THE SHEPHERD KINGS
The Epona Sequence, Book Four
Book View Café Edition
June 16, 2015
Copyright © 1999 Judith Tarr
On the day the world changed, Iry escaped her nurse to
play in Huy the scribe’s workroom. Huy never minded. If he was busy writing in
his sunlit corner, palette and pens to hand and roll of papyrus on his lap, Iry
would play in a corner of her own, and be very quiet, and for a reward, when he
was done with his writing, he might tell her a story. He told marvelous
stories. Or better yet, he would let her draw a word, or even two, on a bit of
Words were wonderful. They looked like beasts or birds or
even people, waves of water or hills or houses or the eye of the sun, but they
meant so many different things. Iry wanted to be a scribe when she grew up,
though that meant she would have to grow up to be a man, and that, her brothers
told her haughtily, was not possible.
Iry’s brothers were dreadfully haughty. They were all older,
men or almost men, and they had all gone away to war with Father and the levies
from the villages and their cousin Kemni. They looked down from a great height
on small fools of sisters. Brothers were like that, Kemni said. Kemni was as
old and as full of himself as they were, but he was much less haughty. Iry
liked Kemni; she was sorry he had gone off to war instead of staying and
keeping her and Huy company.
Today, quite a long while after Father and the others had
gone, Iry played quietly in a patch of sun while Huy frowned and muttered over
his papyrus. On it he was writing the accounts for the holding, full of tiny
crabbed columns, and his eyes were not what they had been. Sometimes he asked
Iry to look at the scrap he was copying from and tell him what the words or the
numbers were, so that he could write them on the great heavy roll in his lap.
He had not done that today. Iry had watched him for a while,
admiring the way the sun shone on his bald brown head. Then she had engrossed
herself in a game. She had brought her youngest brother’s wooden army with her,
a forbidden pleasure but Huy never said anything, and built a house of papyrus
scraps. Some of the army lived inside, being lords and servants. Some were
outside practicing in the fields. The great prize, the wooden chariot that
Father had brought back from the foreign kings’ city, drawn by wooden horses,
she set to galloping past the fields as fast as the horses—and her hand—would
go. She liked to make the chariot go fast on its rattling wheels. The terrible
figure in it, the foreigner from the land called Retenu with his brush of black
beard and his fierce painted scowl, rocked and swayed as the chariot raced. Iry
would have liked to make him fall out and break his neck, but that would get
her a beating when her brother came home.
She settled instead for stopping the chariot and standing
the charioteer in a field, and letting the Egyptians with their spears and
wooden swords practice killing him. The Retenu were bad men, Father said. They
had swept into Egypt when Great-Great-Grandfather was young, and taken the
whole of the Lower Kingdom, and made themselves kings. “Kings!” Father would
burst out in the evening when he had had a little more beer than Mother liked
to see him drink, pacing the dining hall like a leopard in a cage. “They are no
kings. They are interlopers—invaders—foreigners.”
“Conquerors,” Mother would say in her cool sweet voice, but
with the hint of a smile. She always smiled at Father’s fits of temper. “They
do rule us, after all. Yes, even you.”
Father used to snarl and fret and seethe until she coaxed
him into her calming embrace. But then, not too long ago, he had stopped snarling.
Word had come: the king, the true king, the Great House of Thebes, lord of the
Upper Kingdom, had mounted an army and come down the river to take back the
Lower Kingdom. Father had lit up with joy. So had Mother, but visibly less so
when Father gathered the levies and his sons and his sister’s son who had come
bearing the news, and marched away to the war.
He was coming back soon. The Great House and his armies—including
Father’s part of it—had come to Avaris, the conquerors’ own city, and set about
taking it. Everybody expected the war to be over after that, and the Retenu
driven back into the far cold country where they belonged, and Egypt would be
the Two Lands again, both Upper and Lower.
Iry let her wooden soldiers kill the bearded Retenu. He lay
stiff at their feet, still scowling his terrible scowl. She regarded him with a
frown of her own. Retenu should not have funerals so that they could live
forever beyond the horizon; they should die like dogs, Father said, and wither
away to dust and be forgotten. But if she embalmed him and wrapped him, he
could be a proper Egyptian corpse. Then she could give him a funeral of
As she looked about for something that could serve as mummy-wrappings—her
own clothing not being possible, since she wore none, and nothing else either
but the amulet about her neck and the blue luck-bead about her middle—people
began to make a great commotion outside. Servants ran back and forth, shouting,
and some of them were shrieking.
Iry sat very still. At first when she went missing, her
nurse had carried on appallingly, but now everybody knew where to look. And she
had not done anything before she came here, to get people so upset—not at all
like the time she had let the heifer out because she lowed so piteously, and
the bull had happened to be in the nearest field, and had broken down the house
gate to get at her. Iry had come straight from her nursery to Huy’s workroom.
To be sure, she had the wooden army with her, but the one who would object to
that was far away, fighting with a real and fleshly army.
No, this uproar was not for her. She had never heard
anything quite like it. She left the army where it was, safe in its patch of
sun, and found that Huy had done the same with his papyrus. She did not know
why, but she slipped her hand into his as she came up to him. His fingers were
thin and surprisingly cold. They went out together to see what there was to
It was a messenger, a man with a white and haunted look,
and his arm bound up in a filthy bandage. He had come down the river in a boat,
running from something terrible. Iry knew him. He was her father’s master at
arms, Pepi who liked to bounce her on his knee and sing her silly songs. There
was no silliness in him now.
“Lost,” he was saying to the people in the courtyard just
inside the outer gate, “all lost. We had Avaris, and the Lower Kingdom. We had
it. But the Retenu were too clever for us. They sent word to their allies in
Nubia, away to the south of Thebes, and had them start a war there, a greater
one than we could wage here. The Great House had to turn back or lose it all,
Upper Kingdom as well as Lower. He’s fighting his way south.”
“But maybe,” said Teti the steward, “if he leaves his lords
who are of the Lower Kingdom behind, and lets them fight—”
“No,” said Pepi, with sharpness he might not have used to a
man of Teti’s rank, but he was clearly exhausted. “We’re not enough.”
“At least,” said Teti’s wife, “we’ll have our lord and his
sons back. Maybe the Retenu won’t notice that they were gone. Maybe—”
“The Retenu know,” Pepi said. His voice was flat, so flat
the words seemed to have no meaning. “They’re dead. All of them. They died in
the retreat from Avaris. A company of chariots caught us on our way to the
boats. It mowed them down. The rest of us who survived were allowed to retrieve
their bodies. The embalmers have them. When the embalming is done, they’ll come
back. The Retenu don’t mind giving honor to enemies who have fallen. And
giving—” Pepi’s voice broke. “Giving their belongings to the one whose chariots
Huy’s hand gripped Iry’s so hard she nearly cried out. But
she bit her lip and kept silent. Not everyone understood what Pepi had just
said. But Huy did. He said it for them all. “All of us. All of us here in the
Sun Ascendant—we belong to the Retenu?”
“To a Retenu lord,” Pepi said. “When our lord comes back in
the funeral boat, the Retenu will bring him. He’ll see to the burial. He’ll
take the holding. He’ll be our new lord.”
“We can’t do that,” Teti’s wife Tawit said in her strident
voice. “That’s ridiculous. We were never conquered—we were left alone, except
for the tribute.”
“That,” said her husband dryly, “was before our lord took
arms against the foreign kings. We’re booty now—captives.”
“I won’t be,” said Tawit. “I refuse. I’ll leave.”
“And go where?” Teti asked.
That quelled her, though she stood and simmered, and Iry
knew she would burst out again later. But not now. Everyone was asking
questions, battering poor exhausted Pepi with words. He answered as much as he
could, but none of it mattered to Iry except the one thing, the main thing.
Father was dead. Her brothers, Kemni—dead. There was a new lord coming. A
foreign lord, a bearded and scowling Retenu, whom she could not kill as she had
killed the wooden charioteer.
She could try, she supposed. She was only a child, and only
a girl, but her will was strong. Everybody said so. Headstrong, they said, and
stubborn. She was not going to give in to the foreigners, any more than Tawit
Or Mother. Mother was in the women’s house still, because
Mother would not come out in the court like a vulgar servant. She must know
what Pepi’s message was. Mother knew everything. Mother would not give in to
the Retenu. No, not ever. Nor would Iry. Not in her heart, or in her spirit.
Not anywhere that mattered.
They danced the bull in the court of the sun.
There were three of them, two whip-slender youths and a
maiden as slender as they. The bull was vast, looming and terrible, dappled
white and red like seafoam flecked with blood. His horns were long and curved
and deadly sharp.
The dancers danced to the beat of a drum and a skirling of
pipes, a rhythm as old and yet as young as the morning of the world. The bull’s
snorts cut through it, and the soft thunder of his hooves in the raked sand. He
was swift for all his bulk, and deadly strong.
The youths and the maiden danced a ringdance about him, the
two youths with set intensity, but the maiden smiling, sweet and wild. It was
she who broke the ring at the moment of the bull’s lunge toward her, flew into
a handspring, caught the spear-keen horns and whirled and spun and vaulted over
his back onto the waiting shoulders of the taller youth.
The bull grunted, cheated of his prey. The wall of the
bull-court loomed in front of him. He thundered to a halt, spraying sand;
wheeled and spun with terrible speed.
The smaller youth, jealous perhaps at the girl’s bravado,
leaped in close as she had done. But he had leaped too soon. The bull’s horn
caught him in the air. It pierced him as if he had been made of linen, pierced
The bull tossed its head, grunting at the sudden weight
trapped on its horn. The youth’s body convulsed. But he made no sound. Nor
could he move, even to grasp the horn that stabbed him to the heart. He slid
down the horn onto the bull’s head and shoulders, lying there as if at ease,
staring open-eyed into the pitiless face of the sun. He was not dead, not yet.
But death lay upon him as he lay upon the bull. The bull bellowed in sudden
anger at his ungainly burden, reared and twisted and flung it lifeless on the
Kemni started awake. In his dream he had not been the
bulldancer, and yet in his waking he could feel the agony of the horn in his
own vitals, ripping through them, rending the life from him.
He lay gasping, running with sweat—and not alone because the
night was warm. His throat was raw. Had he been screaming?