slim, gray shape of the new-forged sword.
"It is finished, Lord Pharaoh," he said tauntingly, "this wizard's sword that you would have wrought for you-all save the sharpening, which any hand can achieve."
Thutmose took a step toward him.
"Give it to me, Sutekh!"
But the smith put the sword behind him, and cast an inquiring glance at the door..
"Not so, Lord, "he denied. "There are other matters to be settled. My price, for one."
"Name your price," snapped Thutmose.
"As for those you await, they lie dead at your feet."
He stooped and turned the two ghastly faces so that the dim light revealed them, and a hoarse scream was wrenched from the depths of the smith's chest.
"Asta! By the anger of Baal, you have slain her! Your head, Pharaoh, I will have your head!"
The smith heaved up the gray sword to strike, but Thutmose scooped a handful of the clotted blood in the tempering-trough, and dashed it in his eyes. He staggered, and in the instant of his hesitation the Pharaoh covered the narrow space between them and tore the rough blade from his hand.
"Your price!" mocked Thutmose, "Since you conspired with these others, smith, your price shall be their price--death!"
He plucked the curved knife from his belt and buried it to the hilt in Sutekh's side-and as the smith sank to his knees, the Pharaoh wound his fingers in the black mat of beard and hacked at the extended neck with the blunt edge of the sword.
"Cut, sword," he gasped. "Prove to me you can bite this wizard who made you. Cut! Cut!"
Slowly, the wavery edge bit into muscle and tissue, the spine cracked apart, the last shred of skin yielded. The dreadful trophy came free in the Pharaoh's hand.
Thutmose lifted it above his own head, and stared triumphantly at the starting eyeballs of the smith, then buried it with a gesture of contempt into the dying fire, which seethed up in a last gust of tempestuous life.
"So shall I conquer," cried Thutmose, "Hear me, gods, whatever men call you! By this sword shall I conquer-and no prayers shall stay me!"
The echoes answered him.
"Conquer! I! I! I! Conquer! "
Thutiy looked doubtful
"But to divide the army, Lord Pharaoh!" he objected. "If the Fehuku should come upon you with the mountains between us-"
"They will not come upon me," returned Thutmose. "It will be I who come upon them. They will be surprised, not I."
He leaned across the apron of his chariot, and pointed his long, gray sword-that blade which the Egyptians already called "the Pharaoh's handmaiden"-at the craggy summits of the Carmel range.
"Continue, Thutiy, by this road until the enemy know that you act upon it. They will be certain that you march on Taanach, and will draw their forces south from Megiddo. But so soon as your scouts report the Fehuku are coming into touch with them retreat and march after me. For I shall swing north and follow the direct road across the hills to Megiddo. The Fehuku will then be out of position, their men scattered all along the line of the hills, and they will come to battle with me weary and uneasy. I shall beat them, and when I have beaten them I shall take Megiddo-and once the fortress falls the Fehuku must flee beyond the Orontes."
"But, Lord, how if they overwhelm you before I arrive?"
"They can not overwhelm me. Now, go! Or I must find another general to execute my orders."
Thutiy bowed low in obedience.
"If another than you fathered this plan, Lord Pharaoh," he said sturdily, "I should believe the god had deserted him, but you-"
"No god can desert me." said Thutmose, smiling bleakly, "for no god aids me. I am sufficient to myself."
And the Pharaoh sat impassively in his chariot while his favorite commander led off nigh half his troops. Later, when the way was clear, he too, drew out of the road at the head of a second column, which included dense blocks of heavy-armed spearmen, hordes of light-footed archers and the naked black slingers of the deserts and sea isles, and hundreds of rattling, bumping war-chariots.
A day's march to the north, the Pharaoh's troops entered the road which wound across the hills to Megiddo, where his spies had discovered the final concentration of the Asiatic hosts that had rebounded from his initial blows. Secure behind the Carmel wall, they awaited his coming, intending to strike swiftly as he issued from whichever pass he followed and crumple his army by divisions; and it was to frustrate this plan of his enemies that he had devised the strategy of feinting against Taanach to mask his intended drive at the fortress of Megiddo. He would dislocate his opponents, draw them away from the mouth of the Megiddo pass and so gain time to lead forth his entire array before they could attack.
The second night the Pharaoh's army camped in the hills, lighting no fires lest they attract the attention of outlying detachments of the Fehuku; and the third day, late in the afternoon, they defiled from the pass Thutmose had chosen into the Plain of Esdraelon, taking up their battle position in a slope within clear view of the walls of Megiddo. Southward there was a great turmoil and din of marching men; the dust clouds obscured the sky, and all night long the Egyptians, lying in their ranks, could hear the noise of the army that was panting back from Taanach like a wearied beast.
Morning showed the plain black with the myriads of the Fehuku, and still the southern sky was dingy with the dust of the rearward columns, toiling up to be in time for the battle. The captains of thousands who clustered around the Pharaoh's chariot for their orders had frowns of foreboding on their faces, for they were greatly outnumbered, and a messenger had just brought word that Thutiy was a day's march distant in the pass. But there was no misgiving in the Pharaoh's face. His eyes shone with the zest of battle that men never ceased to wonder at, after his life of priestly tutoring; his lean body was tense with unleashed energy; his gray sword seemed a living flame; his voice was gruff and menacing.
"There is but the one order for all," be said. "We go forward-to victory."
An old officer of the heavy-armed spear men coughed apologetically.
"It would be safer to stand fast, Lord Pharaoh," he suggested. "This hillock would protect the right wing, and on the left-"
"Forward!" snarled Thutmose. By tomorrow Thutiy-"
The Pharaoh drove his sword deep in the man's chest.
"Forward!" he snarled. "That man who fears, I, myself shall slay."
And the captains of thousands hastened to their posts ready to dare all odds.
The battle opened with a rushing hiss of stones and arrows. The Egyptian spearmen, compact, rested, well drilled, bore down upon the disordered masses of the Fehuku and crashed deep into their array. When the foot were engaged, Thutmose led his chariots in a diagonal charge across the surface of the plain, slashing into the left flank of his enemies like a sickle leveling the ripe wheat. He cut a swathe to the front of his spearmen, easing the pressure of the superior numbers surrounding them, then dashed on and tore a gap through the mass of the Fehuku's right.
Tired, discouraged troops were unable to stand up to the thrust of that spearhead of disciplined horses, men and vehicles. Such chariots as the Asiatics mustered were incapacitated by the condition of the horses. Their light troops were already in flight; their heavy infantry were disintegrating-- and the third charge of the Egyptian chariots rent them apart. The Plain of Esdraelon was swept by a torrent of fugitives, and weaving in and out of the frantic stream Thutmose laced the turf with heaps and windrows of corpses. Reddened sword in hand, his eyes roaming the fray for any lingering sign of opposition, the Pharaoh slew as long as an enemy remained in arms between the Carmel ridge and the flanks of Mount Gilboa.
There was plunder and booty for the humblest Egyptian soldier; there were long strings of captives to be herded to this building of the frontier stations by which Thutmose was making safe the Two Lands. Afterward, when Thutiy came up with his troops, footsore, dusty and disgusted to have missed the battle, they erected an earthen wall around Megiddo and starved it into submission. And then the Pharaoh marched on to the line of the Orontes, harrying the fragments of the Fehuku before him. That winter Egypt was again safe; her dominions and subject state were cleansed of foes; and the Pharaoh who had been a priest won the fearful admiration of his people as "the Pharaoh who wrought with his sword."
MEN said it was strange that he would never suffer himself to be separated from his sword
The priests grumbled because he would spare so little attention for their ceremonies and was niggardly in his allowances for temple buildings; but few ever remonstrated with him, and those few died. And so he lived and reigned for a very long time-he was more than eighty when he was laid in his mummy-case--cruel, lonely, cynical of the regard of men and women; rather scornful toward all gods, a staunch defender of his country, the greatest of the Pharaohs and one of the first of the great conquerors.
The sword, which was called "Soft," was buried with him in his rock-tomb at Thebes, and he placed a stark and dreadful curse on whoever stole it from that place; but not even Thutmose could influence the destiny of the gray blade that Sutekh forged and Hapuseneb the high priest and Asta, the slave girl died to temper. It served him while he lived and was to serve others who came after him down through the stingy centuries of recorded time. Epochs were to come and pass before the secret of the gray strength became common to men, but nowhere did master smiths ever forge a sword more potent for good and ill.
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