The general of the charioteers sat at the left hand of Apophis, Emperor of the Hyksos. It was a much-soughtafter honor to sit beside the most powerful ruler in the world and watch the ordeal of the bull, yet he was extremely worried. The inhabitants of Avaris, the imperial capital in the Egyptian Delta, spoke of this ordeal with fear, even though they did not know exactly what it was.
The two men were sitting on a platform, overlooking an arena and a circular structure called the "labyrinth." It was said that no one emerged from the labyrinth alive.
The general looked down at it. At first glance, there seemed nothing dangerous about the place. It was made up of a twisting, turning path marked out by partition walls, which were covered here and there with greenery. It looked impossible to go wrong: there was only that one winding path, and it led toward the way out.
"You seem rather tense," commented Apophis in his hoarse, blood-chilling voice.
"Yes, I am, Majesty.Your invitation to the palace, here to the labyrinth...I don't know how to thank you," stammered the general, not daring to look at the emperor.
Apophis was a tall, very ugly man, with a prominent nose, flaccid cheeks, a bulging stomach and thick legs. He allowed himself only two small vanities: an amethyst scarab mounted on a gold ring, which he wore on the little finger of his left hand, and an amulet in the form of an ankh, which he wore round his neck and which endowed him with the right of life and death over his subjects.
As "Beloved of the God Set,"Apophis had proclaimed himself Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt and had tried to write his coronation names on the sacred tree in the city of Iunu, as the rites required. But the leaves had proved unwilling, refusing to accept him. So Apophis had murdered the High Priest, ordered the closure of the temple, and announced that the ritual had been carried out correctly.
For some time now, the emperor had been dissatisfied.
Much was going well. In the islands off the coast of Mycenae, Jannas, the impressive and ruthless commander of the Hyksos war-fleet, was hunting down pirates who had dared to attack the empire's trading-fleet. Several small Asian princedoms had displayed a wish for independence, but elite troops were putting an end to such wishes by massacring the rebels, burning their towns and villages and bringing back droves of slaves to Egypt.
These episodes had served Apophis's grand design: to increase still further the size of his empire, which was already the largest ever known: Nubia, Canaan, Syria, Lebanon,Anatolia, Cyprus, the Mycenaean islands, Minoa and the Asian steppes had all bowed their heads before him, and feared his military might. But this was only a stage in the process, and the Hyksos invaders, who included soldiers of many diverse races,must continue their conquest of the world.
The center of that world was Egypt, the Egypt of the pharaohs. The Hyksos had invaded and overrun the country with surprising ease, putting an end to long centuries of civilization based on the rule of the goddess Ma'at: justice, righteousness, and unity. The Egyptians had proved feeble soldiers, and their resistance to the invaders' brute force and new weapons had been pitiful. Now he, Apophis,was Pharaoh.
He had set up his capital at the small town of Avaris, which was dedicated to the cult of Set, the god of storms and violence who had rendered him invincible. The town was now the principal city in Middle Egypt. Over it loomed an impregnable citadel, from whose walls the emperor liked to gaze down upon the port, which was always filled with hundreds of warships and tradingvessels. Inland from the port, the town itself had, in accordance with Apophis's wishes, assumed the appearance of one gigantic barracks, a paradise for his soldiers, who were waited upon by Egyptians forced into slavery.
The pharaoh should have been wholly content. But, incredibly, in the south of this defeated, destroyed Egypt, a rebellion was taking shape. At the insignificant and moribund town of Thebes, an equally insignificant prince named Seqen and his wife, Ahhotep, had dared to take up arms against the emperor.
Apophis scowled at the general. "What, precisely, is happening?" he demanded.
"The situation is under control, Majesty."
"Where is the battlefront now?"
"At the town of Qis, Majesty."
"Qis? That's seven days' march north of Thebes, isn't it?"
"That means Seqen's ridiculous army has conquered a huge amount of territory -- far too much."
"Oh no, Majesty!" said the general hastily. "The rebels sailed down the Nile surprisingly quickly, and they tried to break through our lines with a lightning strike, but they have not established their rule over the provinces they passed through. In reality, their actions were more spectacular than dangerous."
"All the same,we have suffered several setbacks."
"The rebels took a few detachments by surprise, but I took rapid action and halted their advance."
"At the cost of heavy losses, it would seem."
"Their weapons may be archaic, but these Egyptians fight like wild animals. Fortunately, our chariots and horses give us enormous superiority. And also, Majesty, do not forget that we killed Seqen."
Apophis kept his expression unreadable as he thought,"Only because we have a spy at the heart of the enemy's organization." Aloud, he asked,"Where is Seqen's body?"
"The Egyptians managed to recover it, Majesty."
"A pity. I'd have liked to hang it from the tallest tower in Avaris. What about Queen Ahhotep? Is she still at liberty?"
"Unfortunately, yes. But she's only a woman, after all. Now that her husband's dead, all she can do is surrender. The tatters of the Egyptian army will soon disperse, and we shall destroy them."
"Ah!" exclaimed the emperor, turning to look down into the circular arena. "The entertainment is beginning."
An enormous bull with blazing eyes and pounding hooves came thundering into the arena, into which a naked, defenseless man was immediately flung.
The general went pale. The unfortunate victim was his own second-in-command, who had fought courageously at Qis.
"The game is as simple as it is amusing," said Apophis. "The bull charges at its adversary, whose only means of survival is to seize its horns and execute a perilous leap over its back. A Minoan painter, Minos, is decorating my palace, and he says it is a very fashionable sport in his country. A clever man, Minos. Thanks to him, my paintings are more beautiful than the ones at Knossos, don't you think?"
"Oh yes, Majesty."
"Look at that bull. He's a real giant, and he has a thoroughly vicious temper."
He was right. The bull instantly charged its victim, who made the mistake of turning and trying to run away. The monstrous horns sank into his back. Snorting, the bull tossed the dying man through the air, trampled on him and gored him again.
Apophis grimaced in disgust. "That worthless creature was as disappointing in the arena as he was in battle. Running away -- that's all he was good for. But the responsibility for our defeats rests with his superior, does it not?"
The general began to sweat profusely. "Nobody could have done better, Majesty, I assure you, I -- "
"You are a fool, General. First, because you failed to foresee that attack; second, because your soldiers were defeated several times on Egyptian soil, and did not conduct themselves like true Hyksos; lastly, because you think that the enemy has been beaten. Stand up."
Dumb with horror, the general obeyed.
The emperor unsheathed the golden-hilted dagger he always wore. "Go down into the labyrinth, or I shall slit your throat. This is your only chance of winning my pardon."
Apophis's murderous gaze banished all hesitation from the general's mind, and he leaped down into the labyrinth, landing on his hands and knees on the twisting path.
When he reached the first partition, he saw a blood-stain on the ground. After a moment's thought, he decided to leap over it, as though over an invisible obstacle. It was just as well he did, for two blades shot out, one from either side, brushing the soles of his feet.
The emperor was highly entertained. Since he had improved the layout of the labyrinth, few candidates had succeeded in getting past this first stage.
The general did the same thing as he emerged from the second bend, and that was his mistake. As he landed, the ground disappeared beneath his feet and he was flung into a pool where a hungry crocodile was waiting. The man's cries troubled neither the crocodile nor the emperor. A servant hurried to bring Apophis a bronze finger-bowl, and while the crocodile devoured its prey he washed his hands of the matter.
English language translation copyright © 2002 by Sue Dyson