The desert was empty but for a dilapidated flat-roofed huntsman’s shelter that interrupted the horizon like a single rotting tooth. That will do, thought Emsaf. He tethered his horse in the shade of the shelter, then stepped into the cool interior, grateful for thick mud walls that deflected the worst of the heat.

Inside, he uncovered his head and took stock of his surroundings. Not a place in which he’d care to spend much time, of course – it was bare and dank-smelling – but even so, it was ideal for what he had in mind.

And what he had in mind was death.

He laid his bow down, placed an arrow from the quiver beside it and then turned his attention to a small window looking out on to the plain beyond. He squinted for a moment or so, studying various angles, before kneeling, trying out different lines of sight, and then reaching for the bow, notching an arrow and rehearsing his aim.

Satisfied, he placed the weapon on the ground and then ate the last of the melon he’d bought at the market in Ipou before settling to wait for his prey to appear.

And as he waited, Emsaf’s thoughts went back to the family he had left behind in Hebenou, a separation occasioned by a letter he had received from Djerty. Its contents had proved so disturbing to Emsaf that he’d begun to pack at once.

‘There is something I must do,’ was all he would tell his wife and son, ‘something that cannot wait. I will return as soon as I am able. I promise.’

He told Merti he’d be away for several weeks, months even, and that she was to take care of the planting and trampling while he was gone. He’d tasked Ebe, who was just seven years old, with looking after the geese and ducks, making the boy promise to help his mother with the cattle and pigs, and he had every confidence Ebe would do just that, because he was a good boy, devoted to his parents and diligent in the execution of his chores.

Tears had shone in their eyes and Emsaf found it a struggle to maintain his own composure, his heart weighing heavy in his chest as he mounted his horse. ‘You’ll look after your mother, boy,’ he told Ebe, pretending to flick dust from his eye.

‘I will, Papa,’ replied Ebe, a tremor in his bottom lip. Emsaf and Merti exchanged a heartbreaking smile. They had all known this day might arrive but, even so, it came as a shock.

‘Say a prayer to the gods for me. Ask them to keep us safe until my return,’ said Emsaf, and with that he turned his horse and headed south-west, glancing behind him just once to see his family watch him leave, the act of departure like a knife in his heart.

He had estimated it to be a twelve-day journey from north of Hebenou to his destination. With him he took the bare essentials and he rode by night, using the moon and stars to navigate. In the daytime he rested his mount and slept, staying out of the treacherous burning sun in the shade of a leafy terebinth or in shacks.

Desert Oath

'No doubt about it, he was being followed.'

One early evening, he had risen when the sun was still up and scanned the horizon with a practised eye. There in the distance, almost invisible, was a slight disruption in the heat haze that lay like silt across the horizon line. He made a mental note but thought little more of it. The next day, however, he made sure to rise at the same time and there in the band of light on the horizon, in the same place as the day before, was a pockmark. No doubt about it, he was being followed. What’s more, whoever was tracking him knew their business. He was obviously keeping the distance between them constant.

Testing his theory risked alerting his pursuer, but he had to do it. He slowed his pace. The heat signature remained constant. He travelled during the day, braving the searing sun. The follower must have done the same. One night he galloped, pushing his horse as hard as he dared. The one who was tracking him saw, anticipated and did likewise.

There was only one thing for it. He had to abandon his mission, at least temporarily, until he could do something about whoever was stalking him. When had his pursuer picked up his trail? An experienced scout himself, Emsaf had been cautious.

Right, he thought. Let’s think about this. He had spotted his ghost on the fifth day of his travels, which was encouraging, because it meant that Merti and Ebe were safe. As long as whoever it was stayed well away from his home, that was good. What he needed to do now was try to flush out his stalker.

Not far outside Ipou, Emsaf came upon a settlement. Traders had set up stalls and were selling oils, cloth, lentils and beans in tall jars. Many were passing through, and he managed to find one going in the direction of Thebes, offering him coin to deliver a message, with the assurance of more when the job was done. Emsaf bought provisions but didn’t linger long. Passing farmers and oxen made him think of Merti and Ebe with a pang of homesickness. He found a crossing and traversed the Nile to the Western Desert, drawing his pursuer, planning his next move.

Two nights later he had come across the huntsman’s shelter on the plain, and decided it was the ideal spot to lie in wait.

And sure enough, now his target came into view – a lone figure on horseback in the distance, emerging from the heat haze. Emsaf thanked the gods the sun was at his back and notched the arrow, sighting the rider. He noted the same, now-familiar shape of the cape, the colouring of his horse.

It was time.

Emsaf took a long breath, keeping his quarry sighted, holding his aim for what felt like a long time. The bow needed to be loosed before his muscles shook and his aim was spoiled. He needed to end this now.

He opened the fingers of his right hand.

His arrow found its mark. In the distance the rider tumbled from his mount with a puff of dust and sand as he hit the ground. Emsaf notched another arrow and took aim, ready to fire a second time if needs be, watching the body for signs of life.

None came.

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